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Navel-Gazing: The Ethics Problem Caused by Merrick Garland’s Brad Weinsheimer Solution

I want to talk about DOJ’s career Associate Deputy Attorney General position. I think the way Merrick Garland is using that position to supervise Special Counsel investigations has contributed to the ethical lapses we’re seeing from them.

The current occupant of that role, Bradley Weinsheimer, has garnered attention in recent weeks for his role in some letters exchanged between lawyers for President Biden and DOJ. Between Politico, WaPo, and NYT stories on the letters, they describe the following exchanges:

There’s no report that anyone responded to any of Biden’s 2023 letters. Hur published the letter from Ricard Sauber and Bob Bauer letter in the report, without addressing most of his inappropriate statements. But, after Garland apparently referred the February 7 letter from Ed Siskel and Bauer to Weinsheimer, the ADAG responded to that, while referencing the letter to Hur.

Brad Weinsheimer blows off half Biden’s complaints

After describing that he “serve[s] as [DOJ’s] senior career official,” Weinsheimer proceeded to mischaracterize both the February 5 and the February 7 letters by claiming the complaints were “substantially similar.”

The objections you raise in your letter to the Attorney General are substantially similar to the objections you raised in your February 5, 2024 letter to Special Counsel Hur. In both letters, you contend that the report contains statements that violate long-standing Department policy.

That’s incorrect. They’re not substantially similar. The February 5 letter included the following:

  • Bullets one and two (about two pages total) complaining about prejudicial comments
  • Three bullets (three through five) about misrepresentations Hur made to substantiate his Afghanistan narrative, none of which Hur addressed in the report
  • Bullet six discussing the awareness of Biden’s staffers of his diaries
  • Bullet seven that included six other complaints, the last three of which Hur fixed, the first three of which — including the make-believe comment about an attorney-client privileged conversation — he left in

One of those items in bullet seven had to do with Hur’s claim, in the first draft, to have reviewed all the classified information in Reagan’s diaries; he added the word “some” in the final to make it accurate.

The letter to Garland addressed two topics, the second of which was Hur’s use of prejudicial language. Before it addressed Hur’s old geezer comments, though, the letter complained that Hur misrepresented DOJ’s past treatment of presidential and vice presidential diaries, a combination of bullet two, bullet six, and the Reagan diary complaint from the February 5 letter.

Rather than deal with the treatment of diaries, Weinsheimer appears to have just lumped the first part (bullet two in the original) in with the old geezer comments, resulting in Weinsheimer’s mischaracterization of the diaries complaint: Here’s how he described the two complaints.

In particular, you first highlight brief language in the report discussing President Biden’s use of the term “totally irresponsible” to refer to former President Trump’s handling of classified information. Second, you object to the “multiple denigrating statements about President Biden’s memory.”

And based on that mischaracterization, even while claiming to have “carefully considered your arguments,” Weinsheimer issued DOJ’s conclusion that Hur acted within DOJ guidelines.

Having carefully considered your arguments, the Department concludes that the report as submitted to the Attorney General, and its release, are consistent with legal requirements and Department policy. The report will be provided to Congress and released publicly, consistent with Department practice and the Attorney General’s commitment to transparency.

With that characterization, Weinsheimer blew off a number of requested corrections in the letter to Hur — such as the one that Hur invented a hypothetical attorney-client conversation to make the discovery of a box with classified documents in the Wilmington garage more suspicious — and also blew off most of the first half of the letter to Garland, addressing the past treatment of diaries.

The problematic function of the senior Associate Deputy Attorney General

I’m not so much interested in litigating Weinsheimer’s answer: that it was cool for Hur to use prejudicial language, including things like his invented attorney-client conversation. I’m interested in the fact that he claimed to address both the letter to Hur and the letter to Garland and, based on that claim, issued a definitive policy judgment. I’m interested in the function Weinsheimer is playing, because I think it is one thing contributing to the tolerance for ethical lapses among Special Counsels under Merrick Garland.

Politico describes Weinsheimer’s role in making that decision this way:

The next day, Feb. 8, Weinsheimer, the associate deputy attorney general, responded to the letter on behalf of the department. Weinsheimer, a civil servant who has worked at the department for decades, oversees the department’s most politically sensitive matters, including questions on ethics. He has fielded complaints from Hunter Biden’s lawyers about special counsel David Weiss and from Trump’s lawyers about special counsel Jack Smith.

That is, Politico treats Weinsheimer’s role as the traditional role of the career Associate Deputy Attorney General, the guy (if I’m not mistaken, it has always been a guy) one appeals to for ethical review.

That understanding of the role goes back to a guy named David Margolis, who is treated as a saint among DOJers. For 23 years, Margolis served as the guy who’d make the hard decisions — such as what to do with the prosecutors who botched the Ted Stevens prosecution or, worse yet, John Yoo’s permission to torture.

In 1993, he was named associate deputy attorney general. He worked for the deputy attorney general, essentially the chief operating officer of the department. “We would give all the hairballs to [Margolis], all the hardest, most difficult problems, the most politically controversial,” recalled FBI Director James B. Comey, a former deputy attorney general.

Vince Foster’s suicide. Ted Stevens’s botched prosecution for public corruption. The leak of Valerie Plame’s identity. The firings of U.S. attorneys. Margolis was involved — in some way — in them all.

Undoubtedly the most controversial issue he has dealt with came in the early years of the Obama administration. The department’s internal watchdog, the Office of Professional Responsibility, had determined that former Office of Legal Counsel lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee had engaged in professional misconduct in writing two memos that gave legal sanction to the use of torture tactics such as waterboarding, as well as wall slamming, extended sleep deprivation and other extreme techniques used by the CIA to interrogate terrorist detainees. Margolis had to decide whether to endorse the OPR’s recommendation that the two lawyers from the Bush administration, who by then had left government, be disciplined.

That was the decision “I agonized over most,” he said. “I knew it would be controversial whichever way it came down.”

In a memo written in January 2010, he conceded that “Yoo’s loyalty to his own ideology and convictions clouded his view” of his professional obligation. But, he concluded, Yoo did not “knowingly” provide inaccurate legal advice and he overturned the OPR recommendation.

That set off a firestorm of criticism from Democratic lawmakers, civil liberties advocates and human rights activists.

“I don’t want to accuse him of bad faith,” said David Luban, a Georgetown University Law Center professor of law and philosophy. “But I will accuse him of bad reasoning.”

But as bmaz wrote on Margolis’ passing, often as not decisions advertised as an ethical decision seemed instead to protect the institution of DOJ.

Sally Yates is spot on when she says Margolis’ “dedication to our [DOJ] mission knew no bounds”. That is not necessarily in a good way though, and Margolis was far from the the “personification of all that is good about the Department of Justice”. Mr. Margolis may have been such internally at the Department, but it is far less than clear he is really all that to the public and citizenry the Department is designed to serve. Indeed there is a pretty long record Mr. Margolis consistently not only frustrated accountability for DOJ malfeasance, but was the hand which guided and ingrained the craven protection of any and all DOJ attorneys for accountability, no matter how deeply they defiled the arc of justice.

After Margolis passed, a guy named Scott Schools played that role for a short period spanning the Obama and Trump years. In such role, in my opinion, he protected the Deputy Attorney General’s office more than DOJ. As one example, Schools was the guy who helped push Andrew McCabe out the door to serve Donald Trump’s whims.

Which is when, in 2018, Jeff Sessions put Weinsheimer, who had played a NatSec role prior to that, in the post.

For the purposes of this post, I’m not really interested in whether Weinsheimer is a good guy or not. There are journalists who are better placed than I am to go chase that down.

I want to talk about how his role on Special Counsels likely ensures an ethical conflict — and all that’s before you consider the extremely likely possibility that he signed off on the McCabe settlement and then was involved in Hur’s selection and supervision, which would be a separate conflict of his own.

Weinsheimer is the supervisor of David Weiss

I don’t dispute Politico’s characterization of how the ADAG position normally works. As laid out in the Margolis bio, the position is supposed to make the difficult decisions and then give such decisions, arguably meant to protect DOJ, the appearance of ethical gravitas. One is supposed to be able to appeal to the ADAG position, in case of ethical problems.

But that depends on the ADAG being outside of potentially unethical decisions in the first place. You can’t review decisions if you were part of them.

At least in the case of David Weiss, Weinsheimer can’t play that role because he is, for all intents and purposes, Weiss’ supervisor — apparently on all matters, not just the Hunter Biden investigation.

In his November testimony to Congress, Weiss described that he has never spoken to his nominal boss, Lisa Monaco, or the person via whom he would normally communicate to his boss, the current Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General, Marshall Miller (as noted below, he described communicating via Miller’s predecessor until 2022, John Carlin).

Q When you have interactions with Justice Department Headquarters or Main Justice, how does that ordinarily happen? Who is your primary point of contact?

A I don’t know that there is an ordinary. I don’t know that I would designate anyone in particular.

Q Under the reporting structure, though, you report up through the Deputy Attorney General. Is that correct?

A That’s correct.

Q And how often do you talk with Ms. Monaco?

A I have never spoken with Ms. Monaco.

Q You’ve never spoken to her?

A Never.

Q Okay. And do you have communications with someone else in the office? Maybe the PADAG?

A I have — my point of contact for the last year, year and a half has been Associate Deputy Attorney General Weinsheimer.

Q Okay. So you’re not in contact on a regular basis with the PADAG, Mr. Miller?

A I am not.

Q Have you ever had communications with him?

A I have not.

Q Okay. So you’ve never had any communications with Marshall Miller or Lisa Monaco?

A I have not.

By his description, he speaks to Weinsheimer regularly, about once a month, and those communications primarily pertain to the President’s son.

Q Okay. And how often do you have communications with Mr. Weinsheimer?

A It varies depending upon what’s going on. But I would say we’ve spoken, before August of 2023, approximately once a month, sometimes more frequently.

Q And was it related to the Hunter Biden case, or was it related to your ordinary duties?

A Generally, it was related to the Hunter Biden case investigation.

That same pace has continued during the period since he had been named Special Counsel.

Chairman Jordan. Have you kept up the rhythm? You said earlier today that you had monthly contacts with the key people at the Justice Department. Have you kept up that same protocol? Has it increased or decreased as Special Counsel?

Mr. Weiss. I guess it’s been, I guess, 3 months. I don’t know that there is much of a practice or that I could say, you know, circumstances. You know, I’ve had several conversations in the last 3 months with Mr. Weinsheimer. I can say that.

Chairman Jordan. So it’s picked up?

Mr. Weiss. It’s — I’ve had probably — yes, several conversations. Whether that will continue or it was unique to the initial stages of the project, I really can’t speak to.

When Weinsheimer reached out to the then-PADAG, Carlin — again, the normal person he would report to — Carlin involved Weinsheimer in all discussions about how to get Special Attorney (not Special Counsel) status to charge the case in a different District with Weiss.

Q Okay. And when did Mr. Weinsheimer first start having communications with you about the Hunter Biden case?

A I think we first spoke about the case in the spring of 2022.

Q And, to the extent you can tell us, what were the nature of those discussions?

A In 2022?

Q Yeah.

A Actually, more accurately, February of 2022, I think, was the first time we spoke. And I would have reached out because we were looking to bring certain portions of our investigation to either D.C. or L.A. At that time, D.C.

Q Okay. Did you call him, or did he call you?

A I reached out by email to the Principal Deputy Attorney General at that time, John Carlin.

Q Okay. So he was the PADAG before Mr. Barr [sic]?

A Correct.

Q And how often had you spoken with Mr. Carlin?

A Before this? Never.

Q Okay. So you initiated email contact with Mr. Carlin, and he referred you to Mr. Weinsheimer?

A I initiated email contact with Mr. Carlin, and I subsequently had a conversation with John Carlin, and I believe Brad Weinsheimer was on the call.

Q Okay. And what did they tell you about bringing the case in D.C. or different jurisdictions from yours?

A We discussed the fact that I would — they wanted me to proceed in the way it would typically be done, and that would involve ultimately reaching out to the U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia. I raised the idea of 515 authority at that time because I had been handling the investigation for some period of time. And, as I said, they suggested let’s go through the typical process and reach out to D.C. and see if D.C. would be interested in joining or otherwise participating in the investigation.

So Weinsheimer was the primary supervisor of David Weiss on the Hunter Biden case.

That makes the meeting with Hunter Biden’s previous attorneys with Weinsheimer — which is fairly routine but was billed as a huge scandal by right wing nutjobs — something else entirely. As Politico described, after months of asking the people who should have had some supervisory role in the investigation, Clark finally emailed Weinsheimer asking whether he could appeal to him.

From the fall of 2022 through the spring of 2023, Clark sought meetings with people at the highest levels of the Justice Department — almost entirely without success. In multiple emails, he asked to meet with the head of the Criminal Division, the head of the Tax Division, the Office of Legal Counsel, the Office of the Solicitor General, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and the attorney general himself. On Feb. 21, 2023, Clark’s team reached out to multiple officials at Main Justice, who passed his request from one person to the next.

The search ended when Clark sent Associate Deputy Attorney General Bradley Weinsheimer an exasperated email, saying he had asked the government over and over to tell him who at headquarters they could appeal to if Weiss decided to charge their client.

“To date we have heard nothing in this regard,” he added.

“Please advise whether you would be the appropriate person to hear our client’s appeal, in the event that the U.S. Attorney’s Office decides to charge Mr. Biden,” he wrote.

Weinsheimer was indeed the right guy, and he met with Clark and Weiss on April 26.

As Weiss confirmed in his testimony, he attended that meeting with Weinsheimer.

Q Did Mr. Weinsheimer ever tell you that he met with Chris Clark?

A He — if — no. If he met with Chris Clark, I would have been at that meeting.

Q Okay. So there were no one-on-one meetings or telephone calls between Mr. Clark and Brad Weinsheimer?

A I am unaware of any such meeting, and I don’t think any such meeting would have occurred.

Of course Weinsheimer wasn’t going to accede to any of Clark’s requests, or even grant an independent review of some of the shitty things that had already gone on in the case. Presumably unbeknownst to Clark, Weinsheimer was signing off on Weiss’ actions all along.

And he didn’t. Two weeks after they met with Clark, Weinsheimer sent Clark a letter, “referring you back to” Weiss, saying that Weiss had full authority to charge the case wherever he wanted. It’s not clear that Weinsheimer ever revealed that he had assumed a supervisory role on the case a year earlier.

If Weinsheimer played a similar role with Robert Hur, the same would be true. Of course Weinsheimer wouldn’t, in that case, take action after Hur violated DOJ policy by smearing the President. That’s because Weinsheimer would have been in on it, part of the smear.

Except for the Special Counsel appointment

As David Weiss told it, there was an important exception that may have, may still, exacerbate all this.

He did not go through Weinsheimer when requesting Special Counsel authority.

Q And, when you submitted the request, was that through Mr. Weinsheimer?

A No. No, it wasn’t.

Q Did you have communications with Mr. Weinsheimer before you submitted the request?

A I did not have communications with Mr. Weinsheimer about the request before I submitted it.

Q Okay. You just went right to the Attorney General?

A I submitted the request on my own initiative, and, otherwise, I really can’t get into the particulars at all.

Q Right. Have you had subsequent conversations with Mr. Weinsheimer? Is he the individual that you reported to, or —

A After I was appointed?

Q Correct.

A Yes. I continue to discuss the matter with Mr. Weinsheimer.

Q So he’s your primary point of contact still?

A He continues to be my primary point of contact, yes.

And that communication with Merrick Garland was, at least at the time of Weiss’ testimony on November 7 (and so just over a week before Abbe Lowell started asking for discovery and subpoenas on the side channel and the Smirnov FD-1023), the only time he had ever communicated, in any form, with the Attorney General.

Q So the Attorney General has had a couple of silent appearances where this topic has come up, and I guess the question is, did you have direct communications with the Attorney General?

A I’ve never had any direct communications with the Attorney General, save my communication in requesting Special Counsel authority in August of 2023.

Q When you did request Special Counsel authority in August of 2023, how did you request it? Was it in writing or on the telephone?

A It was in writing, and that’s about all I’m going to say about that process.

Q Okay. Did you reach out directly to the Attorney General, or did you go through Mr. Weinsheimer?

A I’m not going to get into anything further. I requested it, and it was granted.

Q Okay.

I started writing this post before the arrest of Alexander Smirnov. At the time, I thought that Weiss might have gone directly to Garland only because Garland had promised the Senate he’d give Weiss Special Counsel authority if ever he asked it. That is, before the Smirnov arrest, it looked only like Weiss collecting on Garland’s promises.

No longer.

The significance of this has been missed. The FD-1023 assessment number, 58A-PG-3250958, cited Executive Branch public corruption. The only way the FD-1023 could be basis for ongoing criminal investigation is if Joe Biden were a subject of the investigation as well. That would make the Special Counsel request not a request for authority to charge in other Districts.

It would arise from the conflict of investigating the President.

Before even interviewing the informant’s handler — to say nothing of Smirnov himself — David Weiss got himself Special Counsel authority.

Few agree with me. But I think Weiss has walked himself into a shitshow. Even assuming that none of Abbe Lowell’s bids to throw out the indictments in Delaware and Los Angeles succeed — and the Smirnov indictment would seem to raise still more questions about why Weiss reneged on the plea deal — there’s good reason to believe the motion to suppress evidence from the laptop will surprise a good number of people, including the prosecutors. Consider what it means that attorneys for John Paul Mac Isaac abandoned their argument that the blind computer repairman had legal authority to snoop through and disseminate data he claims to believe belonged to Hunter Biden, focusing seemingly exclusively on a claim that Delaware’s two year statute of limitations for complaint from Hunter has expired: Judge Robert Robinson may not rule on that question, but that legal challenge may have confirmed that JPMI did not own the data he shared with the FBI after the FBI told his father he might not own it. The implications of that are fairly staggering, though I’ll wait before I lay them out explicitly.

And that’s before Smirnov — a 14-year source for the FBI, whose charged report was championed by Attorney General Bill Barr after Scott Brady claimed to have vetted it — starts challenging his own indictment. That’s before either Smirnov or Abbe Lowell raises Weiss’ conflict in charging it. I don’t think David Weiss has the team to pull that prosecution off without major blowback.

If there were a figure like Weinsheimer outside of this investigation to step in, to call a halt to this shitshow, now would be the time to do it. But as I understand it, Weinsheimer can’t do that, because — apparently aside from the Special Counsel request — he has been part of the process every step of the way.

I get why Merrick Garland would have chosen to do it this way: having a career ADAG oversee Special Counsels rather than the PADAG (in which role Hur supervised Mueller). But in SCO investigation after SCO investigation, it has turned the supervisory role into navel-gazing. And the attempt to ensure a higher level of independence has led to grave ethical problems.

Robert Hur Snooped Through Joe Biden’s Diaries after White House Warned It Would Be Unprecedented

Much of the press focus (Politico, NYT, WaPo) on the correspondence between Joe Biden’s lawyers and DOJ has focused on Biden’s complaints about Robert Hur’s old geezer comments.

But a September 2023 letter (published by WaPo) regarding the way Robert Hur snooped through Biden’s diaries, which Hur called notebooks to excuse his own prurience, is actually far more troubling.

The letter asserts, then substantiates, a claim that, “at no time in the last thirty years has the Government, including the Department, viewed as actionable the possibility of classified information in the individual writings of a former President or Vice President.”

It describes what happened with Biden’s diaries:

  • January 20, 2023: Hur seizes Biden’s personal diaries and notebooks
  • February 27, 2023: Stuart Delery writes letter noting that DOJ, courts, and Congress have recognized the unique status of presidential and vice-presidential writings
  • Hur reviews diaries in their entirety without prior review by the White House Counsel’s Office
  • Hur sends selections for “classification review” by the Intelligence Community
  • October 8-9, 2023: Hur questions President Biden in the context of a criminal investigation about these materials

It then goes through the record, showing how the government found classified information in not just Reagan’s, but also Poppy Bush’s diaries, as part of Iran-Contra, but didn’t do anything about the diaries themselves outside the context of the focus on Iran-Contra.

It then goes through the publication history of Jimmy Carter’s diaries and memoirs from George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, and Mike Pence to suggest they had used memorializations to write books that had classified information in them when first submitted to National Security Council for discretionary review.

The description of what happened with Pence’s memoir is most telling. In the very same weeks when Hur was blowing off a letter from Stuart Delery telling him no one had done this before, DOJ’s investigation of Mike Pence made no apparent move to do the same with any notes he used to write his memoir.

Former Vice President Mike Pence published his own memoir on November 15, 2022. Mike Pence, SO HELP ME GOD (2022). Even though Mr. Pence, as a Vice President, had not signed any agreement requiring pre-clearance review, he voluntarily submitted his manuscript to the NSC prior to publication for review for classified information.

Emmet Flood of Williams & Connolly submitted the manuscript to the NSC in June 2022. Ryan Cole, an Indiana writer, was copied on correspondence. We are unaware of whether these two individuals possessed security clearances at the time, or whether draft manuscripts were handled in accordance with security protocols for classified information, but the manuscript was not sent to the NSC under the requirements for transmitting classified materials.

The NSC review resulted in a number of proposed redactions of presumably classified information, which Vice President Pence and his team accepted to the manuscript before it was published.

Two months after the publication date, Vice President Pence’s attorneys discovered classified government documents in his home in Indiana, and the National Archives was notified two days later. Katherine Faulders et al., FBI finds Another Classified Document in Search of Former Vice President Mike Pence’s Indiana home, ABC NEWS (Feb. 10, 2023). A consent search of the home was conducted by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents on February 10, 2023, during which an additional classified document was found and “six additional pages” were also seized. Id. It is unclear the nature of the additional pages. We do not know whether the agents searched for drafts of the manuscript that the NSC had determined contained material that needed to be redacted.

But one thing is clear: the manuscript prepared by Mr. Pence with the help of Mr. Cole and Mr. Flood, which presumably also was reviewed by the publishers at Simon & Schuster, contained material that the NSC required to be redacted. Yet, even including the later search for classified documents, we know of no law enforcement inquiry into this writing.

Hur might retort that Trump’s notes got seized in 2022, along with marked classified documents and a whole shit-ton of other documents that belong to the archives under the Presidential Records Act.

But there’s no public hint that Jack Smith assessed those for criminal exposure. There’s just one document charged against Trump, in any case, that has neither date nor classified markings, such that it might be a note.

There’s an unstated reason why Hur’s obstinance about treating Biden’s diaries differently than other prosecutors before him: because when he was making the decision to snoop through all of Biden’s diaries, Biden was under investigation for a crime that was never going to get charged, but his son was under investigation for crimes that — under Hur’s former colleagues and subordinates in the Maryland US Attorney’s Office — did end up getting charged, probably only because one of them reneged on a diversion and plea deal because an FBI informant empowered by Bill Barr attempted to frame Biden and his son. Hur’s descriptions of Biden’s diaries, which he describes to “include[] gut-wrenching passages about his son’s death and other highly personal material,” make it pretty clear they include information that could be detrimental to Hunter. In fact, it’s not yet clear whether DOJ has returned Biden’s diaries, or whether they’re still treating him differently, even as Hur’s former subordinates use pictures of sawdust to try to convict Hunter Biden.

It’s really hard to treat Hur’s decision to treat Biden differently as anything else but an attempt to snoop through Biden’s diaries in search of other dirt.

And he did that in spite of fairly compelling arguments that he was doing something unprecedented.

Update: Bob Bauer wrote a Lawfare piece debunking some claims made by Ben Wittes that gets at the diaries distinction.

In Advance of Robert Hur Hit Job, DOJ Updated Public Identification Policy

As Politico and NYT reported, there has been a fair amount of back and forth between lawyers for President Biden, Richard Sauber and Bob Bauer, and Bradley Weinsheimer, the career DOJ employee that Merrick Garland has put in the center of matters pertaining to Special Counsels.

I’ll come back to those more generally.

But I wanted to call attention to a particular part of the exchange. In a February 8 letter responding to a letter Biden’s attorneys sent to Merrick Garland, Weinsheimer excused Robert Hur’s gratuitous swipes at Biden this way:

Your claim that Special Counsel Hur inappropriately commented on uncharged conduct is misplaced. As an initial matter, as described above, rather than commenting on uncharged conduct, Special Counsel Hur was applying the evidence he gathered to the applicable law. While Department policy advises Department employees to exercise caution when describing uncharged conduct, the policy also provides that when considering a statement about uncharged individuals, deciding officials should consider whether public disclosure may advance a significant law enforcement interest, including [1] upholding the integrity of the investigation, and [2] whether the public has a significant need to know the information. [my emphasis and bracketed numbers]

As Biden’s attorneys described in their February 12 response, Weinsheimer’s response confused them at first, because they didn’t recognize the reference.

Then they found it in what they call “a recent addition to the Justice Manual.”

Finally, your letter also defends Special Counsel Hur’s comments by describing Department policy that, in your words, “provides that when considering a statement about uncharged individuals, deciding officials should consider whether public disclosure may advance a significant law enforcement interest, including upholding the integrity of the investigation, and whether the public has a significant need to know the information.” You did not provide a citation for this reference, and we were puzzled at its use as a defense of Special Counsel Hur’s conduct since we were unfamiliar with this language. Our uncertainty about the provenance of this reference and its applicability in this case was justified when we discovered that it appears to stem from a recent addition to the Justice Manual that has nothing to do with prosecutorial comments about uncharged conduct. That provision, Justice Manual 9-27.760, addresses whether it is appropriate to identify “by name or unnecessarily specific description” an uncharged party. It does not speak to appropriate “statements about uncharged individuals,” as you state. [my emphasis]

That got me looking for this “recent addition.”

Lo and behold, this month, February 2024, DOJ added a bunch of new language to the section of the Justice Manual describing “9-27.760 – Limitation on Identifying Uncharged Parties Publicly” (see the precursor). In addition to tweaking its applicability from those “officially” charged to those “publicly” charged, it added a bunch of new language. That language requires approval from a US Attorney, Assistant Attorney General, “or their designee,” before identifying someone in prosecution filings or a declination. It lists factors to consider.

For the same reasons, following the conclusion of a case (whether by closing of an investigation or conclusion of a prosecution), DOJ personnel should not publicly disclose the identity (either by name or unnecessarily specific description) of uncharged parties absent approval of the United States Attorney or Assistant Attorney General, or their designee. When evaluating whether to grant approval, the United States Attorney or Assistant Attorney General, or their designee, may consider factors such as:

  • The privacy, safety, and reputational interests of uncharged parties;
  • The potential effect of any statements on ongoing criminal investigations or prosecutions, see JM 1-7.6001-7.610;
  • Whether public disclosure may advance significant law enforcement interests, such as where release of information is necessary to protect public safety or uphold the integrity of the law enforcement investigation; and
  • Other legitimate and compelling governmental interests, including whether the public has a significant need to know the information.

Public statements concerning the identity of uncharged parties following the conclusion of a case are permissible only if the legitimate and compelling government interests served, including law enforcement interests, substantially outweigh the privacy and reputational interests of the uncharged parties. To the extent a public statement regarding uncharged parties meets this standard and is otherwise permitted by law, such disclosure must be limited to the extent necessary to advance the government interests served by the disclosure.

Significant justification for identifying uncharged parties commonly exists where it is ordered by the Court, is necessary to protect the integrity of the case, or assists the government in meeting its burden of proof. In these instances, the use of generalized terms or descriptions may be unfeasible or insufficient or may create confusion or false impressions for the judge or jury. For example, in conspiracy trials, the identity and conduct of uncharged parties are often highly relevant to the government’s case, and it is not feasible to shield that individual’s identity in proving the case. In such instances where significant justification exists relating to court proceedings and pleadings, prior approval by the appropriate United States Attorney or Assistant Attorney General is not necessary.

[updated February 2024] [my emphasis]

As Sauber and Bauer note, this section is not about whether you can call someone a doddering old man in a declination statement, it’s about whether you can name someone who has not been in a declination statement at all (for example, Hur named some, but not all, of the people interviewed in his report, including Biden’s ghost writer, who was already facing hacking threats). It simply is inapplicable.

But I find it just as interesting that Weinsheimer used language that could only have predated the draft report by days if not hours (the White House had reviewed and responded to the report by February 5). And he took that as permission to attack the doddering old man, rather than a restriction on doing so.

Frankly, I’m unsympathetic to some of the White House concerns. The report was and should have been made public. That’s not the problem.

The problem is it’s a shitty report that gets the law wrong, uses a political lens to assess key details (like Hur’s distinction between Ronald Reagan’s “diaries” and Biden’s “notebooks”), and takes unncessary swipes at Biden.

I think it was equally inappropriate for Hur to compare Biden’s conduct with Trump’s. That’s not his job, and having botched the analysis of 18 USC 793(e) (not to mention missed that unlike Biden, Trump had been cut off from classified briefings after leaving office), his comparison is useless.

Weinsheimer seems to be suggesting it was cool for Hur to attack the doddering old man and weigh in on an investigation he’s not involved in to defend his own failed prosecution. He’s fooling himself if he thinks this reassures the public.

Robert Hur’s Box-Checking

In the middle of his explanation for why he believed that Joe Biden had willfully retained classified records pertaining to Afghanistan but that he couldn’t prove that beyond a reasonable doubt, Special Counsel Robert Hur admitted that jurors “who are unwilling to read too much into” what Hur describes as an 8-word utterance would find his case lacking.

But reasonable jurors who are unwilling to read too much into Mr. Biden’s brief aside to Zwonitzer–“I just found all the classified stuff downstairs”–may find a shortage of evidence to establish that Mr. Biden looked through the “Facts First” folder, which is the only folder known to contain national defense information. These jurors would acquit Mr. Biden of willfully retaining national defense information from the “Facts First” folder.

I’m puzzled how this is not a confession that he, Hur, was really reading too much into two file folders the FBI found in a box in Biden’s garage.

Indeed, that’s what two bizarre chapters in his story are, Hur the novelist, spinning a story about this box because, he admitted much earlier, this is the best he’s got.

As explained in Chapter Eleven, the strongest case for criminal charges against Mr. Biden relating to the Afghanistan documents would rest on his retention of the documents at the Virginia home in 2017.

The only other retained documents he even considered charging were Biden’s diaries, which Biden seems to have kept under the Presidential Records Act’s exclusion of diaries from the definition of Presidential Records (though Hur included a picture of Biden taking notes in one of these notebooks during a key meeting in the Situation Room, so that notebook, at least, was a Presidential Record).

(3) The term “personal records” means all documentary materials, or any reasonably segregable portion thereof, of a purely private or nonpublic character which do not relate to or have an effect upon the carrying out of the constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President. Such term includes–

(A) diaries, journals, or other personal notes serving as the functional equivalent of a diary or journal which are not prepared or utilized for, or circulated or communicated in the course of, transacting Government business;

To sustain his claim that those notebooks represented willful retention that he couldn’t prove, Hur got in a squabble about the precedent set by Ronald Reagan’s diaries, which similarly included classified information, but which weren’t charged even after they became key evidence in the Iran-Contra investigation. Biden had a precedent to rely on, and so Hur didn’t charge.

So left with only the box in the garage to appease the Republicans, Hur worked backward from this reference in a conversation Biden had with his ghost writer in 2017, the 66-word utterance on which he built a 388-page report:

So this was – I, early on, in ’09-I just found all the classified stuff downstairs-I wrote the President a handwritten 40-page memorandum arguing against deploying additional troops to Iraq-I mean, to Afghanistan-on the grounds that it wouldn’t matter, that the day we left would be like the day before we arrived. And I made the same argument … I wrote that piece 11 or 12 years ago. [my emphasis]

Only Hur didn’t call it a 66-word utterance. He called it an 8-word utterance, repeating those bolded eight words 23 times in the report without mention of the 40-page memorandum that Biden mentioned in the same sentence. Only once did he provide the full context.

Biden’s attorneys argued that given that Biden mentioned it in the very same sentence, it’s more likely that Biden was referring to that memo than two folders of documents found in a box in Biden’s garage.

We believe that an accurate recitation of the evidence on this point would recognize the strong likelihood that the President was referring in the recording to his private handwritten letter to President Obama — the one mentioned on this recording immediately after the eight words that you are focused on — rather than the marked classified Afghanistan documents discovered in the Wilmington garage.

There were drafts of the memo — which Biden wrote over Thanksgiving in 2009 in an attempt to dissuade President Obama from surging more troops into Afghanistan — in the box in the garage, but the FBI found the hand-written memo itself stored elsewhere in Biden’s Wilmington home. It too had classified information in it, but Hur treated it like the diaries it was found in, something Biden wrongly treated as a personal document.

Because these documents on Afghanistan were the only thing he had, Hur went to some length to spin a story that might be consistent with Biden finding those documents in a rental house in Virginia in early 2017 and, just weeks after having sent other marked classified documents back to the Naval Observatory, deciding to keep them.

Part of that involved telling two stories, which narratively collapse events from 2017 with the discovery of the documents in question, to provide motive.

Hur’s first attempt suggested that Biden willfully retained these documents to help write his book, Promise Me, Dad, on which he was working with the ghost writer to whom he mentioned classified documents.

MR. BIDEN’S SECOND BOOK, PROMISE ME, DAD, AND THE DISCOVERY OF CLASSIFIED AFGHANISTAN DOCUMENTS

Like many presidents, Mr. Biden has long viewed himself as a historic figure. Elected to the Senate at age twenty-nine, he considered running for president as early as 1980 and did so in 1988, 2008, and 2020. During his thirty-six years in the Senate, Mr. Biden believed he had built a record in both domestic and foreign affairs that made him worthy of the presidency.

In addition to the notebooks and notecards on which he took notes throughout his vice presidency, Mr. Biden collected papers and artifacts related to noteworthy issues and events in his public life. He used these materials to write memoirs published in 2007 and 2017, to document his legacy, and to cite as evidence that he was a man of presidential timber.

Only, that story didn’t work, because Promise Me, Dad wasn’t about Afghanistan, it was about Beau’s death and Biden’s subsequent decision not to run for President in 2016. And while Hur tried to fudge what surely was the result of a classification review, that book had no classified information in it.

As Biden’s attorneys noted, not only wasn’t Promise Me, Dad about Afghanistan, but Biden never wrote a book — never intended to write a book — about this Afghanistan policy dispute.

Your report erroneously (and repeatedly) makes statements about the value of the marked classified Afghanistan documents to President Biden, such as President Biden had a “strong motive” to keep them and they were an “irreplaceable contemporaneous record” like the notebooks. Report at 203. 231. These statements are contrary to the evidence and the documents themselves. First the President forcefully testified that he “never thought about writing a book about the 2009 Afghanistan policy review. Tr., Day II at 22. Thus, the President had no need to retain the documents for that purpose.

So Hur tried again in the following chapter. This time his story — one relying primarily on books other people wrote — Obama, Stan McChrystal, and Robert Gates, with only Ron Klain backing it with witness testimony — was that Biden needed the documents for vindication, when Afghanistan turned into America’s Vietnam. Secret vindication, I guess, given that Biden didn’t use this in the 2020 election.

To fully appreciate Mr. Biden’s references to Afghanistan in his conversation with Zwonitzer on February 16. 2017, it is helpful to understand Mr. Biden’s place in the fraught debate about American policy in Afghanistan in the early days of the Obama administration.

In that debate. Mr. Biden played a conspicuous role. He strongly opposed the military’s effort to send large numbers of U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and this opposition culminated in the lengthy handwritten memo Mr. Biden sent President Obama over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2009. By 2017, Mr. Biden believed his judgment as reflected in the memo had been vindicated by history. Years later, in December 2022 and January 2023. FBI agents found the handwritten Thanksgiving memo and marked classified documents containing his advice to President Obama in Mr. Biden’s Delaware home.

This is a closing argument. This language is wildly inappropriate in a declination memo, because Hur didn’t find the evidence to back this story!

Worse still, it’s stupid. Because all Biden needed for vindication was that 40-page memo, the one he mentioned in the very same sentence as he mentioned the classified documents. The one stored inside the house, not in a discarded box in the garage. The one he never used during the 2020 election.

But Hur was undeterred by a stupid motive argument.

Next, after admitting that the FBI never succeeded in tracing the Afghan documents, much less proving they were in the basement of the Virginia house, he used this photo analysis to claim that the box found in the garage is the same one that appeared in two pictures taken in Biden’s Wilmington office in 2019, shortly after everything was shipped from Virginia to Delaware.

Maybe that’s right? Or maybe (as some people argued in this thread on Xitter) the D on the box in the garage is shaped differently and in a different place on the box lid than the one in the picture. Whatever it is, it’s no smoking gun.

Finally, Hur goes to the contents of the box, claiming — with some justification — that some of the things in the box date to the same period when Biden uttered those 8 or maybe 66 words to his ghost writer.

Several folders in the garage box contained materials that Mr. Eiden appears to have accessed both shortly before and shortly after February 16 2017, the day Mr. Biden told Zwonitzer he had “just found classified documents downstairs. 582 For example, in January 2017 less than a month before told Zwonitzer he had just found the classified documents downstairs, Mr. Biden appears to have accessed documents later found in the box. On January 23, 2017. Biden wrote a notebook entry about a call scheduled for later that to finalize a deal with Creative Artists Agency (CAA), a talent agency that went on to represent him in negotiating his book deal for Promise Me, Dad. 583 The same entry also referenced Mr. Biden’s work with his sister on his “S Corp.”584

The box found in Mr. Biden’s garage contained a corresponding file folder, labeled “Signed Contracts Penn, CAA,” which contained the signature page of a final agreement between Mr. Biden and Creative Artists Agency.585 Mr. Biden signed the agreement, which was dated a few days after the notebook entry, on January 26, 2017.586 The folder also contained the final agreement between Mr. Biden and the Penn Biden Center-Mr. Biden’s primary employer after his vice presidency-which Mr. Biden signed, also on January 26, 2017. 587 And the folder contained a W-9 tax form for Mr. Biden’s S corporation, CelticCapri, which Mr. Biden used to receive income from book deals and speeches, among other purposes.588 The W-9 form listed Mr. Biden as the president of the S corporation and was signed by Mr. Biden and dated January 30, 2017-less than three weeks before Mr. Biden told Zwonitzer he had just found classified documents downstairs.589

The argument would be more persuasive, admittedly, if Hur didn’t confess that the FBI got the documents that had been in the box out of order when they repackaged them.

When FBI agents repackaged the contents of the ripped garage box into a new box on December 21, 2022, it appears the order of a few of the materials changed slightly. This chapter discusses in detail below two folders that contained marked classified documents about Afghanistan: the manila “Afganastan” folder and the red “Facts First” folder. It appears the “Afganastan” folder was near the “Facts First” folder in the garage box when agents recovered the box, but the precise original location of the “Afganastan” folder at that time is unknown.

Dudes. This was a consensual search of the President’s home, and you couldn’t even repackage documents competently? Really?

This argument would be more persuasive still if Hur weren’t ignoring some of the other things that were found in the box, that had nothing to do with Biden’s transition in 2017, which Biden’s attorneys described this way:

Your characterization of the box in the garage as containing only matters of “great personal significance” to the President is inconsistent with the facts. The evidence shows that this tattered box contained a random assortment of documents. including plainly unimportant ones such as: a short-term vacation lease; a VP-era memorandum on furniture at the Naval Observatory for purchase; talking points from speeches; campaign material; empty folders; a 1995 document commemorating Syracuse Law’s 100-year anniversary; and other random materials. In his interview. President Biden commented regarding one of the folders, which read “Pete Rouse”: “Christ that goes back a way,” confirming that he had not encountered that material in recent years. Tr., Day I, at 144. When asked how things like a binder labeled “Beau Iowa” got into the “beat-up” box. the President responded “Somebody must’ve, packing this up, just picked up all the stuff and put it in a box, because I didn’t.” Id. at 146. When asked about the later-dated material, the President responded: “[s]ee, that’s what makes me think just people gathered up whatever they found, and whenever the last thing was being moved. So the stuff moving out of the Vice President’s residence, at the end of the day, whatever they found. they put – they didn’t separate it out, you know, Speakers Bureau and Penn or whatever the hell it is. or Beau. They just put it in a single box. That’s the only thing I can think of.” Id. at 147. Some of the documents in the box contain what appears to be staff handwriting–including a D.C. tax return and a W2-further indicating that the box was likely filled by staff. We believe that an accurate recitation of the evidence on this point would include a description of these facts.

The true jumble of the box is particularly important because, elsewhere, Hur used the similar miscellany in a different box to rule out the possibility of willful retention for some of the documents found at the Penn Biden Center.

Finally, several of the files in the box where the EYES ONLY envelope was found appear to have been forgotten files of little value to Mr. Biden, such as the file about a 2011 ski trip. The files, therefore, do not appear to be a set that Mr. Biden personally curated. Nor do they appear to be the type of files people keep close as a matter of course in their everyday lives.

Hur adopted a different standard where it was clear only staffers were involved in packing a box than he did with a box that was central to “the strongest case for criminal charges against Mr. Biden.” Hur needed this box to be personally curated by Joe Biden, and so he omitted a bunch of random stuff that would debunk his story.

Still, this entire investigation should never have gotten this far, to where Hur was doing desperate last interviews three months after Biden’s own interview, to where Hur was spending 156 pages describing his declination decisions, and so in the process describing every single document at length.

To get there, Hur did something almost unheard of in declination decisions for 18 USC 793(e) cases: He treated “failure to deliver” as affirmative. Bizarrely, when he gets to the part of his discussion of the statute where he describes having to prove that Biden refused to deliver National Defense Information documents to an appropriate government official, he pivots, changes the subject, mid-paragraph.

Finally, the government must prove that a defendant willfully retained the material and failed to deliver it to an officer or employee “entitled to receive” the information. The statute does not define who is “entitled to receive” the information, so again, courts have looked to the governing rules concerning the handling of classified materials, primarily the executive order. 758 Generally, those entitled to receive the information are people with the requisite security clearance and the need to know. 759 Willfulness is a heightened mens rea, which as articulated by the Supreme Court in Bryan v. United States, requires proof “that the defendant acted with knowledge that his conduct was unlawful.” 760 Under the Espionage Act, an act is willful when “it is done voluntarily and intentionally and with the specific intent to do something that the law forbids. That is to say, with a bad purpose either to disobey or to disregard the law.” 761 While willfulness requires proving an intent to disobey the law, courts have applied Bryan’s standard of “simple willfulness” to Section 793(e) and rejected any need for the government to prove an intent to cause harm. 762

Accordingly, to prove a violation of Section 793(e) we would need to show that Mr. Biden knowingly retained national defense information and failed to deliver it to an appropriate government official, and that he knew this conduct was unlawful. [bizarre pivot] As discussed in more detail below, because of the interrelation between “national defense information” and “classified information,” when evaluating a potential Section 793(e) charge, the Department considers whether the information the person possessed was classified and whether the person knew it was classified.

In doing so, he dodges (here) the difficulty with charging a President with 793(e): That unlike actual clearance holders, Biden was never processed out of a clearance, which is where prosecutors fulfill that prong of the elements of offense when charging 793(e) along with other crimes, like leaking. When people with clearance leave their job, they’re reminded they have to give stuff back; because he wasn’t processed out of a clearance, Biden never got that talk.

Hur then wanders off a little ways, then returns to the question of delivering classified documents to someone entitled to receive them, by purporting to distinguish 793(e) from 793(d).

Subsection (d) also does not apply, because it requires a failure to deliver materials on demand, and when asked to return any classified materials from his vice presidency, Mr. Biden consented to searches and returned all potentially classified materials that were discovered. 767

Nuh uh! That’s not the difference between (d) and (e). The main difference is whether someone is authorized to have classified information or not.

(d) lawfully having possession … or willfully retains the same and fails to deliver it on demand to the officer or employee of the United States entitled to receive it;

(e) unauthorized possession … or willfully retains the same and fails to deliver it to the officer or employee of the United States entitled to receive it

Even for dirtbags like Jeremy Brown, DOJ generally only charges a retention charge absent something else after an officer asks for documents back. In Brown’s case, for example, they called an officer who had asked for the specific charged documents back to testify at trial to prove that prong of the elements of offense. And because Joe Biden was never processed out of a clearance, because the Archives never came looking for these, no one ever asked him to give the documents back.

Until he offered the documents up.

This entire report, all 388 pages of it, is based on a wild misrepresentation of how DOJ approaches Espionage Act prosecutions. And to the extent it’s not — to the extent that Hur is clinging to events caught on tape back in 2017 — the Statutes of Limitation have long expired.

And that gives up the game, even more than Robert Hur’s confession that jurors who weren’t, as he spent a year doing, “read[ing] too much into” some documents found in a box, would never convict on this.

Hur spent a year trying to find facts that would allow him to charge Joe Biden, charge a President, doing backflips with the evidence along the way, and then writing up a report that provides far more evidence about 40 year old documents covered by Speech and Debate than we’ll ever learn about the stolen documents at Mar-a-Lago.

This was never an ethical prosecutorial pursuit. It was always about writing a novel for a rabid audience.

Or, as you might consider it, just an exercise in box-ticking for partisan ends.

Update: I’ve been corrected: The SOL on Espionage Act is 10 years.

“Several Work and Storage Areas:” Why DOJ Likely Doesn’t Trust Biden’s Personal Attorneys

Charlie Savage has a story that — while he doesn’t say it — likely explains why DOJ doesn’t entirely trust Biden’s attorneys on the classified documents and so appointed a Special Counsel.

The currently operative story, as told by Savage, is the following:

  • Biden’s lawyers found the Penn Biden documents and interviewed the people who packed the documents
  • Based on those interviews, they told DOJ other documents would only be at Penn Biden
  • Without telling DOJ (though after they learned that DOJ had started to investigate), “and not because of any new information,” they decided to check that premise by looking at the boxes in Biden’s garage
  • On December 20, they told DOJ about the documents marked classified in the garage
  • They then decided to search other office areas, this time telling DOJ they were doing so
  • When, on January 11, they found a page with classification marks inside one of those office areas, they stopped their searches; FBI would find 5 more pages when they came to secure that single page

But look at this timeline with other dates added:

  • Biden’s lawyers found the Penn Biden documents and interviewed the people who packed the documents
  • November 4: NARA told DOJ about the classified documents
  • November 9: FBI started its assessment
  • November 14: Garland appointed John Lausch
  • Based on Biden’s lawyers’ interviews of those who packed Biden’s boxes, they told DOJ other documents would only be at Penn Biden
  • Lausch interviewed some of the people who packed the boxes
  • Without telling DOJ, “and not because of any new information,” Biden’s lawyers decided to check that premise by looking at the boxes in the garage
  • On December 20, they told DOJ about the documents marked classified in the garage
  • On January 5, Lausch recommended Garland appoint a Special Counsel
  • At some point not IDed in Savage’s story, Biden’s lawyers decided to search other office areas, this time telling DOJ they were doing so
  • On January 11, they told DOJ about another classified page, possibly inside an office, then stopped their searches
  • On January 21, FBI did a thorough search of Biden’s Wilmington home and found 6 additional documents

Biden’s lawyers probably didn’t decide to do further searches until after Lausch started interviewing people. Already, if I were DOJ, I would want to know whether Biden consulted with the people being interviewed, and based on that, realized they needed to do further searches.

But we still don’t know two other things. Savage describes the second space in Biden’s home, which heretofore had been described as the room adjacent to the garage, as “several work and storage areas inside the living area of the house.” Which is to say, we still don’t know whether the January 11 document was found inside a storage space or an office, where documents would be used rather than just stored. Or rather, John Lausch knows that, Savage’s sources know that, but we don’t.

We also don’t know if Biden found out that Garland was going to appoint a full Special Counsel and only then decided to search the interior of the home.

Something led Biden’s lawyers to take more seriously the possibility that documents weren’t just stored at Biden’s home, but used there. And while this all still could be lawyers stepping on their own toes as they try to be helpful, even just based on what we know, from DOJ’s perspective, that toe-stepping would be indistinguishable from Biden’s lawyers responding to learning things they should have been told from the start, which is different from — but not that different from — Trump moving boxes to prevent Evan Corcoran from finding classified documents.

One more detail that is actually fairly damning. Savage describes that the documents at Penn Biden were copies; the originals are stored at the Archives.

One set was believed to be material that might be useful to Mr. Biden for his post-vice-presidential career in public life or teaching, like his speeches and unclassified policy memos about topics he was interested in. Those materials were initially shipped to two transition offices and then on to his office at the Penn Biden Center when it opened in 2018. (The National Archives and Records Administration would keep original copies of the official records.)

If Biden’s office sent originals of the classified documents found at Penn Biden to NARA, it makes their inclusion in documents sent to the policy office far less attributable to a mistake.

Biden’s lawyers have been feeding the press a story about how cooperative they’ve been. But so did Trump’s lawyers. Trump’s story was far more obviously bullshit — in part for the way they spun a claim that by adding a lock to Trump’s storage room, they had made it secure.

Though this line about the Biden search — offered up as proof of extreme cooperation — gets close to lock-on-door levels of spinning.

[T]he Biden legal team invited the F.B.I. to also search every room in the residence — including bathrooms, bedrooms and the utility room, the people said.

There are still key parts of Biden’s story that aren’t being explained, most importantly whether the documents discovered this month inside Biden’s house were discovered in storage or in an actively-used office. If DOJ knows that the difference between the two would be critical information for the public to know, then this story would only further degrade confidence in Biden’s lawyer on the part of DOJ.

This is not about the reliability of lawyers like Bauer. Rather, it’s about whether Biden’s lawyers got information at the start they needed. But if they did not, it means that DOJ can’t just trust, but must verify, everything Biden’s lawyers tell them.

What We Can’t Rule Out with Biden’s Classified Documents

The FBI did a consensual, almost 13-hour search of President Biden’s Wilmington home yesterday. The FBI found and seized six more classified documents “with surrounding materials” (some of which date from Biden’s time in the Senate) as well as hand-written notes from his time as Vice President.

Note that after Biden’s lawyer’s found a document in the room adjoining his garage, they stopped searching. DOJ came to fetch that document and took 5 more pages, all of which may have been in the same place. It’s possible (though in no way certain) that these additional documents were simply stored in the same place, the obvious outcome of DOJ’s effort to return and do a more thorough search.

The voluntary nature with which Biden has given information back to DOJ still starkly distinguishes him from Trump. And that comparison may give DOJ leverage to try to obtain the records it believes Trump still has.

But at this point, we can’t rule out several of the most damning details that are known to be present with Trump to also be present with Biden.

There are, as far as we know, at least three things that make Trump’s retention of classified records particularly damning:

  • The existence of a leatherbound trophy box in his office storing the most classified documents (alongside Time Magazine covers, which is one piece of evidence these are trophies)
  • The existence of 46 empty classified folders, which may be one reason DOJ suspects not all of Trump’s documents are accounted for yet
  • Two compiled documents integrating classified records with other materials, one dating from Trump’s presidency (the grant of clemency for Roger Stone) and one that includes at least 3 messages that post-date his presidency

I’ll review that last document, because it hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention yet.

One of the last filings released in Trump’s Special Master process, summarizing the disputes, described a “compilation” of two classified records (one Confidential, one Secret), and what appears to be four other documents: messages from a book author, a religious leader, and a pollster, as well as what appears to be a fourth document involving a lawyer. The messages all post-date January 20, 2021.

One potentially privileged document that had been scanned was removed from the database (SM_MAL_00001185 to SM_MAL_00001195). That document – excluding the one potentially privileged page (SM_MAL_00001190) – is discussed in the next section about the Filter Materials Log. The potentially privileged page is the subject of a separate letter from the Filter Team to Your Honor, which is sent today.

[snip]

This document is a compilation that includes three documents that post-date Plaintiff’s term in office and two classified cover sheets, one SECRET and the other CONFIDENTIAL. Because Plaintiff can only have received the documents bearing classification markings in his capacity as President, the entire mixed document is a Presidential record.

Besides the classified cover sheets, which were inserted by the FBI in lieu of the actual documents, none of the remaining communications in the document are confidential presidential communications that might be subject to a claim of executive privilege. Three communications are from a book author, a religious leader, and a pollster. The first two cannot be characterized as presidential advisers and all three are either dated or by content occurred after Plaintiff’s administration ended. [my emphasis]

In other words, this document, which was stored in a desk drawer, suggests that Trump used classified documents at least once after he left the White House.

While there are press reports that Trump otherwise accessed documents after DOJ started looking for them — in part, by curating the ones he was willing to send back in January 2022 and hiding some from Evan Corcoran so they wouldn’t be turned over in the June 2022 search — this compilation seems to show that Trump not only knew the classified records were in his home, but he used them, at least once, after he left the White House.

Given the discoveries in yesterday’s Biden search, we can’t rule that out in his case, either. Bauer’s statement described the FBI taking, “documents with classified markings and surrounding material,” which doesn’t rule out a compiled document — though it also could describe documents and the other contents of the folder or box they were found in, which would be consistent with how DOJ approached the search of Trump’s home.

And the seizure of hand-written notes from the time Biden was Vice President means we can’t rule out the equivalent of the letters from Kim Jung Un that Trump took, memorabilia that, because it pertains to foreign policy, should also be treated as classified (and would be covered by the Presidential Records Act).

Both both-sides journalists and hopeful lefties are jumping to conclusions about what the Biden seizures mean. The truth is, we simply don’t know yet. We know the most damning details about documents Trump had largely because of his legal challenges, not because they would otherwise be available from this kind of report on the investigation.

Here’s a comparison of what we know of the two cases:

The obstruction is still what distinguishes Trump from Biden, because DOJ would most likely charge a Constitutional officer only with 18 USC 793(e), refusing to given classified documents back. Biden has made multiple efforts to give documents back: Trump has made multiple efforts to refuse to give documents back.

But as for the other damning details we know exist with Trump? We can’t rule them out with Biden.

Update: I’ve changed the number of Biden docs, to allow for some uncertainty about these are being referenced. We don’t have the FBI inventory, like we do for Trump.

Executive Nominations, Judicial Emergencies and Change in WH Counsel’s Office

Abby Philip and Josh Gerstein at Politico have an excellent piece up on the state of Executive Branch nominations in the Obama Administration.

It’s crunch time for the White House to get key executive branch jobs filled before the end of President Barack Obama’s first term.

Dozens of top posts in both the executive branch and the judiciary remain vacant, while some of those who started near the beginning of the administration are bailing out.

Nominees who aren’t confirmed by the Senate by the end of this year likely will become tangled in election-year politics, given Republican hopes of taking the White House, the Senate or both. If Obama wants a good shot at getting his nominees through this year, Hill veterans say, names need to reach the Senate by the summer recess.

Adding to the heightened urgency for action: Many of the unfilled posts deal with Obama’s major policy priorities, including financial regulatory reform, immigration and health care. Not coincidentally, those positions also are some of the most likely to become ensnared in partisan disputes.

Go read their full article, it is a good across the board discussion on nominees and where we stand in various areas of interest.

There are two areas of the Politico piece I want to draw attention to. The first is the critical importance of work and support by the White House for their nominees and the nomination process.

But one former official said much of the blame for the slow pace lies with the White House.

“A lot of fingers have been pointed at the Senate,” said Chase Untermeyer, who served as director of presidential personnel for President George H.W. Bush. “I always say that two-thirds of the job is on the executive side.”

Exactly. For one thing, it is hard for an administration to get a confirmation if it does not make nominations. Take federal judges for instance, for most of the past two years there have been around a hundred vacancies on the Circuit and District courts; Mr. Obama has rarely had nominees for more than half of them. This is simply federal administrative incompetence, and it takes a heavy toll Read more

OLC Memo as Time Machine

I’m going to have more to say about the Libya memo the Administration released yesterday. But I just wanted to point out something about the structure of it.

Here’s the first paragraph:

This memorandum memorializes advice this Office provided to you, prior to the commencement of recent United States military operations in Libya, regarding the President’s legal authority to conduct such operations. For the reasons explained below, we concluded that the President had the constitutional authority to direct the use of force in Libya because he could reasonably determine that such use of force was in the national interest. We also advised that prior congressional approval was not constitutionally required to use military force in the limited operations under consideration. [my emphasis]

This is not the advice authorizing the Libyan engagement. Rather, it is a document written the day after–the memo notes–the Administration turned over control to NATO, claiming to memorialize the advice given before the Libyan engagement (therefore, presumably, before March 19).

Is this all the advice OLC gave the President? Did OLC authorize further activities? Did Obama’s description of why bombing Libya was in the national interest before March 19 match what appears in this memo, written after the fact?

This fundamental structural reality is all the more striking given the role of Section I of the memo: it provides a narrative of the Libyan engagement starting in mid-February and leading right up to the March 31 turnover of control to NATO. In other words, a key function of this memo is to provide the Administration’s own mini-history of the Libyan engagement, written the day after an artificial “end date” for the engagement, which it uses to lay out the national interest of bombing Libya and the limits to our engagement in it that the memo says justify the engagement. Two key elements in this history–Obama’s address to Congress on March 21 and his address to the nation on March 28–took place after the real advice OLC offered Obama to authorize this engagement.

But the memo claims to have offered its advice before the start of the bombing. It is basically using Presidential statements made up to 9 days after the advice it gave to “memorialize” the advice it gave 9 days earlier. The memo uses limits Obama described after the advice was actually given to claim the advice itself had limits.

I’m envisioning a discussion like this:

Bob Bauer: Caroline, can you give us a verbal okay for this engagement?

Caroline Krass: Do you want a written memo?

Bauer: Not yet. Let’s wait until it’s all done so we can tailor the legal authorization of it to what we really end up doing. It’ll make it easier for us to thread the needle between authorizing what we do while still claiming to believe Executive Power is limited.

Krass: Okay, Bob.

Pretty remarkable, isn’t it, the way a memo written after the fact authorizes precisely the engagement that Obama ultimately used, all the while highlighting limits to the use of unilateral presidential power?

Lindsey Graham Predicts Successful Terrorist Attack Followed by Harsh Resolution of Gitmo

Josh Gerstein provides Lindsey Graham a soap box to complain that his efforts to craft a grand compromise with the Administration on Gitmo stalled in May.

“I thought we were close to getting a deal,” Graham told POLITICO last week. “I had some meetings where I walked out of the White House and said, ‘This is great.’ These were better meetings than I ever had with the Bush administration.”

But sometime around May, according to Graham, the line of communication with the White House shut down.

“It went completely dead,” Graham said. “Like it got hit by a Predator drone.”

The article as a whole suggests that Administration was fairly close to a deal, though even that deal was threatened by Graham’s inability to bring a number of Republicans along on the compromise as a whole, rather than a series of solutions. Efforts to craft a deal intensified following the Faisal Shahzad attempted Times Square bombing. Gerstein suggests that Eric Holder’s big appearance on the Sunday shows on May 9–to entertain thoughts of a Miranda compromise–was a sign of how close the Administration and Graham were to a deal.

“We had a great discussion on Miranda warning reform,” Graham recalled about an evening session with Bauer and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “I spent three hours down at the White House — it was probably the best meeting I’ve ever been in — where we game-planned this. … I left the meeting thinking we’re going to get a statute.”

Indeed, on May 9, Attorney General Eric Holder publicly embraced the idea on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Calling Miranda-related legislation a “new priority,” he declared: “This is a proposal that we’re going to be making.”

And then the efforts to craft a compromise died (and, as a result, Miranda remains intact). Gerstein suggests Graham’s flip-flopping on other key legislation made it clear that Graham was not an honest broker.

Graham also may have lost credibility with the administration after he lashed out at the White House in disputes over the health care bill, climate legislation and immigration reform.

The timing certainly makes sense. During the last week of April, Graham threatened to kill the climate change bill he was crafting with the Administration as a way of keeping immigration reform from coming to a vote. By early June, he was promising to vote against any energy or climate bill. So the collapse of the grand “bargain” on Gitmo may have as much to do with Graham’s apparently successful effort to prevent Democrats from focusing on the legislative goals of a key constituency. And that may be why the electoral calendar is cited for killing the compromise as much as anything else: Graham’s yoking of immigration and climate change to Gitmo.

But I also wonder whether the Administration got a sense of just how bad Graham’s “compromise” really was. Negotiations on the grand compromise seem to have been at their height just as DOD was kicking four reporters out of Gitmo for making clear what was already in the public domain: that the interrogator who threatened a child with rape and possibly death in US prisons is the same guy who was convicted in relation to the death of another detainee. Since then (in July), Omar Khadr fired the lawyers who were crafting a plea deal, thus closing off one of the most palatable ways for the Administration to avoid making Khadr the poster child for America’s continued abuse of power at Gitmo.

I also suspect the nomination of Elena Kagan on May 10 may have played a part in the timing, not least because no Republicans would be willing to make a deal against the background of a SCOTUS nomination.

As it is, Graham seems to be using Gerstein’s article to issue two threats: first, that he will push for his own legislation in the next Congress, presumably with the votes of a few teabaggers to help him. And, his implicit threat that there will be another terrorist attack after which any decisions on Gitmo will be far worse than the policies being discussed now.

“There’s going to be an attack. That’s going to be the impetus. That’s going to be what it takes to get Congress and the administration talking; we have to get hit again,” the senator said, suggesting that passing a bill before that happens might be more reasonable than what would come afterward.

“If there is a successful attack, there is going to be a real violent reaction in the Congress, where we will react more emotionally than thoughtfully,” Graham said.

Let it be remembered–for the day when we’ve completely capitulated to those who want to use the threat of terrorism to establish a police state–that Lindsey Graham planned for it to happen.

The Things Bob Bauer Was Doing before Taking over Ethics

The White House Ethics Czar, Norman Eisen, has gotten himself nominated to serve as Ambassador in one of the greatest places on earth, Prague, Czech Republic. To replace the function of Ethics Czar, the White House has announced that White House Counsel Bob Bauer will take over, and Steven Croley (who worked on the campaign) will lead a team of six to oversee ethics.

Ethics wonks are mixed about whether this arrangement will meet the high standards Obama set when he came into the White House. POGO’s Danielle Brian takes Bauer’s appointment as a good sign that ethics will continue to be a priority. OMB Watch’s Gary Bass is happy the White House worked so quickly to implement a plan to replace Eisen. But Sunlight Foundation’s Ellen Miller views the appointment of Bauer–who has a history of supporting bad ethics habits–as a setback.

This concern is magnified manifold when Eisen’s key successor – Bauer — can hardly be described as having the DNA of a ‘reformer.’  This is the man who invented the rationale for the acceptance of “soft money’’ – unregulated (chiefly corporate) funds that flooded elections to the tune of $1.5 billion between 1992 and 2002, and the man who sided with arch conservatives in their defense of lack of transparency.

[Update: CREW has concerns as well.]

I’ll leave it to the ethics wonks to decide whether Bauer can do the job–on ethics–well or not. And FWIW, the one time I’ve seen Bauer’s work close up (during an election-related suit here in MI in 2008), I thought he was the kind of fighter Dems need more of.

But I am worried about what this says about the Administration’s focus on two other critically important functions. You see, when Bauer took over for Greg Craig, he was hailed as the kind of guy who could solve two problems Craig had failed to: judicial confirmations and closing Gitmo.

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