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James Wolfe: The Distinction Between FBI’s Investigation of Leaking Classified versus Non-Public Information

There’s something about the James Wolfe case that has stuck with me. For an article published after Wolfe’s indictment was released, Ali Watkins’ lawyer, Mark MacDougall, tempered his concern about Watkins’ call records being seized by suggesting that the scope of charges might somehow legitimate it.

Watkins’ attorney, Mark MacDougall, had described the seizure as “disconcerting.”

“Whether it was really necessary here will depend on the nature of the investigation and the scope of any charges,” MacDougall said in a statement.

While MacDougall has gone silent since then, this comment suggested there might be a reasonable premise for DOJ to seize all of Watkins call records for her entire journalistic career, which is fairly shocking. FBI gets all the call records of someone, these days, to identify all the devices she uses to check that activity as much as they do so to identify specific calls made. There’s nothing revealed by the indictment that would justify that, and a lot (notably, the evidence they had ready access to Wolfe’s phone content) that suggests it wasn’t justified.

With that in mind, I want to look at some details about the known timeline of the investigation:

March 2017: Exec Branch provides SSCI “the Classified Document,” which includes both Secret and Top Secret information, with details pertaining to Page classified as Secret.

March 2, 2017: James Comey briefs HPSCI on counterintelligence investigations, with a briefing to SSCI at almost the same time.

March 17, 2017: 82 text messages between Wolfe and Watkins.

April 3, 2017: Watkins confirms that Carter Page is Male-1.

April 11, 2017: WaPo reports FBI obtained FISA order on Carter Page.

June 2017: End date of five communications with Reporter #1 via Wolfe’s SSCI email.

June 2017: Using pretext of serving as a source, CBP agent Jeffrey Rambo grills Watkins about her travel with Wolfe.

October 2017: Wolfe offers up to be anonymous source for Reporter #4 on Signal.

October 16, 2017: Wolfe Signals Reporter #3 about Page’s subepoena.

October 17, 2017: NBC reports Carter Page subpoena.

October 24, 2017: Wolfe informs Reporter #3 of timing of Page’s testimony.

October 30, 2017: FBI informs James Wolfe of investigation.

November 15, 2017: 90 days before DOJ informs Ali Watkins they’ve seized her call records.

December 14, 2017: FBI approaches Watkins about Wolfe.

Prior to December 15, 2017 interview: Wolfe writes text message to Watkins about his support for her career.

December 15, 2017: FBI interviews Wolfe.

February 13, 2018: DOJ informs Watkins they’ve seized her call records.

June 6, 2018: Senate votes to make official records available to DOJ.

That the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, acting jointly, are authorized to provide to the United States Department of Justice copies of Committee records sought in connection with a pending investigation arising out of allegations of the unauthorized disclosure of information, except concerning matters for which a privilege should be asserted.

June 7, 2018: Grand jury indicts Wolfe.

June 7, 2018: Richard Burr and Mark Warner release a statement:

We are troubled to hear of the charges filed against a former member of the Committee staff. While the charges do not appear to include anything related to the mishandling of classified information, the Committee takes this matter extremely seriously. We were made aware of the investigation late last year, and have fully cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice since then. Working through Senate Legal Counsel, and as noted in a Senate Resolution, the Committee has made certain official records available to the Justice Department.

June 13, 2018: Wolfe arraigned in DC. His lawyers move to prohibit claims he leaked classified information.

The indictment is quite clear: the investigation leading to Wolfe’s indictment started as an investigation into “multiple unauthorized disclosures of classified information” to the press. It’s clear from Burr and Warner’s statement that they were a bit surprised that the “charges do not appear to include anything related to the mishandling of classified information.” The indictment doesn’t charge Wolfe with leaking classified information.

And the timeline laid out in the indictment suggests that the document provided SSCI in March 2017 led to Watkins confirming that Page was Male-1 in the Victor Podobnyy complaint, the complaint itself is probably not classified. Nor would it, with its reference to Page as Male-1 (also used in this indictment!), be enough to ID Page as the guy Podobnyy was trying to recruit.

As I suggested in this post, for all the focus on Watkins, the indictment actually seemed to prioritize Reporter #1, including on the questionnaire the FBI gave Wolfe when they interviewed him in December. It first asked if Wolfe knew any of the reporters behind that still unidentified story, then asked a question that his relationship with Watkins would clearly refute, which agents contextualized even further by asking specific questions about details they had already confirmed about their relationship, including the international travel Rambo had identified as early as June. Then, after asking a question that would clearly pertain to Wolfe’s undeniable relationship with Watkins, the questionnaire asked whether he had given classified or unclassified documents to any of the journalists he might have admitted to contacting in Question 10, covering the basis for that Podobnyy story.

c. During the interview, FBI agents showed WOLFE a copy of a news article authored by three reporters, including REPORTER #1, about an individual (referred to herein as “MALE-l)”, that contained classified information that had been provided to the SSCI by the Executive Branch for official purposes.

d. Question 9 of the lnvestigative Questionnaire asked “Have you had any contact with” any of those three reporters. As to each reporter, WOLFE stated and checked “No.”

e. Question 10 of the Investigative Questionnaire asked, “Besides [the three named reporters], do you currently have or had any contact with any other reporters (professional, official, personal)?” Before answering this question, WOLFE stated orally to the FBI agents that although he had no official or professional contact with reporters, he saw reporters every day, and so to “feel comfortable” he would check “Yes.” He did so, and initialed this answer.

f. Question 10 of the Investigative Questionnaire further asked, “If yes, who and describe the relationship (professional, official, personal).” In the space provided, WOLFE hand wrote “Official – No” and “Professional – No.” WOLFE then orally volunteered that he certainly did not talk to reporters about anything SSCl-related. FBI agents orally asked WOLFE if he had traveled internationally with any reporter, gone to a baseball game or to the movies with a reporter, or had weekly or regular electronic communication with a reporter. To each question WOLFE verbally responded ‘No.” WOLFE then wrote “Personal – No” on the Investigative Questionnaire.

g. Question 11 of the lnvestigative Questionnaire asked, “If yes to question ten, did you discuss or disclose any official U.S. government information or documents whether classified or unclassified which is the property of the U.S. government without express authorization from the owner of the information?” WOLFE stated and checked “No” and initialed this answer.

Now consider the vote to release official SSCI documents to DOJ, which DOJ appears to have needed before they presented the indictment to the grand jury the next day, but which DOJ knew enough about to already be prepped to indict. That is, DOJ surely already knew what those records showed; what the vote did was permit DOJ to use the records in a prosecution. There are surely records pertaining to the SSCI SCIF that DOJ wanted, including the specific treatment of the Classified Document delivered to SSCI in March 2017.

On or about March 17,2017,the Classified Document was transported to the SSCI. As Director of Security, WOLFE received, maintained, and managed the Classified Document on behalf of the SSCI.

It’s also possible (though unlikely) that SSCI, and not the Executive Branch, counts as custodian of Wolfe’s Non-Disclosure Agreements.

But the only actual SSCI record described in the indictment is the email account he used to communicate with Reporter #1, as well as emails that Page sent to the committee to complain about leaks.

For example, between in or around December 2015 and in or around June 2017, WOLFE and REPORTER #1 communicated at least five times using his SSCI email account.

[snip]

26. On or about October 18, 2011, MALE-1 sent an email to the SSCI, complaining that the news organization had published REPORTER #3’s news article of the previous day, reporting that he had been subpoenaed.

27. On or about October 24,2017, at 7:00 a.m., WOLFE informed REPORTER #3, using Signal, that MALE-1 would testify in closed hearing before the SSCI “this week.” At 9:58 a.m., REPORTER #3 sent an email to MALE-I, asking him to confirm that he would be ‘paying a visit to Senate Intelligence staffers this week.” At 9:23 p.m., MALE-I sent an email to the SSCI, forwarding the email he had received from REPORTER #3, and complaining that the details of his appearance had been leaked to the press.

So it’s possible that, having had SSCI’s cooperation since the time FBI was interviewing Wolfe, DOJ only needed to ensure it could access these email records. It’s possible that DOJ believes convicting Wolfe of false statements charges, and avoiding the hassle of exposing classified information at a trial charging that he leaked classified information, is sufficient punishment.

Or it’s possible that this indictment is just the next step in an investigative process that aims to get confirmation — public or tacit, the latter obtained via a guilty plea with cooperation — regarding the source for that other, still unidentified story that incorporated classified information. I also think FBI may be particularly interested that Wolfe was approaching journalists offering to be a source, as he did in October with Reporter #4, and not vice-versa.

Google at Temple: Did DOJ Follow Its New Guidelines on Institutional Gags?

On October 19, 2017, DOJ issued new guidelines on default gag orders under the Stored Communications Act. It required that prosecutors “conduct an individualized and meaningful assessment requiring the need for protection from disclosure prior to seeking” a gag “and only seek an order when circumstances require.” Sometime after that, in association with its investigation of leaks about Carter Page, DOJ sought Ali Watkins’ call records, including her email subscriber records from when she was an undergraduate at Temple.

Under Justice Department regulations, investigators must clear additional hurdles before they can seek business records that could reveal a reporter’s confidential sources, such as phone and email records. In particular, the rules require the government to have “made all reasonable attempts to obtain the information from alternative, non-media sources” before investigators may target a reporter’s information.

In addition, the rules generally require the Justice Department to notify reporters first to allow them to negotiate over the scope of their demand for information and potentially challenge it in court. The rules permit the attorney general to make an exception to that practice if he “determines that, for compelling reasons, such negotiations would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm.”

Top Justice Department officials must sign off on any attempt to gain access to a journalist’s communications records.

It is not clear whether investigators exhausted all of their avenues of information before confiscating Ms. Watkins’s information. She was not notified before they gained access to her information from the telecommunications companies. Among the records seized were those associated with her university email address from her undergraduate years.

This request would almost certainly not have been presented to Temple University. It would have been presented to Google, which provides email service for Temple. At least, that’s what appears to have happened in the case of Professor Xiaoxiang Xi in DOJ’s investigation of him for carrying out normal academic discussions about semiconductors with colleagues in China.

Thus far (as reflected here with the NYT coverage), the focus on whether DOJ followed its own regulations pertains to whether they followed guidelines on obtaining the records of a journalist. But the circumstances surrounding their request for Temple records should focus as much attention on whether the government followed its brand new regulations on imposing gags even when obtaining records from an institutional cloud customer like Temple.

The new guidelines were adopted largely in response to a challenge from Microsoft on default, indefinite gags. While few noted it at the time, what Microsoft most worried about was its inability to give its institutional customers notice their records had been subpoenaed. That meant that certain kind of cloud customers effectively gave up a legal right to challenge legal process by outsourcing that service to Microsoft. Microsoft dropped its suit to legally force this issue when DOJ adopted the new guidelines last year. Best as I understand, those guidelines should have governed whether Google could tell Temple that DOJ was seeking the records of a former student.

So it’s not just that DOJ didn’t give Watkins an opportunity to challenge this subpoena, but also whether they gagged Google from telling Temple, and providing Temple the opportunity to challenge the subpoena on academic freedom grounds.

Given how they treated Xi, it’s unlikely Temple would have done much to protect their former student. But some universities — and other institutions with special First Amendment concerns that use Microsoft or Google for their email service — might. They can only do so, however, if DOJ doesn’t obtain frivolous gags to prevent them from doing so.

On the James Wolfe Indictment: Don’t Forget Carter Page

Last night, DOJ unsealed the indictment of James Wolfe, the former Director of Security for the Senate Intelligence Committee. He is accused of one count of false statements to the FBI. The indictment alleges that he lied about his conversation with four journalists, Ali Watkins and three others.

The NYT has revealed that Watkins, who had a three-plus year relationship with Wolfe, had years of her communications subpoenaed. They obtained years of her subscriber information, and a more narrow period of additional information from her phone. As a reminder, the subscriber information that can be obtained with a d-order is tremendously invasive — in addition to name and financial and other contact information, the government obtains IP and device addresses that allow them to map out all the communications a person uses. This post lays out what the government demands from tech companies. Obtaining it will burn all but the most disciplined operational security and with it, a journalists’ sources.

The indictment also reveals the government obtained Signal and WhatsApp call records and content; it seems to have been Wolfe’s preferred means to communicate “securely.” I suspect they obtained the communications after June 2017, by targeting Wolfe’s phone. It’s possible he voluntarily provided his phone after confronted with his lies, but I suspect they obtained the Signal content via other means, basically compromising his device as an end point. I’ll return to this, but it appears DOJ has made a decision in recent days to expose the ease with which they can obtain Signal and other secure chat apps, at least in national security investigations, perhaps to make people less comfortable using it.

What I’d like to focus on, however, is the role of Carter Page in the indictment.

The government lays out clear proof Wolfe lied about conversations with three reporters. With Watkins and another, they point to stories about Carter Page to do so. The Watkins story is this one, confirming he is the person identified in the Evgeny Buryakov indictment. Another must be one of two stories revealing Page was subpoenaed for testimony by the Senate Intelligence Committee — either this one or this one.

I’m most interested, however, in this reference to a story the FBI raised with Wolfe in its interview, a story for which (unlike the others) the indictment never confirms whether Wolfe is the source.

During the interview, FBI agents showed WOLFE a copy of a news article authored by three reporters, including REPORTER #1, about an individual (referred to herein as “MALE-l), that contained classified information that had been provided to the SSCI by the Executive Branch for official purposes

The story suggests they don’t have content for the communications between Wolfe and Reporter #1, and the call records they’re interested in ended last June (meaning the story must precede it).

For example, between in or around December 2015 and in or around June 2017, WOLFE and REPORTER #1 communicated at least five times using his SSCI email account.

For that reason, I suspect this is the story they asked about — whether Wolfe is a source for the original credible story on Carter Page’s FISA order. The focus on Page generally in the indictment suggests this investigation started as an investigation into who leaked the fact that Page had been targeted under FISA, and continued to look at the stories that revealed classified details about the investigative focus on him (stories which he rightly complained to SSCI about).

I know the focus will be on the impact on Watkins and any other journalists DOJ has subpoenaed, if they have with the others; that impact is very real and we’ll hear more about how DOJ has shifted its treatment of journalists in upcoming days.

But I’d like to consider what it means that this investigation largely stems from leaks about the investigation into Page.

Page is not at all a sympathetic person. He’s nuts, and may well be or have been a willing recruit of Russia. But there are two reasons why the leaks into the investigation into him should be of concern, along with the concern about journalism.

First, whatever the truth about Page, one reason the government treats counterintelligence wiretaps differently than criminal ones is because there are times they need to obtain content from people they don’t have probable cause are criminals. Legitimately obtained wiretaps should never be revealed except in legal proceedings anyway, but that’s all the more true where the government may be using the wiretap to learn whether someone has been recruited. Unlike Paul Manafort, Mike Flynn, and George Papadopoulos, Carter Page has not been charged, yet the leaks about the investigation into him (including of the damned Steele dossier) have branded him as a Russian spy. I’ve reported on too many cases where FISA orders were used against people who weren’t spies (particularly Chinese Americans), and it needs to be said that investigative targets are kept secret, in part, because they’ve not been charged yet.

Then there’s the flip side to the issue. All the leaks about Carter Page may well have poisoned the investigation into him in several ways. Certainly, Page and the Russians were alerted to the scrutiny he was under. If he is or was a Russian spy, the government may never make its case because the stories on Page made it a lot easier for the targets of the investigation to counter it (I actually think several of the less credible leaks about this investigation were designed to do just that).

Indeed, all the leaked stories about him may have made it politically impossible for FBI to continue the investigation. We know the FISA orders against him ceased after all the leaks about his targeting, for example. So if Page is a spy, all the publicity about this may help him get away with it.

The government has wrapped up a tidy indictment where, while they know Wolfe is a source for at least some of the suspect stories about Page, any trial would instead focus on the clear evidence Wolfe lied about things like a multi-year relationship with someone working SSCI and not classified information. Probably, the hope is he’ll plea and identify all the stories for which he has been a source. To get there, the government has used awesome powers against at least one journalist (and in Watkins’ case, it’s not at all clear they needed to do that).

That said, while I don’t defend Page as a person at all, the giddy leaks about him do come with a cost in both due process and investigative terms and it’s worth remembering that as we talk about this case.

The Documents the White House Turned Over

I wanted to pull this information, from the John Dowd’s letter to Robert Mueller, to lay out how the White House has categorized document requests from Mueller. Dowd boast the “Records voluntarily produced to your office by the White House total over 20,000 pages.” Here’s what those records like, arranged by Bates series.

The Flynn documents

The categories start with Flynn, including an astounding 2,572 pages related to Sean Spicer’s comments to the press on Jim Comey from May 3, 2017 (in the press briefing that day Spicer downplayed the threat Russia posed to the US).

  • FBI Interview of Michael Flynn at the White House on January 24, 2017 (SCR001), 9 documents, 66 pages;
  • Communications of DAG Sally Yates, DOJ, FBI, & WH regarding Michael Flynn (SCR002), 28 documents, 64 pages;
  • Communications between White House staff regarding the FBl’s investigation into Russian interference or James Comey (SCR003), 53 documents, 248 pages;
  • The resignation of Michael Flynn (SCR004), 311 documents, 762 pages;
  • Sean Spicer’s May 3, 2017, statements to the press regarding James Comey (SCR005), 445 documents, 2,572 pages;

The George Papadopoulos documents

There’s just one bullet point of communications pertaining to Papadopoulos. This list must reflect the list of those who might be of interest in the Russian inquiry. Note that Jeff Sessions is not included.

  • White House communications concerning campaign and transition communications between Manafort, Gates, Gordon, Kellogg, Page, Papadopoulos, Phares, Clovis and Schmitz (SCR006), 75 documents, 978 pages;

A second tranche of Mike Flynn documents

Then there are two more bullets of Mike Flynn documents, first seeking campaign and transition communications involving Russian Federation officials, and then seeking the 2,990 pages on the May 10, 2017 meeting with Sergei Lavrov. We should expect a ton of prep work in advance of such a meeting, so the number might not be that surprising. But it is the largest set of documents.

  • White House communications regarding campaign and transition communications between Michael Flynn and Sergey Kislyak or other Russian Federation officials (SCR007), 303 documents, 912 pages;
  • May 10, 2017, White House meeting with Russian Federation officials (SCR008), 808 documents, 2,990 pages;

The June 9 meeting documents

Only after those Flynn related comms did Mueller ask for June 9 meeting documents. They asked for three things: Documents pertaining to the June 9 meeting (note, this doesn’t include a request for the follow-up discussions in November). Then, a list of those who were involved in Don Jr’s press statements. Finally, all the comms from those people. The number of these documents is suspiciously small, particularly as compared to the volume turned over to SJC.

  • June 9, 2016, meeting between Donald Trump, Jr., and Natalia Veselnitskaya (SCR009), 117 documents, 1,821 pages;
  • July 8, 2017, Air Force One participants regarding Donald Trump, Jr., press statements concerning Veselnitskaya meeting (SCR010), 1 document, 1 page;
  • Communications of individuals identified in category number 10 (SCR011), 141 documents, 284 pages.

Jim Comey documents

Finally, there are documents pertaining to Jim Comey’s firing. This suggests Mueller didn’t ask for these documents until at least July 2017.

  • Meetings between the President and James Comey (SCR012), 109 documents, 725 pages;
  • The decision to terminate James Comey (SCR013), 442 documents, 1,455 pages;

A Thinking Person’s Guide to the Stefan Halper Conspiracy Theory

For some time, I’ve been agnostic about whether Chuck Ross’ series on Stefan Halper derived from his own discussions with George Papadopoulos, Carter Page, and Sam Clovis, or whether he relied on leaks from HPSCI.

Today, he gave one of the leading comments he often does, about Paul Ryan’s claimed concern about “FISA abuse.” (Ryan, remember, pushed through 702 reauthorization this year without reforming a single one of the abuses laid out in this report, but apparently Chuck’s gonna play along with the notion that Ryan gives a shit about FISA.)

That mirrors Ross’ own logically nonsensical focus on the dossier as a source for the Carter Page FISA order in conjunction with Halper. Which, especially since other journalists are making it clear the Halper focus is coming from Hill Republicans, suggests Ross was getting leaks from Republicans.

That’s even more true of this interview with Sam Clovis. In it, Clovis makes it very clear the meeting did not stick out in his memory.

It was an academic meeting. It was not anything other than him talking about the research that he had done on China.

[snip]

No indication or inclination that this was anything other than just wanting to offer up his help to the campaign if I needed it.

After describing how he hadn’t opened up attachments Halper sent later in the month, he said, “that is how little this registered with me.”

And yet, somehow, by March, someone had told Ross about this meeting.

Halper also requested and attended a one-on-one meeting with another senior campaign official, TheDCNF learned. That meeting was held a day or two before Halper reached out to Papadopoulos. Halper offered to help the campaign but did not bring up Papadopoulos, even though he would reach out to the campaign aide a day or two later.

Clovis seems to derive his memory of the meeting, in significant part, from the documentation he does (four emails setting the meeting up) and doesn’t (any notes) have about it.

There’s a record of the exchange of emails that we had, four emails to set the appointment.

[snip]

I had my notebook. Always take notes and always keep track of what’s going on. And there wasn’t anything — I didn’t have any notes on the meeting cause there must not have been anything substantive that took place.

That suggests someone knew to go back to look for communications involving Halper. Now, if HPSCI requested all the comms campaign aides had with investigative target Carter Page, then Clovis would have turned over these emails (which mentioned Page but probably discussed China, not Russia), and HPSCI staffers could have found the tie. If HPSCI only asked for Russia-related comms involving Page, then someone got Toensing or Clovis to search for Halper emails themselves.

Clovis explains that he’s bothered, now, about the meeting because he thinks he was used as an excuse to reach out to George Papadopoulos.

He had met with Carter Page. He had used that to get the bona fides to get an appointment with me.

[snip]

Then I think he used my meeting as bona fides to get a meeting with George Papadopoulos.

Remember, one of the inane complaints in the Nunes memo is that the Carter Page FISA application mentioned Papadopoulos.

The Schiff memo explains that Papadopoulos got mentioned because, after Alexander Downer told the FBI that Papadopoulos had told him the Russians were going to release Hillary emails to help Trump, they opened a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign.

In other words, the frothy right likely believes, like Clovis, that Halper was networking as a way to get to Papadopoulos, and that in some way ties to the FISA application against Page.

And he may well have done so! As TPM clarifies some confusion created by WaPo, both Page, Clovis, and Clovis lawyer Victoria Toensing agree that Halper mentioned Page when he reached out to Clovis.

Clovis’ lawyer, Victoria Toensing, previously said, according to the Washington Post that the informant had not mentioned his other Trump contacts when reaching out to Clovis. Clovis said he wasn’t sure “where she got that information,”since she had access to the emails setting up the September 2016 meeting.

Toensing, in an phone interview Tuesday with TPM, backed up Clovis’ account. She told TPM that the informant had said in an email to Clovis that Page had recommended that they meet. She also claimed that the informant had told Page when they met at the conference that he was a big fan of Clovis’. Page confirmed Toensing’s account in an email to TPM.

Halper met with Clovis on September 1 and then reached out to Papadopoulos the next day.

Though note: Page says Halper raised Clovis at the July conference where they met, a meeting that occurred before dossier reports started getting back to FBI (particularly to the people investigating the hack-and-leak) and before the Papadopoulos report. That either suggests the FBI already had concerns about Clovis by then, or Halper was more generally networking with Page along with checking out someone who had been a live counterintelligence concern in his own right since March and for years beforehand.

Here’s where things start to go off the rails for this whole conspiracy theory, though. Clovis (who, remember, testified to Mueller’s team in the days before Papadopoulos’ cooperation agreement was unsealed, and who therefore may have his own false statements to worry about) believes that the FBI had no business trying to ask Papadopoulos about his April knowledge of Russians dealing Clinton emails in a way that would not arouse Papadopoulos’ suspicion.

What unsettled me … is what he tried to do with George Papadopoulos and that was to establish an audit trail from the campaign or somebody associated with the campaign back to those Clinton emails, whether or not they existed we don’t know.

Clovis believes, as does the entire frothy right, that the FBI had no reason to check out leads from someone who predicted the Russians would leak dirt from Hillary to help Trump a month before it became publicly known.

What were they investigating? To be investigating, there has to be some indication of a crime. And there does not appear to have been any indication for a crime. And by the way the Fourth Amendment protects you in your place and your person from investigation without a clear indication of what, uh, probable cause.

Somehow, Clovis conveniently forgets that stealing emails is a crime. And the FBI had been investigating that crime since June 2016, a month before learning that Papadopoulos might have known about the stolen emails before the FBI itself did.

In other words, at the core of this entire conspiracy theory (on top of pretending that Carter Page wasn’t already a counterintelligence concern in March, as all the designated GOP stenographers do) is the GOP fantasy that the FBI had no business trying to chase down why Papadopoulos knew of the theft before the DNC itself did.

And they’re making an enormous case out of the fact that FBI used Halper — a lifelong Republican to whom Papadopoulos could and did lie to without legal jeopardy — to interview someone Clovis claims was “ancillary” to the campaign at the time.

It’s also clear to me that they misread George’s relationship with the campaign entirely, so, because he was not, he was ancillary at best at that point.

So that appears to be where this is heading: an attempt to criminalize a Republican networking with a goal of learning whether George Papadopoulos, and through him, Sam Clovis and the rest of the campaign, committed what Papadopoulos himself has said (though this is legally incorrect) might amount to treason.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: the GOP doesn’t think Russian theft of Democratic emails was a crime and therefore doesn’t think FBI had reason to investigate Papadopoulos’ apparent foreknowledge of that crime.

Nunes Outraged that [American] Spies Paid to Brush Up against Trump Aides

I just saw this Devin Nunes quote, from a WaPo story on the fight over releasing details on Stefan Halper investigative activities into the infiltration of Trump’s campaign by Russian assets.

Nunes said he and his colleagues have been troubled by reports and indications that sources may have been repeatedly reaching out to Trump campaign members and even offering aides money to encourage them to meet. The president, he said, has ample reason to be angry and suspicious.

“If you are paying somebody to come talk to my campaign or brush up against my campaign, whatever you call it, I’d be furious,” Nunes said.

The reference to “paying somebody” is presumably a reference to Halper paying George Papadopoulos $3,000 for research as a way to get an opportunity to ask, in a possibly recorded phone call, about the DNC emails.

As TheDCNF reported back in March, Halper contacted Papadopoulos through email on Sept. 2, 2016, offering to fly him to London to discuss writing a policy paper about energy issues in Turkey, Israel and Cyprus. Halper offered to pay $3,000 for the paper.

Papadopoulos made the trip and had dinner multiple times with Halper and a Turkish woman described as his assistant. Sources familiar with Papadopoulos’s version of their meetings said Halper randomly asked Papadopoulos whether he knew about Democratic National Committee emails that had been hacked and leaked by Russians.

Papadopoulos strongly denied the allegation, sources familiar with his version of the exchange have told TheDCNF. Halper grew agitated and pressed Papadopoulos on the topic. Papadopoulos believes that Halper was recording him during some of their interactions, sources said.

Halper’s assistant, who is named Azra Turk, brought up Russians and emails over drinks with Papadopoulos. Turk also flirted heavily with Papadopoulos and attempted to meet him in Chicago, where he lives, a source told TheDCNF.

I’d be curious to see Papadopoulos’ notoriously inflated resume to see whether he included the research project on it after he completed it.

That Nunes thinks Trump should be outraged about this one incident is particularly notable, given that neither Nunes nor anyone else running cover for the Trump administration has ever expressed similar outrage about all the Trump aides that other countries were dangling money and other goods to brush up against. Those include (and this list is far from comprehensive):

  • Russian academics paying Carter Page to speak in Moscow
  • A pro-Russian Syrian group paying Don Jr to speak in Paris
  • Multiple Russian banks floating massive amounts of support to Jared
  • Russia’s RT paying Mike Flynn to appear at an event with Putin
  • Turkish pass-throughs paying Flynn to make a movie
  • Saudi, Israeli, and Emirati sources offering campaign assistance
  • Oleg Deripaska offering to forgive Paul Manafort’s $20 million debt for updates on the Trump campaign
  • Russians offering dirt on Hillary to get a meeting with Trump’s campaign manager, son, and son-in-law

I mean, even the Carter Page Moscow trip was more lucrative than the Papadopoulos research. And the other valuable things offered to campaign aides, by spooked-up sources from a range of countries, were tens or millions of dollars more valuable than what Halper offered, usually without any legit purpose tied to it.

And yet the only intelligence source that Nunes has expressed any outrage about — the only one! — is one associated with the United States, a person with long ties to the Republican party.

I mean, maybe Nunes is just dumb and doesn’t understand the stance he has now publicly adopted. Maybe he didn’t mean to say the only spies who shouldn’t be able to test whether Trump aides were willing to sell information for a price are American spies.

But thus far, the only lucrative outreach by spies that Nunes has objected to are American ones.

The Credulous Right’s Latest Dribbling Water Pistol

Longtime GOP operative Rick Gates told Alex Van der Zwaan that Konstantin Kilimnik, the Oleg Deripaska go-between with whom Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort discussed providing private briefings on the campaign, “was a former Russian Intelligence Officer with the GRU.” The House Intelligence Report, having reviewed the evidence against Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, Mike Flynn, and (to a much lesser extent) Paul Manafort complains that, “the Trump campaign was not notified that members of the campaign were potential counterintelligence concerns.” The report suggests (Trump’s hiring of Flynn after Obama warned him notwithstanding) that the “campaign was unable to address the problems with each campaign member and was ignorant about the potential national security concerns.”

Certainly, these Republicans give real credence to the possibility that Trump’s campaign (the campaign that did virtually no vetting and liked aides who would work “for free”) was infiltrated by Russian spies.

Nevertheless, the right wing noise machine (including former Federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy!!!) is pushing a new conspiracy theory: that George Papadopoulos was planted by either the Deep State or the Hillary Clinton campaign. One version of the story is being pitched by Stephan Roh. Roh is, by all appearances, Joseph Mifsud’s handler.

Then there’s the Beeb piece advancing the story of Joseph Mifsud (ignore the repetitive annoying music and John Schindler presence). It provides details on the role played by German born Swiss financier and lawyer Stephan Roh. Roh has three ties to Mifsud. In 2014, Roe started lecturing at the London Academy of Diplomacy where Misfud worked. In the same year, he bought the Roman institution Misfud helped manage. And then, in 2016, when George Papadopoulos was being targeted, Roh was on a panel with Papadopoulos’ two handlers.

That same month, Mifsud was in Moscow on a panel run by the Kremlin-backed Valdai Club with Timofeev and the third man, Dr Stephan Roh, a German multi-millionaire.

Mifsud and Roh interlock: in 2014, Roh became a visiting lecturer at the London Academy of Diplomacy. Roh bought Link Campus University, a private institution in Rome where Mifsud was part of the management and Mifsud became a consultant at Roh’s legal firm.

The Beeb piece goes on to describe how Roh bought a British nuclear consultancy too. When the British scientist behind it balked at cozying up to Russia, he was fired, but it appears to still be used as a cut-out.

Again, none of this is new: Russia just spent a lot of money to set up some fronts. The amount of money floating around and the ability to buy into a title by buying an old castle do make it easier, however.

But he’s out with a book that — in addition to describing how he was surveilled when he came to the US in the wake of the revelation of the Papadopoulos plea last year — alleges that Papadopoulos was actually planted in the Trump campaign by the FBI to elicit outreach to Russia.

Roh and his co-author Thierry Pastor, who also knows Mifsud, write in the book that, upon arriving in New York City with his family in October 2017, “one of the co-authors” was “fished from the passport control” line at John F. Kennedy airport while his family “was retained with armed police force.” (Photos posted by Roh’s wife on social media in October 2017 suggest she was visiting New York in late October.) He was then interrogated for “hours,” they write, by “a team of Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigating Russia-Gate.” The book alleges that he and his family were then “observed, followed, and taped, at every moment and every place in New York” by the FBI and that his family was assigned to “special rooms at the hotel” while security personnel “patrolled the corridors.”

It is unclear whether Roh was actually surveilled after being interviewed—a spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment. The book further alleges that Mifsud is not a Russian spy but is actually “deeply embedded in the network of Western Intelligence Services.” Papadopoulos, too, is a “western intelligence operative,” the authors assert, who was “placed” in the Trump campaign by the FBI. In that sense, the book is similar to one written recently by another obscure player detained and questioned by Mueller’s team earlier this year: Ted Malloch, a controversial London-based academic with ties to Trump associates Roger Stone and Nigel Farage. In his book The Plot to Destroy Trump: How the Deep State Fabricated the Russia Dossier to Subvert the President, Malloch argues that the apparent covert intelligence activity connected to the Trump campaign was not Russian, but Western.

Roh and Pastor’s prevailing thesis is that Papadopoulos’s “mission” was to bring Trump into contact with Russian officials. “That’s nuts,” Papadopoulos’s wife Mangiante told me in response to the book’s theory. “From ‘coffee boy’ to spy … George has been upgraded!” she joked, referring to the Trump campaign’s claim that Papadopoulos, a young energy consultant who joined the Trump campaign in March 2016, was so low-level that he was basically a “coffee boy.”

Again, the Republicans on HPSCI who have reviewed the intelligence sure seem miffed that Trump didn’t get an opportunity to weed out the suspected assets in his campaign. But this, from a transparent Russian operative, is still what Republicans want to argue to discredit the Mueller investigation.

Consider what would have had to have happened to pull this off.

First, the Deep State would have started this process years ago, when Papadopoulos worked for the Hudson Institute, establishing his conservative bona fides. Then, they would have inexplicably had Papadopoulos work for Ben Carson, which in any normal year would experience no success in the primary and therefore in any normal year could expect none of his aides to be picked up by the winning candidate. Then, somehow Sam Clovis (who multiple witnesses have said welcomed outreach to Russia) would be convinced to recruit Papadopoulos. The FBI would have somehow had to have known that the campaign itself would do no vetting. And even if the FBI could assume the campaign would do no vetting, it would also have to ensure that the campaign wouldn’t distance itself from Papaodpoulos after the WaPo did an embarrassing profile describing how inexperienced Papadopoulos was.

And, of course, somehow this “coffee boy” would have the finesse to convince a lot of far more experienced operatives to accept outreach from Russia.

Further, in spite of its extensive and remarkably successful effort at placing a spy on Trump’s campaign, the FBI would then have to have chosen not just not to herald the fake Russian spy it had planted in the Trump campaign contemporaneously, but to refrain from joining the Russian attribution in October 2016 altogether, effectively utterly pissing away the value of having placed a spy in the Trump campaign.

In some versions, this conspiracy theory even says Papadopoulos was planted by Hillary’s people. Hillary’s campaign was all too willing to seed their crappy dossier publicly, and spent a great deal of messaging talking about both their own targeting by Russia and Trump’s openness to capitalize off that targeting, not to mention pouncing on thinly source reports suggesting a tie between Russian and Trump. And yet somehow, the guy the Hillary Deep State people planted on Trump’s campaign not only didn’t tell their paid MI6 spy to go find the evidence about Papadopoulos being offered willingly at drunken sessions in London, but didn’t just publicize the details in the first place.

In short, to believe this conspiracy, you’d have to believe all these whack assumptions (from an FBI that the same conspiracists argue is otherwise incompetent) and ignore that Republicans who have reviewed the intelligence find credible the claim that Russia was trying to recruit assets in Trump’s campaign.

And yet that’s where even relatively mainstream Republicans are headed next.

This is, very transparently, Russian planted disinformation. And yet the same Republicans who claim there is “no collusion” are regurgitating the disinformation like automatons.

Stefan Halper Wasn’t Downstream from the Steele Dossier

As you’ve no doubt heard, Devin Nunes and Paul Ryan continue to extort DOJ, ostensibly to find evidence of FISA abuse, but by all appearances, to review intelligence on behest of Trump, delegitimize the Mueller investigation, and create some excuse to start impeaching the people overseeing it.

A Chuck Ross article on the latest effort ends with a reference to Stefan Halper, a dual US-UK citizen who was a Cambridge professor in 2016.

House Republicans are again battling with the Justice Department over information related to the Russia investigation, this time over documents the intelligence community said involves a top-secret source who has provided information to the CIA and FBI.

The mysterious source has also gathered information that was given to Special Counsel Robert Mueller as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to The Washington Post.

WaPo reported Justice Department and intelligence community officials issued a stark warning to the White House on May 2 against a request from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. Nunes had submitted a subpoena to the Justice Department on April 24 for records related to the Russia probe.

Justice Department and intelligence community officials argued to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly that complying with the subpoena would reveal the identity of a top-secret source and would undermine protocol regarding intelligence sources, according to WaPo.

WaPo provided one small clue about the source: he or she is American.

[snip]

TheDCNF reported that in Sept. 2016, he was approached out of the blue by Stefan Halper, a University of Cambridge professor and former U.S. government official.

Other right wing sites appear sure that Halper is the source in question.

In 2016, Halper resigned from the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar along with Richard Dearlove (Christopher Steele’s old boss) out of concerns Russia had started funding it, which is to say he has close ties with a lot of the spooks that the Republicans are obsessed by. Halper would fit as an American. And as someone at the overlap between MI6, the FBI, and CIA, any information he discovered would ultimately get shared with Mueller.

When Ross first broke the story of weird meetings between Halper and Trump aides in March (a month before Nunes made the mysterious request), he provided very specific descriptions of when Halper spoke with each of three campaign officials (though he kept the identity of the third secret).

Halper first met Carter Page at conference on July 11 and 12 in London (the meeting would have been on the way back from his trip to Moscow), then remained in contact thereafter.

Halper met campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page at a July 2016 symposium held at Cambridge regarding the upcoming election, Page told TheDCNF. The pair remained in contact for several months.

Halper met with the third, unnamed campaign advisor on August 31 or September 1, though did not mention Papadopoulos at the meeting.

Halper also requested and attended a one-on-one meeting with another senior campaign official, TheDCNF learned. That meeting was held a day or two before Halper reached out to Papadopoulos. Halper offered to help the campaign but did not bring up Papadopoulos, even though he would reach out to the campaign aide a day or two later.

Halper first reached out to George Papadopoulos on September 2, then met with him over several days in London in mid-September.

Halper first contacted Papadopoulos by email. In a Sept. 2, 2016, message sent to Papadopoulos’s personal email account, he offered the Trump aide $3,000 to write a policy paper on issues related to Turkey, Cyprus, Israel and the Leviathan natural gas field. Halper also offered to pay for Papadopoulos’s flight and a three-night stay in London.

[snip]

Papadopoulos and Halper met several times during the London trip, including at the Connaught Hotel and the Travellers Club — a classic 19th century club foreign diplomats and politicians frequent. Halper’s research assistant — a Turkish woman named Azra Turk — also met with Papadopoulos. The Connaught Hotel meeting was scheduled for Sept. 13, 2016, and the Travellers Club conclave was two days later.

While discussing the policy paper Papadopoulos was to write, Halper made an out-of-left-field reference to Russians and hacked emails, according to a source with direct knowledge of Papadopoulos’s version of events.

From these meetings and ties to Dearlove, Republicans have gotten themselves worked up to believing that Halper was working off the Steele dossier, perhaps because Ross ties Halper to people in terms of the dossier [see below for explanation that he did not intend to suggest this tie]:

Halper is a close associate of Sir Richard Dearlove — the former MI6 chief.

In December 2016, Halper, Dearlove and espionage historian Peter Morland made international news when they announced they were leaving an organization called the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar due to concerns Russian operatives had infiltrated the group.

Months earlier, in early fall 2016, Dearlove reportedly met with dossier author Steele. Steele sought out Dearlove’s advice on how to proceed with information he gathered on Trump’s ties to Russia, The Washington Post reported. Former MI6 Moscow station chief Steele had been told Trump campaign members were colluding with Kremlin operatives to release emails stolen from the DNC.

Steele’s dossier does not mention Papadopoulos, though the former spy was made aware of the Trump campaign aide while he was working on his anti-Trump document. FBI agents asked Steele during an October 2016 meeting in Rome if he was aware of Papadopoulos. Steele did not have information on Papadopoulos, the former spy said.

But Papadopoulos does have at least one possible connection to the dossier. During the campaign, Sergei Millian approached him. Millian is a Belarus-born businessman who was allegedly an unwitting source for some of the most salacious claims in the dossier.

While it’s possible Halper got wind of the counterintelligence concerns via intelligence sources in London, it doesn’t make sense that his information came via the dossier.

The first dated report on Page is in a report submitted July 19, after Page had already made his trip to Russia (and stopped by London where he met Halper). Both of the sources on the report are Russian, not American or British, so not Halper himself. And the report was reported contemporaneously, meaning Halper wouldn’t have been the only outside source that could have told Steele about the trip, nor would Halper have needed Steele’s sources to learn about it.

So if Halper sought out Page out of counterintelligence concerns, it likely had as much to do with the concerns FBI had in March 2016 (the ones that never appeared in the dossier) as it does July trip, much less any discussions between Steele and Halper about that trip. And if Halper is as spooked up as Republicans want to suggest, by the time of his subsequent communications with Page, he would have known of both those concerns.

Similarly, the timing on the ties between Sergei Millian and Papadopoulos wouldn’t support a tie between Halper’s interest in him and the dossier. The Steele reports believed to tie to Millian date to June (including, possibly, the pee tape) and July. But July is around when Papadopoulos and Millian first met (I suspect, on July 22). So to the extent Millian really was a source for Steele, it would have largely preceded the time he met, much less became close with, Papadopoulos.

But all that happened around the time the Australians informed the US of Papadopoulos’ drunken May ramblings.

So by the time Halper met with Papadopoulos (and met the other aide, possibly as background to the Papadopoulos meeting), the US would have already had official notice of Papadopoulos via the Australians.

If anything, it’d be far more likely that Halper gave the US soft notice of the Downer meeting before the Australians did so formally than that Halper learned of Papadopoulos via some Steele channel.

Admittedly, some nut jobs are wailing about Halper totally independent of the Steele dossier, because they’re outraged, apparently, that the the US sought to chase down whether the unvetted people with troubling ties to suspected Russian spies working for Trump for free were real concerns or not. I’ll return to that in a follow-up. But as background to laying out precisely how ridiculous the Republicans are getting here, understand that it is unlikely whatever investigation, if any, Halper was conducting was based off the Steele dossier.

Update: Ross has taken issue with my claim that he ties Halper to the dossier. I base that claim not just on Twitter exchanges with his readers who make the allegation but on these details (for example, this one that claims Papadopoulos was a source for Millian before they met and that May and September are the same time). Ross introduces the dossier by claiming Page was a central figure in HPSCI’s investigation because of allegations made against him in the dossier, though the reality is that it’s because the dossier was included in his FISA applications.

Page is also a prominent figure in the investigation due to allegations made against him in the infamous Steele dossier. Page’s trip to Moscow in early July 2016 is a central piece of the dossier. Christopher Steele, the author of the Democrat-funded report, alleges Page met secretly with two Kremlin insiders as part of the Trump campaign’s collusion effort.

Page attended the Cambridge event Halper set up, four days after that trip to Moscow.

Then there’s the insinuation, in the passage cited above, that because Halper took an anti-Russian stance with Dearlove in December and Dearlove had a tie to the Steele dossier in September, there must be some continuity between the two events.

Halper is a close associate of Sir Richard Dearlove — the former MI6 chief.

In December 2016, Halper, Dearlove and espionage historian Peter Morland made international news when they announced they were leaving an organization called the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar due to concerns Russian operatives had infiltrated the group.

Months earlier, in early fall 2016, Dearlove reportedly met with dossier author Steele. Steele sought out Dearlove’s advice on how to proceed with information he gathered on Trump’s ties to Russia, The Washington Post reported. Former MI6 Moscow station chief Steele had been told Trump campaign members were colluding with Kremlin operatives to release emails stolen from the DNC.

Ross could have avoided any mention of the dossier by simply saying that Halper and Dearlove took that anti-Russian stance together, but he didn’t.

Finally, there’s the bizarre effort (noted above) to tie Papadopoulos to the dossier via Millian.

I’m glad Ross has now made clear he did not intend to suggest a tie between Halper and the dossier, because (as I think I show here) they make no sense. I do hope his readers who do suggest there’s a tie understand he has disavowed any such suggestion.

My goal with this post (as I suggest above) is to lay groundwork showing that the GOP basis for delegitimizing the investigation — that it purportedly started from oppo research paid for by Democrats — does not have a tie to the next stage, Halper. It seems whatever Ross wrote months ago, he and I are now in agreement that it does not have such a tie.

Update: Ross is still cranky that I suggested his six references to the dossier in a story that’s not about the dossier hasn’t led anyone to imagine a connection. Yesterday morning, Jack Posobiec, with his 300,000 followers, was already suggesting a tie based on a link to Ross’ more recent report.

The Sekulow Questions, Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

In this series, I have been showing a framework for the investigation that the Mueller questions, as imagined by Jay Sekulow, maps out. Thus far I have shown:

  • Russians, led by the Aras Agalarov and his son, cultivated Trump for years by dangling two things: real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin.
  • During the election, the Russians and Trump appear to have danced towards a quid pro quo agreement, with the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for a commitment to sanctions relief, with some policy considerations thrown in.
  • During the transition period, Trump’s team took a series of actions that moved towards consummating the deal they had made with Russia, both in terms of policy concessions, particularly sanctions relief, and funding from Russian sources that could only be tapped if sanctions were lifted. The Trump team took measures to keep those actions secret.
  • Starting in January 2017, Trump came to learn that FBI was investigating Mike Flynn. His real reasons for firing Flynn remain unreported, but it appears he had some concerns that the investigation into Flynn would expose him.

This post lays out the questions on obstruction that lead up to Comey’s firing on May 9, 2017.

February 14, 2017: What was the purpose of your Feb. 14, 2017, meeting with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

On February 13, Trump fired Mike Flynn. The explanation he gave was one of the concerns Sally Yates had given to Don McGahn when she told him about the interview, that Flynn had lied to Mike Pence about having discussed sanctions relief with Sergey Kislyak on December 29, 2016. Except, coming from Trump, that excuse makes no sense, both because he had already shown he didn’t care about the counterintelligence implications of that lie by including Flynn in the January 28 phone call with Putin and other sensitive meetings. But also because at least seven people in the White House knew what occurred in Flynn’s calls, and Pence probably did too.

Against that backdrop, the next day, Trump had Jim Comey stay late after an oval office meeting so he could ask him to drop the investigation into Flynn. Leading up to this meeting, Trump had already:

  • Asked Comey to investigate the pee tape allegations so he could exonerate the President
  • Asked if FBI leaks
  • Asked if Comey was loyal shortly after asking him, for the third time, if he wanted to keep his job
  • Claimed he distrusted Flynn’s judgment because he had delayed telling Trump about a congratulatory call from Putin

After Trump asked everyone in the meeting to leave him and Comey alone, both Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner lingered.

While the description of this meeting usually focuses on the Flynn discussion, according to Comey’s discussion, it also focused closely on leaks, which shows how Trump linked the two in his mind.

Here’s what Comey claims Trump said about Flynn:

He began by saying he wanted to “talk about Mike Flynn.” He then said that, although Flynn “hadn’t done anything wrong” in his call with the Russians (a point he made at least two more times in the conversation), he had to let him go because he misled the Vice President, whom he described as “a good guy.” He explained that he just couldn’t have Flynn misleading the vice President and, in any event, he had other concerns about Flynn, and had a great guy coming in, so he had to let Flynn go.

[a discussion of Sean Spicer’s presser explaining the firing and another about the leaks of his calls to Mexican and Australian leaders]

He then referred at length to the leaks relating to Mike Flynn’s call with the Russians, which he stressed was not wrong in any way (“he made lots of calls”), but that the leaks were terrible.

[Comey’s agreement with Trump about the problem with leaks, but also his explanation that the leaks may not have been FBI; Reince Priebus tries to interrupt but Trump sends him away for a minute or two]

He then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying that Flynn is a good guy, and has been through a lot. He misled the Vice President but he didn’t do anything wrong on the call. He said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” I replied by saying, “I agree he is a good guy,” but said no more.

In addition to providing Trump an opportunity to rebut Comey, asking this question might aim to understand the real reason Trump fired Flynn.

March 2, 2017: What did you think and do regarding the recusal of Mr. Sessions?  What efforts did you make to try to get him to change his mind? Did you discuss whether Mr. Sessions would protect you, and reference past attorneys general?

On March 2, citing consultations with senior department officials, Sessions recused himself “from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States,” while noting that, “This announcement should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation or suggestive of the scope of any such investigation.” At that point, Dana Boente became Acting Attorney General for the investigation.

Note that this question isn’t just about Trump’s response to Sessions’ recusal — it’s also about what he did in advance of it. That’s likely because even before Sessions recused, Trump got Don McGahn to try to pressure the Attorney General not to do so. He also called Comey the night before and “talked about Sessions a bit.” When Sessions ultimately did recuse, Trump had a blow-up in which he expressed a belief that Attorneys General should protect their president.

[T]he president erupted in anger in front of numerous White House officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him. Mr. Trump said he had expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him the way he believed Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general, had done for his brother John F. Kennedy and Eric H. Holder Jr. had for Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump then asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

In the days after the Sessions recusal, Trump also kicked off the year-long panic about being wiretapped.

On Thursday, Jeff Sessions recused from the election-related parts of this investigation. In response, Trump went on a rant (inside the White House) reported to be as angry as any since he became President. The next morning, Trump responded to a Breitbart article alleging a coup by making accusations that suggest any wiretaps involved in this investigation would be improper. Having reframed wiretaps that would be targeted at Russian spies as illegitimate, Trump then invited Nunes to explore any surveillance of campaign officials, even that not directly tied to Trump himself.

And Nunes obliged.

Don McGahn and Jeff Sessions, among others, have already provided their side of this story to Mueller’s team.

March 2 to March 20, 2017: What did you know about the F.B.I.’s investigation into Mr. Flynn and Russia in the days leading up to Mr. Comey’s testimony on March 20, 2017?

As Sekulow has recorded Mueller’s question, the special counsel wants to know what Trump already knew of the investigation into Mike Flynn before Comey publicly confirmed it in Congressional testimony. This may be a baseline question, to measure how much of Trump’s response was a reaction to the investigation becoming public.

But there are other things that went down in the weeks leading up to Comey’s testimony. Devin Nunes had already made considerable efforts to undermine the investigation; he would have been briefed on the investigation on March 2 (see footnote 75), the same day as Sessions recused.Trump went into a panic on March 4, just days after Sessions recusal, about being wiretapped; I’m wondering if there’s any evidence that Trump or Steven Bannon seeded the Breitbart story that kicked off the claim of a coup against Trump. Also of note is Don McGahn’s delay in conveying the records retention request about the investigation to the White House, even as Sean Spicer conducted a device search to learn who was using encrypted messengers.

March 20, 2017: What did you do in reaction to the March 20 testimony? Describe your contacts with intelligence officials.

On March 20, in testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, Comey publicly confirmed the counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s campaign.

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.

In addition to questions about the investigation (including the revelation that FBI had not briefed the Gang of Eight on it until recently; we now know the briefing took place the day Jeff Sessions recused which suggests FBI avoided letting both Flynn and Sessions know details of it), Republicans used the hearing to delegitimize unmasking and the IC conclusion that Putin had affirmatively supported Trump.

Sekulow’s questions (or NYT’s rendition of them) lump the hearing, at which Admiral Mike Rogers also testified, in with Trump’s pressure on his spooks to issue a statement that he wasn’t under investigation. Two days after the hearing, Trump pressured Mike Pompeo and Dan Coats to intervene with Comey to stop the investigation.

It’s possible that the term “intelligence officials” includes HPSCI Chair Devin Nunes. On March 21, Nunes made his nighttime trip to the White House to accelerate the unmasking panic. Significantly, the panic didn’t just pertain to Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak; it also focused on the revelation of Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan’s secret trip to New York and probably other conversations with the Middle Eastern partners that have become part of this scandal.

The day after Nunes’ nighttime trip, Trump called Coats and Rogers (and probably Pompeo) and asked them to publicly deny any evidence of a conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia; NSA documented the call to Rogers.

It’s now clear that the calls Nunes complained about being unmasked actually are evidence of a conspiracy (and as such, they probably provided an easy roadmap for Mueller to find the non-Russian conversations).

March 30, 2017: What was the purpose of your call to Mr. Comey on March 30?

On March 30, Trump called Comey on official phone lines and asked him to exonerate him on the Russia investigation. According to Comey, the conversation included the following:

He then said he was trying to run the country and the cloud of this Russia business was making that difficult. He said he thinks he would have won the health care vote but for the cloud. He then went on at great length, explaining that he has nothing to do with Russia (has a letter from the largest law firm in DC saying he has gotten no income from Russia). was not involved with hookers in Russia (can you imagine me, hookers? I have a beautiful wife, and it has been very painful). is bringing a personal lawsuit against Christopher Steele, always advised people to assume they were being recorded in Russia. has accounts now from those who travelled with him to Miss Universe pageant that he didn’t do anything, etc.

He asked what he could do to lift the cloud. I explained that we were running it down as quickly as possible and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our Good Housekeeping seal of approval, but we had to do our work. He agreed, but then returned to the problems this was causing him, went on at great length about how bad he was for Russia because of his commitment to more oil and more nukes (ours are 40 years old).

He said something about the hearing last week. I responded by telling him I wasn’t there as a volunteer and he asked who was driving that, was it Nunes who wanted it? I said all the leadership wanted to know what was going on and mentioned that Grassley had even held up the DAG nominee to demand information. I said we had briefed the leadership on exactly what we were doing and who we were investigating.

I reminded him that I had told him we weren’t investigating him and that I had told the Congressional leadership the same thing. He said it would be great if that could get out and several times asked me to find a way to get that out.

He talked about the guy he read about in the Washington Post today (NOTE: I think he meant Sergei Millian) and said he didn’t know him at all. He said that if there was “some satellite” (NOTE: I took this to mean some associate of his or his campaign) that did something, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything and hoped I would find a way to get out that we weren’t investigating him.

Trump also raised “McCabe thing,” yet another apparent attempt to tie the retention of McCabe to public exoneration from Comey.

Given the news that Sergei Millian had been pitching George Papadopoulos on a Trump Tower deal in the post-election period, I wonder whether Trump’s invocation of him in conjunction with “some satellite” is a reference to Papadopoulos, who had already been interviewed twice by this time. Nunes would have learned of his inclusion in the investigation in the March 2 CI briefing.

On top of the clear evidence that this call represented a (well-documented, including a contemporaneous call to Dana Boente) effort to quash the investigation and get public exoneration, the conversation as presented by Comey also includes several bogus statements designed to exonerate him. For example, Millian had actually worked with Trump in past years selling condos to rich Russians. Trump never did sue Steele (Michael Cohen sued BuzzFeed and Fusion early this year, but he dropped it in the wake of the FBI raid on him). And the March 8 letter from Morgan Lewis certifying he didn’t get income from Russia is unrelated to whether he has been utterly reliant on investment from Russia (to say nothing of the huge sums raised from Russian oligarchs for his inauguration). In other words, like the earlier false claim that Trump hadn’t stayed overnight in Moscow during the Miss Universe pageant and therefore couldn’t have been compromised, even at this point, Trump’s attempts to persuade the FBI he was innocent were based off false claims.

March 30, 2017: Flynn asks for immunity

Mike Flynn first asked Congress for immunity on March 30, 2017, with Trump backing the effort in a tweet.

A later question deals with this topic — and suggests Trump may have contacted Flynn directly about immunity at this time, but that contact is not public, if it occurred.

April 11, 2017: What was the purpose of your call to Mr. Comey on April 11, 2017?

At 8:26AM on April 11, Comey returned a call to Trump. Trump asked again for Comey to lift the cloud on him.

He said he was following up to see if I did what he had asked last time–getting out that he personally is not under investigation. I relied that I had passed the request to the Acting AG and had not heard back from him. He spoke for a bit about why it was so important. He is trying to do work for the country, visit with foreign leaders, and any cloud, even a little cloud gets in the way of that. They keep bringing up the Russia thing as an excuse for losing the election.

[snip]

He then added, “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal, we had that thing, you know.”

[snip]

He then said that I was doing a great job and wished me well.

April 11, 2017: What was the purpose of your April 11, 2017, statement to Maria Bartiromo?

On April 12, Fox Business News broadcast an interview with Maria Bartiromo (Mueller must know it was recorded on April 11, so presumably after the call with Comey). There are three key aspects of the interview. First, in the context of Trump’s failures to staff his agencies, Bartiromo asks why Comey is still around [note, I bet in Hope Hicks’ several days of interviews, they asked her if these questions were planted]. Given public reports, Trump may have already been thinking about firing Comey, though Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, and Don McGahn staved off the firing for weeks.

TRUMP:  I wish it would be explained better, the obstructionist nature, though, because a lot of times I’ll say why doesn’t so and so have people under him or her?

The reason is because we can’t get them approved.

BARTIROMO:  Well, people are still wondering, though, they’re scratching their heads, right, so many Obama-era staffers are still here.

For example, was it a mistake not to ask Jim Comey to step down from the FBI at the outset of your presidency?

Is it too late now to ask him to step down?

TRUMP:  No, it’s not too late, but, you know, I have confidence in him.  We’ll see what happens.  You know, it’s going to be interesting.

On the same day he had asked Comey to publicly state he wasn’t being interviewed, Trump said he still had confidence in Comey, even while suggesting a lot of other people were angling for the job (something he had also said in an earlier exchange with Comey).  Trump immediately pivoted to claiming Comey had kept Hillary from being charged.

TRUMP: But, you know, we have to just — look, I have so many people that want to come into this administration.  They’re so excited about this administration and what’s happening — bankers, law enforcement — everybody wants to come into this administration.  Don’t forget, when Jim Comey came out, he saved Hillary Clinton.  People don’t realize that.  He saved her life, because — I call it Comey [one].  And I joke about it a little bit.

When he was reading those charges, she was guilty on every charge.  And then he said, she was essentially OK.  But he — she wasn’t OK, because she was guilty on every charge.

And then you had two and then you had three.

But Hillary Clinton won — or Comey won.  She was guilty on every charge.

BARTIROMO:  Yes.

TRUMP:  So Director Comey…

BARTIROMO:  Well, that’s (INAUDIBLE)…

TRUMP:  No, I’m just saying…

BARTIROMO:  (INAUDIBLE)?

TRUMP:  Well, because I want to give everybody a good, fair chance.  Director Comey was very, very good to Hillary Clinton, that I can tell you.  If he weren’t, she would be, right now, going to trial.

From there, Bartiromo asks Trump why President Obama had changed the rules on sharing EO 12333 data. Trump suggests it is so his administration could be spied on, using the Susan Rice unmasking pseudo scandal as shorthand for spying on his team.

BARTIROMO:  Mr. President, just a final question for you.

In the last weeks of the Obama presidency, he changed all the rules in terms of the intelligence agencies, allowing them to share raw data.

TRUMP:  Terrible.

BARTIROMO:  Why do you think he did this?

TRUMP:  Well, I’m going to let you figure that one out.  But it’s so obvious.  When you look at Susan Rice and what’s going on, and so many people are coming up to me and apologizing now.  They’re saying you know, you were right when you said that.

Perhaps I didn’t know how right I was, because nobody knew the extent of it.

Undoubtedly, Mueller wants to know whether these comments relate to his comments to Comey (and, as I suggested, Hope Hicks may have helped elucidate that). The invocation of Hillary sets up one rationale for firing Comey, but one that contradicts with the official reason.

But the conversation also reflects Trump’s consistent panic that his actions (and those of his aides) will be captured by wiretaps.

May 3, 2017: What did you think and do about Mr. Comey’s May 3, 2017, testimony?

On May 3, Comey testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee. It covered leaks (including whether he had ever authorized any, a question implicated in the Andrew McCabe firing), and the hacked email raising questions about whether Lynch could investigate Hillary. Comey described his actions in the Hillary investigation at length. This testimony would be cited by Rod Rosenstein in his letter supporting the firing of Comey. In addition, there were a number of questions about the Russia investigation, including questions focused on Trump, that would have driven Trump nuts.

Along with getting a reaction to the differences between what Comey said in testimony and Trump’s own version (which by this point he had shared several times), Mueller likely wants to know what Trump thinks of Comey’s claim that FBI treated the Russian investigation just like the Hillary one.

With respect to the Russian investigation, we treated it like we did with the Clinton investigation. We didn’t say a word about it until months into it and then the only thing we’ve confirmed so far about this is the same thing with the Clinton investigation. That we are investigating. And I would expect, we’re not going to say another peep about it until we’re done. And I don’t know what will be said when we’re done, but that’s the way we handled the Clinton investigation as well.

In a series of questions that were likely developed in conjunction with Trump, Lindsey Graham asked whether Comey stood by his earlier claim that there was an active investigation.

GRAHAM: Did you ever talk to Sally Yates about her concerns about General Flynn being compromised?

COMEY: I did, I don’t whether I can talk about it in this forum. But the answer is yes.

GRAHAM: That she had concerns about General Flynn and she expressed those concerns to you?

COMEY: Correct.

GRAHAM: We’ll talk about that later. Do you stand by your house testimony of March 20 that there was no surveillance of the Trump campaign that you’re aware of?

COMEY: Correct.

GRAHAM: You would know about it if they were, is that correct?

COMEY: I think so, yes.

GRAHAM: OK, Carter Page; was there a FISA warrant issued regarding Carter Page’s activity with the Russians.

COMEY: I can’t answer that here.

GRAHAM: Did you consider Carter page a agent of the campaign?

COMEY: Same answer, I can’t answer that here.

GRAHAM: OK. Do you stand by your testimony that there is an active investigation counterintelligence investigation regarding Trump campaign individuals in the Russian government as to whether not to collaborate? You said that in March…

COMEY: To see if there was any coordination between the Russian effort and peoples…

GRAHAM: Is that still going on?

COMEY: Yes.

GRAHAM: OK. So nothing’s changed. You stand by those two statements?

Curiously (not least because of certain investigative dates), Sheldon Whitehouse asked some pointed questions about whether Comey could reveal if an investigation was being starved by inaction.

WHITEHOUSE: Let’s say you’ve got a hypothetically, a RICO investigation and it has to go through procedures within the department necessary to allow a RICO investigation proceed if none of those have ever been invoked or implicated that would send a signal that maybe not much effort has been dedicated to it.

Would that be a legitimate question to ask? Have these — again, you’d have to know that it was a RICO investigation. But assuming that we knew that that was the case with those staging elements as an investigation moves forward and the internal department approvals be appropriate for us to ask about and you to answer about?

COMEY: Yes, that’s a harder question. I’m not sure it would be appropriate to answer it because it would give away what we were looking at potentially.

WHITEHOUSE: Would it be appropriate to ask if — whether any — any witnesses have been interviewed or whether any documents have been obtained pursuant to the investigation?

Richard Blumenthal asked Comey whether he could rule Trump in or out as a target of the investigation and specifically within that context, suggested appointing a special counsel (Patrick Leahy had already made the suggestion for a special counsel).

BLUMENTHAL: Have you — have you ruled out the president of the United States?

COMEY: I don’t — I don’t want people to over interpret this answer, I’m not going to comment on anyone in particular, because that puts me down a slope of — because if I say no to that then I have to answer succeeding questions. So what we’ve done is brief the chair and ranking on who the U.S. persons are that we’ve opened investigations on. And that’s — that’s as far as we’re going to go, at this point.

BLUMENTHAL: But as a former prosecutor, you know that when there’s an investigation into several potentially culpable individuals, the evidence from those individuals and the investigation can lead to others, correct?

COMEY: Correct. We’re always open-minded about — and we follow the evidence wherever it takes us.

BLUMENTHAL: So potentially, the president of the United States could be a target of your ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russian interference in our election, correct?

COMEY: I just worry — I don’t want to answer that — that — that seems to be unfair speculation. We will follow the evidence, we’ll try and find as much as we can and we’ll follow the evidence wherever it leads.

BLUMENTHAL: Wouldn’t this situation be ideal for the appointment of a special prosecutor, an independent counsel, in light of the fact that the attorney general has recused himself and, so far as your answers indicate today, no one has been ruled out publicly in your ongoing investigation. I understand the reasons that you want to avoid ruling out anyone publicly. But for exactly that reason, because of the appearance of a potential conflict of interest, isn’t this situation absolutely crying out for a special prosecutor?

Chuck Grassley asked Comey the first questions about what would become the year-long focus on Christopher Steele’s involvement in the FISA application on Carter Page.

GRASSLEY: On — on March 6, I wrote to you asking about the FBI’s relationship with the author of the trip — Trump-Russia dossier Christopher Steele. Most of these questions have not been answered, so I’m going to ask them now. Prior to the bureau launching the investigation of alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, did anyone from the FBI have interactions with Mr. Steele regarding the issue?

COMEY: That’s not a question that I can answer in this forum. As you know, I — I briefed you privately on this and if there’s more that’s necessary then I’d be happy to do it privately.

GRASSLEY: Have you ever represented to a judge that the FBI had interaction with Mr. Steele whether by name or not regarding alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia prior to the Bureau launching its investigation of the matter?

COMEY: I have to give you the same answer Mr. Chairman.

In a second round, Whitehouse asked about a Trump tweet suggesting Comey had given Hillary a free pass.

WHITEHOUSE: Thank you.

A couple of quick matters, for starters. Did you give Hillary Clinton quote, “a free pass for many bad deeds?” There was a tweet to that effect from the president.

COMEY: Oh, no, not — that was not my intention, certainly.

WHITEHOUSE: Well, did you give her a free pass for many bad deeds, whatever your intention may have been?

COMEY: We conducted a competent, honest and independent investigation, closed it while offering transparency to the American people. I believed what I said, there was not a prosecutable case, there.

Al Franken asked Comey whether the investigation might access Trump’s tax returns.

FRANKEN: I just want to clarify something — some of the answers that you gave me for example in response to director — I asked you would President Trump’s tax returns be material to the — such an investigation — the Russian investigation and does the investigation have access to President Trump’s tax returns and some other questions you answered I can’t say. And I’d like to get a clarification on that. Is it that you cant say or that you can’t say in this setting?

COMEY: That I won’t answer questions about the contours of the investigation. As I sit here I don’t know whether I would do it in a closed setting either. But for sure — I don’t want to begin answering questions about what we’re looking at and how.

Update: Contemporaneous reporting makes it clear that Trump was particularly irked by Comey’s admission that “It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election,” as that diminished Trump’s win. (h/t TC)

May 9, 2017: Regarding the decision to fire Mr. Comey: When was it made? Why? Who played a role?

The May 3 hearing is reportedly the precipitating event for Trump heading to Bedminster with Ivanka, Jared, and Stephen Miller on May 4 and deciding to fire Comey. Trump had Miller draft a letter explaining the firing, which Don McGahn would significantly edit when he saw it on May 8. McGahn also got Sessions and Rosenstein, who were peeved about different aspects of the hearing (those focused on Comey’s actions with regards to Hillary), to write letters supporting Comey’s firing.

Given that Mueller has the original draft of the firing letter and testimony from McGahn, Rosenstein, and Sessions, this question will largely allow Trump to refute evidence Mueller has already confirmed.

RESOURCES

These are some of the most useful resources in mapping these events.

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

Sally Yates and James Clapper Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, May 8, 2017

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

Part One: The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up

Part Two: The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief

Part Three: The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief (Part Two in a Series)

As I explained in Part One of this series, I think the Mueller questions leaked by the Trump people actually give a far better understanding of a damning structure to the Mueller investigation — one mapping out cultivation, a quid pro quo, and a cover-up — than the coverage has laid out. This post will lay out how, over the course of the election, the Russians and Trump appear to have danced towards a quid pro quo, involving a Putin meeting and election assistance in exchange for sanctions relief if Trump won (as noted, the Russians dangled real estate deals to entice Trump based on the assumption he wouldn’t win).

April 27, 2016: During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media, or other acts aimed at the campaign?

Given the structure of George Papadopoulos’ plea, it’s highly likely Mueller knows that Papadopoulos passed on news that the Russians had thousands of Hillary emails they planned to release to help Trump to people in the campaign. Papadopoulos could have passed on that news to Stephen Miller and Corey Lewandowski as early as April 27. On the same day, Papadopoulos helped draft Trump’s first foreign policy speech, which Papadopoulos reportedly told Ivan Timofeev signaled a willingness to meet.

Between the time the GRU first exfiltrated DNC emails in April and the election, Trump invoked “emails” 21 times on Twitter (usually to refer to emails from Hillary’s server). The first of those times came on June 9, less than an hour after the Trump Tower meeting. The most famous of those came on July 27, when Trump addressed Russia directly.

Earlier in the day, Trump had called on Russia to release the emails not to the FBI, but to the press.

Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.

The timing may reflect awareness among some in the campaign that the call to Russia was a step too far legally. (h/t TC for the addition)

That Trump’s email comments pertain mostly to Hillary’s home-based server doesn’t actually exonerate him. Right after the DNC release (and therefore the July 27 Trump tweet), GOP rat-fucker Peter Smith started reaching out to Russian hackers in hopes of finding hacked versions of those emails. His support documents named Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sam Clovis, and Mike Flynn. If those people actually learned of the effort (there’s reason to believe Smith was just overselling the ties to the campaign), it’s possible that Trump learned about it as well.

As to social media, while it has gotten virtually no attention, the reference to three Florida-based Trump campaign officials in the Internet Research Agency indictment suggests further investigative interest in them.

[T]here are three (presumed) Americans who, both the indictment and subsequent reporting make clear, are treated differently in the indictment than all the other Americans cited as innocent people duped by Russians: Campaign Official 1, Campaign Official 2, and Campaign Official 3. We know, from CNN’s coverage of Harry Miller’s role in building a cage to be used in a fake “jailed Hillary” stunt, that at least some other people described in the indictment were interviewed — in his case, for six hours! — by the FBI. But no one else is named using the convention to indicate those not indicted but perhaps more involved in the operation. Furthermore, the indictment doesn’t actually describe what action (if any) these three Trump campaign officials took after being contacted by trolls emailing under false names.

So Mueller may be pursuing whether there was state-level coordination going on, and if so, how far up the campaign chain of command knowledge of that coordination extended.

May 31, 2016: What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding any meeting with Mr. Putin? Did you discuss it with others?

On June 16, 2015, the day Trump announced his campaign, the Agalarovs offered to serve as an intermediary between him and Putin.

Then, starting at least as early as March 31, 2016 (with Trump’s first foreign policy meeting), his aides started floating pitches for meetings with increasingly senior campaign officials that would hypothetically lead up to one between Trump and Putin.

Those include at least:

  • The George Papadopoulos thread, spanning from March 21 through August 15
  • The Carter Page thread, including his Moscow trip in July, and possibly continuing through his December Moscow trip
  • The NRA thread, focusing on the NRA meeting in Kentucky in May; NRA’s longer outreach includes Trump associates John Bolton and David Clarke

We know Trump was present and did not object when Papadopoulos pitched this in the May 31 meeting. Several of the other entrees went through Don Jr. Many of the offers got briefed at least as far as Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort. We don’t know how many of the other offers he learned about. We just know that years earlier he had joked about becoming Putin’s best friend, and over the course of the campaign, Russian intermediaries made repeated, persistent efforts to work towards a meeting between Trump and Putin, with a meeting between Agalarov representatives (who, again, had offered to serve as intermediaries with Putin when Trump kicked off the campaign) and the most senior people on the campaign happening just as Trump sealed up the nomination.

May 31, 2016: What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding Russian sanctions?

This is an open-ended question that might pose particular problems for Trump given the misleading statement claiming the June 9 meeting was about adoptions and not the Magnitsky sanctions. More interesting still are hints that Mueller sees a signaling going back and forth involving Papadopoulos; some of this may have involved signaling a willingness to provide sanctions relief.

Both Aras Agalarov and Natalia Veselnitskaya followed up after the election pushing for sanctions relief.

June 9, 2016: When did you become aware of the Trump Tower meeting?

Sam Nunberg has suggested Trump probably learned of the Trump Tower meeting before it happened. While he is unreliable on that point, the original June 3, 2016 email Rob Goldstone sent to Don Jr suggests reaching out to Trump’s assistant Rhona Graff.

I can also send this info to your father via Rhona, but it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first.

Democrats suspect that between two calls Don Jr had with Emin Agalarov about the meeting on June 6, 2016, he called his dad.

Trump Jr.’s phone records show two calls to and from the same Russian number on June 6, 2016.62 The first call occurred at 4:04 pm on June 6, 2916 – just 21 minutes after Goldstone emailed Trump Jr. to say that Emin Agalarov was “on stage in Moscow but should be off within 20 minutes so I am sure can call. [emphasis added]” 63 At 4:38 pm, Trump Jr emailed Goldstone, “Rob, thanks for the help.”64

This documentary evidence indicates that a call likely took place between Trump Jr. and Emin Agalarov. During his interview, Trump Jr. confirmed that the Russian phone number belonged to Agalarov, though he claimed to not recall whether he actually spoke with him. Rather, despite one of the two calls reflecting a two-minute connection, Trump Jr. suggested that Agalarov may have left voice messages.65

The phone records also show a “blocked” number at 4:27 pm, between the two calls to and from Emin Agalarov. Trump Jr. claimed he did not know who was associated with the blocked number.66 While the Committee has not pursued leads to determine who called Trump Jr. at this crucial time from a blocked number, Corey Lewandowski told the Committee that Mr. Trump’s “primary residence has a blocked [phone] line.” 67

Mueller, of course, almost certainly has the phone records the Democrats weren’t able to obtain.

Finally, Steve Bannon has stated that he’s certain Don Jr “walk[ed] these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor” on the day of the meeting. There’s reason to believe Ike Kaveladze and Goldstone could have done so, including the new piece of evidence that “Kaveladze left [a meeting with Rinat Akhmetshin and Natalia Veselnitskaya] after a few minutes to take a call from Agalarov to discuss the meeting.”

The day after the meeting — and four days before Trump’s birthday — Agalarov sent Trump an expensive painting as a present.

The June 9 meeting is, as far as is public, the most important cornerstone in a presumed quid pro quo. Russians offered unnamed dirt that Don Jr seemed to know what it entailed even before speaking to Emin Agalarov personally. Having offered dirt, four Russians — including two representatives of Trump’s long-time handler Aras Agalarov — laid out a pitch to end the Magnitsky sanctions. And less than a week later, a presumed Russian agent released the first dirt stolen from Hillary Clinton.

July 7, 2016: What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?

We don’t have many details on what Mueller knows about Manafort’s requests for help on the campaign. We do know he remained in close touch with Russians via someone the FBI believed was a Russian intelligence agent, Konstantin Kilimnik, through whom he remained in communications with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Deripaska is named in some court documents in a way that suggests his relationship with Manafort may be the still hidden third prong of investigation into Manafort approved by August 2, 2017.

Starting in April, Manafort and Kilimnik (whom Rick Gates and therefore presumably Manafort knew was a former GRU officer), exchanged a series of cryptic emails, suggesting that Manafort might be able to pay off the $20 million he owed Deripaska with certain actions on the campaign. In an email sent on July 7, Manafort offered to provide briefings on the campaign to Deripaska. On or around August 2, Manafort and Kilimnik met in person at the Grand Havana Club, in Kushner’s building at 666 5th Avenue. Both deny that anything about the campaign came up. Shortly after this meeting, one of Deripaska’s jets came to Newark, and Russian opposition figure Viktor Navalny has claimed to have proof the jet went from there to a meeting between Deripaska and Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Prikhodko.

An August 2017 report describes intercepts picking up “Russian operatives discussing their efforts to work with Manafort, … relay[ing] what they claimed were conversations with Manafort, encouraging help from the Russians.”

There’s one more area of potential assistance I find of interest. Since January, we’ve been getting hints that Oleg Deripaska has some tie to the Steele dossier, possibly through a lawyer he and Steele share. I’ve raised repeated concerns that the Russians learned about the dossier and found ways to feed Steele disinformation. If they did, the disinformation would have led Democrats to be complacent about the hacks that targeted them. And whether or not the dossier is disinformation (and whether or not Deripaska had a role in that, if true), Paul Manafort coached Reince Priebus on how to attack the dossier as a way to discredit the investigation into the campaign’s ties with Russia.

With regards to this Manafort question: remember that Rick Gates flipped on February 23, and the questions date to early March. So Gates may have proffered confirmation about these details. In any case, Mueller likely has learned far more about them two months after Gates flipped.

July 10-12, 2016: What involvement did you have concerning platform changes regarding arming Ukraine?

The Majority HPSCI Russia Report explains that the RNC platform was changed by staffers at the convention based off Trump’s public statements on sanctions.

[Rick] Dearborn generated a memorandum, dated August 1, 2016, outlining a detailed sequence of events that occurred between July 10 and 12, 2016. As part of that memo, J.D. Gordon created a timeline that noted candidate Trump’s policy statements–including at a March 31, 2016, national security meeting–served as the basis for the modification of [Diana] Denman’s amendments. Gordon’s timeline made it clear that the change was initiated by campaign staffers at the convention–not by Manafort or senior officials.

J.D. Gordon has not confirmed that he was asked about this, but he surely was. I would expect Mueller to have tested the timeline Gordon laid out in summer 2016 (when the platform change was a big political issue) against the testimony and communications records of everyone else involved.

Of course, by asking the question in this fashion, Mueller doesn’t reveal what he has already confirmed about the platform changes.

August 5, 2016: What did you know about communication between Roger Stone, his associates, Julian Assange or WikiLeaks?

After multiple public statements that the Russians were behind the hack-and-leak, on August 5, 2016 (after traveling from NY to LA to his home in FL), Roger Stone wrote a column claiming to believe that Guccifer 2.0 was a hacktivist with no ties to Russia. Stone’s purportedly changed beliefs about Guccifer 2.0 coincide with an August 4 claim he made in an email to Sam Nunberg that he had met with Julian Assange the night before. Stone’s claimed belief that Guccifer 2.0 is not Russian is key to his denials of any involvement or pre-knowledge of hack-and-leak events. It also kicked off an alternative story that others, up to and including Trump, have adopted to excuse their own embrace of the stolen emails. In other words, a key prong in the plausible deniability the Russians built into the hack-and-leak campaign came from long-time Trump associate Roger Stone, after a dramatic and unexplained change in beliefs (Lee Stranahan, who used to work for Breitbart and now works for Sputnik, has claimed some credit for the change, and given how lucid the August 5 column is, someone had to have helped Stone write it).

Ten days later, after Stone had called on Twitter to let him out of Twitter jail, Guccifer 2.0 and Stone started exchanging (fairly innocuous) DMs.

There are events both before and after that which suggest Stone — probably through more interesting go-betweens than Randy Credico — sought information on what dirt Assange and Wikileaks had, and what and when planned to do with it.

Much has been made, especially in the DNC lawsuit, about Stone’s seeming prediction that “it would soon be Podesta’s time in the barrel.” Perhaps that’s true (and Stone’s explanation for the tweet is garbage), but any explanation of Stone’s supposed prediction needs to acknowledge that he more often predicted Wikileaks would release Clinton Foundation emails, not Podesta ones, that he got the timing somewhat wrong, and that he didn’t dwell on the Podesta emails at all once Wikileaks started releasing them (preferring, instead, to talk about Bill Clinton’s lady problems). Still, that may reflect Stone involvement in the Peter Smith operation, and efforts to get WikiLeaks to release purported Clinton Foundation emails passed on via hackers.

That Mueller is even asking this suggests (if the several grand jury witnesses in recent months dedicated to it don’t already) that Mueller has a pretty good idea that Stone’s communications were more extensive than his denials let on. That he thinks Stone may have shared that information with Trump is all the more interesting.

All of which is to say that the known answers to Mueller’s questions map out a quid pro quo set up during the election, in which Russians offered a Putin meeting and dirt on Hillary, with the expectation that Trump would lift the Magnitsky sanctions if he won (and would get a Trump Tower in Moscow if he lost). I suspect there are other pieces to the quid pro quo, dealing with Ukraine and Syria. But certainly the June 9 meeting set up an understanding: dirt in exchange for Magnitsky relief. The release of the Guccifer 2.0 emails may indicate the Trump camp provided some signal they had formally accepted the offer.

Update: Fixed syntax in last paragraph, h/t LT.

RESOURCES

These are some of the most useful resources in mapping these events.

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

Sally Yates and James Clapper Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, May 8, 2017

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

Part One: The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up

Part Two: The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief

Part Three: The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes