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The Post-Press Michael Cohen Details in the Steele Dossier

I’m doing a long response on this unfortunately terrible John Sipher post trying to calm questions about the Steele dossier. As part of Sipher’s post, he makes these claims about Michael Cohen, the allegations against whom in the Steele dossier are actually far more inflammatory than against Carter Page and Paul Manafort.

We do not have any reporting that implicates Michael Cohen in meetings with Russians as outlined in the dossier.  However, recent revelations indicate his long-standing relationships with key Russian and Ukrainian interlocutors, and highlight his role in a previously hidden effort to build a Trump tower in Moscow. During the campaign, those efforts included email exchanges with Trump associate Felix Sater explicitly referring to getting Putin’s circle involved and helping Trump get elected.

Further, the Trump Administration’s effort lift sanctions on Russia immediately following the inauguration seems to mirror Orbis reporting related to Mr. Cohen’s promises to Russia, as reported in the Orbis documents.  A June 2017 Yahoo News article by Michael Isikoff described the Administration’s efforts to engage the State Department about lifting sanctions “almost as soon as they took office.”  Their efforts were halted by State Department officials and members of Congress.  Following the inauguration, Cohen was involved, again with Felix Sater, to engage in back-channel negotiations seeking a means to lift sanctions via a semi-developed Russian-Ukrainian plan (which also included the hand delivery of derogatory information on Ukrainian leaders) also fits with Orbis reporting related to Cohen.

He also botches the most inflammatory claims about Cohen, getting (in this reference but not another one) the date of the December 13 report wrong, that it mentioned Cohen, not Page, and that Cohen — or anyone else on the Trump team — personally paid hackers.

By late fall 2016, the Orbis team reported that a Russian-supported company had been “using botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct ‘altering operations’ against the Democratic Party leadership.”  Hackers recruited by the FSB under duress were involved in the operations.  According to the report, Carter Page insisted that payments be made quickly and discreetly, and that cyber operators should go to ground and cover their tracks.

[snip]

Trump campaign operative Carter Page is also said to have played a role in shuttling information to Moscow, while Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, reportedly took over efforts after Manafort left the campaign, personally providing cash payments for Russian hackers.

I’m not so much interested in those  typos — I’m sure they’ll be fixed. But I am interested in Sipher’s apparent lack of curiosity about the Cohen reporting.

I’ve long noted that that most inflammatory report (the one Sipher claims came out in late fall but actually came out as the IC was looking for a compelling case against Russia in December) came out after David Corn had already publicly revealed the existence of the dossier (and just a few weeks before a likely source for the dossier died in suspicious circumstances). We now know that Steele claims the information in it was offered up for free.

Those details should raise real questions about that last report.

But as pseudonymous in NC has been pointing out, the other three reports invoking Cohen were produced in remarkably quick succession, based on mid-October meetings.

It’s worth clearing your mind and reading 134-135-136 in sequence to see how that strand developed.

134/Oct 18: “Kremlin insider” in mid-October conversation with trusted compatriot emphasizes “a key role” played by Cohen. Some redaction in Buzzfeed doc, no indication of a meeting.

135/Oct 19: “Kremlin insider” in mid-October conversation (the same one?) says Cohen met “in an EU country in August 2016”, but unsure of “the exact date/s and locations.”

136/Oct 20: “Kremlin insider” speaking on October 19 “clearly indicated” in “cryptic” terms that meeting was in Prague using plausibly deniable contacts and location.

Assuming the same or very similar provenance for all three notes — and given the compressed timeframe, I think we’re okay to do that — that’s a lot of elaboration on Cohen in three days from at least two separate conversations, where presumably the one described in 136 was guided by Steele’s feedback on the earlier one.

On top of the quick succession of these inflammatory reports just weeks before the election, there are two other reasons to take note of the timing.

First, as Steele has admitted, he started briefing reporters on the existence and contents of the dossier by late September, and briefed reporters (including Michael Isikoff, whom Sipher cites repeatedly in his post without noting he got briefed on the Steele dossier in real time) in person in mid-October.

The journalists initially briefed at the end of September 2016 by [Steele] and Fusion at Fusion’s instruction were from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, the New Yorker and CNN. [Steele] subsequently participated in further meetings at Fusion’s instruction with Fusion and the New York Times, the Washington Post and Yahoo News, which took place in mid-October 2016. In each of those cases the briefing was conducted verbally in person.

As I note, the claim that these were the only reporters who got briefed (by someone) conflicts with the claims of BBC’s Paul Wood.

Whatever the truth of the total numbers of reporters who got briefed, they had already been briefed and were presumably actively trying to confirm details from the dossier — with unknown operational security — in advance of those three Cohen reports.

That by itself ought to raise real questions about those reports.

Then there’s the fact that Cohen traveled to London in in October. The BuzzFeed review of Cohen’s (sole, Cohen claims) passport shows three trips to Europe: once to Italy in July, once to the London in October, and another trip to London in November, after the election.

The stamps indicate he traveled abroad at least four times in 2016: twice to London, once to St. Maarten, and once to Italy in July. The Italian trip is the most intriguing, because it places Cohen in what’s known as the Schengen Area: a group of 26 European countries, including the Czech Republic, that allows visitors to travel freely among them without getting any additional passport stamps.

Upon entering the Schengen Area, visitors get a rectangular stamp with the date, a country code, their port of entry, and a symbol showing how they entered — such as an airplane or a train. In Cohen’s passport, that mark appears on page 17, with a date of July 9. The mark is too faint to be fully legible. The exit stamp, similar but with rounded edges, is also light, but the letters “cino” are legible, indicating he flew out of Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport in Rome. That stamp is dated July 17.

[snip]

Regarding the three other 2016 stamps in his passport, Cohen said he visited London twice, where his daughter is studying: once in October for a birthday party and again in November for Thanksgiving. He said he vacationed in the Caribbean island of St. Maarten in January.

Cohen’s Twitter feed shows a break between October 5 and October 12, which may reflect a trip overseas. And while I don’t buy a lot of this post, it shows Cohen’s daughter’s birthday was in early October.

That could either be inculpating or exonerating with respect to Cohen’s role in meeting with Russians; it offered a time and place where Cohen might have met with Russians (though presumably under close view of Steele and his buddies).

But it should raise real questions about whether reports on Cohen have been injected with disinformation. Once reporters started reporting this out, it’s far more likely Russian sources would also learn about the dossier and feed deliberate disinformation to known Steele sources.

On the Lawfare over the Steele Dossier

October 25: For those looking for “Reasons Why Dems Have Been Fucking Stupid on the Steele Dossier, a Long Essay,” it’s here; I screwed up the link.

Say, did you know that Christopher Steele and his company, Orbis Business Intelligence, claim that Fusion GPS, the US-based intelligence firm that hired him to collect dirt on Donald Trump, did not share that dirt with its clients?

Steele’s curious claims made from the comfort of the UK

That’s the rather improbable claim made in a May 18 filing in the British lawsuit Webzilla CEO Alexej Gubarev filed against Steele and his company in the UK. In response to questions about who was contractually prohibited from disclosing Steele’s reports, Steele claimed that while Fusion was permitted to share the information he gave them with their clients, they did not.

In relation to the pre-election memoranda the duty not to disclose intelligence to third parties without the prior agreement of [Steele and his company, Orbis] did not extend to disclosure by Fusion to its client(s), although the Defendants understand that copies of the memoranda were not disclosed by Fusion to its client(s).

In response to a follow-up question on whether Fusion’s clients were allowed to disclose any reports they got, Steele claimed that Fusion’s clients weren’t supposed to release the information.

[Steele and his company] understood that the arrangement between Fusion and its client(s) was that intelligence would not be disclosed.

Yet, in spite of the claim that Fusion never shared Steele’s intelligence reports with its clients, Steele admits that he gave off the record briefings, in one form or another, to reporters from six different American outlets.

The journalists initially briefed at the end of September 2016 by [Steele] and Fusion at Fusion’s instruction were from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, the New Yorker and CNN. [Steele] subsequently participated in further meetings at Fusion’s instruction with Fusion and the New York Times, the Washington Post and Yahoo News, which took place in mid-October 2016. In each of those cases the briefing was conducted verbally in person. In addition, and again at Fusion’s instruction, in late October 2016 [Steele] briefed a journalist from Mother Jones by Skype. No copies of the pre-election memoranda were ever shown or provided to any journalists by, or with the authorization of, the Defendants. The briefings involved the disclosure of limited intelligence regarding indications of Russian interference in the US election process and the possible co-ordination of members of Trump’s campaign team and Russian government officials.

So the folks footing the bill for all this never saw the reports they paid for, and if you believe Steele no reporters ever actually looked at the dossier. Steele makes no mention (in a lawsuit in the UK targeting just him, not Fusion GPS) of the evolving claims of BBC’s Paul Wood.

Steele’s claim that he wasn’t sharing the dossier itself is dubious for several reasons. For example, the defense makes no mention of Steele sharing the dossier with the FBI, in spite of multiple reports of him doing so.

More damning, one of the reporters with whom the dossier was shared before the election, BBC’s Paul Wood, has changed a published story about receiving the dossier on two occasions. The original story appeared like this.

Sometime between the original publication and 14:06 GMT, the paragraph claiming the American oppo research company, Fusion, disseminated the document was removed from the story.

Then, by 15:32 GMT — roughly 20 minutes after I did a post noting the first change — that passage was again changed, this time to suggest the pages were shown, but not given, to journalists.

I’ve been told second-hand that actual pages were given, not shown, to at least one journalist, suggesting the middle story may be the accurate one. Moreover, the actual dossier would have had to have been shared for James Clapper’s claim that the dossier “was widely circulated … among the media, members of Congress and Congressional staff ” to be true.

Note, too, that in an April declaration, Steele claimed that the briefings took place in “late summer/autumn 2016;” while those briefings took place before September 23, that’s only late summer if you’re fairly strict about when the equinox falls.

Suffice it to say, I don’t find Steele’s claims that persuasive. Which may be why he tried to challenge Gubarev’s efforts — in his US lawsuit against Buzzfeed — to obtain a deposition. The judge in that suit denied Steele’s request, though Steele can still challenge the request in the UK, where he’ll likely get a far friendlier reception.

Let me interrupt and suggest the Russians — and probably the most partisan Republicans — know who’s behind Steele’s dossier. By all appearances Russian interests are fighting a multi-front legal effort to force those details out in public, on top of any damage it does to Buzzfeed.

In the suit against Steele in the UK, Steele has basically explained he disseminated the December 13 memo — which is the one that mentions Webzilla and so is the only one that matters in that suit — to just two people: a hard copy to a senior UK government official (believed to be someone at MI6), and an encrypted copy to Fusion to pass on to John McCain via a Senior Director of McCain’s Institute for International Leadership, David Kramer. Steele admits his instructions that the last report remain classified were given over a secure phone call, not in writing. Steele admits giving off-the-record briefings (though not to BuzzFeed), but not the materials themselves, on the earlier reports, but not the December 13 one. In any case, given that BuzzFeed was not one of those outlets, Steele argues he can’t be held responsible for any defamation of Webzilla in the UK. Steele also emphasizes that the December 13 memo “did not represent (and did not purport to represent) verified facts, but were raw intelligence which had identified a range of allegations that further investigation.” And since the December 13 memo was produced for free, from intelligence “not actively sought, … merely received,” Steele doesn’t have to reveal who paid for the other reports, which don’t mention Webzilla.

Barring greymail, the Florida suit permits Webzilla to compare Steele’s answers with Fusion’s

That’s all well and good, but in its Florida suit, Webzilla is pursuing a deposition from Fusion GPS as well as Steele (curiously, the joint status report says nothing about deposing McCain or Kramer).

For its part, Buzzfeed appears to be pursuing a graymail defense. Around July 7, Buzzfeed sent subpoenas to a bunch of national security witnesses who are not going to want to testify.

Six weeks ago, Defendants  served subpoenas for depositions and the production of documents on several third party witnesses, including several government agencies and their former officials. These include the FBI, DOJ, ODNI, CIA, and James Comey, James Clapper, and John Brennan.

Particularly Comey and the FBI are likely to invoke ongoing investigations to refuse to give a deposition.

Still, comparing the stories of Steele and Fusion may produce some discomfort, all the more so if Webzilla succeeds in making Steele attest to the things he said in the UK in the US.

Fusion was far less cooperative with the Senate Judiciary Committee than made out

Which brings us to efforts in Congress. As I’ve said before, I think Chuck Grassley’s efforts to understand Fusion’s role in the dossier are good faith efforts. While a key focus of that is on Steele’s relationship with the FBI, Grassley fought for five months to get Fusion to cooperate with the Committee, which Fusion head Glenn Simspon finally did in a 10 hour August 22 interview with the Senate Judiciary Committee (See release 1, release 2, release 3, hearing statement 1, release 4, release 5, hearing statement 2, release 6 for Grassley’s efforts). Democrats — apparently led by Rachel Maddow — made much about the appearance. But the main outcome was nothing more than a carefully crafted statement for the benefit of Fusion’s clients assuring them Simpson hadn’t revealed their names.

While Simpson’s attorney said his client provided significant details about his firm’s findings, he did not reveal the identities of those who paid for his research.

Simpson “kept the identities of Fusion GPS’ clients confidential,” Levy said in his statement. “Fusion GPS represents businesses, individuals and, occasionally, political clients on both the right and the left. When those clients want Fusion GPS to keep their identities confidential, Fusion GPS honors that commitment without exception – just as law firms and businesses do all over the country.”

A Grassley staffer offered a very different take than the celebratory one Democrats claimed to Fox News’ Catherine Herridge.

“Fusion’s initial production of documents consisted of solely of headlines from publicly available news reports and more than 7,500 pages of blank paper,” Grassley spokesman Taylor Foy said. “Fusion eventually provided a copy of the same unverified dossier that’s been publicly available since January, and a privilege log that raises more questions than it answers.”

Fox reported this week that Fusion GPS gave the committee 40,000 documents.

The records were finally provided by Simpson and his legal team after Grassley sent several letters raising questions about the dossier, moved a Judiciary Committee hearing to accommodate Simpson’s schedule, and withdrew a subpoena in return for a pledge of cooperation.

“I’d note that only after the subpoena did Simpson indicated any willingness to cooperate voluntarily, yet the documents produced by his legal team have not been responsive to the committee’s questions,” Foy said.

Effectively, Fusion is still refusing to cooperate, over five months after Grassley’s first request.

The other notable development from Congress is Devin Nunes’ efforts — even as people who haven’t recused from the Russian investigation are trying to negotiate an interview with Steele — to search out the spy directly. He sent two staffers to London to try to contact Steele, without informing the people on the House Intelligence Committee who are actually supposed to be conducting an investigation.

After getting Steele to commit to one Webzilla suit, Alfa sued

As noted, on May 18 effectively Steele made a set of claims in the UK that — while sketchy — nevertheless would bracket off questions about the circumstances of the larger dossier’s production by claiming that the last report, the one pertinent to Webzilla, basically had a virgin birth.

Which is why I find the timing of this suit — a  May 26 lawsuit by Alfa Bank against BuzzFeed — so interesting. As I noted here, the September 14 Steele dossier report on Alfa Bank isn’t all that damning. It alleges Alfa did some corrupt stuff for Putin back when he was Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg. Particularly given that report has nothing to do with Trump directly, I suspect the report appears in the dossier because of the allegations of weird communications between a Trump marketing server and the bank; the allegations had already been shared with the FBI and were beginning to be shared with journalists at about precisely that moment.

The suit nods to such a theory without mentioning it directly.

More than one defamatory meaning can be drawn from this passage. It suggests that Alfa and Messrs. Fridman and Aven use their knowledge of past bribery of President Putin as a means of criminally extorting continuing favorable treatment for their business interests from his government. Within the context ofthe entire Dossier, it also implies that Alfa and its three officials willingly maintain the close relationship with
President Putin based on the “kompromat” they hold on him by cooperating in some unspecified way in the Kremlin’s campaign to interfere in the U.S. election.

At the same time, in context, the whole of CIR 112 can also be understood to suggest that because oftheir past (and possibly current) relationship involving mutually beneficial corrupt practices, Alfa and its three officials are required to do President Putin’s bidding, which includes cooperating in the Kremlin efforts to influence the outcome of the recent U.$. election. The statements quoted from the Dossier are false

But one of the real points of the lawsuit is not just that Buzzfeed published the dossier, but called out Alfa bank, correcting its spelling, even while acknowledging that the spelling indicated an error.

The Article specifically refers to Alfa as having been named in the Dossier, while acknowledging that the Dossier “is not just unconfirmed: It includes some clear errors. The [Dossier] misspells the name of one company, ‘Alpha Group,’ throughout. It is Alfa Group.”

The Article, by explicitly referring to Alfa, increases the likelihood that persons interested in Alfa (including but not limited to government intelligence officials, regulatory authorities, financial institutions, print and online news media and journalists) would search the Dossier to find out what it says about Alfa.

In any case, because this report was part of the dossier before it got shared with journalists, and because it was among the reports paid for by yet-unknown sources, Alfa will have cause to ask all about those details — details which Steele worked so hard to hide with the sketchy story he told in the UK. And Alfa filed the suit just a week after Steele committed to those facts in the UK.

Even aside from the timing, however, the background to the suit is worth mention.

It came out as part of the confirmation process for Trump transition official and former Jeff Sessions staffer Brian Benczkowski to be Assistant Attorney General of DOJ’s Criminal Division. Days before his confirmation, he sent Chuck Grassley letters revealing that not only had his firm, Kirkland & Ellis, confidentially represented Alfa bank, but he personally had overseen one of the investigations into the weird communications data. It came out later that he also consulted on Alfa’s plan to sue Buzzfeed.

Dianne Feinstein described at length why she considered this problematic, particularly given Benczkowski’s refusal to recuse himself from the Mueller investigation and any cases involving Alfa Bank.

I very much appreciate that Mr. Benczkowski has agreed to speak publicly about his work for Alfa Bank and I think it’s an important topic to understand given the position he’s been nominated for.

As I understand it, Mr. Benczkowski participated in President Trump’s transition team from September of last year to January of this year. He led the transition team’s work at the Justice Department, which is now led by his former boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Mr. Benczkowski told the committee that the retention of former FBI Director James Comey was discussed by those on the transition team, including himself.

In March, within two months of leaving the transition team, Mr. Benczkowski agreed to represent Alfa Bank.

Specifically, his work for Alfa Bank went to the heart of the reported investigations. He worked with a computer forensics firm to determine any ties between servers of Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization, and also whether and how private server information had gotten out of the ban.

Additionally, he reviewed the “Steele dossier,” a private investigator’s file on alleged links between Russia and the Trump campaign. He did this for Alfa Bank to consider suing Buzz Feed for defamation over their online publication of the dossier. Alfa Bank, in fact, did sue Buzz Feed on May 26 of this year.

In April, while Mr. Benczkowski was working for Alfa Bank, Attorney General Sessions’s chief of staff asked him about his interest in leading the Criminal Division.

Mr. Benczkowski’s law firm then notified Alfa Bank of his potential nomination for the Trump administration. But the fact that Mr. Benczkowski continued representing Alfa Bank, until the day of his nomination, which was June 6, raises questions. After he found out about his potential nomination, why did he continue his representation of Alfa Bank?

It is clear to me that Mr. Benczkowski is knowledgeable about issues related to an ongoing investigation. So I asked before this hearing if he would commit himself to recusing—not only from cases involving Alfa Bank as his former client, but also matters within Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation.

He would not commit to recusing himself. I’m concerned with his refusal, especially given the position for which he has been nominated.

In other words, days before he got the offer to oversee all criminal investigations in the country, Alfa had sued Buzzfeed (though a different firm is representing Alfa in the suit. Benczkowski’s nomination hasn’t been considered in any of the confirmation votes the committee has considered since.

The lawsuit, even more than Nunes’ free-lance efforts in London, seems like an attempt to expose highly inconvenient information about the dossier.

It’s all perfectly legal. But taken altogether, it’s clear that some really well-connected businesses run by Russians are using British and US courts to try to expose information they all seem to know exists.

Remember: the Russians learned about this dossier by October 31, if not before. There are real questions about the provenance of the document as leaked to Buzzfeed. There are real questions about whether some of the material in it wasn’t offered to Steele’s sources as deliberate disinformation — something recently floated by British spy historian Ben Macintyre.

S.L.Do you think the Russians really have something on Trump?

B.M. I can tell you what the veterans of the S.I.S. [the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6] think, which is yes, kompromat was done on him. Of course, kompromat is done on everyone. So they end up, the theory goes, with this compromising bit of material and then they begin to release parts of it. They set up an ex-MI6 guy, Chris Steele, who is a patsy, effectively, and they feed him some stuff that’s true, and some stuff that isn’t true, and some stuff that is demonstrably wrong. Which means that Trump can then stand up and deny it, while knowing that the essence of it is true. And then he has a stone in his shoe for the rest of his administration.

It’s important to remember that Putin is a K.G.B.-trained officer, and he thinks in the traditional K.G.B. way.

Particularly given that the last report in the dossier came out after its existence became known, it would have been especially easy to include disinformation that can now be exploited for this campaign of lawfare.

And while Buzzfeed’s graymail is likely to be effective and Steele’s deposition in the US is in no way assured, thus far the lawfare has revealed a lot of data that doesn’t really make sense.

Update: WashEx reports the House Intelligence Committee subpoenaed FBI and DOJ for information on the dossier and, having not gotten a response, has now also subpoeaned Christopher Wray and Jeff Sessions (who of course should be recused).

The committee issued the subpoenas — one to the FBI, an identical one to the Justice Department — on August 24, giving both until last Friday, September 1, to turn over the information.

Neither FBI nor Justice turned over the documents, and now the committee has given them an extension until September 14 to comply.

Illustrating the seriousness with which investigators view the situation, late Tuesday the committee issued two more subpoenas, specifically to FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, directing them to appear before the committee to explain why they have not provided the subpoenaed information.

The subpoenas are the result of a months-long process of committee investigators requesting information from the FBI and Justice Department. Beginning in May, the committee sent multiple letters to the FBI and Justice requesting information concerning the Trump-Russia affair.

I actually have no problems with the questions Congress is asking about the dossier (though I do think Mueller’s investigation should be given deference, if he asks for it). What’s funny, though, is that none of the committees are asking CIA and ODNI for more information on when they learned about the dossier. As I’ve noted their answers about it have been laughable, to put it charitably. But that might risk committing oversight.

Timeline

February 3: Webzilla and Alexej Gubarev sue Buzzfeed

March 27: Grassley first submits questions to Fusion

April, unknown date: Sessions Chief of Staff inquires about Benczkowski’s interest in serving as Assistant Attorney General

April 3: Steele Defence in UK Webzilla suit

May 18: Steele’s response to claimants request for further information

May 22: Ursula Ungaro denies BuzzFeed request to move suit to NYC in US Webzilla suit

May 26: Alfa Bank sues Buzzfeed in NY

June 6: Brian Benczkowski offered Assistant Attorney General position

July 19-21: Kirkland & Ellis disclose Benczkowski’s ties to Alfa bank

July 25: Benczkowski confirmation hearing

August 10: Ungaro requests UK require Steele provide a deposition in this case

August 10: Steele fights deposition request in US Webzilla suit

August 15: Ungaro denies Steele request

August 22: Glenn Simpson submits to 10 hour transcribed interview with Senate Judiciary Committee

August 24: HPSCI subpoenas FBI and DOJ for information on dossier

September 14: Extended deadline for FBI and DOJ to comply with HPSCI subpoena

Rinat Ahkmetshin: “Nothing Is Secret.”

The Financial Times, which had the scoop that Rinat Ahkmetshin — the naturalized Russian lobbyist who attended the June 9, 2016 meeting in Trump Tower — appeared before Robert Mueller’s grand jury several weeks ago, has a long interview with him. The key, buried details are that he’s not all that interested in whether Russia tampered with the election.

I ask whether he thinks Russia intervened in the US elections. “They might have done,” he says, but doesn’t seem particularly fussed if they did. “It’s like someone steals your toothpaste from you because you couldn’t hide it well enough — I think there’s something honest about that.” He goes on to expound a curious theory of “personal responsibility” — the value he says he likes best about America.

Followed by the kicker line:

“Nothing is secret,” he had said. “If you’re not stupid, you should operate on that assumption.”

Along the way, though, the interview doesn’t answer two worthy questions. The piece reveals that Akhmetshin bumped his rates up from $450 to $600 an hour this year, but it doesn’t explain whether and if so who paid for his time at Trump Tower last year. Sure, it’s only about $450, but who paid it?

More importantly, it doesn’t address the question I asked here: given Akhmetshin’s ties and past work for Fusion GPS, why did the intelligence company ask Christopher Steele to work on an anti-Trump dossier rather than Akhmetshin himself? Given his ties, did he know about it?

The interview describes Akhmetshin’s claim that he doesn’t work for Russia, but would never do anything to hurt it.

I will never f**k with Russian state,” he says in idiosyncratic English spoken with a light Russian accent. “I will never do things against Russian government. It’s stupid,” he tells me. “Simply, the stakes are too high.”

It describes his claim to be close with people at the CIA (which is why, he explains, Russia no longer trusts him). Akhmetshin also claims to have ties to French, British, and German intelligence. But he does go out drinking with Russian spooks when he’s in Moscow.

The most remarkable passage in the interview (especially given the revelation that Paul Manafort’s notes from the meeting suggest donations to Republicans were raised as well) however, is Akhmetshin’s admission that, while he hadn’t read the English language documents Natalia Veselnitskaya brought to the Trump Tower meeting, he had read the Russian versions.

Akhmetshin said he did not read the papers about Hillary Clinton’s campaign funding that Veselnitskaya took to the meeting, but he had seen the Russian version of it before. He says the lawyer developed it with the help of private corporate intelligence and that it was about “how bad money ended up in Manhattan and that money was put into supporting political campaigns”.

I find this revealing for several reasons. Remember that the early reports in the Steele dossier discuss pre-hacked email kompromat on Hillary Clinton. But why would a private intelligence company do a report in Russian, unless it was in Russia? Moreover, again, it seems Akhmetshin was already swimming in some of this Russian-based kompromat. So why didn’t Fusion have him collect on Trump? Did he work on the earlier, pre-June research paid by a Republican?

In short, the questions for Akhmetshin should go beyond the Trump Tower meeting, because there are obvious questions about his relationship with Fusion GPS.

[Photo: National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, MD via Wikimedia]

Reality Winner Claims NSA’s Collection on Russians Had Already Been Compromised

I guess today is Reality Winner day.

As Trevor Timm describes, Winner is trying to get comments she made in an interview with the FBI thrown out, arguing she was for legal purposes in custody yet did not receive a Miranda warning. In support of that argument, she submitted a declaration describing what happened to her that day — basically how 10 male FBI agents showed up to search her house, with two taking her to a back room to interrogate her.

In addition to all the details about how many male FBI agents there were and how they had her stand in the fenced yard when they were done interrogating her, she describes how she answered when they asked whether she believed she had compromised sources and methods.

16. Law enforcement specifically asked me whether I believed the disclosure of the document compromised the “sources and methods” contained in the document, to which I advised that it was likely those “sources and methods” had already been compromised.

17. I specifically told law enforcement that, “whatever we were using had already been compromised, and that this report was just going to be like a one drop in the bucket.”

Critics will argue that this wasn’t Winner’s operational judgment to make, though it does reveal that even in this interview, she attested that she didn’t think her leak would damage intelligence.

But I’m interested in her claim that these collection points were already burned.

While many people complain that the IC has withheld too much information about the Russian hack, there are some details that have been released that are downright surprising. Sure, we don’t know who leaked the Steele dossier, but it may have led to the exposure (and possible execution) of his sources. We do know, however, that DOJ itself revealed (in the Yahoo indictment) that it collected email conversations of FSB officers among themselves. We’ve heard vague reporting, too, that Russians figured out they were tapped and went silent accordingly. One early report I got about Russia’s involvement in the DNC hack explained that the suspected hackers rolled up a good deal of their infrastructure after it was exposed.

But Winner (who’s an analyst, remember, not a technical person) claims, that “whatever we were using had already been compromised” with apparent confidence.

Which raises questions whether that’s based on actual knowledge of how Russians were responding to our spying.

Trump’s Lawyer: I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague

Four days ago, Michael Cohen (or the Trump Organization) pre-empted revelations that would leak as soon as he turned over a third tranche of documents to the House Intelligence Committee by revealing a seemingly damning detail from it: along with Trump’s associate Felix Sater, Cohen was pursuing a Trump Tower deal in Moscow well after Trump’s campaign was in full swing. Sure enough, more damning information was still to come: Sater somehow imagined the deal — whatever it was — would get Trump elected. Then still more damning information: in January 2016, Cohen reached out to trusted Putin aide Dmitry Peskov to push for help on the deal. That’s when Cohen began to not recall precisely what happened, and also ignore questions about why he hadn’t told Trump about this call, unlike the other actions he took on this deal.

Again, these events were connected to Cohen’s delivery of a tranche of documents on August 28 to HPSCI.

Today, the letter Cohen sent to HPSCI on August 14 after reviewing and delivering two previous tranches of documents got liberated (this copy by the Daily Beast, but multiple outlets got copies). So the letter, which includes four pages plus backup rebutting the allegations made about Cohen in the Steele dossier, reflects the understanding Cohen’s lawyers had two weeks before they delivered emails showing Cohen was contacting Putin’s trusted aide in support of a deal that Sater believed would get Trump election.

Before I look at the letter, let me reiterate what I have suggested elsewhere (I plan to return to these shortly). There are real, unanswered questions about the provenance of the document as leaked by BuzzFeed. Some of the circumstances surrounding its production — most notably its funders and their claimed goals, and Steele’s production of a final report, based off voluntarily provided information, for free — raise real questions about parts of the dossier. I think it quite likely some parts of the dossier, especially the last, most inflammatory report (which accuses Cohen of attending a meeting where payments from Trump to the hackers that targeted the Democrats were discussed), were disinformation fed by the Russians. I believe the Intelligence Community is almost certainly lying about what they knew about the dossier. I believe the Russians know precisely how the dossier got constructed (remember, a suspected source for it died in mysterious circumstances in December), and they expect the exposure of those details will discredit it.

So while I think there are truths in the dossier, I do think its current form includes rumor and even affirmative disinformation meant to discredit it.

With that said — and remembering all the time that shortly after this letter got written, documents were disclosed showing Cohen was involved in brokering a deal that Sater thought might get Trump elected — here’s my analysis of the document.

The entire letter is pitched around the claim that HPSCI “included Mr. Cohen in its inquiry based solely upon certain sensational allegations contained” in the Steele dossier. “Absent those allegations,” the letter continues, “Mr. Cohen would not be involved in your investigation.” The idea — presented two weeks before disclosure of emails showing Cohen brokering a deal with Russians in early 2016 — is if Cohen can discredit the dossier, then he will have shown that there is no reason to investigate him or his role brokering deals with the Russians. Even the denial of any documents of interest is limited to the dossier: “We have not uncovered a single document that would in any way corroborate the Dossier’s allegations regarding Mr. Cohen, nor do we believe that any such document exists.”

With that, Cohen’s lawyers address the allegations in the dossier, one by one. As a result, the rebuttal reads kind of like this:

I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague

Cohen literally denies that he ever traveled to Prague six times, as well as denying carefully worded, often quoted, versions of meeting with Russians in a European capital in 2016. Of course that formulation — He did not participate in meetings of any kind with Kremlin officials in Prague in August 2016 — stops well short of other potential ties to Russians. And two of his denials look very different given the emails disclosed two weeks later showing an attempt to broker a deal that Felix Sater thought might get Trump elected, including an email from him to one of the most trusted agents of the Kremlin.

Mr. Cohen is not aware of any “secret TRUMP campaign/Kremlin relationship.”

Mr. Cohen is not aware of any indirect communications between the “TRUMP team” and “trusted agents” of the Kremlin.

As I said above, I think it highly likely the dossier includes at least some disinformation seeded by the Russians. So the most charitable scenario of what went down is that the Russians, knowing Cohen had made half-hearted attempts to broker the Trump Tower deal Trump had wanted for years, planted his name hoping some kind of awkwardness like this would result.

If so, Mission accomplished!

All that said, the way in which Cohen has orchestrated this disclosure — up to and including his failures to recall and answer obvious questions — is either great lawyering and/or sign that this earlier deal making is a real problem.

It may be that HPSCI only investigated Cohen because he was badly implicated in the Steele dossier. But if so, it led to the disclosure of earlier deal-making, including an attempt to reach out to one of Putin’s most trusted associates, that will likely give HPSCI a whole new reason to investigate.

The Steele Dossier and WaPo’s Trump Tower Scoop

For some reason, many people who’re convinced the Trump Russia investigation will hit paydirt but who haven’t been particularly attentive believe the Steele dossier must all be true. This, in spite of the fact that some parts of it clearly are not true. The best example of that is report 086, labeled as July 25, 2015 (but which must actually date to July 2016), which quotes a former senior Russian intelligence official claiming FSB was having difficulty compromising western and G7 government targets. In the previous year, the Russians had been enjoying quite a lot of success against just those kinds of targets, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Russia’s APT 29 is also believed to have compromised the DNC in July 2015), making it surprising anyone following Russian matters even marginally closely could present that report as credible.

The Steele dossier is not a document that is either credible or not as a whole; it is a series of raw intelligence reports based off a series of sources, some of which conflict with each other, some of which may be credible, others of which are less so. Moreover, there are a number of details about the dossier as we received it or as we’ve since learned about its production that raise legitimate questions about its quality.

Two seemingly contradictory claims provide one example that is especially noteworthy given WaPo’s report that the Trump organization inked a branding deal in Russia in late 2015. The very first report released as the Steele dossier, dated June 20, claims that the FSB has, for years, been trying to cultivate Trump by offering him “lucrative real estate development deals in Russia” but “for reasons unknown, TRUMP had not taken up any of these.”

The sourcing on this claim definitely includes “a close associate of TRUMP who had organized and managed his recent trips to Moscow” (though how would they know FSB was dangling real estate to compromise Trump unless they were themselves tied to FSB?) and may include the trusted compatriot of a “senior Foreign Ministry figure.”

Compare that with the undated report (it probably dates to between July 19 and July 30, 2016) crediting “a separate source with direct knowledge” claiming that Trump’s “claimed minimal investment profile in Russia … had not been for want of trying.”

Which is it? Has Trump been pushing for real estate deals but failing, or have figures close to Putin been trying to entice him with such deals only to have him respond with remarkable coyness?

A September 14 report, reported second-hand from two people in Petersburg, goes so far as to claim Trump had even paid bribes to get business deals in the city, but offered little more. Significantly, the sources said Aras Agalarov — who was involved in the June 9, 2016 meeting offering dirt on Clinton in New York’s Trump Tower — would have any details on real estate deals and sex parties and the clean-up thereof.

All of which is to say that in three different reports, Steele’s sources offered conflicting details about whether Trump was trying to get business in Russia but had failed, or Russia was trying to suck Trump into business deals as part of a program to compromise him, only to have him inexplicably resist.

Which brings us to the WaPo’s latest scoop, which reveals that between November 2015 and January 2016, the Trump organization signed a licensing deal for a big real estate project in Moscow, which ended up flopping because there was actually no deal behind it.

As part of the discussions, a Russian-born real estate developer urged Trump to come to Moscow to tout the proposal and suggested he could get President Vladimir Putin to say “great things” about Trump, according to several people who have been briefed on his correspondence.

The developer, Felix Sater, predicted in a November 2015 email that he and Trump Organization leaders would soon be celebrating — both one of the biggest residential projects in real estate history and Donald Trump’s election as president, according to two of the people with knowledge of the exchange.

Sater wrote to Trump Organization Executive Vice President Michael Cohen, “something to the effect of, ‘Can you believe two guys from Brooklyn are going to elect a president?’ ” said one person briefed on the email exchange. Sater emigrated to the United States from what was then the Soviet Union when he was 8 and grew up in Brooklyn.

Trump never went to Moscow as Sater proposed. And although investors and Trump’s company signed a letter of intent, they lacked the land and permits to proceed and the project was abandoned at the end of January 2016, just before the presidential primaries began, several people familiar with the proposal said.

[snip]

Discussions about the Moscow project began in earnest in September 2015, according to people briefed on the deal. An unidentified investor planned to build the project and, under a licensing agreement, put Trump’s name on it. Cohen acted as a lead negotiator for the Trump Organization. It is unclear how involved or aware Trump was of the negotiations.

For six months, Christopher Steele pushed his sources for information on any deals Trump had planned in Russia. And only one of them — the one suggesting his go-between consult with Agalarov — offered any hint that a deal might have actually been done. Yet just months earlier, a deal had purportedly been signed, a deal personally involving Michael Cohen, who figures prominently throughout the dossier.

At least on their face, those are contradictory claims, ones that (because the WaPo story is backed by documents Congress will shortly vet) either emphasize how limited Steele’s collection was, even on one of his key targets like Cohen, or may even hint he was getting disinformation.

Or perhaps reading them in tandem can elucidate both?

First, some comments on the WaPo story.

It seems the real story here is as much the details as the fact that the deal was proposed. For example, I’m as interested that Felix Sater, from whom (as the story notes) Trump has been trying to distance himself publicly for years, was still brokering deals for the Trump organization as late as November 2015 as any other part of the story. See this post for some reasons why that’s so interesting.

It’s also quite significant that whoever leaked this to the WaPo did not explain who the investors were. Schedule another scoop in a week or so for when some outlet reveals that detail, because I suspect that’s as big a part of the story as the fact that the deal got signed. What entity came to Cohen months after Trump had kicked off his presidential campaign, and offered up the kind of branding deal that Trump loves (and which at least some of Steele’s sources say Trump had been seeking for over a decade), yet without the permits that would be a cinch if Putin and the FSB were really pushing the deal as part of a plan to compromise the candidate?

The sourcing, too, is of particular interest. WaPo describes its story as coming from, “several people familiar with the proposal and new records reviewed by Trump Organization lawyers;” in another place it describes its sources as, “several people who have been briefed on his correspondence.”  It explains that the emails are going to be turned over to Congress soon.

The new details from the emails, which are scheduled to be turned over to congressional investigators soon, also point to the likelihood of additional contacts between Russia-connected individuals and Trump associates during his presidential bid.

This all feels like an attempt, on the part of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, to reveal to Trump via non-obstructive channels what he has found in a review of documents he’s about to turn over, with an emphasis on some of the most damning parts (Sater and the timing), but without yet revealing the public detail of the investors. By releasing it in this form, Cohen’s associates give Trump warning of what’s about to come, while blunting the damage the revelation will have in more fleshed out form.

Finally, the WaPo emphasizes Sater’s push for Trump to get Putin to say nice things. Particularly given the lack of permits here, that suggests Sater recognized the deal was not actually done, it needed powerful push from Putin. A push that, given the January collapse, apparently didn’t come in timely fashion. That may be the more interesting take-away here. The deal was, when Sater bragged about it to the guy who (according to Steele’s dossier) would shortly go on to clean up Paul Manafort’s earlier corrupt discussions with Russia, illusory. But it makes it clear that Cohen, if and when he had those discussions, was aware of the Trump organization’s earlier, failed effort to finally brand a building in Moscow. It would mean that if those dodgy meetings in Prague actually happened, they came against the backdrop of Putin deciding not offer the help needed to make the Trump deal happen in the months before the election started.

All that may suggest the Steele dossier may instead be rich disinformation on a key point, disinformation that hid how active such discussions really were.

In any case, the WaPo story is not definitive one way or another. It may be utterly damning, the kind of hard evidence Cohen is about to turn over that he is aware could really blow the investigation into Trump wide open, or it could be yet more proof that Trump continued to resist the allure of real estate deals in Russia, as some of Steele’s sources claimed. But it does raise some important questions that reflect back on the Steele dossier.

Update: NYT got the actual language of two of the Sater emails, which have now been delivered to HPSCI.

Michael I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins [sic] private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin. I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. We both know no one else knows how to pull this off without stupidity or greed getting in the way. I know how to play it and we will get this done. Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get Putins [sic] team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.

[snip]

Michael we can own this story. Donald doesn’t stare down, he negotiates and understand the economic issues and Putin only want to deal with a pragmatic leader, and a successful business man is a good candidate for someone who knows how to negotiate. “Business, politics, whatever it allis the same for someone who knows how to deal.”

Why does Sater tie the Trump Tower deal so closely with getting Trump elected?

Akhmetshin’s Involvement and the Trump Dossier

Over the course of the slow reveal of details about the meeting Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort had on June 9, 2016 with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the focus has rightly been on the changing stories of the initially identified players.

It was about adoption, maybe she made some vague statements, oh yeah, those vague statements were oppo research, yes, yes, here are the emails showing that oppo research came from an affirmative effort in Russia to elect Dad, how can a ‘good boy‘ be expected to remember all the Russians involved in a meeting? Don Jr. blathered until, perhaps, his newly-hired lawyer shut him up.

I have no ties to the Russian government, I had no damaging information and if I did I had no intention of leaving it, well, maybe I did get information directly from a top Russian prosecutor, explained Veselnitskaya over the course of the week.

I accidentally hit send, I met with no foreigners, maybe there were Russians, but not Veselnitskaya, oh yeah, maybe her too, my lawyers told Pop’s lawyers, well maybe I never got around to mentioning it to him personally, the tale of Kushner’s difficulties identifying all the Russians he met with evolved over the week, at which point Jamie Gorelick removed herself from any responsibility criminally defending the guy.

All of which climaxed in the news that former Russian intelligence officer Rinat Akhmetshin and accused (before the accusation was withdrawn) hacker also attended the meeting.

Akhmetshin has boasted to associates that he had served in the military with a group known as the Osoby Otdel, or Special Section, which in the Soviet period was a division of the K.G.B. The group was distinct from the G.R.U., or Main Intelligence Directorate of the defense ministry, an organization with which he has denied any affiliation.

[snip]

The Justice Department contacted Mr. Akhmetshin in March and asked him why he did not register his work for the nonprofit group under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which requires anyone who lobbies in the United States on behalf of foreign interests to disclose their work to the Justice Department. Mr. Akhmetshin responded to the Justice Department in April, saying he had properly registered under congressional lobbying rules.

In 2015, International Mineral Resources, a mining company based in the Netherlands, accused Mr. Akhmetshin of hacking into its computer systems, stealing confidential information and unlawfully disseminating it as part of a smear campaign orchestrated by a rival Russian mining firm.

All of which, given that the meeting took place a week before hacked emails started coming out, sure makes it look like the principals were deliberately hiding Akhmetshin’s participation in the meeting, though Akhmetshin claims he got pulled into the meeting that day, still wearing his jeans and t-shirt.

He said he had learned about the meeting only that day when Veselnitskaya asked him to attend. He said he showed up in jeans and a T-shirt.

Given all these changing stories and what they might hide I’d like to return to Don Sr.’s initial response. Way back on Sunday, the spox for Trump’s lawyers (who reportedly had known of these emails for three weeks) claimed the meeting had been a set-up by the same intelligence firm, Fusion GPS, that put together the Trump dossier.

“We have learned from both our own investigation and public reports that the participants in the meeting misrepresented who they were and who they worked for,” Mark Corallo, spokesperson for Trump’s outside counsel, said in a statement released a few hours after the original New York Times story published.

“Specifically, we have learned that the person who sought the meeting is associated with Fusion GPS, a firm which according to public reports, was retained by Democratic operatives to develop opposition research on the president and which commissioned the phony Steele dossier,” Corallo continued, referring to the strategic intelligence firm hired by anti-Trump Republicans, then by Democrats, to do opposition research on the candidate.

(Fusion GPS eventually retained former MI-6 agent Christopher Steele to research potential connections between Trump and Russia, an investigation that resulted in a dossier that alleged financial, political, and personal connections between the then-president-elect and the Kremlin—a dossier that Trump’s communications team might have preferred to go unmentioned.)

“These developments raise serious issues as to exactly who authorized and participated in any effort by Russian nationals to influence our election in any manner,” Corallo concluded.

Even as all this was happening, Chuck Grassley released a testimony list suggesting the head of Fusion GPS, Glenn Simpson, would testify aside the key player accusing Akhmetshin of unlawfully lobbying for Russia, William Browder. But Simpson continues, as he started in June, to refuse to testify willingly.

The insinuation this meeting was all a set-up by a Clinton-surrogate was absolutely a cheap attempt, worthy of Corallo, to flip this story. But as I said earlier in this week, it’s more clever than first assumed. As I noted, a full eleven days after the meeting (and five days after the first stolen documents appeared), Fusion was still presenting conflicting details about whether Russian-derived Clinton dirt had been shared with Trump’s campaign, ultimately claiming, however, that it hadn’t.

The report, dated 11 days after the Veselnitskaya meeting, states that the Kremlin has a dossier on Clinton, but that it has not as yet been distributed abroad.

That claim is seemingly contradicted by the claims of Source A (a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure) and Source D. Indeed, Source D appears to have claimed, in June, that dirt from Russia was helpful.

Ultimately, though, the memo seems to credit Source B, “a former top level Russian intelligence officer” and Source G, a senior Kremlin official, who said the dossier, attributed here to the FSB, had not yet been shared with Trump or anyone else in America.

Consider: First, Akhmetshin himself qualifies as a former intelligence officer (though it’s not clear how senior he was). He might have reason to deny that intelligence he tried to pass was the intelligence in question. And he’d likely be right, given that the Clinton dossier was purportedly a FSB, not a GRU, product. But it’s even possible that he didn’t want Hillary to know that he or a colleague was dealing dirt, however bad.

Nevertheless, the senior-most Russian quoted in the dossier compiled for Hillary Clinton claimed — and Steele appears to have believed — that Russia’s dirt on Hillary Clinton had not yet been released.

As I noted (and others have expanded elsewhere) some of these sources could be people who attended the meeting, particularly once we learn which Agalarov was involved and how closely.

It is definitely cheap to suggest that having three principals from Trump’s campaign meet with Russians claiming to represent the wishes of the Russian government is just an opposition plot invented by a Hillary surrogate. But the feedback loop within Fusion and the narrow circle of key Russian sources on Trump’s campaign is definitely worth considering.

Be Careful How You Define Collusion: On the Veselnitskaya Bombshell and the Steele Dossier

See update, below, which provides evidence that was not present when I wrote this post. 

The NYT has a new bombshell showing that Don Jr. was willing to meet with someone to get Russian dirt on Hillary. It is damning. But Democrats should be very careful about calling it collusion, yet.

On Saturday, the NYT reported that Don Jr, Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner met on June 9 with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who has worked to overturn the Magnitsky sanctions. In Don Jr’s first response to the NYT, he admitted to the meeting, but said it focused primarily on adoptions (which means it focused on the sanctions).

Then, yesterday, NYT reported that Don Jr took the meeting because he was promised Russia-related dirt on Hillary. With that new detail, Don Jr changed his story, admitting that’s why he took the meeting, though he claimed that the information Veselnitskaya offered “made no sense.”

In a statement on Sunday, Donald Trump Jr. said he had met with the Russian lawyer at the request of an acquaintance. “After pleasantries were exchanged,” he said, “the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”

He said she then turned the conversation to adoption of Russian children and the Magnitsky Act, an American law that blacklists suspected Russian human rights abusers. The law so enraged President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia that he retaliated by halting American adoptions of Russian children.

“It became clear to me that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting,” Mr. Trump said.

WaPo revealed that the meeting was set up by music publicist Rob Goldstone, and hints that he may have done so at the behest of Emin Agalarov (which Goldstone has since confirmed).

He did not name the acquaintance, but in an interview Sunday, Rob Goldstone, a music publicist who is friendly with Trump Jr., told The Washington Post that he had arranged the meeting at the request of a Russian client and had attended it along with Veselnitskaya.

Goldstone has been active with the Miss Universe pageant and works as a manager for Emin Agalarov, a Russian pop star whose father is a wealthy Moscow developer who sponsored the pageant in the Russian capital in 2013.

This news is damning for several reasons. Kushner failed to disclose it at first in his clearance application, and Don Jr didn’t reveal it in past interviews about meeting with Russians. Everyone tried to hide this at first.

But thus far, it is not evidence of collusion, contrary to what a lot of people are saying.

That’s true, most obviously, because we only have the implicit offer of a quid pro quo: dirt on Hillary — the source of which is unknown — in exchange for sanctions relief. We don’t (yet) have evidence that Don Jr and his co-conspirators acted on that quid pro quo.

But it’s also true because if that’s the standard for collusion, then Hillary’s campaign is in trouble for doing the same.

Remember: A supporter of Hillary Clinton paid an opposition research firm, Fusion GPS, to hire a British spy who in turn paid money to Russians — including people even closer to the Kremlin than Veselnitskaya — for Russia-related dirt on Don Jr’s dad.

Yes, the Clinton campaign was full of adults, and so kept their Russian-paying oppo research far better removed from the key players on the campaign than Trump’s campaign, which was run by incompetents. But if obtaining dirt from Russians — even paying Russians to obtain dirt — is collusion, then a whole bunch of people colluded with Russians (and a bunch of other foreign entities, I’m sure), including whatever Republican originally paid Fusion for dirt on Trump.

Breaking: Our political process is sleazy as fuck (but then, so are most of our politicians).

The claim that merely meeting with Veselnitskaya is collusion is all the more dangerous given that it invokes some weird details about the Fusion dossier. Most importantly, as Trump’s lawyer’s spox has pointed out (incoherently, at first), like whatever Clinton supporter retained the oppo research firm, Veselnitskaya also employed Fusion. An update to NYT’s Friday story laid some of this out, in the form of Mark Corallo’s more clever than you actually might think suggestion that the Democrats might have paid Fusion to set up this meeting.

In an interview, Mr. [Mark] Corallo explained that Ms. Veselnitskaya, in her anti-Magnitsky campaign, employs a private investigator whose firm, Fusion GPS, produced an intelligence dossier that contained unproven allegations against the president. In a statement, the firm said, “Fusion GPS learned about this meeting from news reports and had no prior knowledge of it. Any claim that Fusion GPS arranged or facilitated this meeting in any way is false.”

[snip]

One of Ms. Veselnitskaya’s clients is Denis Katsyv, the Russian owner of a Cyprus-based investment company called Prevezon Holdings. He is the son of Petr Katsyv, the vice president of the state-owned Russian Railways and a former deputy governor of the Moscow region. In a civil forfeiture case prosecuted by Mr. Bharara’s office, the Justice Department alleged that Prevezon had helped launder money tied to a $230 million corruption scheme exposed by Mr. Magnitsky by parking it in New York real estate and bank accounts. As a result, the government froze $14 million of its assets. Prevezon recently settled the case for $6 million without admitting wrongdoing.

[snip]

Besides the private investigator whose firm produced the Trump dossier, the lobbying team included Rinat Akhmetshin, an émigré to the United States who once served as a Soviet military officer and who has been called a Russian political gun for hire.

Republicans have already pointed to Akhmetshin’s work with Fusion as a way to discredit the Steele dossier. Now they are (or at least were, before the really damning bits came out) using it to attempt to discredit the most damning detail about Trump’s ties to Russians.

But there in one other interesting detail.

The first report (that we have) reflecting Christopher Steele’s work (and also the first report that some unknown Democrat paid for after earlier oppo research had been paid for by some Republican) is dated June 20.

The report, dated 11 days after the Veselnitskaya meeting, states that the Kremlin has a dossier on Clinton, but that it has not as yet been distributed abroad.

That claim is seemingly contradicted by the claims of Source A (a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure) and Source D. Indeed, Source D appears to have claimed, in June, that dirt from Russia was helpful.

Ultimately, though, the memo seems to credit Source B, “a former top level Russian intelligence officer” and Source G, a senior Kremlin official, who said the dossier, attributed here to the FSB, had not yet been shared with Trump or anyone else in America.

Consider: First, Akhmetshin himself qualifies as a former intelligence officer (though it’s not clear how senior he was). He might have reason to deny that intelligence he tried to pass was the intelligence in question. And he’d likely be right, given that the Clinton dossier was purportedly a FSB, not a GRU, product. But it’s even possible that he didn’t want Hillary to know that he or a colleague was dealing dirt, however bad.

Nevertheless, the senior-most Russian quoted in the dossier compiled for Hillary Clinton claimed — and Steele appears to have believed — that Russia’s dirt on Hillary Clinton had not yet been released.

Which doesn’t really help the treatment of this as a scandal.

Don’t get me wrong. I suspect there is more to this story. But I also note that Democrats should be really careful not to get too far ahead of this one, for fear of where it will lead.

Update: NYT’s latest provides evidence that gets you far closer to collusion than the previous evidence.

Mr. Goldstone’s message, as described to The New York Times by the three people, indicates that the Russian government was the source of the potentially damaging information. It does not elaborate on the wider effort by Moscow to help the Trump campaign. There is no evidence to suggest that the promised damaging information was related to Russian government computer hacking that led to the release of thousands of Democratic National Committee emails.

John Brennan Denies a Special Harry Reid Briefing

This passage from John Brennan’s testimony about Russia to the House Intelligence Committee yesterday has gotten a lot of attention:

Through the so-called Gang of Eight process, we kept Congress apprised of these issues as we identified them. Again, in consultation with the White House, I personally briefed the full details of our understanding of Russian attempts to interfere with the election to Congressional leadership, specifically Senators Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Dianne Feinstein, and Richard Burr, and to Representatives Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, Devin Nunes, and Adam Schiff between 11 August and 6 September. I provided the same briefing to each of the Gang of Eight members.  Given the highly sensitive nature of what was an active counterintelligence case involving an ongoing Russian effort to interfere in our presidential election, the full details of what we knew at the time were shared only with those members of Congress, each of whom was accompanied by one senior staff member. The substance of those briefings was entirely consistent with the main judgments contained in the January classified and unclassified assessments, namely that Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency and to help President Trump’s election chances.

The passage has been used to question why GOP leaders, most especially Mitch McConnell, didn’t react more strongly, particularly given public reports that he wouldn’t sign onto a more aggressive statement about Russian efforts.

As I noted in this post, the record thus far reflects a difference in emphasis (on protecting the election systems rather than on Russian attempts to hurt Clinton).

But I want to look more closely at what Brennan actually said.

His description of the briefings seems to be a denial of what I laid out in this post — the NYT report that he gave Harry Reid a special briefing (one which may have been based on the Christopher Steele dossier) that was more alarming than others.

CIA DIRECTORS SHOULD NOT MEET WITH JUST ONE GANG OF EIGHT MEMBER

The second detail I find most interesting in this story is that John Brennan privately briefed Harry Reid about his concerns about the Russians.

John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director, was so concerned about the Russian threat that he gave an unusual private briefing in the late summer to Harry Reid, then the Senate Democratic leader.

Top congressional officials had already received briefings on Russia’s meddling, but the one for Mr. Reid appears to have gone further. In a public letter to Mr. Comey several weeks later, Mr. Reid said that “it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government — a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States.”

While I’m generally sympathetic to Democrats’ complaints that DOJ should have either remained silent about both investigations or revealed both of them, it was stupid for Brennan to give this private briefing (and I hope he gets grilled about it by HPSCI when he testifies in a few weeks). In addition to the things Reid said publicly about the investigation, it’s fairly clear he and his staffers were also behind some of the key leaks here (and, as CNN reported yesterday, leaks about the investigation actually led targets of it to alter their behavior). For reasons beyond what appears in this story, I think it likely Reid served as a cut-out for Brennan.

And that’s simply not appropriate. There may well have been reasons to avoid briefing Richard Burr (who was advising Trump). But spooks should not be sharing information with just one party. CIA did so during its torture cover-up in ways that are particularly troubling and I find this — while not as bad — equally problematic.

When Brennan said he “provided the same briefing to each of the Gang of Eight members,” he might be seen as denying that the briefing to Reid was anything unusual.

Except this NYT article describes Reid’s as taking place in “late summer” and describes top officials as already having received briefings. Another NYT article describes the special briefing for Reid as having taken place on August 25.

In an Aug. 25 briefing for Harry Reid, then the top Democrat in the Senate, Mr. Brennan indicated that Russia’s hackings appeared aimed at helping Mr. Trump win the November election, according to two former officials with knowledge of the briefing.

The officials said Mr. Brennan also indicated that unnamed advisers to Mr. Trump might be working with the Russians to interfere in the election. The F.B.I. and two congressional committees are now investigating that claim, focusing on possible communications and financial dealings between Russian affiliates and a handful of former advisers to Mr. Trump. So far, no proof of collusion has emerged publicly.

Mr. Trump has rejected any suggestion of a Russian connection as “ridiculous” and “fake news.” The White House has also sought to redirect the focus from the investigation and toward what Mr. Trump has said, with no evidence, was President Barack Obama’s wiretapping of phones in Trump Tower during the presidential campaign.

The C.I.A. and the F.B.I. declined to comment for this article, as did Mr. Brennan and senior lawmakers who were part of the summer briefings.

In the August briefing for Mr. Reid, the two former officials said, Mr. Brennan indicated that the C.I.A., focused on foreign intelligence, was limited in its legal ability to investigate possible connections to Mr. Trump. The officials said Mr. Brennan told Mr. Reid that the F.B.I., in charge of domestic intelligence, would have to lead the way.

As described by the NYT, the Reid briefing went beyond what Brennan says he briefed all the Gang of Eight members on, specially with regards to Trump advisors working with Russia. It’s possible Brennan briefed Reid twice.

Much later in the hearing, Trey Gowdy asked Brennan about the Steele dossier. Some of Brennan’s responses — especially his claim not to know who commissioned the Steele dossier; watch him play with his pen — were not all that believable. Brennan went on to say that the CIA didn’t rely on the dossier, but his denial pertained to the IC report on the hack.

It wasn’t part of the corpus of intelligence, uh, information that we had. It was not in any way used as a basis for the intelligence community assessment that was done, uh, it was not.

Note the funny mouth gesture which used to be Brennan’s main “tell.”

Gowdy being Gowdy was not smart enough to ask whether the dossier was ever used in a briefing to members of Congress.

As I have noted, the IC denials pertaining to the dossier are, um, unconvincing (one two three). That’s all the more true given that Steele has admitted to sharing copies of his dossier with his former employer, who would naturally share with Brennan (elsewhere in the hearing Brennan refused to address what our foreign partners had shared with us).

In any case, it seems to me the question is not so much whether McConnell blew off the seriousness of the Brennan warning, but, still, whether Reid received another briefing–perhaps outside that date scope–that included information McConnell didn’t get.

Grassley Continues to Ask Worthwhile Questions about the Steele Dossier

In this post, I noted several details made clear by Christopher Steele’s defense in a lawsuit pertaining to the dossier he did for opponents to Donald Trump:

  • Steele also shared his dossier with an active British intelligence official, which is a second channel via which the US intelligence community may have obtained the dossier in spite of their hilariously unconvincing denials
  • Steele’s claims he wasn’t sharing actual copies of the dossier with the press, at least, don’t accord with other public claims
  • Steele said absolutely nothing about how he shared the dossier with the FBI (which may have been an alternative channel via which it leaked)
  • Steele obtained the most inflammatory claims in the dossier at a time when he claims neither to have been paid nor to have been actively collecting intelligence (and paying sources)

Taken together, these inconsistencies suggest certain alternative stories about the dossier. For example, it’s possible the dossier was used as a way to launder intelligence gathered via other means, as a way to protect sources and methods. It’s likely the US IC had more awareness and involvement in the dossier than they’ve publicly claimed.

With that in mind, I find it very interesting that Chuck Grassley claims to have found inconsistencies in the story FBI and DOJ are giving him about the dossier.

As I noted at the time, Grassley raised some really good questions in a letter to FBI back on March 6, questions made all the more salient given three somewhat conflicting reports about whether the FBI ever paid Steele.

Yesterday, he held a presser to release another letter to FBI, which he sent last Friday. He explained that nine days after he sent his letter, Comey briefed him and Dianne Feinstein on the circumstances surrounding Mike Flynn’s ouster, and answered a few of the questions Grassley had asked in his March 6 letter. But FBI never did respond to the letter itself, beyond sending a four sentence boilerplate letter on April 19, claiming the questions had been answered in the briefing.

In the letter, Grassley makes clear that documents the committee received from DOJ since (are these not FBI? If so are they NSD?) conflict with what Comey relayed in the briefing in that FBI actually had a more substantive relationship than Comey let on.

There appear to be material inconsistencies between the description of the FBI’s relationship with Mr. Steele that you did provide in your briefing and information contained in Justice Department documents made available to the Committee only after the briefing.  Whether those inconsistencies were honest mistakes or an attempt to downplay the actual extent of the FBI’s relationship with Mr. Steele, it is essential that the FBI fully answer all of the questions from the March 6 letter and provide all the requested documents in order to resolve these and related issues.

Significantly, after having asked these questions about public reports that FBI had discussed paying Steele,

All FBI records relating to the agreement with Mr. Steele regarding his investigation of President Trump and his associates, including the agreement itself, all drafts, all internal FBI communications about the agreement, all FBI communications with Mr. Steele about the agreement, all FBI requests for authorization for the agreement, and all records documenting the approval of the agreement.

[snip]

Did the agreement with Mr. Steele ever enter into force?  If so, for how long?  If it did not, why not?

Grassley is restating that question, asking for documentation of all payments to Steele.

Documentation of all payments made to Mr. Steele, including for travel expenses, if any; the date of any such payments; the amount of such payments; the authorization for such payments.

He asked about it in today’s oversight hearing with Comey, and Comey insisted the appearance of conflict was easy to explain (and promised to explain it). I suspect DOJ may have paid for Steele’s travel to the US in October 2016, which might be fine, but that was also when Steele shared his dossier with David Corn. Otherwise, Comey refused to answer in a public forum questions about whether FBI made any representations to a judge relying on the dossier (for example for the FISA order), whether the FBI was aware that Steele paid sources who paid subsources, and whether Comey or the FBI knew that Fusion employed a former Russian intelligence officer who was (like Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort) were serving as an unregistered agent of a foreign power, in this case to help Russia fight Magnitsky sanctions.

The last question pertains to Fusion employee, Rinat Akhmetshin. In July 2016, Hermitage Capital Management filed a FARA complaint against him and number of other people alleging they were unregistered lobbyists for Prevezon Holdings, a Cyprus based firm that was seeking to push back against sanctions. The complaint alleges, among other things, that Akhmetshin is a former GRU officer, hired to generate negative publicity, and has been ” accused of organizing, on behalf of Russian oligarch Andrey Melnichenko, for the computers of International Mineral Resources to be hacked to steal “confidential, personal and otherwise sensitive information” so that it could be disseminated.”

Grassley surely raised the issue (as he also did in a March letter to Dana Boente in the latter’s role as Acting Attorney General) to accuse Steele’s associates of the same things Steele and others have accused Paul Manafort of (and Mike Flynn has admitted). But it seems an utterly valid issue in any case, not least because it raises questions of why Fusion brought in Steele when Akhmetshin could have collected Russian intelligence on Trump himself. Did he? If so, was that included in the parts of the dossier we haven’t seen. More importantly, was Akhmetshin still around when the dossier got leaked? Does he have any ongoing ties with Russia that might lead to the murder of sourced named in the dossier?

In today’s hearing, Grassley said that Fusion refused to cooperate with the questions he posed to them about the dossier. It seems the firms paid to compile that dossier are obfuscating on both sides of the Atlantic.