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Did GRU Learn that Democrats Had Hired Christopher Steele When They Hacked DNC’s Email Server?

As I laid out a few weeks ago, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post.

According to Glenn Simpson’s SJC testimony, he hired Christopher Steele in May or June of 2016 to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia.

Q. And when did you engage Mr. Steele to conduct opposition research on Candidate Trump?

A. I don’t specifically recall, but it would 10 have been in the — it would have been May or June  of 2016.

Q. And why did you engage Mr. Steele in May or June of 2016?

Simpson is maddeningly vague (undoubtedly deliberately) on this point. In one place he suggests he hired Steele after DCLeaks was registered and amid a bunch of chatter about Democrats being hacked, which would put it after June 8 and probably after June 15.

Q. So at the time you first hired him had it been publicly reported that there had been a cyber intrusion into the Democratic National Convention computer system?

A. I don’t specifically remember. What I know was that there was chatter around Washington about hacking of the Democrats and Democratic think tanks and other things like that and there was a site that had sprung up called D.C. Leaks that seemed to suggest that somebody was up to something. I don’t think at the time at least that we were particularly focused on — well, I don’t specifically remember.

But in his more informative HPSCI testimony, he suggests he may have started talking to Steele about collecting intelligence on Trump in May.

MR. QUIGLEY: When exactly did he start working under contract?

MR. SIMPSON: My recollection is that, you know, we began talking about the — I don’t remember when we started talking about the engagement, but the work started in June, I believe.

MR. QUIGLEY: Okay.

MR. SIMPSON: Possibly late May, but –

Given one detail in Mueller’s GRU Indictment, that difference may be critical.

Recall that the DNC figured out they had been hacked in April, and brought in Perkins Coie (the same firm that would engage Fusion GPS) for help. The attorney helping them respond to the hack, Michael Sussmann, warned them not to use DNC email to discuss the hack, because it might alert hackers they were onto them.

The day before the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in April, Ms. Dacey, the D.N.C.’s chief executive, was preparing for a night of parties when she got an urgent phone call.

With the new monitoring system in place, Mr. Tamene had examined administrative logs of the D.N.C.’s computer system and found something very suspicious: An unauthorized person, with administrator-level security status, had gained access to the D.N.C.’s computers.

“Not sure it is related to what the F.B.I. has been noticing,” said one internal D.N.C. email sent on April 29. “The D.N.C. may have been hacked in a serious way this week, with password theft, etc.”

No one knew just how bad the breach was — but it was clear that a lot more than a single filing cabinet worth of materials might have been taken. A secret committee was immediately created, including Ms. Dacey, Ms. Wasserman Schultz, Mr. Brown and Michael Sussmann, a former cybercrimes prosecutor at the Department of Justice who now works at Perkins Coie, the Washington law firm that handles D.N.C. political matters.

“Three most important questions,” Mr. Sussmann wrote to his clients the night the break-in was confirmed. “1) What data was accessed? 2) How was it done? 3) How do we stop it?”

Mr. Sussmann instructed his clients not to use D.N.C. email because they had just one opportunity to lock the hackers out — an effort that could be foiled if the hackers knew that the D.N.C. was on to them.

“You only get one chance to raise the drawbridge,” Mr. Sussmann said. “If the adversaries know you are aware of their presence, they will take steps to burrow in, or erase the logs that show they were present.”

The D.N.C. immediately hired CrowdStrike, a cybersecurity firm, to scan its computers, identify the intruders and build a new computer and telephone system from scratch. Within a day, CrowdStrike confirmed that the intrusion had originated in Russia, Mr. Sussmann said.

But it’s not clear whether Sussmann warned this small team of people against using DNC emails at all, or just those emails discussing the hack.

Previously, I had always guesstimated how long after DNC brought Crowdstrike in the emails ultimately shared with WikiLeaks got exfiltrated from this analysis, based of the last dates of stolen emails and DNC’s email deletion policies in place at the time. It was a damned good estimate — May 19 to May 25.

But according to the indictment, the theft of the DNC emails happened later: starting on May 25, not ending on it.

Between on or about May 25, 2016 and June 1, 2016, the Conspirators hacked the DNC Microsoft Exchange Server and stole thousands of emails from the work accounts of DNC employees. During that time, YERMAKOV researched PowerShell commands related to accessing and managing the Microsoft Exchange Server.

The indictment doesn’t describe the entire universe of emails stolen — whether GRU stole just the 9 email boxes shared with WikiLeaks, or whether they obtained far more.

But the later date — possibly reaching as late as June 1 — means it’s possible GRU stole emails involving top DNC officials, officials involved in opposition research activities (as both Guccifer 2.0 and the DNC itself said had been a focus), including the activity of hiring a former MI6 officer to chase down Trump’s illicit ties to Russians.

Don’t get me wrong. If the Russians did, in fact, learn about the Steele effort and manage to inject his known reporting chain with disinformation, there were plenty of other possible ways they might have learned of the project: the several people overlapping between Fusion GPS’ Prevezon team and its Trump team, Rinat Akhmetshin who learned of the dossier from a chatty NYT editor, or maybe a close Trump ally like Sergei Millian. The sad thing about this disinformation project is it was so widely disseminated, any HUMINT integrity could have easily been compromised early in the process.

But the timeline laid out in the GRU indictment adds one more, even earlier possible way: that Russia learned the Democrats were seeking HUMINT from Russians about Russia’s efforts to help Trump from the Democrats’ own emails.

Devin Nunes’ Promise of Shock!! Shock!! in the Evolving Steele Claims in the Fourth Carter Page FISA Application

As I laid out a few weeks ago, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post.

Devin Nunes and the right wing press corps (Catherine HerridgeByron York, Chuck Ross) have now made it clear where Nunes’ games to discredit the Mueller investigation goes next: to claiming that a portion of the Carter Page FISA application say “shocking” things about Christopher Steele and the FBI. That’s based on a letter the House Intelligence Republicans signed inviting President Trump to “declassify and release publicly, and in unredacted form, pages 10-12 and 17-34, along with all associated footnotes, of the third renewal of the FISA application on Mr. Page. That renewal was filed in June 2017 and signed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.”

They’re playing a bit of a game with this, permitting right wing scribes to compare the first and the fourth application as if nothing (including applications signed by people not named Rod Rosenstein) came between.

So what is on pages 10-12 and 17-34? That is certainly a tantalizing clue dropped by the House Intel members, but it’s not clear what it means. Comparing the relevant sections from the initial FISA application, in October 2016, and the third renewal, in June 2017, much appears the same, but in pages 10-12 of the third renewal there is a slightly different headline — “The Russian Government’s Coordinated Efforts to Influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election” — plus a footnote, seven lines long, that was not in the original application.

As for pages 17-34, there appear to be, in the third renewal, new text and footnotes throughout the section headlined “Page’s Coordination with Russian Government Officials on 2016 U.S. Presidential Election Influence Activities.” (That is the same headline as the original application.) The Republican lawmakers ask that it be unredacted in its entirety, suggesting they don’t believe revealing it would compromise any FBI sources or methods.

Clearly, the GOP lawmakers believe pages 10-12 and 17-34 contain critical information, so it seems likely that the release of those pages would affect the current public debate over the FISA application

I guess, in this, they’re working a bit harder than Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows did in their Rosenstein impeachment effort.

As it happens, I’ve done a ridiculously anal 20 page analysis of the application (for the near future, I’m not going to be releasing any of my surveillance analysis publicly; for those interested, let me know separately), so I’ve tracked what changes in each application. So, for example, whereas York suggests that the title in the first section the Republicans want declassified changed in the fourth application, it actually changed in the second, submitted in early January 2017. Here’s how that title looks in each of the four applications, in order (see PDF 8, 93, 191, and 301 for the start of this section in each application).

It’s pretty clear the changes in this section stem in part from a shift to the past tense and an understanding of the extent of Russian interference.

Similarly, while York points to a footnote in the fourth application he claims doesn’t appear in the first, a footnote of similar length, though not the same shape (suggesting slightly different wording) appears in the third application. Here’s how footnote 4 looks in those two applications.

Otherwise, the discussion in applications three and four in this section appears the same. Which is to say that Republicans are trying to suggest this “shocking!!!” content derives from Rosenstein, when in fact much of it was probably approved by Dana Boente. It turns out Nunes’ efforts to discredit Rosenstein are barely more rigorous than Meadows’.

The second section Republicans want selectively declassified pertains to Steele. And there, there are significant changes to the application over the course of the four applications, second only to section where the most changes get made over the course of the four applications, the entirely redacted Section VI (it grows from 3 pages in the first application to 23 in the fourth). The Steele section grows from 7 pages in the first application to 11 in the last, with changes in each application and substantial changes in the last two. Here are all the sections that are new in the fourth, the one the Republicans want declassified:

As a measure of how inattentive the right wing story line is, Byron claims in follow-up reporting that DOJ never told FISC about Steele’s reaction to Jim Comey’s reopening of the Hillary investigation, in spite of unclassified language in footnote 22 (as numbered in the fourth application, though it was added in the second) revealing that,

In or about late October 2016, however, after the FBI Director sent a letter to the U.S. Congress, which stated that the FBI had learned of new information that might be pertinent to an investigation that the FBI was conducting of Candidate #2, Source #1 told the FBI that he/she was frustrated with this action and believed it would likely influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. In response to Source #1’s concerns, Source #1 independently, and against the prior admonishment from the FBI to speak only with the FBI on this matter, released the reporting discussed herein to an identified news organization. Although the FBI continues to assess Source #1’s reporting is reliable, as noted above, the FBI closed Source #1 as an active source. (PDF 320)

Byron appears not to understand that Steele’s response to Comey’s actions on October 28 could not have added bias to his reporting from prior to that date, which is when all of his reports shared formally with the FBI date to (the one other report, dated December 13, was only shared informally).

Whatever the additional caveats on Steele that Nunes is so sure will shock! shock!! the press when all his past predictions of shock have fallen flat, the Minority apparently disagrees. That’s because the Schiff Memo cites precisely the passage that Nunes is so sure will shock us for the following claims:

How odd that the Majority didn’t fight to have these passages, which derive from the passage they claim is so critical to have declassified, declassified in the Schiff Memo (not that I totally buy the Schiff memo on this point either: he claims that Page’s meeting with other key Russians, not the ones Steele described him meeting with, corroborate Steele’s reporting when it doesn’t). Similarly, the Majority also doesn’t want the passages of the fourth application that support this claim to be declassified.

For what it’s worth, a Republican who has reviewed these things told me last week that there was abundant evidence to support the surveillance on Page. So mostly this is just an attempt to beat up the Democrats for the Steele dossier; honest Republicans agree that Page was a legitimate surveillance target.

This is something the right wing press corps is struggling with (the cognitive dissonance among people like Ross would be palpable if logic were a requirement in his work) as much as the left wing, however. It appears increasingly likely that Steele was fed disinformation as a way to confuse the Democrats and ensure any investigation would look at marginal dolts like Page rather than centrally important dolts like Don Jr. I’ll even present a new factoid about how that may have happened in a follow-up.

That doesn’t mean that when the FBI relied on Steele, using the same measure they use for all consultants (past track record), they had reason to know it was disinformation. Rather, it’s yet another indication that Russia was really really intent on making sure it could get Trump elected, via whatever deceit.

But that doesn’t help the GOP claim that Trump isn’t thereby implicated.

Update: Fixed Dana Boente, not Sally Yates, as approving the third application h/t jr.

Denial and Deception: Did Trump Really Hire and Fire the Suspected Russian Assets on His Campaign?

As I laid out a few weeks ago, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post.

Recent developments in both the investigations into Carter Page and Paul Manafort have focused attention on a question I’ve been wondering about for some time: how any investigation will prove whether suspected Russian assets on the Trump campaign were ever with the campaign or really got fired.

Carter Page’s alleged denial and deception that he did what a potentially disinformation-filled dossier says he did

First, consider the Carter Page FISA applications. As I’ve said repeatedly, I actually think the FBI should be held accountable for their inclusion of the September 23, 2016 Michael Isikoff article based off of Steele’s work given their credulity that that reporting wasn’t downstream from Steele, particularly their continued inclusion of it after such time as Isikoff had made it clear the report relied on Steele. To be clear — given that they include this from the start, I’m not suggesting bad faith on the part of the FBI; I’m arguing it reflects an inability to properly read journalism that gets integrated into secret affidavits (this is something almost certainly repeated in the Keith Gartenlaub case). If you’re going to use public reporting in affidavits that will never see the light of day, learn how to read journalistic sourcing, goddamnit.

The Page application defenders argue that the inclusion of Isikoff in the Page application is not big deal because it didn’t serve to corroborate the Steele dossier on which it was based. That’s generally true. Instead, Isikoff is used in a section titled, “Page’s Denial of Cooperation with the Russian Government to Influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.” The section serves, I think, to show that Page was engaging in clandestine support of a Russian effort to undermine the election. The application claims FBI had probable cause that Page was an agent of a foreign power because he met clause E, someone who aids, abets, or conspires with someone engaging in clandestine activities, including sabotaging the election.

(A) knowingly engages in clandestine intelligence gathering activities for or on behalf of a foreign power, which activities involve or may involve a violation of the criminal statutes of the United States;

(B) pursuant to the direction of an intelligence service or network of a foreign power, knowingly engages in any other clandestine intelligence activities for or on behalf of such foreign power, which activities involve or are about to involve a violation of the criminal statutes of the United States;

(C) knowingly engages in sabotage or international terrorism, or activities that are in preparation therefor, for or on behalf of a foreign power;

[snip]

(E) knowingly aids or abets any person in the conduct of activities described in subparagraph (A), (B), or (C) or knowingly conspires with any person to engage in activities described in subparagraph (A), (B), or (C).

To prove this is all clandestine, the FBI needs to show Page and his alleged co-conspirators were hiding it, in spite of the public reporting on it.

The FBI cites this Josh Rogin interview with Page as well as a letter he sent to Jim Comey, to show that Page was denying that he was conspiring with Russians.

“All of these accusations are just complete garbage,” Page said about attacks on him by top officials in the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and unnamed intelligence officials, who have suggested that on a July trip to Moscow, Page met with “highly-sanctioned individuals” and perhaps even discussed an unholy alliance between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

As far as Page’s denials, he was specifically denying meeting with Igor Sechin and Igor Diveykin. He was definitely downplaying the likelihood that he got the invitation to Moscow because he was associated with Trump’s campaign, and he was not fulsome about having a quick exchange with other high ranking Russians.

But to this day, there is no evidence that Page did meet with Sechin and Diveykin (in the Schiff memo, he points to Page’s dodges about meeting other Russians as proof but it’s not). So citing Page’s denials to Rogin and Comey that he had had these meetings worked a lot like Saddam’s denials leading up to the Iraq War. Sometimes, when someone denies something, it’s true, and not proof of deception.

A similar structure appears to be repeated when what appears to be the section describing ongoing intelligence collection, starting with the third application (see PDF 340-1) excerpts a letter Page wrote in February 2017 attacking Hillary for “false evidence” that he met with Sechin and Diyevkin; as batshit as the letter sounds, as far as we know that specific claim is not true, and therefore this attack should only be treated as deception and denial if FBI has corroboration for other claims he denies here.

In other words, because the specific claims in the Steele dossier were the form of the accusations against Page, rather than the years-long effort the Russians made to recruit him, his willingness to play along, his interest in cuddling up to Russia, and his potential involvement in ensuring that Trump’s policy would be more pro-Russian than it otherwise might, Page’s specific denials of being an agent of Russia may well have been true even if in fact he was or at least reasonably looked like one based off other facts.

But was the Trump campaign deceiving about his departure from the campaign?

The applications don’t just show Page denying (correctly, as far as we know) that he met with Sechin and Diveykin. They also show great interest in the terms of his departure from the Trump campaign. Here’s part of what the application says about the Isikoff article:

Based on statements in the September 23rd News Article, as well as in other articles published by identified news organizations, Candidate #1’s campaign repeatedly made public statements in an attempt to distance Candidate #1 from Page. For example, the September 23rd News Article noted that Page’s precise role in Candidate #1’s campaign is unclear. According to the article, a spokesperson for Candidate #1’s campaign called Page an “informal foreign advisor” who” does not speak for [Candidate #1] or the campaign.” In addition, another spokesperson for Candidate #1’s campaign said that Page “has no role” and added “[w]e are not aware of his activities, past or present.” However, the article stated that the campaign spokesperson did not respond when asked why Candidate #1 had previously described Page as an advisor. In addition, on or about September 25, 2016, an identified news organization published an article that was based primarily on an interview with Candidate #1’s then campaign manager. During the interview, the campaign manager stated, “[Page is] not part of the campaign I’m running.” The campaign manager added that Page has not been part of Candidate #1’s national security or foreign policy briefings since he/she became campaign manager. In response to a question to a question from the interviewer regarding reports that Page was meeting with Russian officials to essentially attempt to conduct diplomatic negotiations with the Russian Government, the campaign manager responded, “If [Page is] doing that, he’s certainly not doing it with the permission or knowledge of the campaign . . . “

That passage is followed by three lines redacted under FOIA’s “techniques and procedures” (7E) and “enforcement proceedings” (7A) exemptions.

Again, this section seems dedicated to proving that Page and his conspirators are attempting to operate clandestinely — that they’re denying this ongoing operation. And the FBI treats Page’s and the campaign’s denials of any association as proof of deception.

To this day, of course, President Trump considers the Page FISA to be an investigation into his campaign.

Sure, the continued conflation of the Page FISA with his campaign serves a sustained strategy to confuse his base and discredit the investigation. But by willingly conflating the two, Trump only adds to the basis for which FBI might treat the conflicting admissions and denials of Page’s past and ongoing role in the campaign in fall 2016 as part of an effort to deceive.

Which is to say that while Page’s denials of meeting with Igor Sechin might be bogus analysis, the competing claims from the campaign — while they were likely at least partly incompetent efforts to limit damage during a campaign — might (especially as they persist) more justifiably be taken as proof of deception.

Steve Bannon got picked up on Page’s wiretaps in January 2017

All the more so given that Steve Bannon reached out to Page — via communication channels that were almost surely wiretapped — in early 2017 to prevent him from publicly appearing and reminding of his role on the campaign. As Page explained in his testimony to HPSCI:

MR. SCHIFF: Have you had any interaction with Steve Bannon?

MR. PAGE: We — we had a brief conversation in January, and we shared some text messages. That’s about it.

MR. SCHIFF: January of this year?

MR. PAGE: Yes.

MR. SCHIFF: What was the nature of your text message exchange?

MR. PAGE: It was — he had heard I was going to be on I believe it was an MSNBC event. And he just said it’s probably not a good idea. So —

MR. SCHIFF: And he heard this from?

MR. PAGE: I am not sure, but —

MR. SCHIFF: So he was telling you not to go on MSNBC?

MR. PAGE: Yes.

MR. SCHIFF: And he texted this to you?

MR. PAGE: He called me. It was right when I was — it was in mid-January, so —

MR. SCHIFF: And how did he have your number?

MR. PAGE: Well, I mean, I think there is the campaign had my number. He probably got it from the campaign, if I had to guess. I don’t know.

MR. SCHIFF: And did Mr. Bannon tell you why he didn’t want you to go on MSNBC?

MR. PAGE: No. But it turns out, I mean, I saw eventually the same day and in the same hour slot in the “Meet the Press” daily, it was Vice President Pence. And this is kind of a week after the dodgy dossier was fully released. And so I can understand, you know, given reality, why it might not be a good idea when he heard, probably from the producer — somehow the word got back via the producers that I would be on there, so —

MR. SCHIFF: I am not sure that I follow that, but in any event, apart from your speculating about it, what did he communicate as to why he thought you should not go on MSNBC?

MR. PAGE: I can’t recall the specifics.

MR. SCHIFF: Did he tell you he thought it would be hurtful to the President?

MR. PAGE: Not specifically, although there was a — I had received — we had some — letter exchanges perviously, kind of sharing — between Jones Day and myself, just saying — I forget the exact terminology, but — you know, the overall message was: Don’t give the wrong impression. Or my interpretation of the message was: Don’t give the wrong impression that you’re part of the administration or the Trump campaign.

And my response to that was, of course, I’m not. The only reason I ever talked to the media is to try to clear up this massive mess which has been created about my name.

[snip]

MR. SCHIFF: So, when Mr. Bannon called you to ask you not to go on, did he make any reference to the correspondence from the campaign?

MR. PAGE: I can’t recall. Again, I had just gotten off a 14-hour flight from Abu Dhabi.

MR. SCHIFF: He just made it clear he didn’t want you to do the interview?

MR. PAGE: That’s all I recall, yeah.

MR. SCHIFF: And what did you tell him?

MR. PAGE: I told him: I won’t do it. That’s fine. No big deal.

In the wake of the release of the Steele dossier, Trump’s top political advisor Steve Bannon (who, we now know, was in the loop on some discussions of a back channel to Russia) called up Carter Page on a wiretapped phone and told him not to go on MSNBC to try to rebut the Steele dossier.

I can get why that’d be sound judgment, from a political standpoint. But the attempt to quash a Page appearance and/or present any link to Pence during a period when he was pushing back about Mike Flynn and when Bannon was setting up back channels with Russians sure seems like an attempt to dissociate from Page as the visible symbol of conspiring with Russia all while continuing that conspiracy.

Speaking of Paul Manafort’s many conspiracies

Which brings me, finally, to a filing the government submitted in Paul Manafort’s DC trial yesterday.

Every time people claim that neither of the Manafort indictments relate to conspiring with Russia, I point out (in part) that Manafort sought to hide his long-term tie with Viktor Yanukovych and the Russian oligarchs paying his bills in an attempt to limit damage such associations would have to the ongoing Trump campaign. Effectively, when those ties became clear, Manafort stepped down and allegedly engaged in a conspiracy to hide those ties, all while remaining among Trump’s advisors.

In response to Manafort’s effort to preclude any mention of the Trump campaign in the DC case, the Mueller team argued they might discuss it if Manafort raises it in an attempt to impeach Rick Gates.

Manafort’s role in the Trump campaign, however, is relevant to the false-statement offenses charged in Counts 4 and 5 of the indictment. Indeed, Manafort’s position as chairman of the Trump campaign and his incentive to keep that position are relevant to his strong interest in distancing himself from former Ukrainian President Yanukovych, the subject of the false statements that he then reiterated to his FARA attorney to convey to the Department of Justice. In particular, the press reports described in paragraphs 26 and 27 of the indictment prompted Manafort and Gates to develop their scheme to conceal their lobbying. Dkt. 318 ¶¶ 26-27.

For example, on August 15, 2016, a member of the press e-mailed Manafort and copied a spokesperson for the Trump campaign to solicit a comment for a forthcoming story describing his lobbying. Gates corresponded with Manafort about this outreach and explained that he “provided” the journalist “information on background and then agreed that we would provide these answers to his questions on record.” He then proposed a series of answers to the journalist’s questions and asked Manafort to “review the below and let me know if anything else is needed,” to which Manafort replied, in part, “These answers look fine.” Gates sent a materially identical message to one of the principals of Company B approximately an hour later and “per our conversation.” The proposed answers Gates conveyed to Manafort, the press, and Company B are those excerpted in the indictment in paragraph 26.

An article by this member of the press associating Manafort with undisclosed lobbying on behalf of Ukraine was published shortly after Gates circulated the Manafort-approved false narrative to Company B and the member of the press. Manafort, Gates, and an associate of Manafort’s corresponded about how to respond to this article, including the publication of an article to “punch back” that contended that Manafort had in fact pushed President Yanukovych to join the European Union. Gates responded to the punch-back article that “[w]e need to get this out to as many places as possible. I will see if I can get it to some people,” and Manafort thanked the author by writing “I love you! Thank you.” Manafort resigned his position as chairman of the Trump campaign within days of the press article disclosing his lobbying for Ukraine.

Manafort’s role with the Trump campaign is thus relevant to his motive for undertaking the charged scheme to conceal his lobbying activities on behalf of Ukraine. Here, it would be difficult for the jury to understand why Manafort and Gates began crafting and disseminating a false story regarding their Ukrainian lobbying work nearly two years after that work ceased—but before any inquiry by the FARA Unit—without being made aware of the reason why public scrutiny of Manafort’s work intensified in mid-2016. Nor would Manafort’s motives for continuing to convey that false information to the FARA Unit make sense: having disseminated a false narrative to the press while his position on the Trump campaign was in peril, Manafort either had to admit these falsehoods publicly or continue telling the lie. [my emphasis]

Finally, Mueller is making this argument. The reason Manafort went to significant lengths in 2016 to avoid registering for all this Ukraine work, Mueller has finally argued, is because of his actions to deny the ties in an effort to remain on the Trump campaign and his effort to limit fallout afterwards.

This argument, of course, is unrelated to the competing stories that Trump told about why he fired Manafort (or whether, for example, Roger Stone was formally affiliated with the campaign during the period when he was reaching out to WikiLeaks and Guccifer 2.0). But since at least fall 2016 the FBI has been documenting efforts to lie about Trump’s willing ties to a bunch of people with close ties to Russians helping to steal the election and/or set up Trump as a Russian patsy.

And while the evidence that Page was lying when denying the specifics about the accusations against him in the dossier remains weak (at least as far as the unredacted sections are concerned), the evidence that the campaign has been involved in denial and deception since they got rid of first Manafort and then Page is not.

Carter Page’s incoherent ramblings may not actually be denial and deception. But Donald Trump’s sure look to be.

[Photo: Emily Morter via Unsplash]

Get Carter, Redux

[Note the byline, please — this is Rayne, NOT Marcy.]

[Get Carter by MGM c. 1971]

By now you’ve probably heard, viewed, read a lot about the Justice Department’s release of the four FISA applications submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) requesting authorization to surveil U.S. citizen Carter Page.

All 412 pages of four applications.

Can I just say how much Carter Page annoys me? He’s perfected the art of acting like a complete doofus, which made reading his testimony to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) absolute torture to read; he even gave Russian spies Evgeny Buryakov, Igor Sporyshev, and Victor Podobnyy pause back in 2014-2015 when he was in contact with them here in the U.S. I’ve yet to find a searchable text version of his HPSCI testimony because no one apparently wanted to OCR his babbling.

He’s also appeared on television frequently, producing bizarre interviews which undermine the idea he is capable of damage.

Yet this “idiot,” as Russian spies have called him, pulled off meeting contacts only one and two degrees of separation from Vladimir Putin. He’s weaseled and lied about these repeated contacts when he hasn’t refused to answer questions altogether.

But his crazy-pants interviews and patchy statements combined with intelligence from other credible sources establish a snapshot of what a reasonable person would believe is an agent of a foreign power.

He was already quite iffy given his contacts in 2014-1015 with Buryakov, Sporyshev, and Podobnyy. But his actions during 2016 were a magnitude more questionable, particularly with additional intelligence not all of which was Christopher Steele’s.

Come on now, on the face of it Page was worth monitoring: the “idiot” ends up on the Trump campaign team, travels to Moscow smack in the middle of the election season, ends up hobnobbing with Putin’s circle while watching Europa football exactly one month after a U.S. diplomat was physically attacked in Moscow, then gives U.S. foreign policy-bashing speeches two successive days in a row in front of Russian dignitaries at a university funded in part by oligarch Len Blavatnik.

Two weeks later he praised Trump campaign team members for their efforts to change the RNC platform which softened the party’s position on arming Ukraine.

All the while holding an investment stake of ADRs in PJSC Gazprom.

Nothing to see here, no probable cause, move along — right? [insert boldface snark tag]

It’s very easy for the uninitiated to see how much more suspicious the level of Page’s contacts and activities appeared to the FBI without doing a lot of fine reading. Here is an excerpt from the October 2016 FISA app (pages 32-33 of 412), consisting of the FBI’s conclusion:

And here is the conclusion from the subsequent January 2017 FISA app, filed when the October 2016 application was about to lapse:

Each excerpted Conclusion above ends at section 4 Proposed Minimization Procedures. Though both conclusions are heavily redacted, the second conclusion exploded from not quite two pages to nearly six pages, suggesting that Page’s statements and actions combined with other additional and new intelligence provided the FBI with even more reason to suspect Page was an agent of a foreign state who should be surveilled.

Could some of the redacted material consist of Steele dossier intelligence? Sure. But as Marcy pointed out earlier today, the dossier’s use will likely prevent Page from being prosecuted. However the second application contains a half-page-long footnote about Steele and the dossier:

Note the boldface; the FBI made certain to qualify “Source #1” (Steele) and his material. It also appears the FBI had adequate additional sources without Source 1 including intelligence from the Buryakov spy case.

~ | ~

A troll infestation across the internet continues its work, insisting the FBI didn’t make adequate disclosures to the FISC about Steele’s intelligence. It’s funny, though, how their elected-yet-trollish counterparts Representatives Devin Nunes, Matt Gaetz, Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan look after the release of these applications.

The retweet at the top of Jordan’s feed as I draft this post:

Jordan sounds frantic in that embedded video. One could only wonder why a representative under pressure for ignoring sexual abuse claims might be so anxious about investigating the DOJ (denials about the sexual abuse scandal just happen to be the tweet preceding this one in Jordan’s timeline).

Meadows doubles down on stupid:

Does he really believe the declassification and unredacting any more of these FISA apps will make the HPSCI’s GOP members’ obstruction look any better?

Speaking of obstruction, Devin Nunes tweeted a little over 24 hours after the FISA apps were released that his memo was accurate:

So desperate and unhinged.

And Matt Gaetz appeared in denial with this tweet which remained at the top of his timeline for more than 24 hours, ignoring the FISA apps altogether; the retweet preceding it contains a Fox News video in which Florida’s Rep. Ron DeSantis blames Obama for Putin’s meddling:

Not a horse I’d bet money on.

~ | ~

Other takes on the FISA applications you’ll want to read:

David Kris at Lawfareblog: What to Make of the Carter Page FISA Applications

Julian Sanchez on Twitter 

Matt Tait (Pwnallthethings) on Twitter 

Leah McElrath on Twitter  noting changes in status to certain app signers

Charlie Savage on Twitter 

The Hoarse Whisperer on Twitter, who brings up an interesting point

and our good friend Cynthia Kouril via Twitter, bringing a prosecutor’s eye.

~ | ~

Now I have to go through the Carter Page timeline and see if anything in this 412 pages changes or adds to its content. Damn you, Page — as if I had nothing better to do this week.

Treat this as an open thread — leave comments in Marcy’s posts focused on topic.

Christopher Steele Probably Saved Carter Page from Prosecution

As I laid out a few weeks ago, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post.

As you no doubt know, the government released the Carter Page FISA materials in response to a slew of FOIAs for it. I’m still at HOPE conference, so will do a quick impression, and follow-up later in the week with real analysis.

I believe that Christopher Steele and his shitty disinformation dossier likely saved Carter Page from being prosecuted. I say that because the four FISA applications strongly suggest that the FBI had reason independent of the dossier to believe Page was happily serving as an agent of Russia, including new information in renewals. Nevertheless, it’s clear that a significant portion of the initial application did rely on Steele.

To be clear, I think most of the treatment of Steele is perfectly appropriate. As I’ve said before, FISA applications rely on a range of human sources, including informants and contractors like Steele. For each, the FBI will assess the source’s credibility, weighing things like his bias or personal animosity and past reliability. The applications did this at length for Steele, noting that he had an established history of quality reporting, explaining that he used subsources for his reporting, describing that this information came as part of politically motivated research, admitting that in follow-up Steele expressed real desperation about Trump, and describing how Steele got cut off for sharing information with the press. Four Republican judges assessed all this and approved these orders, and that seems like a reasonable judgment.

I increasingly believe the Russians started feeding Steele disinformation from the very beginning of his project. So this would represent a case where a previously reliable consultant had, in this instance, proven totally unreliable.  That happens, I’m sure.

The problem, however, is that the FBI couldn’t figure out that the Michael Isikoff report was based on the Steele dossier, something Isikoff has admitted. While the way they use the Isikoff report isn’t about validating the intelligence, it nevertheless should have been scrutinized closely enough to understand it might be downstream of Steele. I’ve laid part of this out here (and I’ll probably flesh out this discussion later when there aren’t hackers to hang out with).

Because of how the government apparently uses FISA reauthorizations, this defect remained in the reauthorizations, even as FBI admitted the problems associated with Steele. That doesn’t mean FBI didn’t have a slew of other reasons to wiretap Page. They obviously were obtaining useful intelligence off the wiretap. I can think of several criminal defendants who had what are surely more problematic stuff in their FISA application, who nevertheless had information downstream of that FISA application used in a prosecution against them. So thus far, it simply reflects what happens when you discover intelligence you had every reason to believe was reliable turned out not to be.

Ideally, however, once it became clear the dossier was a problem, they should have done something like submit a fresh application laying out all the other evidence that led the FBI to believe Page is a happy Russian asset. Not all of the stuff is fruit of the Steele tree (and as I’ve noted repeatedly, virtually none of the most important parts of what I know of the Mueller investigation is fruit of the Page wiretapping).

But that didn’t happen. So everything will now be treated as fruit of a stupid dossier, meaning none of it will be admissible in court. And that, I suspect, means that Page will never be prosecuted in spite of what appears to be a whole bunch of redacted information showing ongoing efforts to help Russia.

Indeed, I suspect that’s why the Steele defenders have fought so hard to claim the dossier has been corroborated: because if it were, then it might still be cool to go after Page, but because so little of it has been corroborated, that likely will never happen.

Putting a Face (Mine) to the Risks Posed by GOP Games on Mueller Investigation

I’d like to put a human face — my own — to the risk posed by GOP gamesmanship on the Mueller investigation.

Sometime last year, I went to the FBI and provided information on a person whom I had come to believe had played a significant role in the Russian election attack on the US. Since that time, a number of public events have made it clear I was correct.

I never in my life imagined I would share information with the FBI, especially not on someone I had a journalistic relationship with. I did so for many reasons. Some, but not all, of the reasons are:

  • I believed he was doing serious harm to innocent people
  • I believed (others agreed) that reporting the story at that time would risk doing far more harm than good
  • I had concrete evidence he was lying to me and others, including but not limited to other journalists
  • I had reason to believe he was testing ways to tamper with my website
  • I believed that if the FBI otherwise came to understand what kind of information I had, their likely investigative steps would pose a risk to the privacy of my readers

To protect the investigation, I will not disclose this person’s true identity or the identity and/or role I believe he played in the attack. Nor will I disclose when I went to the FBI. I did so on my own, without subpoena; I did that in an effort to protect people who have spoken to me in confidence and other journalists. Largely because this effort involved a number of last minute trips to other cities, I spent around $6K of my own money traveling to meet with lawyers and for the meeting with the FBI.

I always planned to disclose this when this person’s role was publicly revealed. But I’m doing so now for two reasons. First, I think the public deserves to see the text he sent me at 3:15 PM on November 9, 2016.

The substance of the text — that the Trump team started focusing on Syria right after the election — has been corroborated and tied to their discussions with Russia at least twice since then. Most importantly, in his statement to Congress, Jared Kushner explained his request for a back channel with the Russians by describing an effort to cooperate on Syria.

The Ambassador [Sergei Kislyak] expressed similar sentiments about relations, and then said he especially wanted to address U.S. policy in Syria, and that he wanted to convey information from what he called his “generals.” He said he wanted to provide information that would help inform the new administration. He said the generals could not easily come to the U.S. to convey this information and he asked if there was a secure line in the transition office to conduct a conversation. General Flynn or I explained that there were no such lines. I believed developing a thoughtful approach on Syria was a very high priority given the ongoing humanitarian crisis, and I asked if they had an existing communications channel at his embassy we could use where they would be comfortable transmitting the information they wanted to relay to General Flynn.

Less credibly, in the days after Mike Flynn pled guilty, an inflammatory Brian Ross report was corrected to reveal that “shortly after the election” Trump asked Flynn personally to work with Russia on Syria (Ross left ABC yesterday but as far as I understand the corrected story stands).

Retired Lt. Gen Michael Flynn has promised “full cooperation” in the special counsel’s Russia investigation and, according to a confidant, is prepared to testify that Donald Trump directed him to make contact with the Russians, initially as a way to work together to fight ISIS in Syria.

[snip]

The source said Trump phoned Flynn shortly after the election to explicitly ask him to “serve as point person on Russia,” and to reach out personally to Russian officials to develop strategies to jointly combat ISIS.

The text sent to me matches both those reports — indeed, it makes it clear that “shortly after the election” means just over 14 hours after polls closed. But the text doesn’t come from anyone, like Kushner or Flynn, inside the Trump team. It comes from someone who, I believe, had already done real damage to the United States as part of the Russian attack. That person understood the cooperation with Syria in terms of the US backing Bashar al-Assad, not in terms of fighting ISIS.

I’m making this public now because a David Ignatius report Thursday maps out an imminent deal with Russia and Israel that sounds like what was described to me within hours of the election. This deal appears to be the culmination of an effort that those involved in the Russian attack worked to implement within hours after the election.

The other reason I’m disclosing this now is to put a human face to the danger in which the House Republicans are putting other people who, like me, provided information about the Russian attack on the US to the government.

Several times since I first considered sharing information with the FBI, I’ve asked my attorney to contact the FBI to tell them of what I perceived to be a real threat that arose from sharing that information. One of those times, I let law enforcement officers enter my house without a warrant, without me being present.

My risk isn’t going to go away — indeed, going public like this will surely exacerbate it. That’s to be expected, given the players involved.

But I’m a public figure. If something happens to me — if someone releases stolen information about me or knocks me off tomorrow — everyone will now know why and who likely did it. That affords me a small bit of protection. There are undoubtedly numerous other witnesses who have taken similar risks to share information with the government who aren’t public figures. The Republicans’ ceaseless effort to find out more details about people who’ve shared information with the government puts those people in serious jeopardy.

I’m speaking out because they can’t — and shouldn’t have to.

It infuriates me to observe (and cover) a months-long charade by the House GOP to demand more and more details about those who have shared information with the government, at least some of whom were only trying to prevent real damage to innocent people, all in an attempt to discredit the Mueller investigation. As someone who has worked to rein in dragnets for over a decade, I’m all the more disgusted to see so many lifelong cheerleaders of surveillance pretend to care now.

I only came to be convinced slowly about Russia’s role in the attack and I have been skeptical of the Steele dossier from the day it was published. That said, I obviously do not like Donald Trump — though I’m no Hillary fan, either. But my decision to share information with the FBI had nothing to do with my dislike for Donald Trump. It had to do with the serious damage that someone else I believed to be involved in the Russian attack — someone I had been friendly with — was doing to innocent people, almost all of those people totally uninvolved in American politics.

This investigation is not, primarily, an investigation into Donald Trump. It’s an investigation into people who attacked the United States. It’s time Republicans started acting like that matters.

On Thursday night, I reached out to the Special Counsel’s Office to inquire whether I could post this without damaging the investigation. After sharing the specific language from the passages I felt might pose the biggest concern, last night at 10:15, I was informed they, “take no position” on my posting it.

The Frothing Right Prefers Oleg Deripaska as an FBI Asset to Christopher Steele

If John Solomon were still doing journalism, the lede of this piece would be that the FBI interviewed Oleg Deripaska in September 2016, even as the Russian operation to tamper in the election was ongoing.

Two months before Trump was elected president, Deripaska was in New York as part of Russia’s United Nations delegation when three FBI agents awakened him in his home; at least one agent had worked with Deripaska on the aborted effort to rescue Levinson. During an hour-long visit, the agents posited a theory that Trump’s campaign was secretly colluding with Russia to hijack the U.S. election.

“Deripaska laughed but realized, despite the joviality, that they were serious,” the lawyer said. “So he told them in his informed opinion the idea they were proposing was false. ‘You are trying to create something out of nothing,’ he told them.” The agents left though the FBI sought more information in 2017 from the Russian, sources tell me. Waldman declined to say if Deripaska has been in contact with the FBI since Sept, 2016.

Telling that story would make it clear that the FBI pursued an investigation into Russian tampering at the source, by questioning Russians suspected of being involved. Republicans should be happy to know the FBI was using such an approach.

But Solomon isn’t doing journalism anymore — even his employer now acknowledges that that’s true. After complaints about his propaganda (in part, attacking the Mueller investigation) he has been relegated to the opinion section of The Hill.

Not before his last effort to impugn Mueller, though, claiming that because the FBI used Deripaska as a go-between in a 2009 effort to rescue Robert Levinson, Mueller is prevented from investigating him now.

In 2009, when Mueller ran the FBI, the bureau asked Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska to spend millions of his own dollars funding an FBI-supervised operation to rescue a retired FBI agent, Robert Levinson, captured in Iran while working for the CIA in 2007.

[snip]

Deripaska’s lawyer said the Russian ultimately spent $25 million assembling a private search and rescue team that worked with Iranian contacts under the FBI’s watchful eye. Photos and videos indicating Levinson was alive were uncovered.

Then in fall 2010, the operation secured an offer to free Levinson. The deal was scuttled, however, when the State Department become uncomfortable with Iran’s terms, according to Deripaska’s lawyer and the Levinson family.

FBI officials confirmed State hampered their efforts.

“We tried to turn over every stone we could to rescue Bob, but every time we started to get close, the State Department seemed to always get in the way,” said Robyn Gritz, the retired agent who supervised the Levinson case in 2009, when Deripaska first cooperated, but who left for another position in 2010 before the Iranian offer arrived. “I kept Director Mueller and Deputy Director [John] Pistole informed of the various efforts and operations, and they offered to intervene with State, if necessary.”

FBI officials ended the operation in 2011, concerned that Deripaska’s Iranian contacts couldn’t deliver with all the U.S. infighting.

Even assuming Solomon’s tale — which is that offered by Deripaska’s lawyer — is factually correct, what this means is that the FBI used Deripaska as an asset, just like they’ve used Christopher Steele as a source. Of course, using ex-MI6 officer Steele, for the frothy right, is a heinous crime. But using a Russian billionaire, according to a propagandist who has been regurgitating Trump spin since he was elected, is heroic. Perhaps that’s why a Trump crony, Bryan Lanza, is also trying to help Deripaska’s company beat the sanctions recently imposed on him.

Of course, Solomon doesn’t consider the possibility that FBI and State balked in 2011 because Deripaska himself had proven unreliable. Which would explain a lot of what transpired in the years since. Nor does he consider — nor has the frothy right generally — the possibility that any damning disinformation in the Steele dossier ended up there in part via Deripaska.

Certainly, Deripaska’s own asset, Paul Manafort, seemed prepared to capitalize on that disinformation.

As the Mueller investigation has proceeded, we’ve gotten just a glimpse of how the spooks trade in information, involving allies like Steele and Stefan Halper, and more sordid types like George Nader (who appears to have traded information to get out of consequences for a child porn habit), Felix Sater (who claims, dubiously, to be offering full cooperation with Mueller based on years of working off his own mob ties), and even Deripaska.

Curiously, it’s Deripaska that propagandists spewing the White House line seem most interested in celebrating.

Update: Chuck Ross did a story based on Solomon’s report, and did note that the FBI questioned Deripaska in September 2016. But, fresh off complaining that I had called him out for doing this in another story, turns a story about Manafort and his long-time Russian associate into a story about the dossier (in which Deripaska is not named).

In September 2016, FBI agents approached Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska to ask about allegations President Donald Trump’s campaign was colluding with the Russian government to influence the election, according to a new report.

Deripaska, who was at his apartment in New York City for the interview, waved the three agents off of the collusion theory, saying there was no coordination between the Trump team and Kremlin, The Hill reported Monday.

The agents, one of whom Deripaska knew from a previous FBI case, said they believed former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was involved in the conspiracy, an allegation made in the infamous Steele dossier.

Ross then continues on, dossier … dossier … dossier … dossier … dossier, including this claim not supported by any public evidence.

It is also an indicator of how they investigated some of the allegations made in the dossier.

By the time September 2016 rolled around, it had been two months since Deripaska go-between Konstantin Kilimnik emailed (probably via a PRISM service)  Manafort about paying off his debt to Deripaska by giving inside dirt on the campaign. There were meetings in NYC. In September 2016, Alex Van der Zwaan was actively covering up the ongoing efforts to hide Manafort’s involvement in Ukraine’s persecution of Yulia Tymoshenko, and doing so in the servers of a law firm going to pains to clear their name.

And all that’s before you consider what hasn’t been shared with Congress and leaked to the press.

Meanwhile, the only mention of Deripaska in the dossier by September was an undated July report claiming that Manafort was happy to have the focus on Russia because the Trump corruption in China was worse (and also suggesting that Manafort used Carter Page as a go-between with Russia); given reports about when Steele shared reports with the FBI, it’s not clear the Bureau would have had that yet. In any case, the more extensive discussion of Manafort comes later, after the Deripaska interview.

Had Manafort been a surveillance focus solely for the dossier (something that wasn’t even true for Page), you’d have heard that by now.

Every time Mueller submits a filing explaining how the Manafort Ukraine investigation came out of the Russia investigation, he has mentioned Deripaska. Trump’s own team leaked questions suggesting that Mueller is sitting on information that Manafort reached out to Russians asking for help (and Deripaska was among those we know he was in touch with).

And yet, after competently noting that the FBI interviewed Deripaska, Ross made the crazypants suggestion that any suspicion of Manafort would arise from the dossier and not abundant other known evidence.

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 Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation (Part Four)

In this series, I’m analyzing the Mueller questions as understood by Jay Sekulow and leaked to the NYT to show how they set up a more damning investigative framework than commentary has reflected.

This post laid out how the Agalarovs had been cultivating Trump for years, in part by dangling real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin. This post shows how during the election, the Russians and Trump 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. This post laid out how, during the transition period, Trump’s team took a series of actions they attempted to keep secret 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.

This post will look at Mueller’s reported investigative interest in Trump’s reaction to discovering the “Deep State” was investigating the election year operation, including the actions his team had tried to keep secret. Note, I have put all of the events leading up to Flynn’s firing here (not least because I think the firing itself often gets treated improperly as obstruction), though just some of the Jim Comey events. I will repeat the timeline of events in the next post, which overlaps temporally, for clarity.

January 6, 2017: What was your opinion of Mr. Comey during the transition?

This is a baseline question for Trump’s firing of Jim Comey. At a minimum, Trump would need to explain his decision to keep Comey. It also provides Trump an opportunity to rebut Comey’s claim that, in the January 6 meeting, Trump told Comey he:

had conducted myself honorably and had a great reputation. He said I was repeatedly put in impossible positions. He said you saved her and then they hated you for what you did later, but what coice did you have? He said he thought very highly of me and looked forward to working with me, saying he hoped I planned to stay on. I assured him I intended to stay. He said good.

January 6, 2017: What did you think about Mr. Comey’s intelligence briefing on Jan. 6, 2017, about Russian election interference?

One key detail Comey (and the other representatives of the intelligence community) would have detailed for Trump that day is not just that Russia interfered in the election, but their basis for concluding that “We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances,” a conclusion Republicans have objected to repeatedly.

In his book, but not his memos, Comey describes that immediately after the briefing, Trump first asked for assurances Russian interference hadn’t affected the outcome and then, with his team, started strategizing how to spin the conclusions so as to dismiss any outcome on the election.

‘I recall Trump listening without interrupting, and asking only one question, which was really more of a statement: “But you found there was no impact on the result, right?” The intelligence team said they had done no such analysis.

‘What I found telling was what Trump and his team didn’t ask. They were about to lead a country that had been attacked by a foreign adversary, yet they had no questions about what the future Russian threat might be.’

Instead, Trump and his team immediately started discussing how they would “spin” the information on Russia as if the intelligence officers were not in the room. ‘They were keen to emphasize that there was no impact on the vote, meaning that the Russians hadn’t elected Trump.’

This reflects the same concern expressed in the KT McFarland email from just days earlier (which probably reflected detailed Trump involvement) that acknowledging Russian involvement would “discredit[] Trump’s victory by saying it was due to Russian interference.”

January 6, 2017: What was your reaction to Mr. Comey’s briefing that day about other intelligence matters?

In its analysis of the questions, NYT takes this question to be exclusively about Comey’s briefing on the Steele dossier, and it may be. But in Obama’s January 5 briefing covering the same issues, according to Susan Rice, Comey and others discussed concerns about sharing classified information with the Trump team, especially Mike Flynn.

The memorandum to file drafted by Ambassador Rice memorialized an important national security discussion between President Obama and the FBI Director and the Deputy Attorney General. President Obama and his national security team were justifiably concerned about potential risks to the Nation’s security from sharing highly classified information about Russia with certain members of the Trump transition team, particularly Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

Even though concerns about Flynn came up in that Obama briefing, the FBI counterintelligence investigation did not. It’s possible that this passage from Comey’s memo, which describes the main part of the briefing and not that part dedicated to the Steele dossier, pertained to the counterintelligence concerns about Flynn,which Obama had already shared with Trump the previous fall; such a warning may or may not have included Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak.

If Comey briefed anything to do with Flynn, it would significantly change the importance of subsequent events.

As for the Steele dossier conversation, which surely is included with this question, Comey has claimed that Trump first tried to convince Comey is wasn’t true that he would need to “go there” to sleeping with prostitutes, “there were never prostitutes,” even though Trump’s reference to “the women who had falsely accused him of grabbing or touching them” actually undermined his defense.

Comey has also claimed that Trump seemed relieved when he said (in the context of the Steele briefing), that the FBI was not investigating him. Importantly, this took place after Comey had said he didn’t want people to claim the information came from the FBI.

I said media like CNN had them and were looking for a news hook. I said it was important that we not give them an excuse to write that the FBI has the material or [redacted] and that we were keeping it very close-hold.

[snip]

I responded that we were not investigating him and the stuff might be totally made up but that it was being said out of Russia and our job was to protect the President from efforts to coerce him. I said we try to understand what the Russians are doing and what they might do. I added that I also wanted him to know this in case it came out in the media.

He said he was grateful for the conversation, said more nice things about me and how he looks forward to working with me and we departed the room.

January 12, 2017: What was your reaction to news reports on Jan. 12, 2017?

On January 12, in the context of a discussion of Trump aiming for better relationships with Putin, David Ignatius reported revealed that Flynn had called Sergey Kislyak “several times,” asking whether but not asserting that it might be an attempt to undercut sanctions.

Trump said Wednesday that his relationship with President Vladimir Putin is “an asset, not a liability.” Fair enough, but until he’s president, Trump needs to let Obama manage U.S.-Russia policy.

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s choice for national security adviser, cultivates close Russian contacts. He has appeared on Russia Today and received a speaking fee from the cable network, which was described in last week’s unclassified intelligence briefing on Russian hacking as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.”

According to a senior U.S. government official, Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking. What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions? The Logan Act(though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about “disputes” with the United States. Was its spirit violated? The Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The report neither revealed the FBI had intercepts of the conversation nor confirmed an investigation. But it may have alerted Trump that the actions he was probably a party to weeks earlier might have legal consequences.

January 24: FBI interviews Mike Flynn and he lies about talking about sanctions

January 26 and 27, 2017: What did you know about Sally Yates’s meetings about Mr. Flynn?

According to Sally Yates’ public testimony, she met with Don McGahn to discuss Mike Flynn’s interview with the FBI on January 26, 2017. She framed it by describing that DOJ knew Mike Pence’s January 15 comments about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak were not correct.

YATES: So I told them again that there were a number of press accounts of statements that had been made by the vice president and other high-ranking White House officials about General Flynn’s conduct that we knew to be untrue. And we told them how we knew that this – how we had this information, how we had acquired it, and how we knew that it was untrue.

And we walked the White House Counsel who also had an associate there with him through General Flynn’s underlying conduct, the contents of which I obviously cannot go through with you today because it’s classified. But we took him through in a fair amount of detail of the underlying conduct, what General Flynn had done, and then we walked through the various press accounts and how it had been falsely reported.

We also told the White House Counsel that General Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI on February [sic] 24. Mr. McGahn asked me how he did and I declined to give him an answer to that. And we then walked through with Mr. McGahn essentially why we were telling them about this and the first thing we did was to explain to Mr. McGahn that the underlying conduct that General Flynn had engaged in was problematic in and of itself.

Secondly, we told him we felt like the vice president and others were entitled to know that the information that they were conveying to the American people wasn’t true. And we wanted to make it really clear right out of the gate that we were not accusing Vice President Pence of knowingly providing false information to the American people.

And, in fact, Mr. McGahn responded back to me to let me know that anything that General Flynn would’ve said would have been based — excuse me — anything that Vice President Pence would have said would have been based on what General Flynn had told him.

We told him the third reason was — is because we were concerned that the American people had been misled about the underlying conduct and what General Flynn had done, and additionally, that we weren’t the only ones that knew all of this, that the Russians also knew about what General Flynn had done.

And the Russians also knew that General Flynn had misled the vice president and others, because in the media accounts, it was clear from the vice president and others that they were repeating what General Flynn had told them, and that this was a problem because not only did we believe that the Russians knew this, but that they likely had proof of this information.

And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians. Finally, we told them that we were giving them all of this information so that they could take action, the action that they deemed appropriate.

I remember that Mr. McGahn asked me whether or not General Flynn should be fired, and I told him that that really wasn’t our call, that was up to them, but that we were giving them this information so that they could take action, and that was the first meeting.

Then there was a follow-up meeting on January 27. Among the five topics discussed, McGahn asked if Flynn was in legal jeopardy, and if “they” (presumably meaning he and the Associate WHCO in the meeting) could see the underlying intelligence.

WHITEHOUSE: Did you discuss criminal prosecution of Mr. Flynn — General Flynn?

YATES: My recollection is that did not really come up much in the first meeting. It did come up in the second meeting, when Mr. McGahn called me back the next morning and asked the — the morning after — this is the morning of the 27th, now — and asked me if I could come back to his office.

And so I went back with the NSD official, and there were essentially four topics that he wanted to discuss there, and one of those topics was precisely that. He asked about the applicability of certain statutes, certain criminal statutes and, more specifically,

[snip]

And there was a request made by Mr. McGahn, in the second meeting as to whether or not they would be able to look at the underlying evidence that we had that we had described for him of General Flynn’s conduct. And we told him that we were inclined to allow them to look at that underlying evidence, that we wanted to go back to DOJ and be able to make the logistical arrangements for that. This second meeting on the 27th occurred late in the afternoon, this is Friday the 27th. So we told him that we would work with the FBI over the weekend on this issue and get back with him on Monday morning. And I called him first thing Monday morning to let him know that we would allow them to come over and to review the underlying evidence.

By the time the materials for review became available on January 30, Yates had been fired, nominally because she refused to defend Trump’s Muslim ban.

The HPSCI report (particularly content newly unredacted on May 4; see PDF 63 ff) reveals there were several concerns about Flynn’s contradictory comments (which Republicans bizarrely present as conflict). First, there had been a counterintelligence investigation into Flynn still active in December 2016, though FBI may have been moving to shut it down. The interview may have been sparked by Logan Act concerns, or it may have been Flynn’s public comments to Pence (the Republican report ignores that this would pose a blackmail problem). Comey told HPSCI that the agents found Flynn — a lifetime intelligence officer — exhibited no physical signs of deceit, but made it clear the Agents did find his statements plainly conflicted with known facts.

When Mueller asks the President what he knew about the meetings, he likely wants to know (and already has answers from McGahn and likely the Associate) whether they told him about the Flynn interview, if so when, and in how much detail. If they did tell Trump, Mueller may also want to know about whether McGahn’s questions on the 27th (including whether Flynn was in legal jeopardy) reflect Trump’s own questions.

Obviously, one other subtext of this question pertains to whether Yates’ pursuit of Flynn contributed to her firing.

The other critical point about whether and what Trump knew of Yates’ meetings with McGahn: on January 27, he had his first creepy meeting with Jim Comey. Then, on January 28, he had his first phone call with Vladimir Putin, a call Flynn attended.

January 27, 2017: What was the purpose of your Jan. 27, 2017, dinner with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

At lunchtime on January 27 — so after McGahn had called Yates to set up a follow-up meeting and indicated concerns about Flynn’s legal jeopardy, but before that meeting happened — Trump called Comey and set up dinner that day. According to Comey, several minor things that would recur later came up, including questions about Andrew McCabe and Trump’s exposition of the Hillary email investigation.

In addition, five other key things happened at the meeting.

He invited the FBI to investigate “the Golden Showers” thing to prove it was a lie:

At this point, he turned to what he called “the golden showers thing”

[snip]

He said he had spoken to people who had been on the Miss Universe trip with him and they had reminded him that he didn’t stay over night in Russia for that. [this is not true]

[snip]

He said he thought maybe he should ask me to investigate the whole thing to prove it was a lie. I did not ask any questions. I replied that it was up to him, but I wouldn’t want to create a narrative that we were investigating him, because we were not and I worried such a thing would be misconstrued. Ii also said that is very difficult to disprove a lie. He said ‘maybe you’re right,’ but several times asked me to think about it and said he would also think about it.

He asked if the FBI leaks:

He asked whether the FBI leaks and I answered that of course in an organization of 36,000 we were going to have some of that, but I said I think the FBI leaks far less than people often say.

He asked if Comey wanted to keep his job, even though they had discussed it twice before:

He touched on my future at various points. The first time he asked “so what do you want to do,” explaining that lots of people wanted my job (“about 20 people”), that he thought very highly of me, but he would understand if I wanted to walk away given all I had been through, although he thought that would be bad for me personally because it would look like I had done something wrong, that he of course can make a change at FBI if he wants, but he wants to know what I think. There was no acknowledgement by him (or me) that we had already talked about this twice.

I responded by saying that he could fire me any time he wished, but that I wanted to stay and do a job I love to and think I am doing well.

He asked for loyalty:

He replied that he needed loyalty and expected loyalty.

[snip — this comes after the request for an investigation]

He then returned to loyalty, saying “I need loyalty.” I replied that he would always get honesty from me. He paused and said that’s what he wants, “honest loyalty.” I replied, “you will get that from me.”

He claimed to suspect Mike Flynn’s judgment because he had delayed in telling Trump about Putin’s congratulatory phone call:

He then went on to explain that he has serious reservations about Mike Flynn’s judgment and illustrated with a story from that day in which the President apparently discovered during his toast to Teresa May that [Vladimir Putin] had called four days ago. Apparently, as the President was toasting PM May, he was explaining that she had been the first to call him after his inauguration and Flynn interrupted to say that [Putin] had called (first, apparently). It was then that the President learned of [Putin’s] call and he confronted Flynn about it (not clear whether that was in the moment or after the lunch with PM May). Flynn said the return call was scheduled for Saturday, which prompted a heated reply from the President that six days was not an appropriate period of time to return a call from the [President] of a country like [Russia]. (“This isn’t [redacted] we are talking about.”) He said that if he called [redacted] and didn’t get a return call for six days he would be very upset. In telling the story, the President pointed his fingers at his head and said “the guy has serious judgment issues.” I did not comment at any point during this topic and there was no mention or acknowledgement of any FBI interest in or contact with General Flynn.

Trump would be hard pressed to argue the meeting was unrelated to the Yates meeting and the FBI investigation. Which would mean one thing Trump did — in a meeting where he also lied to claim he hadn’t had sex in Moscow — was to disclaim prior knowledge of the Putin meeting the next day (even while emphasizing the import of it).

Of course, the claim he thought Flynn had poor judgment didn’t lead him to keep Flynn out of the phone call with Putin the next day.

January 28: Trump, Pence, Flynn, Priebus, Bannon, and Spicer phone Vladimir Putin

February 9, 2017: What was your reaction to news reports on Feb. 8-9, 2017?

According to Jim Comey, he went for a meet and greet with Reince Priebus on February 8. While he was waiting, Mike Flynn sat down to chat with him though didn’t mention the FBI interview. Then, after clarifying that the conversation with Comey was a “private conversation,” he asked if there was a FISA order on Flynn. Comey appears to have answered in the negative. Priebus then took Comey in to meet with Trump, who defended his answer in an interview with Bill O’Reilly released on February 6) that “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” After Comey criticized that part of the answer, Trump, “clearly noticed I had directly criticized him.” (h/t TC for reminding me to add this.) Since Yates had told McGahn how they knew Flynn had lied, Priebus’ question about a FISA order suggests the White House was trying to find out whether the collection was just incidental, or whether both sides of all Flynn’s conversations would have been picked up.

On February 9, the WaPo reported that Flynn had discussed sanctions, in spite of public denials from the White House that he had.

National security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials, current and former U.S. officials said.

Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election.

Flynn on Wednesday [February 8] denied that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak. Asked in an interview whether he had ever done so, he twice said, “No.”

On Thursday [February 9], Flynn, through his spokesman, backed away from the denial. The spokesman said Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

Officials said this week that the FBI is continuing to examine Flynn’s communications with Kislyak. Several officials emphasized that while sanctions were discussed, they did not see evidence that Flynn had an intent to convey an explicit promise to take action after the inauguration.

In addition to tracking Flynn’s changing claims, it also noted that on January 15, Mike Pence had denied both any discussion of sanctions in the December call and discussions with Russia during the campaign.

On February 10, Trump was asked by reporters about Flynn’s answer. Trump played dumb: “I don’t know about that. I haven’t seen it. What report is that? I haven’t seen that. I’ll look into that.” (h/t TC)

Presumably, Mueller wants to know how surprised Trump was about this story (which actually builds on whether McGahn told him about the Yates conversation). But given Trump’s earlier question about FBI leaks, I also wonder whether Mueller knows that Trump knew this was coming. That is, some of the leaks may have come from closer to the White House, as an excuse to fire Flynn, using the same emphasis that the story (and Yates) had: the claim that Flynn had lied to Pence.

Except Mueller probably knows that the effort to soothe Russia’s concerns about sanctions made in December were a surprise to few top aides in the White House, least of all Trump.

February 13, 2017: How was the decision made to fire Mr. Flynn on Feb. 13, 2017?

We have remarkably little reporting on how and why Flynn was actually fired — mostly just the cover story that it was because Flynn lied to Pence — though after Flynn flipped last year, Trump newly claimed he had to fire Flynn because he lied to the FBI (something that, if the claims about the original 302 are correct, FBI hadn’t concluded at the time Trump fired him).

The thing is, neither story makes sense. It’s virtually certain that many people in the White House knew what Flynn had said to Sergey Kislyak back in December 2016; Tom Bossert was included in KT McFarland’s emails to Mike Flynn, and he sent it to Reince Priebus, Stephen Bannon, Sean Spicer, and at least two other people. All of those people, save Bossert, are known to have provided testimony to Mueller’s team.

But it also makes little sense to argue that Trump had to fire Flynn because he lied. If so, he would have done so either immediately, before the Putin meeting, or much later, after FBI actually came to the conclusion he had lied.

One logical explanation is that Flynn lied because he was told to lie, in an effort to continue to hide what the Trump Administration was doing in the transition period to pay off its debts to Russia. But faced with the prospect that the FBI would continue to investigate Flynn, Trump cut him out in an effort to end the investigation. Which explains why things with Comey proceeded the way they did.

Update: This post has been updated with new details surrounding February 8-10 and newly unredacted details from the HPSCI report.

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