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Triage and Impeachment: Prioritize a Legitimate Criminal Investigation into the Wider Plot over Impeachment

I want to talk about triage in the wake of the terrorist attack on Wednesday as it affects consideration of how to hold Trump accountable for his role in it.

First, some dates:

If Mike Pence were to invoke the 25th Amendment (with the approval of a bunch of Trump’s cabinet members), it could go into effect immediately for at least four days. Trump can challenge his determination, but if the same cabinet members hold with Pence, then Trump’s disqualification remains in place for 21 more days, enough to get through Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Both the House and Senate are not in session, and can’t deviate from the existing schedule without unanimous consent, meaning Mo Brooks in the House or Josh Hawley in the Senate could single-handedly prevent any business.

Because of that, impeachment in the House can’t be started until tomorrow. Right now, Pelosi is using the threat of impeachment as leverage to try to get Pence to act (or Trump to resign, though he won’t). If that doesn’t work, then the House seems prepared to move on a single article of impeachment tied to Trump’s attempts to cheat and his incitement of the insurrection. Pelosi won’t move forward on it until she’s sure it has the votes to succeed.

Even assuming a majority of the House votes to impeach Trump, that will have no impact on his authority to pardon co-conspirators, and he’ll surely attempt to pardon himself, one way or another. Because of Wednesday’s events, he will be doing that without the assistance of Pat Cipollone, which means he’s much more likely to make his plight worse.

Impeaching this week would, however, force Republicans to cast votes before it is clear how the post-insurrection politics will work out (indeed, while Trump still has the power of the Presidency). Significantly, a number of incoming members are angry that Kevin McCarthy advised them to support the insurrection. The vote may be as much an attempt to undo complicity with Wednesday’s actions as it is anything else. Done right, impeachment may exacerbate the fractures in the GOP; done wrong, it could have the opposite effect.

If the House does impeach, then the Senate will not — barring a change of heart from Hawley and everyone else who was still willing to be part of this insurrection — take up the impeachment until January 19 (the parliamentarian has already ruled on this point). That means, the trial for impeachment either happens in Joe Biden’s first week in office, or the House holds off on sending the article of impeachment over to the Senate until Chuck Schumer deems it a worthwhile time. He can also opt to have a committee consider it, calling witnesses and accruing evidence, which will provide the Senate (where there are more Republicans aiming to distance from Trump) a way to further elaborate Trump’s role in the terrorism.

Meanwhile, by losing all access to social media except Parler and with Amazon’s decision yesterday to stop hosting Parler (which will mean it’ll stay down at least a week, until January 17), Trump’s primary mouthpieces have been shut down. There’s reason to believe that the more sophisticated insurrectionists have moved onto more secure platforms like chat rooms and Signal. While that’ll pose some challenges for law enforcement trying to prevent follow-on attacks on January 17, 19, or 20, being on such less accessible platforms will limit their ability to mobilize the kinds of masses that came out on Wednesday. Trump has lost one of the most important weapons he can wield without demanding clearly criminal behavior from others. That said, the urgency of preventing those sophisticated plotters — and a good chunk of these people have military training — from engaging in more targeted strikes needs to be a priority.

But Trump is still President, with his hand on the nuclear codes, and in charge of the chain of command that goes through a bunch of Devin Nunes flunkies at DOD. Nancy Pelosi called Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley and come away with assurances that Trump won’t be able to deploy nukes.

Preventing an Unhinged President From Using the Nuclear Codes: This morning, I spoke to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike. The situation of this unhinged President could not be more dangerous, and we must do everything that we can to protect the American people from his unbalanced assault on our country and our democracy.

Nevertheless that still leaves Trump in charge of the vast federal bureaucracy, which has been emptied out and the filled back up with people who could pass Johnny McEntee’s loyalty oaths to Trump.

Because this is where we’re at, I have argued that there needs to be a higher priority on getting at least Biden’s operational nominees, along with Merrick Garland, confirmed over impeaching Trump — yet — in the Senate.

We have not yet heard why DOD and DHS and the FBI — on top of the Capitol Police — failed to prevent the terrorist attack on Wednesday (I’ll have more to say about this later). It will take a year to sort out all the conflicting claims. But as we attempt, via reporting, via oversight in Congress (including impeachment), and via a criminal investigation to figure that out, those same people who failed to prevent the attack remain in place. Indeed, most of these entities have offered little to no explanation for why they failed, which is a bad sign.

Because of that, I think Biden needs to prioritize getting at least Garland and Lisa Monaco confirmed as Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General at DOJ, along with a new Acting US Attorney for DC, as soon as possible. I have two specific concerns. First, while FBI has generally been good at policing white supremacists in recent months, they failed miserably here, when it mattered most. One effect of retaliating against anyone who investigated Trump for his “collusion” with Russia has been to install people who were either Trump loyalists or really skilled at avoiding any slight to Trump. Indeed, one of the most charitable possible excuses for FBI’s delayed response is that after years of badgering, otherwise reasonable people were loathe to get involved in something that Trump defined as an election issue.

I have more specific concerns about the DC US Attorney’s office. Michael Sherwin, who has been less awful as Acting US Attorney than Timothy Shea, originally said on the record all options in the investigation that will be led out of his office were on the table, including incitement by Trump. But then someone said off the record that Trump was not a focus of the investigation. I suspect that person is Ken Kohl, who as Acting First Assistant US Attorney is in charge of the investigation and has been cited in other announcements about the investigation.

Ken Kohl at least oversaw, if not participated in, the alteration of documents to help Trump get elected. I’ve been told he’s got a long history of being both corrupt and less than competent. The decisions he will oversee in upcoming weeks could have the effect of giving people the opportunity to destroy evidence that lays out a much broader conspiracy, all while rolling out showy charges against people who were so stupid they took selfies of themselves committing crimes. We want this investigation to go beyond a slew of trespassing charges to incorporate the actual plotting that made this attack possible. It’s not clear Kohl will do that.

Even assuming that people currently in DOJ are willing to collect evidence implicating Trump, short of having a confirmed Attorney General overseeing such decisions, we’re back in the same situation Andrew McCabe was in on May 10, 2017, an Acting official trying to decide what to do in the immediate aftermath of a Trump crime. Trump’s backers have exploited the fact that McCabe made the right choices albeit in urgent conditions, and they’ve done so with the willing participation of some of the people — notably, FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich — who are currently in charge of this investigation.

I’m happy to entertain a range of possible courses going forward, so long as all of them involve holding Trump accountable to the utmost degree possible. I assume Nancy Pelosi, whatever else she’ll be doing, will also be counting the votes to understand precisely what is possible, given the schedule.

But I also know that I’d far rather have Trump and those he directly conspired with criminally charged than have an impeachment delay the thorough fumigation of a government riddled with people who may have had a role in this plot. And that’s not going to happen if the investigation is scoped in such a way in the days ahead to rule out his involvement.

Update: Here’s a much-cited interview with Michael Sherwin. He adopts all the right language (pointedly disavowing labels of sedition or coup, saying he’s just looking at crimes) and repeats his statement that if there’s evidence Trump is involved he’ll be investigated.

On Thursday you were quoted saying the conduct of “all actors” would be examined, which was interpreted to mean President Trump might face charges. Is that what you meant — the man who gave the speech at the start of the day could be looking at charges?

Look, I meant what I said before. In any criminal investigation, I don’t care if it’s a drug trafficking conspiracy case, a human trafficking case or the Capitol — all persons will be looked at, OK? If the evidence is there, great. If it’s not, you move on. But we follow the evidence. If the evidence leads to any actor that may have had a role in this and if that evidence meets the four corners of a federal charge or a local charge, we’re going to pursue it.

Update: This story describes how a senior McConnell aide called Bill Barr’s Chief of Staff who called David Bowdich who then deployed three quick reaction teams in response.

The senior McConnell adviser reached a former law firm colleague who had just left the Justice Department: Will Levi, who had served as Attorney General William P. Barr’s chief of staff.

They needed help — now, he told Levi.

From his home, Levi immediately called FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich, who was in the command center in the FBI’s Washington Field Office.

Capitol police had lost control of the building, Levi told Bowdich.

The FBI official had been hearing radio traffic of aggressive protesters pushing through the perimeter, but Levi said it had gone even further: The mob had already crashed the gates and lives were at risk.

Capitol police had said previously they didn’t need help, but Bowdich decided he couldn’t wait for a formal invitation.

He dispatched the first of three tactical teams, including one from the Washington field office to secure the safety of U.S. senators and provide whatever aid they could. He instructed two more SWAT teams to follow, including one that raced from Baltimore.

These teams typically gather at a staging area off-site to coordinate and plan, and then rush together to the area where they are needed. Bowdich told their commander there was no time.

“Get their asses over there. Go now,” he said to the first team’s commander. “We don’t have time to huddle.”

Not explained: why Bowdich was watching protestors get through the perimeter without deploying teams on his own. Again, I’m not saying he was complicit. I’m saying he has spent the last four years by letting Trump’s claims about politicization direct the Bureau, and can see how that habit might have led to a delayed response here.

Second Impeachment Ahead: Articles Have Been Drafted [UPDATE-3]

[NB: Update(s) at the bottom of this post. /~Rayne]

Representatives David Cicilline, Ted Lieu, and Jamie Raskin have drafted articles of impeachment against Trump which are now circulating among House members.

Here’s a transcript:

         Resolved, That Donald John Trump, President of the
United States, is impeached for high crimes and mis-
demeanors and that the following articles of impeachment
be exhibited to the United States Senate.

Article of impeachment exhibited by the House of
Representatives of the United States of America in the
name of itself and of the people of the United States of
America, against Donald John Trump, President of the
United States of America, in maintenance and support of
its impeachment against him for high crimes and mis-
demeanors.

ARTICLE I: ABUSE OF POWER

          The Constitution provides that the House of Rep-
resentatives “shall have the sole Power of Impeachment”
and that the President “shall be removed from Office on
Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or
other high Crimes and Misdemeanors”. In his conduct of
the office of President of the United States—and in viola-
tion of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the of-
fice of President of the United States and, to the best of
his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution
of the United States, and in violation of his constitutional
duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed—
Donald J. Trump engaged in high Crimes and Mis-
demeanors by willfully inciting violence against the Gov-
ernment of the United States, in that:

On January 6, 2021, pursuant to the Twelfth
Amendment of the United States Constitution, the Vice
President of the United States, the House of Representa-
tives, and the Senate met at the United States Capitol
for a Joint Session of Congress to count the votes of the
Electoral College. Shortly before the Joint Session com-
menced, President Trump addressed a crowd of his polit-
ical supporters nearby. There, he reiterated false claims
that “we won this election, and we won it by a landslide”.
He also willfully made statements that encouraged—and
foreseeably resulted in—imminent lawless action at the
Capitol. Incited by President Trump, a mob unlawfully
breached the Capitol, injured law enforcement personnel,
menaced Members of Congress and the Vice President,
interfered with the Joint Session’s solemn constitutional
duty to certify the election results, and engaged in violent,
deadly, destructive, and seditious acts.

President Trump’s conduct on January 6m 2021 was
consistent with his prior efforts to subvert and obstruct
the certification of the results of the 2020 presidential
election. Those prior efforts include, but are not limited
to, a phone call on January 2, 2021, in which President
Trump urged Georgia Secretary of State Brad
Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn the
Georgia presidential election results and threatened Mr.
Raffensperger if he failed to do so.

In all of this, President Trump gravely endangered
the security of the United States and its institutions of
government. He threatened the integrity of the democratic
system, interfered with the peaceful transition of power,
and imperiled a coordinate branch of government. He
thereby betrayed his trust as President, to the manifest
injury of the people of the United States.

Wherefore President Trump, by such conduct, has
demonstrated that he will remain a threat to national se-
curity, democracy, and the Constitution if allowed to re-
main in office, and has acted in a manner grossly incom-
patible with self-governance and the rule of law. President
Trump thus warrants impeachment and trial, removal
from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any of-
fice of honor, trust, or profit under the United States.

It’s narrow in scope, doesn’t require investigation and subsequent hearings, because the act of incitement occurred in public and was recorded on video, distributed over broadcast and cable television as well as the internet.

The inclusion of the phone call to Georgia’s Secretary of State illustrates in most minimal fashion a pattern of behavior and intent.

These articles aren’t the only approach being taken to remove Trump. Earlier today both Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi called VP Mike Pence to ask for the invocation of the 25th Amendment:

They’ve since made public statements reiterating their demand for the 25th Amendment, and for impeachment leading to removal if the 25th isn’t invoked.

NBC reported earlier that Trump is fragile and feeling betrayed:

Fuck that. Trump is not the United States; Congress is not elected to fluff one delicate snowflake’s dementia-addled ego.

The United States, however, is now fragile, made so by the gross failings of a malignant narcissist in decline, who has spawned an attack on his own country with seditious incitement.

It’s time for Mike Pence to honor his oath to defend the Constitution by invoking the 25th Amendment.

If Pence should fail the republic yet again, it’s time for Congress to impeach, convict, and remove Trump before he does any further damage to this fragile democracy.

~ ~ ~

UPDATE-1 — 8:20 PM ET —

This is not good. It’s been wholly predictable to those who’ve assumed Trump suffers from a progressive neurological disorder like frontotemporal dementia on top of his malignant narcissism — but still not good.

It’s also increasingly urgent.

We need to hold Trump’s cabinet members accountable — including the “principal officers” of departments like the Acting Director in cases where the Director has left the government — for not demanding the invocation of the 25th Amendment. Pence may be resisting invocation but he’s not the only person responsible for its application and execution.

And if Pence and the cabinet aren’t going to address this, then it’s up to Congress to remove Trump from the ability to hurt this country.

All of them — Pence, the cabinet members and principal officers, members of Congress — have sworn an oath to the Constitution. It’s time to protect and defend it by removing Trump from office immediately.

Call your representative and ask them to support articles of impeachment because Trump has incited seditious behavior against the U.S. and he is acting increasingly unstable.

Call your senators and ask them to convict and remove Trump from office upon the presentation of the articles of impeachment from the House because Trump has incited seditious behavior against the U.S. and he is acting increasingly unstable.

Congressional switchboard: (202) 224-3121 — or use Resist.bot.

Time’s of the essence. Go. Leave word in comments if you’d care to share your experience.

~ ~ ~

UPDATE-2 — 10:42 PM ET —

Update on status of impeachment:

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler supports impeachment and wants it to go directly to the House floor:

Head count is mounting.

The number 200 without context means doodley squat. We need two very specific numbers.

We need 218 House votes, or one more than half of 435. (This may be lower because there are two seats still open IIRC.)

We need 67 Senate votes, or two-thirds of the total 100 seats.

If you manage to reach your representative or senators, ask where they stand on impeaching Trump. Then ask them to support it if they don’t, or thank them if they do.

I hope we have the numbers by morning. What could go wrong the longer Congress drags its feet is incalculable.

~ ~ ~

UPDATE-3 — 12:52 AM ET 08-JAN-2021 —

Two cabinet members, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, have tendered their resignations. Chao’s exit is effective January 11; I haven’t checked DeVos’s exit date. Her resignation could have been effective immediately. Former White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney resigned from his role as Special Envoy for Northern Ireland. Four national security aides quit.

A police officer has died of injuries sustained during the Capitol Building riot. That’s more dead police than the entirety of George Floyd/BLM protests during the summer of 2020.

A family member acknowledged the death of a 34-year-old woman who participated in the Capitol Building riot but was crushed to death. She was likely one of the three accidental deaths tallied so far.

Displeased cabinet and staff members, dead police and mob member…not good, but there was something worse afoot.

Read this entire Twitter thread. And then recall the conspiracy against Michigan’s Gov. Whitmer.

Several accounts on Twitter have noted the rioters could be sorted into two groups: the tourist mob who did sightseeing and some vandalism, and some crypto-paramilitary persons who were prepared to do more than simply take selfies and smash furniture. They came armed with knives and zip ties and may have had more weapons on their persons. They were better masked than most of the tourist rioters.

There have been videos shared which appear to show Capitol Police actively encouraging the mob. Off-duty officers may not only have participated in the rioting but aided the paramilitary participants.

And there have been repeated remarks about coming back on the 19th — “I’d do it again, and I’d have a gas mask next time.

We should not forget there were two IEDs found, one at each of the RNC and DNC offices, as well as a suspicious vehicle which has been characterized as mobile bomb factory.

There were elements inside the rioters who wanted to do more damage and possibly seize and hurt members of Congress along with VP Pence.

We don’t know if they left any preparatory materials behind or whether law enforcement did an adequate sweep considering how poorly prepared they were for the breach of the Capitol Building by rioters.

Trump must be impeached before he can encourage worse. His statement this evening suggests he is willing to encourage more seditious acts, like those at statehouses across the country yesterday while a mob rioted inside the Capitol Building.

The Republican Party Is No Longer the Party of Personal Responsibility

In a cynical speech that, if we’re lucky, will be an effort to deescalate militarily by imposing more sanctions on Iran (which is not a good thing but far better than the alternative), Trump just pre-blamed Barack Obama for the failures most experts predict and have correctly predicted will come from Trump’s Iran policy. He suggests, falsely, that the current escalation is the result of Obama’s peace deal, rather than the demonstrable result of his suspension of it.

Iran’s hostilities substantially increased after the foolish Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2013, and they were given $150 billion, not to mention $1.8 billion in cash. Instead of saying “thank you” to the United States, they chanted “death to America.” In fact, they chanted “death to America” the day the agreement was signed.

Then, Iran went on a terror spree, funded by the money from the deal, and created hell in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration. The regime also greatly tightened the reins on their own country, even recently killing 1,500 people at the many protests that are taking place all throughout Iran.

The very defective JCPOA expires shortly anyway, and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout. Iran must abandon its nuclear ambitions and end its support for terrorism. The time has come for the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China to recognize this reality.

I’ll leave it to others to unpack how dishonest this claim, both with respect to what JCPOA did and what has led to the increase in tension since Trump reversed our commitment to it.

But it exists in a larger context in which the Trump’s supporters are both refusing to take responsibility for their own actions, including but not limited to their support for Trump, but also doing so by pre-blaming Democrats.

This has been going on for the entirety of the Trump Administration (indeed, arguably it has been going on for at least 15 years). But with respect to Iran, it has consisted of:

  • Blaming Obama’s successful peace deal for the effects of Trump’s own rejection of it
  • Claiming Trump couldn’t brief Democrats on the Soleimani assassination because otherwise they would leak
  • Suggesting that Democrats’ past impeachment of Trump will have a future effect on his ability to respond to the crisis he created with the assassination

Let me be clear: I don’t think Trump assassinated Soleimani to distract from impeachment. I think he assassinated Soleimani because he’s a narcissist who responds to slights by lashing out, and his top advisors Mark Esper and Mike Pompeo are committed to Raytheon, Rapture, and a dangerously escalatory Iran policy, and so in this case did not rein in the natural result of arming someone with Trump’s narcissism, which is to use force where diplomacy would be more effective.

But here we are, with a dead Iranian general and fewer allies in the Middle East and few adults running policy, which may well be a recipe for disastrous things to come.

Trump (and his supporters’) refusal to take responsibility for their own actions is particularly toxic in this context because his policies and incompetent implementation of them are highly likely to fail, and the only way Trump can sustain support while presiding over obvious and foreseeable failures is to blame some other entity, which in this case includes Democrats and Iranians. And the only way for him to continue failing policies even while it’s clear they are failing is to pretend they’re not the cause of the failure.

Trump’s excuses for not briefing the Gang of Eight are particularly worrisome. It’s bad enough he didn’t do so, both for Constitutional and practical reasons. Even Richard Burr or Mitch McConnell might have advised Trump to take a more moderate approach. And had Trump briefed Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, or Chuck Schumer, any one of them might have said something to make it clear that if he did this and it blew up in his face, they would make it clear to the public that he had made the decision against their advice. Our system of briefing the Gang of Eight on covert operations is a terrible way to vet military and intelligence operations (not least because you don’t get in those positions unless you’re a hawk). But in this instance, it might have made Trump worry about being shamed if he ignored the advice. It also would have offered Trump the ability — one George Bush used aggressively to survive his scandalous embrace of torture and illegal wiretapping — to claim there was bipartisan awareness of the actions, which might make it more likely to craft a bipartisan response if things do start to go south.

But Trump doesn’t like the humiliation of hearing advice he doesn’t like, and so he didn’t brief  the Gang of Eight beforehand.

He owns this decision, and all its consequences, because he chose to make the decision without following the norm that would allow him to share the blame.

But that raises the stakes for him to find scapegoats. It’s a feedback loop, where his refusal to listen to competent advice increases the likelihood of stupid decision and his defensiveness about admitting all that, thereby raising the stakes on having scapegoats still further.

And that, in turn, raises the aggressiveness he needs to direct at his scapegoats. Democrats (and Iranians and NATO) must not be wrong. They must be disloyal or traitors or Jew-ridden socialist countries or terrorists. Indeed, that’s likely one of the reasons why Trump so readily adopts inflammatory slurs with no basis in fact: because he has to dehumanize his scapegoats, to make sure no one thinks too much about what function that scapegoating plays.

It’s all a recipe for increasing violence.

And at the core, on the Soleimani assassination, the case that Trump is responsible is not just obvious — best embodied by his refusal to brief the Gang of Eight even while telegraphing his attack to his cronies at Mar-a-Lago — but a root cause of why he wants to build his scapegoats in from the start.

The Moving Parts: The Walls Come Down around Trump

The other day (I forget which day it was, to be honest) I wondered aloud whether, as it became clear the walls were collapsing around Trump, he’d make a rash move to pay off his debts, perhaps to salvage something for his post-Presidenting life.

I’m not sure we’re quite at that point yet. But in recent days, a ton has happened it’s hard to make sense of.

This post doesn’t pretend to offer answers. I just want to write down everything I think is happening in one place — blogger’s prerogative, call it.

Mattis resigns, citing Trump’s fondness for authoritarians

The most alarming news is not that James Mattis resigned, but how he did so. In his resignation letter, he cited the importance of NATO, and China and Russia’s authoritarianism that leads them to promote their interest over that of their neighbors, America, and our allies, before he made it clear that Trump disagrees with Mattis in rejecting those authoritarian values.

One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies. Like you, I have said from the beginning that the armed forces of the United States should not be the policeman of the world. Instead, we must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances. NATO’s 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to fighting alongside us following the 9-11 attack on America. The Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations is further proof.

Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions — to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America[,] and our allies. That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.

My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position. [my emphasis]

The precipitating event, though, was Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria.

Officials said Mr. Mattis went to the White House on Thursday afternoon in a last attempt to convince Mr. Trump to keep American troops in Syria, where they have been fighting the Islamic State. He was rebuffed, and told the president that he was resigning as a result.

One source says that Trump’s decision to close the Special Forces base in Syria is part of the problem.

The US is set to shut a special forces base in Syria that has been the subject of repeated Russian complaints, and that some US officials have cast as a key part of US efforts not just to defeat ISIS but to counter Iranian influence in the country.

Muhannad al-Talla, a rebel commander at al-Tanf, a US base near the Syrian border with Jordan, told BuzzFeed News that the base would see the withdrawal of the US troops who have trained and fought alongside rebels there.

I’m wondering if this base was involved in the shellacking of Putin ally Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s mercenaries.

Another is Erdogan’s threat (or promise) to massacre our longstanding Kurdish allies.

Defense officials tell me Mattis went to the White House to discuss Syria & that he was livid after reading reports that Turkey’s Defense Minister threatened to kill US-backed Kurds & put them in ditches once the US withdrew. He was incensed at this notion of betrayal of an ally.

Effectively, it seems, Mattis told Trump, “it’s me or Vladimir Putin” … and Trump chose Putin.

Erdogan exercises leverage — or is he the messenger boy?

But it wasn’t exactly — or just — Putin that finally got Trump to deliver on the payback he started delivering 14 hours after polls closed in 2016. It was Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As I noted, Trump met with Erdogan in Argentina but not — after the Michael Cohen allocution made it clear Putin was enticing Trump with a Tower deal in 2016 — Putin.

Multiple reports say a call Trump had with Erdogan on Friday was the precipitating factor. Here’s a really alarming account of that call.

That leads me to wonder what leverage Turkey, specifically, has over Trump, such that he’d pull out of Syria in response to a threat to massacre the Kurds, which will make it easy for Turkey to massacre the Kurds.

And I have to believe Turkey’s ploy with the Jamal Khashoggi execution is part of it. Erdogan never gave a shit that the Saudis lured a dissident to their soil to dismember alive. Erdogan himself pursues such repression, even if he conducts it with a bit more cover.

Indeed, whatever Erdogan has over Trump also has him considering extraditing Fethullah Gulen to Turkey for what would certainly be similar treatment — the payoff Turkey was requesting back in December 2016 when Trump’s chosen National Security Advisor was still hiding that he had been an unregistered agent for Turkey.

Perhaps Turkey has proof not just implicating Mohammed bin Salman in the execution, but Jared Kushner in green-lighting it, or possibly even Trump?

Mueller’s moves toward endgame

It’s hard — particularly given comments from people like Nancy Pelosi — to separate all this from what feels like an approaching Mueller (attempted) endgame. The lead-up to Flynn’s aborted sentencing featured the following:

  • Flynn makes an ill-considered attack on the legitimacy of the Mueller probe
  • Emmet Sullivan orders the release of the documents with which Flynn was attempting to undercut Mueller
  • Sullivan orders the far more damning Flynn 302 that, among other things, reveals that Turkey and Russia both had compromising information on Trump and Flynn
  • DOJ indicts Flynn’s business partners for hiding how Turkey angled to force DOJ to extradite Gulen
  • At Flynn’s sentencing hearing, Sullivan emphasizes that Flynn had been an agent of Turkey while ostensibly working for Trump and mentions the word treason

Plus there’s evidence that Jared Kushner — who has been the boy plaything for all these ruthless players — probably tried to attack Flynn even while he was having a grocery store tabloid pimp the Saudis.

And it was revealed that the Mystery Appellant refusing to provide information to Mueller is a foreign-owned corporation, probably a Russian or Middle Eastern bank or sovereign wealth fund funneling money to Trump or Jared. The company appears to have asked for an en banc review today.

Mueller also asked for and got the House Intelligence Committee to release its transcript of Roger Stone’s testimony. The timing of this is the interesting thing: Mueller chose to do this when Republicans had to (and did) vote to expose Trump’s top political advisor to indictment. He could have waited, but didn’t. That suggests either he wanted Republican buy-in, or he needs the transcripts now, to finalize his case against Stone before Democrats take over in a few weeks.

The day after SSCI released materials on James Wolfe, he was indicted.

So things are moving to a head in the Mueller probe, and in a way that both Russia and Turkey may be implicated.

Matt Whitaker performs a headfake before taking the corrupt step he was hired to take

Then there was the news today on big dick toilet salesman Matt Whitaker. This morning, multiple outlets reported that DOJ had told Whitaker he didn’t have to recuse from the Mueller probe. After that became the headline, however, multiple outlets revealed that the truth was the opposite: an ethics advisor had told Whitaker he should recuse, and having heard that, Whitaker consulted a hand-picked committee that predictably told him not to.

Within days of the president’s announcement in early November that he had put Whitaker in the role on a temporary basis, Whitaker tapped a veteran U.S. attorney to become part of a four-person team of advisers on his new job, according to a senior Justice Department official. Their guidance included the question of whether Whitaker should recuse himself from Mueller’s investigation because of his past statements regarding that probe and because of his friendship with one of its witnesses, the official said.

Whitaker never asked Justice Department ethics officials for a formal recommendation, nor did he receive one, this official said.

However, after Whitaker met repeatedly with Justice Department ethics officials to discuss the facts and the issues under consideration, a senior ethics official told the group of advisers on Tuesday that it was a “close call” but that Whitaker should recuse himself to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, the official said. Whitaker was not present at that meeting, they said.

Those four advisers, however, disagreed with the ethics determination and recommended to Whitaker the next day not to recuse, saying there was no precedent for that, and doing so now could create a bad precedent for future attorneys general.

That big dick toilet salesman Whitaker did this is not surprising.

That he chose to roll out this admission today is worth noting. One outlet reported that, up until today, Whitaker had not been briefed on the Mueller probe. Apparently, in the wake of a judge raising treason concerns after having reviewed Mike Flynn’s behavior, Whitaker has made the move to become Trump’s mole on the Mueller probe.

Update: BuzzFeed got a hold of the DOJ letter here. It makes it very clear Whitaker ignored advice to recuse.

Update: Marty Lederman notes that this letter fails to conduct a key part of the recusal analysis: why he would make a more appropriate supervisor for Mueller than Rod Rosenstein.

Trump prepares to shut down government

All this is happening as Trump prepares to shut down the government because Fox News laughed at him for getting pantsed by Nancy Pelosi.

Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy said the Democrats had won the showdown, and Trump had lost.

He launched into a tirade saying the president “loses, and the Democrats will win everything” based on his apparent decision to compromise with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer.

Doocy said Trump’s defeat would not only risk his campaign commitment to build the wall, but also bring into question his electoral promises to curb the rest of the government’s spending.

In response, over the course of today, Trump told Republicans he’d veto any continuing resolution that didn’t include $5 billion for his steel slat wall, making it much more likely we’ll have a shutdown as Trump skedaddles to Mar-a-Lago to take calls from his authoritarian buddies.

This may be entirely unrelated. After all, Fox and Friends is Trump’s bubble, that’s the only place where he considers losses to matter, and after the truth that Pelosi had bested him started to seep through, the narcissist-in-chief had no choice but to make a rash demand that Republican politicians sacrifice their careers in deference to his tantrum.

Which is to say that this behavior is precisely what we should expect when a narcissist’s mirror tells his he has been bested by someone he must demean.

Or maybe it is related?

Putin — or someone else — is calling in receipts

As I’m thinking about these things, I keep thinking back to an argument I made in August. I argued that Putin had compromised Trump not with a pee tape, but by ensuring his people kept receipts every time Trump got sucked deeper and deeper into a deal with Russia.

People are looking in the entirely wrong place for the kompromat that Putin has on Trump, and missing all the evidence of it right in front of their faces.

Vladimir Putin obtained receipts at each stage of this romance of Trump’s willing engagement in a conspiracy with Russians for help getting elected. Putin knows what each of those receipts mean. Mueller has provided hints, most obviously in that GRU indictment, that he knows what some of them are.

For example, on or about July 27, 2016, the Conspirators  attempted after hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third-party provider and used by Clinton’s personal office. At or around the same time, they also targeted seventy-six email addresses at the domain for the Clinton Campaign.

But Mueller’s not telling whether he has obtained the actual receipts.

And that’s the kompromat. Trump knows that if Mueller can present those receipts, he’s sunk, unless he so discredits the Mueller investigation before that time as to convince voters not to give Democrats a majority in Congress, and convince Congress not to oust him as the sell-out to the country those receipts show him to be. He also knows that, on the off-chance Mueller hasn’t figured this all out yet, Putin can at any time make those receipts plain. Therein lies Trump’s uncertainty: It’s not that he has any doubt what Putin has on him. It’s that he’s not sure which path before him — placating Putin, even if it provides more evidence he’s paying off his campaign debt, or trying to end the Mueller inquiry before repaying that campaign debt, at the risk of Putin losing patience with him — holds more risk.

Trump knows he’s screwed. He’s just not sure whether Putin or Mueller presents the bigger threat.

It has since become clear that not just Russia, but at least also Turkey and whatever bank is fighting a demand from Mueller that it turn over evidence of Trump’s graft, also have receipts.

Nevertheless, at the moment where it has become increasingly clear that Mueller knows much of whatever blackmail these partners have over Trump, Trump has chosen, instead, to alienate the Senators who might keep him from being impeached by evacuating from Syria and, later reports make clear, Afghanistan.

Trump is, on a dime and without warning to our closest allies, rolling up the American Empire. And he’s doing it not because he’s a peacenik — as far too many self-described progressives are trying to claim — but because ruthless, committed authoritarians have convinced him he needs their continued approval more than he needs the approval of even the Republican hawks in the Senate.

Update: I forgot to mention that the stock market is crashing. It started in response to Trump’s trade wars and bullying of the Fed, but accelerated given his threats to shut down the government.

Trump Refuses to Answer Why He Ordered Mike Flynn to Placate the Russians on Sanctions

As I have repeatedly argued, a key detail of the Russian investigation that has never been adequately explained is the firing of Mike Flynn. Contrary to what Trump’s propaganda in early January 2017 suggested, it was no secret within the White House that Flynn had discussed delaying any response to Obama’s sanctions with Sergei Kislyak. Indeed, it is virtually certain Flynn did so on the Trump’s orders, conveyed via KT McFarland, and many of the people involved in creating Trump’s public explanations knew that.

Which is why it’s so interesting that Trump has refused to answer questions about the transition (in addition to questions about after inauguration).

But after months of negotiations with Mueller’s team, Trump’s lawyers have refused to answer any questions about his time as president-elect or president, arguing that the special counsel is not legally entitled to details about executive decision-making.

If, as I’ve posited, sanctions relief was one of the payoffs in a quid pro quo for election assistance, then by refusing to answer questions about the transition, Trump would effectively be refusing to go on the record about why he chose to undermine Obama’s policy (on this, and on assistance to Israel, probably among other things).

Now consider how this fits with regards to timing.

The WaPo reports that Trump was going to return his open book test to Mueller last Thursday, but balked, claiming they had questions about the legitimacy of the investigation.

Trump’s lawyers originally planned to submit the answers to Mueller last Thursday, but put on the brakes.

Giuliani said there were “more questions raised about the legitimacy of the investigation that we had to discuss and look into,” declining to elaborate.

That makes it more likely that the 10-day delay in a status report on Paul Manafort’s cooperation — from last Friday to next Monday — reflects Mueller’s effort to delay releasing that report until after he had received Trump’s responses (which, remember, he once said he’d return a day or so after returning from Paris).

It’s also possible that Trump got his first report on the status of the investigation from Whitaker last Thursday, one day after OLC released its memo deeming Whitaker’s appointment legal. Today, Chuck Schumer sent DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz a letter asking for an investigation into Whitaker’s communications with the White House, but I read it to relate exclusively to activity prior to his appointment as Acting Attorney General.

Or, less controversially, he may have gotten assurances from Whitaker that he, as Acting AG slash hatchetman, would deem transition period activities as protected by Executive Privilege.

And since we’re reading tea leaves, consider the additional motion Mueller submitted in the Mystery Appellant case.

Particularly given the motion Mueller submitted yesterday — which argued that any subpoena the Special Counsel issued before Whitaker’s appointment remains valid — I wonder whether the recent activity reflects Whitaker’s tampering as well, perhaps reflecting notice, after the OLC memo, that Whitaker does not agree with the subpoena. Today’s sealed motion is around 25% longer than yesterday’s brief, so it may be notice of that argument.

(I think the new motion raises the chances, slightly, that the Mystery Appellant is Trump, but if it were someone — like John Kelly — making an Executive Privilege claim, Whitaker’s intervention may rely on the same justification Trump might have made last week about withholding transition materials.)

In other words, not only is Trump trying to avoid providing sworn testimony about one key event in this investigation — his order to placate the Russians on sanctions — but there are other hints that Whitaker has started his work to undermine the Mueller investigation.

Still, it may be too little too late. Mike Flynn’s sentencing continues as scheduled, with his probation officer submitting his presentencing report today. The government will have to submit a report on his cooperation on December 4, in advance of his December 18 sentencing. So Mueller must feel confident he knows all the circumstances of those conversations with Kislyak regardless of Trump’s willingness to talk about it.

Under Cover of the Nunes Memo, Russian Spooks Sneak Openly into Meetings with Trump’s Administration

On December 17, Vladimir Putin picked up the phone and called Donald Trump.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the call was to thank Trump for intelligence the US provided Russia that helped them thwart a terrorist attack. Here’s what the White House readout described.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia called President Donald J. Trump today to thank him for the advanced warning the United States intelligence agencies provided to Russia concerning a major terror plot in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Based on the information the United States provided, Russian authorities were able to capture the terrorists just prior to an attack that could have killed large numbers of people. No Russian lives were lost and the terrorist attackers were caught and are now incarcerated. President Trump appreciated the call and told President Putin that he and the entire United States intelligence community were pleased to have helped save so many lives. President Trump stressed the importance of intelligence cooperation to defeat terrorists wherever they may be. Both leaders agreed that this serves as an example of the positive things that can occur when our countries work together. President Putin extended his thanks and congratulations to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo and the CIA. President Trump then called Director Pompeo to congratulate him, his very talented people, and the entire intelligence community on a job well done!

Putin, of course, has a history of trumping up terrorist attacks for political purposes (which is not to say he’s the only one).

In Trump’s Russia, top spooks come to you

That call that Putin initiated serves as important background to an event (or several — the details are still uncertain) that happened earlier this week, as everyone was distracted with Devin Nunes’ theatrics surrounding his memo attacking the Mueller investigation into whether Trump has engaged in a conspiracy with Russia. All three of Russia’s intelligence heads came to DC for a visit.

The visit of the sanctioned head of SVR, Sergey Naryshkin — Russia’s foreign intelligence service — was ostentatiously announced by Russia’s embassy.

SVR is the agency that tried to recruit Carter Page back in 2013, and which has also newly been given credit for the hack of the DNC in some Dutch reporting (and a recent David Sanger article). It’s clear that SVR wanted Americans to know that their sanctioned head had been through town.

As the week went on, WaPo reported that FSB’s Alexander Bortnikov and GRU’s Colonel General Igor Korobov had also been through town (GRU has previously gotten primary credit for the hack and Korobov was also sanctioned in the December 2016 response, and FSB was described as having an assisting role).

Pompeo met with Sergey Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service or SVR, and Alexander Bortnikov, who runs the FSB, which is the main successor to the Soviet-era security service the KGB.

The head of Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU, also came to Washington, though it is not clear he met with Pompeo.

A senior U.S. intelligence official based in Moscow was also called back to Washington for the meeting with the CIA chief, said a person familiar with the events, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive meeting.

Treasury defies Congress on Russian sanctions

These visits have been associated with Trump’s decision not to enforce congressionally mandated sanctions, claiming that the threat of sanctions is already working even as Mike Pompeo insists that Russia remains a threat. In lieu of providing a mandated list of Russians who could be sanctioned, Treasury basically released the Forbes list of richest Russians, meaning that the sanction list includes people who’re squarely opposed to Putin. In my opinion, reporting on the Forbes list underplays the contempt of the move. Then, today, Treasury released a memo saying Russia was too systematically important to sanction.

Schumer’s questions and Pompeo’s non-answers

Indeed, Chuck Schumer emphasized sanctions in a letter he sent to Dan Coats, copied to Mike Pompeo, about the Naryshkin visit (the presence of the others was just becoming public).

As you are well aware, Mr. Naryshkin is a Specially Designated National under U.S. sanctions law, which imposes severe financial penalties and prohibits his entry into the U.S. without a waiver. Moreover, the visit of the SVR chief occurred only days before Congress was informed of the president’s decision not to implement sanctions authorized the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which was passed with near unanimous, bipartisan support. CAATSA was designed to impose a price on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies for well-documented Russian aggression and interference in the 2016 election. However, the administration took little to no action, even as Russia continues its cyberattacks on the U.S.

Certainly, that seems a fair conclusion to draw — that by emphasizing Naryshkin’s presence, Russia was also boasting that it was immune from Congress’ attempts to sanction it.

But Mike Pompeo, who responded to Schumer, conveniently responded only to Schumer’s public comments, not the letter itself.

I am writing to you in response to your press conference Tuesday where you suggested there was something untoward in officials from Russian intelligence services meeting with their U.S. counterparts. Let me assure you there is not. [my emphasis]

This allowed Pompeo to dodge a range Schumer’s questions addressing Russia’s attacks on the US.

What specific policy issues and topics were discussed by Mr. Naryshkin and U.S. officials?

    1. Did the U.S. officials who met with Mr. Naryshkin raise Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections?  If not, why was this not raised? If raised, what was his response?
    2. Did the U.S. officials who met with Mr. Naryshkin raise existing and congressionally-mandated U.S. sanctions against Russia discussed? If not, why was this not raised? If raised, what was his response?
    3. Did the U.S. officials who met with Mr. Naryshkin raise ongoing Russian cyber attacks on the U.S. and its allies, including reported efforts to discredit the Federal Bureau of Investigation and law enforcement investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections? If not, why was this not raised? If raised, what was his response?
    4. Did the U.S. officials who met with Mr. Naryshkin make clear that Putin’s interference in the 2018 and 2020 elections would be a hostile act against the United States? If not, why was this not raised? If raised, what was his response?

Instead of providing responses to questions about Russian tampering, Pompeo instead excused the whole meeting by pointing to counterterrorism, that same purpose, indeed — the same attack — that Putin raised in his December phone call.

We periodically meet with our Russian intelligence counterparts — to keep America safe. While Russia remains an adversary, we would put American lives at greater risk if we ignored opportunities to work with the Russian services in the fight against terrorism. We are proud of that counterterror work, including CIA’s role with its Russian counterparts in the recent disruption of a terrorist plot targeting St. Petersburg, Russia — a plot that could have killed Americans.

[snip]

Security cooperation between our intelligence services has occurred under multiple administrations. I am confident that you would support CIA continuing these engagements that are aimed at protecting the American people.

The contempt on sanctions makes it clear this goes beyond counterterrorism

All this together should allay any doubt you might have that this meeting goes beyond counterterrorism, if, indeed, it even has anything to do with counterterrorism.

Just as one possible other topic, in November, WSJ reported that DOJ was working towards charging Russians involved in the hack after the new year.

The Justice Department has identified more than six members of the Russian government involved in hacking the Democratic National Committee’s computers and swiping sensitive information that became public during the 2016 presidential election, according to people familiar with the investigation.

Prosecutors and agents have assembled evidence to charge the Russian officials and could bring a case next year, these people said. Discussions about the case are in the early stages, they said.

If filed, the case would provide the clearest picture yet of the actors behind the DNC intrusion. U.S. intelligence agencies have attributed the attack to Russian intelligence services, but haven’t provided detailed information about how they concluded those services were responsible, or any details about the individuals allegedly involved.

Today, Russia issued a new warning that America is “hunting” Russians all over the world, citing (among others) hacker Roman Seleznev.

“American special services are continuing their de facto hunt for Russians all over the world,” reads the statement published on the ministry’s website on Friday. The Russian diplomats also gave several examples of such arbitrary detentions of Russian citizens that took place in Spain, Latvia, Canada and Greece.

“Sometimes these were actual abductions of our compatriots. This is what happened with Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was kidnapped in Liberia in 2010 and secretly taken to the United States in violation of Liberian and international laws. This also happened in 2014 with Roman Seleznyov, who was literally abducted in the Maldives and forcefully taken to American territory,” the statement reads.

The ministry also warned that after being handed over to the US justice system, Russian citizens often encounter extremely biased attitudes.

“Through various means, including direct threats, they attempt to coerce Russians into pleading guilty, despite the fact that the charges of them are far-fetched. Those who refuse get sentenced to extraordinarily long prison terms.”

And, as I noted earlier, Trey Gowdy — one of the few members of Congress who has seen where Mueller is going with this investigation — cited the import of the counterintelligence case against Russia in a Sunday appearance.

CHRIS WALLACE: Congressman, we’ll get to your concerns about the FBI and the Department of Justice in a moment. But — but let me begin first with this. Do you still trust, after all you’ve heard, do you still trust Special Counsel Robert Mueller to conduct a fair and unbiased investigation?

REP. TREY GOWDY, R-SC, OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: One hundred percent, particularly if he’s given the time, the resources and the independence to do his job. Chris, he didn’t apply for the job. He’s where he is because we have an attorney general who had to recuse himself. So Mueller didn’t raise his hand and say, hey, pick me. We, as a country, asked him to do this.

And, by the way, he’s got two — there are two components to his jurisdiction. There is a criminal component. But there’s also a counterintelligence component that no one ever talks about because it’s not sexy and interesting. But he’s also going to tell us definitively what Russia tried to do in 2016. So the last time you and I were together, I told my Republican colleagues, leave him the hell alone, and that’s still my advice.

Schumer and other Democrats demanding answers about this visit might think about any ways the Russians might be working to undermine Mueller’s investigation or transparency that might come of it.

Three weeks of oversight free covert action

The timing of this visit is particularly concerning for another reason. In the three week continuing resolution to fund the government passed on January 22, the House Appropriations Chair Rodney Frelinghuysen added language that would allow the Administration to shift money funding intelligence activities around without telling Congress. It allows funds to,

“be obligated and expended notwithstanding section 504(a)(1) of the National Security Act of 1947.”

Section 504(a)(1) is the piece of the law that requires intelligence agencies to spend money on the program the money was appropriated for. “Appropriated funds available to an intelligence agency may be obligated or expended for an intelligence or intelligence-related activity only if those funds were specifically authorized by the Congress for use for such activities; or …”

The “or” refers to the intelligence community’s obligation to inform Congress of any deviation. But without any obligation to spend funds as specifically authorized, there is no obligation to inform Congress if that’s not happening.

Since the only real way to prohibit the Executive is to prohibit them to spend money on certain things, the change allows the Trump Administration to do things they’ve been specifically prohibited from doing for the three week period of the continuing resolution.

Senators Burr and Warner tried to change the language before passage on January 22, to no avail.

This year’s Defense Authorization included a whole slew of limits on Executive Branch activity, including mandating a report if the Executive cooperates with Russia on Syria and prohibiting any military cooperation until such time as Russia leaves Ukraine. It’s possible the Trump Administration would claim those appropriations-tied requirements could be ignored during the time of the continuing resolution.

Which just happened to cover the period of the Russian visit.

Our friends are getting nervous

Meanwhile, both before and after the visit, our allies have found ways to raise concerns about sharing intelligence with the US in light of Trump’s coziness with Russia. A key subtext of the stories revealing that Netherlands’ AIVD saw Russian hackers targeting the Democrats via a hacked security camera was that Rick Ledgett’s disclosure of that operation last year had raised concerns about sharing with the US.

President elect Donald Trump categorically refuses to explicitly acknowledge the Russian interference. It would tarnish the gleam of his electoral victory. He has also frequently praised Russia, and president Putin in particular. This is one of the reasons the American intelligence services eagerly leak information: to prove that the Russians did in fact interfere with the elections. And that is why intelligence services have told American media about the amazing access of a ‘western ally’.

This has led to anger in Zoetermeer and The Hague. Some Dutchmen even feel betrayed. It’s absolutely not done to reveal the methods of a friendly intelligence service, especially if you’re benefiting from their intelligence. But no matter how vehemently the heads of the AIVD and MIVD express their displeasure, they don’t feel understood by the Americans. It’s made the AIVD and MIVD a lot more cautious when it comes to sharing intelligence. They’ve become increasingly suspicious since Trump was elected president.

Then, the author of a book on Israeli’s assassinations has suggested that the intelligence Trump shared with the Russians goes beyond what got publicly reported, goes to the heart of Israeli intelligence operations.

DAVIES: So if I understand it, you know of specific information that the U.S. shared with the Russians that has not been revealed publicly and that you are not revealing publicly?

BERGMAN: The nature of the information that President Trump revealed to Foreign Minister Lavrov is of the most secretive nature.

Finally, a piece on the Nunes memo out today suggests the British will be less likely to share intelligence with Trump’s administration after the release of the memo (though this is admittedly based on US congressional claims, not British sources).

Britain’s spy agencies risk having their intelligence methods revealed if Donald Trump releases a controversial memo about the FBI, congressional figures have warned.

The UK will be less likely to share confidential information if the secret memo about the Russian investigation is made public, according to those opposing its release.

Clearly, this meeting goes beyond counterterrorism cooperation. And given the way that both Treasury and CIA have acted contemptuously in the aftermath of the visit, Schumer and others should be far more aggressive in seeking answers about what this visit really entailed.

Update: I’ve added the section on Section 504.

The Embarrass Mitch McConnell Provision of the Intel Authorization

I’ve got a piece coming out on all the Russian-related provisions in the Intelligence Authorization bill for next year, which are for the most part really laudable policy proposals. But I wanted to look more closely at this one.

SEC. 606. REPORT ON CYBER ATTACKS BY FOREIGN GOVERNMENTS AGAINST UNITED STATES ELECTION INFRASTRUCTURE.
(a) Report Required.—Not later than 60 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Intelligence and Analysis shall submit to congressional leadership and the congressional intelligence committees a report on cyber attacks and attempted cyber attacks by foreign governments on United States election infrastructure in States and localities in connection with the 2016 presidential election in the United States and such cyber attacks or attempted cyber attacks as the Under Secretary anticipates against such infrastructure. Such report shall identify the States and localities affected and shall include cyber attacks and attempted cyber attacks against voter registration databases, voting machines, voting-related computer networks, and the networks of secretaries of State and other election officials.

(b) Form.—The report submitted under subsection (a) shall be submitted in unclassified form, but may include a classified annex.

(c) Definitions.—In this section:

(1) CONGRESSIONAL LEADERSHIP.—The term “congressional leadership” includes the following:

(A) The majority leader of the Senate.

(B) The minority leader of the Senate.

(C) The Speaker of the House of Representatives.

(D) The minority leader of the House of Representatives.

(2) STATE.—The term “State” means any State of the United States, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and any territory or possession of the United States.

It requires the Department of Homeland Security to submit an unclassified report on all the hacking attempts on election infrastructure last year. It will involve declassifying information that Reality Winner is facing prison time for liberating, which seems like a concession that such information has public value. 

But I’m particularly interested in the emphasis on the distribution of this report: both to the intelligence committees and to Congressional leadership, spelled out by job title. Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer, Paul Ryan, and Nancy Pelosi.

That’s interesting because — as part of their investigation into last year’s hack — the Senate Intelligence Committee has already been briefed on this information. Indeed, the day after that testimony, Bloomberg reported — relying on three sources briefed on the investigation — that the hacks were much more severe than publicly known.

Russia’s cyberattack on the U.S. electoral system before Donald Trump’s election was far more widespread than has been publicly revealed, including incursions into voter databases and software systems in almost twice as many states as previously reported.

In Illinois, investigators found evidence that cyber intruders tried to delete or alter voter data. The hackers accessed software designed to be used by poll workers on Election Day, and in at least one state accessed a campaign finance database. Details of the wave of attacks, in the summer and fall of 2016, were provided by three people with direct knowledge of the U.S. investigation into the matter. In all, the Russian hackers hit systems in a total of 39 states, one of them said.

So ultimately, if this bill becomes law, it will require an unclassified report on stuff SSCI has been getting briefing on to be submitted to both SSCI and Congressional leadership.

The move comes in the wake of complaints from Democrats that Mitch McConnell refused to back a stronger statement about such attempted attacks in fall 2016. Now, I think some of the complaints about McConnell’s inaction last year are overblown, a demand that McConnell get ahead of where the Intelligence Community was willing to go publicly. And I think they largely obscure the more pressing question of what Trump advisors Devin Nunes and Richard Burr did. 

But I am cognizant of the fact that in a matter of months, we may get a better sense of the kinds of threats to our voting system that McConnell fought against publicizing.

Why We Should Remain Skeptical of the Five (!!) Congressional Investigations into the Russian Hack

I was interviewed (on Thursday) about the Flynn resignation and larger investigation into the Russia hack for Saturday’s On the Media. In what made the edit, I made one error (which I’ll explain later), but a key point I made holds. The leaking about Flynn and other Russian events are hypocritical and out of control. But they may create pressure to fix two problems with the current investigations into the Russian hack: the role of Jeff Sessions overseeing the DOJ-led investigations, and the role of Trump advisory officials Devin Nunes and Richard Burr overseeing the most appropriate congressional investigations.

In this post I’ll look at the latter conflicts. In a follow-up I’ll look at what the FBI seems to be doing.

As I noted in the interview, contrary to what you might think from squawking Democrats, there are five congressional investigations pertaining to Russian hacks, though some will likely end up focusing on prospective review of Russian hacking (for comparison, there were seven congressional Benghazi investigations). They are:

  • Senate Intelligence Committee: After months of Richard Burr — who served on Trump’s campaign national security advisory council — saying an inquiry was not necessary and going so far as insisting any inquiry wouldn’t review the dossier leaked on Trump, SSCI finally agreed to do an inquiry on January 13. Jim Comey briefed that inquiry last Friday, February 17.
  • House Intelligence Committee: In December, James Clapper refused to brief the House Intelligence Committee on the latest intelligence concluding Russian hacked the DNC with the goal of electing Trump, noting that HPSCI had been briefed all along (as was clear from some of the leaks, which clearly came from HPSCI insiders). In January, they started their own investigation of the hack, having already started fighting about documents by late January. While Ranking Democratic Member Adam Schiff has long been among the most vocal people complaining about the treatment of the hack, Devin Nunes was not only a Trump transition official, but made some absolutely ridiculous complaints after Mike Flynn’s side of some conversations got legally collected in a counterintelligence wiretap. Nunes has since promised to investigate the leaks that led to Flynn’s forced resignation.
  • Senate Armed Services Committee: In early January, John McCain announced he’d form a new subcommittee on cybersecurity, with the understanding it would include the Russian hack in its focus. Although he originally said Lindsey Graham would lead that committee, within weeks (and after Richard Burr finally capitulated and agreed to do a SSCI inquiry), McCain instead announced Mike Rounds would lead it.
  • Senate Foreign Relations Committee: In December, Bob Corker announced the SFRC would conduct an inquiry, scheduled to start in January. At a hearing in February, the topic came up multiple times, and both Corker and Ben Cardin reiterated their plans to conduct such an inquiry.
  • Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism: After Graham was denied control of the SASC panel, he and Sheldon Whitehouse announced they’d conduct their own inquiry, including a prospective review of “the American intelligence community’s assessment that Russia did take an active interest and play a role in the recent American elections.”

All the while, some Senators — McCain, Graham, Chuck Schumer, and Jack Reed — have called for a Select Committee to conduct the investigation, though in true McCainesque fashion, the maverick has at times flip-flopped on his support of such an inquiry.

Also, while not an investigation, on February 9, Jerry Nadler issued what I consider (strictly as it relates to the Russian hack, not the other conflicts) an ill-advised resolution of inquiry calling for the Administration to release materials relating to the hack, among other materials. Democrats in both the House and Senate have introduced legislation calling for an independent commission, but have gotten no support even from the mavericky Republicans.

As you can see from these descriptions, it took pressure from other committees, especially Lindsey Graham getting control of one of the inquiries, before Richard Burr let himself be convinced by SSCI Vice Chair Mark Warner to conduct an inquiry. Thus far, Mitch McConnell has staved off any Select Committee. As soon as SSCI did claim to be launching an investigation, a bunch of Republicans tried to shut down the others, claiming it was all simply too confusing.

Let me be clear: as I noted in the OTM interview, the intelligence committees are the appropriate place to conduct this investigation, as it concerns really sensitive counterintelligence matters — people who could be witnesses to it are getting killed! — and an ongoing investigation. The only way to conduct a responsible inquiry is to do so in secret, and unless a select committee with clearance is formed, that means doing so in the dysfunctional intelligence committees.

That’s made worse by Nunes and Burr’s obvious conflicts, having served on Trump’s pre-inauguration advisory teams (at a time when Mike Flynn was chatting about ongoing sanctions with Russia), and their equally obvious disinterest in conducting the investigation. Remember that the intelligence committees successfully bolloxed up the independent investigation into Iran-Contra. While neither Nunes nor Burr is as smart as Dick Cheney, who had a key role in that intentional bolloxing, Democrats should be cognizant of the ways that such bolloxing has happened in the past.

And now that SSCI has finally started its inquiry, Ali Watkins published an uncharacteristically credulous report on Burr’s role in the investigation, slathering on the colorful vocabulary — “brutally yanked;” “underground cohort;” “dark shadow of Langley;” “Wearily, they’re trudging forward on a probe littered with potential political landmines;” — before portraying the allegedly difficult position Burr is in:

That he’s now in charge of the sweeping Russia inquiry puts the North Carolina Republican in between a rock and a hard place. Since taking over the helm of the intelligence committee, Burr has pressed for more active and aggressive oversight, and has kept a rigorous travel schedule to match. But his decisive reelection victory in November came at a cost — throughout the contentious race, Burr towed Trump’s line, and hasn’t yet directly criticized the White House publicly.

But Burr has shown no indication that he’s ever angled for a Trump administration job, and says he’s not running for re-election. How seriously he takes his obligation to carry his president’s water remains to be seen.

Burr has been slammed by colleagues in recent days, who fear he’s slow-rolling an investigation into a fast-moving story. But much of the inquiry’s slow start was due to bureaucratic wrangling — some intelligence agencies insisted products be viewed on site rather than sent to the Hill, and some of the intelligence was so tightly controlled that it was unclear if staffers could even view it.

This is just spin. There is abundant public record that Burr has thwarted oversight generally (he has said things supporting that stance throughout his history on both the Senate and House Intelligence Committee, even ignoring his role in covering up torture, and Watkins’ earlier incorrect claims about Burr’s open hearings remain only partly corrected). There is no mention in this article that Burr was on Trump’s national security advisory committee. Nor that SSCI had reason to do hearings about this hack well before January 2017, back when it might have made a difference — at precisely the time when Burr apparently had time to advise Trump about national security issues as a candidate. Plus, it ignores all the things laid out here, Burr’s continued equivocation about whether there should even be a hearing.

There is no reason to believe Burr or Nunes intend to have a truly rigorous investigation (bizarrely, Warner seems to have had more success pushing the issue than Schiff — or Dianne Feinstein when she was Vice Chair — though that may be because the Ranking position is stronger in the Senate than in the House). And history tells us we should be wary that their investigations will be counterproductive.

As I noted, on Friday — the Friday before a recess — Jim Comey briefed the SSCI on the Russian hack. That briefing was unusual for the date (regular SSCI meetings happen on Tuesday and Thursday, and little business of any kinds happens right before a recess). Reporters have interpreted that, along with the presumed silence about the content of the briefing, as a sign that things are serious. That may be true — or it may be that that was the only time a 3-hour briefing could be scheduled. In the wake of the briefing, it was reported that the SSCI sent broad preservation requests tied to the inquiry (that is, they sent the request long after the inquiry was started). And while the press has assumed no one is talking, the day after the briefing, Reuters reported outlines of at least three parts of the FBI investigation into the Russian hack, attributed to former and current government officials.

The Not-Majority Leader Promises Bipartisan Investigations in Russian Cyberhackery

Chuck Schumer, Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Jack Reed released a statement this morning, stating (in part),

While protecting classified material, we have an obligation to inform the public about the recent cyberattacks that have cut to the heart of our free society. Democrats and Republicans must work together, and across the jurisdictional lines of Congress, to examine these recent thoroughly and devise comprehensive solutions to deter and defend against further cyberattacks.

If you don’t look too closely, it appears to be a mature promise that the Senate will work in nonpartisan fashion to defend the nation.

But let’s look closely, shall we?

First, note who is on the statement: the rising Minority Leader, the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and … some other guy. Lindsey Graham here is just filling in for the guy who should be on the statement if this were really bipartisan, Mitch McConnell. Furthermore, while it’s great the leaders of the SASC agree on this front, they only have partial jurisdiction over NSA, and none over FBI or CIA, the agencies having a public spat over this. Richard Burr, whose committee does have jurisdiction over the CIA and over counterintelligence (and who often avoids doing any oversight by invoking classification), is also conspicuously absent.

In other words, it’s not so much a statement of bipartisanship, as an effort to pressure those who should be on the statement to join in.

It’s also not a statement with enough GOP signers — three is the new magic number, absent Trump convincing Joe Manchin or Heidi Heitkamp to give up their seat for a cabinet post, in which case it will be four — to be able to sway votes in the Senate.

The statement suggests Congress has been working hard to protect cybersecurity. They must be doing so in secret, because the main thing they’ve done recently is pass a law immunizing corporations for sharing information.

Ah well. It’s a start. Schumer is very effective at making bold statements, and if that puts some heat on Mitch McConnell, so be it.

Signaling: Schumer Has Lost Faith in Comey

Yesterday, Josh Earnest repeated a view — ascribed to the President — he had used the day before.

Q And does the President still stand by Director Comey? Would he advise Secretary Clinton, if she were to be President, that — or Donald Trump, if he were to succeed President Obama — that he could have confidence in that FBI Director?

MR. EARNEST: Well, as I noted yesterday, the President believes that Director Comey is a man of integrity, that he’s a man of principle. There’s a reason that he serves — that he was nominated by President Obama to serve as the Director of the FBI. There’s also a reason that he was appointed to serve in a high-ranking position at the Department of Justice when President Bush was in office. There’s also a reason that a majority of Democrats and a majority of Republicans in the United States Senate both voted to confirm him to the position of the Director of the FBI. And the President, as I noted yesterday, continues to have confidence in his ability to do that job.

Today, however, President Obama took a decidedly different stance, when asked directly by NowThis.

“There is a norm that when there are investigations, we don’t operate on innuendo and we don’t operate on incomplete information and we don’t operate on leaks,” he said in an interview with NowThis. “We operate based on concrete decisions that are made.”

That’s far more critical of Comey’s actions than Earnest’s statements of the last two days.

An even more remarkable stance came from Chuck Schumer, who may soon be Majority Leader and who has been incredibly influential to Comey’s career, in an interview with Bloomberg.

Senate Democratic leader-in-waiting Chuck Schumer said Wednesday he’s lost confidence in FBI Director James Comey over his handling of the most recent disclosure in the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation — a tough rebuke to a man Schumer has long admired.
“I do not have confidence in him any longer,” said the New York Democrat, who has criticized as “appalling” Comey’s decision to send a letter to lawmakers 11 days before the election disclosing the bureau’s new review of e-mails potentially pertinent to the investigation of Clinton’s private server.

“To restore my faith, I am going to have to sit down and talk to him and get an explanation for why he did this,” Schumer said in an interview.

Schumer not only made Comey’s career with support for each of his DOJ appointments, but of course set up the 2007 testimony that made Comey’s run up some hospital steps so famous.

Mind you, Schumer seems to leave open the possibility he might change his mind, if Comey explains “why he did this.” So it may just be an effort to start putting as much weight on the scale as the GOP long has.

Still, Schumer’s comments are the first inkling that Comey may not survive this.