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Mueller Wants to Know How Far the Game of Email Telephone Got within the Trump Campaign

NBC has a story that has gotten a lot of people excited, reporting that Mueller’s team has been asking:

  • Policy towards Russia: Why Trump took policy positions that were friendly toward Russia and spoke positively about Russian President Vladimir Putin
  • Roger Stone: Whether Stone was aware of information the group had before it became public and when it might be released
  • Trump’s knowledge: Whether Donald Trump was aware that Democratic emails had been stolen before that was publicly known, and whether he was involved in their strategic release

I think this story is both less and more than people are making it out to be.

It’s being overhyped for its facial value. Of course Mueller is going to ask about what the president knew and when he knew it. Of course he’s going to chase down whether Roger Stone’s repeated claims to know what was coming were bluster or not.

But on at least two counts, I think there’s more to this story than meets the eye.

First, as I noted when George Papadopoulos’ plea came out, the FBI charged the former foreign policy advisor for lying about whether he had been told of dirt on Hillary in the form of emails (which we now know they said they might anonymously leak to help Trump) before or after he joined the campaign. That they believed this important enough to charge suggests that, after two full months of cooperation, they got the answer they expected.

FBI found those lies to be significant enough to arrest him over because they obscured whether he had told anyone on the campaign that the Russians had dirt in the form of Hillary emails.

To be sure, nothing in any of the documents released so far answer the questions that Papadopoulos surely spent two months explaining to the FBI: whether he told the campaign (almost certainly yes, or he wouldn’t have lied in the first place) and when (with the big import being on whether that information trickled up to Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner before they attended a meeting on June 9, 2016 in hopes of obtaining such dirt).

I’m sure that’s intentional. You gotta keep everyone else guessing about what Mueller knows.

But we can be pretty sure what the answers are.

There’s no way Papadopoulos’ plea would have been rolled out in the way it was except to get everyone he had told about the emails (as well as those who were instructing him on how to negotiate a meeting with Putin) on the record first.

So Mueller has a good idea of who learned first hand from Papadopoulos about the emails. What he may not know (or may be trying to lock in with further testimony) is how far that game of telephone extended; did it include Trump, and if so via what interlocutors. (Rick Gates may be, or may already have, enlightened Mueller on this point.)

These questions are also interesting against the background of something else suggested by the Papadopoulos plea (and subsequent NYT reporting), which I laid out here. Papadopoulos appeared to be signaling Ivan Timofeev, and those signals were closely tied to email releases.

In this post I did a timeline of all the known George Papadopoulos communications. The timeline made something clear: on two occasions, Papadopoulos alerted Ivan Timofeev to something in a Trump speech. On each occasion, something happened with emails.

[snip]

I’m not saying that the timing of these email releases were dictated by the speeches. Of course they weren’t. They were timed to do maximal damage to the Hillary campaign (not incidentally, in a way that coincided with the “later in the summer” timing Don Jr asked for in his communications with Rob Goldstone).

Rather, I’m saying that Papadopoulos seems to have been signaling Timofeev, and those signals closely mapped to email releases.

And those signals are among the things he tried to destroy.

Importantly, that signaling pertained to public statements on policies of Russian interest. I laid out three apparent incidences in that post, incidences mentioned in the plea.

In this post, I suggested what might be a fourth: when Trump’s twitter account tweeted about Hillary’s emails just 40 minutes after the June 9 Trump Tower meeting started and incorporated a potentially accurate number for how many staffers Hillary had.

I want to return to a detail many others have already noted, Donald Trump’s tweet, just 40 minutes after the Trump Tower meeting started, referencing Hillary emails (albeit the ones she deleted off her server, not the still secret stolen ones).

Given that George Papadopoulos seemed to treat other public statements from the campaign (most notably Trump’s April 27 foreign policy speech) as signals to the Russians the campaign was prepared to take the next step, could this tweet be the same? A response, seemingly from the candidate himself, accepting a deal presented in the meeting?

[snip]

I’m at least as interested in why Trump (or rather, Scavino or Parscale or Don Jr) used the number “823” in the tweet. In the aftermath of the John Sipher interview Jeremy Scahill did, Sipher suggested to me might be some kind of signal, a code; he’s the pro–maybe he’s right.

But I was wondering whether it might, instead, reflect real-time knowledge of the Hillary campaign’s finances and resources. That is, I wondered whether that number might have, itself, reflected the sharing of some kind of data that could verify the Russians had compromised Hillary’s campaign (or at least researched it substantively enough to know more than the Trump camp did). The public use of the number, then, might serve as a signal that that message, and the inside data, had been received.

While the specific number is difficult to check, I’ve been told the 823 number would have been at least “in the ball park” of the real number of Hillary’s campaign staffers on June 9, 2016.

If this (or, specifically mentioned in the NBC story, Trump’s July call for Russia to release Hillary’s emails) were part of the signaling, then Trump either could have been in the loop, or one of the flunkies who ran his iPhone account before he switched to iPhone himself could have been.

Which leads me to one more question reported by NBC today, almost as an afterthought. At least one witness was asked about the boundaries of Dan Scavino’s job.

At least one witness has been asked about Trump aide Dan Scavino, specifically about any involvement he may have had in the campaign’s data operation. Scavino currently runs the White House’s social media operations and is one of Trump’s closest aides.

I’m particularly interested in this given the report that Scavino was involved in negotiations through Rob Goldstone for promotions on Russian social media platform VKontakte, and the odds that he might have been the one tweeting any signaling tweets using Trump’s campaign.

So while these questions are, on the one hand, bloody obvious, they also may suggest a far more advanced understanding of how this operation might have worked.

Why Did Trump Tweet an “In the Ball Park” Accurate Number for Hillary’s Total Staffers on June 9, 2016?

In this post, I showed how the George Papadopoulos filings suggest there was a signaling process that went on during 2016, as he and other staffers sent public signals to the Russians that may have suggested further commitment to a deal of some kind. In this post, I laid out a bunch of circumstantial evidence suggesting that the current, public story about the June 9, 2016 meeting is just a limited hangout, one that hides more damning details about what happened after Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin left the meeting. I also examined the first Guccifer 2.0 documents and noted that, in addition to responding to and debunking the June 14 WaPo story, they might serve well to lay out (arguably, to oversell) the breadth of what the Russians had stolen.

With those details in mind, I want to return to a detail many others have already noted, Donald Trump’s tweet, just 40 minutes after the Trump Tower meeting started, referencing Hillary emails (albeit the ones she deleted off her server, not the still secret stolen ones).

Given that George Papadopoulos seemed to treat other public statements from the campaign (most notably Trump’s April 27 foreign policy speech) as signals to the Russians the campaign was prepared to take the next step, could this tweet be the same? A response, seemingly from the candidate himself, accepting a deal presented in the meeting?

The tweet may have involved one or another of the campaign’s data guys

Mind you, as Pseudonymous in NC noted, the tweet was done on an iPhone — this is the period from before Trump had switched to iPhones — meaning someone else, perhaps either Brad Parscale or Dan Scavino, tweeted it. PINC lays out reasons either one of Trump’s data guys might be of particular interest:

Per the Bloomberg pre-election “bunker” story, Parscale was one of the few with credentials to the boss’s account. Pre-written tweets during events like the debates went through the web client, but my guess is that Scavino and Parscale represent most of the ‘Twitter for iPhone’ tweets in 2016 and early 2017. Some of them are RTing Scavino’s personal account, and Caddy Dan is that kinda guy. Parscale has consistently used an iPhone, including the June 8th photo from the Tower.

Remember that Feinstein is interested in Scavino’s contacts with, er, VKontakte, and that’s before considering Parscale’s data op. Pretty much everything tweeted out during 2016 that relates to the specifics of hacked emails is sent from an iPhone.

And the intermediary for the VK connection was Goldstone, going back to January 2016. It’s interesting that neither Scavino nor Parscale have apparently been called in for chats with investigators, or if they have, we haven’t heard about it.

[snip]

What I’m thinking is that if there was indeed an after-meeting about “dirt in the form of emails”, Scavino or Parscale may have been brought into the room. And Goldstone had been put in touch with Scavino earlier that year.

This story revealing Goldstone’s communications about his role in brokering the VK contact doesn’t support the possibility that one of the data guys was brought into the room. Rather, Goldstone’s emails suggest he discussed the idea with Don Jr and Paul Manafort, presumably on June 9, but that Scavino was not included in the meeting, even though he had been looped in during earlier discussions about it.

The newly disclosed emails show that Goldstone was in contact with the campaign about two weeks after visiting Trump Tower.

“I’m following up on an email [from] a while back of something I had mentioned to Don and Paul Manafort during a meeting recently,” Goldstone wrote to Scavino on June 29. Goldstone wrote that his client, Emin Agalarov, and a “contact” at VK wanted to create a “Vote Trump 2016” promotion.

“At the time, Paul had said he would welcome it, and so I had the VK folks mock up a basic sample page, which I am resending for your approval now,” Goldstone wrote. “It would merely require Mr. Trump to drop in a short message to Russian-American voters or a generic message, depending on your choice, and the page can be up and running very quickly.”

In any case, the discussion about VK is yet another detail that makes it pretty likely Goldstone, at least, arrived early or stayed after Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin left (in the WaPo story on this, Scott Balber denies VK came up at any meeting Ike Kaveladze attended).

One other possibility for who sent that Tweet, though: It would not be surprising if Don Jr had access to Pop’s account. At least recently, he has alternated between an iPhone and the web client to send his own tweets, so it’s possible any tweets he sent on Dad’s behalf would also be from an iPhone.

Where’s Trump get that number, 823? And why’d he use it?

But I’m at least as interested in why Trump (or rather, Scavino or Parscale or Don Jr) used the number “823” in the tweet. In the aftermath of the John Sipher interview Jeremy Scahill did, Sipher suggested to me might be some kind of signal, a code; he’s the pro–maybe he’s right.

But I was wondering whether it might, instead, reflect real-time knowledge of the Hillary campaign’s finances and resources. That is, I wondered whether that number might have, itself, reflected the sharing of some kind of data that could verify the Russians had compromised Hillary’s campaign (or at least researched it substantively enough to know more than the Trump camp did). The public use of the number, then, might serve as a signal that that message, and the inside data, had been received.

While the specific number is difficult to check, I’ve been told the 823 number would have been at least “in the ball park” of the real number of Hillary’s campaign staffers on June 9, 2016.

Politico’s analysis of the Hillary campaign’s May 20 FEC filing showed Hillary had 732 staffers at the time of the report. The day after the June 9 meeting, Philip Bump did a story comparing Hillary and Trump’s staffing (a slew of such stories in the weeks after the June 9 meeting was one reason Corey Lewandowski got replaced as campaign manager), referencing the tweet. But his analysis reflected the month’s long lag in FEC filings. Without doing cleanup (to figure out who got paid that frequently, whether anyone got paid monthly rather than bi-monthly), Clinton’s FEC filings seem to show 587 individual payroll disbursements at her headquarters on June 15, 2016.

I talked to a couple of people on the campaign who remember thinking about the tweet, and its use of the 823 number, in real time. Someone who was working on responding to such issues told me he thought, when the tweet came out, that it might have been just a guess (though now thinks it might come from misreading a report). But another Hillary staffer described taking note of the specific number in real time. That person did about 10 minutes of follow-up at the time, checking real-time FEC filings, and concluded that it might be an accurate number. Between headquarters staff, working (policy) teams, advance, and field staff, the person believes the 823 number could very well represent a close to real number of staffers Hillary had “working” on her campaign.

Of course, none of this would mean the number came from the Russians. Such estimates are done by (competent) political campaigns all the time. So it could have come from Trump’s data people — the same people who could have tweeted the tweet in Trump’s name — itself.

That said, in none of the other Trump tweets using the 30,000 or the 33,000 email number does he include a similarly specific detail — the closest comparison is one invocation of Chelsea’s wedding. Note, too, just one other of those tweets also came from an iPhone — the equally suspicious one on July 27, 2016 asking Russia to release those emails (though one of the others came from the web client).

One more point on the number: That night, at 8:22PM ET, someone on Reddit’s The_Donald thread posted, “Hillary has a staggering 823 staffers on her campaign; Donald Trump  has over 142,000.” Best as I understand it, the comment was almost immediately removed by moderators. I find that worth noting.