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Carter Page Believed James Wolfe Was Ellen Nakashima’s Source Disclosing His FISA Application Less than a Month After the Story

According to the Statement of Offense to which James Wolfe — the former Senate Intelligence Committee security official convicted of lying about his contacts with journalists — allocuted, Carter Page suspected Wolfe was the source for Ellen Nakashima’s story revealing Page had been targeted with a FISA order. When the former Trump campaign staffer wrote Nakashima to complain about the story less than four weeks after Washington Post published it, Page BCCed Wolfe. [Nakashima is Reporter #1 and Ali Watkins is Reporter #2.]

On May 8, 2017, MALE-1 emailed REPORTER #1 complaining about REPORTER #1’s reporting of him (MALE-1). According to the metadata recovered during the search of Wolfe’s email, Wolfe was blind-copied on that email by MALE-1.

That unexplained detail is important — albeit mystifying — background to two recent stories on leak investigations.

First, as reported last month, Nakashima was one of three journalists whose call records DOJ obtained last year.

The Trump Justice Department secretly obtained Washington Post journalists’ phone records and tried to obtain their email records over reporting they did in the early months of the Trump administration on Russia’s role in the 2016 election, according to government letters and officials.

In three separate letters dated May 3 and addressed to Post reporters Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller, and former Post reporter Adam Entous, the Justice Department wrote they were “hereby notified that pursuant to legal process the United States Department of Justice received toll records associated with the following telephone numbers for the period from April 15, 2017 to July 31, 2017.” The letters listed work, home or cellphone numbers covering that three-and-a-half-month period.

The scope of the records obtained on the WaPo journalists last year started four days after the Page story, so while some May 11, 2017 emails between Nakashima and Wolfe would have been included in what got seized last year, any contacts prior to the FISA story would not have. And the public details on the prosecution of Wolfe show no sign that Nakashima’s records were obtained in that investigation (those of Ali Watkins, whom Wolfe was in a relationship, however, were). Indeed, the sentencing memo went out of its way to note that DOJ had not obtained deleted Signal texts from any journalists. “The government did not recover or otherwise obtain from any reporters’ communications devices or related records the content of any of these communications.”

That said, Nakashima’s reporting was targeted in two different leak investigations, covering sequential periods, three years apart.

It’s not clear how quickly the Page investigation focused on Wolfe. But it may have outside help. A CBP Agent unconnected to the FBI investigation grilled Watkins on her ties with Wolfe in June 2017.

The Sentencing Memorandum on Wolfe suggests the FBI came to focus on him — and excused their focus — after having learned of his affair with Watkins. They informed Richard Burr and Mark Warner, and obtained the first of several warrants to access his phone.

At the time the classified national security information about the FISA surveillance was published in the national media, defendant James A. Wolfe was the Director of Security for the SSCI. He was charged with safeguarding information furnished to the SSCI from throughout the United States Intelligence Community (“USIC”) to facilitate the SSCI’s critical oversight function. During the course of the investigation, the FBI learned that Wolfe had been involved in the logistical process for transporting the FISA materials from the Department of Justice for review at the SSCI. The FBI also discovered that Wolfe had been involved in a relationship with a reporter (referred to as REPORTER #2 in the Indictment and herein) that began as early as 2013, when REPORTER #2, then a college intern, published a series of articles containing highly sensitive U.S. government information. Between 2014 and 2017, Wolfe and REPORTER #2 exchanged tens of thousands of telephone calls and electronic messages. Also during this period, REPORTER #2 published dozens of news articles on national security matters that contained sensitive information related to the SSCI.

Upon realizing that Wolfe was engaged in conduct that appeared to the FBI to compromise his ability to fulfill his duties with respect to the handling of Executive Branch classified national security information as SSCI’s Director of Security, the FBI faced a dilemma. The FBI needed to conduct further investigation to determine whether Wolfe had disseminated classified information that had been entrusted to him over the past three decades in his role as SSCI Director of Security. To do that, the FBI would need more time to continue their investigation covertly. Typically, upon learning that an Executive Branch employee and Top Secret clearance holder had potentially been compromised in place – such as by engaging in a clandestine affair with a national security reporter – the FBI would routinely provide a “duty-to-warn” notification to the relevant USIC equity holder in order to allow the intelligence agencies to take mitigation measures to protect their national security equities. Here, given the sensitive separation of powers issue and the fact that the FISA was an FBI classified equity, the FBI determined that it would first conduct substantial additional investigation and monitoring of Wolfe’s activities. The FBI’s executive leadership also took the extraordinary mitigating step of limiting its initial notification of investigative findings to the ranking U.S. Senators who occupy the Chair and Vice Chair of the SSCI.2

The FBI obtained court authority to conduct a delayed-notice search warrant pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3103a(b), which allowed the FBI to image Wolfe’s smartphone in October 2017. This was conducted while Wolfe was in a meeting with the FBI in his role as SSCI Director of Security, ostensibly to discuss the FBI’s leak investigation of the classified FISA material that had been shared with the SSCI. That search uncovered additional evidence of Wolfe’s communications with REPORTER #2, but it did not yet reveal his encrypted communications with other reporters.

This process — as described by Jocelyn Ballantine and Tejpal Chawla, prosecutors involved in some of the other controversial subpoenas disclosed in the last month — is a useful lesson of how the government proceeded in a case that likely overlapped with the investigation into HPSCI that ended up seizing Swalwell and Schiff’s records. Given that Swalwell was targeted by a Chinese spy, it also suggests one excuse they may have used to obtain the records: by claiming it was a potential compromise.

Still, by the time FBI first informed Wolfe of the investigation, in October 2017, they had obtained his cell phone content showing that he was chatting up other journalists, in addition to Watkins — and indeed, he continued to share information on Page. By the time the FBI got Wolfe to perjure himself on a questionnaire about contacts with journalists in December 2017, they had presumably already searched Watkins’ emails going back years. Wolfe was removed from his position and stripped of clearance, making his indictment six months later only a matter of time.

All that said, the government never proved that Wolfe was the source for Nakashima. And Ballantine’s subpoena for HPSCI contacts, weeks later after FBI searched Wolfe’s phone, may have reflected a renewed attempt to pin the leak on someone, anyone (though it’s not clear whether investigators looked further than Congress, or even to Paul Ryan, who has been suspected of tipping Page off.

If the James Wolfe investigation reflects how they might have approached the HPSCI side, there’s one other alarming detail of this: The FBI alerted someone in Congress of the search, the Chair and Ranking Member of the Committee. But in HPSCI’s case, Schiff was the Ranking Member. Meaning it’s possible that, by targeting on Schiff, FBI gave itself a way to consult only with the Republican Chair of the Committee.

James Wolfe (and the investigation of Natalie Sours Edwards, who was sentenced to six months in prison last week) are an important lesson in leak investigations that serves as important background for Joe Biden’s promise that reporters won’t be targeted anymore. The way you conduct a leak investigation in this day and age is to seize the source’s phone, in part because that’s the only way to obtain Signal texts.

Timeline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 17, 2017: NBC reports Carter Page subpoena.

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

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

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

December 14, 2017: FBI approaches Watkins about Wolfe.

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

December 15, 2017: FBI interviews Wolfe.

January 11, 2018: Second interview with Wolfe, after which FBI executes a Rule 41 warrant on his phone, discovering deleted Signal texts with other journalists.

February 6, 2018: Subpoena targeting Adam Schiff and others.

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

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

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

June 7, 2018: Grand jury indicts Wolfe.

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

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

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

Lev Parnas Wants in on the Rudy Giuliani Warrant Bonanza

Lev Parnas just submitted a filing in his case — joined by the remaining defendants — asking for a discovery hearing where SDNY will tell them when they will get the evidence seized from Rudy Giuliani and Victoria Toensing that is helpful to their defense. It describes how, after inquiring how the searches on Rudy and Toensing affect them, on May 14, the government explained that Judge Paul Oetken has given the government multiple gags, covering the time through June 30, to delay disclosure.

And it sounds like the government seized material from more than just Rudy and Toensing. At least two sentences of this description of the searches likely doesn’t pertain to them.

Parnas explains that he expects those searches will include materials useful to his defense from:

  • Rudy
  • Toensing
  • “the former President”
  • Billy Barr
  • “high-level members of the Justice Department”
  • Jay Sekulow
  • Jane Raskin
  • Senator Lindsey Graham
  • Congressman Devin Nunes

He expects those materials will reveal “the timing of the arrest and indictment of the defendants as a means to prevent potential disclosures to Congress in the first impeachment inquiry of then-President” Trump. He says he’ll have exceptions to any “potentially applicable privilege.”

He also expects that there may be information that got deleted (the implication is, by him) about “how to address their prior relationships, and the unfolding investigation.”

Update: As a number of people have noted, that big redaction is one of the fake redactions that defense attorneys sometimes disclose sensitive information under. Copy and pasting shows that the following other people were also targeted.

In a chart, the Government identified that it had sought and seized a variety of undisclosed materials from multiple individuals, including: the iCloud and e-mail accounts of Rudolph Giuliani (11/04/19); the iCloud account of Victoria Toensing (11/04/19); an email account believed to belong to former Prosecutor General of Ukraine, Yuriy Lutsenko (11/6/19); an e-mail account believed to belong to the former head of the Ukrainian Fiscal Service, Roman Nasirov (12/10/19); the e-mail account of Victoria Toensing (12/13/19); the iPhone and iPad of pro-Trump Ukrainian businessman Alexander Levin (02/28/2020 and 3/02/2020); an iCloud account believed to belong to Roman Nasirov (03/03/2020); historical and prospective cell site information related to Rudolph Giuliani and Victoria Toensing (04/13/2021); electronic devices of Rudolph Giuliani and Giuliani Partners LLC (04/21/2021); and the iPhone of Victoria Toensing.

Several of these people were named in a July 2019 OCCRP story on Parnas and Fruman that the whistleblower included in his complaint against Trump. Which is to say, this is the investigation we would have gotten had DOJ not worked so hard to protect Rudy and, through him, Trump, back in 2019.

Will the GOP Demand Ron Johnson Be Stripped of Committee Assignments for Ignoring a Defensive Briefing?

There’s been a lot of attention on this WaPo story, which had to retract a report that Rudy Giuliani had gotten a defensive briefing long after the time he helped get Marie Yovanovich fired (which is reportedly what he is being investigated for), but well before he continued to peddle Russian disinformation even after Treasury sanctions would have made it legally problematic to do so (indeed–that may be the implication of this NBC story on the decision not to give him a briefing). I mean, Rudy’s right to be pissed that WaPo claimed that he had a specific warning on top of the zillion other warnings that were in plain sight, but it’s not clear it helps him legally in the least.

There’s been less consideration of the implications of Ron Johnson’s admission that he did get a defensive briefing, but he blew it off.

The FBI last summer also gave what is known as a defensive briefing to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who ahead of the election used his perch as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to investigate Biden’s dealings with Ukraine while he was vice president and his son Hunter Biden held a lucrative seat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.

Johnson, a staunch Trump ally, recalled receiving a vague warning from FBI briefers in August, but he said Thursday that there was no substance to their cautionary message and that he did not view the meeting as a “defensive briefing” on his oversight of the Biden family’s foreign business ventures.

“Regarding reports that I received an FBI briefing warning me that I was a target of Russian disinformation, I can confirm I received such a briefing in August of 2020,” Johnson said in a statement to The Washington Post. “I asked the briefers what specific evidence they had regarding this warning, and they could not provide me anything other than the generalized warning. Without specific information, I felt the briefing was completely useless and unnecessary (since I was fully aware of the dangers of Russian disinformation).

“Because there was no substance to the briefing, and because it followed the production and leaking of a false intelligence product by Democrat leaders, I suspected that the briefing was being given to be used at some future date for the purpose that it is now being used: to offer the biased media an opportunity to falsely accuse me of being a tool of Russia despite warnings.”

Remember that for months, Republicans have been attacking Eric Swalwell because, before he was on the House Intelligence Committee, he got a defensive briefing about a woman who, the FBI informed him, was recruiting for China. He stopped talking to the woman and cooperated with the FBI, doing precisely what you’re supposed to do after getting a defensive briefing.

Nevertheless, the GOP has repeatedly used the story to call for Swalwell to be removed from HPSCI. Kevin McCarthy, after a briefing on the matter, narrowly danced with leaking information while judging that Swalwell should not be on HPSCI. Devin Nunes (whose ties to Rudy’s legal woes may soon get rather interesting) suggested Swalwell’s focus on Russia was done at the behest of China. The two staged a vote to throw him off HPSCI that failed.

And even Ron Johnson got in the act, claiming (though the timeline makes no sense) that the Chinese got Swalwell appointed to HPSCI and claiming that China was grooming Swalwell.

Johnson launched that attack in December 2020, months after he had been warned that Russia was grooming him the same way.

Only, unlike Swalwell, Johnson blew off that warning.

According to the GOP standard, shouldn’t Johnson be stripped of his Committee positions, particularly Homeland Security and Foreign Relations?

Two One-Time Devin Nunes Flunkies Under Investigation for Leaks

Michael Ellis, the Devin Nunes flunky who had been installed as NSA General Counsel over more qualified people, resigned from NSA after being placed on leave since Inauguration Day. I hadn’t realized until I read Ellen Nakashima’s report on Ellis’ resignation that he was being investigated for leaking classified information, though Catherine Herridge reported that investigation in real time, the very same day that Ellis’ attorney wrote NSA inquiring about the investigation.

Meanwhile, a long David Ignatius profile of another Nunes flunky, Kash Patel, mentions that he, too, is under investigation for leaking classified information.

Patel repeatedly pressed intelligence agencies to release secrets that, in his view, showed that the president was being persecuted unfairly by critics. Ironically, he is now facing Justice Department investigation for possible improper disclosure of classified information, according to two knowledgeable sources who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the probe. The sources said the investigation resulted from a complaint made this year by an intelligence agency, but wouldn’t provide additional details.

Both of these men (along with a third Nunes flunky, Derek Harvey) have been a real threat to national security and both have a history of writing crappy reports for Nunes (recent reporting reminds that Ellis was the author of an unnecessarily shitty Edward Snowden report, for example). There’s little doubt they have released the kinds of material that have never before been released, but much of that would either be legal and/or protected by Speech and Debate.

But the fact that both are being investigated for leaking classified information raises questions whether leak investigations are just being used as an easy way to take out intelligence community critics, whether they’re both suspected of leaking the same information, or whether there’s more there.

The Ignatius story, in particular, is of interest, not least because he’s the guy who first reported Mike Flynn’s conversation with Sergey Kislyak in a seemingly sanctioned leak, making this report a kind of book-end to the Trump Administration. All the more so given that Ignatius not only notes the sensitivity of the probe into Patel, but then tells a story that likely relies on classified information of how Patel’s incompetence almost blew up a SEAL rescue mission in Niger.

Anger toward Patel within the national security bureaucracy mounted after an Oct. 31, 2020, hostage rescue mission in Nigeria. The incident, never previously reported in detail, was described by four high-level sources.

It was a rescue mission that was nearly aborted partly because of inadequate coordination by Patel. SEAL Team Six had been assigned to rescue 27-year-old Philip Walton, a missionary’s son who had been kidnapped by gunmen in Niger, near the border with Nigeria. Patel, as a senior counterterrorism adviser, had assured colleagues that the mission had a green light, according to several sources. The SEALs were ready to parachute into the rescue site from high altitude (one source estimated 30,000 feet) when there was a last-minute hitch.

But as the SEALs were about to jump, military commanders and State Department officials realized that one necessary item hadn’t been completed: The Nigerian government hadn’t been informed prior to the operation inside their country, as required.

A frantic last-minute effort to obtain the necessary permission ensued. The SEAL team’s aircraft held over the target, flying in a racetrack pattern, for about 45 minutes while the State Department tried to locate a Nigerian national security official who could receive the official notice. Finally, just 15 minutes before the operational window closed, the Nigerians were given word, the SEALs parachuted down, and the hostage was rescued.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were angry that, in their view, Patel had prematurely said the operation was fully cleared, according to knowledgeable officials. One senior Pentagon official said he was “incensed” at Patel. A second senior Pentagon official described Patel’s actions as potentially “dangerous” for the SEALs.

The attack on Patel’s role in the hostage rescue may be a signal about what Patel is suspected of leaking.

While Ignatius provides no indication of what Patel is suspected of leaking, the WaPo columnist does link to an interview Patel did with Aaron Maté. The interview is about what you’d expect from a propagandist interviewing a propagandist.  Patel makes a slew of false claims that Maté encourages: the purpose of FISA, what normally goes in FISA applications, the intelligence against Carter Page, what servers the FBI obtained as part of its investigation into the hack (Maté still ascribes the single server fallacy!), what Crowdstrike actually had access to, what Bruce Ohr’s FBI interviews actually showed. Perhaps the most hysterical part of the interview is where Patel claimed that the way to conduct an investigation is to follow the money, but Maté never asked him why HPSCI didn’t follow the money on a single Trump associate, to say nothing of Trump’s role in money laundering for Russian oligarchs.

Nevertheless, in their discussion about the Russian investigation, Patel was quite careful to avoid revealing non-public information, not even for a report he authored claiming poor tradecraft on the Intelligence Community Assessment of the Russian attack that both SSCI and John Durham have investigated and dismissed.

Maté similarly let Patel dodge really answering questions about his conduct on January 6, even though some of the biggest questions about that day pertain to why DOD delayed for three hours before reinforcing the Capitol, including why it took over 30 minutes for an order to deploy to get from Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller to Guard Commander General William Walker who had been waiting on stand-by. In response to Maté’s question, Patel first repeated his selective breach of Executive Privilege to claim that Trump had already authorized Guard deployments, then answered a totally different question than the one Maté asked — not why DOD let the attack continue for 3 hours, long after it had gotten repeated requests for help, but how quickly DOD deployed the Guard after they had allowed an attack to happen across town while they watched.

We activated, from a start, the fastest augmentation and mobilization of uniformed military troops in the DC area since World War II, and we put 24,000 boots on the ground in less than 48 hours. I don’t know who’s saying we slow-rolled anything, because these are Guardsmen, they’re not active duty military.

While Patel violated Executive Privilege, there’s nothing classified about the belated Guard deployment.

It’s in-between those two conversations, though, where Patel may have succumbed to Maté’s persistent questioning about the very same topic about which Ignatius’ sources attack Patal: hostage rescues. Maté asked about a report that Patel had tried to negotiate the release of Austin Tice. Patel first responded to Maté by saying that he wouldn’t address whether Tice is alive or not. But then Maté followed up, and Patel told a self-serving story about his role in an attempt to free Tice. In it, Patel provided non-public details about his meeting with Assad representatives in Syria and may have confirmed an intercept on Bashar al-Assad.

Maté: Can you tell us anything about your discussions with Syrian officials, what they were asking from you, their level of openness to having talks with the US government?

Patel: Sure, I mean, look, that didn’t happen overnight. You know, one of President Trump’s priorities was, “go get American hostages home,” and I think we got over 50 — 53ish, hostages, detainees back — from 20-some countries maybe. Maybe a little less. But Austin Tice had been missing for, going on eight years, and we had made no headway, really, on it, so we made it a priority. We started working with our counterparts in the region. That trip was almost 18 months in the making. And we finally were able to land a meeting in Damascus because I told them, I said, “I’ll come see you. You send someone who can represent President Assad directly, because I can represent President Trump directly on this matter. And let’s go sit down.” And they said, “okay, come to Damascus.” And I don’t know if they thought we would show up or not. We did. And we were very clear. We said, “look, I understand I’m not getting Austin home on this trip, but I would like a proof of life. What would you like in return for that?” We had very frank conversations. They said, we want X amount of movement for the United States military. Troops stuff, and this and that. And I said, “look, all of that’s on the table. We can discuss all those things. I need a proof of life.” And they said they would take it back to Assad. Which they did. I know they did that. And then, I think shortly thereafter, I switched over to the Department of Defense, and tried to continue that mission, but, um, that one was one I just, unfortunately, didn’t succeed on. [my emphasis]

The most likely way that Patel would come to learn, with certainty, that whatever go-betweens he met with in Damascus actually did report back to Assad would be via an NSA or CIA intercept. If that is how he learned, then confirming that he knew Assad got a report back might have burned the intercept. Doing so with Maté at the Grayzone, which personally and as an outlet produce a lot of Assad apology, might be particularly sensitive. And the ease with which Maté appealed to Patel’s ego to get him to reveal these details would raise real questions about whether Patel played a role in the earlier WSJ story about the meeting, which was published on October 18, days before Patel almost fucked up the October 31 Niger mission.

That is, this Ignatius story seems like an effort to undermine Patel’s self-interested stories of heroism on hostage rescues, after he disclosed non-public details about one of them.

Which would also suggest that, whatever the merit of the investigation into Ellis (and I think GOP concerns about it have some merit), the investigation into Patel may be substantive.

Four Data Points on the January 6 Insurrection

The NYT and WaPo both have stories beginning to explain the failures to protect the Capitol (ProPublica had a really good one days ago). The core issue, thus far, concerns DOD’s delays before sending in the National Guard — something that they happened to incorporate into a timeline not long after the attack, before the Capitol Police or City of DC had put their own together (the timeline has some gaps).

I can think of two charitable explanations for the lapses. First, in the wake of criticism over the deployment of military resources and tear gas against peaceful protestors to protect Donald Trump in June, those who had been criticized were reluctant to repeat such a display of force to protect Congress (and Mike Pence). In addition, in both DOJ and FBI under the Trump Administration, job security and career advancement depended on reinforcing the President’s false claims that his political supporters had been unfairly spied on, which undoubtedly created a predictable reluctance to treat those political supporters as the urgent national security threat they are and have always been.

Those are just the most charitable explanations I can think of, though. Both are barely distinguishable from a deliberate attempt to punish the President’s opponents — including Muriel Bowser and Nancy Pelosi — for their past criticism of Trump’s militarization of the police and an overt politicization of law enforcement. Or, even worse, a plan to exploit these past events to create the opportunity for a coup to succeed.

We won’t know which of these possible explanations it is (likely, there are a range of explanations), and won’t know for many months.

That said, I want to look at a few data points that may provide useful background.

Trump plans to pardon those in the bunker

First, as I noted here, according to Bloomberg, Trump has talked about pardoning the four men who’ve been in the bunker with Trump plotting recent events, along with Rudy Giuliani, who is also likely to be pardoned.

Preemptive pardons are under discussion for top White House officials who have not been charged with crimes, including Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, senior adviser Stephen Miller, personnel chief John McEntee, and social media director Dan Scavino.

I like to think I’ve got a pretty good sense of potential legal exposure Trump’s flunkies have, yet I know of nothing (aside, perhaps, from McEntee’s gambling problems) that these men have clear criminal liability in. And yet Trump seems to believe these men — including the guy with close ties to far right Congressmen, the white nationalist, the guy who remade several agencies to ensure that only loyalists remained in key positions, and the guy who tweets out Trump’s barely-coded dogwhistles — need a pardon.

That may suggest that they engaged in sufficient affirmative plotting even before Wednesday’s events.

Mind you, if these men had a role in coordinating all this, a pardon might backfire, as it would free them up to testify about any role Trump had in planning what happened on Wednesday.

Trump rewards Devin Nunes for helping him to avoid accountability

Several key questions going forward will focus on whether incompetence or worse led top officials at DOD to limit the mandate for the National Guard on January 6 and, as both DC and the Capitol Police desperately called for reinforcements, stalled before sending them.

A key player in that question is Kash Patel, who served as a gatekeeper at HPSCI to ensure that Republicans got a distorted view of the Russian intelligence implicating Trump, then moved to the White House to ensure that Trump got his Ukraine intelligence via Patel rather than people who knew anything about the topic, and then got moved to DOD to oversee a takeover of the Pentagon by people fiercely loyal to Trump.

And a key player in coordinating Kash’s activities was his original boss, Devin Nunes. On Monday, Trump gave Nunes the Medal of Freedom, basically the equivalent of a pardon to someone who likely believes his actions have all been protected by speech and debate. The entire citation for the award is an expression of the steps by which Trump, with Nunes’ help, undermined legitimate investigations into himself. In particular, Trump cited how Nunes’ efforts had hollowed out the FBI of people who might investigate anyone loyal to Trump.

Devin Nunes’ courageous actions helped thwart a plot to take down a sitting United States president. Devin’s efforts led to the firing, demotion, or resignation of over a dozen FBI and DOJ employees. He also forced the disclosure of documents that proved that a corrupt senior FBI official pursued a vindictive persecution of General Michael Flynn — even after rank and file FBI agents found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Congressman Nunes pursued the Russia Hoax at great personal risk and never stopped standing up for the truth. He had the fortitude to take on the media, the FBI, the Intelligence Community, the Democrat Party, foreign spies, and the full power of the Deep State. Devin paid a price for his courage. The media smeared him and liberal activists opened a frivolous and unjustified ethics investigation, dragging his name through the mud for eight long months. Two dozen members of his family received threatening phone calls – including his 98 year old grandmother.

Whatever else this debasement of the nation’s highest award for civilians might have done, it signaled to Nunes’ team — including but not limited to Patel — Trump’s appreciation for their work, and rewarded the guy he credits with politicizing the FBI.

That politicization is, as I noted above, one of the more charitable explanations for the FBI’s lack of preparation on Wednesday.

Interestingly, Nunes is not one of the members of Congress who challenged Biden’s votes after law enforcement restored order.

Corrected: Nunes did object to both AZ and PA.

Trump takes steps to designate Antifa as a Foreign Terrorist Organization

The day before the insurrection, Trump signed an Executive Order excluding immigrants if they have any tie to Antifa. Effectively, it put Antifa on the same kind of exclusionary footing as Communists or ISIS terrorists. Had Trump signed the EO before he was on his way out the door, it would have initiated a process likely to end with Antifa listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, giving the Intelligence Community additional intelligence tools to track members of the organization, even in the United States (the kind of tools, not coincidentally, that some experts say the FBI needs against white supremacist terrorists).

The EO will have next to no effect. Joe Biden will rescind it among the other trash he needs to clean up in the early days of his Administration.

But I find it curious that Trump effectively named a domestic movement a terrorist organization just days before multiple Trump associates attempted to blame Antifa for the riot at the Capitol.

That effort actually started before the order was signed. Back in December, Enrique Tarrio suggested that the Proud Boys (a group Trump had called to “Stand by” in September) might wear all black — a costume for Antifa — as they protested.

“The ProudBoys will turn out in record numbers on Jan 6th but this time with a twist…,” Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, the group’s president, wrote in a late-December post on Parler, a social media platform that has become popular with right-wing activists and conservatives. “We will not be wearing our traditional Black and Yellow. We will be incognito and we will spread across downtown DC in smaller teams. And who knows….we might dress in all BLACK for the occasion.”

The day after the riot, Matt Gaetz relied on a since-deleted Washington Times post to claim that the riot was a false flag launched by Antifa.

In a speech during the process of certifying President-elect Joe Biden, Gaetz claimed there was “some pretty compelling evidence from a facial recognition company” that some Capitol rioters were actually “members of the violent terrorist group antifa.” (Antifa is not a single defined group, does not have an official membership, and has not been designated a terrorist organization, although President Donald Trump has described it as one.)

Gaetz attributed this claim to a short Washington Times article published yesterday. That article, in turn, cited a “retired military officer.” The officer asserted that a company called XRVision “used its software to do facial recognition of protesters and matched two Philadelphia antifa members to two men inside the Senate.” The Times said it had been given a copy of the photo match, but it didn’t publish the picture.

There is no evidence to support the Times’ article, however. An XRVision spokesperson linked The Verge to a blog post by CTO Yaacov Apelbaum, denying its claims and calling the story “outright false, misleading, and defamatory.” (Speech delivered during congressional debate, such as Gaetz’s, is protected from defamation claims.) The Times article was apparently deleted a few hours after Apelbaum’s post.

Rudy Giuliani also attempted to blame Antifa.

And Captain Emily Rainey, who resigned today as DOD investigates the PsyOp officer for her role in the insurgency, also blamed Antifa for the violence.

Her group — as well as most at Wednesday’s rally — were “peace-loving, law-abiding people who were doing nothing but demonstrating our First Amendment rights,” she said.

She even shared a video on Facebook insisting that the rioters were all Antifa, saying, “I don’t know any violent Patriots. I don’t know any Patriots who would smash the windows of a National jewel like the [Capitol].”

It is entirely predictable that Trump loyalists would blame Antifa for anything bad they do — Bill Barr did so as the formal policy of DOJ going back at least a year. But Trump seems to have prepared the ground for such predictable scapegoating by taking steps to declare Antifa a terrorist “organization” hours before a riot led by his supporters would storm the Capitol.

The White House makes DHS Secretary Chad Wolf’s appointment especially illegal

I’m most intrigued by a flip-flop that had the effect of making DHS Acting Secretary’s appointment even more illegal than it has already been at times in the last two years.

On January 3, the White House submitted Chad Wolf’s nomination, along with those of 29 other people, to be DHS Secretary. Then, on January 6, it withdrew the nomination.

Wolf himself was out of the country in Bahrain when the riot happened. But he did tweet out — before DOD mobilized the Guard — that DHS officials were supporting the counter-insurgency. And he issued both a tweet and then — the next day — a more formal statement condemning the violence.

It’s not entirely clear what happened between his renomination and the withdrawal, but Steve Vladeck (who tracks this stuff more closely than anyone), had a lot to say about the juggling, not least that the withdrawal of his resubmitted nomination made it very clear that Wolf is not now legally serving.

This could have had — and could have, going forward — a chilling effect on any orders Wolf issues to deploy law enforcement.

Thus far, we haven’t seen much about what DHS did and did not do in advance of the riot — though its maligned intelligence unit did not issue a bulletin warning of the danger.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and an intelligence unit inside the Department of Homeland Security didn’t issue a threat assessment of the Jan. 6 pro-Trump protests that devolved into violence inside the Capitol, people briefed on the matter said.

In the weeks leading up to the protests, extremists posted about their plans to “storm” the Capitol on social media.

The joint department bulletin is a routine report before notable events that the agencies usually send to federal, state and local law-enforcement and homeland security advisers. The reports help plan for events that could pose significant risks.

At the DHS unit, called Intelligence and Analysis, management didn’t view the demonstrations as posing a significant threat, some of the people said.

Last year, Ken Cuccinelli forced whistleblower Brian Murphy to change language in a threat analysis to downplay white supremacist violence and instead blame Antifa and related groups.

In May 2020, Mr. Glawe retired, and Mr. Murphy assumed the role of Acting Under Secretary. In May 2020 and June 2020, Mr. Murphy had several meetings with Mr. Cuccinelli regarding the status of the HTA. Mr. Cuccinelli stated that Mr. Murphy needed to specifically modify the section on White Supremacy in a manner that made the threat appear less severe, as well as include information on the prominence of violent “left-wing” groups. Mr. Murphy declined to make the requested modifications, and informed Mr. Cuccinelli that it would constitute censorship of analysis and the improper administration of an intelligence program.

Wolf had been complicit in that past politicization. But something happened this week to lead the Trump White House to ensure that his orders can be legally challenged.

Update: Jake Gibson just reported that Wolf is stepping down.

These are just data points. We’ll learn far more about Trump’s involvement as the FBI obtains warrants for the communications who have ties to both groups like the Proud Boys and Trump associates like Roger Stone and Steve Bannon. But these are a few data points worth keeping an eye on.

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.

Andrew McCabe’s Comments about Trump More Likely Reference What an Easy Mark Russia Thinks He Is than Any (Unexpected) Thing He Did

Andrew McCabe was on Chris Cuomo’s show last night, talking about Trump’s reported plan to release more sensitive intelligence about the Russian investigation. A number of people have asked me about it, so I thought I’d talk about what he did and did not say. First, my transcription:

Cuomo: … the next leading theory, other than just payback, is he wants a lot of stuff from the Russia investigation declassified because he’s been told by Nunes and others, “the more comes out the more it would look you were framed.” Uh, what’s the risk there, if a lot of stuff comes out? We’ve talked about sources and methods. But let me reverse the question: from your knowledge, is there anything that could come out that people would look at it and say, “Wow, I can’t believe they ever included the President in this analysis. He and his people clearly did nothing.”

McCabe: There is some very, very serious, very specific undeniable intelligence that has NOT come out that, if it were released, would risk compromising our access to that sort of information in the future. I think it would also risk casting the President in a very negative light. So does it — would he have a motivation to release those things? It’s almost incomprehensible to me that he would want that information out. I don’t see how he spins it to his advantage because, quite frankly, I don’t believe it’s flattering.

Cuomo: You think there’s more bad stuff about him that we don’t know?

McCabe: There is always more intelligence — there was a lot more in the intelligence community assessment than what was ever released for public consumption. I mean, the original version of that report was classified at the absolute highest level I have ever seen. You’re talking about Top Secret, Compartmentalized Code Word stuff, and it would be ver–it would be tragic to American intelligence collection for those sources to be put at risk.

First, note that McCabe at first didn’t answer Cuomo’s question, which was basically whether there was anything that would substantiate Trump’s claims to have been framed. Instead, he first says that there’s stuff that if it were released, would have a permanent impact on US intelligence collection. Only after saying that does McCabe say there’s stuff that McCabe doesn’t believe is “flattering” that would “risk casting the President in a very negative light.” Cuomo picks up on that and asks if there’s more bad stuff about Trump that we don’t know (as if CNN has covered even the public stuff that puts Trump in a very bad light, which they have not). McCabe responds by addressing only the Intelligence Community Assessment completed by early January 2017. He then describes the ICA using terms that describe the most sensitive stuff coming from a variety of different collection sources, without specifically saying that this is about Trump, or if it is, whether it involves something that Trump did rather than something that was said about Trump.

Moreover, McCabe is talking about stuff that was available by January 6, 2017, not stuff that became available by May 2019, when Mueller shut down his office. He’s talking about stuff that, because CIA and NSA were key parts of the collection effort, could not be targeted at Trump, but instead would be targeted at Russians.

It’s possible this stuff refers to more compromise by women. After all, the SSCI Report (which benefitted more from CIA and NSA information than it did from FBI information) found more examples — three — than were known about Trump’s possible sexual compromise when in Russia, and the section is preceded by two redacted pages.

It may also include details about Trump’s 2013 trip associated with Miss Universe, which the SSCI Report also provides damning new details about.

Another likely topic pertains to Russia’s profiling of Trump as a potential asset. The SSCI Report leaves his usefulness as a money laundering vehicle almost unmentioned and similarly limits mention of Trump’s ties to the mob (though it does include the latter in several places, such as this discussion of his 2013 trip and this discussion of warnings about the Agalarovs). But if the IC had the kind of collection as sensitive as McCabe says, it likely includes discussions of how easy it would be to stoke Trump’s narcissism to get him to work contrary to America’s interests.

There’s one more thing it likely includes. As I observed when it came out, the Mueller Report does not discuss — at all — Trump’s interactions directly with Putin, not even his meeting at the G20 where they discussed adoptions in advance of Trump crafting a June 9 denial for his failson that focused on adoptions. In my never-ending fascination with what gets classified, the Andrew Weissmann book also makes no mention of that meeting, even though he discusses the adoption cover story at length. If that weren’t really sensitive, he should have been able to argue that the meeting was public, not least given that Trump confessed it himself in an NYT interview. Trump and Putin are not known to have met before he became President. Nevertheless, there must be a corpus of intelligence of “about” collections in which Trump’s cultivation by Putin are discussed.

Still, most of that isn’t about what Trump did — aside the same financial corruption and serial sexual philandering he has done in the US. It’s about what Russia thinks of Trump. Which is consistent with it not being “flattering” rather than being described as “damning.”

McCabe doesn’t talk about the damning information that FBI would have found between the time the ICA came out and the time the investigation into his closest associates ramped up. And that stuff is likely more interesting.

Gate-Keeper for Propaganda Kash Patel Failed His First Test as DOD Chief of Staff

Yesterday, six US service members died in a helicopter crash in the Sinai Peninsula.

A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter belonging to a US-led international peacekeeping force crashed in Egypt’s Sinai region on Thursday, killing eight people, including six Americans, officials said. One wounded US service member was airlifted to a hospital in Israel by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

“During a routine mission in the vicinity of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, nine members of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) were involved in a helicopter crash,” the force said in a statement posted on its website.

As the WaPo pointed out, Joe Biden offered condolences to their families. Trump did not. He was too busy rage-tweeting and harming democracy.

Meantime, national security actions and requests for briefings from the president are drying up, the person said, and the team preparing updates for Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris is “very frustrated.”

It was Biden who offered the first public condolences to the families of the service members who died in Egypt. “I join all Americans in honoring their sacrifice, as I keep their loved ones in my prayers,” he wrote on Twitter in the early afternoon Thursday.

By that time, Trump had issued nearly four dozen critical tweets and retweets about the election results and Fox News, including a baseless conspiracy theory from a far-right television network that alleged votes had been improperly tallied in Pennsylvania. He also found time to thank actor Scott Baio for posting a photo of a craft store’s candle display, which had been arranged to spell out, “Trump is still your president.”

But it’s not just President Trump — who focused his first election campaign on Hillary’s purported negligence during the Benghazi attack that killed four Americans — who let six Americans die with little notice.

It’s also newly installed Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller. As Barbara Starr noted on Twitter yesterday, it took over two hours after the deaths were announced before Miller issued condolences, and the Joint Chiefs did not make a statement until after she first tweeted it.

This is the kind of thing that, in a normal era, works like clockwork in the Pentagon.

But yesterday, days after Devin Nunes flunky Kash Patel was installed as Chief of Staff at DOD, that clockwork failed.

Kash Patel has done a spectacular job, throughout the Trump Administration, of ensuring that accurate information doesn’t get to his principals, whether that’s Nunes, Trump himself (Patel was at NSC pretending to be an expert on Ukraine during impeachment), presumably at ODNI when he led a house-cleaning effort there, and now DOD.

But there’s no reason to believe that preventing people from getting accurate information translates into being an effective Chief of Staff for one of the world’s biggest bureaucracies.

I guess it’s up to the Republicans who are enabling this attack on the country by the Lame Duck President to decide how much damage they want Trump’s flunkies to do in the interim.

Palace Intrigue: Trump Prepares His Consolation Prize for Vladimir Putin

In the last two days, Trump has prepared a coup of sorts. First, he fired Mike Esper and replaced him with Christopher Miller; several of Esper’s top deputies went with him. Then, Trump installed three different Devin Nunes flunkies at several places in the DOD bureaucracy:

  • Mike Ellis — the guy who hid the Ukraine transcript and one source for the unmasking hoax — to NSA as General Counsel
  • Ezra Cohen-Watnick — a key Mike Flynn loyalist and another source for the unmasking hoax — to DOD Undersecretary of Intelligence
  • Kash Patel — who ensured that no HPSCI Republicans got sound intelligence during their Russian investigation, then pretended to be a Ukraine expert during impeachment, and then served to conduct a purge in the Office of Director of National Intelligence — to DOD Chief of Staff

To be clear, unlike these others, Christopher Miller, the Acting Secretary of Defense, reportedly does care about US security, even if he’s several ranks too junior for the job and got appointed over a Senate confirmed Deputy.

But the Nunes flunkies are there, serving as gate-keepers for the hoaxes favored by Trump and Nunes, as they have done so successfully throughout Trump’s term.

Spook-whisperer David Ignatius reports that these changes come amidst a sustained debate about what to do with a piece of likely Russian disinformation that — Trump and feeble-minded partisans like Lindsey Graham believe — will prove that Russia didn’t prefer Trump over Hillary.

President Trump’s senior military and intelligence officials have been warning him strongly against declassifying information about Russia that his advisers say would compromise sensitive collection methods and anger key allies.

An intense battle over this issue has raged within the administration in the days before and after the Nov. 3 presidential election. Trump and his allies want the information public because they believe it would rebut claims that Russian President Vladimir Putin supported Trump in 2016. That may sound like ancient history, but for Trump it remains ground zero — the moment when his political problems began.

CIA Director Gina Haspel last month argued strongly at a White House meeting against disclosing the information, because she believed that doing so would violate her pledge to protect sources and methods, a senior congressional source said. This official said a bipartisan group of Republican and Democratic senators has been trying to protect Haspel, though some fear that Trump may yet oust her.

Rumors have been flying this week about Haspel’s tenure, but a source familiar with her standing as CIA director said Tuesday that national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows had both “assured her that she’s good,” meaning she wouldn’t be removed. Haspel also met personally with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) Tuesday. She sees him regularly as a member of the “Gang of Eight” senior congressional leaders. But Tuesday’s visit was another sign of GOP support.

Haspel’s most unlikely defender has been Attorney General William P. Barr, who opposed a pre-election push to declassify the sensitive material, according to three current and former officials. At a showdown meeting at the White House, Barr pushed back against revealing the secret information.

Gen. Paul Nakasone, who heads U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, has also argued vehemently against disclosure, according to a senior defense official and the senior congressional source. Like Haspel, Nakasone took the unusual step of directly opposing White House efforts to release the intelligence, because he feared the damage that disclosure would cause.

With the new changes, General Nakasone reports through Cohen-Watnick and Patel and will have to rely on the legal “advice” of Ellis. So not only does this move put more senior votes in favor of declassifying this intelligence, but it puts them in places where Nakasone might be forced to accede to these demands.

Reporting suggests that Trump is seeking to make the full intelligence behind the reports described here available. Fundamentally, the intelligence shows that the US government obtained a Russian intelligence report that stated in late July 2016 — John Ratcliffe says it was July 26 but by handwriting it appears to be July 28 — Hillary approved of a plan to vilify Trump for his dalliance with Russian intelligence.

Already, this is a stupid hoax from the Republicans. It is public that, in the wake of the DNC release on July 22 — and particularly after Trump’s “Russia are you listening” comment on July 27 — Hillary started focusing on Trump’s coziness with Russia. In other words, the crack Russian analysts would have to do no more than read the paper to come to this conclusion. Nor would there be anything scandalous about Hillary trying to hold Trump accountable for capitalizing on an attack on her by a hostile foreign country.

I think Republicans are trying to suggest — by altering a date (July 26 instead of July 28) again and breathing heavy — that former government official Hillary Clinton was the reason why the FBI opened an investigation into Trump, rather than the Australians informing the US about Coffee Boy George Papadopoulos bragging about Russia offering help back in May. There’s not a shred of evidence for it, of course, but that has never stopped the frothy right.

The far more interesting part of this intelligence comes in the report that Peter Strzok wrote up, which is dated September 7. It makes it clear that Hillary’s alleged attack pertained to Russian hackers, notably Guccifer 2.0.

So a Russian intelligence report the US stole from Russia in late July 2016 claimed that, on July 26 0r 28, Hillary approved an attack on Trump pertaining to having help from Russian hackers, a report that did not get formally shared with the FBI until September 7. And either the report itself or FBI’s interpretation of it focuses on Guccifer 2.0.

Somehow this is the smoking gun — that over a month after opening up Crossfire Hurricane the FBI started investigating a claim that, starting on July 26 or 28, Hillary thought Trump was cuddling up with Russian hackers, interpreted by someone to be Guccifer 2.0 — the FBI learned that fact.

When I first wrote this up, I hadn’t started my Rashomon Rat-Fucker series, to say nothing of my report to the FBI that an American I knew may have served as an American cut-out for the Guccifer 2.0 operation (I’m jumping ahead of myself, but I’m certain the FBI investigated that claim for at least a year). At the time, I focused on how prescient the frothers were making Hillary look for anticipating that Roger Stone would first start doing propaganda for Guccifer 2.0 on August 5; best case for the frothers in this situation is that Stone somehow learned of the Russian report before the FBI did.

But now that I’ve written those posts, it’s clear that not only did the FBI have strong circumstantial evidence that Stone knew of the Guccifer 2.0 operation even before the first Guccifer 2.0 post, because he was searching for it on June 15 before the WordPress site went public, but that Stone probably had a face-to-face meeting with someone at the RNC from whom he got advance notice of the DNC drop.

In July 2016, this report is only mildly interesting, amounting to showing that the Russians read the newspaper like everyone else.

In 2020, after details from the Mueller investigation have become public, the Russian report makes far more sense as deliberate disinformation, an attempt to turn a direct contact with Stone into a hoax about Hillary.

Which makes Trump’s apparent determination to liberate this document all the more telling. It suggests that he wants to make public something, anything, he can use to counter what will be very damning allegations when this all becomes clear.

And, given how shoddy the actual intelligence itself is (at best showing that Russian intelligence officers read public sources and more credibly showing that Russia was building plausible deniability for contacts with Roger Stone in real time), Trump’s insistence on it, whether intentional or not, would serve to blow highly sensitive collection for a third-rate hoax.

I can see why Trump would prioritize this intelligence on his way out that the door. It comes at a time when he can be easily manipulated to burn the IC in ways that can only serve Russian interests.

In other words, one of Trump’s top priorities for the Lame Duck period is to give Vladimir Putin a consolation prize.

Steve Bannon’s Bas-Relief Confession that Trump Told Him to Deny Discussing Sanction Relief

After a week of writing about Mike Flynn and more Mike Flynn, I’m finally getting around to the transcripts the House Intelligence Committee wrote last week. A bunch of frothy right wingers have pointed to the transcripts as PROOF OF NO COLLUSION, which is hilarious. I’ve barely begun reviewing them, but some glaring holes in the investigation include:

  • The key players — Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort, but also Rick Gates — did not testify
  • Two witnesses (Michael Cohen and Roger Stone) were convicted for the lies they told to the committee and a third (Erik Prince) is reportedly under investigation, even if Billy Barr’s DOJ doesn’t prosecute Trump flunkies
  • Multiple witnesses (Michael Caputo, Steve Bannon, and Jared Kushner, for starters) denied knowing people or having evidence their Mueller materials show they had

Republicans mostly asked each witness, “did you collude?” which predictably elicited the “no” answers the frothers are now pointing to as PROOF. Democrats spent most of their time trying to get recalcitrant witnesses to answer questions they refused to answer rather than trying to corner them into something useful.

The investigation was a shit-show.

The craziest thing (thus far, anyway), is Steve Bannon’s two appearances. Bannon testified in January 2018 and invoked White House guidance to refuse to answer questions from both the transition and post-inauguration periods, periods others had addressed. He also claimed any communications of interest would have been turned over by the campaign, thereby hiding emails he had with Roger Stone using his personal email where they explicitly discussed Julian Assange.

When Bannon went back a month later, having consulted with Devin Nunes in the interim and after Nunes appears to have shared a transcript of Bannon’s first appearance with the White House, he provided the committee a bunch of questions he would answer — all “no” answers.

Here’s how just some of those questions parroted back (for the second time in the hearing) looked:

MR. CONAWAY: After November 8th, 2016, did you meet with Ambassador Kislyak?

MR. BANNON: No.

MR. CONAWAY: On March 27, 2017, The New York Times reported that in mid-December of 2016 Kushner met with Sergei Gorkov of the VEB. Were you aware of this meeting?

MR. BANNON: No.

MR. CONAWAY: Did you attend a December 2016 meeting with Kushner that Kushner had with Gorkov?

MR. BANNON: No.

MR. CONAWAY: Did Mr. Prince have any role in the current administration?

MR. BANNON: No.

MR. CONAWAY: Was there any discussion on January 27th, 2017, at the White House regarding Mr. Papadopoulos, who was contacted by the FBI that day?

MR. BANNON: No.

MR. CONAWAY: Has Mr. Papadopoulos had any contact with anyone at the White House concerning the fact that the FBI had approached him?

MR. BANNON: Not to my knowledge.

MR. CONAWAY: Was the fact that the FBI approached Mr. Papadopoulos on January 27th communicated to President Trump?

MR. BANNON: Not to my knowledge.

MR. CONAWAY: Did Mr. Trump ever discuss with you any conversations between Donald Trump Jr. and WikiLeaks after the election?

MR. BANNON: No.

MR. CONAWAY: Did you ever meet with Devin Nunes about the Russia investigation?

MR. BANNON: No.

MR. CONAWAY: While at the White House, were you ever instructed to take any action that you believe could hinder the Russian investigation in any way?

MR. BANNON: No.

MR. CONAWAY: Were you ever given any instruction at the White House that you felt might amount to an effort to obstruct justice?

MR. BANNON: No.

MR. CONAWAY: Did you have any conversations with Director Comey after the election about whether he would remain the head of the FBI?

MR. BANNON: No.

MR. CONAWAY: Once you were part of the administration, were you a part of any discussions about how to approach the Russian, vis-à-vis the sanctions, whether to do away with them or in any way minimize the effects of the sanctions?

MR. BANNON: No.

Here’s how Adam Schiff got Bannon to admit that he was literally reading from a script the White House gave him (remember that Bannon’s lawyer, William Burck, also represented White House Counsel Don McGahn).

MR. SCHIFF: Mr. Bannon, who wrote these questions?

[Discussion off the record.]

MR. BANNON: My understanding, Mr. Schiff, is that these came from the transcript.

MR. SCHIFF: No, no, no. The questions that Mr. Conaway just asked you the questions. I asked you earlier if you had been authorized by the White House to answer all in the negative. Who wrote these questions?

MR. BANNON: Same answer.

MR. SCHIFF: What’s the same answer? Who wrote the questions?

MR. BANNON: My understanding is they came from the transcript.

MR. SCHIFF: What transcript are you talking about?

MR. BANNON: This transcript of my first interview.

[snip]

MR. SCHIFF: Well, how were they produced? How do you know that the White House has authorized you to answer them? [Discussion off the record.]

MR. BANNON: My counsel informed me that these were the questions the White House authorized me to answer.

MR. SCHIFF: But you didn’t write these questions?

MR. BANNON: No.

MR. SCHIFF: And your counsel didn’t write these questions?

MR. BANNON: No.

MR. SCHIFF: So these questions were supplied to you by the White House?

[Discussion off the record.]

MR. BANNON: As far as I know.

The thing is, most of these are now recognizably misdirection from some known damning detail. For example, Bannon did not attend the November 30, 2016 meeting with Sergey Kislyak at Trump Tower, but he was invited. Bannon’s lack of knowledge of Jared Kushner’s December meeting with Sergei Gorkov doesn’t make the meeting itself less damning — arguably, it suggests Kushner kept it on a close hold — and it doesn’t rule out Bannon being involved in a meeting with Gorkov sometime after that. Bannon’s narrow denial that Erik Prince had a role in the administration distracts from Prince’s role as a go-between with Russia during the transition, something Bannon was personally involved with (and covered up by deleting his relevant text messages). There was a discussion among senior campaign officials of the link that WikiLeaks sent Don Jr in September 2016, but it was during the election, not after it. Bannon didn’t have conversations with Jim Comey about firing him, but he had a ton of conversations about firing Comey, eight times on May 3 and 4, 2017 alone. Even the questions about obstruction of justice are consistent with explicit requests that Bannon obstruct, but that took place somewhere else, like Mar-a-Lago or Bedminster (and it’s notable that Bannon’s initial testimony dramatically backed off some of the claims Bannon made to Michael Wolff that had just been published in Fire and Fury).

As Adam Schiff begins to figure out what happened, he asks questions that make it clear that Bannon did not meet — in person — with Nunes, but did speak to him on the phone.

MR. SCHIFF: Now, I see there’s a question on here, did you ever meet with Devin Nunes about the Russia investigation, and you’ve answered that “no.” But you’ve also answered, when my colleague asked you, that you have discussed — you had discussions with Mr. Nunes and you refused to answer the question about whether it was about the Russian investigation. Is that correct?

[Discussion off the record.]

MR. BANNON: However I answered, it’s in the transcript.

MR. SCHIFF: Let me just ask you again. Did you ever meet with Devin Nunes about the Russian investigation?

MR. BANNON: No.

MR. SCHIFF: Did you ever discuss the Russia investigation with Devin Nunes?

[Discussion off the record.]

MR. BANNON: That’s not a question I’m authorized to answer.

Even before that, Schiff cops on to Bannon’s denial about something — whether George Papadopoulos alerted the White House after he was first questioned about the FBI — that Bannon knows nothing about.

MR. SCHIFF: So one of the questions that you were supplied by the White House was, has Mr. Papadopoulos had any contact with anyone at the White House concerning the fact that he had been — that the FBI had approached him? How do you know the answer to that, Mr. Bannon?

[Discussion off the record.]

MR. BANNON: Can you just ask the question again?

MR. SCHIFF: Yes. One of the questions that the White House gave you to answer to our committee was, has Mr. Papadopoulos had any contact with anyone at the White House concerning the fact that the FBI had approached him?

MR. BANNON: I think I said, “Not to my knowledge.”

MR. SCHIFF: So you really did don’t know, do you?

MR. BANNON: That’s — not to my knowledge.

MR. SCHIFF: Why did the White House propose a question to you that you couldn’t answer within your knowledge?

[Discussion off the record.]

MR. BANNON: You have to ask the White House that.

In Papadopoulos’ Congressional testimony (which took place in October 2018, so six months after Bannon’s second HPSCI interview), the coffee boy would admit that he emailed Marc Kasowitz, who was then Trump’s personal attorney, sometime after his FBI interview.

Q And you didn’t talk to anyone from the Trump organization about that interview with the FBI?

A I don’t think I did, no.

Q So you were interviewed again by the FBI —

A I can’t remember if I reached out to Marc Kasowitz about either that or my subpoena from the Senate. And I emailed him and I said, Look, would you be interested in representing me? I think that’s what happened. But I don’t — I can’t remember exactly why I emailed him, but I think I emailed Marc Kasowitz’ firm sometimes after the interview, but I don’t remember if he ever responded or anything like that.

This post writes up what we know about Papadopoulos’ testimony.

This makes it clear, then, that the script Bannon was given was a ham-handed attempt to get a bunch of denials in the record, denials of things that actually did happen.

Among the questions the White House included was one designed to get him to deny he had discussed eliminating sanctions on Russia.

MR. CONAWAY: Once you were part of the administration, were you a part of any discussions about how to approach the Russian, vis-à-vis the sanctions, whether to do away with them or in any way minimize the effects of the sanctions?

MR. BANNON: No.

Of course, this “no” answer only says Bannon didn’t continue to discuss ending sanctions on Russia after inauguration, but he did beforehand.

There is testimony on the Mueller Report about Bannon’s personal involvement in discussions about the Russian sanctions imposed on December 28, 2016. But Bannon — in testimony on February 12, 2018, so three days before he read this script before HPSCI — claimed to have forgotten those conversations.

Shortly thereafter, McFarland and Bannon discussed the sanctions. 1235 According to McFarland, Bannon remarked that the sanctions would hurt their ability to have good relations with Russia, and that Russian escalation would make things more difficult. 1236 McFarland believed she told Bannon that Flynn was scheduled to talk to Kislyak later that night. 1237

[snip]

In addition to her conversations with Bannon and Reince Priebus, at 4:43 p.m., McFarland sent an email to Transition Team members about the sanctions, informing the group that “Gen [F]lynn is talking to russian ambassador this evening.” 1251 Less than an hour later, McFarland briefed President-Elect Trump. Bannon, Priebus, Sean Spicer, and other Transition Team members were present. 1252

[snip]

Flynn recalled discussing the sanctions with Bannon the next day and that Bannon appeared to know about Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak. 1274 Bannon, for his part, recalled meeting with Flynn that day, but said that he did not remember discussing sanctions with him. 1275

[snip]

Flynn recalled discussing the sanctions issue with incoming Administration official Stephen Bannon the next day. 100 Flynn said that Bannon appeared to know about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak, and he and Bannon agreed that they had “stopped the train on Russia’s response” to the sanctions. 101

1275 Bannon 2/12/18 302, at 9.

101 Flynn 1/19/18 302, at 4-5. Bannon recalled meeting with Flynn that day, but said he did not remember discussing sanctions with him. Bannon 2/12/18 302, at 9.

The White House gave Bannon a script, telling him to deny his involvement in reaching out to Russia on sanctions. And the specific form of the question — which asks about doing away with them — suggests those conversations on December 28, 2016 went further than the Mueller Report describes.

Which explains why Trump is trying to ensure Flynn avoids prison time for hiding that detail.