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Nunes Outraged that [American] Spies Paid to Brush Up against Trump Aides

I just saw this Devin Nunes quote, from a WaPo story on the fight over releasing details on Stefan Halper investigative activities into the infiltration of Trump’s campaign by Russian assets.

Nunes said he and his colleagues have been troubled by reports and indications that sources may have been repeatedly reaching out to Trump campaign members and even offering aides money to encourage them to meet. The president, he said, has ample reason to be angry and suspicious.

“If you are paying somebody to come talk to my campaign or brush up against my campaign, whatever you call it, I’d be furious,” Nunes said.

The reference to “paying somebody” is presumably a reference to Halper paying George Papadopoulos $3,000 for research as a way to get an opportunity to ask, in a possibly recorded phone call, about the DNC emails.

As TheDCNF reported back in March, Halper contacted Papadopoulos through email on Sept. 2, 2016, offering to fly him to London to discuss writing a policy paper about energy issues in Turkey, Israel and Cyprus. Halper offered to pay $3,000 for the paper.

Papadopoulos made the trip and had dinner multiple times with Halper and a Turkish woman described as his assistant. Sources familiar with Papadopoulos’s version of their meetings said Halper randomly asked Papadopoulos whether he knew about Democratic National Committee emails that had been hacked and leaked by Russians.

Papadopoulos strongly denied the allegation, sources familiar with his version of the exchange have told TheDCNF. Halper grew agitated and pressed Papadopoulos on the topic. Papadopoulos believes that Halper was recording him during some of their interactions, sources said.

Halper’s assistant, who is named Azra Turk, brought up Russians and emails over drinks with Papadopoulos. Turk also flirted heavily with Papadopoulos and attempted to meet him in Chicago, where he lives, a source told TheDCNF.

I’d be curious to see Papadopoulos’ notoriously inflated resume to see whether he included the research project on it after he completed it.

That Nunes thinks Trump should be outraged about this one incident is particularly notable, given that neither Nunes nor anyone else running cover for the Trump administration has ever expressed similar outrage about all the Trump aides that other countries were dangling money and other goods to brush up against. Those include (and this list is far from comprehensive):

  • Russian academics paying Carter Page to speak in Moscow
  • A pro-Russian Syrian group paying Don Jr to speak in Paris
  • Multiple Russian banks floating massive amounts of support to Jared
  • Russia’s RT paying Mike Flynn to appear at an event with Putin
  • Turkish pass-throughs paying Flynn to make a movie
  • Saudi, Israeli, and Emirati sources offering campaign assistance
  • Oleg Deripaska offering to forgive Paul Manafort’s $20 million debt for updates on the Trump campaign
  • Russians offering dirt on Hillary to get a meeting with Trump’s campaign manager, son, and son-in-law

I mean, even the Carter Page Moscow trip was more lucrative than the Papadopoulos research. And the other valuable things offered to campaign aides, by spooked-up sources from a range of countries, were tens or millions of dollars more valuable than what Halper offered, usually without any legit purpose tied to it.

And yet the only intelligence source that Nunes has expressed any outrage about — the only one! — is one associated with the United States, a person with long ties to the Republican party.

I mean, maybe Nunes is just dumb and doesn’t understand the stance he has now publicly adopted. Maybe he didn’t mean to say the only spies who shouldn’t be able to test whether Trump aides were willing to sell information for a price are American spies.

But thus far, the only lucrative outreach by spies that Nunes has objected to are American ones.

Does Devin Nunes’ Unmasking Pseudo-Scandal Betray Knowledge of the “Collusion” with the Saudis and Emirates?

When Mike Flynn’s plea deal revealed that he lied about efforts to stave off criticism of Israel’s illegal settlements, I noted that that (and the efforts to cozy up to Saudi Arabia and UAE) was what the unmasking panic was probably about.

The most public confirmed unmasking involved Susan Rice discovering that Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan had a secret meeting with Flynn, Kushner, and Bannon in NY.

Former national security adviser Susan Rice privately told House investigators that she unmasked the identities of senior Trump officials to understand why the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates was in New York late last year, multiple sources told CNN.

The New York meeting preceded a separate effort by the UAE to facilitate a back-channel communication between Russia and the incoming Trump White House.
The crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, arrived in New York last December in the transition period before Trump was sworn into office for a meeting with several top Trump officials, including Michael Flynn, the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his top strategist Steve Bannon, sources said.

But we now know that there would be intercepts between Netanyahu and Kushner leading up to it.

I wouldn’t even be surprised if the Republicans are so certain they’ve been unmasked because Israel has their own way of discovering such things.

I’ve laid out how Jared Kushner’s “peace” “plan” really is just an attempt to remap the Middle East to the interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia, interests which require significantly more belligerence against Iran than Obama showed. The unmasked discussions would include the ones that preceded Kushner’s order to Flynn to try to undercut the resolution, as well as whatever else Kushner discussed with Netanyahu at the time.

Today’s NYT scoop revealing that the Trump campaign colluded not just with Russians, but also Saudis, Emirates, and Israelis explain why the discovery of the later meetings was so dangerous: because it would reveal other efforts Trump made to sell out American foreign policy.

Three months before the 2016 election, a small group gathered at Trump Tower to meet with Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son. One was an Israeli specialist in social media manipulation. Another was an emissary for two wealthy Arab princes. The third was a Republican donor with a controversial past in the Middle East as a private security contractor.

The meeting was convened primarily to offer help to the Trump team, and it forged relationships between the men and Trump insiders that would develop over the coming months — past the election and well into President Trump’s first year in office, according to several people with knowledge of their encounters.

Erik Prince, the private security contractor and the former head of Blackwater, arranged the meeting, which took place on Aug. 3, 2016. The emissary, George Nader, told Donald Trump Jr. that the crown princes who led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were eager to help his father win election as president. The social media specialist, Joel Zamel, extolled his company’s ability to give an edge to a political campaign; by that time, the firm had already drawn up a multimillion-dollar proposal for a social media manipulation effort to help elect Mr. Trump.

[snip]

It is unclear whether such a proposal was executed, and the details of who commissioned it remain in dispute. But Donald Trump Jr. responded approvingly, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting, and after those initial offers of help, Mr. Nader was quickly embraced as a close ally by Trump campaign advisers — meeting frequently with Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, and Michael T. Flynn, who became the president’s first national security adviser.

This puts the unmasking panic — and Devin Nunes’ role in it — in entirely new light. It’s not just that Seychelles meeting in the transition period — it’s this earlier meeting, where a bunch of autocrats got the candidate’s son to agree to collude on the election.

Which makes me wonder, how would Trump Transition Official Devin Nunes know that? When Nunes manufactured a totally bogus unmasking scandal, did he know of these earlier meetings showing illegal collusion?

Update: I realize, now, that Nunes’ unmasking panic may actually have served as a giant red flag for Mueller that there were aspects of the Trump team’s dealings with UAE and Israel that were of acute concern to the team. Well done Devin!

The Sekulow Questions, Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

In this series, it feels like time is marked by big Russian meetings and key firings.

I’m talking, of course, about my efforts to use the Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow to map out what the structure of the investigation (at least as it pertains to Trump personally) might be. Thus far, I’ve shown:

  • Russians, led by the Aras Agalarov and his son, cultivated Trump for years by dangling two things: real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin.
  • During the election, the Russians and Trump appear to have danced towards a quid pro quo agreement, with the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for a commitment to sanctions relief, with some policy considerations thrown in.
  • During the transition period, Trump’s team took a series of actions that moved towards consummating the deal they had made with Russia, both in terms of policy concessions, particularly sanctions relief, and funding from Russian sources that could only be tapped if sanctions were lifted. The Trump team took measures to keep those actions secret.
  • Starting in January 2017, Trump came to learn that FBI was investigating Mike Flynn. His real reasons for firing Flynn remain unreported, but it appears he had some concerns that the investigation into Flynn would expose him personally to investigation.
  • After a failed attempt to quash the investigation into his Administration by firing Flynn, Trump grew increasingly angry that Jim Comey wouldn’t provide a quick exoneration without conducting an investigation first, leading to his firing.

May 10, 2017: What did you mean when you told Russian diplomats on May 10, 2017, that firing Mr. Comey had taken the pressure off?

Trump fired Comey just in time to report to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a meeting the next day that doing took the pressure off he felt because of Russia.

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” Remarkably, he also felt the need to reassure the Russians that, “I’m not under investigation.”

The reports that Trump’s lawyers need to have clearance because of the inclusion of this meeting in the list of questions suggests Mueller wants to learn more about the meeting beyond the public reports. That may include Trump’s sharing of classified information provided by the Israelis.

May 11, 2017: What did you mean in your interview with Lester Holt about Mr. Comey and Russia?

The day after meeting with the Russians, he told Lester Holt he was going to fire Comey regardless of what Rod Rosenstein recommended. [These are excerpts and a little rough; here’s a partial transcript that leaves out a lot of the Russian comments]

He’s a showboat, he’s a grand-stander, the FBI has been in turmoil, you know that. I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil. Less than a year ago. It hasn’t recovered from that.

[in response to a question about Rosenstein’s recommendation] What I did was I was going to fire Comey. My decision. I was going to fire Comey. There’s no good time to do it, by the way. I was going to fire regardless of recommendation. [Rosenstein] made a recommendation, he’s highly respected. Very good guy, very smart guy. The Democrats like him. The Republicans like him. But regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey. Knowing there was no good time to do it.

And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won. And the reason they should have won it is the electoral college is almost impossible for a Republican to win. Very hard. Because you start off at such a disadvantage. So everybody was thinking, they should have won the election. This was an excuse for having lost an election.

I just want somebody that’s competent. I’m a big fan of the FBI. I love the people of the FBI.

As far as I’m concerned, I want that [investigation] to be absolutely done properly. When I did this now, I said I’ll probably, maybe confuse that. Maybe I’ll expand that, you know, lengthen the time because it should be over with, in my opinion, should have been over with a long time ago. ‘Cause all it is, is an excuse but I said to myself, I might even lengthen out the investigation, but I have to do the right thing for the American people.

[in response to question about why he put he was not under investigation in his termination letter] Because he told me that, I mean he told me that. I’ve heard that from others. I had a dinner him, he wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on, we had a very nice dinner at the White House very early on. [He asked to have dinner?] A dinner was arranged. I think he asked for the dinner. And he wanted to stay on as the FBI head. And I said, I’ll consider, we’ll see what happens. We had a very nice dinner. And at that time he told me you’re not under investigation. I knew anyway. First of all, when you’re under investigation, you’re giving all sorts of documents and everything. I knew I wasn’t under — and I heard it was stated at the committee, at some committee level, number one. Then during the phone call he said it, then during another phone call he said it. He said it at dinner, and then he said it twice during phone calls.

In one case I called him, in one case he called me.

I actually asked him, yes. I said, if it’s possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation? He said you are not under investigation. All I can tell you is that I know that I’m not under investigation. Personally. I’m not talking about campaigns, I’m not talking about anything else. I’m not under investigation.

[did you ask him to drop the investigation] No. Never. I want the investigation speeded up. Why would we do that? Iw ant to find out if there was a problem with an election having to do with Russia, or anyone else, any other country, I want it to be so strong and so good.

I want somebody that’s going to do a great job.

I think that looking into me and the campaign, I have nothing to do, his was set up by the Democrats. There’s no collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians. The other things is the Russians did not affect the vote.

If Russia hacked, If Russia had to anything to do with our election, I want to know about it. If Russia or anybody elseis trying to interfere with our elections I want to make sure that will never ever happen

[wiretapping] I was surprised [Comey said no spying] but I wasn’t angry. There’s a big thing going on right now, spying, to me that’s the big story.

I want a great FBI Director. I expect that [they will continue investigation].

[Flynn’s access to secrets] My White House Counsel it did not sound like an emergency. She didn’t make it sound that way either in the hearings the other day. It didn’t sound like it had to be done immediately. This man has served for many years. He’s a general. In my opinion a very good person. It would be very unfair to hear from someone we don’t even know to immediately run out and fire a general. We ultimately fired, but we fired for a different reason. Everything plays into it. We fired him because he said something to the Vice President that wasn’t true. He had clearance from the Obama Administration. I think it’s a very unfair thing that the media doesn’t talk about that.

I just sent a letter from one of the most prestigious law firms in the country that I have nothing to do with Russia, I have no investments in Russia, I don’t have property in Russia. I’m in total compliance in every way.

I had the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow a long time ago. I have a certified letter. I’m not just saying that. I assume he’s gonna give the letter out. No loans, no nothing.

I never thought about it [optics of Lavrov meeting]. What difference does it make.

When I spoke with Putin he asked me whether I’d see Lavrov. I think we had a great discussion having to do with Syria, having to do with the Ukraine. Maybe that discussion will lead to peace.

Ultimately, Trump said several things here (aside from putting into the public record the meetings with Comey, though he got details that can almost certainly be proved wrong wrong). He differentiated between an investigation into himself personally and others, denied asking to halt the investigation into Flynn, provided his bogus self-exoneration claim of not having business ties with Russians. He also reiterated the claim he had been spied on.

May 12, 2017: What was the purpose of your May 12, 2017, tweet?

By this point, Trump and Comey were in a war of credibility. And Trump suggested that he might have tapes of his meetings with Comey.

The White House answers about whether there were tapes have dodged some, so it’s possible.

May 17, 2017: What did you think and what did you do in reaction to the news of the appointment of the special counsel?

In the wake of reporting that Comey had documented a request from Trump to halt the investigation into Flynn, on May 17, Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to investigate any links between the Russian government and individuals associated with Trump’s campaign and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” The latter phrase made it clear that by firing Comey, Trump had put himself under investigation for obstructing the investigation in chief.

In the middle of a meeting with Sessions, Don McGahn, Mike Pence, and several others on replacing Comey, Rosenstein called McGahn and told him he had appointed Mueller. Trump took it out on Sessions, calling him an idiot and telling him he should resign. Sessions left and sent a resignation letter, but Pence, Steve Bannon, and Reince Priebus convinced him to hold off on accepting it. This piece describes Priebus’ side of that story.

May 31, 2017: Why did you hold Mr. Sessions’s resignation until May 31, 2017, and with whom did you discuss it?

Mueller has received testimony from most of the people who counseled Trump not to fire Sessions, including McGahn, Bannon, and Priebus (but not Pence). He has also gotten Sessions’ testimony on this point.

I’m particularly interested in whether Trump consulted with people not listed in the NYT story on this, such as Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller (who had counseled him to fire Comey in the first place). I also suspect that Trump had already reached out Flynn by this point to talk pardons.

June 8, 2017: What did you think about Mr. Comey’s June 8, 2017, testimony regarding Mr. Flynn, and what did you do about it?

On June 8, Comey testified to SSCI. The night before, he released a statement that reviewed much of what appeared in his memos. The hearing consisted of senators from each party trying to spin Comey’s report of being asked to drop the Flynn investigation, with little news  — though Comey did make clear the investigation covered false statements.

BLUNT: On the Flynn issue specifically, I believe you said earlier that you believe the president was suggesting you drop any investigation of Flynn’s account of his conversation with the Russian ambassador. Which was essentially misleading the vice president and others?

COMEY: Correct. I’m not going to go into the details but whether there were false statements made to government investigators, as well.

Comey refuted Trump’s claim that he didn’t ask him to stop the investigation into Flynn.

KING: In his press conference May 18th, the president responded, quote, no, no, when asked about asking you to stop the investigation into general Flynn. Is that a true statement?

COMEY: I don’t believe it is.

Comey said he viewed the Flynn investigation and the Russian one as touching, but separate, though raised the possibility of flipping Flynn.

KING: Back to Mr. Flynn. Would the — would closing out the Flynn investigation have impeded the overall Russian investigation?

COMEY: No. Well, unlikely, except to the extent — there is always a possibility if you have a criminal case against someone and squeeze them, flip them and they give you information about something else. But I saw the two as touching each other but separate.

Comey also revealed that he had shared memos memorializing his conversations with Trump with a friend.

BLUNT: You said something earlier and I don’t want to fail to follow up on, you said after dismissed, you gave information to a friend so that friend could get that information into the public media.

COMEY: Correct.

BLUNT: What kind of information was that? What kind of information did you give to a friend?

COMEY: That the — the Flynn conversation. The president had asked me to let the Flynn — forgetting my exact own words. But the conversation in the Oval Office.

Much of the hearing covered Sessions’ non-involvement. Comey deferred a number of questions to the closed session.

Trump used the Comey hearing — and his confirmation that at the time he left the president wasn’t under investigation — to have Marc Kasowitz make a statement claiming Trump never impeded the investigation and never demanded loyalty.

I am Marc Kasowitz, Predisent Trump’s personal lawyer.

Contrary to numerous false press accounts leading up to today’s hearing, Mr. Comey has now finally confirmed publicly what he repeatedly told the President privately: The President was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference. He also admitted that there is no evidence that a single vote changed as a result of any Russian interference.

Mr Comey’s testimony also makes clear that the President never sought to impede the investigation into attempted Russian interference in the 2016 election, and in fact, according to Mr. Comey, the President told Mr. Comey “it would be good to find out” in that investigation if there were “some ‘satellite’ associates of his who did something wrong.” And he did not exclude anyone from that statement. Consistent with that statement, the President never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone, including suggesting that that Mr. Comey“let Flynn go.” As he publicly stated the next day, he did say to Mr. Comey, “General Flynn is a good guy, he has been through a lot” and also “asked how is General Flynn is doing.”

Admiral Rogers testified that the President never “directed [him] to do anything . . . illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate” and never “pressured [him] to do so.” Director Coates said the same thing. The President likewise never pressured Mr. Comey. .

The President also never told Mr. Comey, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty” in form or substance. Of course, the Office of the President is entitled to expect loyalty from those who are serving in an administration, and, from before this President took office to this day, it is overwhelmingly clear that there have been and continue to be those in government who are actively attempting to undermine this administration with selective and illegal leaks of classified information and privileged communications.

Kasowitz also accused Comey of leaking in order to lead to a special counsel investigation.

Mr. Comey has now admitted that he is one of these leakers. Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the President. The leaks of this privileged information began no later than March 2017 when friends of Mr. Comey have stated he disclosed to them the conversations he had with the President during their January 27, 2017 dinner and February 14, 2017 White House meeting. Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he leaked to friends his purported memos of these privileged conversations, one of which he testified was classified. He also testified that immediately after he was terminated he authorized his friends to leak the contents of these memos to the press in order to “prompt the appointment of a special counsel.” Although Mr. Comey testified he only leaked the memos in response to a tweet, the public record reveals that the New York Times was quoting from these memos the day before the referenced tweet, which belies Mr. Comey’s excuse for this unauthorized disclosure of privileged information and appears to entirely retaliatory. We will leave it the appropriate authorities to determine whether this leaks should be investigated along with all those others being investigated. .

In sum, it is now established that there the President was not being investigated for colluding with the or attempting to obstruct that investigation. As the Committee pointed out today, these important facts for the country to know are virtually the only facts that have not leaked during the long course of these events.

This sort of kicked off the official campaign to discredit Comey and those who would back his story.

June 12, 2017: What did you think and do in reaction to the news that the special counsel was speaking to Mr. Rogers, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Coats?

Public reports date Rogers and Coats’ interviews with Mueller to the week of June 12, 2017, so Pompeo’s must have been around that same time. Rogers and Coats, at least, testified that Trump tried to get them to state publicly that there was no collusion. They said the interaction was odd and uncomfortable, but that he did not order them to interfere.

Clearly, Trump responded to public reports of their being called as witnesses, though we don’t know what the response was. It’s possible that’s when Trump threatened to fire Mueller, only to back off when Don McGahn threatened to quit.

July 7, 2017: What involvement did you have in the communication strategy, including the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails?

I’ve laid out that I believe the evolving June 9 story is a limited hangout orchestrated by Agalarov lawyer Scott Balber. The strategy would have begun when Jared Kushner wrestled with the need to disclose the meeting, both in response to congressional investigations and for his clearance. Manafort, too, turned over emails backing the event about a month before the story came out publicly. This post talks about the response the weekend of the G-20 in Hamburg, including Ivanka sitting in on a meeting so Trump could strategize, and Hope Hicks suggesting the emails would never come out.

As a reminder, on the same day Trump had a second hour long meeting with Putin, he dictated Putin’s propaganda line that the meeting pertained to adoptions. Importantly, he hid what I’ve suggested was the quo in the quid pro quo, sanctions relief. Mueller undoubtedly would like to know if Putin helped him come up with that message, which would be really damning.

Mueller also wants to know about the decision to leak Don Jr’s emails. Bannon suspects that a Jared aide leaked the emails (his then lawyer Jamie Gorelick would cut back her work with him shortly thereafter). But remember: in a DM, Assange proposed that he give Wikileaks the email.

There’s clearly far more back story to the leaked email we don’t know yet.

If Trump’s involvement here involves coordination with Russians (like the Agalrovs, to say nothing of Putin) or Assange, it would provide damning evidence not of obstruction, but of collusion, an effort to coordinate a story about a key meeting. Trump’s lawyers have always suggested questions about Trump’s role in this statement are improper, which is itself a telling indicator that they don’t understand (or want to spin) the risk of the original June 9 meeting.

July 20, 2017: After the resignations, what efforts were made to reach out to Mr. Flynn about seeking immunity or possible pardon?

Mike Flynn tried to get Congressional immunity in March 2017, with Trump’s backing the effort in a tweet.

Mueller’s question seems to suggest even at that earlier period, someone from Trump’s camp reached out and discussed immunity with Flynn. Shortly before April 25, Trump also sent Flynn a message to “stay strong.” (h/t TC)

On July 20, the WaPo reported that Trump’s team was researching pardons. The NYT report first revealing that Trump offered pardons to Mike Flynn (and Manafort, who is curiously not mentioned in this question) describes it happening after John Dowd took over, in the wake of the revelation of the June 9 meeting and the Kasowitz firing. Dowd denied any such thing was happening on July 21, which is probably a good sign such discussions were taking place.

July 25, 2017: What was the purpose of your July 2017 criticism of Mr. Sessions? What discussions did you have with Reince Priebus in July 2017 about obtaining the Sessions resignation? With whom did you discuss it?

In late July, 2017, Trump accused Sessions of several sins: failing to crack down on leaks, failing to prosecute Hillary, and failing to fire Andrew McCabe. That must be the same time when Trump ordered Priebus to get Sessions’ resignation, which he dodged by stalling, which probably answers the “what was the purpose” question: to lay predicate to fire Sessions.

I’m particularly interested in the question about who Trump discussed this with, particularly given the provocative timing — the days before George Papadopoulos’s July 26 arrest and Paul Manafort’s July 27 condo search (using a warrant that, unlike a warrant from a May 27 storage unit search, invoked the June 9 meeting). It’s possible Trump had advance knowledge of this stuff (which would be alarming), but likely it’s a coincidence.

In any case, Mueller clearly has reason to believe Trump learned something about the investigation and discussed it with people that led him to try, again, to stop it by firing someone.

What was the purpose of the September and October 2017 statements, including tweets, regarding an investigation of Mr. Comey?

On September 1, Trump responded to reports that because Comey had a declination written before interviewing Hillary, he rigged the outcome of the investigation. In mid-October, in the wake of the Manafort indictment and George Papadopoulos plea, Trump returned to this attack. Rudy Giuliani has renewed this attack in recent days, which is presumably an attempt to undercut Comey’s credibility.

What discussions did you have regarding terminating the special counsel, and what did you do when that consideration was reported in January 2018?

The NYT report that Trump tried to fire Mueller in June 2017 made it clear that Mueller had received testimony about it (presumably from McGahn and others). Clearly, Mueller has reason to know that Trump did something else in response. Note that this report came out in the wake of the Michael Wolff book, which would give Mueller an excuse to call several of the relevant witnesses (such as Mark Corallo and Steve Bannon) as witnesses. This time period also closely follows the increasingly aggressive response in Congress.

What is the reason for your continued criticism of Mr. Comey and his former deputy, Andrew G. McCabe?

The assumption is that Trump continues to attack Comey and McCabe because doing so might harm their credibility with regards to an obstruction investigation, and that’s surely true (made all the worse by McCabe’s firing and his criminal referral).

But I increasingly believe (particularly given that the other contemporaneous witnesses to Comey’s concerns, like James Baker, are not named) that’s not the only reason Trump is doing this. My guess is it’s an attempt to undermine their decision to investigate Flynn. We now know, for example, that McCabe set up the interview with Flynn on Comey’s direction. So in addition to discrediting key witnesses against him, it seems possible that Trump is also trying to discredit the decision, at a time when  FBI was about to close a counterintelligence investigation into Flynn, to instead interview him, leading to the exposure of Trump’s efforts to undermine US policy during the transition period.

RESOURCES

These are some of the most useful resources in mapping these events.

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

Sally Yates and James Clapper Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, May 8, 2017

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

Part One: The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up

Part Two: The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief

Part Three: The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief (Part Two in a Series)

As I explained in Part One of this series, I think the Mueller questions leaked by the Trump people actually give a far better understanding of a damning structure to the Mueller investigation — one mapping out cultivation, a quid pro quo, and a cover-up — than the coverage has laid out. This post will lay out how, over the course of the election, the Russians and Trump appear to have danced towards a quid pro quo, involving a Putin meeting and election assistance in exchange for sanctions relief if Trump won (as noted, the Russians dangled real estate deals to entice Trump based on the assumption he wouldn’t win).

April 27, 2016: During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media, or other acts aimed at the campaign?

Given the structure of George Papadopoulos’ plea, it’s highly likely Mueller knows that Papadopoulos passed on news that the Russians had thousands of Hillary emails they planned to release to help Trump to people in the campaign. Papadopoulos could have passed on that news to Stephen Miller and Corey Lewandowski as early as April 27. On the same day, Papadopoulos helped draft Trump’s first foreign policy speech, which Papadopoulos reportedly told Ivan Timofeev signaled a willingness to meet.

Between the time the GRU first exfiltrated DNC emails in April and the election, Trump invoked “emails” 21 times on Twitter (usually to refer to emails from Hillary’s server). The first of those times came on June 9, less than an hour after the Trump Tower meeting. The most famous of those came on July 27, when Trump addressed Russia directly.

Earlier in the day, Trump had called on Russia to release the emails not to the FBI, but to the press.

Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.

The timing may reflect awareness among some in the campaign that the call to Russia was a step too far legally. (h/t TC for the addition)

That Trump’s email comments pertain mostly to Hillary’s home-based server doesn’t actually exonerate him. Right after the DNC release (and therefore the July 27 Trump tweet), GOP rat-fucker Peter Smith started reaching out to Russian hackers in hopes of finding hacked versions of those emails. His support documents named Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sam Clovis, and Mike Flynn. If those people actually learned of the effort (there’s reason to believe Smith was just overselling the ties to the campaign), it’s possible that Trump learned about it as well.

As to social media, while it has gotten virtually no attention, the reference to three Florida-based Trump campaign officials in the Internet Research Agency indictment suggests further investigative interest in them.

[T]here are three (presumed) Americans who, both the indictment and subsequent reporting make clear, are treated differently in the indictment than all the other Americans cited as innocent people duped by Russians: Campaign Official 1, Campaign Official 2, and Campaign Official 3. We know, from CNN’s coverage of Harry Miller’s role in building a cage to be used in a fake “jailed Hillary” stunt, that at least some other people described in the indictment were interviewed — in his case, for six hours! — by the FBI. But no one else is named using the convention to indicate those not indicted but perhaps more involved in the operation. Furthermore, the indictment doesn’t actually describe what action (if any) these three Trump campaign officials took after being contacted by trolls emailing under false names.

So Mueller may be pursuing whether there was state-level coordination going on, and if so, how far up the campaign chain of command knowledge of that coordination extended.

May 31, 2016: What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding any meeting with Mr. Putin? Did you discuss it with others?

On June 16, 2015, the day Trump announced his campaign, the Agalarovs offered to serve as an intermediary between him and Putin.

Then, starting at least as early as March 31, 2016 (with Trump’s first foreign policy meeting), his aides started floating pitches for meetings with increasingly senior campaign officials that would hypothetically lead up to one between Trump and Putin.

Those include at least:

  • The George Papadopoulos thread, spanning from March 21 through August 15
  • The Carter Page thread, including his Moscow trip in July, and possibly continuing through his December Moscow trip
  • The NRA thread, focusing on the NRA meeting in Kentucky in May; NRA’s longer outreach includes Trump associates John Bolton and David Clarke

We know Trump was present and did not object when Papadopoulos pitched this in the May 31 meeting. Several of the other entrees went through Don Jr. Many of the offers got briefed at least as far as Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort. We don’t know how many of the other offers he learned about. We just know that years earlier he had joked about becoming Putin’s best friend, and over the course of the campaign, Russian intermediaries made repeated, persistent efforts to work towards a meeting between Trump and Putin, with a meeting between Agalarov representatives (who, again, had offered to serve as intermediaries with Putin when Trump kicked off the campaign) and the most senior people on the campaign happening just as Trump sealed up the nomination.

May 31, 2016: What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding Russian sanctions?

This is an open-ended question that might pose particular problems for Trump given the misleading statement claiming the June 9 meeting was about adoptions and not the Magnitsky sanctions. More interesting still are hints that Mueller sees a signaling going back and forth involving Papadopoulos; some of this may have involved signaling a willingness to provide sanctions relief.

Both Aras Agalarov and Natalia Veselnitskaya followed up after the election pushing for sanctions relief.

June 9, 2016: When did you become aware of the Trump Tower meeting?

Sam Nunberg has suggested Trump probably learned of the Trump Tower meeting before it happened. While he is unreliable on that point, the original June 3, 2016 email Rob Goldstone sent to Don Jr suggests reaching out to Trump’s assistant Rhona Graff.

I can also send this info to your father via Rhona, but it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first.

Democrats suspect that between two calls Don Jr had with Emin Agalarov about the meeting on June 6, 2016, he called his dad.

Trump Jr.’s phone records show two calls to and from the same Russian number on June 6, 2016.62 The first call occurred at 4:04 pm on June 6, 2916 – just 21 minutes after Goldstone emailed Trump Jr. to say that Emin Agalarov was “on stage in Moscow but should be off within 20 minutes so I am sure can call. [emphasis added]” 63 At 4:38 pm, Trump Jr emailed Goldstone, “Rob, thanks for the help.”64

This documentary evidence indicates that a call likely took place between Trump Jr. and Emin Agalarov. During his interview, Trump Jr. confirmed that the Russian phone number belonged to Agalarov, though he claimed to not recall whether he actually spoke with him. Rather, despite one of the two calls reflecting a two-minute connection, Trump Jr. suggested that Agalarov may have left voice messages.65

The phone records also show a “blocked” number at 4:27 pm, between the two calls to and from Emin Agalarov. Trump Jr. claimed he did not know who was associated with the blocked number.66 While the Committee has not pursued leads to determine who called Trump Jr. at this crucial time from a blocked number, Corey Lewandowski told the Committee that Mr. Trump’s “primary residence has a blocked [phone] line.” 67

Mueller, of course, almost certainly has the phone records the Democrats weren’t able to obtain.

Finally, Steve Bannon has stated that he’s certain Don Jr “walk[ed] these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor” on the day of the meeting. There’s reason to believe Ike Kaveladze and Goldstone could have done so, including the new piece of evidence that “Kaveladze left [a meeting with Rinat Akhmetshin and Natalia Veselnitskaya] after a few minutes to take a call from Agalarov to discuss the meeting.”

The day after the meeting — and four days before Trump’s birthday — Agalarov sent Trump an expensive painting as a present.

The June 9 meeting is, as far as is public, the most important cornerstone in a presumed quid pro quo. Russians offered unnamed dirt that Don Jr seemed to know what it entailed even before speaking to Emin Agalarov personally. Having offered dirt, four Russians — including two representatives of Trump’s long-time handler Aras Agalarov — laid out a pitch to end the Magnitsky sanctions. And less than a week later, a presumed Russian agent released the first dirt stolen from Hillary Clinton.

July 7, 2016: What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?

We don’t have many details on what Mueller knows about Manafort’s requests for help on the campaign. We do know he remained in close touch with Russians via someone the FBI believed was a Russian intelligence agent, Konstantin Kilimnik, through whom he remained in communications with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Deripaska is named in some court documents in a way that suggests his relationship with Manafort may be the still hidden third prong of investigation into Manafort approved by August 2, 2017.

Starting in April, Manafort and Kilimnik (whom Rick Gates and therefore presumably Manafort knew was a former GRU officer), exchanged a series of cryptic emails, suggesting that Manafort might be able to pay off the $20 million he owed Deripaska with certain actions on the campaign. In an email sent on July 7, Manafort offered to provide briefings on the campaign to Deripaska. On or around August 2, Manafort and Kilimnik met in person at the Grand Havana Club, in Kushner’s building at 666 5th Avenue. Both deny that anything about the campaign came up. Shortly after this meeting, one of Deripaska’s jets came to Newark, and Russian opposition figure Viktor Navalny has claimed to have proof the jet went from there to a meeting between Deripaska and Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Prikhodko.

An August 2017 report describes intercepts picking up “Russian operatives discussing their efforts to work with Manafort, … relay[ing] what they claimed were conversations with Manafort, encouraging help from the Russians.”

There’s one more area of potential assistance I find of interest. Since January, we’ve been getting hints that Oleg Deripaska has some tie to the Steele dossier, possibly through a lawyer he and Steele share. I’ve raised repeated concerns that the Russians learned about the dossier and found ways to feed Steele disinformation. If they did, the disinformation would have led Democrats to be complacent about the hacks that targeted them. And whether or not the dossier is disinformation (and whether or not Deripaska had a role in that, if true), Paul Manafort coached Reince Priebus on how to attack the dossier as a way to discredit the investigation into the campaign’s ties with Russia.

With regards to this Manafort question: remember that Rick Gates flipped on February 23, and the questions date to early March. So Gates may have proffered confirmation about these details. In any case, Mueller likely has learned far more about them two months after Gates flipped.

July 10-12, 2016: What involvement did you have concerning platform changes regarding arming Ukraine?

The Majority HPSCI Russia Report explains that the RNC platform was changed by staffers at the convention based off Trump’s public statements on sanctions.

[Rick] Dearborn generated a memorandum, dated August 1, 2016, outlining a detailed sequence of events that occurred between July 10 and 12, 2016. As part of that memo, J.D. Gordon created a timeline that noted candidate Trump’s policy statements–including at a March 31, 2016, national security meeting–served as the basis for the modification of [Diana] Denman’s amendments. Gordon’s timeline made it clear that the change was initiated by campaign staffers at the convention–not by Manafort or senior officials.

J.D. Gordon has not confirmed that he was asked about this, but he surely was. I would expect Mueller to have tested the timeline Gordon laid out in summer 2016 (when the platform change was a big political issue) against the testimony and communications records of everyone else involved.

Of course, by asking the question in this fashion, Mueller doesn’t reveal what he has already confirmed about the platform changes.

August 5, 2016: What did you know about communication between Roger Stone, his associates, Julian Assange or WikiLeaks?

After multiple public statements that the Russians were behind the hack-and-leak, on August 5, 2016 (after traveling from NY to LA to his home in FL), Roger Stone wrote a column claiming to believe that Guccifer 2.0 was a hacktivist with no ties to Russia. Stone’s purportedly changed beliefs about Guccifer 2.0 coincide with an August 4 claim he made in an email to Sam Nunberg that he had met with Julian Assange the night before. Stone’s claimed belief that Guccifer 2.0 is not Russian is key to his denials of any involvement or pre-knowledge of hack-and-leak events. It also kicked off an alternative story that others, up to and including Trump, have adopted to excuse their own embrace of the stolen emails. In other words, a key prong in the plausible deniability the Russians built into the hack-and-leak campaign came from long-time Trump associate Roger Stone, after a dramatic and unexplained change in beliefs (Lee Stranahan, who used to work for Breitbart and now works for Sputnik, has claimed some credit for the change, and given how lucid the August 5 column is, someone had to have helped Stone write it).

Ten days later, after Stone had called on Twitter to let him out of Twitter jail, Guccifer 2.0 and Stone started exchanging (fairly innocuous) DMs.

There are events both before and after that which suggest Stone — probably through more interesting go-betweens than Randy Credico — sought information on what dirt Assange and Wikileaks had, and what and when planned to do with it.

Much has been made, especially in the DNC lawsuit, about Stone’s seeming prediction that “it would soon be Podesta’s time in the barrel.” Perhaps that’s true (and Stone’s explanation for the tweet is garbage), but any explanation of Stone’s supposed prediction needs to acknowledge that he more often predicted Wikileaks would release Clinton Foundation emails, not Podesta ones, that he got the timing somewhat wrong, and that he didn’t dwell on the Podesta emails at all once Wikileaks started releasing them (preferring, instead, to talk about Bill Clinton’s lady problems). Still, that may reflect Stone involvement in the Peter Smith operation, and efforts to get WikiLeaks to release purported Clinton Foundation emails passed on via hackers.

That Mueller is even asking this suggests (if the several grand jury witnesses in recent months dedicated to it don’t already) that Mueller has a pretty good idea that Stone’s communications were more extensive than his denials let on. That he thinks Stone may have shared that information with Trump is all the more interesting.

All of which is to say that the known answers to Mueller’s questions map out a quid pro quo set up during the election, in which Russians offered a Putin meeting and dirt on Hillary, with the expectation that Trump would lift the Magnitsky sanctions if he won (and would get a Trump Tower in Moscow if he lost). I suspect there are other pieces to the quid pro quo, dealing with Ukraine and Syria. But certainly the June 9 meeting set up an understanding: dirt in exchange for Magnitsky relief. The release of the Guccifer 2.0 emails may indicate the Trump camp provided some signal they had formally accepted the offer.

Update: Fixed syntax in last paragraph, h/t LT.

RESOURCES

These are some of the most useful resources in mapping these events.

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

Sally Yates and James Clapper Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, May 8, 2017

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

Part One: The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up

Part Two: The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief

Part Three: The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

On Manafort’s Referral of the Papadopoulos Offer(s)

I want to return to something from the George Papadopoulos plea agreement in light of last week’s HPSCI Russia reports. In it, there was a footnote describing Paul Manafort’s response to Papadopoulos’ email about efforts to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin.

On or about May 21, 2016, defendant PAPADOPOULOS emailed another high-ranking Campaign official, with the subject line “Request from Russia to meet Mr. Trump.” The email included the May 4 MFA Email and added: “Russia has been eager to meet Mr. Trump for quite sometime and have been reaching out to me to discuss.”2

2 The government notes that the official forwarded defendant PAPADOPOULOS’s email to another Campaign official (without including defendant PAPADOPOULOS) and stated:

“Let[‘]s discuss. We need someone to communicate that DT is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”

The Majority HPSCI Report explains the email, first, by noting that it accompanied another one Papadopoulos forwarded regarding a proposed Greek meeting. Then it described Gates and Manafort referring the requests for “these meetings” to a correspond to both.

(U) Although the Committee has no information to indicate that Papadopoulos was successful in setting up any meetings between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, he worked with campaign chief executive Steve Bannon to broker a September 2016 meeting between candidate Trump and Egyptian president Abdel Fatah el-Sisi.181 Trump was apparently pleased with the meeting, which he described In an Interview as “very productive,” describing el-Sisi as “a fantastic guy.”182

(U) While on a trip to Athens, Greece in May 2016, Papadopoulos sent an email to Manafort stating that he expected to soon receive “an official invitation for Mr. Trump to visit Greece sometime this summer should his schedule allow.”183 In the same email to Manafort, Papadopoulos also forwarded a meeting Invitation from Ivan Timofeev, Director or [sic] Programs for the Russian International Affairs Council, and claimed that “Russia has been eager to meet Mr. Trump for quite sometime and have been reaching out to me to discuss. thought it would be prudent to send to you.”184

(U) As of May 2016, Manafort had not yet been elevated to campaign chairman, but had a long track record of work abroad. Manafort forwarded Papadopoulos’ email to his business and campaign deputy [Rick Gates] noting that we need someone to communicate that D[onald] T[rump] is not doing these trips.” 185 Manafort and [Gates] agreed to assign a response of a “general letter” to “our correspondence coordinator.” the person responsible for “responding to all mail of non-importance.”186

Curiously, this account is based off Gates’ production; it should exist in the campaign’s production as well.

The clarification would seem to suggest that Manafort was treating all requests for Trump meetings as formalities, to be responded to with a regrets letter sent by a low level clerk. But it still doesn’t explain what Manafort meant when he said “It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”

But there’s another detail that may undermine the claim that Manafort responded to all requests for Russian meetings with regrets. As the Minority HPSCI Report makes clear, Manafort received another request for a Trump-Putin meeting within days of the Papadopoulos one, one tied to Aleksandr Torshin’s trip to the NRA meeting.

On May 10, 2016, Erickson reached out to Rick Dearborn, a longtime senior advisor to Jeff Sessions and a senior campaign official:

“Switching hats! I’m now writing to you and Sen. Sessions in your roles as Trump foreign policy experts / advisors. […] Happenstance and the (sometimes) international reach of the NRA placed me in a position a couple of years ago to slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin. Russia is quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S. that isn’t forthcoming under the current administration. And for reasons that we can discuss in person or on the phone, the Kremlin believes that the only possibility of a true re-set in this relationship would be with a new Republican White House.”44

The email goes on to say that Russia planned to use the NRA’s annual convention to make “first contact” with the Trump campaign and that “Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump. He wants to extend an invitation to Mr. Trump to visit him in the Kremlin before the election.”45

Dearborn communicated this request on May 17, 2016 to the highest levels of the Trump campaign, including Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, and Jared Kushner. The effort to establish a back-channel between Russia and the Trump campaign included a private meeting between Torshin and “someone of high rank in the Trump Campaign.”46 The private meeting would take place just prior to then-candidate Trump’s speech to the NRA. As explained in Dearborn’s email, such a meeting would provide Torshin an opportunity “to discuss an offer he claims to be carrying from President Putin to meet with DJT. They would also like DJT to visit Russia for a world summit on the persecution of Christians at which Putin and Trump would meet.”47

The account of the NRA outreach is a bit muddled between the two reports. But Kushner passed on a related one from Rick Clay — not because he didn’t want to take the meeting, but because he worried they couldn’t verify the back channel.

“Pass on this. A lot of people come claiming to carry messages. Very few we are able to verify. For now I think we decline such meetings,” as well as “(b)e careful.”

But as both reports make clear, Don Jr did meet, briefly, with Torshin, though there is no known record of their face-to-face exchange.

The Majority’s finding on this topic affirms that Trump Jr. met with a Russian government official, Alexander Torshin, at the event, but conveniently concludes that “the Committee found no evidence that the two discussed the presidential election.”48 As with many findings in the report, this relies solely on the voluntary and self-interested testimony of the individual in question, in this case Trump Jr. The Majority refused multiple requests by the Minority to interview witnesses central to this line of inquiry, including Torshin, Butina, Erickson, and others.

These accounts come from the Sessions and Dearborn production. Again, both should also be available via the campaign, but that’s not where they came from, and the NRA requests were also sent to Manafort and Gates (so Gates’ production should include any response from Manafort).

As noted in both reports, Don Jr. met Torshin briefly on May 19, two days after the request for a high level meeting got passed onto senior people in the campaign.

Both reports separate the timelines out by source — and the Majority one presents events out of order, which adds to the confusion. But here’s how the two outreach efforts look.

May 4 [this gets forwarded to Lewandowski, Clovis, and Manafort by May 21]:

Timofeev to Papadopolous “just talked to my colleagues from the MFA. [They are] open for cooperation. One of the options is to make a meeting for you at the North America Desk, if you are in Moscow.”

Papadopolous to Timofeev: “Glad the MFA is interested.”

May 4, Papadopoulos to Lewandowski (forwarding Timofeev email):

“What do you think? Is this something we want to move forward with?”

May 5: Papadopoulos has a conversation with Sam Clovis, then forwards Timofeev email, with header “Russia updates.”

May 8, Timofeev to Papadopoulos:

Emails about setting Papadopoulos up with the “MFA head of the US desk.”

May 10, Paul Erickson email to Rick Dearborn proposes a meeting between Torshin and “someone of high rank in the Trump Campaign … to discuss an offer [Torshin] claims to be carrying from President Putin to meet with DJT.”

May 13, Mifsud to Papadopoulos:

“an update” of what they had discussed in their “recent conversations,” including: “We will continue to liaise through you with the Russian counterparts in terms of what is needed for high level meeting of Mr. Trump with the Russian Federation.”

May 14, Papadopoulos to Lewandowski:

“Russian govemment[] ha[s] also relayed to me that they are interested in hostingMr. Trump.”

May 16: Rick Clay email to Rick Dearborn mentions an “overture to Mr. Trump from
President Putin.” Kushner responds, “Pass on this. A lot of people come claiming to carry messages. Very few we are able to verify. For now I think we decline such meetings.”

May 21, Papadopoulos to Paul Manafort, forwarding May 4 email:

“Request from Russia to meet Mr. Trump”

“Regarding the forwarded message, Russia has been eager to meet Mr. Trump for quite some time and have been reaching out to me to discuss.”

May 21, Manafort forwards Papadopoulos email to Rick Gates:

“Lets discuss. We need someone to communicate that DT is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”

As noted, there should be more in the Gates production to describe what Manafort was up to, if he was indeed opposed to meetings themselves.

Of course, we don’t have that — though Mueller does have Gates wrapped up in a cooperation agreement.

Meanwhile, Don Jr kept doing meetings with Russians he would go on to disclaim. And weeks after all these invitations for high level meetings, he, Kushner, and Manafort took a meeting with someone all three had reason to trust, Aras Agalarov’s representatives.

 

The Context of Veselnitskaya’s “Informant” Comment

There seems to be a great deal of confusion about what Natalia Veselnitskaya admitted to in a contentious MSNBC interview. Before I get into the admission(s), consider two details about the interview. First, Veselnitskaya insisted on making her own recording of the interview, which she says she always does for her own “security” (I’m using MSNBC’s translations throughout here, but I await a Russian speaker to see how well that was done). It’s unclear whether she’s doing that because she doesn’t trust the journalists she’s speaking with, or whether she feels like she needs a record to avoid trouble with the Russian state.

Also the interview is based on probably hacked documents leaked to Mikhail Khodorkovsky who then passed them on, precisely the kind of “weaponized” leaking that our intelligence services claim (dubiously) never to do. MSNBC dismisses Veselnitskaya’s accusations that Americans might have hacked her (she provided names but sadly MSNBC doesn’t tell us whom she named) by pointing to Khodorkovsky and his anonymous dropbox, as if he played any different role than Julian Assange played in the Russian election operation, down to the verification using metadata. All’s fair in love and hacking — I’m not complaining that this happened to her — but it’s worth attending to the provenance of the documents, particularly given that key ones are attachments.

There are two separate admissions in the interview (MSNBC has not released a transcript, and the excerpts shown are edited in ways that I believe are, like all else MSNBC does on the Russian story, designed to be as inflammatory as possible often at the expense of clarity, if not fact).

The first admission is that Veselnitskaya has ties to a military organization that has ties to the FSB (MSNBC presents it as her “doing legal work for Russia’s intelligence agency, the FSB”). Here’s what she admits to:

I did not represent the interests of the FSB. … I did not represent the interests of the FSB. I represented the interests of a military unit which has a very remote association with the FSB. … I can’t tell you anything further.

The second admission appears to be that, in regards to a US request to the Russian government for information on Denis Katsyv — the same client and same legal issue whom Veselnitskaya was representing in the Prevezon case through which she worked with US law firm Baker and Hostetler and Fusion GPS — she provided the language to the Russian government used to refuse to comply with an MLAT request. It appears to be in this context — in response to the claim that she may have crafted the official government response — that she used the word “informant.”

Former SDNY Prosecutor Jaimie Nawaday, who worked on the Prevezon case: The US Department of Justice puts out a request to Russia asking for bank records, incorporation records, because the underlying fraud involved the theft of corporate identities.

Richard Engel: How did the Russian authorities respond?

JN: Essentially they responded by saying that the US government’s allegations were without merit, and they would not be providing the records.

RE: Were you surprised by that response?

JN: Well, yes, because it’s not the job of the foreign government to reinvestigate and come to its own conclusion about the merits of the government’s case.

Let me interject and say this is a load of baloney, though it sure makes for good — if misleading — TV. In the same way no one imagines the UK will ever respond to one of Russia’s regularly issued arrest warrants for Bill Browder, the oligarch who is behind the Magnitsky sanctions, no one should expect Russian cooperation on an MLAT request for information on the money laundering of a favored oligarch. That doesn’t justify it. But it’s just pure fantasy to think Russia will cooperate in the prosecution of one of its own.

What MSNBC showed were emails to an official in Russia’s prosecutor general office (to someone named Sergey Bochkarev,* not to Yuri Chaika himself), as well as a Word document with track changes, neither of which is obviously Veselnitskaya (one is HP or NR — her patronymic is Vladimirovna, so her initials in Cyrillic would be HB; the other is a name that doesn’t appear to be hers).

Veselnitskaya at first did not confirm that the emails were hers. And she flatly denied dictating to the Russian prosecutor’s office how it should respond to the US.

Nothing of the sort. It’s not true.

At another point in the interview, she said she wanted something (perhaps this denial, perhaps that what she did constituted obstruction of justice) on the record, but it appears MSNBC edited out what that was.

Later she did admit that the details in the documents (though not the documents) were hers.

There are many things here from my motions. This was in one of my memos I passed along to the prosecutor general’s office.

But again she denies that she had a “back and forth dialogue.”

Finally, though, Engel asks her what her relationship to the prosecutor general is (again, because of the editing, it is totally unclear whether this comes after the discussion of the Katsyv response or after something else), to which she says,

I am a lawyer and I am an informant.

In point of fact, she has previously admitted providing information she obtained from Fusion to the prosecutor general, so she could have simply been repeating that admission. In any case, in context, this appears to be an admission that she provided information about the case against Katsyv to the prosecutor.

These two details come well after Richard Engel asks Veselnitskaya on whose behalf she went to Trump Tower to lobby Trump’s spawn and campaign manager to lift the Magnitsky sanctions (lobbying activities she engaged in publicly and extensively outside of that event). And they come between the time he describes the HPSCI report finding there was no collusion between Trump’s team and Russians and the times he (ridiculously, in my opinion) twice uses the word “collusion” to refer to Veselnitskaya’s interactions with the Russian government on behalf of a known client.

Frankly, I think the MSNBC reporting (or at least editing) is a mess, in part because what one would want to prove is that she was working for Aras Agalarov (Trump’s apparent handler) or Putin when she met with Don Jr and the others. As I’ve intimated elsewhere, I think the reference to “Crown Prosecutor” in Rob Goldstone’s email to Don Jr is some kind of code, not a reference to Yuri Chaika or Veselnitskaya at all.

But in reality, the “informant” admission is the far less interesting of Veselnitskaya’s two admissions in the interview, because at least in context, all she’s admitting to is providing information to the prosecutor general’s office in the course of her representation of Katsyv. The other admission — the confirmation she’s done work for some entity with ties to Russian intelligence — might be more interesting, though still not a smoking gun regarding the background to her appearance at Trump Towers.

Most of all, though, I still think the role of the Agalarovs — whom the Minority HPSCI Report describes offering to set up a Putin meeting and providing birthday gifts days earlier than stolen emails that appear just after Trump’s birthday — is far more crucial to showing that the Trump Tower meeting was an official outreach from the Russian government. Veselnitskaya was just a convenient way to deliver the demand, Magnitsky relief, and that’s a role she played overtly in numerous other occasions.

Update: I meant to note this detail from the HPSCI Minority Report. Dana Rohrabacher apparently explained his 2016 meeting with Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin by “acknowledging” that they were probably spies.

In testimony before the Committee, Congressman Rohrabacher acknowledged that he met Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin on previous occasions, but that in April 2016, he was traveling as part of a Congressional delegation and encountered them by chance at the hotel lobby of the Ritz Carlton in St. Petersburg. He acknowledged that they were probably spies and probably knew the Congressman would be there. HPSCI Executive Session Interview with Dana Rohrabacher, December 21, 2017.

*I’ve been informed Bochkarev is Chaika’s chief of staff. So not him directly, but close to it.

Counterintelligence versus Criminal: George Papadopoulos

While I was playing in an undisclosed location in Europe, Chuck Ross wrote two stories based off access to people in the immediate vicinity of George Papadopoulos.

The first purports to answer whether Papadopoulos [thinks he] colluded with Russia. The second reports that someone with close ties to CIA and MI6 reached out to Papadopoulos after the US government learned of Papadopoulos’ comments to Alexander Downer about Hillary emails.

There’s a funny movement between the two. In the first, Ross feigns concern about how long it took the FBI to reach out to Papadopoulos after learning of his email conversation.

Papadopoulos was not interviewed by FBI agents until Jan. 27, 2017, nearly six months after the start of the investigation. That six month delay is puzzling to both congressional investigators and to Papadopoulos. He has wondered to associates why, if he was actually suspected of conspiring with the Russian government, the bureau would have waited so long to contact him.

He doesn’t mention, of course, that the FBI reached out to Papadopoulos just one week after the presidential transition period — which Papadopoulos played a role in — ended. That is, there was virtually no delay between the time Papadopoulos separated from Trump’s retinue and the FBI investigated. That doesn’t feed the poutrage about FBI’s investigation of politics, however, and so goes unmentioned.

Meanwhile, the second piece expresses shock that someone tied into Anglo-American intelligence reached out to Papadopoulos, Page, and one other Trump aide during the election.

Two months before the 2016 election, George Papadopoulos received a strange request for a meeting in London, one of several the young Trump adviser would be offered — and he would accept — during the presidential campaign.

The meeting request, which has not been reported until now, came from Stefan Halper, a foreign policy expert and Cambridge professor with connections to the CIA and its British counterpart, MI6.

Halper’s September 2016 outreach to Papadopoulos wasn’t his only contact with Trump campaign members. The 73-year-old professor, a veteran of three Republican administrations, met with two other campaign advisers, The Daily Caller News Foundation learned.

Papadopoulos questioned Halper’s motivation for contacting him, according to a source familiar with Papadopoulos’ thinking. That’s not just because of the randomness of the initial inquiry but because of questions Halper is said to have asked during their face-to-face meetings in London.

According to a source with knowledge of the meeting, Halper asked Papadopoulos: “George, you know about hacking the emails from Russia, right?”

While Ross focuses on the FBI investigation, which started as a counterintelligence investigation, he doesn’t mention the separate Task Force run out of CIA (or, for that matter, the Steele dossier, though given how shitty the dossier is on the hack-and-leak, I question whether that’s what this was).

In any case, there were several investigations, even within the US, and while law enforcement has certain squeamishness about engaging in politics, our foreign allies do not.

All that said, Ross provides details about Papadopoulos’ reported timeline and beliefs which are useful to understanding the events of 2016. Chief among those, he dates the meeting between Papadopoulos and Downer to May 10.

On around May 10, 2016, two weeks after the Mifsud meeting, Papadopoulos met with Downer at Kensington Gardens in London.

Ross also relays Papadopoulos’ reported belief that the emails floated by Joseph Mifsud were the deleted Clinton Foundation emails.

Papadopoulos has also said he believes that the emails in question were the 30,000-plus emails that Clinton deleted in Dec. 2014 before turning her State Department emails over to the agency. Clinton’s deleted records were a hot topic of debate during the 2016 presidential campaign, well before WikiLeaks began releasing emails that were stolen from the DNC and Clinton campaign.

This is entirely unsurprising (and useful for Papadopoulos to have out there). It means Papadopoulos doesn’t claim to have had more advance details about the stolen Hillary emails, and instead just assumed Mifsud (and his sources) were responding to the burning issue of the day, the Hillary investigation.

The confirmation that the Republicans had early likely been fed an expectation they might have gotten those emails provides important insight on the later Peter Smith effort to get those emails, the reported outreach by people associated with the campaign to Guccifer 2.0 to get those emails, and Guccifer 2.0’s false claims to be leaking them. Papadopoulos likely confirmed to Mifsud that that’s what the Republicans thought of as valuable oppo research, and multiple later efforts focused on making Trump aides believe they would get them.

To understand just how much Ross’ sources were feeding an exonerating narrative, however, consider that he or they refused to say whether Papadopoulos passed on news of the emails to other campaign people.

Miller did not respond to the email, but it is unclear whether Papadopoulos told Miller, who currently works in the White House, or anyone else on the campaign about Mifsud’s comments about emails. TheDCNF’s sources did not say whether Papadopoulos told the campaign of Mifsud’s remarks.

Instead of the answer to the critical issue (to which we have good reason to suspect the answer, even if it hasn’t been confirmed), Ross instead passes on a non-denial denial of something Papadopoulos has never been accused of.

[S]ources familiar with Papadopoulos’ thinking say he has told associates he did not see, handle or disseminate Clinton emails.

Further, Ross claims there’s no evidence that meetings between Russia and the Trump campaign took place, in spite of the fact that Don Jr, Jared, and Trump’s campaign manager took a meeting 6 weeks after the emails-as-dirt got floated based on a promise they’d get dirt on Hillary.

There is no evidence that those meetings took place.

To back this no collusion claim, you’d have to prove both that none of the participants in the Trump Tower meeting had heard about Papadopoulos promise of emails (in spite of Don Jr’s reference to “if it’s what I think it is”), and you’d have to prove that the Russians didn’t consider a meeting with the campaign manager a high level meeting.

George Papadopoulos does not, by himself, prove “collusion.” But neither does this transparent attempt to deny collusion by issuing a non-denial denial disprove it. Moreover, it was never going to be the case that one person — not even Paul Manafort, not even Michael Cohen, possibly not even Trump himself — would offer the Rosetta stone on what happened in 2016.

Bannon Aims to Best Jared Kushner’s Biggest Mistake in Modern Political History

Back in September, Steve Bannon agreed on 60 Minutes that firing Jim Comey was the stupidest decision in modern political history.

In a “60 Minutes” interview that was posted online Sunday night, Bannon was asked whether he considered Comey’s dismissal — which ignited a political firestorm and directly led to the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election, including potential ties to Trump’s campaign — the biggest mistake in political history.

Bannon responded, “That would be probably — that probably would be too bombastic even for me, but maybe modern political history.

“He went on to acknowledge that if Comey had not been let go, it’s unlikely that the probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller would have been established.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that if James Comey had not been fired, we would not have a special counsel, yes,” he said. “We would not have the Mueller investigation. We would not have the Mueller investigation and the breadth that clearly Mr. Mueller is going for.”

At that time, Bannon insisted that he faced no risk from even the expanded Mueller investigation, and hadn’t even lawyered up.

All that changed, of course, after he ran his mouth to Michael Wolff. Bannon claimed to be offended by the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting. In his apology he would even say the entire meeting offended his life’s work making movies about fighting “the evil empire.”

“My comments about the meeting with Russian nationals came from my life experiences as a Naval officer stationed aboard a destroyer whose main mission was to hunt Soviet submarines to my time at the Pentagon during the Reagan years when our focus was the defeat of ‘the evil empire’ and to making films about Reagan’s war against the Soviets and Hillary Clinton’s involvement in selling uranium to them.”

But what really irked Bannon is that when Don Jr, Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner met with Russians in an effort to obtain dirt on Hillary Clinton, they didn’t use lawyers as cutouts.

“The chance that Don Jr. did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor is zero,” said an astonished and derisive Bannon, not long after the meeting was revealed.

“The three senior guys in the campaign,” an incredulous Bannon went on, “thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the twenty-fifth floor—with no lawyers. They didn’t have any lawyers. Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately. Even if you didn’t think to do that, and you’re totally amoral, and you wanted that information, you do it in a Holiday Inn in Manchester, New Hampshire, with your lawyers who meet with these people and go through everything and then they verbally come and tell another lawyer in a cut-out, and if you’ve got something, then you figure out how to dump it down to Breitbart or something like that, or maybe some other more legitimate publication. You never see it, you never know it, because you don’t need to. . . . But that’s the brain trust that they had.”

On Monday, the home, hotel, and office of the lawyer Trump has long used as such a cutout, Michael Cohen, got raided. Among the things the FBI sought — in addition to information on Cohen’s own corrupt business — were communications Trump and that lawyer and others had about the Access Hollywood video.

FBI agents who raided the home, office and hotel of Donald Trump’s personal lawyer sought communications that Trump had with attorney Michael Cohen and others regarding the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape that captured Trump making lewd remarks about women a month before the election, according to sources familiar with the matter.

[snip]

The search warrant also sought communications between then-candidate Trump and his associates regarding efforts to prevent disclosure of the tape, according to one of the sources. In addition, investigators wanted records and communications concerning other potential negative information about the candidate that the campaign would have wanted to contain ahead of the election. The source said the warrant was not specific about what this additional information would be. [my emphasis]

Bannon — and Marc Kasowitz, who sent a lawyer to meet with Trump in the wake of news of the raid — was probably among those associates. After all, Bannon also told Wolff that he and Kasowitz had to deal with a number of “near-death problems on the campaign” pertaining to women — like Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal — making legal threats against Trump.

Unable to hire prestige talent, Bannon turned to one of the president’s longtime hit-man lawyers, Marc Kasowitz. Bannon had previously bonded with Kasowitz when the attorney had handled a series of near-death problems on the campaign, including dealing with a vast number of allegations and legal threats from an ever growing list of women accusing Trump of molesting and harassing them.

Now, Steve Bannon, the guy who claimed firing Jim Comey was the stupidest recent political decision, the guy who wasn’t so much opposed to political rat-fucking as he was opposed to doing it without using lawyers as a cutout, is shopping a new plan to get Trump out of his legal woes: fire Rod Rosenstein.

Stephen K. Bannon, who was ousted as White House chief strategist last summer but has remained in touch with some members of President Trump’s circle, is pitching a plan to West Wing aides and congressional allies to cripple the federal probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to four people familiar with the discussions.

The first step, these people say, would be for Trump to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who oversees the work of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and in recent days signed off on a search warrant of Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.

Bannon also wants to fire Ty Cobb, one of Trump’s remaining semi-legit lawyers, as part of an effort to invalidate all the testimony from White House officials — including himself!!!! — based on the claim it should have been covered by executive privilege.

And he is telling associates inside and outside the administration that the president should create a new legal battleground to protect himself from the investigation by asserting executive privilege — and arguing that Mueller’s interviews with White House officials over the past year should now be null and void.

“The president wasn’t fully briefed by his lawyers on the implications” of not invoking executive privilege, Bannon told The Washington Post in an interview Wednesday. “It was a strategic mistake to turn over everything without due process, and executive privilege should be exerted immediately and retroactively.”

[snip]

Bannon believes Trump can argue he was given poor counsel by his lawyers on Russia, including Ty Cobb, who has encouraged a cooperative approach to Mueller’s team.

“Ty Cobb should be fired immediately,” Bannon said.

I’m agnostic about whether the Access Hollywood video actually relates to the Russian investigation. If it does, the only conceivable reason to refer it to Southern District of NY would be to establish a clean team — but Mueller’s team has already handled interactions with investigations involving two lawyers and/or legal teams, Melissa Laurenza (who testified that Manafort led her to lie on FARA forms), and Skadden Arps. I do think it possible — highly likely, actually — that Cohen may have been used as a cutout in some hotel room in New England to cover-up other sensitive issues.

But given Bannon’s response, the investigation into Cohen’s cover-up of Trump’s problems with women — including both the Access Hollywood tape and the legal negotiations with Daniels and McDougal — probably implicates Bannon as well as Cohen.

And so Bannon wants to do what Kushner did when he, similarly, realized how much a legal investigation jeopardized him personally: fire the guy running the investigation.

Indeed, Bannon seems so panicked he can’t even remember that such moves rank among the stupidest in modern political history.

Update: One more thing about the Stormy/McDougal/Access investigation. That may come directly out of Bannon’s own testimony, which would explain why he’d want to try to invalidate it.

The Papadopoulos Interfax Interview and Another Syria Data Point

The other day, the WaPo had a story reviewing the larger role in the Trump campaign George Papadopoulos had than the Trump folks admit. Much of this work has appeared elsewhere, but I’m particularly interested in the WaPo’s account of the direction Deputy Comms Director Brian Lanza gave to George Papadopoulos regarding an Interfax interview he would do. He emphasized that the campaign wanted the message that it wanted a partnership with Russia on Syria.

When a Russian news agency reached out to George Papadopoulos to request an interview shortly before the 2016 election, the young adviser to then-
candidate Donald Trump made sure to seek approval from campaign headquarters.

“You should do it,” deputy communications director Bryan Lanza urged Papadopoulos in a September 2016 email, emphasizing the benefits of a U.S. “partnership with Russia.”

[snip]

“Received a request from Interfax Russian News Agency with Ksenia Baygarova on U.S.-Russia ties under a President Trump. What do you think?” he wrote to Lanza on Sept. 9, 2016. “If the campaign wants me to do it, can answer similar to the answers I gave in April while in Israel.”

Lanza gave the go-ahead, citing the conflict in Syria as a reason to work with the Russians. Papadopoulos then offered to send the campaign a copy of the interview after it was published.

“You’re the best. Thank you!” Lanza responded.

Lanza declined to comment.

In the interview, published Sept. 30, 2016, Papadopoulos told the Russian media outlet that Trump had been “open about his willingness to usher in a new chapter in U.S.-Russia ties,” specifically citing the need for cooperation in Syria.

As WaPo notes, the resulting interview is one Papadopoulos made sure Ivan Timofeev saw, in what may be part of a signaling process to Russia on Trump policy questions. In it, Papadopoulos specifically came out against regime change, one of the US policies Putin especially loathes.

Q.: Do you share the opinion that the Assad regime should be immediately removed from power in Syria?

A.: We do not support aggressive changes of regimes anywhere including Syria. Look what had happened in Lybia and Iraq. We all remember this. However, it does not mean that we support Assad either.

Syria was key in other signaling — and in Jared’s top policy priorities immediately after the election.

The focus on Syria is key: remember that Jared Kushner explained his request to Sergei Kislyak for a Russian-run secure back challenge as an effort to cooperate on Syria.

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

So it’s possible the attacks on Hillary’s Syria policy were a signal — as the earlier speech’s call for engagement with Russia apparently was — to Timofeev.

The Papadopoulos interview was published on September 30, just 11 days before Don Jr. flew to Paris to meet with some pro-Russian Syrians.

One meeting that Donald Trump Jr. has not fully explained is a speech in Paris on October 11, 2016, just weeks before the election.

In his capacity as a key member of the Trump campaign, Trump Jr. spoke at the meeting at the request of a French think tank, The Center of Political and Foreign Affairs. Trump Jr. was likely paid about $50,000 for the speech, according to the speaking fees listed by talent booking agency that represents him.

The CFPR has a reputation in the French press as being “openly connected to the Russians.” It is difficult, however, to track just how connected they are, as France does not require it’s nonprofit organizations to disclose their finances.

The founders of the center have worked closely with the Russian government to end the conflict in Syria and in 2016, nominated Russian President Vladimir for the Nobel Peace Prize. The center’s director, Fabien Baussart, has been described as “a former lobbyist for Russian oligarchs in France.” He cited Putin’s “peace-making efforts” as reason for his nomination. One of the founders, Baussart’s wife Randa Kassis, heads a political party called the Movement for a Pluralistic Society, which is in part endorsed by Russia in support of Syrian president Bashar al-Asssad.

Now we know, then, that even at the level of flacks, the emphasis in this period was on publicizing (to Russians, in a Russian outlet) the Trump willingness to work together on Syria, and specifically to depart from US efforts to remove Assad.

 

Buried Amid the John Dowd News, Mueller’s Team Seems to Think Trump Knows about the June 9 Meeting

I didn’t get a chance to unpack this story before John Dowd up and resigned. It lays out the four areas that Dowd was, until yesterday, negotiating with Mueller’s office regarding Trump’s testimony. It actually provides less detail than the WaPo and CNN stories I covered here. Those stories laid out that Mueller’s team was asking specific questions about:

Flynn’s Firing

  • Whether Trump knew about Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition?
  • What instructions, if any, the president gave Flynn about the contact?Whether he fired Flynn because he had misled Vice President Pence about his contact with Kislyak?

Comey’s Firing

  • Whether he fired Comey because he had mishandled an investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton?
  • What was Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ involvement in the Comey dismissal?

While far less detailed than those earlier articles, however, yesterday’s pre-Dowd departure story describes Mueller’s team asking questions about four areas (I’ve reordered these to make them chronological):

  1. The circumstances surrounding [the June 9, 2016] Trump Tower meeting
  2. The President’s role in crafting a statement aboard Air Force One that miscast Donald Trump Jr.’s campaign June 2016 meeting with Russians in Trump Tower
  3. The firing of national security adviser Michael Flynn
  4. The firing of FBI Director James Comey

It was this focus, according to CNN, that pissed Trump off because,

The focus on Trump himself in Mueller’s pursuits has alarmed and angered the President, who adhered to a legal strategy of holding back set by his attorney John Dowd and White House special counsel Ty Cobb, who have said for months the investigation was likely to conclude soon.

And now Dowd is gone and Ty Cobb is reportedly likely to follow him, to be replaced by table-pounders who will make noise rather than argue the facts.

Bullet 1 — seven words slipped into the CNN story between stuff we’ve long talked about Trump’s involvement in — ought to be blaring headlines.

BREAKING: “Robert Mueller’s prosecutors are going to ask the President about the circumstances surrounding the meeting at which some Russians, including representatives from Trump’s old business associate Aras Agalarov, pitched Junior, Jared, and Trump’s corrupt campaign manager, on dirt about Hillary in the context of relaxing sanctions,” the headline should have read.

Call me crazy. But I doubt Mueller’s team would ask the President about this unless they had reason to believe Trump knew something about it.

And that changes the import of the three other bullets dramatically.

For example, most people have assumed Bullet 2, Trump’s claim this meeting pertained to adoptions and not dirt-for-sactions, is about obstruction charges (Elizabeth de la Vega lays out how that might serve as the basis for one or another conspiracy charge here). But that ignores that Trump spent the weekend leading up to that statement meeting, twice, with Vladimir Putin, including that bizarre meeting over dinner with no babysitter right before the White House released the statement.

BREAKING: The President met twice with Vladimir Putin while he was taking the lead on responding to questions about a meeting we’re all pretending Trump knew nothing about, and then came out with the spin that Vladimir Putin would most likely give it, the designated Russian propaganda line to cover up its campaign against Magnitsky sanctions.

Which brings us to Bullet 3: Whether Trump (via KT McFarland serving as a go-between from Mar a Lago) ordered Flynn to ask Sergey Kislyak to hold off on responding to sanctions, and if so, why he fired Flynn for doing what he told him to do.

Trump surely didn’t fire Flynn because he lied to Mike Pence (if indeed he did lie). Did he fire Flynn because he didn’t lie about it, making an otherwise marginally legally problematic discussion a legally problematic issue? Or did he fire Flynn because he believed it was the most efficacious way to make the focus on his efforts to roll back sanctions on Russia go away?

Bullet 4. Mueller’s prosecutors want to know why, a day before the Russians showed up for a meeting at which Trump refused to have US press, Trump fired Comey, and then told the Russians,

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Mr. Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.”

Laid out like this, this is what Mueller’s four bullets might look like:

  1. What Trump knew about the dirt-for-sanctions relief deal his one-time business partner Aras Agalarov pitched
  2. Whether Trump gave his National Security Adviser orders to deliver that dirt-for-sanctions deal even before being inaugurated
  3. Why Trump fired Flynn if he was following his orders delivering on that dirt-for-sanctions deal
  4. What Trump meant when he said he fired Comey because firing him took care of the great pressure he had because of Russia

Even as Mueller was negotiating these four questions, Trump called up Putin, at which, according to the Kremlin, “It was agreed to develop further bilateral contacts in light of [the fact that Trump had just fired Rex Tillerson, the next guy standing in the way of fulfilling the dirt-for-sanctions relief deal]. The possibility of organizing a top-level meeting received special attention.” “We will probably get together in the not-too-distant future,” Trump said of the call on Tuesday. “I suspect that we’ll probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future,” he said a second time, a line that reportedly surprised his aides, another piece of news lost in the legal team shake-up. “I think, probably, we’ll be seeing President Putin in the not-too-distant future,” Trump said a third time in his public comments.

So now Dowd is gone, which is probably lucky for him because otherwise he’d be business negotiating over Bullet 5.

5. Why did Trump fire Rex Tillerson and how does that relate to this big new push to meet with Putin again?