Posts

Ron Johnson Grasping at Chum

Russian disinformation purveyor Ron Johnson and Chuck Grassley continue to serially demand and release documents from FBI in hopes of sustaining a buzz suggesting that Hillary was treated better than Donald Trump.

The latest batch is a hodgepodge. It purports to be,

messages from former FBI agent Peter Strzok related to Crossfire Hurricane, the FBI’s investigation of Trump campaign and administration officials, and the FBI’s “Midyear Exam” investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

But it is actually a hodgepodge, including texts pertaining to Guccifer 1.0, the ongoing hacks of the DNC, and other investigations pertaining to Russia, including the beginnings of a focus on Russia’s 2016 social media campaign. Some of the texts, such as one from October 21, 2016 about leaked Podesta emails involving Obama, don’t obviously involve Strzok at all.

There is no possible set of search terms that would return these texts. But they’re useful to compare with another more motivated set of texts released by the Jeffrey Jensen investigation that overlap with this one. Here’s a set of texts packaged up to justify blowing up the Flynn prosecution.

As a later filing to Judge Sullivan admitted, they were actually repackaged from the FBI original, and in the process an error was introduced into the document (adding the wrong time for the “Will do” text).

The set released to Johnson includes just a few of those texts, completely out of context.

But those texts reveal one reason why the Jensen texts were packaged up: to alter the UTC times to Eastern time, the kind of thing that, for trial exhibits, needs to be formally noticed. It’s the kind of thing Sullivan wouldn’t need to assess the evidence, but that would make the connections Jensen was trying to feed the public (some false) easier to put together.

Neither the Senators, their staff, nor the frothy right seem to have cared that these texts reflect a random grab bag to keep them occupied. Chuck Ross got himself in a tizzy, for example, because Strzok read the Michael Isikoff article reflecting information from Steele and determined that the Steele reports were “intended to influence as well as inform.”

In his rendition of the text, Ross claims that this means Strzok knew “Steele was a source” for the story. Of course, it means no such thing (and Ross had to mis-cite it to make the claim). It actually reflects that Strzok knew Steele’s reports were a source for the story, which was noticed to the FISA Court from the very first application, and so nothing we didn’t already know.

Then there’s the Federalist, which claims that this text proves the FBI was wiretapping calls between Fox News and George Papadopoulos.

The text is a copy of a text sent by someone else (that is, forwarded to the person who forwarded this to Strzok). It appears to come from Chicago (CG). Chicago was running an informant on Papadopoulos, who spoke quite a lot to him while being monitored. The most likely explanation for this is that after news about Sergei Millian was breaking (whose name is redacted in all these texts), Papadopoulos told the informant that Fox had reached out to him. In the same way Papadopoulos bragged falsely about meeting Russia’s ambassador and Putin’s niece, he may well have exaggerated the seniority of the person he spoke with.

Meanwhile, some of the texts provide needed content.

One text explains part of why Joe Pientka wrote up the briefing he gave Mike Flynn, Chris Christie, and Trump in August 2016: to capture what was said in case anyone leaked it.

He was wise to do so! Both Flynn and Trump would go on to make claims about what went on in the briefing, with Flynn falsely claiming that briefers said they disagreed with President Obama’s policies, claims that do not accord with the record — thus far — we’ve gotten of it.

And in January, amid a recurring discussion about how to organize the investigations — and exhibiting a concern that the multiple (Egypt, Flynn on Turkey, Papadopoulos and Israel) different CI concerns would turn into a Trump focused investigation rather than one focused on multiple legitimate concerns run by people with specific expertise to them — Strzok raised the risk of Flynn leaking. Flynn had a history of sharing classified information inappropriately. In one of the calls with Kislyak, Flynn offered up what kind of calls the Transition had been making (which might have been classified if it happened after inauguration).

Flynn: Yeah, there … there, I can tell you that there’s, uh, you know, a litany of countries that are … that we’re talking … I’m … I’m talking directly to. And … and that …

Kislyak: I see.

Flynn: Basically, just as I asked you.

With this disclosure, Flynn basically admitted to the Russians that Trump’s people were conducting a systematic effort to undermine Obama’s policy. And Kislyak just took at all in, letting Flynn run his mouth.

“I see.”

So at a time he would have been reviewing these transcripts and seeing how little filter Flynn had with a hostile country, Stzrok noted that the conversations with Kislyak or others could easily turn into an Espionage investigation, file code 65, if Flynn shared classified information.

There’s more, reflecting a real concern about the leaks that also (rightly) pissed off Trump, along with real efforts to chase them down.

But for now, DOJ and FBI appear to be throwing random shit Ron Johnson’s way to get through the end of the term, when he’ll no longer Chair HGSAC.

In His Mike Flynn Opinion, Emmet Sullivan Made a Finding of Fact Against Billy Barr’s New Reality

I’ve been unpacking the Judge Emmet Sullivan opinion dismissing Mike Flynn’s guilty verdicts.

This post lays out how Sullivan asserts authority to refuse the government’s motion to dismiss Flynn’s prosecution, but does not do so, because the question is moot.

This post shows that Sullivan laid out evidence that DOJ’s motion to dismiss was pretextual. He declined to rule that the motion itself was pretextual, because the question is moot. But he made it clear he thinks DOJ’s excuses for blowing up the Flynn prosecution are bullshit.

And this post notes that, before Sullivan started mooting the shit out of DOJ’s interest in his docket, he struck some documents that Sidney Powell had submitted to his docket because the government had not authenticated them, without at the same time striking another document that the government didn’t rely on but had not authenticated. It’s a tactical step, I think, that leaves everything else in his docket as authenticated, even though DOJ stopped short of standing by all those exhibits.

Before I get into what Sullivan says about Trump’s pardon power — which, make no mistake, Sullivan affirms as expansive — I’d like to lay out some findings of fact that Sullivan includes in this opinion. He includes a number of other findings of fact that are tangential to the question of a pardon but which Bill Barr and Donald Trump have staked a lot on. He does so, he explains, because the government has invited him to.

The Court is mindful that it is “particularly ill-suited” to reviewing the strength of the case. Wayte v. United States, 470 U.S. 598, 607 (1985); see also In re United States, 345 F.3d 454, 455 (7th Cir. 2003) (finding that the trial court’s belief that “the evidence was strong and conviction extremely likely” was an inappropriate basis to deny leave). That said, the role of the Court is to conduct an “examination of the record” in order to ensure that the government’s “efforts to terminate the prosecution [are not] tainted with impropriety.” Rinaldi, 434 U.S. at 30. Moreover, the Court examines the factual basis underlying the government’s reasons because not doing so would amount to rubber stamping the government’s decision, contrary to the requirement of Rule 48(a). Here, the government has invited the Court’s examination of its evidence. See Hr’g Tr., ECF No. 266 at 42:22-43:1 (stating that “we’re completely unafraid here to address . . . the specifics as to why we thought we needed to dismiss this case. . . . we’d be happy to go through the evidence.”). Accordingly, the Court will briefly address some of the evidence the government points to as it is troubled by the apparently pretextual nature of certain aspects of the government’s ever-evolving justifications. See Foster v. Chatman, 136 S. Ct. 1737, 1751 (2016) (“[T]he prosecution’s principal reasons for the strike shifted over time, suggesting that those reasons may be pretextual.”).

The findings of fact Sullivan addresses primarily come in this paragraph on materiality… [my numbering throughout]

Several of the government’s arguments regarding materiality also appear to be irrelevant or to directly contradict previous statements the government has made in this case. For example, as Mr. Gleeson points out, many of the “bureaucratic formalities” [1] the government asserts reveal the “confusion and disagreement about the purpose and legitimacy of the interview and its investigative basis”—such as the drafting of the FBI’s Closing Communication or internal conversations between FBI and Department of Justice officials regarding whether to notify the Trump administration of Mr. Flynn’s false statements—are not relevant to proving materiality. See Amicus Reply Br., ECF No. 243 at 19. Nor is it [2] relevant whether Mr. Flynn was an “agent of Russia” or guilty of some other crime at the time he made the false statements. Furthermore, while the government argues that, “since the time of [Mr. Flynn’s guilty] plea, [3] extensive impeaching materials had emerged about key witnesses the government would need to prove its case,” Gov’t’s Reply, ECF No. 227 at 35; the government had been aware of much of this evidence since early on in the case, see, e.g., Gov’t’s Response Def.’s Mot. Compel, ECF No. 122 at 8-9.

And this passage assessing the evidence that Flynn’s lies were lies.

[4] With regard to the “inconsistent records” rationale, the government has not pointed to evidence in the record in this case that contradicts the FD-302 that memorialized the FBI agents’ interview with Mr. Flynn. Furthermore, the government’s reliance on Director Comey’s opinion about whether Mr. Flynn lied is suspect given that Director Comey was not present at the interview and that there are valid questions regarding the admissibility of his personal opinion.

With regard to Mr. Flynn’s alleged “faulty memory,” Mr. Flynn is not just anyone; he was the National Security Advisor to the President, clearly in a position of trust, [5] who claimed that he forgot, within less than a month, that he personally asked for a favor from the Russian Ambassador that undermined the policy of the sitting President prior to the President-Elect taking office. With regard to the government’s concerns about the Assistant Director for Counter Intelligence’s contemplating the goal of the interview, [6] an objective interpretation of the notes in their entirety does not call into question the legitimacy of the interview. Finally, and critically, under the terms of Mr. Flynn’s cooperation agreement, [7] the government could have used his admissions at trial, see Plea Agreement, ECF No. 3 at 8 ¶ 11; but the government ignores this powerful evidence.

In these passages, District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan finds as fact that:

  1. The government’s assertion that there was confusion surrounding Mike Flynn’s interview does not change that his lies were material.
  2. DOJ’s [draft] conclusion that Flynn was not an agent of Russia does not change that his lies were material.
  3. The evidence impeaching Peter Strzok and others does not change that Flynn’s lies were material (and, as Sullivan notes, even the government agreed before Flynn pled guilty).
  4. Nothing in the public record substantiates that the 302 of Janaury 24, 2017 Flynn’s interview does not accurately reflect what happened in the interview.
  5. Flynn’s claims to be forgetful are not consistent with the fact that, as the incoming National Security Advisor, he personally asked Sergey Kislyak to undermine President Obama’s policy before Trump took office.
  6. Nothing in Bill Priestap’s notes call into question the legitimacy of the Mike Flynn interview.
  7. The government could have relied on Mike Flynn’s admissions at trial.

One way to think about this language is that Billy Barr attempted to create a new set of facts by submitting documents from the Jeffrey Jensen investigation to Sullivan’s docket and making false claims about them, thereby attempting to annul the set of facts that led DOJ (even DOJ under Bill Barr, repeatedly) to argue that Mike Flynn’s lies were serious. Judge Sullivan is having none of Billy Barr’s new reality, in significant part because DOJ has not explained what changed from its prior assertions of fact and partly because none of the claims it has made about the so-called new evidence refutes DOJ’s prior representations.

These findings of fact may have a more specific effect, though. Billy Barr has served up his different set of facts and based off those, John Durham is attempting to criminalize the decisions of the people that prosecuted Mike Flynn for telling the FBI material lies. DOJ generally has no basis to appeal Sullivan’s findings, because its position in the docket is (as Sullivan notes repeatedly) moot. But Durham has even less ability to contest Sullivan’s findings of fact; he has no standing.

So unless DOJ finds a way around the fact that they themselves have mooted any further involvement before Judge Sullivan, then, any further investigation into the circumstances of Flynn’s prosecution will have to contend with the fact that a judge has already found a number of key premises entertained by those pushing the investigation into the investigation to be false.

At least as of right now, it is not relevant to Trump’s pardon of Mike Flynn. But one thing Sullivan did in his opinion was to reject Billy Barr’s new reality in a way that may be invoked for any related matters before DC District courts.

Before He Mooted DOJ’s Motions in the Mike Flynn Case, Emmet Sullivan Treated DOJ’s Authentication as Official

I’m writing a bunch of posts on Judge Emmet Sullivan’s order dismissing Mike Flynn’s prosecution as moot.

This post laid out how Sullivan established that he has the authority to rule against DOJ’s motion to dismiss the Flynn case, but declined to do so because the question is moot

This post laid out the evidence Sullivan laid out that DOJ’s motion to dismiss was pretextual. He declined to rule that the motion itself was pretextual, because the question is moot. But he made it clear he thinks DOJ’s excuses for blowing up the Flynn prosecution are bullshit.

As I noted, because the order itself moots all pending DOJ issues in the docket, the government would have a hard time appealing either of those issues, especially given that Sullivan didn’t ultimately rule on them. DOJ has no business making requests in this docket because the matter on which they have primacy, prosecutions, has been mooted by Trump’s pardon. Sullivan has reclaimed authority over his docket.

In this post, I’d like to look at something tactical Judge Sullivan did just before he started mooting DOJ’s role, which looks like this in the docket.

Before he ruled on the pardon, Judge Sullivan first struck four exhibits from the docket:

  • 228-2: Some texts involving Peter Strzok
  • 228-4: Sidney Powell’s submission of a motion from Amaro Goncalves
  • 228-5: Sidney Powell’s submission of a motion involving Ted Stevens
  • 248-1: Some texts from FBI intelligence analysts

With the exception of the last of these, these aren’t that important — as I noted in this post, Sidney Powell’s submission of prior filings from other lawyers is the rare moment when she can be relied on to be more accurate than the government (or any bum off the street). But by striking those other four exhibits, this order makes clear that Judge Sullivan considers the claims in this DOJ filing to be operative.

Interestingly, Sullivan did not strike a different exhibit — basically some Strzok and Page texts DOJ repackaged to be assholes — which are referred to in the paragraph before the one excepting out those four (which I’ve italicized), which DOJ treats as the same, stuff they’re not relying on, but which they do not decline to authenticate.

On September 2018, the DC-USAO received from the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General a complete set of the text messages between OGC Attorney Lisa Page and DAD Peter Strzok. As the Court is well-aware, the government first disclosed the existence of these text messages to Mr. Flynn on November 30, 2017. Thereafter, the government provided excerpts of these text messages and links to publicly available compilations of these communications to Mr. Flynn on March 13, 2018, June 24, 2018, October 28, 2019, and April 29, 2020. On September 23, 2020, the government provided Mr. Flynn with additional text messages from the set it had received from the OIG in September 2018. The government is not relying on these additional text messages in support of its motion to dismiss.

The government also notes that there are Discovery Documents attached to Mr. Flynn’s filings that it has not authenticated for the purpose of this filing because those documents were not relied upon by the government in its motion to dismiss or arguments in support thereof. See ECF Nos. 228-2, 228-4, 228-5, and 248-1.

Effectively then, Sullivan has struck stuff submitted by Flynn’s lawyers that DOJ was not relying on, but not stuff DOJ submitted that it said it was not relying upon.

Sullivan left on the docket a bunch of filings that DOJ fell far short of validating in its filing, as laid out here, including the filings that DOJ altered. But he also made it clear that that filing authenticating exhibits in his docket does remain operative.

Judge Sullivan Calls Bullshit on DOJ’s Pretextual Reasons for Blowing Up the Mike Flynn Prosecution

As described in this post, Judge Emmet Sullivan dismissed Mike Flynn’s prosecution as moot. In his opinion dismissing the case, he asserted his authority to weigh whether DOJ’s motion to dismiss Flynn’s prosecution was in the public interest, while stopping short of doing so since the decision is moot. That part of the opinion affirmed District court authority to weigh whether DOJ has done something corrupt in blowing up Mike Flynn’s plea.

Along the way, Sullivan made it quite clear he believed that DOJ was lying about their two main excuses for blowing up Flynn’s prosecution — that his lies weren’t material nor were they clearly lies.

Given this context, the new legal positions the government took in its Rule 48(a) motion and at the motion hearing raise questions regarding its motives in moving to dismiss. The government advances two primary reasons8 justifying dismissing the case based on its assessment of the strength of the case: (1) it would be difficult to prove the materiality of Mr. Flynn’s false statements beyond a reasonable doubt; and (2) it would be difficult to prove the falsity of those statements beyond a reasonable doubt. See Gov’t’s Reply, ECF No. 227 at 31. As explained below, the Court finds both stated rationales dubious to say the least, arguably overcoming the strong presumption of regularity that usually attaches to prosecutorial decisions.

Sullivan argues Flynn’s lies were material under the DC circuit’s standard

As Sullivan laid out, in their efforts to justify blowing up the Mike Flynn prosecution, the government adopted a totally new standard for materiality.

In making its arguments, however, the government relies on a newly-minted definition of “materiality” that is more circumscribed than the standard in this Circuit. The government describes the materiality threshold as requiring more than “mere ‘relevance’”; rather, the false statement must have “probative weight” and be “reasonably likely to influence the tribunal in making a determination required to be made.” Gov’t’s Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 198 at 12-13 (quoting Weinstock v. United States, 231 F.2d 699, 701 (D.C. Cir. 1956)). Therefore, “[t]he materiality threshold thus ensures that misstatements to investigators are criminalized only when linked to the particular ‘subject of [their] investigation.’” Id. at 13 (quoting United States v. Kim, 808 F. Supp. 2d 44, 59 (D.D.C. 2011)).

After laying out what the standard really is — whether a lie is capable of affecting the general function of the FBI — Sullivan then notes that the government had previously argued that Flynn’s lies were material.

Given the materiality threshold’s expansive scope, the government’s new use of the narrowed definition of “materiality” is perplexing, particularly given that the government has previously argued in this case that the materiality standard required only that a statement have a “natural tendency to influence, or [be] capable of influencing.” See Gov’t’s Surreply Def.’s Reply Support Mot. Compel, ECF No. 132 at 10-11. The government, for its part, offers no response as to why it relies on this new, more stringent definition. Nor does the government direct the Court’s attention to any other case in which it has advanced this highly-constrained interpretation of materiality as applied to a false statements case.

He then lays out how — going even further — DOJ claimed it didn’t need to adhere to any standard of law, much less the precedent for this circuit. Sullivan uses that to argue that the government has lost the presumption of regularity.

Notably, during the September 29, 2020 motion hearing, the government seemed to suggest that, when moving for dismissal of an action pursuant to Rule 48(a), the government need not refer to the correct materiality standard at all when determining whether a false statement is “material.” See Hr’g Tr., ECF No. 266 at 78:21-79:3 (“[W]hen we move to dismiss, the question in our mind is not what is the legal standard of materiality for whether the evidence here will be sufficient to sustain a conviction on appeal. The question is whether we, the Department of Justice, think this evidence is material . . . .”). In view of the government’s previous argument in this case that Mr. Flynn’s false statements were “absolutely material” because his false statements “went to the heart” of the FBI’s investigation, the government’s about-face, without explanation, raises concerns about the regularity of its decision-making process.

Importantly (as I’ll return to), the opinion engages in a page-long discussion about the bullshit excuses DOJ has floated to argue these lies weren’t material.

Several of the government’s arguments regarding materiality also appear to be irrelevant or to directly contradict previous statements the government has made in this case. For example, as Mr. Gleeson points out, many of the “bureaucratic formalities” the government asserts reveal the “confusion and disagreement about the purpose and legitimacy of the interview and its investigative basis”—such as the drafting of the FBI’s Closing Communication or internal conversations between FBI and Department of Justice officials regarding whether to notify the Trump administration of Mr. Flynn’s false statements—are not relevant to proving materiality. See Amicus Reply Br., ECF No. 243 at 19. Nor is it relevant whether Mr. Flynn was an “agent of Russia” or guilty of some other crime at the time he made the false statements. Furthermore, while the government argues that, “since the time of [Mr. Flynn’s guilty] plea, extensive impeaching materials had emerged about key witnesses the government would need to prove its case,” Gov’t’s Reply, ECF No. 227 at 35; the government had been aware of much of this evidence since early on in the case, see, e.g., Gov’t’s Response Def.’s Mot. Compel, ECF No. 122 at 8-9.

Sullivan closes that section by reasserting the standard that the government can’t just invent bullshit to justify its decisions.

Under Ammidown, the Court must be satisfied that the government undertook a “considered judgment,” 497 F.2d at 620; and asserting a factual basis that is largely irrelevant to meeting any legal threshold likely does not meet this standard.

Sullivan debunks DOJ’s claims that Flynn may not have lied

Then Sullivan debunks DOJ’s claims that there was any doubt that Flynn lied, focusing primarily on the import of the fact that Peter Strzok and Joe Pientka didn’t believe he exhibited signs of lying when walking out of the interview. Primarily, this discussion focuses on how the claim is legally irrelevant and conflicts with what DOJ has said in the past.

The government’s second rationale is that it “does not believe it could prove that Mr. Flynn knowingly and willfully made a false statement beyond a reasonable doubt.” Gov’t’s Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 198 at 18; see also Gov’t’s Reply, ECF No. 227 at 38-39. To support this rationale, the government initially pointed to the fact, which was known at the time Mr. Flynn pled guilty, that the FBI agents who interviewed him did not think he was lying, and it also noted the “equivocal” or “indirect” nature of Mr. Flynn’s responses. Gov’t’s Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 198 at 18. The government further contends that evidentiary problems have “emerged” including: (1) “inconsistent FBI records as to the actual questions and statements made,” id. at 19; (2) “Director [James] Comey’s own sentiment that the case was a ‘close one,’” id. (quoting Ex. 5 to Gov’t’s Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 198); and (3) “substantial impeaching materials on the key witnesses,”9 Gov’t’s Reply, ECF No. 227 at 39.

[snip]

As an initial matter, whether or not the FBI agents thought Mr. Flynn was lying is irrelevant in a false statements case. See Brogan v. United States, 522 U.S. 398, 402 (1998). And the government has not explained how evidence that the government previously stated was “consistent and clear,” Gov’t’s Surreply, ECF No. 132 at 4-5; suddenly became “equivocal” or “indirect.” With regard to the “inconsistent records” rationale, the government has not pointed to evidence in the record in this case that contradicts the FD-302 that memorialized the FBI agents’ interview with Mr. Flynn.

Sullivan then goes on to debunk a lot of the other bullshit DOJ threw into his docket. I’ll return to this. But the important point is that Sullivan relied on DOJ’s past assertions to debunk the claims that DOJ later threw up.

Having reviewed DOJ’s two substantive excuses for blowing up Flynn’s prosecution, Sullivan suggests they’ve forfeited the presumption of regularity they’d need to convince him to dismiss Mike Flynn’s prosecution, but ultimately avoids saying whether he would have rejected their request or not because the question is moot.

Again, under Ammidown, the Court must be satisfied that the government undertook a “considered judgment.” 497 F.2d at 620. Asserting factual bases that are irrelevant to the legal standard, failing to explain the government’s disavowal of evidence in the record in this case, citing evidence that lacks probative value, failing to take into account the nature of Mr. Flynn’s position and his responsibilities, and failing to address powerful evidence available to the government likely do not meet this standard.

Thus, the application of Rule 48(a) to the facts of this case presents a close question. However, in view of the President’s decision to pardon Mr. Flynn, Mr. Flynn’s acceptance of the pardon, and for the reasons stated in the following section, the appropriate resolution is to deny as moot the government’s motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 48(a).

So first Sullivan laid out that he had the authority to decide, but stopped short of deciding because the question is moot. Then he laid out abundant reason why DOJ had forfeited the presumption of regularity such that their rationale for asking that the case be dismissed would otherwise have to be accepted, but once again stops short of ruling, because the question is moot.

He has the authority to decide but won’t because the question is moot.

He shows all the evidence that the government is full of shit, but does not rule as such, because the question is moot.

Because the government has very little way to appeal either of these rulings, the rest of the opinion (and the steps Sullivan took to get there) will likely never be appealed. Sullivan has laid a record out that almost certainly cannot be challenged. He has used the mootness of the question as a shield to lay out two key judgments: that he could decide, and that he could have decided against the government.

Judge Sullivan Uses Mike Flynn Dismissal to Emphasize His Own Authority

Judge Emmet Sullivan just dismissed, as moot, the prosecution of Mike Flynn (he did not dismiss the case with prejudice, as DOJ had asked, but that likely does not matter). He did three things, which I’ll take in turn in a series of posts.

First, he asserted the ability to deny DOJ’s motion to dismiss — while stopping short of doing so — in a way that DOJ might otherwise appeal if this were not mooted.

As a reminder, when Bill Barr interfered in this prosecution in May, he ceded that Judge Sullivan had some say over the dismissal. But along the way DOJ repeatedly argued that Sullivan couldn’t actually examine the circumstances of the dismissal. In this opinion, Sullivan asserted the ability to weigh just that. He made it clear that the Supreme Court intended courts to have a say.

Despite the Supreme Court’s concerns, the Advisory Committee’s final draft of Rule 48(a) again required only that prosecutors submit a statement of reasons for dismissal. See Frampton, Why Do Rule 48(a) Dismissals Require “Leave of Court”?, supra, at 36-37. However, in promulgating the rule, the Supreme Court deleted this requirement and added the requirement that the prosecutor obtain leave of court. Id. at 37; see also Ammidown, 497 F.2d at 620. In so doing, the Court made it “manifestly clear that [it] intended to clothe the federal courts with a discretion broad enough to protect the public interest in the fair administration of criminal justice.” Cowan, 524 F.2d at 512.

He then invokes Ammidown for the principle that the court can weigh whether these actions are in the public interest.

This Circuit’s precedent is consistent with this history. For example, in Ammidown, the D.C. Circuit acknowledged that Rule 48(a) “gives the court a role” when “the defendant concurs in the dismissal but the court is concerned whether the action sufficiently protects the public.” 497 F.2d at 620. The D.C. Circuit explained that courts carry out this role in such a situation “to prevent abuse of the uncontrolled power of dismissal previously enjoyed by prosecutors.” Id. (citation omitted).

He then addresses DOJ’s argument that Fokker only gives District courts the ability to protect a defendant, not to protect public interest, arguing that it is not on point here, because this involved a guilty plea.

Despite this language in Ammidown, however, the government relies on United States v. Fokker Services B.V., 818 F.3d 733 (D.C. Cir. 2016), to argue that judicial intervention is warranted only when the defendant objects to dismissal because “the ‘principal object of the leave of court requirement’ has been understood to be a narrow one—‘to protect a defendant against prosecutorial harassment.’” Gov’t’s Reply, ECF No. 227 at 20-21 (quoting Fokker, 818 F.3d at 742).

But Fokker does not address the Court’s authority to consider an unopposed Rule 48(a) motion; it involved a deferred prosecution agreement rather than a guilty plea. Fokker, 818 F.3d at 737. Fokker also does not suggest that courts may only review opposed Rule 48(a) motions for prosecutorial harassment— the case simply quotes language from Rinaldi, stating that preventing harassment is the principal object of the rule. Id. at 742 (quoting Rinaldi, 434 U.S. at 29 n.15).

Importantly, Sullivan addressed a claim DOJ made that is not based on precedent — that the District does not have to operate as a rubber stamp, but his only role is to determine whether the entire Executive Branch supported an outcome. Sullivan made the case that a District court can still make a decision about the public interest, not just what the Executive wanted.

At the September 29, 2020 motion hearing, the government emphasized a different aspect of its argument. It conceded that the Court should not act as a rubber stamp and that it has a role to play when presented with an unopposed Rule 48(a) motion. Hr’g Tr., ECF No. 266 at 40:9-12. But, in the government’s view, this role is limited to determining whether “the decision to dismiss is the considered view, the authoritative view of the Executive Branch as a whole,” id.; rather than being the “rogue” decision of an individual prosecutor, id. at 99:16-23.7 The government argued that this standard appropriately reconciles the concerns about favoritism and pretext that led to the “leave of court” language in the Rule with the separation of powers principal that “the Executive Branch has exclusive authority and absolute discretion to decide whether to prosecute a case.” United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 693 (1974) (citation omitted); see also Fokker, 818 F.3d at 742 (“[D]ecisions to dismiss pending charges . . . lie squarely within the ken of prosecutorial discretion.”). The Court is not persuaded by the government’s argument, however, because it fails to acknowledge the possibility that the “considered view of the Executive Branch as a whole” could be contrary to the public interest.

In so doing, Sullivan makes the case that Districts can also review a case for prosecutorial abuse.

The court’s role is not “to serve merely as a rubber stamp for the prosecutor’s decision,” even when “the defendant concurs in the dismissal.” Ammidown, 497 F.2d at 620, 622. Rather, it is the court’s “duty to exercise a discretion for the protection of the public interest.” Cowan, 524 F.2d at 511. The trial court therefore conducts an “examination of the record” to ensure that the government’s “efforts to terminate the prosecution [are not] tainted with impropriety.” Rinaldi, 434 U.S. at 30.

Later in the opinion, Sullivan noted that because the government had chosen to give more than conclusory statements about why they wanted to dismiss the prosecution, he could weight those more substantive reasons.

The majority of the cases finding denial of leave appropriate based on “conclusory statements” most often involve motions providing only one or two sentences referring generally to the “public interest.” See, e.g., Derr, 726 F.2d at 619 (affirming denial of leave to dismiss when the government offered no reasons for dismissal other than that it would “best meet the ends of justice”). Here, on the other hand, the government has sought to justify its decision to seek dismissal by providing several reasons and facts underlying its decision. See id.

However, while not conclusory, many of the government’s reasons for why it has decided to reverse course and seek dismissal in this case appear pretextual, particularly in view of the surrounding circumstances.

Then, buried on page 25, Sullivan argues that District courts can rule against DOJ in these narrow circumstances to protect the public interest and reiterates the authority of courts to rule against the government in case of corruption.

With the above principles in mind, in response to the government’s motion to dismiss under Rule 48(a), the Court holds that a judge may deny an unopposed Rule 48(a) motion if, after an examination of the record, (1) she is not “satisfied that the reasons advanced for the proposed dismissal are substantial”; or (2) she finds that the prosecutor has otherwise “abused his discretion.” Ammidown, 497 F.2d at 620-22.

[snip]

In addition, as indicated by the history of Rule 48(a), the corrupt dismissal of politically well-connected individuals would also constitute an abuse of discretion. See Woody, 2 F.2d at 262.

So at a key level, the opinion lays out the principle that DOJ fought hard to deny — that judges have their own authority and they serve the public.

Since this case has been mooted, DOJ will have a very difficult time challenging this language (other DC District judges could rely on it going forward, but it is not a precedent). Sullivan, knowing that DOJ also had no more authority to challenge his order, asserted his authority.

This language, while not circuit precedent, may be cited going forward.

Failsons and Kraken Conspiracies: Three Mike Flynn Hypotheticals Trump May Have Tried to Preemptively Pardon

In a hearing in the BuzzFeed FOIA case today, Judge Reggie Walton (who always likes to chat about his conversations with his colleagues in the Prettyman judge’s dining room), said the Flynn pardon might be too broad.

U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said at a hearing Friday that he doesn’t think U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, his colleague presiding over the Flynn case, “has a lot of options in reference to what he does” after the pardon was granted, “unless he takes the position that the wording of the pardon is too broad, in that it provides protections beyond the date of the pardon.”

“I don’t know what impact that would have, what decision he would make, if he makes that determination that the pardon of Mr. Flynn is for a period that the law does not permit. I don’t know if that’s correct or not,” the judge continued. “Theoretically, the decision could be reached because the wording in the pardon seems to be very, very broad. It could be construed, I think, as extending protections against criminal prosecutions after the date the pardon was issued.”

“I don’t know if Judge Sullivan will make that determination or not,” Walton added.

Walton seemed to be suggesting that Sullivan might have a way to hold Flynn accountable in the future, unless the pardon as written is too broad.

That has set off a debate among Legal Twitter arguing what the pardon should mean, not what it does say.

To be sure, the first part of the Flynn pardon is undeniably valid. It pardons Flynn [I’ve added the numbers; which are different from the less helpful ones DOJ uses in their motion],

(1) for the charge of making false statements to Federal investigators, in violation of Section 1001, Title 18, United States Code, as charged in the information filed under docket number 1:17-CR-00232-EGS in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia; (2) for any and all possible offenses set forth in the Information and Statement of Offense filed under that docket number (3) or that might arise, or be charged, claimed, or asserted, in connection with the proceedings under that docket number

This is already too broad, for one reason I’ll get into. But on its face, that language pardons:

  1. The false statements as laid out in the criminal information
  2. The crime of being an undisclosed foreign agent for Turkey, lying to DOJ about it, and conspiring to lie about it
  3. The lies Flynn told Judge Emmet Sullivan in a bid to get out of his prior guilty allocutions

Those are, incidentally, the crimes laid out in the government’s motion to dismiss the case as moot.

The pardon not only encompasses the Section 1001 charge that is the subject of the government’s pending motion to dismiss (Doc. 198), but also any possible future perjury or contempt charge in connection with General Flynn’s sworn statements and any other possible future charge that this Court or the court-appointed amicus has suggested might somehow keep this criminal case alive over the government’s objection (e.g., a charge under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, Section 618(a), Title 22, United States Code, arising out of the facts set forth in the Statement of Offense).

There is nothing controversial about this part of the pardon (aside from the rank corruption of it). It is clear that the pardon is intended to and does cover those crimes that Flynn committed.

But the pardon goes beyond pardoning Flynn for those crimes. It also pardons Flynn for,

any and all possible offenses within the investigatory authority or jurisdiction of the Special Counsel appointed on May 17, 2017, including the initial Appointment Order No. 3915-2017 and subsequent memoranda regarding the Special Counsel’s investigatory authority; and any and all possible offenses arising out of facts and circumstances known to, identified by, or in any manner related to the investigation of the Special Counsel, including, but not limited to, any grand jury proceedings in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia or the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

As I noted, it purports to pardon Flynn for any crime that arises out of “facts … known to … the investigation of the Special Counsel,” any crime related to it, or anything arising from the grand juries (not time denominated or named) that investigated Flynn.

I think that is an attempt to stave off any crimes based off information collected as part of this investigation, even if the crime happens in the future. Here are three not-at-all unlikely scenarios:

Flynn reneges on his sworn testimony in a retrial against Bijan Kian in which Mike Flynn Jr also gets charged

Flynn’s partner, Bijan Kian, was found guilty of conspiring to lie about working for Turkey with Flynn in 2016. But then the judge in the case, Anthony Trenga, overturned that verdict. The government is appealing his order. One possible outcome of that appeal is that the government will retry Kian. With Flynn’s plea deal off the table, the government would be free to include Flynn Jr in any potential retrial.

Flynn testified to an EDVA grand jury, under oath, that he knew that he (and so by association, his son and Kian) were secretly working for the government of Turkey in 2016. Prosecutors made a last-ditch attempt to make Flynn a co-conspirator in Kian’s last trial. In a superseding indictment they could make him an unindicted co-conspirator (which would make his communications admissible without his testimony). But it would be very useful to have his testimony as well.

Normally, prosecutors could force a witness to hew to his grand jury testimony on penalty of perjury. In this case, however, Trump has purported to pardon Flynn for anything pertaining to that grand jury. If Flynn lied at trial, could he be charged?

The government discovers further evidence of Flynn’s work as a foreign agent by tying Mueller evidence to evidence withheld

In both the case of Trump outreach to Russia and the case of Flynn’s work with Ekim Alptekin, there’s reason to believe that Flynn and — in the former case — the Trump campaign succeeded in withholding information for the entirety of the Mueller investigation but which DOJ discovered afterwards (I won’t get into the details of what that is here — again, I’ll say more in January).

Flynn’s lies about this information to Mueller or EDVA prosecutors clearly are covered by the pardon.

But if the information reflected an ongoing relationship — existing even now! — with either Russia or Turkey, it would impose registration requirements on Flynn. The government might argue, however, that because these relationships began prior to the period of the Mueller investigation and might never have been discovered if not for the warrants and subpoenas used in the Mueller or EDVA investigations, they are therefore related and Flynn’s prospective failure to register is covered by his pardon. I’m suggesting that the government seems to want to set up a claim that anything that stems from the Mueller investigation would be fruit of a poisonous tree and immune from prosecution.

An ongoing Kraken conspiracy to pay off the pardon

Sometime in the summer, Sidney Powell told Trump not to pardon Flynn, something she entered into the docket before Sullivan by admitting it in the September hearing. She also admitted to Sullivan she had talked repeatedly to Trump’s campaign “lawyer” Jenna Ellis about Flynn’s case. In the following weeks after she spoke with Trump and Ellis, prosecutors fed her information from Jeffrey Jensen’s investigation — some of it altered — that ultimately served as part of a Trump attack on Joe Biden.

Then, after the election, Powell — at first claiming to be representing Trump — took a lead role in undermining the legal outcome of the election in multiple states. Almost immediately, purportedly because Trump believed that Sidney Powell made him look bad in a way that Rudy and Jenna Ellis and Joe DiGenova did not, Trump made clear to distance himself from Powell. The next day he pardoned Flynn. Days later, Flynn called for a coup to overturn the election.

Powell’s use of evidence in Flynn’s case to support false campaign attacks on Joe Biden is already irretrievably tied to Sullivan’s docket. Indeed, he now has real reason to question why Powell was talking with Ellis about this case, why (before the document alteration was discovered) she affirmatively asked Trump to hold off on the pardon only to embrace it later, and what tie there is between the altered documents and the attack Trump launched in the first debate against Biden. Judge Sullivan has reason to ask whether the fraud on the court in this docket is tied to some benefit for Trump, and whether that benefit in some way is tied to the pardon.

But if there is a tie, Sullivan (and Joe Biden’s DOJ) may have reason to ask whether this is a continuing conspiracy, whether Powell and Flynn’s actions after the pardon are part of delivering on a corrupt agreement made before the pardon. It is easy to see how the fraud on the court that remains before Sullivan could be tied to ongoing actions.

DOJ would seem to suggest that those actions, too, are covered by Trump’s pardon.

Again, all three of these scenarios are easily foreseeable. They are the actual fact patterns before Judge Sullivan and a potential Biden Administration.

John Durham Has Unaltered Copies of the Documents that Got Altered in the Flynn Docket

Bill Barr could come to regret his neat effort to place a ticking time bomb inside the Joe Biden DOJ, because John Durham has evidence in hand that Bill Barr’s DOJ tampered with documents.

I’ve been thinking … There’s something that doesn’t make sense about Bill Barr’s roll-out of the order making John Durham a Special Counsel. For the better part of a year, Barr has been saying that Durham could roll out actual indictments before the election, since none of the people he would indict were candidates. Yet Barr claimed, in his order, that he decided (not Durham) that, “legitimate investigative and privacy concerns warrant confidentiality” until after the election. And then he waited almost an entire month before he revealed the order. He did so in spite of adopting 28 CFR 600.9, which otherwise requires notice to Congress, to govern this appointment.

Let me interject and say that while Barr’s appointment of a DOJ employee, US Attorney John Durham, violates the Special Counsel statutes, that’s not the authority under which Barr appointed Durham. He did so under 28 USC 509, 510, 515, which is what Mueller was technically appointed under. Thanks to the Mueller investigation and some well-funded Russian troll lawyers, there’s a whole bunch of appellate language authorizing the appointment of someone under 28 USC 515 but governed under 28 CFR 600.9. The unusual nature of the appointment would provide President Biden’s Attorney General an easy way to swap Durham for Nora Dannehy (who as a non-departmental employee would qualify under the Special Counsel guidelines), and given her past involvement in the investigation, it should suffer no loss of institutional credibility or knowledge. But it doesn’t damage Durham’s legal authority in the meantime.

Barr probably lied about the significant reasons to delay notice to Congress. According to the AP, Durham is no longer focused on most of the scope he had been investigating, to include George Papadopoulos’ conspiracy theories and GOP claims that the CIA violated analytic tradecraft in concluding that Vladimir Putin affirmatively wanted Trump elected. He is, according to someone in the immediate vicinity of Barr, focused just on the conduct of FBI Agents before Mueller’s appointment, even though the language of this appointment approves far more.

The current investigation, a criminal probe, had begun very broadly but has since “narrowed considerably” and now “really is focused on the activities of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation within the FBI,” Barr said. He said he expects Durham would detail whether any additional prosecutions will be brought and make public a report of the investigation’s findings.

[snip]

A senior Justice Department official told the AP that although the order details that it is “including but not limited to Crossfire Hurricane and the investigation of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III,” the Durham probe has not expanded. The official said that line specifically relates to FBI personnel who worked on the Russia investigation before the May 2017 appointment of Mueller, a critical area of scrutiny for both Durham and for the Justice Department inspector general, which identified a series of errors and omissions in surveillance applications targeting a former Trump campaign associate.

The focus on the FBI, rather than the CIA and the intelligence community, suggests that Durham may have moved past some of the more incendiary claims that Trump supporters had hoped would yield allegations of misconduct, or even crimes — namely, the question of how intelligence agencies reached their conclusion that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election.

We know from the Jeffrey Jensen investigation and documents Barr otherwise released where Barr thought John Durham was heading. There are questions about who knew about credibility problems of Christopher Steele’s primary source Igor Danchenko (though the GOP has vastly overstated what his interview said, ignoring how much of the dossier it actually corroborated, Danchenko’s later interviews, and FBI’s later interviews of one of his own sources). There are some analysts who questioned the viability of the investigation into Flynn; it appears they asked to be removed from the team.

And Jensen, at least, seemed to want to claim that Peter Strzok got NSLs targeting Flynn in February and March 2017 that he had previously refused to approve. Someone seems to have convinced Flynn investigative agent Bill Barnett that those NSLs, which were lawyered by Kevin Clinesmith, were illegal, but given the predication needed for NSLs that seems a wild stretch. Plus, it would be unlikely (though not impossible) for Durham to indict Clinesmith without a Durham-specific cooperation agreement before if he believed Clinesmith had committed other crimes. I mean, it’s possible that Clinesmith, under threat of further prosecution, is claiming that mere NSLs are illegal, but I’d be surprised. Not least because after these NSLs, Strzok worked hard to put a pro-Trump FBI Agent in charge of the Flynn investigation.

Occam’s razor suggests that Durham asked for the special counsel designation because he wants to be permitted to work through these last bits and finish up the investigation, along with the prior authority (which Mueller did not have) to publish his findings.

Occam’s razor also suggests that the reason Barr didn’t reveal this change of status until this week has everything to do with pressure from Trump and nothing to do with investigative equities and everything to do with using this investigation like he has all of his US Attorney led investigations, as a way to placate Trump. Trump has reportedly been complaining that Barr didn’t do more to undermine the election, and so he rolled this out as a way to buy space and time.

Axios reports that it may not work. Trump might fire Barr and replace him with someone who would order that Durham report right away.

Behind the scenes: Within Trump’s orbit, sources told Axios, Tuesday’s revelation was seen as a smokescreen to forestall the release of the so-called Durham report, which senior administration officials believe is already complete — and which Barr had ruled out issuing before the election.

  • Another senior administration official disputed that assessment, saying: “The reason the Attorney General appointed John Durham as Special Counsel is because he’s not finished with his investigation,” and that Barr “wanted to ensure that John Durham would be able to continue his work independently and unimpeded.”
  • Trump has been ranting about the delay behind the scenes and mused privately about replacing Barr with somebody who will expedite the process. But it’s unclear whether he will follow through with that, per sources familiar with the conversations.
  • Barr met with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and other officials in the West Wing Tuesday afternoon.

Except that doesn’t work. If Trump were to name John Ratcliffe Acting Attorney General (he’d be the perfect flunky for the job), he would be powerless to force Durham to report more quickly. Sure, he could fire Durham, but he’d have to provide notice to Congress, and there’s virtually no remedy Congress would or could offer in the next 48 days. Ratcliffe can’t write a report himself. And the people doing the work for Durham aren’t DOJ employees, so firing them would do nothing to get a report. For better and worse, Barr has ensured that Ratcliffe or whatever other flunky were appointed could not do that, at least not in the 48 days before such person would be fired by President Biden.

Again, Ockham’s Razor suggests that Durham will finish his work and write a public report debunking the Papadopoulos conspiracies, confirming that CIA’s analytic work was not improper, and otherwise concluding that Kevin Clinesmith’s alteration of documents was the only crime that occurred.

More importantly, there’s a problem with Axios’ report, that “Barr had ruled out issuing a report before the election,” and that’s what makes this special counsel appointment more interesting. Barr tried to force Durham to issue a report before the election. That led Durham’s trusted aide Nora Dannehy to quit before September 11, thereby seemingly creating the need for a special counsel designation at that point.

Federal prosecutor Nora Dannehy, a top aide to U.S. Attorney John H. Durham in his Russia investigation, has quietly resigned from the U.S. Justice Department probe – at least partly out of concern that the investigative team is being pressed for political reasons to produce a report before its work is done, colleagues said.

[snip]

Colleagues said Dannehy is not a supporter of President Donald J. Trump and has been concerned in recent weeks by what she believed was pressure from Barr – who appointed Durham to produce results before the election. They said she has been considering resignation for weeks, conflicted by loyalty to Durham and concern about politics.

[snip]

The thinking of the associates, all Durham allies, is that the Russia investigation group will be disbanded and its work lost if Trump loses.

And Barr himself had, for months, been saying that he would shut down Durham if Trump lost. Yet here we are, after the election, learning that Barr has provided Durham additional protections.

That’s all the more interesting given what Barr did after Dannehy quit in the face of pressure to issue some kind of report before the election. First, he gave a screed at Hillsdale College that pretty clearly targeted Dannehy, among others. Then, Barr attempted to let Jeffrey Jensen release an interim Durham report himself.

Less than a week after Dannehy quit, Jensen’s team interviewed Bill Barnett, someone who would be a key witness for any real Durham investigation of early actions by the FBI. The interview was clearly a political hack job, leaving key details (such as the role of Flynn’s public lies about his calls with Sergey Kislyak in the investigation) unasked. Barnett’s answers materially conflict with his own actions on the case. He was invited to make comments about the politicization of lawyers — notably Andrew Weissmann and Jeannie Rhee — he didn’t work with on the Mueller team. And he claimed to be unaware of central pieces of evidence in the case.

It took just a week for the FBI to write up and release the report from that interview, even while DOJ still hasn’t released a Bill Priestap interview 302 that debunked a central claim made in the Flynn motion to dismiss. And the interview was released in a form that hid material information about Brandon Van Grack’s actions from Judge Sullivan and the public.

But that’s not all. A day earlier prosecutor Jocelyn Ballantine sent five documents to Sidney Powell:

  • The altered January 5, 2017 Strzok notes
  • The second set of altered Strzok notes
  • The altered Andrew McCabe notes
  • Texts between FBI analysts
  • A new set of Strzok-Page texts, which included new Privacy Act violations

All were packaged up for public dissemination, with their protective order footers redacted. There were dates added to all the handwritten notes, at least one of which was misleading. The Strzok-Page texts were irrelevant and included new privacy violations; when later asked to validate them, DOJ claimed they weren’t relying on them (which raises more questions about the circumstances of their release). There’s good reason to believe there’s something funky about the FBI analyst texts released (indeed, as politicized as his interview was, Barnett dismissed the mistaken interpretation DOJ adopted of their meaning, that the analysts were getting insurance solely because of the Russian investigation); DOJ made sure that the identities of these analysts was not made public, avoiding any possibility that the analysts might weigh in like Strzok and McCabe did when they realized their notes had been altered.

One of those alterations would come to serve as a scripted Trump attack on Joe Biden in their first debate. In a September 29 hearing, Sidney Powell admitted meeting regularly with Trump campaign lawyer, Jenna Ellis, and asking Trump to hold off on a Flynn pardon, making it clear that this docket gamesmanship was the entire point.

And then, on October 19, Durham got Barr to give him the special counsel designation that would give him independence he had not had during 18 months of Barr micromanagement and also ensure that he could remain on past the time when Barr would be his boss.

Days later, on October 22, DOJ wrote Sidney Powell telling her they were going to stop feeding her with documents she would use to make politicized attacks.

Let’s assume for a minute that Durham was, in good faith, pursuing what the FBI was doing in the spring of 2017, an inquiry for which Barnett was a key — and at that point, credible — witness. That investigation was effectively destroyed with the release of the politicized Barnett interview report. Any defense attorney would make mincemeat of him as a witness.

Which is to say that Barr’s effort to let Jensen release the things that Durham refused to before the election damaged any good faith investigation that Durham might have been pursuing. And that’s before DOJ got caught altering documents, documents for which Durham has original copies. It’s not clear whether Durham is watching this docket that closely, but if he is, he knows precisely what, how, and to what extent these documents have been altered. And he probably has a good sense of why they were released in the way they were.

Again, Ockham’s Razor says that Durham will just muddle along and after a delay release a report saying he found nothing — which itself will be incendiary enough to the frothy right.

But by incorporating 28 CFR 600.4 into the scope of his special counsel appointment clearly allows him to investigate any attempts to interfere with his investigation.

federal crimes committed in the course of, and with intent to interfere with, the Special Counsel’s investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses;

It’s likely those pre-election antics did interfere with the investigation. And even if Durham hasn’t thought that through yet, it’s possible that Michael Horowitz will inform him of the details.

A Mike Pence Pardon of Trump for Flynn’s Pardon Would Obstruct the Mueller Investigation

Because of the way the Mike Flynn pardon is written (who wrote it, given that Bill Barr has said this kind of pardon would be a crime, remains a very interesting question), it makes it clear its goal is to make all consequences for Flynn associated with the Mueller investigation to just go away. Poof! It purports to pardon Flynn for any fact known to Mueller’s investigation and anything associated with Judge Emmet Sullivan’s docket.

Not only does the pardon raise vagueness problems (and attempts to pardon future crimes), but it makes it crystal clear that it is an attempt to invalidate the entire Mueller investigation.

That makes it all the more clear it is an attempt to obstruct that investigation and all subsidiary investigations that arose from it. It is an attempt to use Presidential power to ensure that no special counsel can investigate the President and have criminal charges associated with it stick. Joe Biden’s DOJ could easily incorporate this pardon into the obstruction charge that Mueller prepared, with the benefit of yet another new act that Barr did not consider in his (legally suspect) declination for Trump.

That means that if Mike Pence were to pardon Trump for actions that included this pardon, he would then be obstructing the Mueller and associated investigation. Trump’s legal jeopardy would become Pence’s. Mike Pence, who got through the entire Mueller investigation without any personal exposure, would finally be left holding the bag for at least a subset of the crimes identified by it and committed to cover it up.

Which is why I’m interested in the focus of this Carol Lee piece on Flynn. While it relies on interviews with 20 people involved, it doesn’t even cover the full scope of the public documents relating to Flynn’s actions, and in substantial part simply narrativizes what’s in the Mueller Report. Of particular note, it doesn’t mention the evidence that certain members of the Transition were fully briefed on Flynn’s actions, while others (like Pence, but also Tom Bossert) were not. It doesn’t mention how the White House scripted Steve Bannon to claim sanctions weren’t discussed at Mar-a-Lago. It doesn’t mention that Flynn told Russia Trump knew of his calls and that Flynn made the first one while with Trump.

Where it breaks new ground is its focus on Pence. Pence is mentioned 47 times, including a quote from someone describing his reaction to discovering he had been lied to. The most important new ground pertains to how Trump tried to make Pence responsible for firing Flynn, and how Pence deferred the decision to Trump.

One of the president’s top aides thought Trump was trying to shift the burden of deciding whether to fire Flynn onto Pence when he said: “Mike, he disappointed you. He let you down.” Flynn had apologized privately to Pence who wasn’t happy with him. Still, Pence told Trump he’d support whatever decision he made.

The purported reason for firing Flynn was that he lied to Pence (the real reason is that Trump was hoping to stave off any investigation into himself).

And yet, even in a story that focuses closely on Pence (and describes him smoldering while reading the Flynn transcripts), it claims that Pence played no part in this story (while stopping short of stating that he or his Chief of Staff Nick Ayers and his aide Marc Lotter, the latter two of whom are named, had no part in it).

Vice President Mike Pence has so far been silent about the pardon.

[snip]

The White House and Pence’s office had no comment.

[snip]

Trump never said publicly or privately that Flynn had lied to him. Just to Pence, and, in a tweet in December 2017, the FBI.

Here’s the thing. Not only would pardoning Trump for this pardon for the first time give Pence criminal exposure in the Mueller and subsequent investigations. But because Pence was left out of the loop of what was really going on with Russia during the Transition and afterwards — the back channels, the efforts to undermine sanctions, yet more back channels — he would have no idea what he was serving to cover up by pardoning Trump.

I find Pence’s silence in this very noisy NBC piece to be quite intriguing.

The Facts “Known to” the Mueller Investigation: Judge Sullivan Should Demand the December 22, 2016 Flynn Transcript

I wrote up four things that, if I were Judge Emmet Sullivan presiding over the Mike Flynn case, I would do:

  • Make Trump name Flynn’s crimes
  • Establish a record about whether Flynn or Sidney Powell traded electoral assistance for this pardon
  • Force DOJ to explain what went into the altered documents
  • Identify who wrote the pardon

I’ve been thinking especially about what may be unconstitutional vagueness in Trump’s pardon, which purports to pardon Flynn for any facts “known to” the Mueller investigation. How do you circumscribe facts “known to” an investigation? After all, the entire Justice Manual and a lot of US code was “known to” those who conducted the investigation. Much of Flynn’s biography became “known to” investigators. Is Flynn pardoned for anything pertaining to that? That would be prospective immunity that goes well beyond the President’s pardon power. And how can Trump pardon crimes “related” to the investigation that have not yet been committed (if, for example, Flynn were to become a lobbyist for Russia based on the warm relationship he established by lying to protect them and chose not to register as a foreign agent for them)?

And so in addition to forcing Trump to name the crimes for which he is pardoning Flynn (at least with respect to all those before Sullivan, which include his charged false statements, the selling out to Turkey related crimes that were part of the plea, and crimes committed in Sullivan’s court room and the EDVA grand jury), it seems Sullivan may have the ability to lay out what is included in that “known to” language.

As part of that, Sullivan may have the authority to demand that DOJ file all of Flynn’s 302s as well as the transcripts of Flynn’s calls with Sergey Kislyak (Sullivan might also ask DOJ to lodge the grand jury testimony implicating Flynn, because that, too, defines the scope of the pardon).

I’m certain that DOJ is trying to hide those 302s, but I also don’t think there’s anything all that surprising in there (indeed, I think we’d find that Flynn was knowingly shading testimony). But I still think it legally sustainable, not least because there’s reason to believe Flynn committed a crime with respect to a fact that I suspect was not known to Mueller, because it may have been deliberately withheld (again, I’ll explain more in January). That probably won’t send Flynn to prison, but it should be recorded.

The transcripts, however, are more interesting. Bizarrely, DOJ never submitted the transcripts in this docket. Sullivan asked for them after the Mueller Report came out, but DOJ refused based on their true contention that nothing in Flynn’s case relied on the transcripts. But the Motion to Dismiss absolutely did rely on the transcripts, because it was premised on the claim that Flynn did nothing wrong on the calls. Ken Kohl even invoked them in the September hearing before Sullivan. But in spite of the fact that a selection of those transcripts were released, they were never submitted in this docket. Sullivan may be able to demand them, if only to avoid the problem of Constitutional vagueness pertaining to the scope of Flynn’s pardon, particularly with regards to what facts were known to Mueller.

That’s where things get interesting. Because DOJ made claims before Sullivan — that Flynn did nothing wrong on his calls to Kislyak — relying on the transcripts, but it specifically withheld the transcript of a call that was included in the criminal information: the December 22, 2016 call.

As I’ve noted, when ODNI released these transcripts, they didn’t even release the summary of the December 22, 2016 call included in Flynn’s charges, much the transcript.

I believe one of the facts “known to” Mueller’s investigators, but not known to us, is that Trump was present for that call, possibly even listening in. As such, it’s certainly within the scope of things for which Trump intends to pardon Flynn. But to avoid any confusion going forward that it is included, it needs to be known to us, or at least knowable to a future DOJ.

DOJ would squawk (they’ll squawk anyway, but that’s their own damn fault for writing a pardon that suffers from vagueness).

Again, I’m not saying that this provides Sullivan a way to dismiss the charges (though I see no reason why he can’t dismiss without prejudice). It doesn’t. What it does do is make a record of the true scope of the pardon.

Four Things Judge Emmet Sullivan Should Do in the Wake of Flynn’s Pardon

As I noted, Trump attempted to be expansive with his pardon of Mike Flynn. He failed. I think the chances that Flynn does prison time are almost as high today as they were last week.

And while I think there is absolutely nothing defective in the pardon that Trump signed and while I’m certain that Judge Sullivan will honor that pardon (though DOJ is asking him to dismiss the charges with prejudice; Sullivan should dismiss them without prejudice), there are four things that Sullivan has the means of doing to raise the cost of Trump’s pardon. Those are:

  • Make Trump name Flynn’s crimes
  • Establish a record about whether Flynn or Sidney Powell traded electoral assistance for this pardon
  • Force DOJ to explain what went into the altered documents
  • Identify who wrote the pardon

Make Trump name Flynn’s crimes

While whoever wrote this pardon tried (but failed) to make it comprehensive, it only names one of Flynn’s crimes: false statements (indeed, that’s the only crime that DOJ lists for the pardon on its website).

But by moving to withdraw his plea, Flynn put his other crimes before Judge Sullivan. So Sullivan has every right to inquire whether this pardon includes all of Flynn’s crimes. He could issue an order for Trump to come before him to answer whether the pardon forgives Flynn for:

  • His lies about what he said to Sergey Kislyak during the transition
  • Serving as an undisclosed Foreign Agent for Turkey
  • Lying about serving as an undisclosed Foreign Agent for Turkey
  • Conspiring with others to hide that he was an undisclosed Foreign Agent of Turkey
  • Lying about his own guilt and the circumstances surrounding his guilty pleas
  • Lying about lying to Flynn’s Covington lawyers

The answer to all those questions is yes. Trump does mean to pardon Mike Flynn for secretly working for Turkey while getting classified briefings. Trump does mean to pardon Flynn for lying to Sullivan (and he does know that Flynn did lie to Sullivan). Sullivan has a need to know that explicitly and he should get Trump on the record.

Trump won’t show, of course.

Until he is made to, after January 20th.

Note, I’d also make Trump state, under oath, when he signed the pardon. It is dated with Wednesday’s date, but I highly doubt that DOJ had it written by then. If Trump signed it after having lunch with Mike Pence yesterday, it’s possible that Trump didn’t write it this broadly until broaching a pardon for himself with Pence.

Establish a record about whether Flynn or Sidney Powell traded electoral assistance for this pardon

Judge Sullivan also has reason to want to know if someone offered Trump something of value for this pardon. He has evidence they did — in the altered documents designed to serve as a campaign attack on Joe Biden. And the news is full of evidence that Sidney Powell may have offered further benefit, in her efforts to challenge Trump’s election loss.

Sullivan should put both Flynn and Powell under oath and require that they confirm or deny whether they have offered favors to Trump for the pardon.

They won’t show, of course.

Until they are made to, after January 20th.

None of this would invalidate the pardon, of course. But if Trump got some other benefit from Flynn’s lies that went into this pardon, especially efforts to undermine a legal election, then the Attorneys General in those states that already investigating Trump’s efforts to steal the election would have reason to want to know that, and Sullivan has the means to get them under oath to do that.

Force DOJ to explain what went into the altered documents

People at both FBI and DOJ altered documents submitted in Sullivan’s court, the FBI by adding false dates to exhibits and DOJ by redacting footers indicating that the documents were covered by the protective order. Sullivan has reason to ask how that happened and who was involved in the effort.

Even if Trump pardoned everyone involved, there would still be a means for Sullivan to punish most of those involved, because most of those involved have law licenses and can be disbarred.

Sullivan should schedule a hearing — no need to rush, he might as well schedule it for January 26, after everyone involved gets a COVID shot — to ask the following people if they had a role in altering the documents (or eliciting a corrupt interview with Bill Barnett):

  • AUSA Jocelyn Ballantine
  • AUSA Sayler Fleming
  • AUSA Ken Kohl
  • US Attorney Jeffrey Jensen
  • FBI Executive Assistant Director John Brown
  • FBI Agent Keith Kohne
  • Acting DEA Administrator Timothy Shea
  • AG Bill Barr
  • DAG Jeffrey Rosen

Again, most of these people have law licenses that Sullivan could put at issue, and he has good reason to want to hold someone accountable for altering documents in his court.

These people won’t want to show. But after January 20th, they may have no way of avoiding it.

Identify who wrote the pardon

In his confirmation hearing, Bill Barr said that pardoning someone for giving false testimony would be a crime. Trump just committed that crime. Whatever lawyer wrote up the pardon language — whether it’s Barr or White House Counsel Pat Cipollone — just conspired to commit a crime.

Judge Sullivan should identify everyone who had a role.

[Fourth item added after the original post.]