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Rat-Fucker Extraordinaire Roger Stone Probably Had Far More Damning Texts Seized by FBI on March 9

After two years of denying any contacts with Russians, epic rat-fucker Roger Stone has now willingly disclosed one to the WaPo, revealing details about how a Russian approached Michael Caputo’s business partner, offering dirt on Hillary, which led Stone to accept a meeting with the guy. Here’s what a rat-fucker limited hang-out looks like:

One day in late May 2016, Roger Stone — the political dark sorcerer and longtime confidant of Donald Trump — slipped into his Jaguar and headed out to meet a man with a Make America Great Again hat and a viscous Russian accent.

The man, who called himself Henry Greenberg, offered damaging information about Hillary Clinton, Trump’s presumptive Democratic opponent in the upcoming presidential election, according to Stone who spoke about the previously unreported incident in interviews with The Washington Post. Greenberg, who did not reveal the information he claimed to possess, wanted Trump to pay $2 million for the political dirt, Stone said.

“You don’t understand Donald Trump,” Stone recalled saying before rejecting the offer at a restaurant in the Russian-expat magnet of Sunny Isles, Fla. “He doesn’t pay for anything.”

Stone is disclosing this damning story now for two reasons: First, because he has discovered (surely tipped by someone) that “Greenberg,” whose real last name appears to be Oknyansky, worked as an FBI informant for years (apparently after being flipped in immigration custody) [Update: Caputo, who claims to have IDed this guy using his open source defense fund, says his real name is Gennadiy Vasilievich Vostretsov]. So it feeds the narrative that the Deep State is out to get Trump.

“If you believe that [Greenberg] took time off from his long career as an FBI informant to reach out to us in his spare time, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I want to sell you,” Caputo said in an interview.

In a separate interview, Stone said: “I didn’t realize it was an FBI sting operation at the time, but it sure looks like one now.”

[snip]

Between 2008 and 2012, the records show, he repeatedly was extended permission to enter the United States under a so-called “significant public benefit parole.” The documents list an FBI agent as a contact person. The agent declined to comment.

Immigration lawyer David Leopold, former president of American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the documents described an immigration history generally consistent with Greenberg’s claims that he had been allowed to enter the United States to assist law enforcement.

In a 2015 court declaration, Greenberg — using the last name Oknyansky — said he’d been giving information to the FBI since returning to Russia from the United States in 2000.

They’re also raising it because Caputo was asked about it in his interview with the Mueller team on May 2 and are now both in the process of “correcting” their sworn testimony to HPSCI.

Stone and Caputo said in separate interviews that they also did not disclose the Greenberg meeting during testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence because they had forgotten about an incident that Stone calls unimportant “due diligence” that would have been “political malpractice” not to explore.

Caputo said that he was asked during a session with the committee in July whether he’d ever been offered information about the Clinton campaign by a Russian, and he either answered “no” or that he could not recall.

However, Stone and Caputo said their memories were refreshed by text messages that Caputo said he no longer has in his possession but was shown during a May 2 interview.

By revealing that Mueller caught Caputo and Stone dealing in dirt with Russians, they reveal a certain detail to other co-conspirators: probably, that Mueller has obtained the contents of Roger Stone’s phone. As a reminder, on March 9, the FBI obtained the cloud-stored contents of 5 AT&T phones (and probably at least as many Verizon ones), at least one but not all of which were Paul Manafort’s. There’s a lot of reason to believe that at least one of the phones obtained was Stone’s.

An earlier filing explained that the second, AT&T, affidavit was obtained on March 9 and it covers “ongoing investigations that are not the subject of either of the current prosecutions involving Manafort.”

On April 4, 2018, the government produced in redacted form, and for the first time, an affidavit supporting a search warrant that had been obtained on March 9, 2018. That affidavit likewise contains redactions—albeit more substantial ones—relating to ongoing investigations that are not the subject of either of the current prosecutions involving Manafort.

As I believe others pointed out at the time, this would put it just a few weeks after Rick Gates pled on February 23, and so might reflect information obtained with his cooperation.

In her ruling, ABJ cited the last week’s hearing, suggesting that the phones still redacted in the affidavit materials might not be Manafort’s.

THE COURT: What if — I think one of them is about phone information. What if the redacted phones are not his phone?

MR. WESTLING: I don’t have a problem with that. I think we’re talking about things that relate to this defendant in this case.

Since just before this phone data was obtained, Mueller’s team has focused closely on Roger Stone, starting with the Sam Nunberg meltdown on March 5, including a retracted claim that Trump knew of the June 9 meeting the week beforehand (there’s a phone call Don Jr placed on June 6 that several committees think may have been to Trump, something Mueller presumably knows). Ted Malloch was stopped at the border and interviewed (and had his phone seized) on March 30, and scheduled for a since aborted grand jury appearance on April 13. Stone assistants John Sullivan and Jason Kakanis were subpoenaed earlier in May. Of particularly interest, Michael Caputo was interviewed about meetings he and Stone had with Gates before and during the campaign.

And Stone, by all appearances, still has the text exchange with Caputo to share with the WaPo. Which means Mueller has a whole slew of other text exchanges that Stone is not revealing.

We can be virtually certain, too, that Stone is offering just a limited version of the story, as he has done over and over again. Of note: Stone doesn’t claim he said to Oknyansky that he wasn’t interested in the information; rather, he only claims that Trump wouldn’t pay $2 million for it. By the end of the summer someone else — Peter Smith — was offering money for dirt on Hillary. And the Clinton Foundation was a key focus of Stone’s; he raised it 8 times on Twitter between that meeting at the election.

Now, as I said, the reason we’re learning about this particular lie from Caputo and Stone is because it feeds a certain narrative, that the FBI was seeking to set up the Trump campaign. That makes zero sense, given that even accepting the outreach from a Russian would have triggered attention from the FBI, and it’s clear FBI just got this information recently (probably, as I’ve noted, on March 9). Remember, too, the FBI didn’t formally learn that the Russians were targeting the Democrats, to the extent they did (and the Russians targeted Rubio and Graham as well) until June. So there’s no reason the FBI would have used a Russian to deal dirt in May. In other words, Caputo and Stone’s story makes zero sense.

But it is notable that Russians and their partners have used so many former informants in their outreach to Trump’s team. In addition to Oknyansky (whom the Russians would have known by the networks he helped expose), there’s Felix Sater (whose role as an informant was already known), who pitched both a Tower deal and “peace” in Ukraine. And while it hasn’t been confirmed, George Nader would not be a free man right now if he hadn’t traded cooperation for freedom, in light of his serial child pornography violations.

Of course, the Trump team hasn’t said a word about Nader and Sater being FBI informants infiltrating their campaign, perhaps because Mueller had them cooperating before this strategy got rolled out.

I have long said that one of the easiest ways to avoid network analysis scrutiny the US is known to do is to become (or remain) an informant. Both David Headley and Tamerlan Tsarnaev appear to have evaded scrutiny that way, and even Omar Mateen may have gotten less scrutiny because his father was an informant. There’s lots of reason to believe that gets your communication channels pulled from the network mapping programs, for two reasons: first, because informants need to be deconflicted (meaning you need to make sure the DEA doesn’t arrest someone who’s working for the FBI), and because if they remain in the network mapping pool, you’ll soon have half the FBI two degrees from drug lords and terrorists and therefore subject to NSA’s analytical tradecraft.

If I know that, Russia knows that (and there’s good reason to believe Russia has exploited that in the past). Moreover, the FBI has been hacked itself in recent years, multiple times. If data on the FBI’s own networks is available, it’d make it even easier for Russia to identify people it could use as outreach to the Trump campaign.

In other words, it’s possible, if not likely, we’ll see more former FBI assets networked into efforts to compromise the Trump campaign. Because that would be the best way to avoid scrutiny.

The Frothing Right Prefers Oleg Deripaska as an FBI Asset to Christopher Steele

If John Solomon were still doing journalism, the lede of this piece would be that the FBI interviewed Oleg Deripaska in September 2016, even as the Russian operation to tamper in the election was ongoing.

Two months before Trump was elected president, Deripaska was in New York as part of Russia’s United Nations delegation when three FBI agents awakened him in his home; at least one agent had worked with Deripaska on the aborted effort to rescue Levinson. During an hour-long visit, the agents posited a theory that Trump’s campaign was secretly colluding with Russia to hijack the U.S. election.

“Deripaska laughed but realized, despite the joviality, that they were serious,” the lawyer said. “So he told them in his informed opinion the idea they were proposing was false. ‘You are trying to create something out of nothing,’ he told them.” The agents left though the FBI sought more information in 2017 from the Russian, sources tell me. Waldman declined to say if Deripaska has been in contact with the FBI since Sept, 2016.

Telling that story would make it clear that the FBI pursued an investigation into Russian tampering at the source, by questioning Russians suspected of being involved. Republicans should be happy to know the FBI was using such an approach.

But Solomon isn’t doing journalism anymore — even his employer now acknowledges that that’s true. After complaints about his propaganda (in part, attacking the Mueller investigation) he has been relegated to the opinion section of The Hill.

Not before his last effort to impugn Mueller, though, claiming that because the FBI used Deripaska as a go-between in a 2009 effort to rescue Robert Levinson, Mueller is prevented from investigating him now.

In 2009, when Mueller ran the FBI, the bureau asked Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska to spend millions of his own dollars funding an FBI-supervised operation to rescue a retired FBI agent, Robert Levinson, captured in Iran while working for the CIA in 2007.

[snip]

Deripaska’s lawyer said the Russian ultimately spent $25 million assembling a private search and rescue team that worked with Iranian contacts under the FBI’s watchful eye. Photos and videos indicating Levinson was alive were uncovered.

Then in fall 2010, the operation secured an offer to free Levinson. The deal was scuttled, however, when the State Department become uncomfortable with Iran’s terms, according to Deripaska’s lawyer and the Levinson family.

FBI officials confirmed State hampered their efforts.

“We tried to turn over every stone we could to rescue Bob, but every time we started to get close, the State Department seemed to always get in the way,” said Robyn Gritz, the retired agent who supervised the Levinson case in 2009, when Deripaska first cooperated, but who left for another position in 2010 before the Iranian offer arrived. “I kept Director Mueller and Deputy Director [John] Pistole informed of the various efforts and operations, and they offered to intervene with State, if necessary.”

FBI officials ended the operation in 2011, concerned that Deripaska’s Iranian contacts couldn’t deliver with all the U.S. infighting.

Even assuming Solomon’s tale — which is that offered by Deripaska’s lawyer — is factually correct, what this means is that the FBI used Deripaska as an asset, just like they’ve used Christopher Steele as a source. Of course, using ex-MI6 officer Steele, for the frothy right, is a heinous crime. But using a Russian billionaire, according to a propagandist who has been regurgitating Trump spin since he was elected, is heroic. Perhaps that’s why a Trump crony, Bryan Lanza, is also trying to help Deripaska’s company beat the sanctions recently imposed on him.

Of course, Solomon doesn’t consider the possibility that FBI and State balked in 2011 because Deripaska himself had proven unreliable. Which would explain a lot of what transpired in the years since. Nor does he consider — nor has the frothy right generally — the possibility that any damning disinformation in the Steele dossier ended up there in part via Deripaska.

Certainly, Deripaska’s own asset, Paul Manafort, seemed prepared to capitalize on that disinformation.

As the Mueller investigation has proceeded, we’ve gotten just a glimpse of how the spooks trade in information, involving allies like Steele and Stefan Halper, and more sordid types like George Nader (who appears to have traded information to get out of consequences for a child porn habit), Felix Sater (who claims, dubiously, to be offering full cooperation with Mueller based on years of working off his own mob ties), and even Deripaska.

Curiously, it’s Deripaska that propagandists spewing the White House line seem most interested in celebrating.

Update: Chuck Ross did a story based on Solomon’s report, and did note that the FBI questioned Deripaska in September 2016. But, fresh off complaining that I had called him out for doing this in another story, turns a story about Manafort and his long-time Russian associate into a story about the dossier (in which Deripaska is not named).

In September 2016, FBI agents approached Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska to ask about allegations President Donald Trump’s campaign was colluding with the Russian government to influence the election, according to a new report.

Deripaska, who was at his apartment in New York City for the interview, waved the three agents off of the collusion theory, saying there was no coordination between the Trump team and Kremlin, The Hill reported Monday.

The agents, one of whom Deripaska knew from a previous FBI case, said they believed former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was involved in the conspiracy, an allegation made in the infamous Steele dossier.

Ross then continues on, dossier … dossier … dossier … dossier … dossier, including this claim not supported by any public evidence.

It is also an indicator of how they investigated some of the allegations made in the dossier.

By the time September 2016 rolled around, it had been two months since Deripaska go-between Konstantin Kilimnik emailed (probably via a PRISM service)  Manafort about paying off his debt to Deripaska by giving inside dirt on the campaign. There were meetings in NYC. In September 2016, Alex Van der Zwaan was actively covering up the ongoing efforts to hide Manafort’s involvement in Ukraine’s persecution of Yulia Tymoshenko, and doing so in the servers of a law firm going to pains to clear their name.

And all that’s before you consider what hasn’t been shared with Congress and leaked to the press.

Meanwhile, the only mention of Deripaska in the dossier by September was an undated July report claiming that Manafort was happy to have the focus on Russia because the Trump corruption in China was worse (and also suggesting that Manafort used Carter Page as a go-between with Russia); given reports about when Steele shared reports with the FBI, it’s not clear the Bureau would have had that yet. In any case, the more extensive discussion of Manafort comes later, after the Deripaska interview.

Had Manafort been a surveillance focus solely for the dossier (something that wasn’t even true for Page), you’d have heard that by now.

Every time Mueller submits a filing explaining how the Manafort Ukraine investigation came out of the Russia investigation, he has mentioned Deripaska. Trump’s own team leaked questions suggesting that Mueller is sitting on information that Manafort reached out to Russians asking for help (and Deripaska was among those we know he was in touch with).

And yet, after competently noting that the FBI interviewed Deripaska, Ross made the crazypants suggestion that any suspicion of Manafort would arise from the dossier and not abundant other known evidence.

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

In this series, I’m analyzing the Mueller questions written down by Jay Sekulow and leaked to the NYT to show how they set up a damning investigative framework. This post laid out how the Agalarovs had been cultivating Trump for years, in part by dangling real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin. This post shows how during the election, the Russians and Trump 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.

Here, I’ll lay out the questions that show Mueller’s interest in how Trump and the Russians began settling the quid pro quo during the transition. To the extent these are quid pro quo payoffs, and not simply Logan Act violations, they’d be key elements in a conspiracy.

The quo: policy payoffs

Immediately after the election, the Russians called to collect on their winnings.

According to Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress, the day after the election, Putin sent a congratulatory email to the campaign. In response, he reopened communications with Sergey Kislyak. A day later, the Agalarovs emailed congratulations to let the Trumps know they were “always at your disposal here in Russia.”

“Don!!! Amazing run and a glorious victory!!!!! Congratulations to you and your dad, we are proud and happy for you !!!!!! Always at your disposal here in Russia

On November 28, Rob Goldstone sent an email passing on sanctions materials to Trump’s assistant Rhona Graff.

“Aras Agalarov has asked me to pass on this document in the hope it can be passed on to the appropriate team.

Natalia Veselnitskaya, too, followed up on her Magnitsky request.

In addition to the sanctions demand, according to Jared, the Russians emphasized policy concessions on Syria. A retracted Brian Ross story said that emphasis started even before the election, but in reality the outreach happened almost immediately after the election.

December 1, 2016: What did you know during the transition about an attempt to establish back-channel communication to Russia, and Jared Kushner’s efforts?

On December 1, Jared and Flynn met with Sergey Kislyak. Jared reportedly asked for the Russians to provide a secure channel. Jared claims the idea for a secure channel came from Kislyak (Mueller likely has intercepts that clarify Kislyak’s version of the story). But he makes it clear the back channel pertained to Syrian policy.

[Kislyak] 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. The Ambassador said that would not be possible and so we all agreed that we would receive this information after the Inauguration.

Given how often Kushner and Trump talk face to face, this may be one of the questions about which Mueller has the least certainty of the answer. But we know that in Jared’s interview with Mueller’s prosecutors, they focused on that meeting. They also asked if he had information that exonerated Flynn; his answers (and Flynn’s reported unhappiness that Trump had proven disloyal) led immediately to Flynn’s plea deal, so for some reason Mueller must believe Flynn over Kushner.

Mueller’s interest in how much Trump knew about Kushner’s pursuit of a back channel is important for several reasons. It provides evidence that Kushner (and the Trump Administration generally) was engaged in what I call ConFraudUs on foreign policy, pretending to pursue US foreign policy that actually served other interests. And Kushner’s pursuit, possibly at Trump’s direction, of unmonitored channels is important background to Trump’s response as it became clear the FBI had collected evidence of wrong-doing during the transition.

Curiously, Sekulow’s version of these questions does not include one about Kushner’s December 13 meeting with Sergey Gorkov, the head of the sanctioned Vnesheconombank.

December 29, 2016: What did you know about phone calls that Mr. Flynn made with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, in late December 2016?

According to Flynn’s Statement of Offense, as he was on the phone with Kislyak, he was coordinating closely with a transition official we know to be KT McFarland.

On or about December 29, 2016, FLYNN called a senior official of the Presidential Transition Team (“PTT official”), who was with other senior ·members of the Presidential Transition Team at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, to discuss what, if anything, to communicate to the Russian Ambassador about the U.S. Sanctions. On that call, FLYNN and the PTT official discussed the U.S. Sanctions, including the potential impact of those sanctions on the incoming administration’s foreign policy goals. The PIT official and FLYNN also discussed that the members of the Presidential Transition Team at Mar-a-Lago did not want Russia to escalate the situation.

Immediately after his phone call with the PTT official, FLYNN called the Russian Ambassador and requested that Russia not escalate the situation and only respond to the U.S. Sanctions in a reciprocal manner.

Shortly after his phone call with the Russian Ambassador, FLYNN spoke with the PTT official to report on the substance of his call with the Russian Ambassador, including their discussion of the U.S. Sanctions.

On or about December 30, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin released a statement indicating that Russia would not take retaliatory measures in response to the U.S. Sanctions at that time.

On or about December 31, 2016, the Russian Ambassador called FLYNN and informed him that Russia had chosen not to retaliate in response to FL YNN’s request.

After his phone call with the Russian Ambassador, FLYNN spoke with senior members of the Presidential Transition Team about FL YNN’s conversations with the Russian Ambassador regarding the U.S. Sanctions and Russia’s decision not to escalate the situation.

We know Mueller has an email — one the transition probably didn’t turn over to Congress in voluntary discovery, and about which they may have intended to invoke executive privilege — that captures part of the discussion about sanctions. Of critical importance, the transition team opposed these sanctions for two reasons: 1) because they wanted better relations with Russia and 2) because they believed that sanctioning Russia for tampering with the election created the appearance that Trump wouldn’t have won without Russia’s help.

On Dec. 29, a transition adviser to Mr. Trump, K. T. McFarland, wrote in an email to a colleague that sanctions announced hours before by the Obama administration in retaliation for Russian election meddling were aimed at discrediting Mr. Trump’s victory. The sanctions could also make it much harder for Mr. Trump to ease tensions with Russia, “which has just thrown the U.S.A. election to him,” she wrote in the emails obtained by The Times.

[snip]

Mr. Obama, she wrote, was trying to “box Trump in diplomatically with Russia,” which could limit his options with other countries, including Iran and Syria. “Russia is key that unlocks door,” she wrote.

She also wrote that the sanctions over Russian election meddling were intended to “lure Trump in trap of saying something” in defense of Russia, and were aimed at “discrediting Trump’s victory by saying it was due to Russian interference.”

“If there is a tit-for-tat escalation Trump will have difficulty improving relations with Russia, which has just thrown U.S.A. election to him,” she wrote.

In other words, Mueller has a good deal of evidence showing that Flynn’s actions were closely directed from Mar-A-Lago. He has multiple different versions from people involved about how closely Trump was involved in this direction. He also has substantial evidence that suggests that the worry about diminishing the victory idea actually comes from Trump. The question, then, aims not just to prove that Trump ordered Flynn to undermine the official policy of the United States at a time when he did not have the authority to set US foreign policy, but also to tie these orders to the response Trump took as FBI started discovering his conspiracy with the Russians.

January 11, 2017: What do you know about a 2017 meeting in Seychelles involving Erik Prince?

After Jared asked for a back channel, after UAE’s crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan made an unannounced visit to Trump Tower with Jared, Flynn, and Steve Bannon in December, Erik Prince ended up at a meeting in the Seychelles set up by Nahyan with Russian Direct Investment Fund head Kirill Dmitriev and a bunch of other shady funders. On top of looking like the back channel Jared had been seeking in December, the meeting is also a logical follow-on to Jared’s meeting with Gorkov (RDIF is a somewhat less sanctioned subsidiary of Vnesheconombank).

Mueller has George Nader’s testimony about what happened at this meeting, and probably a good deal of SIGINT, which reportedly shows that Erik Prince lied in his HPSCI testimony when he claimed his meeting with Dmitriev had been a chance encounter.

On or around January 11, 2017, I traveled to the Seychelles to meet with some potential customers from the UAE for the logistics business of which I am chairman. After the meeting, they mentioned a guy I should meet who was also in town to see them, a Kyrill Dmitriev from Russia, who ran some sort of hedge fund.

I met him in the hotel bar, and we chatted on topics ranging from oil and commodity prices to how much his country wished for resumption of normal trade relations with the — relationship with the USA.

Even Prince’s testimony ties sanctions relief with policy considerations in Syria and elsewhere that countered the official policy of the US. And it likely also ties those policy considerations to the personal enrichment of people like Prince and Jared, if not Trump personally.

One note: by repeatedly pitching Trump and his associates using businesses under sanction, the Russians provided Trump with his own incentive to relieve sanctions, the opportunity for Russian investment.

Late January, 2017: What do you know about a Ukrainian peace proposal provided to Mr. Cohen in 2017?

In late January 2017, just after the inauguration, Ukrainian parliament member Andrii Artemenko met with Felix Sater and Michael Cohen to propose a peace deal for Ukraine that would have Ukrainian voters endorse a long term lease of Crimea for Russia and undermine the government  of Petro Poroshenko. Cohen passed on the plan to Flynn just before he resigned. Sater — who claims to be cooperating with Mueller — said that the deal was endorsed by Russia.

Given Sater’s involvement in brokering both the Trump Tower deal and this with Cohen, it’s possible that this deal is another thing that ties policy concessions to Russia with business deals for Trump. Mueller will have both Sater and Flynn’s version of this story. Any records pertaining to it seized by SDNY will be preserved until such time as Mueller asks for them.

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

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

I wasn’t going to do this originally, but upon learning that the Mueller questions, as NYT has presented them, don’t maintain the sixteen subjects or even the 49 questions that Jay Sekulow drew up from those 16 areas of interest, and especially after WaPo continues to claim that Mueller is only investigating “whether Trump obstructed justice and sought to thwart a criminal probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election,” I am going to do my own version of the questions, as released by the NYT.

I’m not pretending that this better represents what Mueller has communicated to Sekulow, nor am I suggesting NYT’s version isn’t valid. But the questions provide an opportunity to lay out a cultivation, quid pro quo, and cover-up structure I’ve been using to frame the investigation in my own mind.

This post lays out the “cultivation” questions Mueller wants to pose.

The cultivation

The questions start well before the election, focusing on both Trump’s persistent interest in building a Trump Tower in Moscow, the cultivation of Trump by the Agalarov camp, and Trump’s interest in becoming best friends with Vladimir Putin. The questions may also include other real estate deals that would be less obviously tied to Russia, but possibly just as compromising. It’s worth remembering, Trump probably didn’t expect he’d win. So the Trump Tower offers were a prize that would be available (and easier to take advantage of) based on the assumption he’d lose.

November 9, 2013: During a 2013 trip to Russia, what communication and relationships did you have with the Agalarovs and Russian government officials?

On November 9, 2013, the Agalorovs helped Trump put on Miss Universe in Moscow; Trump Tower meeting attendees Rob Goldstone and Ike Kaveladze were both also involved. If the pee tape — or any kompromat involving “golden showers,” as Jim Comey claims Trump called it — exists, it was made on November 8, 2013.

Leading up to the event, Trump talked about meeting Putin and “will he become my new best friend?,” but that reportedly did not happen. But he did meet a bunch of other oligarchs. In the aftermath of the event, the Agalorovs floated building a Trump Tower in one of their developments.

November 2, 2015 to November, 2016: What communication did you have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign?

On November 3, 2015, at a time when Trump’s campaign was experiencing remarkable success, and well after (per the Internet Research Agency indictment) the election year operation had started, Felix Sater approached Michael Cohen to pitch yet another Trump Tower in Moscow deal. He tied the deal explicitly to getting Trump elected.

Michael I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins [sic] private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin. I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. We both know no one else knows how to pull this off without stupidity or greed getting in the way. I know how to play it and we will get this done. Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get Putins [sic] team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.

Remember: Mueller’s subpoena to Sam Nunberg goes back to November 1, 2015, suggesting this is the timeframe he’s thinking explicitly about.

The initial public story about the deal — which Cohen tried to squelch before his congressional interviews — claimed that the deal fizzled out in January 2016. More recent reporting has revealed that one of the people involved in this deal has ties to GRU, the Russian intelligence organization behind the hack-and-leak, and that Cohen pursued it at least as late as June, 2016.

Around that time (possibly on July 22, with the involvement of Ivan Timofeev, who was involved in offering up emails), Sergei Millian — who had brokered Trump business with Russians in the past — started cultivating George Papadopoulos. After the election, Millian pitched that the two of them should do a Trump Tower deal.

The Trump Tower offers are only the most obvious election-related deal Mueller might be interested in. In October 2016, for example, Cypriot businessman Orestes Fintiklis obtained a majority stake in the troubled Trump Panama development, which he has since taken over (possibly along with a bunch of papers showing the money laundering Ivanka did to fill the building). And all that’s before you consider any deals Jared was pitching.

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

The Trump Organization Really Doesn’t Want FBI to Have the Michael Cohen Files

In this post yesterday, I noted how hard the Trump Organization has tried to withhold (or claw back documents) from both the Mueller team and SDNY (here’s the government filing these quotes come from).

SDNY fact checks the Cohen claim, backed by his lawyer’s sworn declaration, that he hadn’t fully cooperated with Mueller’s investigation because Mueller asked for everything.

Cohen also states that the SCO “had requested that the Trump Organization produce all of Mr. Cohen’s communications that were within the Trump Organization’s custody, possession, or control,” and that Cohen objected “on the grounds that [the request] called for production of privileged communications, among other things.” (Br. 8-9). Although in the ordinary course, the USAO-SDNY would not comment on investigative requests or demands made to third parties, particularly those from a separate office undertaking its own, independent investigation, in light of the representations made by Cohen’s counsel, USAO-SDNY contacted the SCO about these representations and understands they are not accurate. In particular, the SCO did not request that the Trump Organization produce “all communications” by Cohen in the Trump Organization’s possession or control irrespective of subject matter or privilege. Indeed, the request made by the SCO was considerably narrower, and specifically omitted, among other things, any documents that were protected by privilege or of a purely personal nature. Cohen nonetheless objected to that request for documents and, after discussions between Cohen’s counsel and the SCO, the SCO decided not to seek production at that time. That Cohen sought to preclude the Trump Organization from producing these third party communications belies both (i) his general assertion of cooperation, and (ii) his stated principal interest in protecting attorney-client communications. Indeed, a careful review of Cohen’s motion papers reveals that he does not purport to have personally produced any documents to the SCO.

The intransigence pertaining to Cohen’s documents involving the Trump Organization continued over to last week’s response. While the Trump Organization (which I suspect is really who hired Hendon) did not request to be party to this fight, they did send SDNY a letter last week demanding that it return every document involving Cohen and the Trump Organization.

USAO-SDNY has already received correspondence from counsel for the Trump Organization (Cohen’s former employer), which referenced the searches conducted of Cohen’s premises and claimed:

We consider each and every communication by, between or amongst Mr. Cohen and the Trump Organization and each of its officers, directors and employees, to be subject to and protected by the attorney-client privilege and/or the work-product privilege.

As a reminder: in March, Mueller subpoenaed the Trump Organization for documents, including but not limited to Russia. That’s one reason, I suspect, that Cohen believes this raid is partly about supporting Mueller’s investigation (I wonder whether Trump Org is the entity that has started destroyed documents?).

I also pointed to this passage that suggested someone had started destroying documents.

While we have no way of knowing who or what this redacted passage refers to, we do know that the Trump Organization has recently been destroying documents — in its Panama property, in advance of the majority owner kicking them out.

Two people familiar with Fintiklis’s account said that, after his arrival, hotel employees barricaded office doors with furniture, and they added that documents were shredded. The two people said Trump Organization employees — including an executive who flew down from New York City — also blocked access to a control room that houses servers and surveillance-camera monitors.

It turns out that Trump Organization had a lawyer at yesterday’s hearing.

Early in the hearing, prosecutor Thomas McCay noted that Cohen had not (in briefs, anyway) addressed any materials seized from the Trump Organization.

McKay: Cohen “does not state whether he has retained any material from the Trump Organization when he left over one year ago.” “The silence from the Trump Organization is telling,” he adds later.

Later, Cohen’s lawyer Stephen Ryan mentioned documents pertaining to the Trump Organization — but it seems like he’s more concerned about matters involving Trump personally.

With all due respect, all of use started on Monday with a completely different matter. I want to say, there are five paragraphs in that attachment A that deal directly with seeking the papers of the President of the United States in possession of my client. It is not what the government has represented is about my client’s personal life. There are five paragraphs there. This case is that. And we spent the weekend, frankly, narrowing the issues, taking issues off the table.

Here is what I can tell you. I know that materials for TO, for the Trump Organization, are in the materials that have been seized, so there are some materials for the Trump Organization. But the key here is a priority. The Court can order a prioritization of where a special master is needed and it’s needed with respect to the papers that may contain privileged information about the President of the United States.

It seems like Judge Kimba Wood might appoint a special master for some of the seized files — perhaps those involving Trump personally — but let the taint team proceed with the rest. It’s unclear whether Trump Organization would be included or excluded if Wood gave special master treatment to Trump materials.

One other note. While I don’t think it’d be among the five paragraphs pertaining to Trump in the SDNY seizure (because the SDNY is supposed to be attenuated from the Mueller investigation), Buzzfeed reported that Michael Cohen actually continued to pursue the Trump Tower Moscow deal far later into 2016 than previously revealed, in part working with a former GRU colonel, only canceling a trip to St. Petersburg, which was held from June 16-18, 2016, at the last minute.

Sater hoped to push the deal forward by attending the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum with Cohen in June 2016. Considered the most important economic gathering in Russia, the forum is regularly attended by business executives and top politicians, including President Vladimir Putin. The former Russian intelligence officer helped arrange an invitation to the conference for both Sater and Cohen, the sources said.

But neither Cohen nor Sater attended. Sources said Cohen canceled at the last minute and put the Moscow deal on hold until after the Republican National Convention. After Trump won the presidential election, the Trump Organization announced it would no longer be working on international deals, and Sater stopped working on the project.

Last year, after Sater, Cohen, and the Trump Organization turned over emails and documents to congressional and special counsel investigators, details leaked about the Trump Moscow deal and the attempt to get VTB to finance it.

Buzzfeed notes that Sater’s emails include details of these later negotiations. And SDNY has already obtained Cohen’s emails.

(Side note: if Cohen really was planning on going to St. Petersburg on anything but a 3-day cruise vacation, but canceled at the last minute, he would have had to have gone through the effort of getting a visa, which would be in …a  passport. And yet no visa for Russia was in the passport Cohen shared with Buzzfeed last year.)

In my piece yesterday, I noted that Cohen and Trump seem very concerned about policing responsiveness, keeping the SDNY review within the scope of the warrants with which the material got seized (and frankly, that’s an issue that even the most ardent Trump hater ought to support, some efforts to prevent a fishing expedition). But now that SDNY has secured the materials and prevented them from being destroyed like Trump Organization’s Panama documents were, Mueller could certainly obtain his own warrant for some of the seized materials.

Update: According to Axios, not even the Trump Organization knows what Cohen might have done on behalf of the Trump Organization.

  • Cohen knows more about some elements of Trump’s life than anyone else — because some stuff, Ivanka doesn’t want to know.

[snip]

People at the Trump Organization don’t even really know everything he does. It’s all side deals and off-the-books stuff. Trump doesn’t even fully know; he knows some but not everything.”

The Timing of the Felix Sater Interviews

Back in my first post on the structure of Robert Mueller’s team, “Robert Mueller’s Grand Jury and the Significance of Felix Sater,” I noted that he would know what he was dealing with because of past history with Felix Sater, the sometimes business partner of Donald Trump, who has served as an FBI informant on (among other things) the mob.

In BuzzFeed’s fascinating story on Sater’s past as an intelligence and FBI informant, Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold go further. They point out that Andrew Weissmann signed Sater’s FBI cooperation agreement and Sater has ties with another five members of Mueller’s team.

Today, as he is being questioned about Trump’s business deals and ties to Russia, he has built relationships with at least six members of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, some going back more than 10 years.

[snip]

Signing Sater’s cooperation agreement for the Department of Justice was Andrew Weissmann, then an assistant US attorney and now a key member of the special counsel’s team. Mueller himself would be the FBI director for most of the time Sater served as a source.

The mob and fraud and corruption lawyers working for Mueller have a remarkable amount of firsthand knowledge about who Felix Sater is.

Which is why I find the timing of the interviews Sater has had with the three main Russia investigations to be so interesting. These are:

December 2017 [Leopold clarified this via Twitter]: Mueller interview

December 2017 [CNN has reported it occurring on the 20th]: HPSCI interview in lawyer’s office

April 2018: Scheduled interview with SSCI

This, in spite of the fact that Sater’s role in helping pitch a Ukrainian peace deal to Mike Flynn first got reported in February.

A week before Michael T. Flynn resigned as national security adviser, a sealed proposal was hand-delivered to his office, outlining a way for President Trump to lift sanctions against Russia.

[snip]

The amateur diplomats say their goal is simply to help settle a grueling, three-year conflict that has cost 10,000 lives. “Who doesn’t want to help bring about peace?” Mr. Cohen asked.

But the proposal contains more than just a peace plan. Andrii V. Artemenko, the Ukrainian lawmaker, who sees himself as a Trump-style leader of a future Ukraine, claims to have evidence — “names of companies, wire transfers” — showing corruption by the Ukrainian president, Petro O. Poroshenko, that could help oust him. And Mr. Artemenko said he had received encouragement for his plans from top aides to Mr. Putin.

[snip]

Mr. Artemenko said a mutual friend had put him in touch with Mr. Sater. Helping to advance the proposal, Mr. Sater said, made sense.

“I want to stop a war, number one,” he said. “Number two, I absolutely believe that the U.S. and Russia need to be allies, not enemies. If I could achieve both in one stroke, it would be a home run.”

After speaking with Mr. Sater and Mr. Artemenko in person, Mr. Cohen said he would deliver the plan to the White House.

Mr. Cohen said he did not know who in the Russian government had offered encouragement on it, as Mr. Artemenko claims, but he understood there was a promise of proof of corruption by the Ukrainian president.

“Fraud is never good, right?” Mr. Cohen said.

He said Mr. Sater had given him the written proposal in a sealed envelope. When Mr. Cohen met with Mr. Trump in the Oval Office in early February, he said, he left the proposal in Mr. Flynn’s office.

And in spite of the fact that Sater’s role in pitching a Trump Tower deal became known at least as early as August, when Michael Cohen reported it to Congress.

While Donald Trump was running for president in late 2015 and early 2016, his company was pursuing a plan to develop a massive Trump Tower in Moscow, according to several people familiar with the proposal and new records reviewed by Trump Organization lawyers.

As part of the discussions, a Russian-born real estate developer urged Trump to come to Moscow to tout the proposal and suggested that he could get President Vladimir Putin to say “great things” about Trump, according to several people who have been briefed on his correspondence.

The developer, Felix Sater, predicted in a November 2015 email that he and Trump Organization leaders would soon be celebrating — both one of the biggest residential projects in real estate history and Donald Trump’s election as president, according to two of the people with knowledge of the exchange.

Sater wrote to Trump Organization Executive Vice President Michael Cohen “something to the effect of, ‘Can you believe two guys from Brooklyn are going to elect a president?’ ” said one person briefed on the email exchange. Sater emigrated from what was then the Soviet Union when he was 6 and grew up in Brooklyn.

So even Mueller’s prosecutors, who know Sater well, waited at least four months before they interviewed him.

Plus, the timing of these interviews is interesting given the other known interview schedules (see this CNN timeline for the easiest comparison). Sater’s HPSCI interview, for example, took place the same week as long-time, loyal Trump assistant Rhona Graff got interviewed, at a time when Republicans had started blowing through interviews in an attempt to finish their investigation (HPSCI announced they were done with interviews today).

SSCI, by comparison, first tried to interview Michael Cohen — an important participant in both Sater roles — in September, but brought him back on October 25 after he released a public statement.

In Mueller’s investigation, Sater got interviewed around the same time the team was interviewing Hope Hicks and Don McGahn, really high level people with a good degree of personal exposure.

And of course, all of these interviews took place in the wake of the November 30 Mike Flynn plea deal, who reportedly received the Ukrainian pitch.

So December Mueller and HPSCI interviews and an April SSCI interview suggests that all parties, for different reasons, felt like they had to do a lot of work before bringing in Sater, in spite of the fact that he was an identified interest as soon as the Flynn concerns were raised. Remember, too, that the subpoena Mueller just issued to Sam Nunberg started at almost exactly the same time Sater was pitching that Trump Tower deal.

Mind you, I don’t know what to make of the timing. But I do find it interesting that Sater’s old friends didn’t immediately seek him out for his honest testimony.

The Mueller Subpoena Starts at the Moment a Real Estate Deal in Moscow Might Get Trump Elected

Axios got a copy of a subpoena someone got from Robert Mueller last month. It asks for all communications (including handwritten notes) “this witness sent and received regarding the following people.” The list of people includes a lot of people you’d expect, but it’s missing a few:

  1. Carter Page
  2. Corey Lewandowski
  3. Donald J. Trump
  4. Hope Hicks
  5. Keith Schiller
  6. Michael Cohen
  7. Paul Manafort
  8. Rick Gates
  9. Roger Stone
  10. Steve Bannon

Cooperating witnesses George Papadopoulos and Mike Flynn aren’t on this list, but cooperating witness Rick Gates is (which may date the subpoena to before Gates flipped on February 23). The order is of particular interest (or, maybe they’re just alpha order by first name): Page, the long term suspected Russian asset, followed immediately by Lewandowski, who was in the loop on the stolen email offer, followed by the President and those closest to him, followed by Manafort and his closest aide. Then Stone and then — in the same month he gave 20 hours of testimony — Bannon.

Neither Don Jr nor Kushner is on this list. Given the emphasis on communications “regarding” the listed people, and given the way that Abbe Lowell purposely avoided giving “about”communications to Congress (and possibly to Mueller), and also given that Jonathan Swan is Axios’ key White House scoopster, I actually don’t rule out the witness being Jared. Or, as I joked on Twitter, like Flynn and Papadopoulos, maybe he has already flipped and so isn’t on this list.

Whoever it is, the absences on the list are probably a function of who is legitimately in this person’s circle.

Perhaps most telling, however, is the timing: November 1, 2015, to the present. Recall that on November 3, sometime FBI informant Felix Sater sent Michael Cohen (on the list) an email promising that a real estate deal in Moscow might lead to Trump becoming President. (Here’s the original WaPo scoop on the story.)

On November 3, 2015, two months before the GOP primary started in earnest and barely over a year before the presidential election, mobbed up real estate broker and sometime FBI informant Felix Sater emailed Trump Organization Executive Vice President and Special Counsel to Trump, Michael Cohen. According to the fragment we read, Sater boasts of his access to Putin going back to 2006 (when the Ivanka incident reportedly happened), and said “we can engineer” “our boy” becoming “President of the USA.”

[snip]

Mr. Sater, a Russian immigrant, said he had lined up financing for the Trump Tower deal with VTB Bank, a Russian bank that was under American sanctions for involvement in Moscow’s efforts to undermine democracy in Ukraine. In another email, Mr. Sater envisioned a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Moscow.

“I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected,” Mr. Sater wrote.

That’s the start date Mueller uses for potential communications among people including Trump’s closest aides, including Cohen (but not including Sater) in the Russian investigation.

Update: Adding, we know that on October 21, 2016, the FBI had investigations into Manafort, Page, Stone, and possibly Gates. Is it possible this list is the sum of all those against whom sub-investigations have been opened (or were at the time this subpoena was issued)?

In Which Former NatSec Prosecutor Andrew McCarthy Embraces Russian Disinformation

Andrew McCarthy is one of the few right wingers I think all Trump opponents need to read. That’s true, partly, because his experience as a top NatSec prosecutor grants him an important perspective from which to assess the Trump investigation. And also, he engages in his own assessment of the evidence, as he has received it, even if he brings a far right bias to it.

McCarthy decides the dossier was key in the Page FISA order

Which is why defenders of the Christopher Steele dossier should read — and prepare to respond to — this column concluding (after some prior good faith consideration) that Democrats do have a problem with the way the dossier was used to justify an investigation against Trump. In it, McCarthy divorces his discussion from the known timeline and concludes that dossier is the true referent to Peter Strzok’s “insurance policy” text.

Was it the Steele dossier that so frightened the FBI? I think so.

[snip]

In sum, the FBI and DOJ were predisposed to believe the allegations in Steele’s dossier. Because of their confidence in Steele, because they were predisposed to believe his scandalous claims about Donald Trump, they made grossly inadequate efforts to verify his claims. Contrary to what I hoped would be the case, I’ve come to believe Steele’s claims were used to obtain FISA surveillance authority for an investigation of Trump.

McCarthy then points to this report (as I have) of Andrew McCabe pointing only to Carter Page’s trip to Moscow as validation of the dossier.

But when pressed to identify what in the salacious document the bureau had actually corroborated, the sources said, McCabe cited only the fact that Trump campaign adviser Carter Page had traveled to Moscow. Beyond that, investigators said, McCabe could not even say that the bureau had verified the dossier’s allegations about the specific meetings Page supposedly held in Moscow.

From that, McCarthy departs from prior points he has made about FBI’s corroboration of intelligence on FISA applications and ignores reports that FBI had a FISA order on Carter Page before the campaign (those reports admittedly might be disinformation, but then so might every single report pertaining to FISA orders) to suggest that the Steele dossier was the primary thing FBI used to get a FISA order on him (and, even more inaccurately, to justify the entire investigation). Here’s where McCarthy ends his piece.

The FBI always has information we do not know about. But given that Page has not been accused of a crime, and that the DOJ and FBI would have to have alleged some potential criminal activity to justify a FISA warrant targeting the former U.S. naval intelligence officer, it certainly seems likely that the Steele dossier was the source of this allegation. In conclusion, while there is a dearth of evidence to date that the Trump campaign colluded in Russia’s cyberespionage attack on the 2016 election, there is abundant evidence that the Obama administration colluded with the Clinton campaign to use the Steele dossier as a vehicle for court-authorized monitoring of the Trump campaign — and to fuel a pre-election media narrative that U.S. intelligence agencies believed Trump was scheming with Russia to lift sanctions if he were elected president.

McCarthy may well have a point. That is, I think his argument that DOJ’s predisposition to believe Steele may have led them to treat the dossier more credibly than it warranted. But as I said, to conclude the dossier is the main thing, he has to ignore reporting that Page had already had a FISA order (meaning FBI had already established, to the standard that FISC measures it, that Page might be involved in clandestine activity). He also doesn’t mention Chuck Grassley’s concerns about parallel construction, which he’d only have if he knew that FBI had corroborated the dossier intelligence (as McCarthy had been confident would have happened before this column). Nor does he mention that Page’s visit to Moscow was reported contemporaneously, in both Russian and DC. Further, as I lay out in this post, treating the dossier as definitive on August 15 doesn’t get you very far. Nor does McCarthy acknowledge that the public record makes clear that other pieces of intelligence also established a basis to open an investigation, regardless of what role the dossier contributed.

Still, as far as it goes, McCarthy’s argument thus far should at least be engaged by Trump opponents, because as far as it goes, it is a legitimate complaint.

FBI in no way let the dossier affect its election tampering, which ultimately worked to hurt Hillary

The first area where McCarthy goes off the rails, however, is in his suggestion that DOJ’s credulity about the dossier led the FBI to oppose Trump’s election, rather than fast-track an investigation into his ties with Russia.

He does this, first of all, by speculating — based on zero evidence — that FBI found out early on that the dossier was oppo research.

At some point, though, perhaps early on, the FBI and DOJ learned that the dossier was actually a partisan opposition-research product. By then, they were dug in. No one, after all, would be any the wiser: Hillary would coast to victory, so Democrats would continue running the government; FISA materials are highly classified, so they’d be kept under wraps.

I believe Steele’s public statements (which I admit are suspect) suggest the opposite. That is, I believe he was sufficiently compartmented from whoever was paying for the dossier such that he might not know about it (though that admittedly raises the stakes of what Bruce Ohr knew from his wife Nelly, and to what degree she was upholding client confidentiality).

McCarthy then suggests that FBI’s goal and actions reflect efforts to ensure Trump would not be elected.

[T]he suspicion is that, motivated by partisanship and spurred by shoddy information that it failed to verify, the FBI exploited its counterintelligence powers in hopes of derailing Trump’s presidential run.

[snip]

DOJ and FBI, having dropped a criminal investigation that undeniably established Hillary Clinton’s national-security recklessness, managed simultaneously to convince themselves that Donald Trump was too much of a national-security risk to be president.

Having laid out his argument that FBI gave Hillary a pass on her email investigation (yes, that part of this is laughable), McCarthy completely ignores the events of late October to make this claim.

First, he ignores that Jim Comey publicly reopened the investigation into Hillary less than two weeks before the election in large part because significant swaths of the FBI didn’t want her to win and Comey worried it would otherwise leak. You simply cannot say an FBI that did so was actively working to ensure a Hillary win.

Just as importantly, it appears that after it became publicly clear, with David Corn’s Steele story, that the dossier was oppo research, the FBI not only backed out of a plan to pay for its continuation, but leaked to the NYT that FBI had found nothing to substantiate any ties with Russia.

Note, this detail also provides a much better explanation for why the FBI backed out of its planned relationship with Steele in October, one that matches my supposition. As soon as it became clear Elias was leaking the dossier all over as oppo research, the FBI realized how inappropriate it was to use the information themselves, no matter how credible Steele is. This also likely explains why FBI seeded a story with NYT, one Democrats have complained about incessantly since, reporting “none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.” Ham-handed? Sure. But in the wake of Harry Reid and David Corn’s attempts to force FBI to reveal what Democratic oppo research had handed to FBI, the FBI needed to distance themselves from the oppo research, and make sure they didn’t become part of it. Particularly if Steele was not fully forthcoming about who was paying him, the FBI was fucked.

Whatever the facts about when it discovered the Democrats were funding the dossier, ultimately FBI went way out of its way to ensure the allegations in the dossier didn’t influence the election.

Wherein a former NatSec prosecutor yawns about Russian disinformation

At this point, I’m somewhat agnostic about the best explanation for all the shortcomings of the Steele dossier. It’s possible that, being offered money to support a conclusion, Steele just told his client what they wanted to hear, regardless of the actual reality (though that doesn’t accord with the public record on Steele’s credibility, at all). But it’s also possible that Russia learned about the dossier early on (possibly from Fusion researcher Rinat Akhmetshin), and spent a lot of time feeding Steele’s known sources disinformation. I’m increasingly leaning to the latter explanation, but I still remain agnostic.

Not McCarthy. He comes down squarely on the side of disinformation.

The dossier appears to contain misinformation. Knowing he was a spy-for-hire trusted by Americans, Steele’s Russian-regime sources had reason to believe that misinformation could be passed into the stream of U.S. intelligence and that it would be acted on — and leaked — as if it were true, to America’s detriment. This would sow discord in our political system. If the FBI and DOJ relied on the dossier, it likely means they were played by the Putin regime.

But McCarthy doesn’t think this through. And he doesn’t think it through even while proclaiming, abundant evidence to the the contrary, “there is a dearth of evidence to date that the Trump campaign colluded in Russia’s cyberespionage attack.”

There’s not a dearth of evidence!

To claim that there is, McCarthy ignores that longtime Trump associate Felix Sater was brokering deals with Russian oligarchs that he believed would get Trump elected in 2015. McCarthy ignores the likelihood George Papadopoulos warned the campaign of stolen emails, referred to as “dirt on Hillary,” even before the Democrats knew about any stolen emails. He ignores that Don Jr took a meeting (with Fusion associate Rinat Akhmetshin) based on a promise of dirt. He ignores that the broker behind the meeting, Rob Goldstone, found it eerie that stolen emails were released right after the meeting. McCarthy ignores that the substance of the meeting — sanctions relief — is precisely what Flynn was ordered to broker even before Trump was inaugurated, which Flynn is now explaining in depth in part because Jared Kushner withheld information that might have exonerated Flynn’s actions.

That is, McCarthy ignores that there’s a great deal of evidence, even in the public record, that Trump welcomed the release of stolen Hillary emails in a meeting at which sanctions were discussed, and that Trump promised to give Russia sanctions relief even before he was inaugurated.

Had he considered all this evidence, though, he might have had to think about why none of this shows up in the dossier, not even — especially not — the meeting which a Fusion research associate attended. Had he considered all this evidence, he would have had to think about how much the dossier looks like a distraction from all the evidence of collusion that was literally lying right before Fusion’s face. He also might have to consider how the dossier, paid for in response to the DNC hack, was worse than the public record precisely as it pertained to Russian hack and leaks.

Sure, it’s possible the Russians decided to plant a story of Trump collusion where no evidence existed, and did so well before Hillary’s investment in such a narrative was public (it would be interesting to know whether emails Russia stole in April would support such a narrative). It’s possible that’s what the disinformation of the dossier accomplishes. All that would be inconsistent with what everyone believed at the time, which is that Hillary would win.

That’s possible, sure.

But that’s not what the existing evidence supports. That is, if the dossier is disinformation, then it appears most likely to be disinformation that served as a distraction from the real collusion happening in easily researchable form. That’d be especially likely given that Manafort seems to have encouraged Trump to carry out precisely the counter propaganda that, with this column, McCarthy has now joined.

Three Months After Problematic John Sipher Post, Just Security Makes Clear It Let Known Errors Sit for Two Months

This post was first published on September 6, the same day John Sipher’s post was published. Because of something that happened today, December 10, I’m reposting it in its entirety, along with the two updates that make it clear when Just Security corrected one of the egregious errors I pointed out on September 6 two months later, around November 4, they didn’t credit me. In other words, they let a significant error sit for two months (and presumably haven’t even reviewed all the other problems I point out here, in spite of an extended conversation Ryan Goodman and I had about this post on September 6). Given the lefties are still making some of the same errors (notably, when Rachel Maddow hid how badly the Steele dossier was on the hack-and-leak by not mentioning the Guccifer 2.0 publications), the continued errors are telling. 

If I were to write this post now, it’d show a bunch more problems. But I believe the analysis from September stands up.


I generally find former CIA officer John Sipher’s work rigorous and interesting, if not always persuasive. Which is why I find the shoddiness of this post — arguing, just as Republicans in Congress and litigious Russians start to uncover information about the Christopher Steele dossier, that the dossier is not garbage  — so telling.

I don’t think the Steele dossier is garbage.

But neither do I think it supports the claim that it predicted a lot of information we’ve found since, something Sipher goes to great pains to argue. And there are far more problems with the dossier and its production than Sipher, who claims to be offering his wisdom about how to interpret raw intelligence, lets on. So the dossier isn’t garbage (though the story behind its production may well be). But Sipher’s post is. And given that it appears to be such a desperate — and frankly, unnecessary — attempt to reclaim the credibility of the dossier, it raises questions about why he feels the need.

Making and claiming accuracy for a narrative out of raw intelligence

Sipher’s project appears to be taking what he admits is raw intelligence and providing a narrative that he says we should continue to use to understand Trump’s Russian ties.

Close to the beginning of his piece, Sipher emphasizes that the dossier is not a finished intelligence report, but raw intelligence; he blames the media for not understanding the difference.

I spent almost thirty years producing what CIA calls “raw reporting” from human agents.  At heart, this is what Orbis did.  They were not producing finished analysis, but were passing on to a client distilled reporting that they had obtained in response to specific questions.  The difference is crucial, for it is the one that American journalists routinely fail to understand.

[snip]

Mr. Steele’s product is not a report delivered with a bow at the end of an investigation.  Instead, it is a series of contemporaneous raw reports that do not have the benefit of hindsight.

Sipher explains that you need analysts to make sense of these raw reports.

The onus for sorting out the veracity and for putting the reporting in context against other reporting – which may confirm or deny the new report – rests with the intelligence community’s professional analytic cadre.

He then steps into that role, an old clandestine services guy doing the work of the analysts. The result, he says, is a narrative he says we should still use — even in the wake of eight months of aggressive reporting since the dossier came out — in trying to understand what went on with the election.

As a result, they offer an overarching framework for what might have happened based on individuals on the Russian side who claimed to have insight into Moscow’s goals and operational tactics.  Until we have another more credible narrative, we should do all we can to examine closely and confirm or dispute the reports.

[snip]

Looking at new information through the framework outlined in the Steele document is not a bad place to start.

How to read a dossier

One thing Sipher aspires to do — something that would have been enormously helpful back in January — is explain how an intelligence professional converts those raw intelligence reports into a coherent report. He describes the first thing you do is source validation.

In the intelligence world, we always begin with source validation, focusing on what intelligence professionals call “the chain of acquisition.”  In this case we would look for detailed information on (in this order) Orbis, Steele, his means of collection (e.g., who was working for him in collecting information), his sources, their sub-sources (witting or unwitting), and the actual people, organizations and issues being reported on.

He goes to great lengths to explain how credible Steele is, noting even that he “was the President of the Cambridge Union at university.” I don’t dispute that Steele is, by all accounts, an accomplished intelligence pro.

But Sipher unwisely invests a great deal of weight into the fact that the FBI sought to work with Steele.

The fact that the FBI reportedly sought to work with him and to pay him to develop additional information on the sources suggest that at least some of them were worth taking seriously.  At the very least, the FBI will be able to validate the credibility of the sources, and therefore better judge the information.  As one recently retired senior intelligence officer with deep experience in espionage investigations quipped, “I assign more credence to the Steele report knowing that the FBI paid him for his research.  From my experience, there is nobody more miserly than the FBI.  If they were willing to pay Mr. Steele, they must have seen something of real value.”

This is flat-out dumb for two reasons. First, it is one of the things the GOP has used to discredit the dossier and prosecution — complaining (rightly) that the FBI was using a document designed as opposition research, possibly even to apply for a FISA warrant. If the FBI did that, I’m troubled by it.

More importantly, the actual facts about whether FBI did pay Steele are very much in dispute, with three different versions in the public record and Chuck Grassley claiming the FBI has been giving conflicting details about what happened (it’s likely that FBI paid Steele’s travel to the US but not for the dossier itself).

WaPo reported that Steele had reached a verbal agreement that the FBI would pay him to continue his investigation of Russia’s involvement with Trump after still unnamed Democrats stopped paying him after the election. CNN then reported that FBI actually had paid Steele for his expenses. Finally, NBC reported Steele backed out of the deal before it was finalized.

If the FBI planned to pay Steele, but got cold feet after Steele briefed David Corn for a piece that made explicit reference to the dossier, it suggests FBI may have decided the dossier was too clearly partisan for its continued use. In any case, citing a “recently retired senior intelligence officer” claiming the FBI did pay Steele should either be accompanied by a “BREAKING, confirming the detail no one else has been able to!” tag, or should include a caveat that the record doesn’t affirmatively support that claim.

After vouching for Steele (again, I don’t dispute Steele’s credentials), Sipher lays out the other things that need to happen to properly vet raw intelligence, which he claims we can’t do.

The biggest problem with confirming the details of the Steele “dossier” is obvious: we do not know his sources, other than via the short descriptions in the reports.  In CIA’s clandestine service, we spent by far the bulk of our work finding, recruiting and validating sources.  Before we would ever consider disseminating an intelligence report, we would move heaven and earth to understand the access, reliability, trustworthiness, motivation and dependability of our source.  We believe it is critical to validate the source before we can validate the reliability of the source’s information.  How does the source know about what he/she is reporting?  How did the source get the information?  Who are his/her sub-sources?  What do we know about the sub-sources?  Why is the source sharing the information?  Is the source a serious person who has taken appropriate measures to protect their efforts?

The thing is, we actually know answers to two of these questions. First, Steele’s sources shared the information (at least in part) because they were paid. [Update, 11/15: According to CNN, Glenn Simpson testified that Steele did not pay his sources. That somewhat conflicts with suggestions made by Mike Morell, who said Steele paid intermediaries who paid his sources, but Simpson’s testimony may simply be a cute legal parse.] That’s totally normal for spying, of course, but if Sipher aspires to explain to us how to assess the dossier, he needs to admit that money changes hands and that’s just the way things are done (again, that’s all the more important given that it’s one of the bases the GOP is using to discredit the report).

More importantly, Sipher should note that Steele worked one step removed — from London, rather than from Moscow — than an intelligence officer otherwise might. The reports may still be great, but that additional step introduces more uncertainty into the validation. It’s all the more important that Sipher address these two issues, because they’re the ones the GOP has been and will continue to use to discredit the dossier.

Ultimately, though, in his section on vetting the document, Sipher doesn’t deal with some key questions about the dossier. Way at the end of his piece, he questions whether we’re looking at the entire dossier.

We also don’t know if the 35 pages leaked by BuzzFeed is the entirety of the dossier.  I suspect not.

He doesn’t raise two other key questions about the provenance of the dossier we’ve been given, some of which I laid out when the dossier came out when I also noted that the numbering of the dossier by itself makes it clear it’s not the complete dossier. Importantly: is the copy of the dossier leaked to BuzzFeed an unaltered copy of what Steele delivered to Fusion, in spite of the weird textual artifacts in it? And how and why did the dossier get leaked to BuzzFeed, which Steele has told us was not one of the six outlets that he briefed on its contents.

Finally, Sipher includes the obligation to “openly acknowledge the gaps in understanding” outside of the section on vetting, which is telling given that he notes only a few of the obvious gaps in this dossier.

Sipher claims the dossier predicted what wasn’t known

So there are a lot of aspects of vetting Sipher doesn’t do, whether or not he has the ability to. But having done the vetting of checking Steele’s college extracurricular record, he declares the dossier has proven to be “stunningly accurate.”

Did any of the activities reported happen as predicted?

To a large extent, yes.

The most obvious occurrence that could not have been known to Orbis in June 2016, but shines bright in retrospect is the fact that Russia undertook a coordinated and massive effort to disrupt the 2016 U.S. election to help Donald Trump, as the U.S. intelligence community itself later concluded.  Well before any public knowledge of these events, the Orbis report identified multiple elements of the Russian operation including a cyber campaign, leaked documents related to Hillary Clinton, and meetings with Paul Manafort and other Trump affiliates to discuss the receipt of stolen documents.  Mr. Steele could not have known that the Russians stole information on Hillary Clinton, or that they were considering means to weaponize them in the U.S. election, all of which turned out to be stunningly accurate.

Now as I said above, I don’t believe the dossier is junk. But this defense of the dossier, specifically as formulated here, is junk. Central to Sipher’s proof that Steele’s dossier bears out are these claims:

  • Russia undertook a coordinated and massive effort to disrupt the 2016 U.S. election to help Donald Trump
  • The Orbis report identified multiple elements of the Russian operation including
    • A cyber campaign
    • Leaked documents related to Hillary Clinton
    • Meetings with Paul Manafort and other Trump affiliates to discuss the receipt of stolen documents

As I’ll show, these claims are, with limited exceptions, not actually what the dossier shows. Far later into the dossier, the reason Sipher frames it this way is clear. He’s taking validation from recent details about the June 9, 2016 meeting.

Of course, to determine if collusion occurred as alleged in the dossier, we would have to know if the Trump campaign continued to meet with Russian representatives subsequent to the June meeting.

The Steele dossier was way behind contemporary reporting on the hack-and-leak campaign

I consider the dossier strongest in its reports on early ties between Trump associates and Russians, as I’ll lay out below. But one area where it is — I believe this is the technical term — a shit-show is the section claiming the report predicted Russia’s hacking campaign.

Here’s how Sipher substantiates that claim.

By late fall 2016, the Orbis team reported that a Russian-supported company had been “using botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct ‘altering operations’ against the Democratic Party leadership.” Hackers recruited by the FSB under duress were involved in the operations. According to the report, Carter Page insisted that payments be made quickly and discreetly, and that cyber operators should go to ground and cover their tracks.

[snip]

Consider, in addition, the Orbis report saying that Russia was utilizing hackers to influence voters and referring to payments to “hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the Clinton campaign.” A January 2017 Stanford study found that “fabricated stories favoring Donald Trump were shared a total of 30 million times, nearly quadruple the number of pro-Hillary Clinton shares leading up to the election.”  Also, in November, researchers at Oxford University published a report based on analysis of 19.4 million Twitter posts from early November prior to the election.  The report found that an “automated army of pro-Trump chatbots overwhelmed Clinton bots five to one in the days leading up to the presidential election.”  In March 2017, former FBI agent Clint Watts told Congress about websites involved in the Russian disinformation campaign “some of which mysteriously operate from Eastern Europe and are curiously led by pro-Russian editors of unknown financing.”

The Orbis report also refers specifically to the aim of the Russian influence campaign “to swing supporters of Bernie Sanders away from Hillary Clinton and across to Trump,” based on information given to Steele in early August 2016. It was not until March 2017, however, that former director of the National Security Agency, retired Gen. Keith Alexander in Senate testimony said of the Russian influence campaign, “what they were trying to do is to drive a wedge within the Democratic Party between the Clinton group and the Sanders group.”

Here’s what the dossier actually shows about both kompromat on Hillary and hacking.

June 20: In the first report, issued 6 days after the DNC announced it had been hacked by Russia, and 5 days after Guccifer 2.0 said he had sent stolen documents to WikiLeaks, the dossier spoke of kompromat on Hillary, clearly described as years old wiretaps from when she was visiting Russia. While the report conflicts internally, one part of it said it had not been distributed abroad. As I note in this post, if true, that would mean the documents Natalia Veselnitsaka shared with Trump folks on June 9 was not the kompromat in question.

July 19: After Guccifer 2.0 had released 7 posts, most with documents, and after extended reporting concluding that he was a Russian front, the second report discussed kompromat — still seemingly meaning that dated FSB dossier — as if it were prospective.

July 26: Four days after WikiLeaks released DNC emails first promised in mid-June, Steele submitted a report claiming that Russian state hackers had had “only limited success in penetrating the ‘first tier’ of foreign targets. These comprised western (especially G7 and NATO) governments, security and intelligence services and central banks, and the IFIs.” There had been public reports of FSB-associated APT 29’s hacking of such targets since at least July 2015, and public reporting on their campaigns that should have been identified when DNC did a Google search in response to FBI’s warnings in September 2015. It’s stunning anyone involved in intelligence would claim Russia hadn’t had some success penetrating those first tier targets.

Report 095: An undated report, probably dating sometime between July 26 and July 30, did state that a Trump associate admitted Russia was behind WikiLeaks release of emails, something that had been widely understood for well over a month.

July 30: A few weeks before WikiLeaks reportedly got the second tranche of (Podesta) emails, a report states that Russia is worried that the email hacking operation is spiraling out of control so “it is unlikely that these [operations] would be ratcheted up.”

August 5: A report says Dmitry Peskov, who is reportedly in charge of the campaign, is “scared shitless” about being scapegoated for it.

August 10: Just days before WikiLeaks purportedly got the Podesta tranche of emails, a report says Sergei Ivanov said “Russians would not risk their position for the time being with new leaked material, even to a third party like WikiLeaks.”

August 10: Months after a contentious primary and over two weeks after Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation during the convention (purportedly because of DNC’s preference for Hillary), a report cites an ethnic Russian associate of Russian US presidential candidate Donald TRUMP campaign insider, not a Russian, saying the email leaks were designed to “swing supporters of Bernie SANDERS and away from Hillary CLINTON and across to TRUMP.” It attributes that plan to Carter Page, but does not claim any Russian government involvement in that strategy. Nor would it take a genius for anyone involved in American politics to pursue such a strategy.

August 22: A report on Manafort’s “demise” doesn’t mention emails or any kompromat.

September 14: Three months after Guccifer 2.0 first appeared, the dossier for the first time treated the Russians’ kompromat as the emails, stating that more might be released in late September. That might coincide with Craig Murray’s reported contact with a go-between (Murray has been very clear he did not ferry the emails themselves though he did have some contact in late September).

October 12: A week after the Podesta emails first started appearing, a report states that “a stream of further hacked CLINTON materials already had been injected by the Kremlin into compliant media outlets like Wikileaks, which remained at least “plausibly deniable”, so the stream of these would continue through October and up to the election, something Julian Assange had made pretty clear. See this report for more.

October 18, 19, 19: Three reports produced in quick succession describe Michael Cohen’s role in covering up the Trump-Russia mess, without making any explicit (unredacted) mention of emails. See this post on that timing.

December 13: A virgin birth report produced as the US intelligence community scrambled to put together the case against Russia for the first time ties Cohen to the emails in unredacted form).

What the timeline of the hacking allegations in the Steele dossier (and therefore also “predictions” about leaked documents) reveal is not that his sources predicted the hack-and-leak campaign, but on the contrary, he and his sources were unbelievably behind in their understanding of Russian hacking and the campaign generally (or his Russian sources were planting outright disinformation). Someone wanting to learn about the campaign would be better off simply hanging out on Twitter or reading the many security reports issued on the hack in real time.

Perhaps Sipher wants to cover this over when he claims that, “The Russian effort was aggressive over the summer months, but seemed to back off and go into cover-up mode following the Access Hollywood revelations and the Obama Administration’s acknowledgement of Russian interference in the fall, realizing they might have gone too far and possibly benefitted Ms. Clinton.” Sure, that’s sort of (though not entirely) what the dossier described. But the reality is that WikiLeaks was dropping new Podesta emails every day, Guccifer 2.0 was parroting Russian (and Republican) themes about a rigged election, and Obama was making the first ever cyber “red phone” call to Moscow because of Russia’s continued probes of the election infrastructure (part of the Russian effort about which both the dossier and Sipher’s post are silent).

The quotes Sipher uses to defend his claim are even worse. The first passage includes two clear errors. The report in question was actually the December 13 one, not “late fall 2016” one. And the Trump associate who agreed (in the alleged August meeting in Prague, anticipating that Hillary might win) to making quick payments to hackers was Michael Cohen, not Carter Page. [Update, 12/10/17: Just Security has fixed this error.] Many things suggest this particular report should be read with great skepticism, not least that it post-dated both the disclosure of the existence of the dossier and the election, and that this intelligence was offered up to Steele, not solicited, and was offered for free.

Next, Sipher again cites the December 13 report to claim Steele predicted something reported in a November Oxford University report (and anyway widely reported by BuzzFeed for months), which seems to require either a time machine or an explanation for why Steele didn’t report that earlier. He attributes a quote sourced to a Trump insider as indicating Russian strategy, which that report doesn’t support. And if you need Keith Alexander to suss out the logic of Democratic infighting that had been clear for six months, then you’re in real trouble!

Sipher would have been better off citing the undated Report 095 (which is another report about which there should be provenance questions), which relies on the same ethnic Russian Trump insider as the August 10 report, which claims agents/facilitators within the Democratic Party and Russian émigré hackers working in the United States — a claim that is incendiary but (short of proof that the Al-Awan brothers or Seth Rich really were involved) — one that has not been substantiated.

In short, the evidence in the dossier simply doesn’t support the claim it predicted two of the three things Sipher claims it does, at least not yet.

The dossier is stronger in sketchy contacts with Russians

The dossier is stronger with respect to some, but not all Trump associates. But even there, Sipher’s defense demonstrates uneven analytic work.

First, note that Sipher relies on “renowned investigative journalist” Michael Isikoff to validate some of these claims.

Renowned investigative journalist Michael Isikoff reported in September 2016 that U.S. intelligence sources confirmed that Page met with both Sechin and Divyekin during his July trip to Russia.

[snip]

A June 2017 Yahoo News article by Michael Isikoff described the Administration’s efforts to engage the State Department about lifting sanctions “almost as soon as they took office.”

Among the six journalists Steele admits he briefed on his dossier is someone from Yahoo.

The journalists initially briefed at the end of September 2016 by [Steele] and Fusion at Fusion’s instruction were from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, the New Yorker and CNN. [Steele] subsequently participated in further meetings at Fusion’s instruction with Fusion and the New York Times, the Washington Post and Yahoo News, which took place in mid-October 2016.

That the Yahoo journalist is Isikoff would be a cinch to guess. But we don’t have to guess, because Isikoff made it clear it was him in his first report after the dossier got leaked.

Another of Steele’s reports, first reported by Yahoo News last September, involved alleged meetings last July between then-Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page and two high-level Russian operatives, including Igor Sechin — a longtime associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin who became the chief executive of Rosneft, the Russian energy giant.

In other words, Sipher is engaging in navel-gazing here, citing a report based on the Steele dossier, to say it confirms what was in the Steele dossier.

Sipher similarly cites a NYT article that was among the most criticized for the way it interprets “senior Russian intelligence officials” loosely to include anyone who might be suspect of being a spook.

We have also subsequently learned of Trump’s long-standing interest in, and experience with Russia and Russians.  A February 2017 New York Times article reported that phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Trump’s campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian officials in the year before the election.  The New York Times article was also corroborated by CNN and Reuters independent reports.

The two reports he claims corroborate the NYT one fall far short of the NYT claim about talks with Russian intelligence officials — a distinction that is critical given what Sipher claims about Sergey Kislyak, which I note below.

Carter Page

Sipher cites the Carter Page FISA order as proof that some of these claims have held up.

What’s more, the Justice Department obtained a wiretap in summer 2016 on Page after satisfying a court that there was sufficient evidence to show Page was operating as a Russian agent.

But more recent reporting, by journalists Sipher elsewhere cites approvingly, reveals that Page had actually been under a FISA order as early as 2014.

Page had been the subject of a secret intelligence surveillance warrant since 2014, earlier than had been previously reported, US officials briefed on the probe told CNN.

Paul Manafort

I have no complaint with Sipher’s claims about Manafort — except to the extent he suggests Manafort’s Ukrainian corruption wasn’t know long before the election. Sipher does, however, repeat a common myth about Manafort’s influence on the GOP platform.

The quid pro quo as alleged in the dossier was for the Trump team to “sideline” the Ukrainian issue in the campaign.  We learned subsequently the Trump platform committee changed only a single plank in the 60-page Republican platform prior to the Republican convention.  Of the hundreds of Republican positions and proposals, they altered only the single sentence that called for maintaining or increasing sanctions against Russia, increasing aid for Ukraine and “providing lethal defensive weapons” to the Ukrainian military.  The Trump team changed the wording to the more benign, “appropriate assistance.”

Republicans have credibly challenged this claim about the platform. Bob Dole is credited with making the platform far harsher on China in the service of his Taiwanese clients. And Trump’s team also put in language endorsing the revival of Glass-Steagall, with support from Manafort and/or Carl Icahn.

Michael Cohen

Sipher’s discussion of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen is the weirdest of all, not least because the Cohen reports are the most incendiary but also because they were written at a time when Steele had already pitched the dossier to the media (making it far more likely the ensuing reports were the result of disinformation). Here’s how Sipher claims the Steele dossier reports have been validated.

We do not have any reporting that implicates Michael Cohen in meetings with Russians as outlined in the dossier.  However, recent revelations indicate his long-standing relationships with key Russian and Ukrainian interlocutors, and highlight his role in a previously hidden effort to build a Trump tower in Moscow. During the campaign, those efforts included email exchanges with Trump associate Felix Sater explicitly referring to getting Putin’s circle involved and helping Trump get elected.

Go look at that “recent revelations” link. It goes to this Josh Marshall post which describes its own sourcing this way:

TPM Reader BR flagged my attention to this 2007 article in The New York Post.

[snip]

Because two years ago, in February 2015, New York real estate trade sheet The Real Deal reported that Cohen purchased a $58 million rental building on the Upper East Side.

This is not recent reporting!! Again, this is stuff that was publicly known before the election.

More importantly, given Cohen’s rebuttal to the dossier, Marshall supports a claim that Cohen has ties to Ukraine, not Russia. The dossier, however, claims Cohen has ties to the latter, as Cohen mockingly notes.

Felix Sater

Then there are the Trump associates who are now known to have been central to any ties between Trump and the Russians that the Steele dossier didn’t cite — as least not as subjects (all could well be sources, which raises other questions). The first is Felix Sater, whom Sipher discusses three times in suggesting that the dossier accurately predicts Cohen’s involvement in the Russian negotiations.

To take one example, the first report says that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was responsible for Russia’s compromising materials on Hillary Clinton, and now we have reports that Michael Cohen had contacted Peskov directly in January 2016 seeking help with a Trump business deal in Moscow (after Cohen received the email from Trump business associate Felix Sater saying “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this.”).

[snip]

Following the inauguration, Cohen was involved, again with Felix Sater, to engage in back-channel negotiations seeking a means to lift sanctions via a semi-developed Russian-Ukrainian plan (which also included the hand delivery of derogatory information on Ukrainian leaders) also fits with Orbis reporting related to Cohen.

Given that Sater’s publicly known links between mobbed up Russians and Trump go back a decade, why isn’t he mentioned in the dossier? And why does the dossier seemingly contradict these claims about an active Trump Tower deal?

Aras Agalarov and Rinat Akhmetshin

There are far more significant silences about two other Trump associates, Aras Agalarov and Rinat Akhmetshin.

To be fair, the dossier isn’t entirely silent about the former, noting in at one place that Agalarov would be the guy to go to to learn about dirt on Trump in Petersburg (elsewhere he could be a source).

Far, far more damning is the dossier’s silence (again, at least as a subject rather than source) about Akhmetshin. That’s long been one of the GOP complaints about the dossier — that Akhmetshin was closely involved with Fusion GPS on Magnitsky work in parallel with the Trump dossier, which (if Akhmetshin really is still tied to Russian intelligence) would provide an easy feedback loop to the Russians. The dossier’s silence on someone well known to Fusion GPS is all the more damning given the way that Sipher points to the June 9 meeting (which the dossier didn’t report, either) as proof that the dossier has been vindicated.

It was also apparently news to investigators when the New York Times in July 2017 published Don Jr’s emails arranging for the receipt of information held by the Russians about Hillary Clinton. How could Steele and Orbis know in June 2016 that the Russians were working actively to elect Donald Trump and damage Hillary Clinton?

[snip]

To take another example, the third Orbis report says that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was managing the connection with the Kremlin, and we now know that he was present at the June 9 2016 meeting with Donald Trump, Jr., Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin, who has reportedly boasted of his ties to ties and experience in Soviet intelligence and counterintelligence.  According to a recent New York Times story, “Akhmetshin told journalists that he was a longtime acquaintance of Paul J. Manafort.”

There’s no allegation that investigations didn’t know about June 2016 plan to hurt Hillary (indeed, the Guccifer 2.0 stuff that Sipher ignores was public to all). Rather they didn’t know — but neither did Fusion, who has an established relationship with Akhmetshin — about the meeting involving Akhmetshin. If you’re going to claim the June 9 meeting proves anything, it’s that the dossier as currently known has a big hole right in Fusion’s client/researcher list.

Sergey Kislyak

Which brings me — finally! — to Sipher’s weird treatment of Sergey Kislyak. Sipher argues (correctly) that Trump associates’ failure to report details of their contacts with Russians may support a conspiracy claim.

 Of course, the failure of the Trump team to report details that later leaked out and fit the narrative may make the Steele allegations appear more prescient than they otherwise might.  At the same time, the hesitancy to be honest about contacts with Russia is consistent with allegations of a conspiracy.

Of course, Trump’s folks have failed to report details of that June 9 meeting as well as meetings with Sergey Kislyak. Having now invested his vindication story on that June 9 meeting, he argues that reports about Kislyak (on which the NYT article he cites approvingly probably rely) are misguided; we need to look to that June 9 meeting intead.

It should be noted in this context, that the much-reported meetings with Ambassador Kislyak do not seem to be tied to the conspiracy. He is not an intelligence officer, and would be in the position to offer advice on politics, personalities and political culture in the United States, but would not be asked to engage in espionage activity.  It is likewise notable that Ambassador Kislyak receives only a passing reference in the Steele dossier and only having to do with his internal advice on the political fallout in the U.S. in reaction to the Russian campaign.

Of course, to determine if collusion occurred as alleged in the dossier, we would have to know if the Trump campaign continued to meet with Russian representatives subsequent to the June meeting.

This seems utterly bizarre. We know what happened after June 9, in part: Per Jared Kushner (who also is not mentioned in the dossier or Sipher’s column), immediately after the election Kislyak started moving towards meeting about Syria (not Ukraine). But in the process, Kushner may have asked for a back channel and at Kislyak’s urging, Kushner took a meeting with the head of a sanctioned bank potentially to talk about investments in his family’s debt-ridden empire. And all that is the lead-up to the Mike Flynn calls with Kislyak about sanctions relief which provide some of the proof that Trump was willing to deliver the quo that the dossier claims got offered for quids.

That latter story — of the meetings Kushner and Flynn did in the wake of the election and events that may have taken place since — is every bit as coherent a narrative as the Steele dossier or the entirely new narratives tied to the June 9 meeting (which Sipher claims are actually the Steele narrative).

Of course, neither is yet evidence of collusion. And that’s, frankly, what we as citizens should be after.

A narrative offered up by an intelligence contractor who was always trying to catch up to the central part of the story — the hack-and-leak — is not what we should be striving for. That’s why this dossier is probably mostly irrelevant to the Mueller probe, no matter how the GOP would like to insinuate the opposite. If there was collusion (or rather, coordination on all this stuff between the campaign and Russia), we should expect evidence of it. The Steele dossier, as I have noted, left out one of the key potential proofs of that, in spite of having ties with someone who attended the meeting.

All that said, it would be useful for someone responsible to respond to GOP criticisms and, where invented (such as with the claim that Steele paying sources diminishes its value), demonstrate that. It would be useful for someone to explain what we should take from the dossier.

Sipher didn’t do that, though. Indeed, his post largely suffers from the same bad analysis he accuses the media of.

Update: In the original I got the date of the final report incorrect. That has been corrected.

Update, 12/10/17: I didn’t realize it, but Just Security updated Sipher’s post to include this language, which it explains with an editor’s note saying “Editor’s note: This article was update to provide additional analysis on Carter Page.” Compare this with this. Here’s the language.

Admittedly, Isikoff’s reporting may have relied on Steele himself for that information. Isikoff, however, also reported that U.S. intelligence officials were confident enough in the information received about Page’s meeting Russian officials to brief senior members of Congress on it. There are also other indicia that are also consistent with the Orbis report but only developed or discovered later. In early December 2016, Page returned to Moscow where he said he had “the opportunity to meet with an executive from” Sechin’s state oil company. In April 2017, Page confirmed that he met with and passed documents to a Russian intelligence officer in 2013. Court documents include an intercept in April 2013 of conversations between the Russians discussing their effort to recruit Page as “as an intelligence source.” A Russian intelligence officer said of Page: “He got hooked on Gazprom … I don’t know, but it’s obvious that he wants to earn lots of money … For now his enthusiasm works for me. I also promised him a lot … You promise a favor for a favor. You get the documents from him and tell him to go fuck himself.” In late December 2016, Sechin’s chief of staff, Oleg Erovinkin “who may have been a source for ex-British spy Christopher Steele’s Trump dossier,” according to multiple reports, was found dead in the back of his car in Moscow.

But this passage introduces new errors for Sipher’s post!

First, here’s the language (in an article Just Security never links) Sipher relies on to justify using Isikoff’s Steele-based reporting to claim Steele had been proven correct.

After one of those briefings, Senate minority leader Harry Reid wrote FBI Director James Comey, citing reports of meetings between a Trump adviser (a reference to Page) and “high ranking sanctioned individuals” in Moscow over the summer as evidence of “significant and disturbing ties” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin that needed to be investigated by the bureau.

Some of those briefed were “taken aback” when they learned about Page’s contacts in Moscow, viewing them as a possible back channel to the Russians that could undercut U.S. foreign policy, said a congressional source familiar with the briefings but who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject. The source added that U.S. officials in the briefings indicated that intelligence reports about the adviser’s talks with senior Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin were being “actively monitored and investigated.”

A senior U.S. law enforcement official did not dispute that characterization when asked for comment by Yahoo News. “It’s on our radar screen,” said the official about Page’s contacts with Russian officials. “It’s being looked at.”

It is true that “U.S. intelligence officials were confident enough in the information received about Page’s meeting Russian officials to brief senior members of Congress on it,” and that Harry Reid was leaking from the Steele dossier just like Isikoff was. But the “senior US law enforcement officer” does not back the identities of those Page met with, just that “it’s being looked at.”

That’s important for the way that Page’s meetings with people other than Igor Sechin have been used to claim the dossier has borne out. Not-A = A. Which is what Sipher does here, by pointing to Page saying he met with Rosneft but not Sechin. “Page says he was not referring to Sechin in his remarks,” the linked AP story says (as does Page’s congressional testimony).

Then Sipher points to language unsealed in a court filing in January 2015 that Page admitted — after reporting on it — was him. That Page was wrapped up in an earlier Russian spy prosecution is another of those things one might ask why Steele didn’t know, particularly given that the filing and the case was already public.

But the citation also exacerbates the problems with Sipher’s reliance on Page’s FISA wiretap as proof the Steele dossier proved out. As I noted above, later reports stated Page had been under FISA wiretap “since 2014, earlier than had been previously reported, US officials briefed on the probe told CNN.” That means it wasn’t the meetings in Russia, per se, that elicited the interest, but (at least) the earlier interactions with Russian spies.

Finally, Sipher points to the death of Oleg Erovinkin, something I’ve pointed to myself (and which would only be “Carter Page” analysis if Page actually had met with Sechin). Since Sipher updated this post, however, Luke Harding wrote (on page 101),

Steele was adamant that Erovinkin wasn’t his source and “not one of ours.”

As a person close to Steele put it to me: “Sometimes people just die.”

I’m not sure I find Harding entirely reliable elsewhere, and I can see why Steele would deny working with Erovinkin if the leak of his work had gotten the man killed. But if you buy Harding, then Erovinkin no longer proves the value of the Steele dossier either.

Update, 12/10: According to the Wayback Machine this change was made between October 25 and November 6. Ryan Goodman explained that he didn’t give me a hat-tip for this correction because he’s not sure whether he corrected because of me because a Daily Caller reporter also weighed in.

It is true that Chuck Ross (with whom I discuss the dossier regularly) tweeted that Sipher’s Isikoff reference was self-confirming on November 4, shortly before the change was made.

Ryan and I had a conversation about the errors in this piece on September 6, when the post first came out, both on Twitter then–late that evening–on DM. I included a link to my post and he said he was going to read it.

I guess Ryan is now confessing he never read this post, and let notice of egregious errors sit unreviewed for two months, because he didn’t like my tone.

 

SSCI Plays Hardball with Michael Cohen’s Attempt to Distract from Trump Tower Deal

Just before it was supposed to start, SSCI canceled Michael Cohen’s private interview with the committee. They did so, per a statement from Richard Burr and Mark Warner, because Cohen broke an agreement not to talk to the press by releasing what has generally been described as “his statement” to the press beforehand.

We were disappointed that Mr. Cohen decided to pre-empt today’s interview by releasing a public statement prior to his engagement with Committee staff, in spite of the Committee’s requests that he refrain from public comment. As a result, we declined to move forward with today’s interview and will reschedule Mr. Cohen’s appearance before the Committee in open session at a date in the near future. The Committee expects witnesses in this investigation to work in good faith with the Senate.

But in point of fact, what got published as his “statement” was not the entirety of it. Close to the end of the “statement” is this paragraph, alluding to a further two page statement on the Trump Tower deal that somehow didn’t get leaked.

I assume we will discuss the rejected proposal to build a Trump property in Moscow that was terminated in January of 2016; which occurred before the Iowa caucus and months before the very first primary. This was solely a real estate deal and nothing more. I was doing my job. I would ask that the two-page statement about the Moscow proposal that I sent to the Committee in August be incorporated into and attached to this transcript.

Other than that paragraph, mind you, Cohen’s statement closely parallels the letter to HPSCI Cohen released last month after spending a week distracting from and pre-empting the Trump Tower story. Both deny the allegations in the Christopher Steele dossier, and try to suggest that if he is found innocent of those allegations, then HPSCI and/or SSCI must issue a statement exonerating him.

In other words, with both committees, Cohen has manipulated the press so as to set a narrative about his testimony, a narrative that treats the Steele dossier as the entirety of his expose, rather than the now far more interesting (and interestingly time) real estate deal.

Four days ago, Michael Cohen (or the Trump Organization) pre-empted revelations that would leak as soon as he turned over a third tranche of documents to the House Intelligence Committee by revealing a seemingly damning detail from it: along with Trump’s associate Felix Sater, Cohen was pursuing a Trump Tower deal in Moscow well after Trump’s campaign was in full swing. Sure enough, more damning information was still to come: Sater somehow imagined the deal — whatever it was — would get Trump elected. Then still more damning information: in January 2016, Cohen reached out to trusted Putin aide Dmitry Peskov to push for help on the deal. That’s when Cohen began to not recall precisely what happened, and also ignore questions about why he hadn’t told Trump about this call, unlike the other actions he took on this deal.

[snip]

All that said, the way in which Cohen has orchestrated this disclosure — up to and including his failures to recall and answer obvious questions — is either great lawyering and/or sign that this earlier deal making is a real problem.

Of course, Burr and Warner were having none of this narrative scene setting and so now will force Cohen to testify publicly.

Cohen is sure spending a lot of time orchestrating distractions from this property deal. A pity for him his second attempt didn’t work as well as the first one.