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Putin’s Ghost: The Counterintelligence Calculus Not Included in the Obstruction Analysis

The Mueller Report does not include the investigation’s counterintelligence analysis. It says that explicitly here (see also this Ben Wittes report, though I think he gets a few things wrong).

From its inception, the Office recognized that its investigation could identify foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information relevant to the FBI’s broader national security mission. FBI personnel who assisted the Office established procedures to identify and convey such information to the FBI. The FBI’s Counterintelligence Division met with the Office regularly for that purpose for most of the Office’s tenure. For more than the past year, the FBI also embedded personnel at the Office who did not work on the Special Counsel’s investigation, but whose purpose was to review the results of the investigation and to send-in writing-summaries of foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information to FBIHQ and FBI Field Offices. Those communications and other correspondence between the Office and the FBI contain information derived from the investigation, not all of which is contained in this Volume. This Volume is a summary. It contains, in the Office’s judgment, that information necessary to account for the Special Counsel’s prosecution and declination decisions and to describe the investigation’s main factual results. [my emphasis]

These FBI Agents were only co-located for part of Mueller’s tenure, perhaps around the same time as the IRA indictment? And this description does not include the three NSD prosecutors described as detailees, Heather Alpino, Ryan Dickey, and Jessica Romero, as distinct from prosecutors originally assigned to Mueller.

Plus, we know there was always a counterintelligence focus to this investigation; all the initial subjects of it (Manafort, Page, Papadopoulos, and Flynn) were counterintelligence concerns. Other Trump associates got added in October 2017, but even there, the investigation into Michael Cohen started as a FARA investigation and Gates and probably others were brought in along with Manafort’s counterintelligence concerns. Then there’s Trump (who must have been brought in for obstruction, but I don’t think the report says how).

But the most significant thing that doesn’t show up in this report is whether Trump was undercutting the investigation as a favor to Russia, reportedly one of the concerns Rod Rosenstein had when he first hired Mueller. This report does not explicitly treat that concern, at all (to significant detriment to one area of its analysis, as I’ll show in a follow-up post).

That’s most evident in the way the report deals with Vladimir Putin in the post-inauguration period. The report itself invokes Putin at least 163 times, often describing the many different efforts to set up a meeting between Putin and Trump. But when Trump actually started meeting with top Russian officials — and Putin specifically — the report gets quiet.

We finally get a read-out of the January 28 phone call

Start with the phone call between Trump and Putin on January 28, 2017. The report describes that setting up this call was among the things Mike Flynn spoke to Sergey Kislyak about.

Flynn discussed multiple topics with Kislyak, including the sanctions, scheduling a video teleconference between President-Elect Trump and Putin, an upcoming terrorism conference, and Russia’s views about the Middle East.

That Kislyak asked him to set up the call was actually something Flynn told the FBI the truth about in his interview with the FBI. More importantly, the report reveals several details that previous reporting about the George Nader channel did not: first, the role of Jared Kushner’s hedge fund buddy Rick Gerson in that back channel with Kirill Dmitriev, and the role that a “reconciliation plan” that Dmitriev got to Kushner via Gerson played in that January 28 meeting.

On January 16, 2017, Dmitriev consolidated the ideas for U.S.-Russia reconciliation that he and Gerson had been discussing into a two-page document that listed five main points: (1) jointly fighting terrorism; (2) jointly engaging in anti-weapons of mass destruction efforts; (3) developing “win-win” economic and investment initiatives; (4) maintaining an honest, open, and continual dialogue regarding issues of disagreement; and (5) ensuring proper communication and trust by “key people” from each country. 1111 On January 18, 2017, Gerson gave a copy of the document to Kushner. 1112 Kushner had not heard of Dmitriev at that time. 1113 Gerson explained that Dmitriev was the head of RDIF, and Gerson may have alluded to Dmitriev’s being well connected. 1114 Kushner placed the document in a file and said he would get it to the right people. 1115 Kushner ultimately gave one copy of the document to Bannon and another to Rex Tillerson; according to Kushner, neither of them followed up with Kushner about it. 1116 On January 19, 2017, Dmitriev sent Nader a copy of the two-page document, telling him that this was “a view from our side that I discussed in my meeting on the islands and with you and with our friends. Please share with them – we believe this is a good foundation to start from.” 1117

Gerson informed Dmitriev that he had given the document to Kushner soon after delivering it. 1118 On January 26, 2017, Dmitriev wrote to Gerson that his “boss”-an apparent reference to Putin-was asking if there had been any feedback on the proposal. 1119 Dmitriev said, ” [w]e do not want to rush things and move at a comfortable speed. At the same time, my boss asked me to try to have the key US meetings in the next two weeks if possible.”1120 He informed Gerson that Putin and President Trump would speak by phone that Saturday, and noted that that information was “very confidential.”1121

The same day, Dmitriev wrote to Nader that he had seen his “boss” again yesterday who had “emphasized that this is a great priority for us and that we need to build this communication channel to avoid bureaucracy.” 1122 On January 28, 2017, Dmitriev texted Nader that he wanted “to see if I can confirm to my boss that your friends may use some of the ideas from the 2 pager I sent you in the telephone call that will happen at 12 EST,”1123 an apparent reference to the call scheduled between President Trump and Putin. Nader replied, “Definitely paper was so submitted to Team by Rick and me. They took it seriously!”1124 After the call between President Trump and Putin occurred, Dmitriev wrote to Nader that “the call went very well. My boss wants me to continue making some public statements that us [sic] Russia cooperation is good and important.” 1125 Gerson also wrote to Dmitriev to say that the call had gone well, and Dmitriev replied that the document they had drafted together “played an important role.” 1126 [my emphasis]

This was a meeting that the US side provided just a terse readout of (and, if I remember correctly, only after Russia released its readout). 27 months later, we’re learning that Dmitriev (whose bank was of questionable status because of sanctions) and convicted pedophile Nader were prepping the meeting less than an hour before it began (the report cites text messages between them from 11:05 and 11:11 AM the morning of the 12PM meeting, as well as texts involving Gerson). Between them, the two of them plus Gerson (none of whom had clearance) had a better sense of how the meeting went than the American public. Among the things they learned — but we did not — was that part of the reconciliation plan included “win-win” economic and investment initiatives pitched by the head of RDIF.

The lead-up to this meeting is the subject about which Steve Bannon and Erik Prince mysteriously lost the encrypted texts they exchanged discussing it.

While the report does describe this meeting in its assessment of links between Russians and Trump associates, it doesn’t focus on how it lines up with questions about firing Mike Flynn.

The correlation of Trump’s decision to fire Comey and his conversation with Putin

The report gets still more coy when it describes the role of a meeting with Sergey Lavrov and Sergey Kislyak the day after Trump fired Jim Comey. One of the most pregnant footnotes in the report (h/t Laura Rozen) notes that the May 10, 2017 meeting was planned in a call between Putin and Trump and confirmed the day Trump first dictated the Comey termination at Bedminster Golf Course.

468 SCR08_000353 (5/9/17 White House Document, “Working Visit with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia”); SCR08_001274 (5/10/17 Email, Ciaramella to Kelly et al.). The meeting had been planned on May 2, 2017, during a telephone call between the President and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the meeting date was confirmed on May 5, 2017, the same day the President dictated ideas for the Comey termination letter to Stephen Miller. SCR08_001274 (5/10/17 Email, Ciaramella to Kelly et al.).

According to Don McGahn, in the leadup to Comey’s May 3 testimony to Congress, Trump told him that if Comey did not confirm that Trump was not under investigation it would “be the last straw” because it was “hurting his ability to … deal with foreign leaders.”

McGahn recalled that in the week leading up to the hearing, the President said that it would be the last straw if Comey did not take the opportunity to set the record straight by publicly announcing that the President was not under investigation.384 The President had previously told McGahn that the perception that the President was under investigation was hurting his ability to carry out his presidential duties and deal with foreign leaders.385

Trump brought up Comey at least 8 times with Bannon in the following two days, and Bannon warned Trump not to fire Comey.

Bannon recalled that the President brought Comey up with him at least eight times on May 3 and May 4, 2017 .399 According to Bannon, the President said the same thing each time: “He told me three times I’m not under investigation. He’s a showboater. He’s a grandstander. I don’t know any Russians. There was no collusion.”400 Bannon told the President that he could not fire Comey because “that ship had sailed.”401 Bannon also told the President that firing Comey was not going to stop the investigation, cautioning him that he could fire the FBI director but could not fire the FBI.402

On the 5th — the day (the report helpfully notes) the Russian meeting was confirmed — Trump dictated to Stephen Miller to start Comey’s termination letter by stating that the Trump-Russia story was fabricated.

[T]he President told Miller that the letter should start, “While I greatly appreciate you informing me that I am not under investigation concerning what I have often stated is a fabricated story on a Trump-Russia relationship – pertaining to the 2016 presidential election, please be informed that I, and I believe the American public – including Ds and Rs – have lost faith in you as Director of the FBI.”

Trump prohibited Miller from telling anyone at the White House about his plan to fire Comey.

All that would lead you to believe the report might make further note about this correlation, about the appearance (which had already been suggested, but the report makes far more clear) that Trump took action in advance of that meeting.

It doesn’t really. The description of the meeting does make clear that, in the wake of Trump’s comments to Lavrov boasting about firing Comey, the White House released a statement that incorporated and expanded on the language about Comey’s grandstanding from finalized Miller letter drafted at Bedminster.

In the morning on May 10, 2017, President Trump met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office.468 The media subsequently reported that during the May 10 meeting the President brought up his decision the prior day to terminate Comey, telling Lavrov and Kislyak: “T just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off. … I’m not under investigation.”469 The President never denied making those statements, and the White House did not dispute the account, instead issuing a statement that said: “By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia. The investigation would have always continued, and obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it. Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified information.”470 Hicks said that when she told the President about the reports on his meeting with Lavrov, he did not look concerned and said of Comey, “he is crazy.”471 When McGahn asked the President about his comments to Lavrov, the President said it was good that Comey was fired because that took the pressure off by making it clear that he was not under investigation so he could get more work done.472 [my emphasis]

What the report doesn’t mention, at all, is that Trump shared sensitive Israeli intelligence with the Russians at this meeting, an obvious counterintelligence concern.

Trump’s secret co-author on the June 9 meeting statement

An even more remarkable silence in the report pertains to the conversation Trump had with Putin at the G20 while his team was working on drafting the statement about the June 9 meeting.

The description of Trump’s actions on this matter are fairly superlative, with Hope Hicks describing Trump in what is best described as denial, refusing to be included in conversations about it, yet strongly suggesting that it was Trump making the comment — suggesting they could withhold the damning emails — that Mark Corallo later attributed to her. Hicks even describes Trump as committing what he considered the ultimate sin, not commenting on a story.

On July 7, 2017, while the President was overseas, Hicks and Raffel learned that the New York Times was working on a story about the June 9 meeting.695 The next day, Hicks told the President about the story and he directed her not to comment.696 Hicks thought the President’s reaction was odd because he usually considered not responding to the press to be the ultimate sin.697

The report then describes how (in what would have been in the wake of Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with Putin) Trump instructed her to claim the meeting was just about adoptions. It then describes Trump dictating a statement, watering down the offer of dirt to just adoptions, something that not even Don Jr was willing to put out.

Later that day, Hicks and the President again spoke about the story.698 Hicks recalled that the President asked her what the meeting had been about, and she said that she had been told the meeting was about Russian adoption.699 The President responded, “then just say that.”700

On the flight home from the G20 on July 8, 2017, Hicks obtained a draft statement about the meeting to be released by Trump Jr. and brought it to the President.701 The draft statement began with a reference to the information that was offered by the Russians in setting up the meeting: “I was asked to have a meeting by an acquaintance I knew from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant with an individual who I was told might have information helpful to the campaign.”702 Hicks again wanted to disclose the entire story, but the President directed that the statement not be issued because it said too much.703 The President told Hicks to say only that Trump Jr. took a brief meeting and it was about Russian adoption.704 After speaking with the President, Hicks texted Trump Jr. a revised statement on the June 9 meeting that read:

It was a short meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at that time and there was no follow up. 705

Hicks’s text concluded, “Are you ok with this? Attributed to you.”706 Trump Jr. responded by text message that he wanted to add the word “primarily” before “discussed” so that the statement would read, “We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children.”707 Trump Jr. texted that he wanted the change because “[t]hey started with some Hillary thing which was bs and some other nonsense which we shot down fast. “708 Hicks texted back, “I think that’s right too but boss man worried it invites a lot of questions[.) [U]ltimately [d]efer to you and [your attorney] on that word Be I know it’s important and I think the mention of a campaign issue adds something to it in case we have to go further.” 709 Trump Jr. responded, “lfl don’t have it in there it appears as though I’m lying later when they inevitably leak something.” 710

The passage mentions nothing about Trump’s meeting, with no American aides, with Putin at the G20 dinner in between the first discussion of a statement about adoptions and the one Trump drafted personally.

Nor does the report, in repeated discussions of Trump’s unplanned interview with the NYT at which he admitted discussing adoptions with Putin that night, mention that admission.

Within hours of the President’s meeting with Lewandowski on July 19, 2017, the President gave an unplanned interview to the New York Times in which he criticized Sessions’s decision to recuse from the Russia investigation.630 The President said that “Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else.”631 Sessions’s recusal, the President said, was “very unfair to the president. How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I can’t, you know, I’m not going to take you.’ It’s extremely unfair, and that’s a mild word, to the president.”632 Hicks, who was present for the interview, recalled trying to “throw [herself] between the reporters and [the President]” to stop parts of the interview, but the President “loved the interview.”633

[snip]

On July 19, 2017, the President had his follow-up meeting with Lewandowski and then met with reporters for the New York Times. In addition to criticizing Sessions in his Times interview, the President addressed the June 9, 2016 meeting and said he “didn’t know anything about the meeting” at the time.734 The President added, “As I’ve said-most other people, you know, when they call up and say, ‘By the way, we have information on your opponent,’ I think most politicians – I was just with a lot of people, they said … , ‘Who wouldn’t have taken a meeting like that?”‘735

Trump’s admission that he spoke to Putin about adoptions in the same interview where he prepared the ground to fire Sessions and insisted that everyone would take a meeting with foreigners offering dirt on your opponent would seem important to the discussion of whether in attempting to fire Sessions, Trump was obstructing not a criminal investigation into his own conduct, but a counterintelligence investigation into his own ties with Putin.

But the report not only doesn’t consider it, the report doesn’t mention it.

Nor does the report discuss some of the other bizarre Trump interactions with Putin, most of all the Helsinki meeting that took place in the wake of the release of the GRU indictment, leading Trump to yet again very publicly deny Russia’s role in the attack, that time in the presence of Putin himself.

Now, there may be very good constitutional reasons why the analysis of Trump’s weird relationship with Putin as President is not part of this report. The President is empowered with fairly unlimited authority to conduct foreign policy and to declassify information, which would cover these instances.

Plus, if Mueller conducted this analysis, you wouldn’t want to share that publicly so the Russians could read it.

But it must be noted that the report doesn’t answer what a lot of people think it does: whether Trump has been compromised by Russia, leading him to pursue policies damaging to US interests. Let me very clear: I don’t think Trump is a puppet being managed by Vladimir Putin. But contrary to a great number of claims that this report puts those concerns to rest, the report does the opposite. With the limited exception of the suggestion of a tie between firing Comey and the meeting with Lavrov, the report doesn’t even mention the key incidents that would be the subject of such analysis.

If anything, new details released in this report provide even further reason to think Trump obstructed the Russian investigation to halt the counterintelligence analysis of his ties with Russia. But the report itself doesn’t ever explicitly consider whether that’s why Trump obstructed this investigation.

Update: As TC noted, one thing the report does include is the detail that during a period he was trying to fire Sessions, Trump wanted him to limit Mueller’s mandate to future elections, which would have the effect of limiting the investigation into Russia’s crime as well as any potential exposure of his own.

During the June 19 meeting, Lewandowski recalled that, after some small talk, the President brought up Sessions and criticized his recusal from the Russia investigation.605

The President told Lewandowski that Sessions was weak and that if the President had known about the likelihood of recusal in advance, he would not have appointed Sessions.606 The President then asked Lewandowski to deliver a message to Sessions and said “write this down.” 607 This was the first time the President had asked Lewandowski to take dictation, and Lewandowski wrote as fast as possible to make sure he captured the content correctly.608 The President directed that Sessions should give a speech publicly announcing: I know that I recused myself from certain things having to do with specific areas. But our POTUS . .. is being treated very unfairly. He shouldn’t have a Special Prosecutor/Counsel b/c he hasn’t done anything wrong. I was on the campaign w/ him for nine months, there were no Russians involved with him. I know it for a fact b/c I was there. He didn’t do anything wrong except he ran the greatest campaign in American history.609

The dictated message went on to state that Sessions would meet with the Special Counsel to limit his jurisdiction to future election interference:

Now a group of people want to subvert the Constitution of the United States. T am going to meet with the Special Prosecutor to explain this is very unfair and let the Special Prosecutor move forward with investigating election meddling for future elections so that nothing can happen in future elections.610

emptywheel’s Mueller Report coverage

The Significance of Trump’s Obstruction of Investigation of His Family’s Campaign Finance Crimes, Plural

How “Collusion” Appears in the Mueller Report

Putin’s Ghost: The Counterintelligence Calculus Not Included in the Obstruction Analysis

Working Twitter Threads on the Mueller Report

The Trump Men and the Grand Jury Redactions

Mueller’s Language about “Collusion,” Coordination, and Conspiracy

The Many Lies and Prevarications of Bill Barr

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

It Is Objectively False that Trump Provided Unprecedented Cooperation; Stop Parroting Rudy Claiming He Did

If a President makes an expansive new claim to Executive Privilege and the press reports the opposite, did it really happen?

That’s a question presented by the coverage of yesterday’s news that after a year of resistance, President Trump finally provided the answers to his open book test to Mueller. That’s because a slew of journalists repeated Rudy Giuliani’s claim, made in his official statement, that Trump has provided “unprecedented cooperation” with Mueller’s team, without noting that the claim is objectively false.

I showed back in February — when the press first started parroting this claim credulously, which was first made by John Dowd — that it was not true.

A simple comparison of the Bush White House’s cooperation the CIA leak case, which investigated events that occurred in a more narrow period two month period of time, showed Dowd’s claim about cooperation on discovery and witnesses was overblown.

More importantly, a key detail distinguished George W Bush’s cooperation from Trump’s: Bush sat for an interview with Patrick Fitzgerald and answered questions about the orders he gave, while President, to at least one of his Assistants and the Vice President about an exclusive executive authority, declassification.

Bush sat for an interview in June 2004, and Cheney — who himself made some grossly false statements in his tenure — sat for one in May 2004 and a little-known follow-up that August. According to Cheney’s autobiography, “[T]he second session was conducted under oath so that [his] testimony could be submitted to the grand jury.”

[snip]

[Randall] Samborn, the Fitzgerald spokesperson who was famously reticent during the whole CIA leak investigation, offered an expansive rebuttal to Dowd’s claim that this White House has offered unprecedented cooperation. “Trump’s team can claim all the cooperation it wants, and whether justifiably so or not, it seems to me that it all gets negated, if at the end, he personally refuses to be questioned when so much substance depends on what he knew and did, as well as his state of mind.”

Any refusal to sit for an interview, Samborn said, was central evaluating the level of cooperation.

“That’s sort of the ultimate in noncooperation,” he explained, “especially after saying he looks forward to being interviewed and under oath.”

By limiting his cooperation to an open book test, Trump has stopped far short of the cooperation Bush offered.

And yet, because Rudy included the claim in the statement he released to the press, many news outlets are repeating that false claim, uncontested. The outlets that subscribe to the AP feed are propagating false claim today, because Eric Tucker repeated that line from Rudy’s statement with no correction to it.  Unsurprisingly, Fox News parroted Rudy. But so did some more credible outlets, like NBC, ABC, CNN, and Reuters. Even the WaPo’s otherwise superb report from Carol Leonnig and Robert Costa repeated the claim in the last line of their story.

NYT’s Maggie and Mike, incidentally, avoided repeating Rudy’s claim, choosing to include the part of his statement that provided quasi-factual numbers, but leaving out the superlative claim.

It’s bad enough that most of the press has repeated Rudy and Dowd’s claim uncritically since January. But for yesterday’s stories, it is all the more important to get it right. That’s because Trump is not just refusing to answer questions on Mueller’s obstruction investigation, he’s also refusing to answer questions about the transition period, before any claim of Executive Privilege should kick in. While that’s consistent with what Trump did with Hope Hicks’ and Corey Lewandowski’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, it nevertheless represents an expansion of accepted claims to executive power.

The emphasis, here, should be on Trump’s claim to be above the law even before he took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution.

Instead, a bunch of copy and paste journalism has made it the opposite.

On Corey Lewandowski’s Big Legal Bills and Mueller’s Deadline from Rosenstein

Quarterly political spending reports are out and they provide some hints about which current or former Trump aides have been spending a lot of time with Mueller’s investigators. The NYT reported the other day that the Trump campaign has paid $173,000 in the past quarter to the law firm representing Corey Lewandowski.

The campaign also paid $173,000 to Mintz Levin, a law firm that has helped Mr. Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, handle inquiries related to the Russia investigations.

The suggestion that Lewandowski has spent quality time with Mueller’s team of late is particularly interesting, for several reasons. First, Lewandowski had a number of key interactions with George Papadopoulos regarding the outreach from Russia, including drafting Trump’s first foreign policy speech, which Papadopoulos reportedly told Ivan Timofeev was a sign that the campaign was interested in pursuing a Trump-Putin meeting.

April 27: Papadopoulos to Corey Lewandowski

“to discuss Russia’s interest in hosting Mr. Trump. Have been receiving a lot of calls over the last month about Putin wanting to host him and the team when the time is right.”

April 27: Papadopoulos authored speech that he tells Timofeev is “the signal to meet”

[snip]

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

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

May 14, Papadopoulos to Lewandowski:

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

[snip]

June 19: Papadopoulos to Lewandowski

“New message from Russia”: “The Russian ministry of foreign affairs messaged and said that if Mr. Trump is unable to make it to Russia, if campaign rep (me or someone else) can make it for meetings? I am willing to make the trip off the record if it’s in the interest of Mr. Trump and the campaign to meet specific people.”

Lewandowski was also the person that the House Intelligence Committee treated most curiously. HPSCI originally interviewed him in January, during the phase when HPSCI seemed to be interviewing key witnesses to be able to pass on to Trump how they would testify. At that point, Mueller had not yet contacted Lewandowski.

Even though Lewandowski never worked in the Administration, in that first appearance with HPSCI, he invoked privilege over parts of his testimony. On March 8, HPSCI brought him back, the very last witness in their so-called investigation. After his three hour appearance, Adam Schiff discussed subpoenaing Lewnadowski to compel him to answer questions he had still refused to answer (Schiff had also demanded HPSCI compel full testimony from Hope Hicks). In the same discussion of compelling Lewandowski to answer questions,  Schiff suggested the committee should subpoena Stephen Miller.

After Lewandowski’s testimony had wrapped, Schiff raised a new name he wanted to speak to: White House aide Stephen Miller.

Which is curious because WSJ reports that the legal defense fund supporting specific former campaign staffers paid Akin Gump $115,000.

The fund directed most of its third-quarter spending to legal consulting, paying nearly $115,000 to the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP and another $8,500 to Schertler & Onorato LLP. The latter firm has represented Keith Schiller, Mr. Trump’s longtime bodyguard who was interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee as part of its Russia investigation.

It’s not publicly known which former campaign staffer Akin Gump represents, but two of the few key Trump people whose lawyers have not been publicly identified are Brad Parscale (though the campaign would probably pay for his legal defense at this point) and Miller.

Miller is the person whom Papadopoulos has said he would have told about the Russian offer of emails had he actually connected by phone the day he learned of it.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports (possibly based on Congressional sources) that Mueller is preparing to offer “reports” on his investigation.

Mueller is close to rendering judgment on two of the most explosive aspects of his inquiry: whether there were clear incidents of collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, and whether the president took any actions that constitute obstruction of justice, according to one of the officials, who asked not to be identified speaking about the investigation.

[snip]

Rosenstein has made it clear that he wants Mueller to wrap up the investigation as expeditiously as possible, another U.S. official said.

This is actually not at all surprising. Trump is going to start firing people after the election, so Mueller’s ability to work unimpeded may be dramatically curtailed shortly after that. If he’s going to bring a big indictment, he has to do so in that time frame. Plus, after securing Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen’s cooperation, he has cooperating witnesses on all the elements of a conspiracy Mueller had identified by last March, not to mention slam dunk obstruction charges tied to floated pardons. Everyone is scheduled to start being sentenced after the election, too. With the hints he has gotten extensive Lewandowski testimony (and reports that he had obtained far more documentation pertaining to Don Jr’s actions), it would suggest that Mueller has at least tracked the game of telephone between Russians offering emails to the candidate anxious to accept that offer.

So this tells us what we might expect: the denouement of the Mueller investigation will happen, unless Trump works to undercut it, just after the election.

Update: In their plan for further investigation released in March, HPSCI Dems described that in his second committee appearance Lewandowski refused, “to answer questions regarding his communication with President Trump regarding former FBI Director Comey, Special Counsel Mueller, and Attorney General Sessions, as well as his communications with certain administration officials pertaining to the June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower.” So it sounds like he’s also got evidence pertaining to the June 9 meeting.

As I disclosed in July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Paul Manafort Is One of 37 People in an Omertà with the President

Apparently, Bob Woodward committed some journalism along with canonizing racist John Kelly and wife-beater Rob Porter in his book: he got a number for how many people are included the Joint Defense Agreement that gives Rudy Giuliani such confidence the President is not at risk: 37.

And Politico committed still more journalism and answered the question we’ve all been asking: yes, Paul Manafort is among those 37.

Giuliani also confirmed that Trump’s lawyers and Manafort’s have been in regular contact and that they are part of a joint defense agreement that allows confidential information sharing.

“All during the investigation we have an open communication with them,” he said. “Defense lawyers talk to each other all the time where as long as our clients authorize it therefore we have a better idea of what’s going to happen. That’s very common.”

Giuliani confirmed he spoke with Manafort’s lead defense lawyer Kevin Downing shortly before and after the verdicts were returned in the Virginia trial, but the former mayor wouldn’t say what he discusses with the Manafort team. “It’d all be attorney-client privilege not just from our point of view but from theirs,” he said.

That means when John Dowd complained that the raid of Manafort’s condo (where his eight iPods were seized), that was based on privileged conversations between lawyers. And when, in January, Trump confidently said he was sure Manafort would protect him, that was based on privileged conversations between lawyers.  And when, just before the EDVA trial, Kevin Downing was ostentatiously saying there was no way Manafort was flipping, and when he was balking on a plea with Mueller immediately after the trial, he was also talking to Rudy Giuliani.

Mind you, Rudy G will learn right away if Manafort starts considering cooperating, rather than just pleading, because Manafort will have to (finally!) drop out of the JDA before those discussions start.

And while I suspect Mueller has slowly been peeling away people like Sam Patten, that the JDA is so big likely means some or most of the following people are part of the omertà (and Michael Cohen, Rick Gates, and Mike Flynn were part of it):

  • Paul Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik
  • Jared Kushner
  • The Trump Org defendants: Don Jr, Rhonna Graff
  • Bill Burck’s clients: Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Don McGahn (and up to three more)
  • Victoria Toensing’s clients: Mark Corallo, Erik Prince, Sam Clovis
  • The hush payment recipients: Hope Hicks, Brad Parscale, Keith Schiller
  • Roger Stone and his buddies: Stone, Michael Caputo, Sam Nunberg, Andrew Miller, plus some (probably)

That’s 20. Some other likely (and enticing) JDA members are: Devin Nunes, Jeff Sessions, Tom Barrack, Keith Kellogg, John Mashburn, KT McFarland, JD Gordon, Walid Phares, Stephen Miller, Sean Spicer, Rob Porter, Corey Lewandowski, John Kelly. Heck, it’s not even clear that George Papadopoulos is not part of the JDA.

But that still leaves space in the JDA for people who were already comparing notes with known members of the JDA, including Rinat Akhmetshin, Rob Goldstone, and Ike Kaveladze (along with Emin and Aras Agalarov, who are all represented by Scott Balber).

No wonder Rudy thinks he knows everything that Mueller has.

That’s why the collective panic on the discovery that Stone’s phone was likely among the ~10 or so that Mueller got warrants for in the wake of Rick Gates’ cooperation agreement is so interesting, and also why Manafort, playing his part as point, tried so hard to find out who the other four AT&T users whose phones were obtained with his own.

These guys may be good at omertà. But every single one we’ve seen so far has shitty OpSec; they’ve been saying their co-conspiracy communications on their phones and on iCloud. Plus there are people like Omarosa wandering among them, dismissed as irrelevant even while they record everything they hear. And meanwhile, Mueller is chipping away at the edges, people they haven’t considered (like Patten). And all the while he’s been building his case against Stone and Don Jr.

Trump Is Willing to Pay for Joint Defense for Hope Hicks, But Not for France

As I laid out last week, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

I keep coming back to this exchange between Dana Bash and Rudy Giuliani over the weekend.

BASH:  But let’s just focus on one of the things that you said…

GIULIANI: Go.

BASH: … that there is no evidence — you say that the special counsel hasn’t produced evidence.

But they haven’t said that they have no evidence. They have — you say that there have been leaks. They have been remarkably tight-lipped, aside from what they have had to do with indictments and such.

GIULIANI: No, they haven’t. They leaked reports. They leaked reports. They leaked meetings. They’re leaking on Manafort right now. They leaked Cohen before it happened.

BASH: But this is an ongoing investigation. We don’t really know what they have and what they don’t have. That’s fair, right?

GIULIANI: Well, I have a pretty good idea because I have seen all the documents that they have. We have debriefed all their witnesses. And we have pressed them numerous times.

BASH: You have debriefed all of their witnesses?

GIULIANI: Well, I think so, I mean, the ones that were — the ones that were involved in the joint defense agreement, which constitutes all the critical ones.

They have nothing, Dana. They wouldn’t be pressing for this interview if they had anything. [my emphasis]

Rudy asserts that every critical witness is a member of a Joint Defense Agreement involving Trump.

That’s a big Joint Defense Agreement. It also suggests that if Mueller can learn who is in it, he’s got a map of everyone that Trump himself thinks was involved in the conspiracy with Russia.

Some people will be obvious — not least, because they share lawyers. Witnesses with shared lawyers include:

Erik Prince, Sam Clovis, Mark Corallo (represented by Victoria Toensing)

Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, Don McGahn (represented by William Burck)

Don Jr, Rhona Graff (represented by Trump Organization lawyer Alan Futerfas)

Almost certainly, it includes the key witnesses who’ve been moved onto various parts of the Reelection campaign, including 2020 convention security head Keith Schiller (represented by Stuart Sears) and Brad Parscale (defense attorney unknown).

Others are obvious because we know they’re centrally involved — people like Jared Kushner (represented by Abbe Lowell) and Hope Hicks (represented by Robert Trout). Indeed, Hicks may also fall into the category of shared lawyers — at least from the same firm — as Trout Cacheris & Janis got paid $451,779 by the RNC in April for representing Hope and two other witnesses.

One implication from this (which would be unbelievable, if true) is that Paul Manafort remains a part of the Joint Defense Agreement. But that is the only way that Trump can assess his vulnerability — as he has in the past, and appears to have shared with the Russians — to go exclusively through Manafort.

There are other implications of claiming that every critical witness is part of the Joint Defense Agreement — including that the Attorney General (represented by Iran-Contra escape artist lawyer Charles Cooper) must be part of it too. So, too, must Stephen Miller (defense attorney unknown).

But here’s the really telling thing. A key part of Trump’s foreign policy — one he’ll be focusing on relentlessly in advance of next week’s NATO summit — is that other members of the United States’ alliances are freeloaders. He’s demanding that NATO members all start paying their own way for our mutual defense.

But Trump is willing to make sure that those protecting him get paid (even if he’s not willing to pay himself). (I stole this observation from an interlocutor on Twitter.)

Which is saying something about what Trump is willing to do when he, himself, is at risk.

The Crimes with which NSD Envisions Charging Those Attacking Elections

The Senate Judiciary Committee had a hearing on how to protect our elections today. Among others, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Adam Hickey from DOJ’s National Security Division testified. He gave a list of some of the crimes he thought might be used to charge people who tampered with elections.

Foreign influence operations, though not always illegal, can implicate several U.S. Federal criminal statutes, including (but not limited to) 18 U.S.C. § 371 (conspiracy to defraud the United States); 18 U.S.C. § 951 (acting in the United States as an agent of a foreign government without prior notification to the Attorney General); 18 U.S.C. § 1001 (false statements); 18 U.S.C. § 1028A (aggravated identity theft); 18 U.S.C. § 1030 (computer fraud and abuse); 18 U.S.C. §§ 1343, 1344 (wire fraud and bank fraud); 18 U.S.C. § 1519 (destruction of evidence); 18 U.S.C. § 1546 (visa fraud); 22 U.S.C. § 618 (Foreign Agents Registration Act); and 52 U.S.C. §§ 30109, 30121 (soliciting or making foreign contributions to influence Federal elections, or donations to influence State or local elections).

In their testimony, Ken Wainstein (someone with extensive experience of national security prosecutions, but less apparent focus on the available evidence in this investigation) and Ryan Goodman (who doesn’t have the prosecutorial experience of Wainstein, but who is familiar with the public facts about the investigation) also list what crimes they think will get charged.

I find a comparison of what each raised, along with what has already been charged, to be instructive. I believe that comparison looks like this:

I’m interested, in part, because Hickey, who likely has at least a sense of the Mueller investigation (if not personal involvement), sees the case somewhat differently than two differently expert lawyers. Two charges — agent of a foreign power (basically, being a foreign spy in the US not working under official cover) and CFAA (hacking) seem obvious to both National Security Division prosecutors, but have not yet been publicly charged. Illegal foreign contributions seems obvious to those paying close attention, but also has not been charged. We might expect to see all three charges before we’re done.

Neither Wainstein nor Goodman mentioned false statements, but of course that’s what we’ve seen charged most often so far.

Then there are the two crimes Hickey mentions that the others don’t, but that have not yet been charged (both have been alleged as overt acts in the Internet Research Agency indictment): Visa fraud (alleged against the trolls who came to the US to reconnoiter in 2014) and destruction of evidence (again, alleged against IRA employees destroying evidence after Facebook’s role was discovered). Mueller also described George Papadopoulos destroying evidencec when he deleted his Facebook account, but like the Russian trolls, he didn’t get charged for it. Visa fraud, in particular, is something that multiple figures might be accused of — Alexander Torshin and others reaching out via NRA, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and even Brits who worked illegally during the election for Cambridge Analytica.

I confess I’m most interested in Hickey’s mention of destruction of evidence, though. That’s true, in part, because SDNY seems to think Michael Cohen might destroy evidence.

Hope Hicks, too, reportedly thought about hiding evidence from authorities. Then there’s the report that Mueller is checking encrypted messaging apps as people turn in phones when they arrive for interviews.

Huckey seems to think some of the people being investigated — beyond Papadopoulos and IRA troll Viktorovna Kaverzina — may have been destroying evidence.

I wonder if he has reason to suspect that.

Some Possibilities on the Emails Hope Hicks Wanted to Withhold

Remember this story about how Hope Hicks told Mark Corallo in a conference call on July 9, 2017 that they didn’t have to be fully forthcoming about the purpose of the meeting because the emails would never come out?

In Mr. Corallo’s account — which he provided contemporaneously to three colleagues who later gave it to The Times — he told both Mr. Trump and Ms. Hicks that the statement drafted aboard Air Force One would backfire because documents would eventually surface showing that the meeting had been set up for the Trump campaign to get political dirt about Mrs. Clinton from the Russians.

According to his account, Ms. Hicks responded that the emails “will never get out” because only a few people had access to them. Mr. Corallo, who worked as a Justice Department spokesman during the George W. Bush administration, told colleagues he was alarmed not only by what Ms. Hicks had said — either she was being naïve or was suggesting that the emails could be withheld from investigators — but also that she had said it in front of the president without a lawyer on the phone and that the conversation could not be protected by attorney-client privilege.

At the time, I suggested something didn’t make sense about the story, given the facts we knew at the time, because the NYT already had (what we assume to be) the set of emails that got released.

[T]he NYT admits that even as (or shortly after) that meeting transpired it already had the emails Don Jr released that day and was going to publish them itself.

I suggested at the time that there might be other emails — perhaps between Don Jr and Rob Goldstone, perhaps between other players — that provided more damning information.

But there’s another possibility: that more emails exist, between Don Jr and Rob Goldstone (indeed, we know Goldstone sent follow-up emails involving Vkontakte). Or that there are communications between other players. In which case the release of the current emails might serve to distract from a fuller set that Hicks did succeed in burying.

Given the materials released to SJC — and when they were released — we can be sure there were other emails, and at least some of them have come out.

A return email to Paul Manafort

I’ve already noted one example, or at least part of one example. The Don Jr production turned over by the Trump Organization withheld the version of the original invite letter that includes a response from Paul Manafort.

Of particular interest, however, is a detail revealed about the email that Don Jr released last summer. Effectively, the email thread setting up the meeting appears in two places in the exhibits introduced with Don Jr’s testimony. The thread appearing at PDF 26 to 29 is for all intents and purposes the set he released over two tweets last July 11. That bears Bates stamp DJTJR 485 to 487, which designates that it was the version that Don Jr himself turned over. There’s another version of that thread, though, bearing Bates stamp DJTFP 11895 to 11897, which appears at PDF 1 to 3 in Don Jr’s exhibits (and is used for all the other witnesses). The Bates stamp abbreviation DJTFP, Donald J Trump for President, indicates that that’s the version turned over by the campaign. The exhibit shows the same thread, only with this addition.

That is, after Don Jr informed Jared and Paul Manafort that the meeting would be at 4 instead of 3, Manafort responded, “See you then.”

That — and the fact that Don Jr chose to suppress it when publicly releasing his email — is not by itself damning.

Jared wasn’t copied on the Manafort response, so he couldn’t have turned over the Manafort response (and it wouldn’t have been in the copy leaked to the NYT, if he did the leaking, as suggested by Michael Wolff’s book). Nevertheless by the time Don Jr testified on September 7, SJC had both copies.

Manafort’s awareness of the meeting might be damning by itself, because he spoke with Don Jr and met with Trump on June 7, the day Trump announced the campaign would soon be making a “a major speech on probably Monday of next week, and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons.”

But it’s possible Manafort’s response wasn’t the last in the thread. Perhaps Don Jr wrote back and said something like, “with the dirt Emin promised we’ll really take out this bitch” or something similarly dignified.

The emails showing Agalarov involvement

As I mentioned in this thread, Goldstone did not fully cooperate with SJC. In the first round he left out a lot of stuff that was responsive to SJC’s request and he never provided phone records; in his later production, two voice mails from Emin appear to be truncated. But in February of 2018 (probably after at least one interview with Mueller’s team), his lawyer provided more documents not produced in the first go-around. Among other things, those materials included more details on Emin’s involvement in crafting a statement, and Kaveladze’s role running everything. Of particular interest, many of these materials would show direct communications between the Agalarov camp and Trump Organization lawyers as they crafted their statement.

The draft statement from July 6

Finally, when considering the possibility that parties withheld damning records, consider this email between Goldstone and Don Jr’s lawyer.

It shows that by the time Goldstone (and Emin and Kaveladze) had some phone calls with Alan Garten and Alan Futerfas at the end of June, the Trump folks already had a statement. When Goldstone gets off his cruise in Greece on July 6, he immediately contacts the Trump camp and asks if that statement has been released.

There’s no record of a response to Goldstone from the Trump camp for several days (though they were on the phone with Kaveladze), until when, on July 9, someone (Goldstone believes it’s the Trump camp) leaked his name. That’s when communications resumed, starting with a Trump request that Goldstone attest that the misleading Don Jr statement they subsequently released is 100% true.

Still, the communication on July 6 is damning enough, because it makes it clear that before Trump is known to have been involved, before Trump spoke to Putin, the Trump camp had what it presented as a finalized statement.

Now imagine if either Goldstone or someone else has a hard copy of that statement and it qualitatively deviates from the existing story?

One notable detail. As noted, Goldstone provided these materials after the NYT story at question here, and after Mark Corallo said he’d testify about Hope Hicks’ obstruction; it possibly took place after the Corallo testimony itself. Goldstone testified to SJC a second time on March 29, not long after Mueller subpoenaed the Trump organization — a subpoena that almost certainly would obtain new copies of the documents at least pointed to if not turned over by others.

All of which is to say that there are numerous emails that have been identified since Don Jr testified that appear not to have been turned over in his production, not to mention any Manafort communications he suppressed.

As I’m still working on showing, there was a tremendous degree of coordination going on in that period. And yet, perhaps in spite of that, some of the key documents didn’t get turned over.

Update: Here’s a version of the document requests to the Trump’s. Any of the emails between the Trump lawyers and Kaveladze or Goldstone would have been responsive. Here is what Jared got (remember, the committee complained that he hadn’t provided everything). And here is what Kaveladze and what Goldstone got. I can see Goldstone arguing the follow-up — and the discussions about earlier Agalarov/Trump meetings — didn’t fit the criteria laid out.

The White House Hid Paul Manafort’s Enthusiasm for the June 9 Meeting When Leaking Don Jr’s Email

Among the most intriguing questions Robert Mueller wants to ask the President — as interpreted by Jay Sekulow — is a subset of the one asking about Trump’s involvement in the statement about the June 9 meeting. In addition to asking about that, Mueller specifically wants to know whether Trump was involved in releasing Don Jr’s emails with Rob Goldstone setting up the meeting. Here’s how I wrote up that question in my series.

JULY 7, 2017: WHAT INVOLVEMENT DID YOU HAVE IN THE COMMUNICATION STRATEGY, INCLUDING THE RELEASE OF DONALD TRUMP JR.’S EMAILS?

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve now done a first pass at all the Senate Judiciary Committee testimony released a few weeks back relating to the June 9 meeting and will update my limited hangout post hopefully over the weekend. Even assuming all witnesses were fully forthcoming (they weren’t), the SJC materials provide abundant evidence that the White House worked with the other attendees of the June 9 meeting — including the Agalarov representatives, and through them, the Agalarov family itself — to minimize the damage of the meeting. And they did it over a longer period of time than previously known.

Of particular interest, however, is a detail revealed about the email that Don Jr released last summer. Effectively, the email thread setting up the meeting appears in two places in the exhibits introduced with Don Jr’s testimony. The thread appearing at PDF 26 to 29 is for all intents and purposes the set he released over two tweets last July 11. That bears Bates stamp DJTJR 485 to 487, which designates that it was the version that Don Jr himself turned over. There’s another version of that thread, though, bearing Bates stamp DJTFP 11895 to 11897, which appears at PDF 1 to 3 in Don Jr’s exhibits (and is used for all the other witnesses). The Bates stamp abbreviation DJTFP, Donald J Trump for President, indicates that that’s the version turned over by the campaign. The exhibit shows the same thread, only with this addition.

That is, after Don Jr informed Jared and Paul Manafort that the meeting would be at 4 instead of 3, Manafort responded, “See you then.”

That — and the fact that Don Jr chose to suppress it when publicly releasing his email — is not by itself damning. Nor is the fact that Don Jr tried to suggest that both Jared and Manafort had no idea what the meeting was about in his public statement.

I told Rob that Jared Kushner and our newly hired campaign manager Paul Manafort would likely also attend . I then asked Jared and Paul if they could attend, but told them none of the substance or who was going to be there since I did not know myself. Because we were in the same building Paul, Jared, and I would routinely invite one another to attend meetings at a moment’s notice.

When Democratic Chief Oversight Counsel Heather Sawyer asked Don Jr about which version he released publicly, Don Jr’s (actually, the Trump Organization’s) lawyer Alan Futerfas immediately butted in to offer an excuse about multiple custodians.

MR. FUTERFAS: Just so the record’s clear, there were multiple custodians to this e-mail. So if the campaign  produced an e-mail the campaign may have because different custodians were being searched. We have found that there was — I think there was a few words that are additional to Exhibit 10, including the “See you then,” and I think we also found earlier one there was another again, another similar kind of brief exchange, but I think that was a function of the different custodians that were participating in this little dialogue .

After which Sawyer first noted that that other change might be discussed off the record, then questioned the President’s son about how he chose which email to release. Futerfas interrupted again to note that counsel had been involved.

BY MS . SAWYER: Q. We can talk off the record about the other change, but with regard to the document that was produced to the committee, Exhibit 10, to the best of your knowledge, is that the full exchange?

A . Well, whichever one is the longer I believe is the full exchange. I don’t know, but I’m not aware of anything else.

Q. Has it been altered in any way?

A. No.

Q. Have any of the communications been removed by anyone?

A. Not that I’m aware of, no.

Q. You released a version of the e-mail by Twitter. How did you decide what version of the e-mail chain to release?

A. I don ‘t know. It’s the version I pulled up.

Q. And did you consult with anyone in deciding to do that?

MR . FUTERFAS: Aside from counsel?

MS. SAWYER : Yes, aside from counsel.

BY THE WITNESS: A. All those conversations counsel was involved.

Interjection: note that Don Jr doesn’t claim that only counsel was involved? Continuing …

Q. Okay. And did you seek their advice?

A. Counsel?

Q. Yes.

A. Yes.

Q. And who was representing you?

A. The two gentlemen here, Alan Garten and Alan Futerfas.

Q. And they were representing you personally?

A. Yes, I believe so.

MR. FUTERFAS: Yes .

BY MS . SAWYER: Q. And they were involved in all the conversations you had about release of that e-mail?

A. Yes, they were.

In other words, Don Jr and Futerfas suggested — Hope Hicks’ publicly reported central role as a go-between notwithstanding — that any conversations he had about which version of the email to release were protected by Attorney-Client privilege.

Don Jr’s decision, taken on the advice of his counsel, to withhold the Manafort email is why I find it very interesting that Don Jr twice testified that he only discussed the meeting with Jared and Manafort via email, and repeatedly denied talking to Manafort directly about it.

Q. You got an e-mail with a title “Russia- Clinton, private and confidential,” you didn’t mention that to Paul Manafort?

A . Other that I forwarded the e-mail to him to invite them to the meet ing, I didn’t discuss it with him to my recollection, no.

Q. And you said you forwarded it. That was the only time you recall discussing it with him?

A . That’s the only time I recall , yes.

Q. And Exhibit 1 which you reviewed with my colleagues indicates that you forwarded it on June 8, 201 6 . At that point there’s just a reference to “Meeting got moved to 4:00 tomorrow at my office,” Mr . Manafort responds ” See you then.” Had you not discussed the meeting with him before that time?

A. I don ‘t recall discussing it with him at that time, but I may have.

Q. How would he have known what this meeting was about i f you had not discussed it with him?

A. I don ‘t know.

Q. Did he ever ask you about it?

A. Not that I recall.

[snip]

Q. Did you tell Mr . Manafort [about the ultra-sensitive email]?

A. As I said, I don’t recall telling him anything about it other than the exchange as it relates to setting up the meeting.

After having denied talking to Kushner and Manafort about the meeting (and forgetting another call from Emin Agalarov), Don Jr tried to play dumb about a phone call he had with Manafort on June 7, between the time he had that forgotten call with Agalarov and the time Rob Goldstone wrote to schedule the meeting at 4:20PM.

Q. The next unblocked — unredacted call is a call at 4:07 p.m., it says “Arlington , VA” and has a 703 number. You indicated to my colleagues you didn’t recall who that was. Is that the case?

A. I don’t know who it is now, no, I don’t.

Q. Would you be surprised if I told you that a Google search shows that’s Paul Manafort’s number?

A. I don’t know. It may be.

Q. You don’t recall speaking with him on June 7th?

A. No, I don’t recall that.

Q. You don’t recall speaking to him that day about this meeting?

A. No, I don’t.

Q. Or the e-mail from Mr. Goldstone ?

A. No. I spoke to Paul quite often.

Nor did Don Jr remember calls he had with Jared and Manafort on June 5, the day before he spoke with Emin about the meeting by phone.

Q. Then just to take you back a page on this same exhibit to [Bates stamp] 854, just go back one page.

A. Okay.

Q. You’ll see “Sunday, 6/5” at the bottom of that page.

A. Yes.

Q. And as I indicated to you earlier, you got the e-mail from Mr. Goldstone on a Friday.

On Sunday there are two calls that have been unredacted. One’s at 4:28 to Arlington, Virginia, same number, Mr. Manafort’s number. Do you recall speaking to him on that Sunday?

A. I don’t, no.

Q. Do you know if you spoke to him possibly on that Sunday about Mr. Goldstone’s e-mail or that meeting?

A. No. I don’t recall having those conversations.

Q. About 15 minutes later there’s another call to New York, New York, 917. Do you know whose number that is?

A . I could probably find out, but I don’t know off the top of my head.

Q. If I told you that a search of — a Google search of that indicates that it’s Mr. Kushner’s number, would that surprise you?

A . No.

Q. And do you recall speaking with him on that Sunday?

A. No, I don’t.

As a reminder, Mueller’s team raided Paul Manafort’s house between the time he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee and the day he was supposed to testify before SJC; the warrant for that raid covered materials about the June 9 meeting. The raid gave Manafort an excuse not to answer questions about whether he remembers the substance of those calls. Remember, too, that Manafort is trying to suppress the seizure of devices — like iPods — that can be used to record meetings.

And Robert Mueller wants to know whether the President was involved in the decision to hide Paul Manafort’s enthusiasm for this meeting.

The Sekulow Questions, Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

In this series, I have been showing a framework for the investigation that the Mueller questions, as imagined by Jay Sekulow, maps out. Thus far I have shown:

  • Russians, led by the Aras Agalarov and his son, cultivated Trump for years by dangling two things: real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin.
  • During the election, the Russians and Trump appear to have danced towards a quid pro quo agreement, with the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for a commitment to sanctions relief, with some policy considerations thrown in.
  • During the transition period, Trump’s team took a series of actions that moved towards consummating the deal they had made with Russia, both in terms of policy concessions, particularly sanctions relief, and funding from Russian sources that could only be tapped if sanctions were lifted. The Trump team took measures to keep those actions secret.
  • Starting in January 2017, Trump came to learn that FBI was investigating Mike Flynn. His real reasons for firing Flynn remain unreported, but it appears he had some concerns that the investigation into Flynn would expose him.

This post lays out the questions on obstruction that lead up to Comey’s firing on May 9, 2017.

February 14, 2017: What was the purpose of your Feb. 14, 2017, meeting with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

On February 13, Trump fired Mike Flynn. The explanation he gave was one of the concerns Sally Yates had given to Don McGahn when she told him about the interview, that Flynn had lied to Mike Pence about having discussed sanctions relief with Sergey Kislyak on December 29, 2016. Except, coming from Trump, that excuse makes no sense, both because he had already shown he didn’t care about the counterintelligence implications of that lie by including Flynn in the January 28 phone call with Putin and other sensitive meetings. But also because at least seven people in the White House knew what occurred in Flynn’s calls, and Pence probably did too.

Against that backdrop, the next day, Trump had Jim Comey stay late after an oval office meeting so he could ask him to drop the investigation into Flynn. Leading up to this meeting, Trump had already:

  • Asked Comey to investigate the pee tape allegations so he could exonerate the President
  • Asked if FBI leaks
  • Asked if Comey was loyal shortly after asking him, for the third time, if he wanted to keep his job
  • Claimed he distrusted Flynn’s judgment because he had delayed telling Trump about a congratulatory call from Putin

After Trump asked everyone in the meeting to leave him and Comey alone, both Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner lingered.

While the description of this meeting usually focuses on the Flynn discussion, according to Comey’s discussion, it also focused closely on leaks, which shows how Trump linked the two in his mind.

Here’s what Comey claims Trump said about Flynn:

He began by saying he wanted to “talk about Mike Flynn.” He then said that, although Flynn “hadn’t done anything wrong” in his call with the Russians (a point he made at least two more times in the conversation), he had to let him go because he misled the Vice President, whom he described as “a good guy.” He explained that he just couldn’t have Flynn misleading the vice President and, in any event, he had other concerns about Flynn, and had a great guy coming in, so he had to let Flynn go.

[a discussion of Sean Spicer’s presser explaining the firing and another about the leaks of his calls to Mexican and Australian leaders]

He then referred at length to the leaks relating to Mike Flynn’s call with the Russians, which he stressed was not wrong in any way (“he made lots of calls”), but that the leaks were terrible.

[Comey’s agreement with Trump about the problem with leaks, but also his explanation that the leaks may not have been FBI; Reince Priebus tries to interrupt but Trump sends him away for a minute or two]

He then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying that Flynn is a good guy, and has been through a lot. He misled the Vice President but he didn’t do anything wrong on the call. He said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” I replied by saying, “I agree he is a good guy,” but said no more.

In addition to providing Trump an opportunity to rebut Comey, asking this question might aim to understand the real reason Trump fired Flynn.

March 2, 2017: What did you think and do regarding the recusal of Mr. Sessions?  What efforts did you make to try to get him to change his mind? Did you discuss whether Mr. Sessions would protect you, and reference past attorneys general?

On March 2, citing consultations with senior department officials, Sessions recused himself “from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States,” while noting that, “This announcement should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation or suggestive of the scope of any such investigation.” At that point, Dana Boente became Acting Attorney General for the investigation.

Note that this question isn’t just about Trump’s response to Sessions’ recusal — it’s also about what he did in advance of it. That’s likely because even before Sessions recused, Trump got Don McGahn to try to pressure the Attorney General not to do so. He also called Comey the night before and “talked about Sessions a bit.” When Sessions ultimately did recuse, Trump had a blow-up in which he expressed a belief that Attorneys General should protect their president.

[T]he president erupted in anger in front of numerous White House officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him. Mr. Trump said he had expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him the way he believed Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general, had done for his brother John F. Kennedy and Eric H. Holder Jr. had for Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump then asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

In the days after the Sessions recusal, Trump also kicked off the year-long panic about being wiretapped.

On Thursday, Jeff Sessions recused from the election-related parts of this investigation. In response, Trump went on a rant (inside the White House) reported to be as angry as any since he became President. The next morning, Trump responded to a Breitbart article alleging a coup by making accusations that suggest any wiretaps involved in this investigation would be improper. Having reframed wiretaps that would be targeted at Russian spies as illegitimate, Trump then invited Nunes to explore any surveillance of campaign officials, even that not directly tied to Trump himself.

And Nunes obliged.

Don McGahn and Jeff Sessions, among others, have already provided their side of this story to Mueller’s team.

March 2 to March 20, 2017: What did you know about the F.B.I.’s investigation into Mr. Flynn and Russia in the days leading up to Mr. Comey’s testimony on March 20, 2017?

As Sekulow has recorded Mueller’s question, the special counsel wants to know what Trump already knew of the investigation into Mike Flynn before Comey publicly confirmed it in Congressional testimony. This may be a baseline question, to measure how much of Trump’s response was a reaction to the investigation becoming public.

But there are other things that went down in the weeks leading up to Comey’s testimony. Devin Nunes had already made considerable efforts to undermine the investigation; he would have been briefed on the investigation on March 2 (see footnote 75), the same day as Sessions recused.Trump went into a panic on March 4, just days after Sessions recusal, about being wiretapped; I’m wondering if there’s any evidence that Trump or Steven Bannon seeded the Breitbart story that kicked off the claim of a coup against Trump. Also of note is Don McGahn’s delay in conveying the records retention request about the investigation to the White House, even as Sean Spicer conducted a device search to learn who was using encrypted messengers.

March 20, 2017: What did you do in reaction to the March 20 testimony? Describe your contacts with intelligence officials.

On March 20, in testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, Comey publicly confirmed the counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s campaign.

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.

In addition to questions about the investigation (including the revelation that FBI had not briefed the Gang of Eight on it until recently; we now know the briefing took place the day Jeff Sessions recused which suggests FBI avoided letting both Flynn and Sessions know details of it), Republicans used the hearing to delegitimize unmasking and the IC conclusion that Putin had affirmatively supported Trump.

Sekulow’s questions (or NYT’s rendition of them) lump the hearing, at which Admiral Mike Rogers also testified, in with Trump’s pressure on his spooks to issue a statement that he wasn’t under investigation. Two days after the hearing, Trump pressured Mike Pompeo and Dan Coats to intervene with Comey to stop the investigation.

It’s possible that the term “intelligence officials” includes HPSCI Chair Devin Nunes. On March 21, Nunes made his nighttime trip to the White House to accelerate the unmasking panic. Significantly, the panic didn’t just pertain to Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak; it also focused on the revelation of Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan’s secret trip to New York and probably other conversations with the Middle Eastern partners that have become part of this scandal.

The day after Nunes’ nighttime trip, Trump called Coats and Rogers (and probably Pompeo) and asked them to publicly deny any evidence of a conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia; NSA documented the call to Rogers.

It’s now clear that the calls Nunes complained about being unmasked actually are evidence of a conspiracy (and as such, they probably provided an easy roadmap for Mueller to find the non-Russian conversations).

March 30, 2017: What was the purpose of your call to Mr. Comey on March 30?

On March 30, Trump called Comey on official phone lines and asked him to exonerate him on the Russia investigation. According to Comey, the conversation included the following:

He then said he was trying to run the country and the cloud of this Russia business was making that difficult. He said he thinks he would have won the health care vote but for the cloud. He then went on at great length, explaining that he has nothing to do with Russia (has a letter from the largest law firm in DC saying he has gotten no income from Russia). was not involved with hookers in Russia (can you imagine me, hookers? I have a beautiful wife, and it has been very painful). is bringing a personal lawsuit against Christopher Steele, always advised people to assume they were being recorded in Russia. has accounts now from those who travelled with him to Miss Universe pageant that he didn’t do anything, etc.

He asked what he could do to lift the cloud. I explained that we were running it down as quickly as possible and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our Good Housekeeping seal of approval, but we had to do our work. He agreed, but then returned to the problems this was causing him, went on at great length about how bad he was for Russia because of his commitment to more oil and more nukes (ours are 40 years old).

He said something about the hearing last week. I responded by telling him I wasn’t there as a volunteer and he asked who was driving that, was it Nunes who wanted it? I said all the leadership wanted to know what was going on and mentioned that Grassley had even held up the DAG nominee to demand information. I said we had briefed the leadership on exactly what we were doing and who we were investigating.

I reminded him that I had told him we weren’t investigating him and that I had told the Congressional leadership the same thing. He said it would be great if that could get out and several times asked me to find a way to get that out.

He talked about the guy he read about in the Washington Post today (NOTE: I think he meant Sergei Millian) and said he didn’t know him at all. He said that if there was “some satellite” (NOTE: I took this to mean some associate of his or his campaign) that did something, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything and hoped I would find a way to get out that we weren’t investigating him.

Trump also raised “McCabe thing,” yet another apparent attempt to tie the retention of McCabe to public exoneration from Comey.

Given the news that Sergei Millian had been pitching George Papadopoulos on a Trump Tower deal in the post-election period, I wonder whether Trump’s invocation of him in conjunction with “some satellite” is a reference to Papadopoulos, who had already been interviewed twice by this time. Nunes would have learned of his inclusion in the investigation in the March 2 CI briefing.

On top of the clear evidence that this call represented a (well-documented, including a contemporaneous call to Dana Boente) effort to quash the investigation and get public exoneration, the conversation as presented by Comey also includes several bogus statements designed to exonerate him. For example, Millian had actually worked with Trump in past years selling condos to rich Russians. Trump never did sue Steele (Michael Cohen sued BuzzFeed and Fusion early this year, but he dropped it in the wake of the FBI raid on him). And the March 8 letter from Morgan Lewis certifying he didn’t get income from Russia is unrelated to whether he has been utterly reliant on investment from Russia (to say nothing of the huge sums raised from Russian oligarchs for his inauguration). In other words, like the earlier false claim that Trump hadn’t stayed overnight in Moscow during the Miss Universe pageant and therefore couldn’t have been compromised, even at this point, Trump’s attempts to persuade the FBI he was innocent were based off false claims.

March 30, 2017: Flynn asks for immunity

Mike Flynn first asked Congress for immunity on March 30, 2017, with Trump backing the effort in a tweet.

A later question deals with this topic — and suggests Trump may have contacted Flynn directly about immunity at this time, but that contact is not public, if it occurred.

April 11, 2017: What was the purpose of your call to Mr. Comey on April 11, 2017?

At 8:26AM on April 11, Comey returned a call to Trump. Trump asked again for Comey to lift the cloud on him.

He said he was following up to see if I did what he had asked last time–getting out that he personally is not under investigation. I relied that I had passed the request to the Acting AG and had not heard back from him. He spoke for a bit about why it was so important. He is trying to do work for the country, visit with foreign leaders, and any cloud, even a little cloud gets in the way of that. They keep bringing up the Russia thing as an excuse for losing the election.

[snip]

He then added, “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal, we had that thing, you know.”

[snip]

He then said that I was doing a great job and wished me well.

April 11, 2017: What was the purpose of your April 11, 2017, statement to Maria Bartiromo?

On April 12, Fox Business News broadcast an interview with Maria Bartiromo (Mueller must know it was recorded on April 11, so presumably after the call with Comey). There are three key aspects of the interview. First, in the context of Trump’s failures to staff his agencies, Bartiromo asks why Comey is still around [note, I bet in Hope Hicks’ several days of interviews, they asked her if these questions were planted]. Given public reports, Trump may have already been thinking about firing Comey, though Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, and Don McGahn staved off the firing for weeks.

TRUMP:  I wish it would be explained better, the obstructionist nature, though, because a lot of times I’ll say why doesn’t so and so have people under him or her?

The reason is because we can’t get them approved.

BARTIROMO:  Well, people are still wondering, though, they’re scratching their heads, right, so many Obama-era staffers are still here.

For example, was it a mistake not to ask Jim Comey to step down from the FBI at the outset of your presidency?

Is it too late now to ask him to step down?

TRUMP:  No, it’s not too late, but, you know, I have confidence in him.  We’ll see what happens.  You know, it’s going to be interesting.

On the same day he had asked Comey to publicly state he wasn’t being interviewed, Trump said he still had confidence in Comey, even while suggesting a lot of other people were angling for the job (something he had also said in an earlier exchange with Comey).  Trump immediately pivoted to claiming Comey had kept Hillary from being charged.

TRUMP: But, you know, we have to just — look, I have so many people that want to come into this administration.  They’re so excited about this administration and what’s happening — bankers, law enforcement — everybody wants to come into this administration.  Don’t forget, when Jim Comey came out, he saved Hillary Clinton.  People don’t realize that.  He saved her life, because — I call it Comey [one].  And I joke about it a little bit.

When he was reading those charges, she was guilty on every charge.  And then he said, she was essentially OK.  But he — she wasn’t OK, because she was guilty on every charge.

And then you had two and then you had three.

But Hillary Clinton won — or Comey won.  She was guilty on every charge.

BARTIROMO:  Yes.

TRUMP:  So Director Comey…

BARTIROMO:  Well, that’s (INAUDIBLE)…

TRUMP:  No, I’m just saying…

BARTIROMO:  (INAUDIBLE)?

TRUMP:  Well, because I want to give everybody a good, fair chance.  Director Comey was very, very good to Hillary Clinton, that I can tell you.  If he weren’t, she would be, right now, going to trial.

From there, Bartiromo asks Trump why President Obama had changed the rules on sharing EO 12333 data. Trump suggests it is so his administration could be spied on, using the Susan Rice unmasking pseudo scandal as shorthand for spying on his team.

BARTIROMO:  Mr. President, just a final question for you.

In the last weeks of the Obama presidency, he changed all the rules in terms of the intelligence agencies, allowing them to share raw data.

TRUMP:  Terrible.

BARTIROMO:  Why do you think he did this?

TRUMP:  Well, I’m going to let you figure that one out.  But it’s so obvious.  When you look at Susan Rice and what’s going on, and so many people are coming up to me and apologizing now.  They’re saying you know, you were right when you said that.

Perhaps I didn’t know how right I was, because nobody knew the extent of it.

Undoubtedly, Mueller wants to know whether these comments relate to his comments to Comey (and, as I suggested, Hope Hicks may have helped elucidate that). The invocation of Hillary sets up one rationale for firing Comey, but one that contradicts with the official reason.

But the conversation also reflects Trump’s consistent panic that his actions (and those of his aides) will be captured by wiretaps.

May 3, 2017: What did you think and do about Mr. Comey’s May 3, 2017, testimony?

On May 3, Comey testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee. It covered leaks (including whether he had ever authorized any, a question implicated in the Andrew McCabe firing), and the hacked email raising questions about whether Lynch could investigate Hillary. Comey described his actions in the Hillary investigation at length. This testimony would be cited by Rod Rosenstein in his letter supporting the firing of Comey. In addition, there were a number of questions about the Russia investigation, including questions focused on Trump, that would have driven Trump nuts.

Along with getting a reaction to the differences between what Comey said in testimony and Trump’s own version (which by this point he had shared several times), Mueller likely wants to know what Trump thinks of Comey’s claim that FBI treated the Russian investigation just like the Hillary one.

With respect to the Russian investigation, we treated it like we did with the Clinton investigation. We didn’t say a word about it until months into it and then the only thing we’ve confirmed so far about this is the same thing with the Clinton investigation. That we are investigating. And I would expect, we’re not going to say another peep about it until we’re done. And I don’t know what will be said when we’re done, but that’s the way we handled the Clinton investigation as well.

In a series of questions that were likely developed in conjunction with Trump, Lindsey Graham asked whether Comey stood by his earlier claim that there was an active investigation.

GRAHAM: Did you ever talk to Sally Yates about her concerns about General Flynn being compromised?

COMEY: I did, I don’t whether I can talk about it in this forum. But the answer is yes.

GRAHAM: That she had concerns about General Flynn and she expressed those concerns to you?

COMEY: Correct.

GRAHAM: We’ll talk about that later. Do you stand by your house testimony of March 20 that there was no surveillance of the Trump campaign that you’re aware of?

COMEY: Correct.

GRAHAM: You would know about it if they were, is that correct?

COMEY: I think so, yes.

GRAHAM: OK, Carter Page; was there a FISA warrant issued regarding Carter Page’s activity with the Russians.

COMEY: I can’t answer that here.

GRAHAM: Did you consider Carter page a agent of the campaign?

COMEY: Same answer, I can’t answer that here.

GRAHAM: OK. Do you stand by your testimony that there is an active investigation counterintelligence investigation regarding Trump campaign individuals in the Russian government as to whether not to collaborate? You said that in March…

COMEY: To see if there was any coordination between the Russian effort and peoples…

GRAHAM: Is that still going on?

COMEY: Yes.

GRAHAM: OK. So nothing’s changed. You stand by those two statements?

Curiously (not least because of certain investigative dates), Sheldon Whitehouse asked some pointed questions about whether Comey could reveal if an investigation was being starved by inaction.

WHITEHOUSE: Let’s say you’ve got a hypothetically, a RICO investigation and it has to go through procedures within the department necessary to allow a RICO investigation proceed if none of those have ever been invoked or implicated that would send a signal that maybe not much effort has been dedicated to it.

Would that be a legitimate question to ask? Have these — again, you’d have to know that it was a RICO investigation. But assuming that we knew that that was the case with those staging elements as an investigation moves forward and the internal department approvals be appropriate for us to ask about and you to answer about?

COMEY: Yes, that’s a harder question. I’m not sure it would be appropriate to answer it because it would give away what we were looking at potentially.

WHITEHOUSE: Would it be appropriate to ask if — whether any — any witnesses have been interviewed or whether any documents have been obtained pursuant to the investigation?

Richard Blumenthal asked Comey whether he could rule Trump in or out as a target of the investigation and specifically within that context, suggested appointing a special counsel (Patrick Leahy had already made the suggestion for a special counsel).

BLUMENTHAL: Have you — have you ruled out the president of the United States?

COMEY: I don’t — I don’t want people to over interpret this answer, I’m not going to comment on anyone in particular, because that puts me down a slope of — because if I say no to that then I have to answer succeeding questions. So what we’ve done is brief the chair and ranking on who the U.S. persons are that we’ve opened investigations on. And that’s — that’s as far as we’re going to go, at this point.

BLUMENTHAL: But as a former prosecutor, you know that when there’s an investigation into several potentially culpable individuals, the evidence from those individuals and the investigation can lead to others, correct?

COMEY: Correct. We’re always open-minded about — and we follow the evidence wherever it takes us.

BLUMENTHAL: So potentially, the president of the United States could be a target of your ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russian interference in our election, correct?

COMEY: I just worry — I don’t want to answer that — that — that seems to be unfair speculation. We will follow the evidence, we’ll try and find as much as we can and we’ll follow the evidence wherever it leads.

BLUMENTHAL: Wouldn’t this situation be ideal for the appointment of a special prosecutor, an independent counsel, in light of the fact that the attorney general has recused himself and, so far as your answers indicate today, no one has been ruled out publicly in your ongoing investigation. I understand the reasons that you want to avoid ruling out anyone publicly. But for exactly that reason, because of the appearance of a potential conflict of interest, isn’t this situation absolutely crying out for a special prosecutor?

Chuck Grassley asked Comey the first questions about what would become the year-long focus on Christopher Steele’s involvement in the FISA application on Carter Page.

GRASSLEY: On — on March 6, I wrote to you asking about the FBI’s relationship with the author of the trip — Trump-Russia dossier Christopher Steele. Most of these questions have not been answered, so I’m going to ask them now. Prior to the bureau launching the investigation of alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, did anyone from the FBI have interactions with Mr. Steele regarding the issue?

COMEY: That’s not a question that I can answer in this forum. As you know, I — I briefed you privately on this and if there’s more that’s necessary then I’d be happy to do it privately.

GRASSLEY: Have you ever represented to a judge that the FBI had interaction with Mr. Steele whether by name or not regarding alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia prior to the Bureau launching its investigation of the matter?

COMEY: I have to give you the same answer Mr. Chairman.

In a second round, Whitehouse asked about a Trump tweet suggesting Comey had given Hillary a free pass.

WHITEHOUSE: Thank you.

A couple of quick matters, for starters. Did you give Hillary Clinton quote, “a free pass for many bad deeds?” There was a tweet to that effect from the president.

COMEY: Oh, no, not — that was not my intention, certainly.

WHITEHOUSE: Well, did you give her a free pass for many bad deeds, whatever your intention may have been?

COMEY: We conducted a competent, honest and independent investigation, closed it while offering transparency to the American people. I believed what I said, there was not a prosecutable case, there.

Al Franken asked Comey whether the investigation might access Trump’s tax returns.

FRANKEN: I just want to clarify something — some of the answers that you gave me for example in response to director — I asked you would President Trump’s tax returns be material to the — such an investigation — the Russian investigation and does the investigation have access to President Trump’s tax returns and some other questions you answered I can’t say. And I’d like to get a clarification on that. Is it that you cant say or that you can’t say in this setting?

COMEY: That I won’t answer questions about the contours of the investigation. As I sit here I don’t know whether I would do it in a closed setting either. But for sure — I don’t want to begin answering questions about what we’re looking at and how.

Update: Contemporaneous reporting makes it clear that Trump was particularly irked by Comey’s admission that “It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election,” as that diminished Trump’s win. (h/t TC)

May 9, 2017: Regarding the decision to fire Mr. Comey: When was it made? Why? Who played a role?

The May 3 hearing is reportedly the precipitating event for Trump heading to Bedminster with Ivanka, Jared, and Stephen Miller on May 4 and deciding to fire Comey. Trump had Miller draft a letter explaining the firing, which Don McGahn would significantly edit when he saw it on May 8. McGahn also got Sessions and Rosenstein, who were peeved about different aspects of the hearing (those focused on Comey’s actions with regards to Hillary), to write letters supporting Comey’s firing.

Given that Mueller has the original draft of the firing letter and testimony from McGahn, Rosenstein, and Sessions, this question will largely allow Trump to refute evidence Mueller has already confirmed.

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 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.