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John Durham and the First Fight over a Doctored MemCon of Trump’s Meetings with Russia

A year ago, John Durham was investigating who leaked the fact that Mike Flynn had secretly worked with Russia to undermine sanctions that served, in part, to punish Russia for helping Trump get elected. Mike Flynn and KT McFarland had been claiming that David Ignatius forced them to lie about conversations that they made active efforts to cover-up even when they were secret, an obviously bullshit claim, but one that DOJ adopted as credible nevertheless.

The problem with that prong of the investigation (even beyond the fact that Flynn and McFarland were already covering Flynn’s calls before they had been made public) — as I pointed out when it was reported — that the most likely sources of the news that Flynn had been having secret conversations with the Ambassador were several groups that could leak this information legally: Original Classification Authorities, outgoing or not, or members of Congress. For the record, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page appear to have assumed the leak came from Congress. But if James Clapper or Jim Comey or another OCA leaked it as part of a counterintelligence inquiry into why Flynn did that, it would be entirely legal. All the more so given that Trump was not yet in office.

Given the new details we have on the Durham investigation — including yet more proof he and his investigators grossly misunderstand counterintelligence — I’d like to return to another leak: that Trump shared highly classified Israeli intelligence with Sergey Lavrov in their meeting on May 10, 2017. Given recent events, I think there is a decent chance that Durham investigated and may still be investigating this one, too.

As I noted, among the last Mueller 302s released to BuzzFeed were three or four that dealt with this leak, a coincidence in timing that is among the reasons I suspect Durham may have reviewed these 302s. They first described how after a meeting around the time Jim Comey was fired, an FBI counterintelligence detailee to the White House got called into Acting Homeland Security Advisor John Daly’s office after a meeting and grilled in a way that the detailee seemed to find inappropriate. Among other things, Daly asked the detailee what he thought of Trump’s decision to fire Comey.

A second interview with the detailee conducted on the same day appears to describe the aftermath of the meeting on May 10, 2017, at which Trump shared this intelligence. It appears the detailee read the MemCom of the meeting and realized what Trump had done. He appears to have first alerted his boss of what happened (it’s unclear whether that boss was at the White House or FBI), and then escalated it. He tried to tell Tom Bossert, but instead told Daly, which led to the grilling by Daly laid out in the first interview. After that meeting, the detailee told Bossert what happened. The detailee’s notice to Bossert led him to take measures to minimize the damage, as described by the original report on the meeting.

Senior White House officials appeared to recognize quickly that Trump had overstepped and moved to contain the potential fallout. Thomas P. Bossert, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, placed calls to the directors of the CIA and the NSA, the services most directly involved in the intelligence-sharing arrangement with the partner.

One of Bossert’s subordinates also called for the problematic portion of Trump’s discussion to be stricken from internal memos and for the full transcript to be limited to a small circle of recipients, efforts to prevent sensitive details from being disseminated further or leaked.

Over two years before similar events would lead to impeachment, Trump’s aides were trying to doctor the record of his calls with Russia to hide how he had damaged our allies.

According to the 302, Bossert applauded the detailee for alerting him of the problem. “Thank god you came to us.”

But then after the story leaked to the WaPo and NYT, the detailee was summoned to Bossert’s office, only to be grilled by both Bossert and Daly. After the detailee was grilled for 20-30 minutes, someone else was, as well. Almost immediately after his grilling, the detailee saw HR McMaster give a press conference at which, per the detailee, McMaster “gave a misleading account of what happened during TRUMP’s meeting with LAVROV.” Like Flynn had earlier that year, McMaster was lying publicly about something the Russians knew was a lie.

After he was grilled, the detailee appears to have informed FBI chain of command, including Bill Priestap.

Shortly thereafter, it appears that the detailee learned from Bossert that he was not getting a job he expected. The detailee asked when that decision was made, Bossert appears to have lied either about the job offer or about the decision to alter the MemCon in real time.

Not long after, the detailee left the NSC. Before he did, he put copies of emails recording all this as well as the partially redacted MemCon he had seen in a safe. The 302 suggests that the White House fired all the other people who had seen the MemCon.

Among the other 302s released last week include a record of FBI obtaining copies of Bill Priestap’s discussions with Ezra Cohen-Watnick and what appears to be the detailee at the time, which almost certainly includes notes relaying the events surrounding the MemCon. There’s also an almost entirely redacted 302 from Ted Gistaro, which was at least his second interview. Gistaro was Trump’s briefer both at Mar-a-Lago during the Transition period when Flynn was secretly calling Sergey Kislyak and probably still during the May 2017 period. Another 302 might be the FBI picking up the documents that the detailee had left behind.

All that is to say that among the very last documents that Bill Barr’s DOJ cleared for public release deal with a very complex set of problems central to questions of Trump’s relationship with Russia during the days that FBI would expand its counterintelligence investigation to incorporate Trump, as well. There’s the matter of the leak, which has never been charged. The original WaPo, which appears to have relied on more sources, cites both current and former officials, including at least one who remained close to Trump officials.

President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.

[snip]

“It is all kind of shocking,” said a former senior U.S. official who is close to current administration officials. “Trump seems to be very reckless and doesn’t grasp the gravity of the things he’s dealing with, especially when it comes to intelligence and national security. And it’s all clouded because of this problem he has with Russia.”

[snip]

“Russia could identify our sources or techniques,” the senior U.S. official said.

A former intelligence official who handled high-level intelligence on Russia said that given the clues Trump provided, “I don’t think that it would be that hard [for Russian spy services] to figure this out.”

Given that Bossert called NSA and CIA to alert them, there would be many candidates for this, including the OCAs for the intelligence and the partnership with our ally. Indeed, the journalists on the original story cover CIA and the Pentagon, not FBI. But the grilling of the detailee suggests that the White House suspected him.

Then there’s the matter of what the FBI should do with this information — and it seems fairly clear that the detailee was one if not the primary source of the information for the people overseeing the Crossfire Hurricane investigation. It is absolutely within Trump’s right to give our enemies classified information. It also undoubtedly damages the US (as the Trump-friendly source[s] for the story seem to agree).

If Andrew McCabe included this exchange among the things he considered before opening a counterintelligence investigation into Trump, I can see how Durham — who has exhibited over and over that he doesn’t understand counterintelligence — would deem it inappropriate, particularly if egged on by Bill Barr. If an FBI counterintelligence detailee at the White House had a role in its dissemination, all the more so.

But I can also see how, from a counterintelligence investigation, McMaster’s lies about this (on behalf of Trump) would raise concerns about Trump’s compromise. As with Flynn before him, the Russians would know that Trump was lying about his coziness with Russia.

Barr has set Durham up such that he can issue a report that the Attorney General — whoever it is — will be expected to make public (though if the report violates the rules that got Jim Comey fired, there would be a good excuse not to). If this is part of Durham’s investigation, Barr may be trying to suggest that the counterintelligence investigation into Trump was wholly inappropriate.

There’s a problem with that, of course. Trump had already probably committed a crime in working on a pardon for Julian Assange, well before he was even elected. That is, neither the leak to Ignatius (by whomever) nor the leak about the Russian meeting (by whomever) can be said to have inappropriately kicked off the counterintelligence investigation into Trump. His actions in October 2016 had already done that.

But, even if Durham showed any inkling of understanding of the counterintelligence matters he is investigating,  there’s no reason to believe he would know that there are seemingly ongoing matters that implicate Trump even before he was elected.

And if this is Barr’s play, of course, it may be undercut once Trump leaves office. Already, HR McMaster has, years later, criticized Trump’s efforts to coddle Russia. If asked to do so under oath in the next Congress, he may have far more to say about the damage Trump did to the country because he was so insecure about Russia’s help in the election.

Update: Bill Leonard, the former head of ISOO (and as such the guy who was in charge of the entire US classification system during the W administration), has corrected me on my assertion that Trump could legally share this information. He could under US law, but doing so violated international law. He explains:

Based upon reporting, the information Trump compromised was provided to the U.S. by an intelligence partner pursuant to a bilateral agreement.  Under international law, this bilateral executive agreement obligated the U.S. to protect the information.  Within the U.S., we have elected to utilize the classification system to protect such shared information.
While as President, Trump is free to abrogate the bilateral agreement, there is no indication that this was his intent.  Thus, pursuant to International law, he was obligated to protect it which he clearly failed to do.
Reverse the situation.  Foreign leaders do not have the right to unilaterally disclose U.S. classified information that has been shared with their country pursuant to a bilateral agreement.  The same restrictions pertain to a U.S. president.
Classification is but one of the many authorities this president has abused.  It needs to be called out as such.

Poot and POTUS Plan to Move Beyond the Mueller Investigation

I think people are misunderstanding something that happened the other day when Trump called Vladimir Putin. As the press reports, Trump initiated the call. The remarkably brief readout from the White House makes it clear Trump called to thank Putin for saying nice things about the economy (many have taken that as Trump’s declaration that he values such flattery, which is no doubt true, but Trump didn’t write the readout).

President Donald J. Trump spoke with President Vladimir Putin of Russia today.  President Trump thanked President Putin for acknowledging America’s strong economic performance in his annual press conference.

The two presidents also discussed working together to resolve the very dangerous situation in North Korea.

The even briefer formal readout from the Russian side (and this is unusual for them) said only,

Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with US President Donald Trump at the initiative of the American side.

Though reports state that the Kremlin said the men also discussed US-Russian ties.

The Kremlin said Thursday the two men discussed US-Russia ties and increasing tensions on the Korean peninsula, an issue that Putin chastised the United States for in earlier comments.

Other reports note that HR McMaster did not participate in the call.

The leaders talked for about 10 minutes, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster didn’t participate in the call, a White House official said.

So Trump saw reports that Putin mentioned him in his annual press conference, and called him up to comment about it, without an adult present.

Of course (as Politico notes but doesn’t focus on), Putin’s reference to Trump’s alleged success with the economy isn’t the most pointed thing he said in his press conference. Here’s the full exchange between ABC’s Terry Moran and Putin.

Terry Moran: Thank you, Mr President. Terry Moran with ABC News.

First, in the United States investigations by Congress, the Department of Justice and the media have uncovered a very large number of contacts between Russian citizens associated with your government and high officials of the Trump campaign. And some of those officials are now being prosecuted for lying about those contacts. All this is not normal. And many Americans are saying where there is that much smoke there must be fire. How would you explain to Americans the sheer number of contact between the Trump campaign and your government?

And second, if I may. It has almost been a year since Donald Trump has been elected president. You praised Donald Trump during the campaign. What is your assessment of Donald Trump as president after one year? Spasibo.

Vladimir Putin: Let us begin with the second part of your question. It is not for me to evaluate Donald Trump’s work. This should be done by his electorate, the American people. But we do see some major achievements, even over the short period he has been in office. Look at the markets, which have grown. This is evidence of investors’ trust in the US economy. This means they trust what President Trump is doing in this area. With all due respect to President Trump’s opposition in the United States, these are objective factors.

There are also things he would probably like to do but has not been able to do so far, such as a healthcare reform and several other areas. By the way, he said his intentions in foreign policy included improving relations with Russia. It is clear that he has been unable to do this because of the obvious constraints, even if he wanted to. In fact, I do not know if he still wants to or has exhausted the desire to do this; you should ask him. I hope that he does and that we will eventually normalise our relations to the benefit of the American and Russian people, and that we will continue to develop and will overcome the common and well-known threats, such as terrorism, environmental problems, weapons of mass destruction, crises around the world, including in the Middle East, the North Korean problem, etc. There are many things we can do much more effectively together in the interests of our people than we are doing them now. Actually, we can do everything more effectively together.

Terry Moran: How would you explain the connection between the government, your government, and the Trump campaign? How would you explain it to Americans?

Vladimir Putin(In English.) I see, I see. (In Russian.) You know that all this was invented by the people who stand in opposition to Mr Trump to present his work as illegitimate. It seems strange to me, and I mean it, that the people who are doing this do not seem to realise that they are damaging the internal political climate in the country, that they are decimating the possibilities of the elected head of state. This means that they do not respect the people who voted for him.

How do you see any election process worldwide? Do we need to ban any contacts at all? Our ambassador has been accused of meeting with someone. But this is standard international practice when a diplomatic representative and even Government members meet with all the candidates, their teams, when they discuss various issues and development prospects, when they want to understand what certain people will do after assuming power and how to respond to this. What kind of extraordinary things did anyone see in this? And why should all this take on the nature of spy mania?

You have watched the investigation on social media. The share of Russian corporate advertising makes up less than 0.01 percent, with that of American companies totaling 100, 200 and 300 percent. It is simply incomparable. But, for some reason, even this is seen as excessive. This is some kind of gibberish.

The same can be said about the situation with our media outlets, including RT and Sputnik. But their share in the overall information volume is negligible, as compared to the share of global US media outlets all over the world and in Russia. And this is seen as a threat. Then what about freedom of the media? This is actually a cornerstone, on which American democracy itself is based.

All of us should realise that someone succeeds and someone does not. We need to draw conclusions from this and move on, instead of pouncing on one another like animals. We need to think about this and draw conclusions.

Moran starts by noting that Trump’s people are now being prosecuted for lying about contacts with Russians, and asks why there were so many contacts. He then invites Putin to comment on Trump’s success.

Putin responds by saying it’s not his place to evaluate Trump’s success (elsewhere in the press conference Putin made grand show of respecting Russia’s democracy, too), but then goes ahead and does so, claiming that the economy is an “objective” success of Trump’s.

Moran has to prod him to get a direct answer on the second point. Putin repeats a Republican talking point — that the investigation “was invented by the people who stand in opposition to Mr Trump to present his work as illegitimate” — and complains about this “spy mania.” But then he doesn’t address the allegations that Russian spies were cozying up to Trump’s officials, not just its ambassador; he instead focuses on the social media investigation (and rightly points out that Russian social media had just a fraction of the impact of equally problematic right wing social media manipulation).

It’s the middle bit — what might have been Putin’s first response to Moran’s question about the investigation — that I suspect elicited Trump’s call to Putin.

I do not know if he still wants to or has exhausted the desire to do this; you should ask him. I hope that he does and that we will eventually normalise our relations to the benefit of the American and Russian people.

Having gotten Trump’s attention with a bullshit compliment, Putin then asked, “do you still want to go steady?”

Putin’s question — do you still want to normalize relations — came against the background of increasing Russian challenges in Syria, the theater where, even according to Jared Kushner’s public comments, the Russia-Trump cooperation was supposed to first bear fruit.

“On Dec. 13, two Russian Su-25s flew into coordinated coalition airspace on the east side of the Euphrates River near Abu Kamal, Syria,” the spokesman said, “and were promptly intercepted by two F-22A Raptors providing air cover for partner ground forces conducting operations to defeat ISIS.”

The U.S. jets used chaff, flares, and other maneuvers to “persuade the Su-25s to depart,” said the spokesman, and also made repeated calls on N emergency channel to the Russian pilots. Coalition leaders also contacted Russians on the ground along the deconfliction line. After 40 minutes, the Russians flew back to the west side of the Euphrates.

The U.S. and Russia verbally agreed in early November that Russian aircraft would stay west of the Euphrates and American jets would stay east. According to the spokesman, since the Russians are now crossing the river six to eight times a day, “it’s become increasingly tough for our pilots to discern whether Russian pilots’ actions are deliberate or if these are just honest mistakes.”

“Are you still interested,” Putin asked, while making it clear Russia could make Trump’s life far more difficult that it is currently doing.

And Trump got on the phone and said … we don’t know what he said, but we can sure guess.

In the wake of it, Trump’s team leaked details of their request to meet with Robert Mueller next week to find out whether the probe will, as Ty Cobb has absurdly been claiming for some time, be drawing to a close.

President Donald Trump’s private lawyers are slated to meet with special counsel Robert Mueller and members of his team as soon as next week for what the President’s team considers an opportunity to gain a clearer understanding of the next steps in Mueller’s probe, according to sources familiar with the matter.

While the lawyers have met with Mueller’s team before and might again, the sources believe the upcoming meeting has greater significance because it comes after the completion of interviews of White House personnel requested by the special counsel and after all requested documents have been turned over. Mueller could still request more documents and additional interviews. No request to interview the President or the vice president has been made, sources tell CNN.

But Trump’s team, led by John Dowd and Jay Sekulow, is hoping for signs that Mueller’s investigation is nearing its end, or at least the part having to do with the President. Their goal is to help Trump begin to emerge from the cloud of the ongoing investigation, several of the sources explained. The sources acknowledge that Mueller is under no obligation to provide any information and concede they may walk away with no greater clarity.

If such a meeting does occur, it will come amid the rumors that Trump plans to fire Mueller. Either Mueller finishes up and gives Trump an all clear, and soon, the message seems to be, or Trump will ensure Mueller can’t report the opposite.

Putin wants to get on with things, with making good on his investment in Donald Trump. And in response to that message, Trump made moves towards trying to end the investigation that would show such a plan would be the quid pro quo for Putin’s help getting Trump elected.

Trump Was Worried HR McMaster or Fiona Hill Would Spy on His Conversation with Putin

There were two infuriating stories earlier this week in preparation of today’s meeting between President Trump and Vladimir Putin.

The Daily Beast reported that Trump’s aides wanted top NSC Russia expert Fiona Hill in the meeting between the presidents.

According to two White House aides, senior Trump administration officials have pressed for Hill—the National Security Council’s senior director for Europe and Russia and the author of critical psychological biography of Putin—to be in the room during the president’s highly anticipated meeting with Putin.

If Hill is there, these officials believe, it will help the White House avoid the perception that the president is too eager to cozy up to the Kremlin. The hope is to avoid a repeat of Trump’s last meeting with top Russian officials, during which he disclosed classified intelligence to two of the country’s top diplomats—and was pictured by Russian state media looking particularly friendly with them.

But it used linguistic gymnastics to avoid stating who might decide to keep Hill out of the meeting.

Then Axios reported that just Trump, Rex Tillerson, and a translator would represent the US.

There will likely only be six people in the room when President Trump meets President Putin on Friday at the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany.

According to an official familiar with the meeting’s planning, it will be Trump, Putin, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, and translators.

But it, too, remained silent about who decided to keep the attendee list so small (though admittedly, that detail was a less crucial part of their story).

Thankfully, the NYT has finally revealed that it was Trump, not Putin, who chose to limit attendees.

Only six people attended the meeting itself: Mr. Trump and his secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson; Mr. Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov; and two interpreters.

The Russians had agitated to include several more staff members in the meeting, but Mr. Trump’s team had insisted that the meeting be kept small to avoid leaks and competing accounts later, according to an administration official with direct knowledge of the carefully choreographed meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity around the matter.

And he did so specifically to avoid leaks about what would transpire.

This means that Trump (personally, given the NYT portrayal) decided to exclude his National Security Advisor and top Russian advisor. And he did so, again, based on the NYT reporting, because he didn’t want a competing account from coming out. He basically excluded the key staffers who should have been in the meeting, in spite of the wishes of aides, to avoid having Russian critics describing what really happened in his meeting with Putin.

Remember, this is not the first time Trump has excluded McMaster from a key meeting: he also left McMaster sitting outside his meeting with Bibi Netanyahu, after belatedly inviting Tillerson in.