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Yesterday, Roger Stone Answered, then Backtracked, on a Question Mueller Has Already Posed to Trump

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. 

Contrary to Trump’s squeals about the hack indictment yesterday, it’s utterly damning for him. It shows:

  • Russian hackers responded to his plea for more Hillary emails by targeting her office that same day
  • Trump’s lifelong political advisor, Roger Stone, was described directly communicating with a GRU-run persona
  • Stone’s own advisor on these matters, then Breitbart and current Sputnik journalist Lee Stranahan, asked for and obtained files from the same GRU-run persona
  • GRU stole Hillary’s analytics in September, the heart of the general election, and did … the indictment doesn’t say what GRU did with the data
  • The same GRU persona made available information helping some of Trump’s most vocal defenders in Congress, ones he has discussed pushback strategies with on Air Force One

Like my own testimony, because this investigation started in Pittsburgh, and only later got moved under Mueller sometime last fall (I know one key witness who was about to speak to prosecutors when I saw him in October), it minimally overlaps with Peter Strzok’s involvement in the case, if at all.

In this post, I want to look at the second bullet: Roger Stone.

Since Stone got described in an indictment of those who helped Trump win the election, he has  (as is his habit) provided conflicting explanations, first suggesting it wasn’t him, then suggesting it couldn’t be him because he wasn’t “a person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump,” as the indictment described.

My contact with the campaign in 2016 was Donald Trump. I was not in regular contact with campaign officials.

Only, this morning (as Ryan Goodman noted), Stone has changed his tune, admitting that he did talk to Trump campaign officials and probably is the person described in the indictment who said all the things he said in his DMs to Guccifer 2.0.

I certainly acknowledge that I was in touch with Trump campaign officials.

Here’s why Stone’s changing story about whether he only spoke with Trump or in fact spoke with other campaign officials. Among the questions (as interpreted by Jay Sekulow) that Mueller has already posed to Trump is this one:

What did you know about communication between Roger Stone, his associates, Julian Assange or Wikileaks?

Mueller wants to know how much of Stone’s discussions with election operation participants Trump knew about. And Stone’s first instinct when seeing himself mentioned in an indictment of those participants was to say he only spoke to Trump.

I guess it’s clear why he’s backtracking from that.

By January, Trump Believed Manafort Could Flip on Him; Since Then, Trump Learned Mueller Wanted to Know about Manafort’s Requests to Russia for Help

I don’t pretend to know Paul Manafort’s psyche or the many competing pressures he is experiencing right now. So I will not pretend to know whether Manafort will seek a plea deal with Mueller, either now or after sitting in the pokey for some time, or after Judge Ellis rules on the last remaining challenges to Mueller’s authority, which is likely the only way short of pardon Manafort will avoid conviction and imprisonment on his corruption charges.

But I agree that the chances he will seek a plea deal increase now that he is in jail.

In the wake of his jailing yesterday, I’ve seen some discussion about whether he (and Michael Cohen, who is openly telegraphing he’d like to start plea negotiations) can flip. That is, smart people are raising real questions whether Paul Manafort has anything to offer Mueller in a plea deal.

I don’t pretend to know what Mueller’s view on that is, either, or whether it changed in the wake of Rick Gates pleading guilty back in February (though I did entertain the question last month).

But I do think this story, from January, deserves reconsideration. In it Howard Fineman laid out the strategy with respect to the Russian investigation Trump has been pursuing ever since, culminating in his claims over the last few days about the DOJ IG Report. He planned then and has set out since to discredit the FBI and the Mueller investigation rather than to fire anyone else.

Trump — who trusts no one, or at least no one for long — has now decided that he must have an alternative strategy that does not involve having Justice Department officials fire Mueller.

“I think he’s been convinced that firing Mueller would not only create a firestorm, it would play right into Mueller’s hands,” said another friend, “because it would give Mueller the moral high ground.”

Instead, as is now becoming plain, the Trump strategy is to discredit the investigation and the FBI without officially removing the leadership. Trump is even talking to friends about the possibility of asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions to consider prosecuting Mueller and his team.

We now know Fineman’s story came in the immediate wake of a letter to Mueller making fairly absurd arguments about why Trump couldn’t be interviewed and, more importantly, providing illogical explanations for some of the actions he had taken. The letter is important because whereas an earlier June 2017 letter imagined any investigation into Trump constituted “a preliminary inquiry into whether the President’s termination of former FBI Director James Comey constituted obstruction of justice,” by January Trump’s lawyers recognized Mueller needed to ask Trump about both “collusion” and obstruction of justice.

As I noted at the time Fineman’s piece came out, though, the far more interesting detail than Trump’s strategy to beat back a “collusion” investigation is that multiple Fineman sources (Chris Ruddy, who I think serves as Trump’s more rational brain, was a source for this story) report that Trump had considered whether Manafort would flip on him and had concluded that he would not.

He’s decided that a key witness in the Russia probe, Paul Manafort, isn’t going to “flip” and sell him out, friends and aides say.

We have since learned that Trump had John Dowd offer pardons to both Mike Flynn and Manafort and there’s reason to believe that Manafort remains in a joint defense agreement with Trump. So Trump’s belief that Manafort wouldn’t flip on him likely derived from tangible discussions and not just gut feel.

At the time he was telling people Manafort wouldn’t flip, Trump would have known that Mueller was interested in his involvement in “the statement of July 8, 2017, concerning Donald Trump, Jr.’s meeting in Trump Tower;” Trump’s lawyers believed that Mueller had seen evidence that would lead him to conclude that, he “dictated a short but accurate response to the New York Times article on behalf of his son.” Trump also worked hard (and has been assisted consistently by the press in doing so) to spin the question of his involvement in the June 9 meeting as being about “a private matter with the New York Times,” and not a question about his conversations with Vladimir Putin about the statement.

But nothing else that Mueller had communicated to Trump’s lawyers (if we can believe Jay Sekulow and John Dowd’s understanding of their January 8 conversation with Mueller’s team) indicated an interest in matters even remotely related to Paul Manafort.

Which is to say in January, Trump had reason to believe that Manafort might have information that incriminated him independent of anything Mueller’s team had told him.

Of course, since then, Trump has far more reason to fear Manafort seeking a cooperation agreement. That’s because Mueller has since told Trump’s team things that confirm they know things that implicate Trump’s interactions with Manafort directly — and therefore place a premium on any testimony he’d give. Piggy-backing off the questions (Jay Sekulow thinks) Mueller wants to ask Trump, here are a bunch of questions that Mueller likely would like Manafort to explain about Trump.

  • Whether, like Mike Flynn, Trump offered Manafort a pardon in exchange for his refusal to cooperate.
  • Whether Trump discussed the Trump Tower meeting, and the offer of dirt, with Manafort during their meeting on June 7, 2016, and whether that led Trump to promise, “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.”
  • Whether Trump had a role in how Don Jr’s emails about the June 9 meeting got released, including that he withheld Manafort’s side of that communication.
  • Whether Manafort discussed with Trump his strategy on how to entertain meetings with Putin without sending any public signs about it.
  • Whether, contrary to the account laid out in the HPSCI report, Manafort had a role in the defeat of an effort to make the RNC platform harsher on Ukraine, and if so, whether Manafort looped him in on it.
  • Whether Manafort, who had discussed campaign updates with the Russian oligarch at risk of sanctions to whom he owed millions, Oleg Deripaska, discussed ending sanctions on other Russian oligarchs.

Those are all damning enough. But the most damning question that we know Mueller wants to ask both Manafort and Trump is about the former’s outreach to Russia asking for help with the election. According to Sekulow, Mueller wants to know, “What knowledge did [Trump] have of any outreach by [his] campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?”

Manafort knows the answer to that question.

Trump learned three months ago that Mueller had reason to believe Manafort had reached out to Russia for help and wanted to know if Manafort had shared details about that effort with Trump (or if Trump learned about it via some other means).

But at least two months before he formally learned that, Trump was telling his aides and friends that Manafort had information that could incriminate him.

What Got Added to Sekulow’s List: Further Obstruction (Including Consideration of Firing Mueller), and “Collusion”

As bmaz noted, the NYT just published the most batshit letter, written on January 29 by John Dowd and Jay Sekulow, trying to dodge testimony for Trump. Here’s what, according to Dowd and Sekulow, Mueller had told them on January 8 he wanted to ask about.

  1. Former National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn — information regarding his contacts with Ambassador Kislyak about sanctions during the transition process;
  2. Lt. Gen. Flynn’s communications with Vice President Michael Pence regarding those contacts;
  3. Lt. Gen. Flynn’s interview with the FBI regarding the same;
  4. Then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates coming to the White House to discuss same;
  5. The President’s meeting on February 14, 2017, with then-Director James Comey;
  6. Any other relevant information regarding former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn;
  7. The President’s awareness of and reaction to investigations by the FBI, the House and the Senate into possible collusion;
  8. The President’s reaction to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation;
  9. The President’s reaction to Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony on March 20, 2017, before the House Intelligence Committee;
  10. Information related to conversations with intelligence officials generally regarding ongoing investigations;
  11. Information regarding who the President had had conversations with concerning Mr. Comey’s performance;
  12. Whether or not Mr. Comey’s May 3, 2017, testimony lead to his termination;
  13. Information regarding communications with Ambassador Kislyak, Minister Lavrov, and Lester Holt;
  14. The President’s reaction to the appointment of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel;
  15. The President’s interaction with Attorney General Sessions as it relates to the appointment of Special Counsel; and,
  16. The statement of July 8, 2017, concerning Donald Trump, Jr.’s meeting in Trump Tower.

On March 5, Trump’s lawyers had a heated meeting with Mueller’s team, where Mueller floated a subpoena. In the wake of that meeting, Mueller provided a new list of topics of interest, which resulted in the Sekulow list leaked a month ago.

In the wake of the testy March 5 meeting, Mueller’s team agreed to provide the president’s lawyers with more specific information about the subjects that prosecutors wished to discuss with the president. With those details in hand, Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow compiled a list of 49 questions that the team believed the president would be asked,

Here’s that list, as presented by the NYT (there are fewer than the 49 described by the NYT because of how they combined questions). I’ve bolded the ones that appear to be entirely new in the later list.

  1.  What did you know about phone calls that Mr. Flynn made with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, in late December 2016?
  2. What was your reaction to news reports on Jan. 12, 2017, and Feb. 8-9, 2017?
  3. What did you know about Sally Yates’s meetings about Mr. Flynn?
  4. How was the decision made to fire Mr. Flynn on Feb. 13, 2017?
  5. After the resignations, what efforts were made to reach out to Mr. Flynn about seeking immunity or possible pardon?
  6. What was your opinion of Mr. Comey during the transition?
  7. What did you think about Mr. Comey’s intelligence briefing on Jan. 6, 2017, about Russian election interference?
  8. What was your reaction to Mr. Comey’s briefing that day about other intelligence matters?
  9. What was the purpose of your Jan. 27, 2017, dinner with Mr. Comey, and what was said?
  10. What was the purpose of your Feb. 14, 2017, meeting with Mr. Comey, and what was said?
  11. 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?
  12. What did you do in reaction to the March 20 testimony? Describe your contacts with intelligence officials.
  13. What did you think and do in reaction to the news that the special counsel was speaking to Mr. Rogers, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Coats?
  14. What was the purpose of your calls to Mr. Comey on March 30 and April 11, 2017?
  15. What was the purpose of your April 11, 2017, statement to Maria Bartiromo?
  16. What did you think and do about Mr. Comey’s May 3, 2017, testimony?
  17. Regarding the decision to fire Mr. Comey: When was it made? Why? Who played a role?
  18. What did you mean when you told Russian diplomats on May 10, 2017, that firing Mr. Comey had taken the pressure off?
  19. What did you mean in your interview with Lester Holt about Mr. Comey and Russia?
  20. What was the purpose of your May 12, 2017, tweet?
  21. What did you think about Mr. Comey’s June 8, 2017, testimony regarding Mr. Flynn, and what did you do about it?
  22. What was the purpose of the September and October 2017 statements, including tweets, regarding an investigation of Mr. Comey?
  23. What is the reason for your continued criticism of Mr. Comey and his former deputy, Andrew G. McCabe?
  24. What did you think and do regarding the recusal of Mr. Sessions?
  25. What efforts did you make to try to get him to change his mind?
  26. Did you discuss whether Mr. Sessions would protect you, and reference past attorneys general?
  27. What did you think and what did you do in reaction to the news of the appointment of the special counsel?
  28. Why did you hold Mr. Sessions’s resignation until May 31, 2017, and with whom did you discuss it?
  29. What discussions did you have with Reince Priebus in July 2017 about obtaining the Sessions resignation? With whom did you discuss it?
  30. What discussions did you have regarding terminating the special counsel, and what did you do when that consideration was reported in January 2018?
  31. What was the purpose of your July 2017 criticism of Mr. Sessions?
  32. When did you become aware of the Trump Tower meeting?
  33. What involvement did you have in the communication strategy, including the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails?
  34. During a 2013 trip to Russia, what communication and relationships did you have with the Agalarovs and Russian government officials?
  35. What communication did you have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign?
  36. What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding any meeting with Mr. Putin? Did you discuss it with others?
  37. What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding Russian sanctions?
  38. What involvement did you have concerning platform changes regarding arming Ukraine?
  39. During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign?
  40. What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?
  41. What did you know about communication between Roger Stone, his associates, Julian Assange or WikiLeaks?
  42. What did you know during the transition about an attempt to establish back-channel communication to Russia, and Jared Kushner’s efforts?
  43. What do you know about a 2017 meeting in Seychelles involving Erik Prince?
  44. What do you know about a Ukrainian peace proposal provided to Mr. Cohen in 2017?

The additions are instructive. The one new bit on Flynn involves Trump’s offer of a pardon.

The new bits on obstruction pertain to ongoing efforts to obstruct the investigation, including consideration of firing Mueller and ongoing efforts to discredit Jim Comey and Andrew McCabe.

But the most interesting are the 14 or so questions on Trump’s involvement in and awareness of election tampering. Given the timing of Rick Gates’ plea on February 23 and the subsequent focus on Roger Stone and Michael Cohen, I’m particularly interested in the addition of questions involving both of them (as well as the question about Manafort’s efforts to get Russia’s help).

Trump would have been far better off having an interview in January. Because the questions are getting harder — and Mueller’s interest in his involvement in “collusion” is getting more apparent.

The NY Times, Sekulow and Dowd’s Sophistry and Trump’s King Like Viewpoint

I have obligations that I seriously must run out the door for, but this need to be posted so that it can be dissected. The inestimable crew of Haberman, Schmidt et. al have posted a rather amazing letter 20 page letter issued on behalf of Trump by his attorneys at the time, Jay Sekulow and John Dowd. There is a minimum of mockery of the effort, which I will attribute to the contributions of Charlie Savage and Matt Apuzzo, who have the curious, too often for the Times, habit of actually appropriately reading legal things with an eye to what they really represent.

This “letter” is one of the most ridiculous pieces of legal sophistry I have ever seen in my life. It, without an iota of shame or self reflection, brazenly place Trump as not just a King, but a God like entity that far outstrips the importance of the rule of law or separation of powers the Founders intended.

So, I am leaving this here until either Marcy or I come back to it later. Read the damn thing. Weep for your country and the shreds of its Constitution before Trump and his lackeys burn what’s left.

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

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

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

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

The cultivation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RESOURCES

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

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

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

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

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

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

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

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

It’s Not Hannity’s Pee Tape that Matters

Late afternoon on Sunday, Margaret Sullivan wrote a column arguing that Donald Trump might survive his own Saturday Night Massacre of firing Rod Rosenstein or Robert Mueller. The reason Trump might survive where Nixon didn’t, she argues, is Sean Hannity.

Nixon didn’t have Fox News in his corner.

President Trump does — and that might make all the difference if he were to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein or even special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

The pro-Trump media, led by Fox, would give cover, and huge swaths of Americans would be encouraged to believe that the action was not only justified but absolutely necessary.

You can see it coming.

Night after night — for many months — Trump’s sycophant-in-chief, Sean Hannity, has been softening the ground. And his message is sinking in.

In a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, three of four Republicans said they believed the Justice Department and the FBI are actively working to undermine Trump.

“Hannity has been poisoning the well for Mueller’s ‘deeply corrupt’ investigation and laying the groundwork to support the president if he seeks an authoritarian recourse,” wrote Matthew Gertz, of the progressive watchdog group Media Matters for America. That was back in October.

Six months, five convictions and more than a dozen indictments later, that poison has done its job.

Less than 24 hours later, Michael Cohen’s lawyer revealed the name of the third client to whom Cohen claimed to have provided legal advice he wanted to protect under attorney-client privilege, a person who — Cohen had claimed in a brief Sunday, hadn’t wanted his name disclosed. “The client’s name that is involved is Sean Hannity.

In response to the ensuing uproar over learning he was the hidden Client 3, Hannity offered a series of contradictory statements, presumably designed to tamp down any speculation that Cohen had negotiated a hush payment for the star, but which only served to make Cohen’s legal claims more specious.

Michael Cohen has never represented me in any matter. I never retained him, received an invoice, or paid legal fees. I have occasionally had brief discussions with him about legal questions about which I wanted his input and perspective.

I assumed those conversations were confidential, but to be absolutely clear they never involved any matter between me and a third-party.

In response to some wild speculation, let me make clear that I did not ask Michael Cohen to bring this proceeding on my behalf, I have no personal interest in this proceeding, and, in fact, asked that my de minimis discussions with Michael Cohen, which dealt almost exclusively about real estate, not be made a part of this proceeding.

As I joked, Hannity said he had eight lawyers. I wonder which three different lawyers wrote these statements, and whether one of them was the other lawyer he shares with Donald Trump, Jay Sekulow.

So Cohen advised Hannity “almost exclusively about real estate,” which in this crowd sometimes means money laundering, and not about buying off Playboy bunnies.

But what are the other conversations about?

Hannity has played even more of a role in protecting Trump than Sullivan makes out. It’s not just that he fed the uproar over Trump’s lawyer being raided. But he did an interview with Julian Assange in January 2017 that helped seed the narrative that Russia didn’t hand the DNC files to Wikileaks. More grotesquely, Hannity fed the conspiracy theories about Seth Rich (I hope the multiple entities that are suing Hannity over that will demand discovery on any claimed privileged conversations about the topic with Trump’s lawyer).

Sure, the matters on which Cohen purportedly gave legal advice to Hannity might be about buying a condo.

But given the effort Cohen made to protect those conversations from the eyes of the FBI, they also might involve coordination on some of the more insidious pushback on the Russian story.

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.

Manafort’s Lawyers Will Challenge the Legitimacy of Prosecuting the Ukrainian Money Laundering

Over the weekend, I did a Twitter thread on the fun stuff in the latest filing from Paul Manafort’s lawyers asking (among other things) that he be let off his GPS monitor. Now that others are reviewing the filing, I’m seeing lots of people miss a key part of what his lawyers are doing.

As I noted, in a footnote, Manafort’s lawyers point out that the crimes he has been charged with all pre-date the election.

Of note, his work on behalf of the Ukrainian clients ended around two years before Mr. Manafort agreed to work as the campaign manager for then-candidate Donald Trump.

It’s a point they’ve made before. But it has been misunderstood as a bogus point.

It’s not. Here’s how the defense has said they’re going to defend against this indictment.

At this time, the defense anticipates that pretrial motions will be filed concerning the legal basis for and sufficiency of the charges, the suppression of evidence improperly obtained by search warrant, subpoena or otherwise (including the application of exceptions to common law privileges), as well as motions in limine based on discovery to be provided by the Government in preparation for trial.

To some degree, this is part of a challenge the defense will make to the charging of FARA crimes generally. As they rightly point out, that simply hasn’t gotten prosecuted.

The Government’s case also concerns whether Mr. Manafort was required to file a report as a foreign agent with the U.S. Department of Justice. The U.S. Department of Justice has only brought six criminal FARA prosecutions since 1966 and it has secured only one conviction during this period. It is far from clear what activity triggers a requirement to file a report as a foreign agent. In order to conceal this weakness in the Indictment, a façade of money laundering has been put forth using a tenuous legal theory. When the money laundering count is peeled back from the Indictment, the forecasted sentencing guidelines are reduced substantially to a fraction of those claimed by the Office of Special Counsel.

What they’re ignoring is that the FARA charges are tied to both the money laundering they want to dismiss (Weekly Standard quotes people saying “it doesn’t make sense” to have spent $1M on rugs in Alexandria) and to false statements charges that (as DOJ keeps pointing out) have already been validated in the process of getting Manafort’s lawyer to waive privilege to explain how she was lied to.

But it also suggests they’re going to go after not only the no-knock warrant from this summer (which obtained information proving that Manafort and Gates keep records longer than the six months they have claimed to DOJ in the past), but also other subpoenas and the legal basis for the changes. That is, it suggests they’re going to challenge Mueller’s authority for investigating these old crimes which, public reporting made clear, long preceded the authorization of the Special Counsel. The legitimacy of the new evidence collection and charges depends on the legitimacy of the exercise of the Special Counsel authority, which is in turn based on,

(i) any links and/or coordination bet ween the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and

(ii) any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation;

(iii) any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a).

The entire point of noting that the crimes charged here predate the election is to lay the groundwork for legal challenges. Manafort’s lawyers are laying groundwork to claim that these charges 1) don’t pertain to coordination on the election and 2) can’t say to have arisen out of them, because they predated them. Again, that ignores that the 28 CFR §600.4(a) permits Mueller to investigate, “intent to interfere with, the Special Counsel’s investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses,” which Manafort’s false statements about the FARA registration might certainly be construed as.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think such a challenge will succeed (in part because of those false statements charges, which are dated to November 23, 2016 and February 10, 2017; the conspiracy to defraud the US also continues through 2017 and in part because Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein approved the charges). I also think this Politico piece, which talks about such legal threats, overstates the legal danger of such a challenge (in part because it cites all number of Republican lawyers, including Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow, who are being teed up to bitch about the legitimacy publicly).

But I do think it’s a legitimate tactic, one that will serve Manafort’s defense, even outside the world of the Sukulow spin.

First, the charges as laid out are designed to steer clear of the election related stuff so Mueller can get Manafort to flip and testify on those without laying out what he already knows. They’re also designed to parallel similar charges in NY that can be charged if Trump pardons Manafort. By challenging the legitimacy of the tie between the Ukraine consulting and the election, Manafort may force Mueller to show more of his hand, notably to include why he believes the lies Manafort told last November and in February are part of the election cover-up (I can easily imagine how Mueller would explain it, but imagine he doesn’t want to do so, yet). Alternately, to substantiate the ties, Mueller may choose to issue a superseding indictment, tying the Ukraine work more closely to the election stuff, but I suspect he doesn’t want to do that, yet.

Also, to the extent that the challenge gets litigated now rather than on appeal (when it will definitely get litigated, if this goes to trial), Manafort may test the guidelines for something the President very much wants to test: whether Mueller can prosecute old business corruption (that in the case of both men happens to implicate compromise by the Russians). Manafort will be taking logical steps for his own defense, but also doing the work of the man who ultimately holds Manafort’s ticket to freedom.

Finally, there is the entire point of propaganda. So long as Trump can claim that nothing substantial has been charged against his campaign, both by noting (as he has, repeatedly) that Manafort’s charges are unrelated to the election and George Papadopoulos is some random coffee boy, Republicans and Trump supporters will have more space to support him. Once that changes — and the moment that changes will be one of the most fraught legal moments in this case — things may get a lot harder for Trump.

But for now, Manafort is helping the PR case along, and will continue to to the extent that his lawyers continue to argue that the crimes ended well before the campaign.

Update: As Josh Gerstein notes in his story on the government’s latest filing, Manafort and the government are actually disputing how long his work in Ukraine lasted:

The parties do dispute one minor factual point: Manafort claims that his work in the Ukraine ended in 2014, ECF#32 at 3, while the indictment alleges his continued work through 2015 on behalf of the Opposition Bloc, after the flight to Russia of President Victor Yanukovych. Indictment ¶ 1.

I have a feeling that discrepancy could end up less minor than suggested.