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The Predictable Result of Asymmetry in Terrorism Policing: Andrew McCabe’s Demise

I recently finished Andrew McCabe’s book.

It is very effective at what I imagine its intended purposes are. It provides some fascinating new details about the genesis of the Russian investigation. It offers a great introduction in how the FBI (at its best) can work. It gives a self-congratulatory version of McCabe’s career, including key events like the Najibullah Zazi and Boston Marathon investigations; even if McCabe had wanted to tell fully honest stories about those investigations, I’m sure the less flattering details wouldn’t have passed FBI’s publication review.

The book also says satisfyingly mean things about Trump, Jeff Sessions, and (more obliquely) Rod Rosenstein. (I think McCabe’s book release significantly explains the rumors reported as fact that Mueller’s report was imminent some weeks ago; that claim served, in part, to once again eliminate any pressure to fire Rosenstein immediately).

The latter of two, of course, implemented McCabe’s firing. McCabe’s excuse for lying to the Inspector General, which led to his firing, is one of the least convincing parts of the book (he admits he can’t say more because of his continued legal jeopardy, but he does raise it). That’s true, in part, because McCabe only deals with one of the conversations in question; there were a number of them. But he also excuses his chief lie because he was frazzled about learning of the Strzok-Page texts in the same conversation. I can understand that, but elsewhere, one of his digs against Rosenstein is how overwhelmed the Deputy Attorney General was in the wake of the Jim Comey firing. McCabe suggests, in that context, that because he had dealt with big stressful issues (like the Boston Marathon attack), he wasn’t similarly rattled. Which is why I find it disingenuous to use being frazzled for not being fully truthful to the Inspector General. Plus, virtually all defendants prosecuted for lying to the FBI (including George Papadopoulos, but not Mike Flynn, who is a very accomplished liar) are frazzled when they tell those lies; it’s a tactic the FBI uses to catch people unguarded.

I was most frustrated, however, by something that has become increasingly important in recent days: McCabe’s utter lack of awareness (at least in the book) of the import of the asymmetric focus on Islamic terrorism across his career.

After moving to counterterrorism in the mid-00s from working organized crime, McCabe became an utterly central player in the war on Islamic terror, founding the High Value Interrogation Group, and then leading the CT and National Security Divisions of FBI. He was a key player in investigations — like Zazi — that the FBI is rightly proud of.

But McCabe normalizes the choices made after 9/11 to pursue Islamic terrorism as a distinct danger. He (of course) whitewashes Jim Comey’s decision to retain the Internet dragnet in 2004 under an indefensible use of the PATRIOT Act. He argues that it is politically impossible to survive a failure to prevent an attack even though he managed the Boston Marathon attack, where FBI and NSA had some warning of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s danger, but nevertheless got very little criticism as a result. Most remarkably, McCabe talks about Kevin Harpham’s attempted attack on the Martin Luther King Day parade, mentions as an aside that this was (obviously) not an Islamic terror attack, but offers no reflection on how Harpham’s attack undermines much of what he presents, unquestioningly, as a greater risk from Islamic terrorism (here’s a story on how Barack Obama did not get briefed on Harpham, a decision that may well have involved McCabe).

Granted, McCabe’s blind spots (at least in the book) are typical of people who have spent their lives reinforcing this asymmetry. You see it, too, in this utterly nonsensical paragraph in a largely ridiculous piece from Joshua Geltzer, Mary McCord, and Nick Rasmussen — all likewise accomplished players in the War on Just One Kind of Terrorism — at Lawfare.

The phrases “international terrorism” (think of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda) and “domestic terrorism” (think of the Oklahoma City bombing and the October 2018 shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue) have often been a source of confusion to those not steeped in counterterrorism. The Islamic State has its roots internationally, but what makes it such a threat to Americans is, in part, its ability to influence domestic actors like Omar Mateen to kill Americans in domestic locations like Orlando, Florida. The group may be “international,” but its attackers and attacks can be, and have been, domestic—to tragic effect.

This paragraph, in a piece that admits the focus of their career has been wrong (and neglects to mention that Christchurch terrorist Brenton Tarrant named Donald Trump, along with Anders Behring Breivik, as an inspiration), suggests that the reason international terrorism is “such a threat” is because it can inspire domestic actors. The logic inherent to that paragraph is that terrorism carried out by “domestic terrorists,” inspired by a domestic white supremacist ideology is any less dangerous than terrorism carried out by people inspired by what is treated as an international ideology. International terrorism is worse than domestic terrorism, these experts argue, because it can lead to domestic terrorism.

Dead is dead. And given the significant number of white supremacists who have had experience in the military and greater tolerance for their training, white supremacists have the potential of being far more effective, as individuals, at killing than US-based Islamic terrorists.

One thing the Lawfare piece studiously avoids acknowledging is that what it calls “domestic” terrorism (the racist ideology of which they never describe) is an ideology significantly exported by the United States. Even in a piece that rightly calls for an equal focus on both white supremacist terrorism and Islamic terrorism, it ducks labeling the ideology in question. And while this WaPo piece does label the ideology in question, it bizarrely calls an attack in New Zealand carried out by an Australian a “domestic” attack.

The WaPo piece describes one problem with the asymmetric treatment of different kinds of terrorism: that governments don’t share intelligence about international violent racist ideology. In fact, in the US, such intelligence gets treated differently, if the FBI’s failure to track the networks around Frazier Glenn Miller and Eric Rudolph is any indication.

Ironically, that’s one reason that McCabe’s failure to track white supremacist terrorism in the same way he tracked Islamic terrorism led to his demise. While the network behind the election year operation that helped elect Trump involves a lot of Russians, it also clearly involves a lot of white supremacists like Nigel Farage (and David Duke), a network Russia exploited. Additionally, as I have argued (and at least one study backs) white supremacist networks provided the real fire behind the attacks on Clinton; Russia’s information operations had the effect of throwing more fuel on a blazing bonfire.

The other problem with the US government’s asymmetric treatment of terrorism is legitimacy. Labeling Islamic terrorism “foreign” and pursuing material support cases based partly on speech has had the effect of criminalizing some speech that criticizes US foreign policy, even well-deserved criticism about the effect of US killing of Muslims. By contrast, white supremacist speech, even that which  more aggressively advocates violence is treated as speech. Yes, deplatforming has begun to change that.

But we’re still not at a place where those who incite white supremacist violence are held accountable for it.

That’s how it was possible for a man to kick off a campaign by inventing lies about Mexican immigrants and how the entire Republican party, up to and including the new supposedly sane Attorney General, are permitted to pursue counterproductive policies solely so they can appear to demonize brown people.

Irrespective of the merit or not in the finding that Andrew McCabe lacked candor with the IG, he got treated the way he did because a man whose entire political career is based off feeding white resentment needed to appear to be a victim of Andrew McCabe. That act, by itself, was not about Trump’s white supremacist ideology. But it is a structure of power that is white supremacist (exacerbated by Trump’s narcissism).

We have a President Trump in significant part because this country has tolerated and even rewarded white supremacist ideology, institutionally ignoring that it poses as much of a risk as violent Islamic ideology. It would be really useful if people like Andrew McCabe spend some time publicly accounting for that fact.

The white supremacy that brought us the Trump presidency would not be possible if we had treated violent white supremacist terror as terror for the last twenty years.

Which Came First: The Indemnity Fail or Cohen’s Cooperation Curiosity?

Michael Cohen is suing Trump Organization for refusing to fulfill an indemnity agreement they had. By itself, the suit offers the promise that these shitholes will rip each other apart in court. Discovery could be awesome, especially since the suit names Eric and Don Jr.

It also may lead other members of the Joint Defense Agreement to question how long Trump will remain loyal to them.

But I’m acutely interested in the timeline the lawsuit draws out for what it says about Trump’s efforts to cover-up his own criminal actions, laid out below. The italicized entries are ones I’ve added to Cohen’s own timeline — many of those dates come from this post on the timeline of the Special Master review of materials seized in the raid of Cohen’s home. The underlined ones are ones in Cohen’s complaint that I’ve editorialized on, to note where someone is known to have told a lie that coordinated with Cohen’s own lies.

As you can see, Trump’s spawn were happy to pay Cohen’s legal bills so long as he continued to tell the agreed upon lies.

But that changed when he got raided in April 2018. As I’ve noted, even though Cohen and Trump succeeded in getting a Special Master appointed to review all the discovery, that appointment didn’t succeed in withholding any of the most damning materials. But the Special Master process did give Trump an opportunity to review what Cohen had — including to identify what he had tape recordings of.

This probably led them to two conclusions. First, because Cohen had taped incriminating conversations (to ensure he’d get paid, Cohen explained in his OGR testimony), he had exposed Trump where he otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed. But because he hadn’t taped the most damning conversations — those implicating the Trump Tower Moscow deal and other Russia-related issues — they could fuck him over with relative impunity.

And that’s about when Trump stopped paying for Cohen’s silence. Notably, Cohen’s filing states that “On June 2018, Mr. Cohen began telling friends and family that he was willing to cooperate with the Special Counsel,” as if there once was a date there. He doesn’t give us that date.

But we can see from the timeline that it happened at a key point in the Special Master review, which is the same time Trump stopped paying for Cohen’s silence.

Two things are unclear to me.

First, as the title suggests, which came first, Cohen’s willingness to cooperate, or Trump’s newfound unwillingness to pay. My bet is it’s the latter, and my bet is it was a response to what they were seeing in the Special Master review. That is, once they decided that Cohen couldn’t hurt them, they cut him free, to sink on his own.

I’m also curious about why Cohen included Papadopoulos, Manafort, Gates, Page, Sessions, and Flynn in his timeline. He is not known to have testimony relating to any of these people — except, perhaps, Manafort. And they weren’t the only ones in Trump’s JDA (Gates has said he was never in the JDA) to have testified in this period (for example, KT McFarland had her first interview).

But it suggests Cohen may have more on the JDA he’s hanging over the others. Which may get litigated in this suit.

Timeline

August 2016: Karen McDougal catch and kill.

October 2016: Stormy Daniels hush payment.

January 13, 2017: SSCI opens Russian investigation.

January 25, 2017: HPSCI opens investigation.

January and February 2017: Cohen seeks reimbursement for hush payment to Daniels.

March 2017: Cohen named RNC Deputy Chair.

May 17, 2017: Mueller appointed.

~May 18, 2017: Cohen meets with Trump and Jay Sekulow, implicitly agree to tell a cover story.

End of May 2017: Cohen lawyers up with McDermott Will & Emery.

May 31, 2017: HPSCI subpoenas Cohen.

July 2017: Trump Organization enters into indemnity agreement in context of joint defense agreement.

August 28, 2017, Cohen sends letter making false statements to HPSCI and SSCI.

September 7, 2017: Don Jr testifies before SJC, repeating Cohen’s false statement on Trump Tower Moscow.

September 19, 2017: Cohen lies to SSCI about Trump Tower Moscow.

September 26, 2017: Roger Stone lies to HPSCI about relaying information about WikiLeaks to campaign, including Trump.

October 5, 2017: George Papadopoulos pleads guilty to making false statements to FBI agents relating to contacts he had with agents of the Russian government while working for the Trump Campaign.

October 25, 2017: Cohen testifies to SSCI, lying about Trump Tower Moscow.

October 25, 2017: First payment, in sum of $137,460, to McDermott.

October 30, 2017: Paul Manafort and Rick Gates indicted by a federal grand jury, including conspiracy against
the United States

November 2, 2017: Carter Page testifies before HPSCI.

November 14, 2017: AG Jeff Sessions testifies before HJC.

December 1, 2017: Mike Flynn pled guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador.

December 6, 2017: Don Jr testified before the HPSCI, sustaining Cohen’s lies about Trump Tower Moscow.

December 2017: Don Jr and Eric Trump confirm they will continue to pay Cohen’s attorneys’ fees and expenses.

March 6, 2018: Daniels files a lawsuit against Trump and Cohen in CA seeking to invalidate NDA.

March 26, 2018: Daniels amends lawsuit to allege that Cohen defamed Daniels through public statements he made in or around February 2018.

~March 20, 2018: McDougal files a lawsuit against AMI seeking to invalidate the NDA.

April 5, 2018: Trump says, of payment to Daniels, “You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney. You’ll have to ask Michael.”

April 9, 2018: Cohen raided.

April 9, 2018: Trump states, “So, I just heard that they[, the FBI,] broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys, a good man, and it’s a disgraceful situation. It’s a total witch hunt. I’ve been saying it for a long time. . . . It’s an attack on our country in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.”

April 13, 2018: Challenge to seized materials, leading to appointment of Special Master.

April 21, 2018: Rudy Giuliani associate Robert Costello emails Cohen and tells him he “can sleep well tonight” because he “has friends in high places” to reassure Cohen that the President was not made him. Emails also say,

I just spoke to Rudy Giuliani and told him I was on your team. He asked me to tell you that he knows how tough this is on you and your family and he will make (sure) to tell the President. He said thank you for opening this back channel of communication and asked me to keep in touch.

There was never a doubt and they are in our corner, Rudy said this communication channel must be maintained. He called it crucial and noted how reassured they were that they had someone like me whom Rudy has known for so many years in this role

April 21, 2018: Trump tweets, “The New York Times and a third rate reporter named Maggie Haberman, known as a Crooked H flunkie who I don’t speak to and have nothing to do with, are going out of their way to destroy Michael Cohen and his relationship with me in the hope that he will ‘flip.’ They use . . . non-existent ‘sources’ and a drunk/drugged up loser who hates Michael, a fine person with a wonderful family. Michael is a businessman for his own account/lawyer who I have always liked & respected. Most people will flip if the Government lets them out of trouble, even if . . . it means lying or making up stories. Sorry, I don’t see Michael doing that despite the horrible Witch Hunt and the dishonest media!”

April 26, 2018: On Fox & Friends Trump states that Mr. Cohen is a “good person” and “great guy” who handled “a percentage of my overall legal work. . . . He represents me – like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal he represented me. And, you know, from what I see he did absolutely nothing wrong. . . . I hope he’s in great shape.”

April 27, 2018: Kimba Wood appoints Barbara Jones as Special Master. 

Through May 2018: Trump Organization continues to pay Cohen’s legal fees, totaling $1.7 million.

May 6, 2018: George Stephanopoulos asks Rudy Giuliani, “Are you concerned at all that Michael Cohen’s going to cooperate with prosecutors?” Mr. Giuliani responds, “No. I expect that he is going to cooperate with them. I don’t think they’ll be happy with it because he doesn’t have any incriminating evidence about the president or himself. The man is an honest, honorable lawyer.”

June 4, 2018: Jones issues first report (covering a number of Cohen’s recordings), disagreeing with three claims of privilege. 

June 6, 2018: Trump lawyer Joanna Herndon requests that any challenge to Special Master decision be sealed. 

June 7, 2018: SDNY demands that any legal discussions of challenges be public. 

June 8, 2018: Judge Wood agrees with SDNY, leading Trump to withdraw certain privilege claims. 

June XX 2018: Cohen begins telling friends and family that he was willing to cooperate with the Special Counsel and federal prosecutors in connection with the SDNY Investigation.

June 2018: Trump Organization ceases to pay McDermott’s invoices, without notice or justification.

June 13, 2018: Daniels files a new lawsuit in CA against former attorney, Keith Davidson, and Cohen, alleging that they “colluded” and “acted in concert” to “manipulate” Daniels and benefit Trump.

June 14, 2018: NYAG subpoenas Cohen in Charitable Foundation suit.

June 15, 2018; Trump says, “I haven’t spoken to Michael in a long time. . . . [H]e’s not my lawyer anymore.”

June 22, 2018: Judge Wood finds that Cohen didn’t do much privileged lawyering.

July 2, 2018: Jones begins releasing files to SDNY.

July 2, 2018: Cohen tells Stephanopoulos, “To be crystal clear, my wife, my daughter and my son, and this country have my first loyalty … I will not be a punching bag as part of anyone’s defense strategy. I am not a villain of this story, and I will not allow others to try to depict me that way.”

July 23, 2018: Cohen withdraws privilege claims from 12 recordings. 

July 26, 2018: On CNN Rudy claims of Cohen, “He has lied all his life” and that he is a “pathological liar.”

August 7, 2018: Cohen begins meeting with Mueller. At his first proffer, he lies.

August 21, 2018: Cohen pleads guilty in SDNY.

September 12, 2018: First truthful Cohen proffer with Mueller.

November 29, 2018: Cohen pleads guilty with Mueller.

December 12, 2018: Cohen sentenced.

December 16, 2018: Trump tweets, “Remember, Michael Cohen only became a ‘Rat’ after the FBI did something which was absolutely unthinkable & unheard of until the Witch Hunt was illegally started. They BROKE INTO AN ATTORNEY’S OFFICE!”

January 25, 2019: Cohen asks for reimbursement for $1.9 million in legal fees and $1.9 in restitution.

Update, March 14: Included Robert Costello email.

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

Big Dick Toilet Salesman Matt Whitaker Crams for His Open Book Test

My goodness does Matt Whitaker seem worried about his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Friday. Between CNN last night and Daily Beast today, there are two DOJ sourced stories claiming that he has been working hard to prepare for his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee tomorrow. The Daily Beast story notes something I noted last night: DOJ is already late for a Jerry Nadler-imposed 48 hour deadline to invoke executive privilege for tomorrow’s testimony.

On Jan. 22, Nadler sent Whitaker a letter listing questions he plans to ask, including about his talks with President Donald Trump before he fired Jeff Sessions and his role supervising Mueller’s Russia investigation. And, importantly, Nadler also asked Whitaker to tell him at least 48 hours before the hearing if he planned to invoke executive privilege in response to any of those questions. Executive privilege refers to the president’s legal right to have private conversations with his staff about his presidential duties. Though the Constitution doesn’t use the term, the Supreme Court has ruled that this right exists.

The Justice Department did not make Nadler’s 48-hour deadline.

“We’re not aware of any rules that govern a set amount of time when one needs to invoke executive privilege,” one senior DOJ official involved in Whitaker’s preparation told The Daily Beast. “We do intend to respond, fulsomely addressing the executive-privilege issue in a letter before the hearing.”

In spite of DOJ’s effort to make it look as if the Big Dick Toilet Salesman running the joint has been preparing for this, I’ve heard differently.

HJC just pre-authorized a subpoena on a party line vote for Whitaker’s appearance tomorrow, so they can hold him in contempt when he refuses to answer questions.

In response (and after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance William Barr’s confirmation, also on a party line vote, virtually ensuring DOJ will have a new, qualified Attorney General sometime next week), DOJ said the Big Dick Toilet Salesman won’t show up tomorrow unless he is given assurances he won’t be served with that subpoena.

The Justice Department told the House Judiciary Committee Thursday afternoon that acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker will not appear at Friday’s closely-watched oversight hearing unless he receives a written assurance by 6 p.m. ET Thursday that he will not be served with the subpoena the committee pre-emptively authorized to use if he avoids questions.

I suspect the reason DOJ is making this threat is because these questions that Whitaker is prepared to answer do not address all the questions that Nadler posed in advance.

The Acting Attorney General will testify that at not time did the White House ask for, or did the Acting Attorney General provide, any promises or commitments concerning the Special Counsel’s investigation. He will explain that, since he became Acting Attorney General, the Department has continued to make its law enforcement decisions based upon the facts and law of each individual case, in accordance with established Department practices, and independent of any outside interference. With respect to the Special Counsel investigation, the Department has complied with Special Counsel regulations, and the Acting Attorney General will make it clear that there has been no change in how the Department has worked with the Special Counsel’s office. The Acting Attorney General is also prepared to discuss the process and the conclusions of the ethics review by which he concluded that there was no need for him to recuse himself rom supervising the Special Counsel investigation.

We do not believe, however, that the Committee may legitimately expect the Acting Attorney General to discuss his communications with the President. If there are questions at the hearing that the Acting Attorney General does not answer to the satisfaction of the Committee, then the appropriate next step would be for the Committee to contact this office to initiate a joint effort by the Committee and the Department to negotiate a mutually acceptable accommodation under which the Department can satisfy the Committee’s legitimate oversight needs to the fullest extent, consistent with the Executive Branch’s confidentiality and other institutional interests. Should the branches be unable to reach an acceptable agreement, only then would it be time for the Committee to issue a subpoena and, if necessary and appropriate, for the President to determine whether to invoke executive privilege.

Those answers don’t address the majority of the questions Nadler posed in his January 22 letter.

  • President Trump fired former Attorney General Jeff Sessions November 7, 2018.  On or before that date, did you have any communication with any White House official, including but not limited to President Trump, about the possibility of your appointment as Acting Attorney General?  If so, when and with whom?  Did any of those communications discuss the possibility of your recusal from oversight of the Special Counsel’s investigation?
  • You announced your decision not to recuse yourself from the Special Counsel’s investigation on December 19, 2018.  Did you consult with the White House about that decision, before or after it was announced?  If so, with whom?
  • My understanding is that you consulted with a four-person team of advisors for guidance on the question of your recusal.  Who are these four individuals?  Did any of them consult with the White House about your decision not recuse yourself from the Special Counsel’s investigation?
  • Have you ever received a briefing on the status of the Special Counsel’s investigation?  If so, have you communicated any information you learned in that briefing to any White House official, including but not limited to President Trump, or any member of President Trump’s private legal team? 
  • It has been reported that President Trump “lashed out” at you on at least two occasions: after Michael Cohen pleaded guilty on November 29, 2018, and after federal prosecutors identified President Trump as “Individual 1” in a court filing on December 8, 2018.[1]
    • Did President Trump contact you after Michael Cohen pleaded guilty?  What did he say?  Did you take any action as a result of that conversation?
    • Did President Trump contact you after he was identified as “Individual 1” in documents related to the criminal sentencing of Michael Cohen?  What did he say?  Did you take any action as a result of that conversation?
    • In any of these conversations, did President Trump express concern, anger, or similar frustration with the actions of the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York?
    • In any of these conversations, did President Trump discuss the possibility of firing or reassigning certain personnel who work for the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York?
    • In any of these conversations, did the President discuss the recusal of Geoffrey Berman, the current U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, from the Michael Cohen case and other matters related to the work of the Special Counsel?
  • Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions tasked John Huber, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Utah, with reviewing a wide range of issues related to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Have you ever received a briefing on the status of Mr. Huber’s work?  If so, have you communicated any information you learned in such a briefing to any White House official, including but not limited to President Trump, or any member of President Trump’s private legal team? 
  • On January 17, 2018, BuzzFeed News reported that federal prosecutors have evidence, in the form of witness interviews and internal communications, suggesting that President Trump had directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.  On January 18, the Special Counsel issued a rare statement describing some aspects of the BuzzFeed story as inaccurate.  Did you have any communication with the White House about the BuzzFeed report or the decision of the Special Counsel’s office to issue its subsequent statement?  If so, with whom?  What was discussed?

In other words, DOJ seems to be using the fact that Nadler will insist on answers to the questions to refuse to show up.

Big Dick Toilets and Sasquatch Dolls: Matt Whitaker’s Qualifications To Be Dog-Catcher

I’ve followed the burgeoning scandal that the guy Trump appointed to play hatchet man to Mueller’s investigation is totally unqualified to be Acting Attorney General. But I’ve already lost track of all the reasons why. So I’m going to try to keep a running list here.

This will be updated as new issues are identified.

Legal problems with the appointment

While Steve Vladeck says it’s legal, and Marty Lederman and Walter Dellinger find OLC’s analysis, concluding that Matt Whitaker’s appointment is legal, to be plausible, a number of commentators disagree. Those include:

These arguments include a mix of constitutional (Appointments Clause) and legal (Vacancies Reform Act and the purpose of DOJ).

Numerous people are already challenging his appointment, including the state of Maryland, three Democratic Senators, and a number of criminal defendants. Quinta Jurecic is collecting all the litigation documents for those challenges here.

Other legal problems

In addition to the Constitutional and legal problems he raises, Neal Katyal also argues that Whitaker cannot legally supervise Mueller’s investigation.

David Kris points out that because of the legal questions surrounding Whitaker’s appointment and the certainty that defendants will challenge it, his appointment will create a whole bunch of downstream problems for DOJ.

A company for which Whitaker served on the board is under investigation by the FBI and FTC. Though Whitaker was subpoenaed by the FTC, he blew off that subpoena. FOIAed records show that Whitaker kept pitching the company even after receiving complaints.

One report on Trump’s efforts to get DOJ to prosecute Hillary Clinton and Jim Comey describes Whitaker prepping discussions about what it was doing in response; he reportedly “did not seem to cross any line,” but it remains to be seen whether that’s true.

Whitaker got four donations amounting to $8,800 to his 2014 Senate run in 2018, after he had started as Sessions’ Chief of Staff, which may amount to a violation of the Hatch Act. Following a complaint from watchdog group American Oversight, the Office of Special Counsel (the DOJ office in charge of reviewing such violations, among other things) opened an investigation into this.

Bureaucratic problems

There may be problems with the way that Whitaker was appointed.

As numerous people have noted, Jeff Sessions did not date his resignation, raising questions about when his authority really passed to Whitaker. (OLC says Sessions resigned on November 7.) Democrats in the House are also suggesting they believe Sessions’ forced resignation counts as a firing, which changes the options Trump would have to replace him under the Vacancies Reform Act.

Chris Geidner has reported that the White House won’t say when Whitaker was formally appointed.

Because Mueller has sought an interview with John Kelly (indeed, he’s a leading candidate to be the Mystery Appellant challenging a subpoena or something else from Mueller), it may be problematic that he played a key role in firing Jeff Sessions.

Conflict problems

Whitaker has a potential conflict with regards to the Mueller investigation tied to his relationship with Sam Clovis, who was in charge of crafting Trump’s outreach to Russia. Whitaker served as Clovis’ campaign manager in 2014.

Then, in a series of appearances Whitaker used to draw Trump’s attention, he commented on the Mueller investigation or the underlying conflict.

In a USAT column on July 5, 2016 and then multiple appearances on July 6, Whitaker suggested Hillary should have been prosecuted, partly by criticizing Jim Comey for making the decision.

On September 30, 2016, Whitaker suggested that if Trump won, he should restart the investigation into Hillary.

On May 19, 2017, Whitaker dismissed the possibility that Trump had committed obstruction of justice by firing Comey.

In July 2017, Whitaker interviewed with Don McGahn to take on the role of legal attack dog discrediting the Mueller investigation.

On July 13, 2017, Whitaker defended Donald Trump Jr taking the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting.

In a CNN interview on July 26, 2017, Whitaker described how you could defund the Special Counsel and thereby end his work.

I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced, it would recess appointment and that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigations grinds to almost a halt.

On July 27, 2017, Whitaker said it would be a mistake to provide Mueller any further protection.

On August 4, 2017, Whitaker recommended an article that describes, “with a little planning he could install a true believer to a political position at DOJ—as a sleeper agent—and then (after easing out Sessions) elevate him or her to attorney general.”

On August 6, 2017, Whitaker used the Red Line comment Maggie and Mike teed up to describe Mueller pursuing Trump’s finances as improper.

On August 11, 2017, Whitaker suggested the investigation into Paul Manafort was outside the scope of Mueller’s appointment. In that same appearance, he suggested Mueller had engaged in prosecutorial misconduct.

On August 15, 2017, Whitaker said Mueller’s appointment was a little fishy.

On August 25, 2017, Whitaker suggested searching Manafort’s condo with a dozen agents was designed to intimidate him.

On August 30, 2017, Whitaker suggested Mueller’s investigation was politically motivated and was misusing resources that should be used elsewhere.

In spite of the fact that many of these would seem to pose conflicts that DOJ normally concludes would ethically prohibit Whitaker’s involvement in the Mueller investigation, both Trump and Whitaker appear to have known he would not recuse from the Mueller investigation even before he was appointed, though Trump has claimed (evidence to the contrary) that he didn’t talk to Whitaker about such things before he appointed him.

Financial problems

As noted by CREW when they released Whitaker’s financial disclosures, his disclosures got doctored (or “Kushnered,” as I’m now referring to serial attempts to belatedly fix glaring problems in official disclosures) four times after the time he was appointed AAG.

CREW has already filed a FOIA for those revisions.

What the records show is just as alarming.

The non-profit Whitaker worked at to, first, beat up Hillary Clinton and then audition to kill the Mueller investigation, Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, has obscure funding and genesis. It keeps changing its name. Whitaker’s salary, which went from $63,000 for part time work to $660,000 a year, made up most of its expenditures in the period before he became Sessions’ Chief of Staff. One of the guys listed as a director, James Crumley, claimed not to remember its existence. Another, Noah Wall, didn’t know he was listed as Director. While claiming to be non-partisan, it overwhelmingly attacked Democrats (and Hillary specifically), a possible violation of IRS regulations. As OpenSecrets notes, its funding comes from a black hole pass through, but the organization seems to have ties to other judiciary-related dark money groups.

The 14 companies in Iowa Whitaker worked for (reportedly, past tense) have never filed paperwork noting that, so on paper he still works for them.

In 2016, Whitaker abandoned a taxpayer-funded apartment rehabilitation project, defaulting on loans and hiding from creditors.

World Patent Marketing — the company the FBI is investigating — was totally fraudulent, pretending to help review patents without doing so. Among those the company defrauded are veterans. Among the things it marketed were Big Dick Toilets, Sasquatch dolls, and time travel.

Abuse as (or invoking past history as) US Attorney

Whitaker has already abused his position as a government prosecutor, both while serving and since.

In 2006, he prosecuted a Democratic politico, Matt McCoy and even paid an informant to incriminate him. The jury acquitted McCoy after deliberating for just 25 minutes.

Then, when serving on the advisory board for a World Patent Marketing, he threatened people who complained, including threatening them with legal retribution.

Temperament

Both on his legal views and his other beliefs, Whitaker has a temperament far outside the mainstream.

When running for Senate, Whitaker argued that judges should have a biblical view and said that Marbury v. Madison — the foundation of judicial review in this country — was among the worst Supreme Court decisions.

He was among the US Attorneys who imposed the harshest sentences in drug prosecutions.

Update: Since it has attracted a lot of attention, I owe this title in part to HowdyQuicksell, but the Dog Catcher accusation (which will probably ensure no DOJ spox will ever again return my calls) is my own.

Leo’s Lane: Balls and Strikes versus Checks and Balances

Last week, a group of Federalist Society members kicked off the annual meeting by announcing a new group, calling itself Checks and Balances, led by Kellyanne Conway’s spouse, George.

On its face, it’s not clear what function the group will have, aside from focusing even more attention on George and Kellyanne’s differing views on the President. I assume, however, the statement the 14 lawyers signed is meant to embarrass other conservative lawyers into remembering the principles they lay out in their statement.

We believe in the rule of law, the power of truth, the independence of the criminal justice system, the imperative of individual rights, and the necessity of civil discourse. We believe these principles apply regardless of the part of persons in power. We believe in a “a government of laws, not of men.”

We believe in the Constitution. We believe in free speech, a free press, separation of powers, and limited government. We have faith in the resiliency of the American experiment.

That said, I want to look at a few details of timing and intent.

The WaPo has an article that describes why some of the signers joined the group. Attacks on DOJ, Trump’s cultivation of racists, and attacks on the free press.

As to Conway, though, it focuses on the appointment of Matt Whitaker (though also includes Trump’s claim to want to end birthright citizenship).

Other members have pointed to Trump’s ouster of Jeff Sessions as attorney general and installation of Matthew G. Whitaker as acting attorney general.

Conway, the group organizer, said, “There wasn’t any one thing; it’s a long series of events that made me think that a group like this could do some good.”

Conway has authored a series of articles attacking Trump’s politics, most recently an opinion piece in the New York Times that called Whitaker’s appointment unconstitutional.

“It’s illegal. And it means that anything Mr. Whitaker does, or tries to do, in that position is invalid,” Conway wrote. He similarly called the president’s plan to end birthright citizenship unconstitutional.

That’s interesting given the role multiple NYT stories have described Federalist Society Executive Vice President Leonard Leo had in the hiring of Whitaker. After the NYT almost got Rod Rosenstein fired (probably relying at least in part on Whitaker as a source), it described Leo recommending Whitaker to be Sessions’ Chief of Staff back in 2017.

Leonard Leo, the influential head of the conservative legal organization the Federalist Society who has taken leaves from the role to periodically advise the president since the transition, recommended Mr. Whitaker for his job with Mr. Sessions, according to a person briefed on the job search.

[snip]

“He has the trust and confidence of any number of people within the Justice Department and within the law enforcement community, but also the White House,” Mr. Leo said of Mr. Whitaker.

Installing Whitaker as Chief of Staff last year is one of the reasons Whitaker’s appointment would be legal under the Vacancies Reform Act (though the appointment’s legality is still very much under debate), because it meant he had been in a senior position at DOJ long enough to qualify. And hyping Whitaker at that moment was a key step in prepping his installation after Sessions’ eventual firing.

NYT emphasized again, once Whitaker had been installed, Leo’s role in his installation.

At this point, let me take a detour. Most of the lawyers who signed onto Checks and Balances are thrilled with the way Trump has been packing the court with conservative judges. Which would mean, by extension, they’re thrilled with Leo’s role in the Administration (indeed, in all recent Republican administrations) for the way he has provided the Executive branch a steady supply of vetted conservatives to get approved for lifetime appointments. Conway himself has said Trump “deserves a tremendous amount of credit for that. I’ll be the first to clap my hands for it.”

Yet, in the NYT story on the group, Conway suggested that Republicans were so happy with Trump’s success in packing the courts that they overlooked other things like rule of law.

Mr. Conway, who has long been a member of and contributor to the Federalist Society, said he had nothing but admiration for its work. But he added that some conservative lawyers, pleased with Mr. Trump’s record on judicial nominations and deregulation, have been wary of criticizing him in other areas, as when he attacks the Justice Department and the news media.

“There’s a perception out there that conservative lawyers have essentially sold their souls for judges and regulatory reform,” Mr. Conway said. “We just want to be a voice speaking out, and to encourage others to speak out.”

In championing Whitaker, Leo has stepped beyond his traditional role — vetting and supporting judicial candidates — into a different one, which might either be judged as interfering in DOJ’s operations or, more alarmingly and accurately, helping the President (who has succeeded so well at packing the courts) undermine a criminal investigation into his own conduct.

Leonard Leo has stepped outside his lane. And George Conway, at least, is pushing back.

And that’s why I find Leo’s response to the group so interesting. He gave Axios a screed of bullet points talking about how offended he is by the move.

  • “I find the underlying premise of the group rather offensive,” Leo told me. “The idea that somehow they need to have this voice because conservatives are somehow afraid to talk about the rule of law during the Trump administration.”
  • “And my response to that is, no, people aren’t afraid, many people just don’t agree that there’s a constitutional crisis and don’t agree with the people who have signed up with this group.”

Several of those bullet point screeds focused on the Jeff Sessions’ firing.

  • “I measure a president’s sensitivity to the rule of law by his actions, not his off-the-cuff comments, tweets or statements. And the president has obviously had lots of criticisms about former Attorney General Sessions and about the department, but at the end of the day, he hasn’t acted upon those criticisms.
  • “He’s allowed the department to have an awful lot of freedom and independence. … He can say what he wants to say, but at the end of the day, words don’t threaten the rule of law, actions do. I’ve been to 48 countries around the world. I know a constitutional crisis, and I know what a rule of law crisis is. Lots of countries have them. This country doesn’t right now.”

Leo seems to be having fun playing DOJ kingmaker, on top of the great success he has had playing judicial kingmaker under Trump. But it seems at least some conservatives don’t believe that’s his role to play.

Update: I asked Conway about this and got a response after the post was published. He says this is not about Leo at all.

It’s a response to Trump and the need for conservative lawyers generally to say something about him. It’s got nothing to do with Leonard.

Mueller Says He Still Exercises the Full Authority of a US Attorney

Mueller’s team has submitted the supplemental brief Judge Henderson ordered the day after Matt Whitaker was appointed, explaining whether his appointment affects Andrew Miller’s challenge to a subpoena he got back in June.

As to the issue at hand (whether his subpoena of Miller is legal), Mueller says Whitaker’s appointment changes nothing, because everything being challenged pertains to his May 17, 2017 appointment, not anything that happened since.

The President’s designation of Acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker on November 7, 2108, has no effect on this case.

[snip]

All of those arguments turn on the May 17, 2017 appointment of the Special Counsel and the legal and regulatory frameworks that existed at the time of appointment. None of those arguments is affected by the change in the identity of the Acting Attorney General while this case is on appeal.

But the brief is interesting because it is the first opportunity Mueller has had to lay out how he understands what happened and how Whitaker’s appointment affects his authority.

As to what happened, Mueller makes no contest that Jeff Sessions resigned.

On November 7, 2018, Attorney General Jefferson B. Sessions resigned from office

Democrats in the House are contesting that, but Mueller is not.

Nor does Mueller question the validity of the OLC conclusion that Whitaker’s appointment is legal.

The Office of Legal Counsel has determined that the designation of the Acting Attorney General is valid as a statutory and constitutional matter. See Office of Legal Counsel, Designating an Acting Attorney General (Nov. 14, 2018), https://www.justice.gov/olc/file/1112251/download. I

None of that is surprising. He works for DOJ and it’s not his place to challenge what DOJ says about DOJ.

What’s more interesting (though not at all controversial) is that Mueller maintains he still has the full authority of a US Attorney.

Similarly, by regulation, the Special Counsel has and continues to “exercise, within the scope of his or her jurisdiction, the full power and independent authority to exercise all investigative and prosecutorial functions of any United States Attorney.” 28 C.F.R. § 600.6; see United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 695 (1974) (“So long as [a] regulation is extant it has the force of law.”).

He relies on US v. Nixon to lay out what it will take to withdraw that authority: changing the regulations he operates under.

Perhaps most important, though, is that Mueller argues that Whitaker’s appointment cannot change the validity of the subpoena (and, one would assume by extension, anything else) that occurred before Whitaker’s appointment.

Because the subpoenas here issued under the signature of the Special Counsel’s Office long before the change in the identity of the Acting Attorney General, that change cannot affect the validity of the subpoenas. And the designation of a different Acting Attorney General while the case is on appeal cannot vitiate the district court’s order holding Miller in contempt.

This would seem to suggest that if Mueller has anything banked — sealed indictments or complaints — then he holds that nothing changes their validity or the DC District’s authority to preside over them.

He also maintains that he retains the authority to appear before the Court.

Second, the change in identity of the Acting Attorney General has no effect on the Special Counsel’s authority to appear in this case. The Special Counsel continues to hold his office despite the change in the identity of the Acting Attorney General.

This would be what he would need to unseal any existing indictments.

None of that is that controversial. But it does make it clear that he views his authority to continue unchecked even with Trump’s hatchet man in place.

What OLC Says Happened with Matt Whitaker’s Appointment

DOJ has released the memo they say justifies the appointment of Matt Whitaker to be their boss. I’ll have some things to say about the legal arguments later (and smarter people who have JDs will surely weigh in as well).

I’d like to look at four things the OLC memo says about what happened with the Whitaker appointment, because they’re at least as important as the legal argument.

Never in the history of DOJ has someone attempted this stunt

Much of the memo reviews the history of appointments, purporting to find analogous appointments to this one. But it only cites one example where someone who wasn’t Senate confirmed served as Acting Attorney General.

While designations to the office of Attorney General were less frequent, we have identified at least one period in 1866 when a non-Senate-confirmed Assistant Attorney General served as Acting Attorney General.

The Department of Justice didn’t exist in 1866. It was only authorized — significantly, for the purpose of giving the Attorney General supervision over the US Attorneys — in 1870.

In 1861, Congress finally agreed that the Attorney General should have supervisory powers over the work of the United States Attorneys, although at first this role was shared with the Solicitor of the Treasury.

While there had been earlier calls for the creation of a separate legal department that would supervise the work of federal lawyers, it was not until after the end of the Civil War that Congress began to give serious consideration to the matter. In late 1867, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary asked Attorney General Henry Stanbery to respond to several questions concerning the efficiency of the government’s legal departments. Stanbery replied that a solicitor general was needed to argue the government’s cases before the Supreme Court, and that the centralization of the government’s legal business under one department would improve the quality of the work. In 1868, after the House Judiciary Committee asked Stanbery to respond to a similar inquiry, Representative Thomas Jenckes of Rhode Island introduced a bill to establish a department of justice. This bill was referred to the Joint Select Committee on Retrenchment, a committee impaneled to consider legislation to reduce the size and cost of government. In addition, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative William Lawrence of Ohio, introduced a similar bill which was referred to that committee.

As I’ll return to when I get to the legal issues, the distinction between this appointment, which gives Whitaker supervisory authority over SDNY and Mueller, and that one, may be very important.

But for now, suffice it to say that even OLC admits that this has almost never happened before.

The White House asked for this opinion

I’ve been harping on this line of the CNN report describing Jeff Sessions and those who would like to protect the Mueller investigation a lot.

At least one Justice official in the room mentioned that there would be legal questions about whether Whitaker’s appointment as acting attorney general is constitutional.

Steven Engel, the guy who signed this memo, was in that room, along with Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, and Rosenstein’s deputy Ed O’Callaghan. The story suggests that Engel hadn’t considered the question yet, and I’ve been wondering since that report whether one of those men asked for the memo.

They didn’t — at least not according to this memo.

This Office had previously advised that the President could designate a senior Department of Justice official, such as Mr. Whitaker, as Acting Attorney General, and this memorandum explains the basis for that conclusion.

It is addressed to the “Counsel to the President,” which strongly implies that person asked for the memo. It doesn’t say, however, when the Counsel to the President asked for this memorandum.

Emmet Flood is the Counsel to the President who asked for this opinion

More specifically, the memo is addressed to Emmet T. Flood Counsel to the President.

Emmet Flood has two roles in the White House now. Until Pat Cipollone is installed as White House Counsel, Flood is Acting White House Counsel (or, as addressed here, Counsel to the President, which is how OLC addresses the White House Counsel).

But he’s also the lawyer in the White House Counsel’s office in charge of defending the President in investigations by (among others) Robert Mueller.

Legally, that’s interesting but (because the President can appoint whoever the fuck he wants as White House Counsel) not all that important. But it does answer the question I keep asking — given what a clusterfuck this appointment is, was Emmet Flood, who is eminently competent, involved? Yes — at least by the time the White House realized they needed some legal cover for it.

So maybe Flood really was hoping to create a legal morass.

Jeff Sessions resigned, probably

Finally, the memo answers a question that the House Judiciary Committee has already raised some doubt about: whether Sessions resigned, or was fired. The memo explains,

Attorney General Sessions submitted his resignation “[a]t [the President’s] request,” Letter for President Donald J. Trump, from Jefferson B. Sessions III, Attorney General, but that does not alter the fact that the Attorney General “resign[ed]” within the meaning of section 3345(a).

But it doesn’t seem so sure (or at least recognizes that someone, and probably not just HJC, will challenge this legally). It continues:

Even if the Attorney General had declined to resign and was removed by the President, he still would have been rendered “otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of the office” for purposes of section 3345(a).

As I’ll return to in the legal analysis, the remainder of the footnote, which claims the Vacancies Reform Act still would have permitted the appointment of Whitaker, is one of the most problematic parts of the memo.

Which is why it is notable that the memo dodges most analysis of whether a forced resignation really is legally a resignation.

WSJ’s Curious Mueller Editorial

I want to look back at something that has been puzzling me: a Wall Street Journal editorial issued by the end of the day Wednesday arguing that Mueller should not be fired. The next day, Rupert Murdoch paid Mitch McConnell a personal visit on the Hill.

While not as shrill or fact-free as its columnist, Kim Strassel, the WSJ editorial page has been steadily critical of the Mueller investigation, dismissing any possibility it will identify “collusion” and repeating GOP claims that it as sprawled beyond Mueller’s original remit (as well as parroting GOP claims that the FBI framed the Trump campaign). A column on the Paul Manafort plea deal, for example, warned that leaks from the investigation (which have never happened) would undermine public confidence in the investigation.

Leaks or other news about his investigation will undermine public confidence in a probe that has already wandered far from its original Russia remit and has now lasted 16 months without a resolution.

So it’s not like WSJ has been friendly to the Mueller investigation.

That said, their columns on the Mueller investigation as frequently criticize Trump’s incompetence in dealing with it and DOJ. That sentiment shows up in the two most relevant recent editorial columns on the investigation. This column from late August argues that Trump’s attacks on Jeff Sessions put Republican majorities at risk in November, which would lead to impeachment.

We will point out that Mr. Trump’s attacks on his own Attorney General this week are wrong and politically counterproductive.

The President is still furious that Mr. Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe, which has since become the sprawling Robert Mueller investigation that threatens his Presidency. But railing against Mr. Sessions can’t change that, and it gives the appearance of trying to politicize the department.

[snip]

The biggest political threat to Mr. Trump is a Democratic election victory in November, which will trigger a drive for impeachment. Mr. Trump isn’t going to persuade anyone to vote for Republicans by railing against a Republican Attorney General he selected.

And this September column about the possibility of firing Rosenstein emphasizes the impact that would have on Republican majorities.

The immediate battle now is over the midterm election and whether Mr. Trump can stay in office as the impeachment assault begins from Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats. Mr. Trump can make personnel changes after the midterms if Republicans still hold the Senate and he can get someone confirmed.

Murdoch’s American flagship paper doesn’t like the Mueller investigation. But that has as much to do with the ways it leads Trump to do stupid things that imperil Republican rule as that it poses a risk for Trump personally.

With that as background, consider the column. It starts by complaining (again) about how badly Trump treated Sessions.

Mr. Sessions deserved better than the public humiliations dealt by President Trump. As a Senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions was the first Washington figure of any stature to embrace Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Mr. Trump wants loyalty up but not down.

It then describes the appointment of Matt Whitaker without comment or judgment.

Sessions’ temporary successor will be the AG’s chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, who presumably will hold the job until a successor is nominated.

Most of the column argues for a solid Attorney General replacement. The WSJ seems to be complaining — as they did in some of their other editorials — that the White House should exercise more influence over DOJ. They do want someone respectable as Attorney General, however.

It is important that the White House get this one right.

The Attorney General shouldn’t fire Mr. Mueller, as the President essentially said himself at his Wednesday news conference. Mr. Trump needs an individual of stature and judgment who will have the trust of the department’s lawyers, who is capable of independence, but who also understands that the Justice Department is part of the executive branch and not a law unto itself.

But the WSJ, with as little comment as it makes about Whitaker, also states clearly that any new Attorney General shouldn’t fire Mueller and claims Trump himself has agreed, probably a reference to this answer from Trump at the press conference that day.

Q    Thank you, Mr. President.  Going back to the Russia investigation and the potential investigations from the now- Democratic majority in Congress, some say that you could stop all this by declassifying —

THE PRESIDENT:  I could.  I could fire everybody right now.  But I don’t want to stop it, because politically, I don’t like stopping it.  It’s a disgrace.  It should have never been started because there was no crime.  It is — everybody has conflicts.  They all have conflicts over there that are beyond anything that anybody has ever seen in terms of conflicts — from the fact that people ask for jobs; from the fact that they have very good friends on the other side, like really good friends, like Comey — who, by the way, lied and leaked, and also leaked classified information.  Nothing happened there.  It might, perhaps.  Maybe something is happening that I don’t know about.

I stay away from it.  But do you know what I do?  I let it just go on.  They’re wasting a lot of money, but I let it go on because I don’t want to do that.

The day after the election, Trump took a rash step to end the Mueller investigation by firing Sessions and hiring Whitaker. And WSJ almost immediately responded by warning Trump not to do any further damage to the party with his impulsive efforts to undermine Mueller.

Did Emmet Flood Mean to Create a Legal Morass, or Is He Off His Game?

As I’ve often said, Trump departed from his usual habit by hiring Emmet Flood, someone who is eminently qualified to help the President (or, as he did with Cheney, Vice President) stave off legal jeopardy from a Special Counsel or Congress. Which is why I’m trying to figure out whether the legal morass Trump created — presumably on Flood’s advice, given that Flood is serving as both the Mueller investigation White House Counsel lead and, until Pat Cipollone gets fully cleared, White House Counsel generally — by forcing Jeff Sessions’ resignation and replacing him with Matt Whitaker.

It’s not clear when Sessions’ authority ended

Start with the fact that it’s not clear when Jeff Sessions stopped acting as Attorney General. As numerous people have noted, he didn’t date the copy of his resignation letter that got released publicly.

He left DOJ in ceremonial fashion just after 5 PM on Wednesday night, which would suggest he may have remained AG until that time. If that’s right, then anything that Mueller and Rosenstein did that day would still operate under the older authority.

Indeed, DOJ issued an order under Sessions’ authority, imposing new limits on consent decrees used to reign in abusive local police departments, yesterday evening, a full day after he departed. He initialed it (dated 11/7/18), but the metadata on it shows the document wasn’t created until almost 5PM on Wednesday and was modified over a full day after that. (h/t zedster)

So he was at least still AG sometime after 4:53PM on Wednesday — and possibly well after that — or this consent decree policy is void.

Whitaker’s appointment may not be legal

Then there are the proliferating number of people — most prominently Neal Katyal and George Conway but also including John Yoo and Jed Sugarman — who believe his appointment is unconstituional.

There are two bases on which this might be true. First, the forced resignation of Jeff Sessions may in fact be a legal firing, something the House Judiciary Democrats are arguing with increasing stridency, most recently in a letter to Bob Goodlatte asking that he hold an emergency hearing on Sessions’ ouster, support legislation protecting Mueller, and join in requests for information about the ouster from the White House and DOJ. If Sessions was fired, there’s little question that Trump can only replace him with someone who is Senate confirmed.

But Katyal, Conway, and others argue that because the AG is a principal officer, whoever serves in that position must be Senate confirmed. Significantly, the Katyal/Conway argument begins by throwing what Steven Calabresi has said back at conservatives.

What now seems an eternity ago, the conservative law professor Steven Calabresi published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in May arguing that Robert Mueller’s appointment as special counsel was unconstitutional. His article got a lot of attention, and it wasn’t long before President Trump picked up the argument, tweeting that “the Appointment of the Special Counsel is totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL!”

Professor Calabresi’s article was based on the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 2. Under that provision, so-called principal officers of the United States must be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate under its “Advice and Consent” powers.

He argued that Mr. Mueller was a principal officer because he is exercising significant law enforcement authority and that since he has not been confirmed by the Senate, his appointment was unconstitutional. As one of us argued at the time, he was wrong. What makes an officer a principal officer is that he or she reports only to the president.

This is probably why people like Yoo are joining in this argument — because if Whitaker’s appointment is legal, than a whole slew of other appointments of the kind that conservatives hate would also be legal.

Whitaker may be disabled with conflicts

Then there are Whitaker’s conflicts, which are threefold. Whitaker:

  • Repeatedly claimed that the Mueller probe was out of control, in spite of the fact he had no real information to base that on
  • Judged that Trump had neither “colluded” nor committed obstruction
  • Not only undermined the investigation, but suggested the underlying conduct — including meeting with Russians to obtain dirt on Hillary Clinton at the June 9 meeting — was totally cool
  • Served as Sam Clovis’ campaign manager in 2014; Clovis was a key player in Trump’s efforts to cozy up to the Russians in 2016 and was one of the earliest known witnesses to testify before the grand jury

CNN captures many of these statements here.

The Clovis one may be the most important. 28 CFR 45.2 requires ethics exemption or recusal if a person has a political relationship with the subject of an investigation.

[N]o employee shall participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with:

(1) Any person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution; or

Defining “political relationship” to include service as a principal advisor to a candidate.

Political relationship means a close identification with an elected official, a candidate (whether or not successful) for elective, public office, a political party, or a campaign organization, arising from service as a principal adviser thereto or a principal official thereof;

And, as Mueller noted in their response to Andrew Miller’s appeal, recusal would amount to a “disability” that would put the DAG back in charge.

Finally, interpreting “disability” under Section 508 to include recusal makes logical and practical sense. Section 528 requires the Attorney General to recuse himself when he has a conflict of interest. Section 508 ensures that at all times an officer is heading the Department of Justice. If the Attorney General is recused, it is necessary that someone can head the Department for that investigation. It is inconceivable that Congress intended Section 508 to reach physical disability, but not to reach legal requirements that disabled the Attorney General from participating in certain matters.

Whitaker’s former company is under FBI investigation

Then there’s the news that a company for which Whitaker provided legal services is under criminal investigation.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is conducting a criminal investigation of a Florida company accused of scamming millions from customers during the period that Matthew Whitaker, the acting U.S. attorney general, served as a paid advisory-board member, according to an alleged victim who was contacted by the FBI and other people familiar with the matter.

The investigation is being handled by the Miami office of the FBI and by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, according to an email sent to the alleged victim last year by an FBI victim specialist. A recording on a phone line set up by the Justice Department to help victims said Friday the case remains active.

When Whitaker was subpoenaed, he blew it off.

Whitaker, named this week by President Trump as acting attorney general, occasionally served as an outside legal adviser to the company, World Patent Marketing, writing a series of letters on its behalf, according to people familiar with his role.

But he rebuffed an October 2017 subpoena from the Federal Trade Commission seeking his records related to the company, according to two people with knowledge of the case.

But the public record shows that when customers complained, Whitaker threatened them, invoking his background as a former US Attorney.

In emails uncovered by the FTC investigation, Whitaker personally threatened a customer who complained, according to a story in the Miami New Times that was picked up by other news outlets.

The emails the FTC obtained, in fact, suggests Whitaker used his background as a U.S. attorney to try to silence customers who claimed they were defrauded by the company and sought to take their complaints public.

In this case, Whitaker sent an intimidating email to a customer on August 25, 2015, who had contacted World Patent Marketing with his grievances and and filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

The FTC docket reviewed by New Times contains an email exchange on page 362 of 400 that described what happened next.

Rather than expressing concern about the customer’s charge of being cheated,  Whitaker wrote him to let him know that he, Whitaker, was “a former United States Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois…Your emails and message from today seem to be an apparent attempt at possible blackmail or extortion.”

“You also mentioned filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and to smear WPM’s reputation online. I am assuming you know that there could be serious civil and criminal consequences for you if that is in fact what you and your ‘group’ is doing. Understand we take threats like this quite seriously…Please conduct yourself accordingly.”

This doesn’t necessarily impact the Mueller probe itself. But it suggests that Whitaker has real corruption problems that will undermine his actions as AG.

Trump and Whitaker may have spoken about the Mueller probe — and Trump is already lying about it

Shortly after Whitaker was appointed, WaPo reported that Trump told multiple people that Whitaker was “loyal” and wouldn’t recuse.

Trump has told advisers that Whitaker is loyal and would not have recused himself from the investigation, current and former White House officials said.

Then WaPo reported that Whitaker has no intention of recusing, reporting that would necessarily predate any discussion with DOJ’s ethical advisors.

Acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker has no intention of recusing himself from overseeing the special-counsel probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to people close to him who added they do not believe he would approve any subpoena of President Trump as part of that investigation.

[snip]

On Thursday, two people close to Whitaker said he does not plan to take himself off the Russia case. They also said he is deeply skeptical of any effort to force the president’s testimony through a subpoena.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has been negotiating for months with Trump’s attorneys over the terms of a possible interview of the president. Central to those discussions has been the idea that Mueller could, if negotiations failed, subpoena the president. If Whitaker were to take the threat of a subpoena off the table, that could alter the equilibrium between the two sides and significantly reduce the chances that the president ever sits for an interview.

Meanwhile, when asked today, Trump claimed (in spite of all the briefings Whitaker has attended in recent weeks) that he didn’t know him, even though he went on Fox and hailed him after the most recent attempt to use him to kill the Mueller probe.

“I don’t know Matt Whitaker,” Mr. Trump told reporters as he left Washington for a weekend trip to Paris. But the president stressed that he did know Mr. Whitaker’s reputation well, calling him “a very respected man.”

[snip]

In addition, the president’s claim that he did not know Mr. Whitaker was called into question by Mr. Trump’s own words from just about a month ago, when he said in a “Fox & Friends” interview: “I can tell you Matt Whitaker’s a great guy. I mean, I know Matt Whitaker.”

Mr. Whitaker has also visited the Oval Office several times and is said to have an easy chemistry with the president, according to people familiar with the relationship. And the president has regarded Mr. Whitaker as his eyes and ears at the Justice Department.

As CNN notes, Whitaker seemed to have been actively plotting for his boss’ job since the NYT stupidly tried to get Rosenstein fired (which I suspect means Whitaker was a source for the NYT).

A source close to Sessions says that the former attorney general realized that Whitaker was “self-dealing” after reports surfaced in September that Whitaker had spoken with Kelly and had discussed plans to become the No. 2 at the Justice Department if Rosenstein was forced to resign.

In recent months, with his relationship with the President at a new low, Sessions skipped several so-called principals meetings that he was slated to attend as a key member of the Cabinet. A source close to Sessions says that neither the attorney general nor Trump thought it was a good idea for Sessions to be at the White House, so he sent surrogates.

Whitaker was one of them.

But Sessions did not realize Whitaker was having conversations with the White House about his future until the news broke in late September about Rosenstein.

All of this raises huge questions about whether Whitaker and Trump (or Kelly) had an agreement in place, that he would get this post (and shortly after be nominated for a judgeship in IA), so long as he would agree to kill the Mueller probe.

Debates over the legality of Whitaker’s appointment parallel challenges to Mueller’s authority

Then there’s the point I raised earlier today. If Whitaker’s appointment is legal, then so is Mueller’s, which undercuts one of the other efforts to undermine Mueller’s authority.

Whitaker’s nomination really undermines the arguments that Miller and Concord Management (who argued as an amici) were making about Mueller’s appointment, particularly their argument that he is a principal officer and therefore must be Senate confirmed, an argument that relies on one that Steven Calabresi made this spring. Indeed, Neal Katyal and George Conway began their argument that Whitaker’s appointment is illegal by hoisting Calabresi on his petard.

What now seems an eternity ago, the conservative law professor Steven Calabresi published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in May arguing that Robert Mueller’s appointment as special counsel was unconstitutional. His article got a lot of attention, and it wasn’t long before President Trump picked up the argument, tweeting that “the Appointment of the Special Counsel is totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL!”

Professor Calabresi’s article was based on the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 2. Under that provision, so-called principal officers of the United States must be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate under its “Advice and Consent” powers.

He argued that Mr. Mueller was a principal officer because he is exercising significant law enforcement authority and that since he has not been confirmed by the Senate, his appointment was unconstitutional. As one of us argued at the time, he was wrong. What makes an officer a principal officer is that he or she reports only to the president.

While it may be true (as Conway argued at the link) that Calabresi’s arguments are wrong for Mueller, if they’re right for Mueller, then they’re all the more true for Whitaker. So if Mueller should have been Senate confirmed, then Whitaker more obviously would need to be.

John Kelly’s involvement may (and I suspect does) present added conflicts

Then there’s John Kelly’s role, as someone who had a key role in the firing but whose testimony Mueller is currently pursuing (possibly via subpoena).

Kelly is among the people about whom there is the most active dispute legal between the Special Counsel and the White House, a fight picked by the legally competent Emmet Flood.

And Kelly was the person who forced Jeff Sessions to resign on Wednesday. As far as is public (and there’s surely a great deal that we have yet to learn about who was in the decision to force Sessions to resign and when that happened and who dictated the form it would take).

But Kelly had the key role of conveying the President’s intent, in whatever form that intent was documented, to Sessions. If Trump’s past firings are any precedent, Kelly had a very big role in deciding how it would happen.

So the guy whose testimony Mueller may be most actively pursuing (indeed, one who might even be in a legal dispute with), effectuated a plan to undercut Mueller’s plans going forward.

CNN provides more context for Kelly’s role, showing him to be involved in the last attempt to install Whitaker and suggesting that Kelly consulted Trump before refusing Sessions’ request to stay through the week.

John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, asked Sessions to submit his resignation, according to multiple sources briefed on the call. Sessions agreed to comply, but he wanted a few more days before the resignation would become effective. Kelly said he’d consult the President.

[snip]

Rosenstein and [PDAAG Ed] O’Callaghan, the highest-ranked officials handling day-to-day oversight of Mueller’s investigation, urged Sessions to delay the effective date of his resignation.

Soon, Whitaker strode into Sessions’ office and asked to speak one-on-one to the attorney general; the others left the two men alone. It was a brief conversation. Shortly after, Sessions told his huddle that his resignation would be effective that day.

O’Callaghan had tried to appeal to Sessions, noting that he hadn’t heard back about whether the President would allow a delay. At least one Justice official in the room mentioned that there would be legal questions about whether Whitaker’s appointment as acting attorney general is constitutional. Someone also reminded Sessions that the last time Whitaker played a role in a purported resignation — a few weeks earlier in September, with Rosenstein — the plan collapsed.

Sessions never heard in person from the President — the man who gained television fame for his catch-phrase “You’re fired” doesn’t actually like such confrontation and prefers to have others do the firing, people close to the President say. Kelly called Sessions a second time to tell him the President had rejected his request for a delay.

Nevertheless, a guy Mueller is trying to interview was right there in the loop, making two efforts to install someone whose sole apparent job is to undercut Mueller.

Everything Whitaker touches may turn to shit

Now, maybe Flood would still have bought off on this — though the multiple reports now claim no one at the White House knew about Whitaker’s problems suggest he may not have been in the vetting loop (because, again, he’s competent and knows the import of vetting).

But there’s one more thing to account for. Everything Whitaker touches may turn to legal shit. It’s a point Katyal and Conway make.

President Trump’s installation of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general of the United States after forcing the resignation of Jeff Sessions is unconstitutional. It’s illegal. And it means that anything Mr. Whitaker does, or tries to do, in that position is invalid.

This appointment could embroil DOJ in legal challenges for years, at least, as plaintiffs and defendants claim that DOJ took some action against them that can only be authorized by a legal Attorney General.

While I don’t think it’s likely, it’s possible that’s the point. As I noted earlier, on Thursday Mueller’s team seemed to be staking a claim that they can continue to operate as they have been.

But their authority, or at least Mueller’s and the others who aren’t AUSAs temporarily reassigned to Mueller, all stems from a legally valid Attorney General or Acting one. If Mueller continues to operate while the legally problematic Whitaker claims to authorize them, what does that do for their actions?

That may be why the DC Circuit wants more (public) briefing on this question in the Andrew Miller case. By appointing a totally inappropriate AG, Trump might just be pursuing his longterm strategy of chaos.

Is this Don McGahn’s last fuck-up?

This entire post is premised on two things: first, that Emmet Flood is among the rare people in Trump’s orbit who is very competent. It also assumes that because both these issues — White House Counsel until Cipollone takes over, and White House Counsel in charge of protecting Trump from the Mueller investigation — would fall solidly in Flood’s portfolios, he would have a significant role in the plot.

Perhaps not. Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo is claiming (in a CNN report that should be read in its entirety) he worked on the plan with Don McGahn.

Leonard Leo, the influential executive vice president of the Federalist Society, recommended to then-White House counsel Don McGahn that Whitaker would make a good chief of staff for Sessions.

“I recommended him and was very supportive of him for chief of staff for very specific reasons,” Leo said Friday.

So maybe this scheme was, instead, planned out by Don McGahn (who has been officially gone since October 17).

But that would raise questions of its own — notably, why this plan was on ice for so long. And why Flood wasn’t in the loop (and why the White House continues to neglect the most basic vetting of people they put in charge of huge parts of our government).

I expect basic competence out of Emmet Flood. But this whole scheme could only be judged competent if the point was to totally discredit anything DOJ does, including but not limited to the Mueller probe.

John Kelly’s Legally Fraught Role in the Sessions Ouster

Much attention is now being focused on the suitability of Matt Whitaker to server as Acting AG without having been Senate approved. I think there’s one more issue with it that I’ll return to.

But there’s another legally problematic part of the process of forcing Jeff Sessions to resign and appointing Whitaker as his replacement: John Kelly’s role in it.

That’s because Mueller asked John Kelly for an interview sometime around June. It was one of the first things the legally competent Emmet Flood did to assert a newly combative stance on the part of the White House.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers are quietly more combative, too, contesting a request from the special counsel to interview John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff. Emmet T. Flood, the lead White House lawyer in dealing with the investigation, has demanded to know what investigators want to ask Mr. Kelly and has tried to narrow the scope of their questions. A month after the request was made, Mr. Kelly has not been questioned, though a White House official said he was willing to be.

Significantly, this was not an Executive Privilege claim, but rather a demand that Mueller tell Flood what questions he would ask Kelly. It’s entirely unclear what basis Flood invoked legally: the bullshit Executive Privilege without claiming it claims Trump has relied on thus far, an argument that he needed to know if the President would invoke Executive Privilege in response to a range of questions, or a stance that the White House can have some kind of visibility into the workings of the grand jury investigating the President.

As I have said, I think John Kelly is a likely candidate to be the Mystery Appellant, challenging some kind of Mueller demand in the DC Circuit (significantly, before some of the same judges who yesterday heard Andrew Miller’s subpoena challenge).

One way or another, Kelly is among the people about whom there is the most active dispute legal between the Special Counsel and the White House, a fight picked by the legally competent Emmet Flood.

And Kelly was the person who forced Jeff Sessions to resign on Wednesday. As far as is public (and there’s surely a great deal that we have yet to learn about who was in the decision to force Sessions to resign and when that happened and who dictated the form it would take).

But Kelly had the key role of conveying the President’s intent, in whatever form that intent was documented, to Sessions. If Trump’s past firings are any precedent, Kelly had a very big role in deciding how it would happen.

So the guy whose testimony Mueller may be most actively pursuing (indeed, one who might even be in a legal dispute with), effectuated a plan to undercut Mueller’s plans going forward.

That seems to create a whole slew of other potential legal problems no one has yet considered.