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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.

Trump Risks that Every Action Matt Whitaker Takes as Attorney General Can Be Legally Challenged

George Conway (Kellyanne’s spouse, whom Trump considered to be Solicitor General) continues his habit of criticizing Trump from a conservative legal stance. This time, he joins Neal Katyal, author of the Special Counsel regulations under which Mueller operates, to argue that Trump’s appointment of Matt Whitaker is unconstitutional because Trump can’t name someone who hasn’t been Senate confirmed when a Senate confirmed candidate is available. The whole op-ed — which relies on a recent Clarence Thomas concurrence — is worth reading, but my favorite line is where they call Whitaker a constitutional nobody.

We cannot tolerate such an evasion of the Constitution’s very explicit, textually precise design. Senate confirmation exists for a simple, and good, reason. Constitutionally, Matthew Whitaker is a nobody. His job as Mr. Sessions’s chief of staff did not require Senate confirmation. (Yes, he was confirmed as a federal prosecutor in Iowa, in 2004, but President Trump can’t cut and paste that old, lapsed confirmation to today.) For the president to install Mr. Whitaker as our chief law enforcement officer is to betray the entire structure of our charter document.

I’m just as interested in what three rising Democratic House Chairs (House Judiciary Committee’s Jerrold Nadler, HPSCI’s Adam Schiff, and Oversight and Government Reform’s Elijah Commings) did, along with Dianne Feinstein. In the wake of Jeff Sessions’ resignation, they sent letters to every relevant department warning them to preserve all records on the Mueller investigation and Sessions’ departure. In their press release, they referred to Sessions departure not as a resignation, but as a firing.

Last night, House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-CA), Oversight and Government Reform Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD), and Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein sent letters to top Administration officials demanding the preservation of all documents and materials relevant to the work of the Office of the Special Counsel or the firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

In their letters, the Members wrote:  “Committees of the United States Congress are conducting investigations parallel to those of the Special Counsel’s office, and preservation of records is critical to ensure that we are able to do our work without interference or delay. Committees will also be investigating Attorney General Sessions’ departure. We therefore ask that you immediately provide us with all orders, notices, and guidance regarding preservation of information related to these matters and investigations.”

Letters were sent to the White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, FBI Director Chris Wray, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Gina Haspel, Deputy U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Robert Khuzami, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, NSA Director Paul Nakasone, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, and Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker. [my emphasis]

Even the letters themselves, while they don’t use the word “firing,” emphasize the involuntary nature of Sessions’ ouster.

Our understanding is that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been removed at the request of the President. We ask that you confirm that the Justice Department has preserved all materials of related to any investigations by the Special Counsel’s office, including any related investigations conducted by any component of the Justice Department. We also ask that you preserve all the materials related to the departure of Attorney General Sessions.

While it’s not clear whether they more basis to believe this was a firing rather than a resignation, they’re proceeding as if it was, legally, a firing. That’s crucial because the only way that Whitaker’s appointment, as someone who is not Senate confirmed, would be legal under the Vacancies Reform Act is if Sessions legally resigned. The Democrats seem to suspect they can argue he did not.

And that’s important because (as Katyal and Conway argue) if his appointment is not legal, than nothing he does as Attorney General is valid.

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.

Plus, by demanding preservation of the records and framing this in terms that suggest Whitaker’s appointment was not legal (I’m not sure I agree, but encourage HJC to ask Katyal and Conway to argue the case for them), HJC lays out a basis to claim standing to challenge this, particularly if and when Whitaker makes a decision (such as preventing HJC from obtaining any report Mueller writes) that will cause them injury as an independent branch of government.

Again, I’m not sure I agree with the Katyal/Conway legal argument, though if HJC can prove that Sessions was fired then it’s clear Whitaker was not legally appointed. But these two challenges pose a real risk for Trump. It risks not just decisions pertaining to the Mueller investigation, but even things like surveillance approvals, can be challenged by anyone harmed by them (who gets notice of it). That’s an unbelievable risk for a position as important as Attorney General.

Back when a guy named Robert Mueller had his FBI tenure extended two years in 2011, Tom Coburn worried that even that action, done with Senate approval, would make the approvals Mueller made under Section 215 (this was before we knew the scope of the phone dragnet) legally suspect.

Could you envision colorable challenge to use of 215 authority during your 2 year extension of power?

While I have no problem with you staying on for two more years, I do have concerns we could get mired in court battles [over 215] that would make you ineffective in your job.

Coburn was worried about one (or a few) surveillance programs. The Attorney General touches far more than the FBI Director, and Trump’s DOJ could spend just as much time in court trying to defend the actions of his hatchetman.

And it looks like both the author of the statute governing Mueller’s appointment and the people who will oversee DOJ in a few months have real questions about the legality of Whitaker’s appointment.

Has This Been the Plan Since August 2017?

Maggie Haberman just observed that Jeff Sessions’ resignation letter is not dated. (Update: NYCSouthpaw actually noted that before Maggie did.) While some of the details in it — such as his claim to have “prosecuted the largest number of violent offenders and firearm defendants in our nation’s history” — seem to reflect the full 22 months of his tenure, nothing in it clearly marks it as having been written today. So I think that is what probably happened.

But there’s a scenario that makes me wonder whether this isn’t what Trump has been planning since July 2017, the last time Trump got really furious with Jeff Sessions.

Consider this timeline:

July 19, 2017: Maggie and Mike tee up a question (obviously working from the White House script) about how investigating Trump’s finances would represent crossing a red line.

On July 25 and 26, 2017, Trump took to Twitter to bitch about Sessions.

July 26, 2017: In a CNN interview, Whitaker describes 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.

August 4, 2017: Whitaker recommends 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.”

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

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

On September 22, 2017, Whitaker was hired to be Sessions’ Chief of Staff.

In other words, Trump may have been pursuing this plan since July 2017.

If so, then Mueller may have already anticipated that, because he asked four questions about that episode in March, as well as questions about what he did in response to Sessions’ earlier recusal.

  • 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?
  • What did you think and what did you do in reaction to the news of the appointment of the special counsel?
  • Why did you hold Mr. Sessions’s resignation until May 31, 2017, and with whom did you discuss it?
  • What discussions did you have with Reince Priebus in July 2017 about obtaining the Sessions resignation? With whom did you discuss it?
  • What discussions did you have regarding terminating the special counsel, and what did you do when that consideration was reported in January 2018?
  • What was the purpose of your July 2017 criticism of Mr. Sessions?

Whatever it was, Trump obtained Sessions’ resignation before today’s press conference, so it’s possible Whitaker already tried to move against Mueller today, relying on the ground work he laid over a year ago.

The one thing that would suggest otherwise is the plea deal Manafort entered. I’ve argued that it is pardon proof, partly because it would include state charges and partly because Manafort would lose all his ill-gotten gains if Trump didn’t pardon him first. For reasons I won’t write up yet, I’m not sure that’s entirely true (though Manafort has provided a lot of information in the last several months).

That’d be way better planning than Trump has pulled off on any other thing. But then, protecting himself is the thing he’s best at.

Update: I’ve added a few things to this timeline.

Update: According to John Q Barrett, who spent some time in the CNN Green Room last year, his entire point for going on CNN was to curry favor with Trump.

Whitaker told me in June 2017 that he was flying out from Iowa to NYC to be on CNN regularly because he was hoping to be noticed as a Trump defender, and through that to get a Trump judicial appointment back in Iowa.

And this (very detailed) WaPo piece describes Trump as telling aides he would not recuse, which raises questions about whether Whitaker told him so directly.

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

Matt Whitaker Can’t Prevent Mueller from Unsealing Any Sealed Indictments

After spending a 1.5 hour press conference denying he “colluded” with Russia, Trump just proved he did by forcing Jeff Sessions to resign. He announced Sessions’ Chief of Staff, Matt Whitaker, will be the Acting Attorney General. DOJ has already announced Whitaker will take over oversight of the Mueller investigation. Before he was even hired as CoS, Whitaker pointed to the Red Line Trump’s stenographers at the NYT teed up for him, suggested Mueller had crossed it, and that that represented going too far.

He has also laid out how to kill the Mueller investigation — by defunding it.

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.

It’s all going as I predicted it might in this TNR piece last week.

All that said, Mueller was surely expecting just such an eventuality. And the fact that they got Roger Stone attorney Tyler Nixon to testify Friday suggests they were prepping for it, getting the last bit of evidence against Stone in place.

The only question is whether they got the grand jury to approve whatever indictments they were working on. I’d be surprised if Mueller didn’t (unless Rod Rosenstein prevented him from doing so).

If that’s the case, then Whitaker is not going to help Trump get out of his legal troubles. That’s because Chief Judge Beryl Howell, not Whitaker, will make the decision about unsealing anything sealed in this grand jury investigation.

So if Mueller prepared for this very predictable eventuality, then Trump may have just fired a key player in his racist agenda for naught.

What the Watergate Road Map Might Say about a Mueller Road Map

In an interview last week, Rudy Giuliani explained that Trump had finished the open book test Mueller had given the President, but that they were withholding the answers until after tomorrow’s election, after which they’ll re-enter negotiations about whether Trump will actually answer questions on the Russian investigation in person or at all.

“I expect a day after the election we will be in serious discussions with them again, and I have a feeling they want to get it wrapped up one way or another.”

Meanwhile, one of the first of the post-election Administration shake-up stories focuses, unsurprisingly, on the likelihood that Trump will try to replace Jeff Sessions and/or Rod Rosenstein (though doesn’t headline the entire story “Trump set to try to end Mueller investigation,” as it should).

Some embattled officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, are expected to be fired or actively pushed out by Trump after months of bitter recriminations.

[snip]

Among those most vulnerable to being dismissed are Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who is overseeing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation after Sessions recused himself. Trump has routinely berated Sessions, whom he faults for the Russia investigation, but he and Rosenstein have forged an improved rapport in recent months.

As I note in my TNR piece on the subject, there are several paths that Trump might take to attempt to kill the Mueller investigation, some of which might take more time and elicit more backlash. If Trump could convince Sessions to resign, for example, he could bring in Steven Bradbury or Alex Azar to replace him right away, meaning Rosenstein would no longer be Acting Attorney General overseeing Mueller, and they could do whatever they wanted with it (and remember, Bradbury already showed himself willing to engage in legally suspect cover-ups in hopes of career advancement with torture). Whereas firing Rosenstein would put someone else — Solicitor General Noel Francisco, who already obtained an ethics waiver for matters pertaining to Trump Campaign legal firm Jones Day, though it is unclear whether that extends to the Mueller investigation — in charge of overseeing Mueller immediately.

This may well be why Rudy is sitting on Trump’s open book test: because they’ve gamed out several possible paths depending on what kind of majority, if any, Republicans retain in the Senate (aside from trying to defeat African American gubernatorial candidates in swing states, Trump has focused his campaigning on retaining the Senate; FiveThirtyEight says the two most likely outcomes are that Republicans retain the same number of seats or lose just one, net). But they could well gain a few seats. If they have the numbers to rush through a Sessions replacement quickly, they’ll fire him, but if not, perhaps Trump will appease Mueller for a few weeks by turning in the answers to his questions.

That’s the background to what I focused on in my TNR piece last week: the Mueller report that Rudy has been talking about incessantly, in an utterly successful attempt to get most journalists covering this to ignore the evidence in front of them that Mueller would prefer to speak in indictments, might, instead, be the failsafe, the means by which Mueller would convey the fruits of his investigation to the House Judiciary Committee if Trump carries out a Wednesday morning massacre. And it was with that in mind that I analyzed how the Watergate Road Map served to do just that in this post.

In this post, I’d like to push that comparison further, to see what — if Mueller and his Watergate prosecutor James Quarles team member are using the Watergate precedent as a model — that might say about Mueller’s investigation. I’ll also lay out what a Mueller Road Map, if one awaits a Wednesday Morning Massacre in a safe somewhere, might include.

The Watergate prosecutors moved from compiling evidence to issuing the Road Map in just over six months

As early as August 1973, George Frampton had sent Archibald Cox a “summary of evidence” against the President. Along with laying out the gaps prosecutors had in their evidence about about what Nixon knew (remember, investigators had only learned of the White House taping system in July), it noted that any consideration of how his actions conflicted with his claims must examine his public comments closely.

That report paid particular attention to how Nixon’s White House Counsel had created a report that created a transparently false cover story. It described how Nixon continued to express full confidence in HR Haldeman and John Ehrlichman well after he knew they had been involved in the cover-up. It examined what Nixon must have thought the risks an investigation posed.

The Archives’ Road Map materials show that in the same 10 day period from January 22 to February 1, 1974 when the Special Prosecutor’s office was negotiating with the President’s lawyers about obtaining either his in-person testimony or at least answers to interrogatories, they were also working on a draft indictment of the President, charging four counts associated with his involvement in and knowledge of the bribe to Howard Hunt in March 1973. A month later, on March 1, 1974 (and so just 37 days after the time when Leon Jaworski and Nixon’s lawyers were still discussing an open book test for that more competent president), the grand jury issued the Road Map, a request to transmit grand jury evidence implicating the President to the House Judiciary Committee so it could be used in an impeachment.

Toto we’re not in 1974 anymore … and neither is the President

Let me clear about what follows: there’s still a reasonable chance Republicans retain the House, and it’s most likely that Republicans will retain the Senate. We’re not in a position where — unless Mueller reveals truly heinous crimes — Trump is at any imminent risk of being impeached. We can revisit all this on Wednesday after tomorrow’s elections and after Trump starts doing whatever he plans to do in response, but we are in a very different place than we were in 1974.

So I am not predicting that the Mueller investigation will end up the way the Watergate one did. Trump has far less concern for his country than Nixon did — an observation John Dean just made.

And Republicans have, almost but not quite universally, shown little appetite for holding Trump to account.

So I’m not commenting on what will happen. Rather, I’m asking how advanced the Mueller investigation might be — and what it may have been doing for the last 18 months — if it followed the model of the Watergate investigation.

One more caveat: I don’t intend to argue the evidence in this thread — though I think my series on what the Sekulow questions say stands up really well even six months later. For the rest of this post, I will assume that Mueller has obtained sufficient evidence to charge a conspiracy between Trump’s closest aides and representatives of the Russian government. Even if he doesn’t have that evidence, though, he may still package up a Road Map in case he is fired.

Jaworski had a draft indictment around the same time he considered giving Nixon an open book test

Even as the Watergate team was compiling questions they might pose to the President if Jaworski chose to pursue that route, they were drafting an indictment.

If the Mueller investigation has followed a similar path, that means that by the time Mueller gave Trump his open book test in October, he may have already drafted up an indictment covering Trump’s actions. That’s pretty reasonable to imagine given Paul Manafort’s plea deal in mid-September and Trump’s past statements about how his former campaign manager could implicate him personally, though inconsistent with Rudy’s claims (if we can trust him) that Manafort has not provided evidence against Trump.

Still, if the Jaworski Road Map is a guide, then Mueller’s team may have already laid out what a Trump indictment would look like if you could indict a sitting President. That said, given the complaints that DOJ had drafted a declination with Hillary before her interview, I would assume they would keep his name off it, as the Watergate team did in editing the Nixon indictment.

Then, a month after drawing up a draft indictment, Jaworski’s grand jury had a Road Map all packaged up ready to be sent to HJC.

Another crucial lesson of this comparison: Jaworksi did not wait for, and did not need, testimony from the President to put together a Road Map for HJC. While I’m sure he’ll continue pursuing getting Trump on the record, there’s no reason to believe Mueller needs that to provide evidence that Trump was part of this conspiracy to HJC.

Given that I think a Mueller report primarily serves as a failsafe at this point, I would expect that he would have some version of that ready to go before Wednesday. And that’s consistent with the reports — enthusiastically stoked by the President’s lawyers — that Mueller is ready to issue his findings.

If a Mueller report is meant to serve as a Road Map for an HJC led by Jerrold Nadler starting in January, then it is necessarily all ready to go (and hopefully copied and safely stored in multiple different locations), even if it might be added to in coming months.

The Road Map Section I included evidence to substantiate the the conspiracy

As I laid out here, the Watergate Road Map included four sections: 

I. Material bearing on a $75,000 payment to E. Howard Hunt and related events

II. Material bearing on the President’s “investigation”

III. Material bearing on events up to and including March 17, 1973

IV. The President’s public statements and material before the grand jury related thereto

The first section maps very closely to the overt acts laid out in the February 1 draft indictment, incorporating two acts into one and leaving off or possibly redacting one, but otherwise providing the grand jury evidence — plus some interim steps in the conspiracy — that Jaworski would have used to prove all the overt acts charged in the conspiracy charge from that draft indictment.

If Mueller intended to charge a quid pro quo conspiracy — that Trump accepted a Russian offer to drop dirt, possibly emails explicitly, in response for sanctions relief (and cooperation on Syria and other things) — then we could imagine the kinds of overt acts he might use to prove that:

  • Foreknowledge of an offer of dirt and possibly even emails (Rick Gates and Omarosa might provide that)
  • Trump involvement in the decision to accept that offer (Paul Manafort had a meeting with Trump on June 7, 2016 that might be relevant, as would the immediate aftermath of the June 9 meeting)
  • Trump signaling that his continued willingness to deliver on the conspiracy (as early as the George Papadopoulos plea, Mueller laid out some evidence of this, plus there is Trump’s request for Russia to find Hillary emails, which Mueller has already shown was immediately followed by intensified Russian hacking attempts)
  • Evidence Russia tailored releases in response to Trump campaign requests (Roger Stone may play a key role in this, but Mueller appears to know that Manafort even more explicitly asked Russia for help)
  • Evidence Trump moved to pay off his side of the deal, both by immediately moving to cooperate on Syria and by assuring Russia that the Trump Administration would reverse Obama’s sanctions

Remember, to be charged, a conspiracy does not have to have succeeded (that is, it doesn’t help Trump that he hasn’t yet succeeded in paying off his debt to Russia; it is enough that he agreed to do so and then took overt acts to further the conspiracy).

In other words, if Mueller has a Road Map sitting in his safe, and if I’m right that this is the conspiracy he would charge, there might be a section that included the overt acts that would appear in a draft indictment of Trump (and might appear in an indictment of Trump’s aides and spawn and the Russian representatives they conspired with), along with citations to the grand jury evidence Mueller has collected to substantiate those overt acts.

Note, this may explain whom Mueller chooses to put before the grand jury and not: that it’s based off what evidence Mueller believes he would need to pass on in sworn form to be of use for HJC, to (among other things) help HJC avoid the protracted fights over subpoenas they’ll face if Democrats do win a majority.

The Road Map Section II described how the White House Counsel tried to invent a cover story

After substantiating what would have been the indictment against Nixon, the Watergate Road Map showed how Nixon had John Dean and others manufacture a false exonerating story. The Road Map cited things like:

  • Nixon’s public claims to have total confidence in John Dean
  • Nixon’s efforts to falsely claim to the Attorney General, Richard Kleindienst, that former AG John Mitchell might be the most culpable person among Nixon’s close aides
  • Nixon’s instructions to his top domestic political advisor, John Ehrlichman, to get involved in John Dean’s attempts to create an exculpatory story
  • Press Secretary Ron Ziegler’s public lies that no one knew about the crime
  • Nixon’s efforts to learn about what prosecutors had obtained from his close aides
  • Nixon’s private comments to his White House Counsel to try to explain away an incriminating comment
  • Nixon’s ongoing conversations with his White House Counsel about what he should say publicly to avoid admitting to the crime
  • Nixon’s multiple conversations with top DOJ official Henry Petersen, including his request that Peterson not investigate some crimes implicating the Plumbers
  • Nixon’s orders to his Chief of Staff, HR Haldeman, to research the evidence implicating himself in a crime

This is an area where there are multiple almost exact parallels with the investigation into Trump, particularly in Don McGahn’s assistance to the President to provide bogus explanations for both the Mike Flynn and Jim Comey firings — the former of which involved Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, the latter of which involved Trump’s top domestic political advisor Stephen Miller. There are also obvious parallels between the Petersen comments and the Comey ones. Finally, Trump has made great efforts to learn via Devin Nunes and other House allies what DOJ has investigated, including specifically regarding the Flynn firing.

One key point about all this: the parallels here are almost uncanny. But so is the larger structural point. These details did not make the draft Nixon indictment. There were just additional proof of his cover-up and abuse of power. The scope of what HJC might investigate regarding presidential abuse is actually broader than what might be charged in an indictment.

The equivalent details in the Mueller investigation — particularly the Comey firing — have gotten the bulk of the press coverage (and at one point formed a plurality of the questions Jay Sekulow imagined Mueller might ask). But the obstruction was never what the case in chief is, the obstruction started when Trump found firing Flynn to be preferable to explaining why he instructed Flynn, on December 29, to tell the Russians not to worry about Obama’s sanctions. In the case of the Russia investigation, there has yet to be an adequate public explanation for Flynn’s firing, and the Trump team’s efforts to do so continue to hint at the real exposure the President faces on conspiracy charges.

In other words, I suspect that details about the Comey firing and Don McGahn’s invented explanations for it that made a Mueller Road Map might, as details of the John Dean’s Watergate investigation did in Jaworski’s Road Map, as much to be supporting details to the core evidence proving a conspiracy.

The Road Map Section III provided evidence that Nixon knew about the election conspiracy, and not just the cover-up

The third section included some of the most inflammatory stuff in Jaworski’s Road Map, showing that Nixon knew about the campaign dirty tricks and describing what happened during the 18 minute gap. Here’s where I suspect Jaworski’s Road Map may differ from Mueller’s: while much of this section provides circumstantial evidence to show that the President knew about the election crimes ahead of time, my guess is (particularly given Manafort’s plea) that Mueller has more than circumstantial evidence implicating Trump. In a case against Trump, the election conspiracy — not the cover-up, as it was for Nixon — is the conspiracy-in-chief that might implicate the President.

The Road Map Section III described Nixon’s discussions about using clemency to silence co-conspirators

One other area covered by this section, however, does have a direct parallel: in Nixon’s discussions about whether he could provide clemency to the Watergate defendants. With both Flynn and Manafort cooperating, Mueller must have direct descriptions of Trump’s pardon offers. What remains to be seen is if Mueller can substantiate (as he seems to be trying to do) Trump willingness to entertain any of the several efforts to win Julian Assange a pardon. There’s no precedent to treat offering a pardon as a crime unto itself, but it is precisely the kind of abuse of power the founders believed merited impeachment. Again, it’s another thing that might be in a Mueller Road Map that wouldn’t necessarily make an indictment.

The Road Map Section IV showed how Nixon’s public comments conflicted with his actions

We have had endless discussions about Trump’s comments about the Russian investigation on Twitter, and even by March, at least 8 of the questions Sekulow imagined Mueller wanted to ask pertained to Trump’s public statements.

  • What was the purpose of your April 11, 2017, statement to Maria Bartiromo?
  • What did you mean when you told Russian diplomats on May 10, 2017, that firing Mr. Comey had taken the pressure off?
  • What did you mean in your interview with Lester Holt about Mr. Comey and Russia?
  • What was the purpose of your May 12, 2017, tweet?
  • What was the purpose of the September and October 2017 statements, including tweets, regarding an investigation of Mr. Comey?
  • What is the reason for your continued criticism of Mr. Comey and his former deputy, Andrew G. McCabe?
  • What was the purpose of your July 2017 criticism of Mr. Sessions?
  • What involvement did you have in the communication strategy, including the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails?

The Watergate Road Map documents a number of public Nixon comments that, like Trump’s, are not themselves criminal, but are evidence the President was lying about his crimes and cover-up. The Watergate Road Map describes Nixon claiming that:

  • He did not know until his own investigation about efforts to pay off Watergate defendants
  • He did not know about offers of clemency
  • He did not know in March 1973 there was anything to cover up
  • His position has been to get the facts out about the crime, not cover them up
  • He ordered people to cooperate with the FBI
  • He had always pressed to get the full truth out
  • He had ordered legitimate investigations into what happened
  • He had met with Kleindienst and Peterson to review what he had learned in his investigation
  • He had not turned over evidence of a crime he knew of to prosecutors because he assumed Dean already had
  • He had learned more about the crimes between March and April 1973

Admittedly, Trump pretended to want real investigations — an internal investigation of what Flynn had told the FBI, and an external investigation into the election conspiracy — for a much briefer period than Nixon did (his comments to Maria Bartiromo, which I covered here, and Lester Holt, which I covered here, are key exceptions).

Still, there are a slew of conflicting comments Trump has made, some obviously to provide a cover story or incriminate key witnesses, that Mueller showed some interest in before turning in earnest to finalizing the conspiracy case in chief. A very central one involves the false claims that Flynn had said nothing about sanctions and that he was fired for lying to Mike Pence about that; probably at least 7 people knew those comments were false when Sean Spicer made them.  Then there are the at least 52 times he has claimed “No Collusion” or the 135 times he has complained about a “Witch Hunt” on Twitter.

Trump’s lawyers have complained that his public comments have no role in a criminal investigation (though the likelihood he spoke to Putin about how to respond as the June 9 meeting story broke surely does). But Mueller may be asking them for the same reason they were relevant to the Watergate investigation. They are evidence of abuse of power.

The Road Map included the case in chief, not all the potential crimes

Finally, there is one more important detail about the Road Map that I suspect would be matched in any Mueller Road Map: Not all the crimes the Special Prosecutor investigated made the Road Map. The Watergate team had a number of different task forces (as I suspect Mueller also does). And of those, just Watergate (and to a very limited degree, the cover-up of the Plumbers investigation) got included in the Road Map.

Here, we’ve already seen at least one crime get referred by Mueller, Trump’s campaign payoffs. I’ve long suggested that the Inauguration pay-to-play might also get referred (indeed, that may be the still-active part of the grand jury investigation that explains why SDNY refuses to release the warrants targeting Michael Cohen). Mueller might similarly refer any Saudi, Israeli, and Emirate campaign assistance to a US Attorney’s office for investigation. And while it’s virtually certain Mueller investigated the larger network of energy and other resource deals that seem to be part of what happened at the Seychelles meetings, any continuing investigation may have been referred (indeed, may have actually derived from) SDNY.

In other words, while a Mueller Road Map might include things beyond what would be necessary for a criminal indictment, it also may not include a good number of things we know Mueller to have examined, at least in passing.

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

Trump Refuses to Keep This Country Safe from Terrorism

I thought a lot about two things over the weekend.

I thought about the line that disqualifies an otherwise excellent book on left wing terrorism in the 1970s, Days of Rage: “With the possible exception of the Ku Klux Klan,” author Bryan Burrough claimed close to the beginning of the book, “the United States until 1970 had never spawned any kind of true underground movement committed to terrorist acts.” The book, which spends a lot of time talking about left wing political violence in significant part stemmed out of a concern for the rights of African Americans, utterly dismissed (perhaps because it was so widely accepted it could barely be called “underground”?) America’s most persistent terrorist movement as such. The line has haunted me ever since as an example of the kind of blindness even experts have about the centrality of right wing terrorism in American history.

I thought, too, about Charlie Savage’s description in Power Wars of how Scott Brown’s team claimed that his polling showed he won the 2010 special election to replace Ted Kennedy chiefly because of perceptions of how Obama responded to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed Christmas Eve bombing, because Brown attacked Obama for wanting to give terrorists due process. Once Republicans learned that, they doubled down, encouraging voters to become more afraid.

In a question-and-answer period following his prepared remarks, [Mitch] McConnell candidly acknowledged the political advantage of hammering away at the issue, citing Brown’s victory.

“If this approach of putting these people in U.S. courts doesn’t play in Massachusetts, I don’t know where it sells,” McConnell said, adding: “You can campaign on these issues anywhere in America.”

As Savage describes, that was when Obama started caving on his efforts to adopt a more reasonable approach to terrorism, first reversing Eric Holder’s decision to try the 9/11 defendants in NYC, then launching an 18-month campaign to drone kill Anwar al-Awlaki, and ultimately failing to close Gitmo or hold torturers to account.

Now, as Savage tells it, all that arose solely out of the Abdulmutallab case. He barely covered an event that preceded it, one where Republicans very much set up the Brown lines: when Pete Hoekstra leaked information obtained via FISA collection showing that Nidal Hasan had had communications with Awlaki before his attack on Fort Hood, using it to suggest the Obama Administration should have prevented the Fort Hood attack by adequately analyzing collected communications. Republican efforts to exact a cost from Obama for a more reasonable approach to terrorism (which included demanding that Obama call Hasan’s attack on a military target, terrorism) actually preceded the Abdulmutallab attack, and it was far more deliberate than made out.

The point is, though, that it had the short term desired effect of breaking the Democratic super majority in the Senate and the longer term effect of making Obama reactive on terrorism, rather than proactive (even through the time, in 2013, when Massachusetts was successfully attacked at the Boston Marathon and polls showed people actually didn’t want any more limits on civil liberties). Republicans deliberately and successfully forced a president who wanted to be something other than a War on Terror President to instead be just that.

And now, 8 years after Mitch McConnell gleefully said Republicans should run on hard nose accountability for terrorist attacks everywhere, Republicans are whining that Democrats are treating Trump’s actions in advance of and in the wake of serial right wing terrorist attacks last week as a political issue.

In the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks, we have returned to a discussion we always have after such things, why we call Islamic terrorism terror, but call the targeting of black churches and Jewish synagogues hate crimes and the attempted assassination of Democratic figures bomb attacks. Popehat wrote a worthy lawsplainer, from the viewpoint of a former prosecutor, why domestic terrorists don’t get (immediately) labeled as terrorist attacks. 9/11 Commission staffer Daniel Byman acknowledged that while we don’t have the same legal structure for pursuing domestic terrorist as we do terrorism with a foreign nexus, for the Pittsburgh case, at least, we should probably use the T-word.

I’ve talked about why it is important to call domestic terrorism terrorism here: First, because not doing so results in an equal protection problem, where Muslims are more likely to be targeted in a sting because the FBI has greater access to the communications of still-innocent people with suspect people overseas. And, because calling something terrorism conceives of the possibility of a supporting network, and investigating that network might prevent deaths, such as those perpetrated by the networks of Eric Rudolph or Kevin Harpham.

But the government may not call these acts terrorism. That’s true, in part, because DOJ has invented a separate category to criminalize (impose the death penalty on) hateful motives with hate crimes designation. In addition, Jeff Sessions’ DOJ has adopted a deliberate policy of record-keeping to try to claim that the greatest threats come from outside the country, which is paralleled by their thus far unsuccessful attempt to brand the (US-born) MS-13 gang both as a threat sourced from Central American and as a threat to rival ISIS.

Trump’s effort to brand a group of refugees 1,000 miles from the border as a more urgent threat to the country than corruption or climate change or domestic gun violence — an effort which likely had a tie to both Cesar Sayoc’s terrorist attempt and Robert Bowers’ mass killing — is more of the same, an effort to claim that the most critical threats are foreign and anything he deems a threat is therefore un-American, also foreign.

Ultimately, the reason why the government won’t call last week’s attacks terrorism, however, is precisely the reason they should. Call them terror attacks, and the networks of support and enablers get investigated rather than just isolated men treated as lone wolves. Call them terror attacks, and we start to ask what responsibility Lou Dobbs or Steve King or Chris Farrell (or the people who vote for and fund them) — or Donald Trump — have for the attacks, in the same way we held Anwar al-Awlaki responsible for his role in the terrorist attacks that Scott Brown exploited to get elected.

Byman describes correctly how contentious this can be, because those espousing the same policies as terrorists don’t want to be associated with those terrorist acts.

[D]omestic terrorism often has a bigger political impact than jihadi violence. A foreign-based attack brings America together in the face of tragedy. But right-wing (and left-wing) violence is more likely to divide the country. Just this week, for example, 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc reportedly sent explosive packages to CNN, Democratic politicians, and others seen as “enemies” of Trump. Some right-wing voices immediately embraced conspiracy theories rather than recognizing his activities for what it was. Domestic terrorists poke at bigger political wounds than do jihadis, with at least some Americans sympathizing with their cause even as they reject their violent means.

In turn, observers often avoid the word “terrorism” because peaceful proponents of right-wing and left-wing causes don’t want to be lumped together, even by weak association, with terrorists. We can and should recognize that most political groups of all stripes abhor violence. Doing so—while also acknowledging that the groups and individuals who don’t belong in a separate category—will better enable the United States to isolate extremists and cut them off before the next tragedy.

Which is why this post bears the headline, “Trump refuses to keep this country safe from terrorism” rather than Trump fosters terrorism, even if I believe the latter to be the case.

Because until the time those willing to coddle Trump’s racism in the name of tribal loyalty are defeated politically, they will want to pitch questions about what to label Cesar Sayoc and Robert Bowers’ actions as an attack on themselves.

Instead, let’s make it an attack on Donald Trump’s basic competence as President, one the Republicans themselves, from top to bottom, have embraced.

It is the Republican party of Karl Rove and Mitch McConnell and Scott Brown and (Trump Ambassador to the Netherlands) Pete Hoekstra that says a President who won’t keep the country safe from terrorism must be defeated politically. Me, I’d rather deal with all this domestic terrorism by first closely tracking those accused of domestic violence (which would have the effect of preventing non-ideological mass killings along with the ideological mass killings and attempts) and by noting that under George W Bush and Obama, the FBI was actually pretty good at discovering right wing terrorism without the tools they have against Islamic terrorism. I’d rather Democrats run on the fear of losing health insurance or the impact of climate change or gun violence generally.

But not Republicans. Republicans believe that a President who refuses to take a very aggressive approach to terrorism should not be President. So for those Republicans, let’s make this an issue not of the ways Trump’s network fostered actions like we saw last week, but how Trump’s Administration has chosen not to combat terrorism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder Rudy thinks he knows everything that Mueller has.

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

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

Bill Clinton Did Not Win an Election By Getting a Blowjob: The Danger of Lindsey Graham’s Willful Ignorance about Russian Interference

In his statement in Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing yesterday, Lindsey Graham embodied the problem with Republicans’ deliberate ignorance about Russian interference in the 2016 election.

As part of his statement, he raised the time Joe Biden pointed out what a hypocrite Brett Kavanaugh was for believing presidents should not be investigated during their term but nevertheless thought it necessary to ask Bill Clinton the following questions:

If Monica Lewinsky says that you inserted a cigar into her vagina while you were in the Oval Office area, would she be lying?

[snip]

If Monica Lewinsky says that she gave you oral sex in the Oval Office area, would she be lying?

If Monica Lewinsky says that you ejaculated in her mouth on two occasions in the Oval Office, would she be lying?

Lindsey did so to suggest Biden’s comments about the Clinton investigation refute the claim that Trump picked Kavanaugh to protect himself from investigation, as if the investigation of Clinton for a blowjob was as legitimate as Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump cheated to win the election.

To justify such an absurd claim, Lindsey suggests that the Mueller investigation is only about whether Trump acted improperly when he fired Comey.

When it comes to the pillar of political virtue, Comey. Harry Reid: “That he’s been a supporter of Comey, and led the fight to get him confirmed, as he believed Comey was a principled public servant. With the deepest regret, I now see that I was wrong.” Mr. Nadler, from NY. “The President can fire him for cause and ought to. He violated the guidelines and put his thumb on the scale of an election.” Mr. Cohen, from Tennessee, a Democrat. “Call on Comey to resign his position, effective immediately, I’m sureupon reflection of this action he will submit his letter of resignation for the nation’s good.” To my Democratic friends,  you were all for getting rid of this guy. Now all of a sudden the country is turning upside down cause Trump did it.

The same guy who recently endorsed the idea of Trump firing Jeff Sessions once Kavanaugh gets confirmed then claimed he would do everything to protect the Mueller investigation. He says that even while suggesting he agrees with Kavanaugh that the president shouldn’t be investigated.

There’s a process to find out what happened in the 2016 election. It’s called Mr. Mueller. And I will do everything I can to make sure he finishes his job without political interference. And I’m here to tell anybody in the country that listens, that this is so hypocritical of my friends on the other side. When it was their President, Kavanaugh was right. When you’re talking about Roe v. Wade, it’s okay to promise the nation it will never be overturned. It’s okay to pick a Democratic staff member of this committee, but it’s not okay to pick somebody who’s been a lifelong Republican.

Which brings us to the stunning bit. Having just misrepresented the scope of the Mueller investigation — completely ignoring that the primary investigation is about whether Trump conspired with a hostile foreign power to win the election — Lindsey then suggests that Democrats should have no influence over judges because they lost the election the legitimacy of which Mueller continues to investigate (and about which Mueller has already provided evidence that the scope of Russia’s help for Trump went further than initially known).

People see through this. You had a chance, and you lost. If you want to pick judges from your way of thinking, then you better win an election.

After discussing his support for Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Lindsey then suggests that stripping the last limits on presidential power is just a game (even while admitting he likes Trump best of all for getting two SCOTUS picks).

I hope people in the country understand this game. It’s a game that I’m sad to be part of. It’s gotten really bad. The antidote to our problems in this country when it comes to judges and politics is not to deny you a place on the Supreme Court. This is exactly where you need to be, this is exactly the time you need to be there, and I’m telling President Trump, “You do some things that drive me crazy, you do some great things. You have never done anything better, in my view, than to pick Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.  Cause you had an opportunity to put well-qualified conservatives on the court — men steeped in the rule of law — who will apply analysis not politics to their decision-making, and you knocked it out of the park, and I say to my friends on the other side: you can’t lose the election and pick judges.

Lindsey ends, again, by taunting Democrats that they can’t have any input on Supreme Court justices if they lose an election.

An election the investigation of which Lindsey claims to, but is not, protecting. An election the investigation of which may be stymied by the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh.

Of course, this is only possible because of the way four different efforts in Congress — including Lindsey’s own — have served to obscure the matters under investigation. You’ve got Lindsey’s investigation and Bob Goodlatte’s — both more worried about a single FISA order that even a conservative Republican has told me was based on overwhelming evidence — than whether the guy making lifetime appointments cheated to get that authority. You’ve got Devin Nunes’ investigation, better described as an information gathering effort to help Trump get away with any cheating he engaged in than an investigation of whether he did cheat. Finally, there is Richard Burr’s investigation which, while on its face is more credible, nevertheless is not pursuing leads that support a case that Trump conspired with Russia to win the election.

Lindsey Graham is concerned about lies Christopher Steele may have told under oath in the UK, but not lies Don Jr clearly told his own committee. His big rush to stack SCOTUS suggests the reason for that has everything to do with a need to sustain a fiction that those SCOTUS choices are the result of a legitimate election win rather than willfully conspiring with a foreign adversary to get those choices.