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Robert Mueller’s Grand Jury and the Significance of Felix Sater

The world is abuzz with the news that Robert Mueller has impaneled a DC-based grand jury that he used to subpoena information on the June 9, 2016 meeting between Don Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and some Russians promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. In reality, the Special Counsel had already been using a grand jury to get information on Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort and we should always have expected a dedicated grand jury.

Nevertheless, the move has convinced the chattering classes that this investigation is for real.

This comes as a surprise to people, apparently, after reports of Mueller’s 16th hire, illegal foreign bribery expert Greg Andres. It’s almost as if people haven’t been making sense of where Mueller is going from the scope of his hires, which include:

  1. Mob specialists: Andrew Weissman and Lisa Page are mob prosecutors.
  2. Fraud specialists: Weissman and Rush Atkinson are also fraud prosecutors.
  3. Corporate crime specialists: Weissman also led the Enron Task force. One of Dreeben’s key SCOTUS wins pertained to corporate crime. Jeannie Rhee has also worked on white collar defense.
  4. Public corruption specialists: Mueller hired someone with Watergate experience, James Quarles. And Andrew Goldstein got good press in SDNY for prosecuting corrupt politicians (even if Sheldon Silver’s prosecution has since been overturned).
  5. International experts: Zainab Ahmad, who worked terrorism cases in EDNY, which has some of the most expansive precedents for charging foreigners flown into JFK (including Russia’s darling Viktor Bout), knows how to bring foreigners to the US and successfully prosecute them in this country. Aaron Zelinsky has also worked in international law. Elizabeth Prelogar did a Fulbright in Russia and reportedly speaks it fluently. And, as noted, Andres has worked on foreign bribery.
  6. Cyber and spying lawyers: Brandon Van Grack is the guy who had been leading the investigation into Mike Flynn; he’s got a range of National Security experience. Aaron Zebley, Mueller’s former chief of staff at FBI, also has that kind of NSD experience.
  7. Appellate specialists: With Michael Dreeben, Mueller already has someone on the team who can win any appellate challenges; Adam Jed and Elizabeth Prelogar are also appellate specialists. Mueller’s hires also include former clerks for a number of SCOTUS justices, which always helps out if things get that far.

I lay this out there to suggest that in addition to hiring a bunch of super stars, Mueller also appears to have picked people for their expertise. Those picks reflect an already well-developed theory of the case, one formed long before he impaneled his own grand jury. And many of them boast expertise fairly distant from the question of foreign adversary’s hacking a political party’s server.

And I’d suggest there’s good reason for that.

Some of Mueller’s theory of the case undoubtedly comes from whatever evidence Jim Comey’s FBI and Van Grack’s grand jury had already collected, which at least publicly pertains to Mike Flynn’s disclosure problems, his comments to the Russians, and Paul Manafort’s money laundering. Some of it comes from stuff that was being investigated in NY.

But remember: Trump’s sordid ties to Russian mobsters (see categories 1, 2, 3, and 5) go back a long way. One of the best ways to understand what and how close some of those ties are is to look at the case of Felix Sater. Josh Marshall’s description here gets at a lot of the important bits.

Sater is a Russian emigrant who was jailed for assault in the mid-90s and then pulled together a major securities fraud scheme in which investors lost some $40 million. He clearly did something for the US government which the feds found highly valuable. It seems likely, though not certain, that it involved working with the CIA on something tied to the post-Soviet criminal underworld. Now Bayrock and Trump come into the mix.

According to Sater’s Linkedin profile, Sater joined up with Bayrock in 1999 – in other words, shortly after he became involved with the FBI and CIA. (The Times article says he started up with Bayrock in 2003.) In a deposition, Trump said he first came into contact with Sater and Bayrock in the early 2000s. The Trump SoHo project was announced in 2006 and broke ground in November of that year. In other words, Sater’s involvement with Bayrock started soon after he started working with the FBI and (allegedly) the CIA. Almost the entire period of his work with Trump took place during this period when he was working for the federal government as at least an informant and had his eventual sentencing hanging over his head.

What about Salvatore Lauria, Sater’s accomplice in the securities swindle?

He went to work with Bayrock too and was also closely involved with managing and securing financing for the Trump SoHo project. The Timesarticle I mentioned in my earlier post on Trump SoHo contains this …

Mr. Lauria brokered a $50 million investment in Trump SoHo and three other Bayrock projects by an Icelandic firm preferred by wealthy Russians “in favor with” President Vladimir V. Putin, according to a lawsuit against Bayrock by one of its former executives. The Icelandic company, FL Group, was identified in a Bayrock investor presentation as a “strategic partner,” along with Alexander Mashkevich, a billionaire once charged in a corruption case involving fees paid by a Belgian company seeking business in Kazakhstan; that case was settled with no admission of guilt.

All sounds totally legit, doesn’t it?

But there’s more!, as they say.

Sater’s stint as a “Senior Advisor” to Donald Trump at the Trump Organization began in January of January 2010 and lasted roughly a year. What significance that has in all of this I’m not sure. But here’s the final morsel of information that’s worth knowing for this installment of the story.

How exactly did all of Sater’s secret work and the federal government’s efforts to keep his crimes secret come to light?

During the time Sater was working for Bayrock and Trump he organized what was supposed to be Trump Tower Ft Lauderdale. The project was announced in 2004. People paid in lots of money but the whole thing went bust and Trump finally pulled out of the deal in 2009. Lots of people who’d bought units in the building lost everything. And they sued.

In other words, an FBI (and, possibly, CIA) informant had links with two of Trump’s business with ties to the Russian mob for — effectively — the entire extended Mueller tenure at FBI.

This is a point one of the few other people with reservations about Mueller as Special Counsel made to me not long ago. The FBI — Mueller’s FBI — has known about the ties between Trump’s businesses and the Russian mob for well over a decade. The FBI — Mueller’s FBI — never referred those ties, that money laundering, for prosecution in that entire time, perhaps because of the difficulties of going after foreign corruption interlaced with US businesses.

Now, in a remarkably short timeframe, former mob prosecutor Robert Mueller has put together a dream team of prosecutors who have precisely the kind of expertise you might use to go after such ties.

Because now it matters. It matters that the President has all these obligations to the Russian mob going back over a decade, because he can’t seem to separate his own entanglements from the good of the country.

Yes, Robert Mueller convened a grand jury and he has used it to go after the records of a meeting set up by one of Trump’s key Russian allies, Aras Agalarov, and his campaign, the guy who, at the very end of Mueller’s tenure at FBI, helped Trump stage the Miss Universe pageant in Russia, an event that may have marked significant new levels of Trump exposure to Russian compromise. But Mueller was on the trail of Trump and his Russian crime ties long before that. (The person with Mueller reservations actually wondered whether Trump himself wasn’t cooperating with the FBI in this period.)

Folks have made much of this exchange in the NYT’s long interview with Trump.

SCHMIDT: Last thing, if Mueller was looking at your finances and your family finances, unrelated to Russia — is that a red line?

HABERMAN: Would that be a breach of what his actual charge is?

TRUMP: I would say yeah. I would say yes. By the way, I would say, I don’t — I don’t — I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows? I don’t make money from Russia. In fact, I put out a letter saying that I don’t make — from one of the most highly respected law firms, accounting firms. I don’t have buildings in Russia. They said I own buildings in Russia. I don’t. They said I made money from Russia. I don’t. It’s not my thing. I don’t, I don’t do that. Over the years, I’ve looked at maybe doing a deal in Russia, but I never did one. Other than I held the Miss Universe pageant there eight, nine years [crosstalk].

SCHMIDT: But if he was outside that lane, would that mean he’d have to go?

[crosstalk]

HABERMAN: Would you consider——

TRUMP: No, I think that’s a violation. Look, this is about Russia. So I think if he wants to go, my finances are extremely good, my company is an unbelievably successful company. And actually, when I do my filings, peoples say, “Man.” People have no idea how successful this is. It’s a great company. But I don’t even think about the company anymore. I think about this. ’Cause one thing, when you do this, companies seem very trivial. O.K.? I really mean that. They seem very trivial. But I have no income from Russia. I don’t do business with Russia. The gentleman that you mentioned, with his son, two nice people. But basically, they brought the Miss Universe pageant to Russia to open up, you know, one of their jobs. Perhaps the convention center where it was held. It was a nice evening, and I left. I left, you know, I left Moscow. It wasn’t Moscow, it was outside of Moscow.

Technically, Trump was only asked about whether he’d consider Mueller’s review of finances unrelated to Russia to be outside his lane. But Trump largely answered it about Russia, about business deals — the condos, the pageant — with Russia going back to the time Mueller’s FBI would have been working with Felix Sater to learn about the Russian mob.

Yeah. It’s no surprise Mueller has impaneled a grand jury.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

The Compartments in WaPo’s Russian Hack Magnum Opus

The WaPo has an 8300 word opus on the Obama Administration’s response to Russian tampering in the election. The article definitely covers new ground on the Obama effort to respond while avoiding making things worse, particularly with regards to imposing sanctions in December. It also largely lays out much of the coverage the three bylined journalists (Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous) have broken before, with new details. The overall message of the article, which has a number of particular viewpoints and silences, is this: Moscow is getting away with their attack.

“[B]ecause of the divergent ways Obama and Trump have handled the matter, Moscow appears unlikely to face proportionate consequences.”

The Immaculate Interception: CIA’s scoop

WaPo starts its story about how Russia got away with its election op with an exchange designed to make the non-response to the attack seem all the more senseless. It provides a dramatic description of a detail these very same reporters broke on December 9: Putin, who was personally directing this effort, was trying to elect Trump.

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

[snip]

The material was so sensitive that CIA Director John Brennan kept it out of the President’s Daily Brief, concerned that even that restricted report’s distribution was too broad. The CIA package came with instructions that it be returned immediately after it was read.

[snip]

In early August, Brennan alerted senior White House officials to the Putin intelligence, making a call to deputy national security adviser Avril Haines and pulling national security adviser Susan Rice side after a meeting before briefing Obama along with Rice, Haines and McDonough in the Oval Office.

While the sharing of this information with just three aides adds to the drama, WaPo doesn’t consider something else about it. The inclusion of Rice and McDonough totally makes sense. But by including Avril Haines, Brennan was basically including his former Deputy Director who had moved onto the DNSA position, effectively putting two CIA people in a room with two White House people and the President. Significantly, Lisa Monaco — who had Brennan’s old job as White House Homeland Security Czar and who came from DOJ and FBI before that — was reportedly excluded from this initial briefing.

There are a number of other interesting details about all this. First, for thousands of wordspace, the WaPo presents this intelligence as irreproachable, even while providing this unconvincing explanation of why, if it is so secret and solid, the CIA was willing to let WaPo put it on its front page.

For spy agencies, gaining insights into the intentions of foreign leaders is among the highest priorities. But Putin is a remarkably elusive target. A former KGB officer, he takes extreme precautions to guard against surveillance, rarely communicating by phone or computer, always running sensitive state business from deep within the confines of the Kremlin.

The Washington Post is withholding some details of the intelligence at the request of the U.S. government.

If this intelligence is so sensitive, why is even the timing of its collection being revealed here, much less its access to Putin?

That seemingly contradictory action is all the more curious given that not all agencies were as impressed with this intelligence as CIA was. It’s not until much, much later in its report until WaPo explains what remains true as recently as Admiral Rogers’ latest Congressional testimony: the NSA wasn’t and isn’t as convinced by CIA’s super secret intelligence as CIA was.

Despite the intelligence the CIA had produced, other agencies were slower to endorse a conclusion that Putin was personally directing the operation and wanted to help Trump. “It was definitely compelling, but it was not definitive,” said one senior administration official. “We needed more.”

Some of the most critical technical intelligence on Russia came from another country, officials said. Because of the source of the material, the NSA was reluctant to view it with high confidence.

By the time this detail is presented, the narrative is in place: Obama failed to respond adequately to the attack that CIA warned about back in August.

The depiction of this top-level compartment of just Brennan, Rice, McDonough, and Haines is interesting background, as well, for the depiction of the way McDonough undermined a State Department plan to institute a Special Commission before Donald Trump got started.

Supporters’ confidence was buoyed when McDonough signaled that he planned to “tabledrop” the proposal at the next NSC meeting, one that would be chaired by Obama. Kerry was overseas and participated by videoconference.

To some, the “tabledrop” term has a tactical connotation beyond the obvious. It is sometimes used as a means of securing approval of an idea by introducing it before opponents have a chance to form counterarguments.

“We thought this was a good sign,” a former State Department official said.

But as soon as McDonough introduced the proposal for a commission, he began criticizing it, arguing that it would be perceived as partisan and almost certainly blocked by Congress.

Obama then echoed McDonough’s critique, effectively killing any chance that a Russia commission would be formed.

Effectively, McDonough upended the table on those (which presumably includes the CIA) who wanted to preempt regular process.

Finally, even after  these three WaPo journalists foreground their entire narrative with CIA’s super duper scoop (that NSA is still not 100% convinced is one), they don’t describe their own role in changing the tenor of the response on December 9 by reporting the first iteration of this story.

“By December, those of us working on this for a long time were demoralized,” said an administration official involved in the developing punitive options.

Then the tenor began to shift.

On Dec. 9, Obama ordered a comprehensive review by U.S. intelligence agencies of Russian interference in U.S. elections going back to 2008, with a plan to make some of the findings public.

The WaPo’s report of the CIA’s intelligence changed the tenor back in December, and this story about the absence of a response might change the tenor here.

Presenting the politics ahead of the intelligence

The WaPo’s foregrounding of Brennan’s August scoop is also important for the way they portray the parallel streams of the intelligence and political response. It portrays the Democrats’ political complaints about Republicans in this story, most notably the suggestion that Mitch McConnell refused to back a more public statement about the Russian operation when Democrats were pushing for one in September. That story, in part because of McConnell’s silence, has become accepted as true.

Except the WaPo’s own story provides ample evidence that the Democrats were trying to get ahead of the formal intelligence community with respect to attribution, both in the summer, when Clapper only alluded to Russian involvement.

Even after the late-July WikiLeaks dump, which came on the eve of the Democratic convention and led to the resignation of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) as the DNC’s chairwoman, U.S. intelligence officials continued to express uncertainty about who was behind the hacks or why they were carried out.

At a public security conference in Aspen, Colo., in late July, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. noted that Russia had a long history of meddling in American elections but that U.S. spy agencies were not ready to “make the call on attribution” for what was happening in 2016.

And, more importantly, in the fall, when the public IC attribution came only after McConnell refused to join a more aggressive statement because the intelligence did not yet support it (WaPo makes no mention of it, but DHS’s public reporting from late September still attributed the the threat to election infrastructure to “cybercriminals and criminal hackers”).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.

Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.

On Sept. 22, two California Democrats — Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam B. Schiff — did what they couldn’t get the White House to do. They issued a statement making clear that they had learned from intelligence briefings that Russia was directing a campaign to undermine the election, but they stopped short of saying to what end.

A week later, McConnell and other congressional leaders issued a cautious statement that encouraged state election officials to ensure their networks were “secure from attack.” The release made no mention of Russia and emphasized that the lawmakers “would oppose any effort by the federal government” to encroach on the states’ authorities.

When U.S. spy agencies reached unanimous agreement in late September that the interference was a Russian operation directed by Putin, Obama directed spy chiefs to prepare a public statement summarizing the intelligence in broad strokes.

I’m all in favor of beating up McConnell, but there is no reason to demand members of Congress precede the IC with formal attribution for something like this. So until October 7, McConnell had cover (if not justification) for refusing to back a stronger statement.

And while the report describes Brennan’s efforts to brief members of Congress (and the reported reluctance of Republicans to meet with him), it doesn’t answer what remains a critical and open question: whether Brennan’s briefing for Harry Reid was different — and more inflammatory — than his briefing for Republicans, and whether that was partly designed to get Reid to serve as a proxy attacker on Jim Comey and the FBI.

Brennan moved swiftly to schedule private briefings with congressional leaders. But getting appointments with certain Republicans proved difficult, officials said, and it was not until after Labor Day that Brennan had reached all members of the “Gang of Eight” — the majority and minority leaders of both houses and the chairmen and ranking Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence committees.

Nor does this account explain another thing: why Brennan serially briefed the Gang of Eight, when past experience is to brief them in groups, if not all together.

In short, while the WaPo provides new details on the parallel intelligence and political tracks, it reinforces its own narrative while remaining silent on some details that are critical to that narrative.

The compartments

The foregrounding of CIA in all this also raises questions about a new and important detail about (what I assume to be the subsequently publicly revealed, though this is not made clear) Task Force investigating this operation: it lives at CIA, not FBI.

Brennan convened a secret task force at CIA headquarters composed of several dozen analysts and officers from the CIA, the NSA and the FBI.

The unit functioned as a sealed compartment, its work hidden from the rest of the intelligence community. Those brought in signed new non-disclosure agreements to be granted access to intelligence from all three participating agencies.

They worked exclusively for two groups of “customers,” officials said. The first was Obama and fewer than 14 senior officials in government. The second was a team of operations specialists at the CIA, NSA and FBI who took direction from the task force on where to aim their subsequent efforts to collect more intelligence on Russia.

Much later in the story, WaPo reveals how, in the wake of Obama calling for a report, analysts started looking back at their collected intelligence and learning new details.

Obama’s decision to order a comprehensive report on Moscow’s interference from U.S. spy agencies had prompted analysts to go back through their agencies’ files, scouring for previously overlooked clues.

The effort led to a flurry of new, disturbing reports — many of them presented in the President’s Daily Brief — about Russia’s subversion of the 2016 race. The emerging picture enabled policymakers to begin seeing the Russian campaign in broader terms, as a comprehensive plot sweeping in its scope.

It’s worth asking: did the close hold of the original Task Force, a hold that appears to have been set by Brennan, contribute to the belated discovery of these details revealing a broader campaign?

The surveillance driven sanctions

I’m most interested in the description of how the Obama Admin chose whom to impose sanctions on, though it includes this bizarre claim.

But the package of measures approved by Obama, and the process by which they were selected and implemented, were more complex than initially understood.

The expulsions and compound seizures were originally devised as ways to retaliate against Moscow not for election interference but for an escalating campaign of harassment of American diplomats and intelligence operatives. U.S. officials often endured hostile treatment, but the episodes had become increasingly menacing and violent.

Several of the details WaPo presents as misunderstood (including that the sanctions were retaliation for treatment of diplomats) were either explicit in the sanction package or easily gleaned at the time.

One of those easily gleaned details is that the sanctions on GRU and FSB were mostly symbolic. WaPo uses the symbolic nature of the attack on those who perpetrated the attack as a way to air complaints that these sanctions were not as onerous as those in response to Ukraine.

“I don’t think any of us thought of sanctions as being a primary way of expressing our disapproval” for the election interference, said a senior administration official involved in the decision. “Going after their intelligence services was not about economic impact. It was symbolic.”

More than any other measure, that decision has become a source of regret to senior administration officials directly involved in the Russia debate. The outcome has left the impression that Obama saw Russia’s military meddling in Ukraine as more deserving of severe punishment than its subversion of a U.S. presidential race.

“What is the greater threat to our system of government?” said a former high-ranking administration official, noting that Obama and his advisers knew from projections formulated by the Treasury Department that the impact of the election-related economic sanctions would be “minimal.”

Three things that might play into the mostly symbolic targeting of FSB, especially, are not mentioned. First, WaPo makes no mention of the suspected intelligence sources who’ve been killed since the election, most credibly Oleg Erovinkin, as well as a slew of other suspect and less obviously connected deaths. It doesn’t mention the four men Russia charged with treason in early December. And it doesn’t mention DOJ’s indictment of the Yahoo hackers, including one of the FSB officers, Dmitry Dokuchaev, that Russia charged with treason (not to mention the inclusion within the indictment of intercepts between FSB officers). There’s a lot more spy vs. spy activity going on here that likely relates far more to retaliation or limits on US ability to retaliate, all of which may be more important in the medium term than financial sanctions.

Given the Yahoo and other indictments working through San Francisco (including that of Yevgeniey Nikulin, who claims FBI offered him a plea deal involving admitting he hacked the DNC), I’m particularly interested in the shift in sanctions from NY to San Francisco, where Nikulin and Dokuchaev’s victims are located.

The FBI was also responsible for generating the list of Russian operatives working under diplomatic cover to expel, drawn from a roster the bureau maintains of suspected Russian intelligence agents in the United States.

[snip]

The roster of expelled spies included several operatives who were suspected of playing a role in Russia’s election interference from within the United States, officials said. They declined to elaborate.

More broadly, the list of 35 names focused heavily on Russians known to have technical skills. Their names and bios were laid out on a dossier delivered to senior White House officials and Cabinet secretaries, although the list was modified at the last minute to reduce the number of expulsions from Russia’s U.N. mission in New York and add more names from its facilities in Washington and San Francisco.

And the WaPo’s reports confirm what was also obvious: the two compounds got shut down (and were a priority) because of all the spying they were doing.

The FBI had long lobbied to close two Russian compounds in the United States — one in Maryland and another in New York — on the grounds that both were used for espionage and placed an enormous surveillance burden on the bureau.

[snip]

Rice pointed to the FBI’s McCabe and said: “You guys have been begging to do this for years. Now is your chance.”

The administration gave Russia 24 hours to evacuate the sites, and FBI agents watched as fleets of trucks loaded with cargo passed through the compounds’ gates.

Finally, given Congress’ bipartisan fearmongering about Kaspersky Lab, I’m most interested that at one point Treasury wanted to include them in sanctions.

Treasury Department officials devised plans that would hit entire sectors of Russia’s economy. One preliminary suggestion called for targeting technology companies including Kaspersky Lab, the Moscow-based cybersecurity firm. But skeptics worried that the harm could spill into Europe and pointed out that U.S. companies used Kaspersky systems and software.

In spite of all the fearmongering, no one has presented proof that Kaspersky is working for Russia (there are even things, which I won’t go in to for the moment, that suggest the opposite). But we’re moving close to de facto sanctions against Kaspersky anyway, even in spite of the fact (or perhaps because) they’re providing better intelligence on WannaCry than half the witnesses called as witnesses to Congress. But discrediting Kaspersky undercuts one of the only security firms in the world who, in addition to commenting on Russian hacking, will unpack America’s own hacking. You sanction Kaspersky, and you expand the asymmetry with which security firms selectively scrutinize just Russian hacking, rather than all nation-state hacking.

The looming cyberattack and the silence about Shadow Brokers

Which brings me to the last section of the article, where, over 8000 words in, the WaPo issues a threat against Russia in the form of a looming cyberattack Obama approved before he left.

WaPo’s early description of this suggests the attack was and is still in planning stages and relies on Donald Trump to execute.

Obama also approved a previously undisclosed covert measure that authorized planting cyber weapons in Russia’s infrastructure, the digital equivalent of bombs that could be detonated if the United States found itself in an escalating exchange with Moscow. The project, which Obama approved in a covert-action finding, was still in its planning stages when Obama left office. It would be up to President Trump to decide whether to use the capability.

But if readers make it all the way through the very long article, they’ll learn that’s not the case. The finding has already been signed, the implants are already being placed (implants which would most likely be discovered by Kaspersky), and for Trump to stop it, he would have to countermand Obama’s finding.

The implants were developed by the NSA and designed so that they could be triggered remotely as part of retaliatory cyber-strike in the face of Russian aggression, whether an attack on a power grid or interference in a future presidential race.

Officials familiar with the measures said that there was concern among some in the administration that the damage caused by the implants could be difficult to contain.

As a result, the administration requested a legal review, which concluded that the devices could be controlled well enough that their deployment would be considered “proportional” in varying scenarios of Russian provocation, a requirement under international law.

The operation was described as long-term, taking months to position the implants and requiring maintenance thereafter. Under the rules of covert action, Obama’s signature was all that was necessary to set the operation in motion.

U.S. intelligence agencies do not need further approval from Trump, and officials said that he would have to issue a countermanding order to stop it. The officials said that they have seen no indication that Trump has done so.

Whatever else this article is designed to do, I think, it is designed to be a threat to Putin, from long gone Obama officials.

Given the discussion of a looming cyberattack on Russia, it’s all the more remarkable WaPo breathed not one word about Shadow Brokers, which is most likely to be a drawn out cyberattack by Russian affiliates on NSA. Even ignoring the Shadow Brokers’ derived global ransomware attack in WannaCry, Shadow Brokers has ratcheted up the severity of its releases, including doxing NSA’s spies and hacks of the global finance system, It has very explicitly fostered tensions between the NSA and private sector partners (as well as the reputational costs on those private sector partners). And it has threatened to leak still worse, including NSA exploits against current Microsoft products and details of NSA’s spying on hostile nuclear programs.

The WaPo is talking about a big cyberattack, but an entity that most likely has close ties to Russia has been conducting one, all in plain sight. I suggested back in December that Shadow Brokers was essentially holding NSA hostage in part as a way to constrain US intelligence retaliation against Russia. Given ensuing events, I’m more convinced that is, at least partly, true.

But in this grand narrative of CIA’s early warning and Obama’s inadequate response, details like that remain unsaid.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Who Would Have Told Trump to Go Back to Demand a Patronage Relationship with Comey?

Jim Comey made a comment in his testimony the other day I’ve not seen others mention. Mark Warner asked him to explain this comment on patronage from his written testimony.

The President began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI Director, which I found strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to. He said that lots of people wanted my job and, given the abuse I had taken during the previous year, he would understand if I wanted to walk away.

My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch.

I replied that I loved my work and intended to stay and serve out my ten-year term as Director. And then, because the set-up made me uneasy, I added that I was not “reliable” in the way politicians use that word, but he could always count on me to tell him the truth. I added that I was not on anybody’s side politically and could not be counted on in the traditional political sense, a stance I said was in his best interest as the President. A few moments later, the President said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”

When Warner asked Comey to explain this comment at Thursday’s hearing, Comey explained he thought that Trump was belatedly trying to get something from Comey in exchange for letting him stay on his job.

WARNER: Let me move to the January 27th dinner, where you said “The president began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI director.”

He also indicated that “lots of people” again your words, “Wanted the job.” You go on to say the dinner itself was “Seemingly an effort to” to quote have you ask him for your job and create some “patronage” relationship. The president seems from my reading of your memo to be holding your job or your possibility of continuing your job over your head in a fairly direct way. What was your impression, and what did you mean by this notion of a patronage relationship?

COMEY: Well, my impression, and again it’s my impression, I could always be wrong but my common sense told me what was going on is, either he had concluded or someone had told him that you didn’t, you’ve already asked Comey to stay, and you didn’t get anything for it. And that the dinner was an effort to build a relationship, in fact, he asked specifically, of loyalty in the context of asking me to stay. As I said, what was odd about that is we’d already talked twice about it by that point and he said I very much hope you’ll stay. In fact, I just remembered sitting a third, when you’ve seen the. IC tour of me walking across the blue room, and what the president whispered in my ear was “I really look forward to working with you.” So after those encounters —

WARNER: That was a few days before your firing.

COMEY: On the Sunday after the inauguration. The next Friday I have dinner and the president begins by wanting to talk about my job and so I’m sitting there thinking wait a minute three times we’ve already, you’ve already asked me to stay or talked about me staying. My common sense, again I could be wrong but my common sense told me what’s going on here is, he’s looking to get something in exchange for granting my request to stay in the job. [my emphasis]

Comey explained that — after already having been assured three times that he would remain in his position — Trump raised the issue anew in a private dinner. Comey didn’t say this, but this happened the day after Sally Yates first told White House Counsel Don McGahn that Mike Flynn had misrepresented his comments to Sergey Kislyak. And in that dinner, Trump implied that if Comey wanted to stay in the job he’d been offered three times already, he had to give Trump loyalty.

What I’m especially interested in is what Comey believed elicited this: Comey figured that “either [Trump] had concluded or someone [else] had told [Trump] that you didn’t, you’ve already asked Comey to stay, and you didn’t get anything for it” which is what led Trump to invite Trump for dinner.

Given the timing, it would be interesting all by itself if Trump had decided on his own to get some kind of commitment from Comey in order to keep his job, because it would make it far more likely that McGahn told Trump about Yates’ concerns.

But Comey testified that he thought that perhaps someone else went to Trump and suggested he should go back to Comey and try to demand loyalty to keep his job.

Who?

Does Comey think Mike Flynn did this? Don McGahn (which would be downright shocking)? Or did he think that one of the two people who lingered at the next weird meeting alone with Trump — Attorney General Sessions or Son-in-Law-in-Chief Jared Kushner — made the suggestion?

He didn’t say. But I find the suggestion that Comey believes someone may have — at the same time as DOJ was telling the White House that Mike Flynn was in trouble — encouraged Trump to go make demands from Comey.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Sessions Recusal: Election And/Or Russia?

Back when Jeff Sessions recused from the investigation into Trump, I noted that it was actually fairly narrow. He recused from election-related issues, but said nothing about Russia.

[T]he only thing he is recusing from is “existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.”

There are two areas of concern regarding Trump’s ties that would not definitively be included in this recusal: Trump’s long-term ties to mobbed up businessmen with ties to Russia (a matter not known to be under investigation but which could raise concerns about compromise of Trump going forward), and discussions about policy that may involve quid pro quos (such as the unproven allegation, made in the Trump dossier, that Carter Page might take 19% in Rosneft in exchange for ending sanctions against Russia), that didn’t involve a pay-off in terms of the hacking. There are further allegations of Trump involvement in the hacking (a weak one against Paul Manafort and a much stronger one against Michael Cohen, both in the dossier), but that’s in no way the only concern raised about Trump’s ties with Russians.

Which is why I was so interested that Jim Comey emphasized something else in his testimony (see this post on this topic) — issues pertaining to Russia. [my emphasis throughout]

We concluded it made little sense to report it to Attorney General Sessions, who we expected would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations. (He did so two weeks later.)

This came up in his hearing yesterday, as well. First Wyden asked why Sessions was involved in Comey’s firing if he got fired for continuing to investigate Mike Flynn’s ties to Russia.

WYDEN: Let me turn to the attorney general. In your statement, you said that you and the FBI leadership team decided not to discuss the president’s actions with Attorney General Sessions, even though he had not recused himself. What was it about the attorney general’s interactions with the Russians or his behavior with regard to the investigation that would have led the entire leadership of the FBI to make this decision?

COMEY: Our judgment, as I recall, is that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an opening setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic. So we were convinced — in fact, I think we’d already heard the career people were recommending that he recuse himself, that he was not going to be in contact with Russia-related matters much longer. That turned out to be the case.

WYDEN: How would you characterize Attorney General Sessions’s adherence to his recusal? In particular, with regard to his involvement in your firing, which the president has acknowledged was because of the Russian investigation.

COMEY: That’s a question I can’t answer. I think it is a reasonable question. If, as the president said, I was fired because of the Russia investigation, why was the attorney general involved in that chain? I don’t know.

Then Kamala Harris asked whether there had been any official guidance on recusal.

HARRIS: Thank you. As a former attorney general, I have a series of questions in connection with your connection with the attorney general while you were FBI director. What is your understanding of the parameters of Attorney General Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation?

COMEY: I think it’s described in a written release from DOJ which I don’t remember sitting here but the gist is he will be recused from all matters relating to Russia or the campaign. Or the activities of Russia and the ’16 election or something like that.

HARRIS: So, is your knowledge of the extent of the recusal based on the public statements he’s made?

COMEY: Correct.

HARRIS: Is there any kind of memorandum issued from the attorney general to the FBI outlining the parameters of his recusal?

COMEY: Not that I’m aware of.

In every comment, Comey emphasized the Russian aspect. Indeed, most of his comments only mention Russia; just one instance mentions the election.

Indeed, yesterday’s hearing made it clear that Comey believed Sessions should be recused from Russia-related issues because of unclassified issues that include his undisclosed two (now three) conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

After yesterday’s hearing, DOJ issued a statement (reproduced in its entirely below), and also released an email that appears to serve as the written guidance on Sessions’ recusal. Yesterday’s statement makes the limitation to election-related issues even more explicit.

Given Attorney General Sessions’ participation in President Trump’s campaign, it was for that reason, and that reason alone, the Attorney General made the decision on March 2, 2017 to recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.

So while the email directive does state Sessions’ recusal “extends to Department responses to Congressional and media inquiries related to any such investigations,” not a single thing from DOJ ever mentions the word Russia.

There are actually many important potential implications of this.

It may mean, for example, that Sessions feels he had every right to help Trump fire Comey for his aggressive investigation in Russian issues — even in spite of the fact that his own actions may be reviewed in the Russian investigation — because the Flynn investigation pertained to issues that happened after the election.

More alarmingly, it may mean that there will be a squabble about the scope of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, which has already started digging into matters of Russian corruption that go back years, because Rod Rosenstein overstepped the scope of his own authority based on the limits of Sessions’ recusal.

Jim Comey thinks that as soon as February 14, it was clear that Sessions had to recuse from Russian related issues. Instead (all the evidence suggests) he recused only from election related issues.

The difference in understanding here is troubling.

Update: A friend notes that Jeff Sessions basically relied on Rod Rosenstein’s letter in recommending Trump fire Comey.

[F]or the reasons expressed by the Deputy Attorney General in the attached memorandum, I have concluded that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI.

The friend suggested that because Comey’s actions implicated the election, that means Sessions intervened in matter pertaining to the election (albeit for Trump’s opponent).

I’m not so sure. The phrasing of Rosenstein’s letter here is critical. Democrats may be angry at Comey for reopening the investigation (and sending a sure-to-leak letter to a stable of GOP Committee Chairs) days before the election. So to Democrats, Comey’s handing of the Hillary investigation pertains to the election.

But Rosenstein frames the issue in terms of “usurp[ing] the Attorney General’s authority” and “supplant[ing] federal prosecutors and assum[ing] control of the Justice Department.” While Rosenstein cites Eric Holder and Donald Ayer describing how Comey’s actions violated long-standing policies pertaining to comments in advance of elections, the Deputy Attorney General himself pitches it as insubordination.

Update: On Twitter Charlie Savage suggested the scope of the recusal could be taken from the language of Comey’s confirmation of the investigation in a HPSCI hearing on March 20, arguing that on March 2, when Sessions recused, the investigation and its ties to campaign members who spoke to Russians had not yet been disclosed.

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

Except this statement says nothing about Jeff Sessions’ recusal, and in Thursday’s testimony, Comey said he was unaware of a memo aside from Sessions public statement. As noted above, the email that DOJ has now pointed to says nothing about Russia.

Plus, even if the recusal originally intended to include the secret Russia investigation, the statement written on Thursday, very clearly in response to Comey’s testimony and repeated claims that Sessions had to recuse from Russia-related issues, said the only reason Sessions recused was because of the campaign tie. And as I noted in my original post on the scope of Sessions’ recusal, he played games in his admission of conversations with Sergey Kislyak as to whether they pertained to Russia.

Update: In a March 6 letter to SJC claiming he didn’t need to correct his false testimony on conversations with Sergey Kislyak, Sessions said that his recusal should cover Russian contacts with the Trump transition and administration.

The March 3, 2017, letter also asked why I had not recused myself from “Russian contacts with the Trump transition team and administration.” I understand the scope of the recusal as described in the Department’s press release would include any such matters.

This would seem to conflict with Thursday’s statement.

______________________________________________________________________________

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

THURSDAY, JUNE 8, 2017

DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE ISSUES STATEMENT ON TESTIMONY OF FORMER FBI DIRECTOR JAMES COMEY

 

WASHINGTON – In response to testimony given today by former FBI Director James Comey, Department of Justice Spokesman Ian Prior issued the following statement:

  • Shortly after being sworn in, Attorney General Sessions began consulting with career Department of Justice ethics officials to determine whether he should recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.

Those discussions were centered upon 28 CFR 45.2, which provides that a Department of Justice attorney should not participate in investigations that may involve entities or individuals with whom the attorney has a political or personal relationship. That regulation goes on to define “political relationship” as:

“[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 ***”

Given Attorney General Sessions’ participation in President Trump’s campaign, it was for that reason, and that reason alone, the Attorney General made the decision on March 2, 2017 to recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.

  • In his testimony, Mr. Comey stated that he was “not *** aware of” “any kind of memorandum issued from the Attorney General or the Department of Justice to the FBI outlining the parameters of [the Attorney General’s] recusal.” However, on March 2, 2017, the Attorney General’s Chief of Staff sent the attached email specifically informing Mr. Comey and other relevant Department officials of the recusal and its parameters, and advising that each of them instruct their staff “not to brief the Attorney General *** about, or otherwise involve the Attorney General *** in, any such matters described.”
  • During his testimony, Mr. Comey confirmed that he did not inform the Attorney General of his concerns about the substance of any one-on-one conversation he had with the President. Mr. Comey said, following a morning threat briefing, that he wanted to ensure he and his FBI staff were following proper communications protocol with the White House. The Attorney General was not silent; he responded to this comment by saying that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful about following appropriate policies regarding contacts with the White House.
  • Despite previous inaccurate media reports, Mr. Comey did not say that he ever asked anyone at the Department of Justice for more resources related to this investigation.
  • In conclusion, it is important to note that after his initial meeting with career ethics officials regarding recusal (and including the period prior to his formal recusal on March 2, 2017), the Attorney General has not been briefed on or participated in any investigation within the scope of his recusal.

# # #

17-631

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

What a Difference a Day Makes to the Privileges of a King

As part of his testimony today, Jim Comey revealed he gave some or all of the nine memos he wrote documenting his interactions with President Trump to a friend, since confirmed to be Columbia Professor Dan Richman, who in turn shared one with the press.

COLLINS: Finally, did you show copies of your memos to anyone outside of the department of justice?

COMEY: Yes.

COLLINS: And to whom did you show copies?

COMEY: I asked — the president tweeted on Friday after I got fired that I better hope there’s not tapes. I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday night because it didn’t dawn on me originally, that there might be corroboration for our conversation. There might a tape. My judgement was, I need to get that out into the public square. I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself for a variety of reasons. I asked him to because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. I asked a close friend to do it.

COLLINS: Was that Mr. Wittes?

COMEY: No.

COLLINS: Who was it?

COMEY: A close friend who is a professor at Columbia law school.

The fact that Comey released the memo through Richman formed part of Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz’s pushback after the hearing.

Of course, the Office of the President is entitled to expect loyalty from those who are serving in an administration, and, from before this President took office to this day, it is overwhelmingly clear that there have been and continue to be those in government who are actively attempting to undermine this administration with selective and illegal leaks of classified information and privileged communications. Mr. Comey has now admitted that he is one of the leakers.

Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the President. The leaks of this privileged information began no later than March 2017 when friends of Mr. Comey have stated he disclosed to them the conversations he had with the President during their January 27, 2017 dinner and February 14, 2017 White House meeting. Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he leaked to his friends his purported memos of these privileged conversations, one of which he testified was classified. He also testified that immediately after he was terminated he authorized his friends to leak the contents of these memos to the press in order to “prompt the appointment of a special counsel.” Although Mr. Comey testified he only leaked the memos in response to a tweet, the public record reveals that the New York Times was quoting from these memos the day before the referenced tweet, which belies Mr. Comey’s excuse for this unauthorized disclosure of privileged information and appears to [sic] entirely retaliatory.

Kasowitz gets a lot wrong here. Comey said one memo was classified, but that’s the memo that memorialized the January 6 meeting, not the ones described here. And the NYT has already corrected the claim that the shared memos preceded the tweet.

And, as a number of people (including Steve Vladeck) have noted, even if this information were covered by executive privilege, even if that privilege weren’t waived with Trump’s tweet, it’s not a crime to leak privileged information.

Nevertheless, Kasowitz’ focus on purportedly privileged documents is all the more interesting given the pathetic conduct of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and NSA Director Mike Rogers at yesterday’s 702 hearing. After a great deal of obfuscation from both men about why they couldn’t answer questions about Trump’s request they intervene in the FBI’s Mike Flynn investigation, Angus King finally got Rogers to admit that he and Coats never got a conclusive answer about whether the White House was invoking privilege.

King: I think you testified, Admiral Rogers, that you did discuss today’s testimony with someone in the White House?

Rogers: I said I asked did the White House intend to invoke executive privilege with respect to interactions between myself and the President of the United States.

King: And what was the answer to that question?

Rogers: To be honest I didn’t get a definitive answer. Both myself and the DNI are still talking–

King: So then I’ll ask both of you the same question. Why are you not answering these questions? Is there an invocation by the President of the United States of executive privilege? Is there or not?

Rogers: Not that I’m aware of.

King: Then why are you not answering the question?

Rogers: Because I feel it is inappropriate, Senator.

King: What you feel isn’t relevant Admiral. What you feel isn’t the answer. The question is why are you not answering the questions. Is it an invocation of executive privilege? If there is, then let’s know about it, and if there isn’t answer the questions.

Rogers: I stand by the comments I’ve made. I’m not interested in repeating myself, Sir. And I don’t mean that in a contentious way.

King: Well I do mean it in a contentious way. I don’t understand why you’re not answering our questions. When you were confirmed before the Armed Services Committee you took an oath, do you solemnly swear to give the committee the truth, the full truth and nothing but the truth. You answered yes to that.

Rogers: I do. And I’ve also answered that those conversations were classified. It is not appropriate in an open forum to discuss those classified conversations.

King: What is classified about a conversation about whether or not you should intervene in the FBI investigation?

Rogers: Sir I stand by my previous comments.

King: Mr. Coats? Same series of questions. What’s the basis for your refusal to answer these questions today?

Coats: The basis is what I’ve previously explained, I do not believe it is appropriate for me to–

King: What’s the basis? I’m not satisfied with I do not believe it is appropriate or I do not feel I should answer. I want to understand a legal basis. You swore that oath to tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and today you are refusing to do so. What is the legal basis for your refusal to testify to this committee?

Coats: I’m not sure I have a legal basis.

In other words, these men admit they had no legal basis (they’re not classified, no matter what Rogers claimed) to dodge the Committee’s question. But nevertheless they’re invoking things like their feelings to avoid testifying.

Clearly, the White House is playing a game here, invoking loyalty rather than law to compel silence from its top officials.

Kasowitz’ claims are, on their face, bogus. But taken in conjunction with the dodges from Coats and Rogers, they’re all the more problematic.

 

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Comey and Friends Expected Jeff Sessions to Recuse by February 14

Here’s another detail from Jim Comey’s testimony that deserves more attention. On February 14, the day that President Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation into Mike Flynn, Comey and his aides expected Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the investigation.

We also concluded that, given that it was a one-on-one conversation, there was nothing available to corroborate my account. We concluded it made little sense to report it to Attorney General Sessions, who we expected would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations. (He did so two weeks later.) [my emphasis]

Obviously, Sessions should have recused in any case, since he was involved in the campaign. But Comey specifically framed this as “Russia-related investigations,” not Trump investigations generally. Comey doesn’t say why the top people at FBI believed he would recuse, but by this point, the FBI would have pulled all intercepts involving Sergey Kislyak, so would have discovered ones reflecting conversations with Sessions.

In any case, to have that belief, the FBI presumably had already talked to Sessions about his conflicts with the Russian investigation.

That’s consistent with something Sessions said in his recusal statement. He describes the recusal process as a several week series of meetings.

During the course of the last several weeks, I have met with the relevant senior career Department officials to discuss whether I should recuse myself from any matters arising from the campaigns for President of the United States.

Having concluded those meetings today, I have decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.

Yet it took two more weeks (actually, 16 days) for Sessions to recuse, which suggests he didn’t do it just for the election-related reasons, and didn’t do it when FBI first talked to him about it. He only did it once the leaks about his ties to Kislyak came out.

Given Trump’s reported continued rage at Sessions for recusing — so much so he’s considering firing him (do it!!!) — I find that very significant. It makes it more likely that Sessions and Trump spoke about a potential recusal in the interim weeks, and more likely that Trump thought he had a plan in place to kill any investigation that Sessions recusal killed.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Lurking Jared

I’m still working my way through the Jim Comey testimony. But I’m frankly shocked by this detail: In Comey’s description of the February 14 Oval Office meeting — after which Trump addressed Comey privately about Mike Flynn’s recent firing — he includes this paragraph.

The President signaled the end of the briefing by thanking the group and
telling them all that he wanted to speak to me alone. I stayed in my chair. As the
participants started to leave the Oval Office, the Attorney General lingered by my
chair, but the President thanked him and said he wanted to speak only with me.
The last person to leave was Jared Kushner, who also stood by my chair and
exchanged pleasantries with me. The President then excused him, saying he
wanted to speak with me.

That is, right before Trump started buttering Comey up about the Mike Flynn investigation, both Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner lurked around. Notably, Comey describes Kushner “exchang[ing] pleasantries” with Comey, perhaps trying to butter him up.

I’ve written before about the Comey-Kushner connection. Apparently I wasn’t the only one to note how creepy Kushner is.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Two Data Points on Jared Kushner

I wanted to pull out two data points in this profile of Jared Kushner, completed in the wake of the WaPo story that Kushner attempted to set up a back channel with Russia.

First, as other stories have, this one blames Kushner for encouraging Trump to fire Jim Comey.

But in recent weeks, the Trump-Kushner relationship, the most stable partnership in an often unstable West Wing, is showing unmistakable signs of strain.

That relationship had already begun to fray a bit after Mr. Trump’s dismissal of the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, which Mr. Kushner had strongly advocated, and because of his repeated attempts to oust Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, as well as the president’s overburdened communications team, especially Sean Spicer, the press secretary.

[snip]

Other times, he serves as a goad, as he did in urging Mr. Comey’s ouster and assuring Mr. Trump that it would be a political “win” that would neutralize protesting Democrats because they had called for Mr. Comey’s ouster over his handling of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, according to six West Wing aides.

I’ve pointed out before how the investigation into Mike Flynn might, with his cooperation, put Kushner at risk. But I’m interested in the new detail that Kushner assured his father that Democrats would love the firing of Comey because of Comey’s handling of the Hillary investigation.

I can see how a dummie might believe that. But I’m at least as interested in how pitching that theory for Comey’s firing implicated Rod Rosenstein, insofar as he wrote a letter providing the fig leaf Hillary-based justification for the firing, and thereby led to the naming of Robert Mueller. Rosenstein is still the Acting Attorney General for the Russia investigation now looking more closely at Kushner, and Kushner has effectively already compromised him.

Amid its larger narrative that Kushner and Trump actually haven’t been that close all that long, the NYT also reminds that Kushner got a lot of credit from his father-in-law for reviving the digital aspect of the campaign.

Mr. Kushner’s reported feeler to the Russians even as President Barack Obama remained in charge of American foreign policy was a trademark move by someone with a deep confidence in his abilities that critics say borders on conceit, people close to him said. And it echoes his history of sailing forth into unknown territory, including buying a newspaper at age 25 and developing a data-analytics program that he has said helped deliver the presidency to his father-in-law.

[snip]

Despite the perception that he is the one untouchable adviser in the president’s inner circle, Mr. Kushner was not especially close to his father-in-law before the 2016 campaign. The two bonded when Mr. Kushner helped to take over the campaign’s faltering digital operation and to sell a reluctant Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of Fox News’s parent company, on the viability of his father-in-law’s candidacy by showing him videos of Mr. Trump’s rally during a lunch at Fox headquarters in mid-2015.

There lots of reasons to look askance at Trump’s data program, even before you consider that it was so central in a year where Trump’s opponent got hacked. So I find it notable (which is where I’ll leave it, for now) that Kushner’s role in the digital side of the campaign was so central to his perceived closeness to Trump.

Ultimately, I keep noting that Kushner hasn’t really been part of the Trump family for that long — just eight years. While I certainly believe Trump looks on the father of his grandchildren as part of the family, I’m not sure how much real vetting they’ve done of him (and with this crowed, everyone is corrupt in any case).

It will be interesting to see, going forward, what bases for mutual loyalty — such as it exists between these two men — there are.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Even (Especially?) the FBI Is Susceptible to Fake News

The WaPo has an utterly dispiriting story providing more detail on a document first revealed in this big NYT story on Jim Comey. Here’s how the NYT described it:

During Russia’s hacking campaign against the United States, intelligence agencies could peer, at times, into Russian networks and see what had been taken. Early last year, F.B.I. agents received a batch of hacked documents, and one caught their attention.

The document, which has been described as both a memo and an email, was written by a Democratic operative who expressed confidence that Ms. Lynch would keep the Clinton investigation from going too far, according to several former officials familiar with the document.

Read one way, it was standard Washington political chatter. Read another way, it suggested that a political operative might have insight into Ms. Lynch’s thinking.

[snip]

The document complicated that calculation, according to officials. If Ms. Lynch announced that the case was closed, and Russia leaked the document, Mr. Comey believed it would raise doubts about the independence of the investigation.

But as the WaPo reveals, the document was not an email, but rather a Russian document purportedly reporting on email. And while in August the FBI deemed the document a hoax, it took five months — covering the all important July announcement ending the Hillary investigation — to get to that point.

The document, obtained by the FBI, was a piece of purported analysis by Russian intelligence, the people said. It referred to an email supposedly written by the then-chair of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), and sent to Leonard Benardo, an official with the Open Society Foundations, an organization founded by billionaire George Soros and dedicated to promoting democracy.

The Russian document did not contain a copy of the email, but it described some of the contents of the purported message.

[snip]

Comey had little choice, these people have said, because he feared that if Lynch announced no charges against Clinton, and then the secret document leaked, the legitimacy of the entire case would be questioned.

From the moment the bureau received the document from a source in early March 2016, its veracity was the subject of an internal debate at the FBI. Several people familiar with the matter said the bureau’s doubts about the document hardened in August when officials became more certain that there was nothing to substantiate the claims in the Russian document. FBI officials knew the bureau never had the underlying email with the explosive allegation, if it ever existed.

Yet senior officials at the bureau continued to rely on the document as part of their justification for how they handled the case before and after the election.

As the WaPo lays out, the FBI hadn’t even asked Loretta Lynch, much less the other participants in the alleged emails, about them before Comey used the document to justify his July statement on the investigation into Hillary’s emails. They simply relied on it, in spite of the way a Debbie Wasserman Schultz and George Soros screams of the worst kind of fevered misinformation that circulated last year. Or, at a minimum, they acted based on the assumption that they couldn’t combat evidently fake news were it to leak.

We talk a lot about dumb ordinary voters who can’t sort through PizzaGate and Seth Rich conspiracies on their own.

But even the FBI, with all the investigative tools you can imagine, was unable to sort through fake news. And that had a role in one of the most significant events in last year’s election.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

The Kushner-Comey Connection

The WaPo is reporting that the FBI probe into ties between Russia and Trump’s campaign is looking at a person still in the White House, in addition to Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort.

The law enforcement investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign has identified a current White House official as a significant person of interest, showing that the probe is reaching into the highest levels of government, according to people familiar with the matter.

Further down in the article, WaPo names some people that might be this other person of interest — but just one of them is actually in the White House.

Current administration officials who have acknowledged contacts with Russian officials include President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as well as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Still further down, the WaPo covers what first got me believing Jared Kushner is the ultimate target of this probe: his meeting with Sergey Gorkov, the FSB-trained head of the sanctioned Russian bank, Vnesheconombank.

The White House also has acknowledged that Kushner met with Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, in late November. Kushner also has acknowledged that he met with the head of a Russian development bank, Vnesheconombank, which has been under U.S. sanctions since July 2014. The president’s son-in-law initially omitted contacts with foreign leaders from a national security questionnaire, though his lawyer has said publicly he submitted the form prematurely and informed the FBI soon after that he would provide an update.

Vnesheconombank handles development for the state, and in early 2015, a man purporting to be one of its New York-based employees was arrested and accused of being an unregistered spy.

That man — Evgeny Buryakov — ultimately pleaded guilty and was eventually deported. He had been in contact with former Trump adviser Carter Page, though Page has said he shared only “basic immaterial information and publicly available research documents” with the Russian. Page was the subject of a secret warrant last year issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, based on suspicions he might have been acting as an agent of the Russian government, according to people familiar with the matter. Page has denied any wrongdoing, and accused the government of violating his civil rights.

As I’ve noted since, there was a lot of smoke coming from Kushner’s direction: first, SSCI’s explicit interest in interviewing Kusher and then two competing stories about a Trump request for CIA’s Sergey Kislyak dossier that only makes sense if the audience were Kushner, not Flynn.

But there are a few more dots (in addition to people claiming to have confirmed this point) that support the idea that Kushner is the ultimate target here, and that Trump, in his clumsy attempts to protect Mike Flynn by firing Jim Comey, is actually attempt to protect the father of his grandchildren.

Back on March 2, Jim Comey’s then still secret Twitter account favorited this NYT article disclosing that Mike Flynn had a previously undisclosed face-to-face meeting with Sergey Kislyak at Trump Tower. (h/t TC)

Michael T. Flynn, then Donald J. Trump’s incoming national security adviser, had a previously undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador in December to “establish a line of communication” between the new administration and the Russian government, the White House said on Thursday.

Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and now a senior adviser, also participated in the meeting at Trump Tower with Mr. Flynn and Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador. But among Mr. Trump’s inner circle, it is Mr. Flynn who appears to have been the main interlocutor with the Russian envoy — the two were in contact during the campaign and the transition, Mr. Kislyak and current and former American officials have said.

[snip]

They generally discussed the relationship and it made sense to establish a line of communication,” Ms. Hicks said. “Jared has had meetings with many other foreign countries and representatives — as many as two dozen other foreign countries’ leaders and representatives.”

The story was presented as White House confirmation of earlier New Yorker reporting that Kushner had the meeting, with the White House newly disclosing Flynn’s presence at it. But we now know that the representation that Kushner’s meeting with Kislyak was just one of a slew of meetings with foreign leaders wasn’t quite right. He had sent an aide to a subsequent meeting, and coming out of that meeting, he met with Gorkov, basically meeting with someone personally lobbying to get rid of Ukraine-related sanctions.

Later that month, though, Mr. Kislyak requested a second meeting, which Mr. Kushner asked a deputy to attend in his stead, officials said. At Mr. Kislyak’s request, Mr. Kushner later met with Sergey N. Gorkov, the chief of Vnesheconombank, which the United States placed on its sanctions list after President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia annexed Crimea and began meddling in Ukraine.

Of course, while we only learned that fact later, when Comey favorited that story on March 2, he would have known the full details of the follow-up communications. In other words, he would recognize that story as yet another case of the White House hiding Russian communications. He would also likely already know that Kushner had not included that meeting on his security clearance form.

We only learned that story on March 27, when the NYT revealed the Senate Intelligence Committee wanted to interview Kushner about the meeting. As I noted at the time, the discussion between Gorkov and Kushner, coming before Flynn’s December 29 discussions with Kislyak, would dramatically change the connotation of Flynn’s discussions of sanctions. Because, while the immediate context of the December 29 discussions would have been the new hacking related sanctions imposed on December 28, with the prior meeting with Gorkov, they would likely also include the Ukrainian ones. That was the payoff discussed in any quid pro quo related to the election: Putin would help elect Trump, and in exchange Trump would end economic sanctions.

Of course, to make the argument that Flynn was offering to give Russia the payoff for the election-related help, you’d have to get Flynn to cooperate. If you got Flynn to cooperate, he’d be able to tell the FBI whether or not those December 29 conversations pertained just to the hacking sanctions or also to the Ukrainian ones.

The FBI has a great many things they can and will use to get Flynn to cooperate, including his undisclosed foreign payments and his lies to the FBI in his January 24 interview.

[Large section based off erroneous reading of Wittes’ post removed.]

When Trump fired Comey, he claimed that Comey had thrice told him “he” wasn’t under investigation. Even assuming Comey did, consider how Trump would understand that and how normal people would. To us, “he” would include just Trump. But to someone like Trump whose only real loyalty is to family, “he” would include his family. Including Kushner.

Trump may well think Flynn is a nice man that deserves his loyalty. More likely, though, Trump knows that Flynn could sink his son-in-law. I believe that’s why Trump had to fire Comey in an effort to undercut the Flynn investigation.

And Rod Rosenstein, the survivor, just picked a partner from the firm of Kushner and Ivanka’s lawyer Jamie Gorelick, Robert Mueller, to take over the investigation into Flynn.

Update: Sure enough, Reuters is reporting that Mueller, by design, may not be able to investigate Kushner or Paul Manafort.

Within hours of Mueller’s appointment on Wednesday, the White House began reviewing the Code of Federal Regulations, which restricts newly hired government lawyers from investigating their prior law firm’s clients for one year after their hiring, the sources said.

An executive order signed by Trump in January extended that period to two years.

Mueller’s former law firm, WilmerHale, represents Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who met with a Russian bank executive in December, and the president’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who is a subject of a federal investigation.

Legal experts said the ethics rule can be waived by the Justice Department, which appointed Mueller. He did not represent Kushner or Manafort directly at his former law firm.

If the department did not grant a waiver, Mueller would be barred from investigating Kushner or Manafort, and this could greatly diminish the scope of the probe, experts said.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.