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A Tale of Two National Security Advisors

As you no doubt heard, in addition to suing John Bolton for breach of contract over his Trump book, the Trump Administration has also asked for a Temporary Restraining Order against Bolton, purportedly with the goal of getting him to do things that are no longer in his control. At one level, the legal actions seem designed to make Bolton’s book even more popular than it would otherwise be — while starving him of any royalties for the book. Judge Royce Lamberth, who has a history of pushing back against Executive abuse (including claims involving classification) has been assigned the case; he scheduled a hearing for tomorrow.

I agree with the bulk of the analysis that these legal efforts will fail, to the extent they’re really trying to prevent Bolton from releasing the book. I also agree with analysis about the uphill climb Bolton faces to avoid having his profits seized.

That said, I can’t help but notice the way the filings set Bolton up — possibly, even for prosecution (which LAT reports remains under consideration), but also for a remarkable comparison with Trump’s first National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn.

Legally, the filings do what they need to do to seize Bolton’s profits, and will probably succeed (meaning you can buy the book and your money will go to the US Treasury). But, as noted, they’re not written to actually win an injunction, most especially against Bolton’s publisher, Simon & Schuster.

The filings do something else, though. They tell how Bolton apparently shared drafts of his manuscript before it had been cleared, which in turn got shared with the press.

35. On January 26, 2020, the New York Times published an article describing information purportedly “included in drafts of a manuscript” that Defendant, apparently without any protections for classified national security information, had “circulated in recent weeks to close associates.” The article set forth information allegedly contained in “dozens of pages” of the manuscript. A true and correct copy of this article is attached hereto as Exhibit F.

36. On information and belief, the January 26, 2020 article led to a tremendous surge in publicity for the pre-sales of the book, including hundreds of news articles, discussion on major television networks, statements by members of Congress, and widespread circulation of the article’s content on social media.

37. On January 27, 2020, the Washington Post published a separate article describing content contained in The Room Where it Happened, relying on the statements of “two people familiar with the book,” indicating, on information and belief, that Defendant had disclosed a draft of the manuscript to others without receiving prior written authorization from the U.S. Government. A true and correct copy of this article is attached hereto as Exhibit G.

38. Thus, notwithstanding this admonition, in late January 2020, prominent news outlets reported that drafts of Defendant’s manuscript had been circulated to associates of Defendant. These articles included reports from individuals supposedly familiar with the book, which indicates, on information and belief, that Defendant had already violated his non-disclosure agreements while purporting to comply with the prepublication review process. See supra ¶¶ 27, 29; see also Exhs. E & F

They lay out evidence that Bolton specifically knew the dangers of disclosing classified information, most ironically with a citation of his complaints about Edward Snowden (who also had his profits seized).

Defendant knows well the threat posed by disclosing classified information that might benefit the Nation’s adversaries. See John Bolton, “Edward Snowden’s leaks are a grave threat to US national security,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jun/18/edwardsnowden-leaks-grave-threat (June 18, 2013). Congress does as well, as reflected in its decision to criminalize the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. §§ 641, 793, 794, 798, 952, 1924.

They provide multiple declarations — from Mike Ellis, the Trump hack who has politicized classified information in the past, from National Counterintelligence Director Bill Evanina claiming this is the kind of information our adversaries look for, from Director of NSA Paul Nakasone talking about the specific vulnerability of SIGINT, and from Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, whose name the TRO misspells and whose experience looks exceedingly thin compared to the others, along with classified declaration from Ellis. Even though the declarations were obviously carefully curated by Ellis, these are nevertheless the kinds of things courts usually bow to, when the government makes claims about classification. While neither we nor Bolton or his lawyer will get to review the actual claims being made, such declarations are usually sufficient to get the desired recourse.

Perhaps notably, the filings include a letter from John Eisenberg (whose shenanigans regarding the Ukraine call Bolton made more significant), written on June 11, at a time when the White House already knew Bolton was moving to publish, accusing Bolton of publishing this information for financial gain.

Fourth, your self-serving insinuations that the NSC review process has been directed at anything other than a good faith effort to protect national security information is offensive. Your client has taken classified information, including some that he himself classified, and sold it to the highest bidder in an attempt to make a personal profit from information that he held in trust as a public servant–and has done so without regard for the harm it would do to the national security of the United States.

Effectively, this package of filings does nothing to prevent the book from coming out. But it very carefully lays a record to meet the elements of an Espionage charge. Given this notice, the government would be in a position to point to the publication of the book (that Bolton couldn’t stop now if he wanted) and prove that Bolton had an obligation to keep these things secret, he knew the damage that not doing so could cause, and yet nevetheless published the information.

Whether they will prosecute or not is unclear. But these filings make it far easier to do so.

The White House is preparing to claim that John Bolton is akin to Edward Snowden, solely because he aired Trump’s dirt in a book.

This all comes at the same time as the government is making extraordinary efforts to prevent Mike Flynn from being punished for secretly working for a frenemy country while getting classified briefings, and calling up the country that just attacked us in 2016 and discussing how Russia and the Trump Administration had mutual interests in undermining Obama’s policies.

The same DOJ that is magnifying Bolton’s risk for an Espionage prosecution found nothing inappropriate in Flynn calling up the country that had just attacked the US and teaming with that hostile country against the current government of the United States.

Nor was anything said on the calls themselves to indicate an inappropriate relationship between Mr. Flynn and a foreign power. Indeed, Mr. Flynn’s request that Russia avoid “escalating” tensions in response to U.S. sanctions in an effort to mollify geopolitical tensions was consistent with him advocating for, not against, the interests of the United States. At bottom, the arms-length communications gave no indication that Mr. Flynn was being “directed and controlled by … the Russian federation,” much less in a manner that “threat[ened] … national security.” Ex. 1 at 2, Ex. 2 at 2.

Indeed, the Attorney General even claimed the call was “laudable,” even while lying that it didn’t conflict with Obama’s policies.

But it’s not just in the courts where DOJ is working hard to protect the guy who really did harm the US. In an effort to sow the propaganda case for Mike Flynn, the Trump Administration has been on a declassification spree, including — by Ratcliffe — the transcripts of some (but not all) of Flynn’s calls with Sergey Kislyak, something that has never been done before. Significantly, the claims that Nakasone and Ratcliffe make in their declarations in the Bolton case, especially with regards to disclosing SIGINT burns the collection going forward, were clearly violated when Ratcliffe declassified the transcripts.

To be honest, I won’t weep if Bolton is prosecuted. He would have had more legal protection had he testified during the impeachment inquiry, which would have done more good for the country. It would be an abuse, but such abuse has been directed against far more vulnerable and admirable people.

But the comparison of the claims Mike Ellis is making about Trump’s third National Security Advisor with the treatment given his first — the guy who actively sold out his country rather than did so with his inaction — only serves to emphasize how Trump subjects what traditionally gets called national security to loyalty.

The greatest “national security” sin a Trump Administration official can commit, this comparison shows, is disloyalty to Donald Trump.

“The Boss is Aware:” Trump Learned about Mike Flynn’s Conversations with Sergey Kislyak in Real Time

As I noted, John Ratcliffe has released the transcripts of at least some of the Flynn-Kislyak calls (Ric Grenell said that he didn’t have all transcripts, and there are certainly other transcripts, at least setting up the meeting at which Jared Kushner asked for a back channel). As I also noted, from the very beginning, Kislyak set up the calls with Flynn such that Russian and Trump were unified against the Democrats (though the common enemy referenced in the calls was ISIS).

But that’s not the most damning part of the transcripts.

As I have repeatedly noted, the Mueller Report is very coy about whether Mueller obtained evidence that Flynn spoke directly with Trump about his calls with Kislyak, going so far as to withhold details of the timeline of events on December 29 (Mueller cites Flynn’s call records, but we know from the Stone trial that he also got Trump’s call records, at least for the campaign period). According to the narrative Mueller laid out, the first time that Flynn claimed to remember discussing the conversation with Trump was on January 3, 2017.

On January 3, 2017, Flynn saw the President-Elect in person and thought they discussed the Russian reaction to the sanctions, but Flynn did not have a specific recollection of telling the President-Elect about the substance of his calls with Kislyak. 102

Flynn even claimed that he and Trump didn’t speak about the substance of the calls until February 6.

The week of February 6, Flynn had a one-on-one conversation with the President in the Oval Office about the negative media coverage of his contacts with Kislyak. I93 Flynn recalled that the President was upset and asked him for information on the conversations. 194 Flynn listed the specific dates on which he remembered speaking with Kislyak, but the President corrected one of the dates he listed. I95 The President asked Flynn what he and Kislyak discussed and Flynn responded that he might have talked about sanctions.I96

Flynn’s claimed uncertainty about whether he had discussed the sanctions call with Trump was a key part of Mueller’s analysis of whether Trump fired Jim Comey because Flynn had derogatory information on him.

As part of our investigation, we examined whether the President had a personal stake in the outcome of an investigation into Flynn-for example, whether the President was aware of Flynn’s communications with Kislyak close in time to when they occurred, such that the President knew that Flynn had lied to senior White House officials and that those lies had been passed on to the public. Some evidence suggests that the President knew about the existence and content of Flynn’s calls when they occurred, but the evidence is inconclusive and could not be relied upon to establish the President’s knowledge. In advance of Flynn’s initial call with Kislyak, the President attended a meeting where the sanctions were discussed and an advisor may have mentioned that Flynn was scheduled to talk to Kislyak. Flynn told McFarland about the substance of his calls with Kislyak and said they may have made a difference in Russia’s response, and Flynn recalled talking to Bannon in early January 2017 about how they had successfully “stopped the train on Russia’s response” to the sanctions. It would have been reasonable for Flynn to have wanted the President to know of his communications with Kislyak because Kislyak told Flynn his request had been received at the highest levels in Russia and that Russia had chosen not to retaliate in response to the request, and the President was pleased by the Russian response, calling it a ” [g]reat move.” And the President never said publicly or internally that Flynn had lied to him about the calls with Kislyak.

But McFarland did not recall providing the President-Elect with Flynn’s read-out of his calls with Kislyak, and Flynn does not have a specific recollection of telling the President-Elect directly about the calls. Bannon also said he did not recall hearing about the calls from Flynn. And in February 2017, the President asked Flynn what was discussed on the calls and whether he had lied to the Vice President, suggesting that he did not already know. Our investigation accordingly did not produce evidence that established that the President knew about Flynn’s discussions of sanctions before the Department of Justice notified the White House of those discussions in late January 2017.

But the transcript of Flynn’s December 31, 2016 call makes it clear that Mueller had proof that Flynn had talked with Trump about the Kislyak call, because Flynn told Kislyak that the “boss is aware” of the secure video conference that Kislyak wanted to set up immediately after Trump was inaugurated.

FLYNN: and, you know, we are not going to agree on everything, you know that, but, but I think that we have a lot of things in common. A lot. And we have to figure out how, how to achieve those things, you know and, and be smart about it and, uh, uh, keep the temperature down globally, as well as not just, you know, here, here in the United States and also over in, in Russia.

KISLYAK: yeah.

FLYNN: But globally l want to keep the temperature down and we can do this ifwe are smart about it.

KISLYAK: You’re absolutely right.

FLYNN: I haven’t gotten, I haven’t gotten a, uh, confirmation on the, on the, uh, secure VTC yet, but the, but the boss is aware and so please convey that. [my emphasis]

Flynn might claim that he only told Trump about the video conference and not sanctions (which wouldn’t be remotely credible, given that Flynn was the one who raised the sanctions, not Kislyak). He might claim that any conveyance of the details of the call went to Trump second-hand, perhaps through KT McFarland.

But whatever excuse Flynn would offer (remember, he has been asking for these transcripts since August, so it’s unclear how much of their content John Eisenberg, Reince Priebus, and Mike Pence shared with him in real time), his assurances to Kislyak, offered on December 31, that Trump knew of the request Kislyak had made on the December 29 call makes it quite clear that Flynn knew Trump had learned of the substance of the call via some means within 48 hours of that call.

And then told Mueller he had no idea whether he had shared that information.

As Richard Burr Rushes to Release Volume Five of SSCI’s Russian Investigation, the FBI Closes In

Update: As I was posting this, reports that Burr is stepping down as Chair of SSCI came out.

The LAT has a big scoop revealing that the FBI seized Richard Burr’s cell phone yesterday, having gotten a probable cause warrant incorporating information they obtained via a search of his iCloud.

Federal agents seized a cellphone belonging to a prominent Republican senator on Wednesday night as part of the Justice Department’s investigation into controversial stock trades he made as the novel coronavirus first struck the U.S., a law enforcement official said.

[snip]

Such a warrant being served on a sitting U.S. senator would require approval from the highest ranks of the Justice Department and is a step that would not be taken lightly. Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment.

A second law enforcement official said FBI agents served a warrant in recent days on Apple to obtain information from Burr’s iCloud account and said agents used data obtained from the California-based company as part of the evidence used to obtain the warrant for the senator’s phone.

[snip]

The same day Burr sold his stocks, Burr’s brother-in-law, Gerald Fauth, sold between $97,000 and $280,000 worth of six stocks, according to documents filed with the Office of Government Ethics. Fauth serves on the National Mediation Board, which provides mediation for labor disputes in the aviation and rail industries.

Burr has denied coordinating trading with his brother-in-law.

Given the progression from an iCloud warrant to the warrant for the cell phone, it’s likely the FBI is seeking out texts between Burr and his brother-in-law around the time of the stock sales. (The FBI often access iCloud to find out what apps someone has accessed, obtains a pen register to identify communications of interest using that app, then seizes the phone to get those encrypted communications.)

The public evidence again Burr is quite damning, so there’s no question that this is a properly predicated investigation.

Still, coming from a DOJ that has gone to great lengths to protect other looting (and has not taken similar public steps against Kelly Loeffler), the move does raise questions.

Particularly given the focus that Richard Burr gave, during the John Ratcliffe confirmation hearing, to getting the final volume of the SSCI Report on 2016 declassified and released by August.

Richard Burr: Congressman, over the course of the last three years this committee has issued four reports about Russia’s meddling in our elections covering Russia’s intrusions into state election systems, their use of social media to attempt to influence the election, and. most recently confirming the findings of the 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment. While being mindful of the fact that we’re, um, in an unclassified setting, what are your views on Russia’s meddling in our elections?

John Ratcliffe: Chairman, my views are that Russia meddled or interfered with Active Measures in 2016, they interfered in 2018, they will attempt to do so in 2018 [sic]. They have a goal of sowing discord, and they have been successful in sowing discord. Fortunately, based on the work–the good work of this committee, we know that they may have been successful in that regard but they have not been successful in changing votes or the outcome of any election. The Intelligence Community, as you know, plays a vital role on insuring we have safe, secure, and credible elections and that every vote cast by every American is done so properly and counted properly.

Burr: Will you commit to bringing information about threats to the election infrastructure and about foreign governments’ efforts to influence to Congress so we’re fully and currently informed?

Ratcliffe: I will.

Burr; Will you commit to testify at this committee’s annual worldwide threats hearing?

Ratcliffe: I will.

Burr: And last question, over the last three years we have issued four reports. Number five is finished. Number five will go for declassification. Do we have your commitment as DNI that you would expeditiously go through the declassification process?

Ratcliffe: You do.

Burr: Senator Warner.

Mark Warner: Thank you Mr. Chairman. You actually took some of my questions.

Burr: My eyesight is good.

Warner: Mr. Ratcliffe, good to see you again and I appreciated our time, um, um, last Friday. I want to follow-up on a couple of the Chairman’s questions first. As we discussed, we’re … Volume Five, and so far our first four volumes have all been unanimous. Or maybe with the exception of one dissenting vote. If we get this document to the ODNI we need your commitment not only that we do it expeditiously, but as much as possible to get that Volume Five reviewed, redacted, and released, ideally before the August, the August recess. Now, I know you’ve not seen the report yet. All I would ask is, aspirationally that you commit to that goal, because I think as we discussed, to have a document that could be [big pause] potentially significant come out in the midst of a presidential campaign isn’t good or fair on either side. So if I could clarify a bit, recognizing that you’ve not seen the document is a thousand pages, that you’d try to get this cleared prior to August.

Ratcliffe: Vice Chairman, I would again, commit that I would work with you to get that as expeditiously as possible.

During the 2018 election, Burr had — at a time when the committee assuredly did not have the ability to rule it out — twice said there was no evidence of “collusion.” Burr has made no such claims recently.

Even just the Roger Stone disclosures from his trial make it clear “collusion” happened, and that’s ignoring the ongoing Foreign Agent investigation involving Stone. And the Intelligence Committees have been briefed on the existence of — and possibly some details about — either that or other ongoing investigations.

If Richard Burr is prepping to reverse his prior public comments about “collusion,” it might explain why the Bill Barr DOJ, which has stopped hiding that it is an instrument used to enforce political loyalty to Trump, would more aggressively investigate Burr than others.

Again, there’s no question that this is a properly predicated investigation. But in the Barr DOJ, properly predicated investigations about political allies of Trump all get quashed. This one has, instead, been aggressively and overtly pursued.

After Years of Squealing about “FISA Abuse,” Trump’s DNI Nominee Won’t Rule Out Warrantless Wiretapping

As I noted earlier, in his confirmation hearing to be Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe made it crystal clear he will lie to protect Trump by stating that he believed Trump has always accurately conveyed the threat of COVID-19.

Ratcliffe made some other alarming comments. For example:

  • He repeatedly said that Russia had not changed any votes in 2016. The Intelligence Community did not review that issue and Ratcliffe has no basis to make that claim.
  • Ratcliffe also repeatedly refused to back SSCI’s unanimous conclusion that Russia intervened to help Trump.
  • He dodged when Warner asked him to promise to brief the committee even if Russia were trying to help Trump.
  • When asked whether he supported Inspectors General, Ratcliffe said that he supported Michael Horowitz when others attacked him but then suggested he disagreed with Horowitz’ “opinion,” making it clear he does not accept Horowitz’ conclusions that he found no evidence that bias affected the investigation into Trump’s flunkies.
  • Ratcliffe claimed he didn’t have enough information to address Michael Atkinson’s firing.
  • When Dianne Feinstein read his quotes about the Ukraine whistleblower to him, Ratcliffe pretended those quotes were about something they weren’t.
  • He might not provide intelligence on COVID-19 that showed how Trump blew it off.
  • He suggested that if only the IC had reviewed open source data, they might have warned of the dangers of COVID-19, which they did warn of using both OSINT and classified intelligence.
  • He refused to answer whether he thought there was a Deep State in the IC, and later suggested a few members of the IC were Deep State.
  • Ratcliffe refused to agree to release a report showing that Mohammed bin Salman had Jamal Khashoggi executed and chopped into bits, as required by last year’s Defense Authorization. He suggested that it might have been properly classified; as DNI, he would be the Original Classification Authority to make that decision.
  • He refused to answer clearly on whether Trump’s policies on North Korea and Iran have worked.
  • He later suggested he might not share intelligence if it were too sensitive, again ignoring that as OCA he gets to decide whether it’s really classified.
  • After saying he would appear for a Global Threats hearing, he then dodged when later asked whether he would appear before the committee generally.

Ratcliffe made several comments to make it clear he would side with expansive Unitary Executive interpretations holding that:

  • There are limits to whistleblower protection.
  • If torture were deemed legal it would okay to do it.
  • The executive can use warrantless wiretapping.

There were a few additional hints about stuff going on right now:

  • Mark Warner said that intelligence professionals have been pressured to limit information they share with Congress.
  • Warner also said that Ric Grenell was undermining the IC’s election security group.
  • Both Warner and Richard Burr seemed concerned that the DNI would not declassify their 1000-page Volume V of their Report on Russia’s 2016 election interference (I’m not sure whether this assess the Steele dossier or lays out whether and how Trump “colluded” during 2016).
  • Martin Heinrich made it clear that Grenell is reorganizing the IC, without any consultation or approval from Congress.

It’s not just unqualified, he’s a sycophant. But it seems like there’s so much that Grenell is already screwing up, Republicans on the committee, at least, prefer Ratcliffe.

Update: Here are Ratcliffe’s Questions for the Record. They’re particularly troubling on sharing with Congress.

He twice refused to say that he wouldn’t impose loyalty tests.

QUESTION 39: Personnel decisions can affect analytic integrity and objectivity. A. Would you consider an individual’s personal political preferences, to include “loyalty” to the President, in making a decision to hire, fire, or promote an individual?

Answer: Personnel decisions should be based on qualifications, skills, merit, and other standards which demonstrate the ability, dedication and integrity required to support the central IC mission of providing unvarnished intelligence to policymakers.

B. Do you commit to exclusively consider professional qualifications in IC personnel decisions, without consideration of partisan or political factors?

Answer: Personnel decisions should be based on qualifications, skills, merit, and other standards that demonstrate the ability, dedication and integrity required to support the central IC mission of providing unvarnished intelligence to policymakers.

He refused to promise to keep the Election Threats Executive Office open.

QUESTION 45: Would you commit to keep the Election Threats Executive Office in place to ensure continuity of efforts, and build on the successes of the 2018 midterms?

Answer: If confirmed, I will work with IC leaders and ODNI officials to ensure the IC is well-positioned to address the election security threats facing our Nation.

He refused to promise to notify Congress if Russia starts helping Trump again.

QUESTION 53: Do you commit to immediately notifying policymakers and the public of Russian attempts to meddle in U.S. democratic processes, to include our elections?

Answer: If confirmed, I would work with the Committee to accommodate its legitimate oversight needs while safeguarding the confidentiality interests of the Executive Branch, including the protection from unauthorized disclosure of classified intelligence sources and methods

He suggested he had no problem with Section 215 being used to access someone’s browsing records.

QUESTION 7: Do you believe that Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act should be used to collect Americans’ web browsing and internet search history? If yes, do you believe there are or should be any limitations to “digital tracking” of Americans without a warrant, in terms of length of time, the amount of information collected, or the nature of the information collected (e.g., whether particular kinds of websites raise special privacy concerns)?

Answer: I believe it is important for the Intelligence Community to use its authorities appropriately against valid intelligence targets. The amendments to Title V of FISA made by Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act expired on March 15, 2020 and, to date, have not been reauthorized.

Ratcliffe dodged several questions about whether FISA was exclusive means to collect

Extra-Statutory Collection

QUESTION 9: Title 50, section 1812 provides for exclusive means by which electronic surveillance and interception of certain communications may be conducted. Do you agree that this provision of law is binding on the President?

Answer: If confirmed, I would work with the Attorney General to ensure that IC activities are carried out in accordance with the Constitution and applicable federal law.

QUESTION 10: Do you believe that the intelligence surveillance and collection activities covered by FISA can be conducted outside the FISA framework? If yes, please specify which intelligence surveillance and collection activities, the limits (if any) on extra-statutory collection activities, and the legal authorities you believe would authorize those activities.

Answer: If confirmed, I would work with the Attorney General and the heads of IC elements, as well as the General Counsels throughout the IC, to ensure that intelligence activities are conducted in accordance with the Constitution and applicable federal law. As set forth in Section 112 of FISA, with limited exceptions, FISA constitutes the exclusive statutory means by which electronic surveillance, as defined in FISA, and the interception of domestic wire, oral, or electric communications for foreign intelligence purposes may be conducted.

QUESTION 11: What would you do if the IC was requested or directed to conduct such collection activities outside the FISA framework? Would you notify the full congressional intelligence activities?

Answer: Consistent with the requirements of the National Security Act, I would keep the congressional intelligence committees informed of the intelligence activities of the United States, including any illegal intelligence activities. As you know, not all intelligence activities are governed by FISA.

If confirmed, I would work with the Attorney General and the heads of IC elements, as well as the General Counsels throughout the IC, to ensure that intelligence activities are conducted in accordance with the Constitution and applicable federal law.

Senator Wyden asked a question about the IC purchasing stuff they otherwise would need a warrant for.

QUESTION 12: Do you believe the IC can purchase information related to U.S. persons if the compelled production of that information would be covered by FISA? If yes, what rules and guidelines would apply to the type and quantity of the information purchased and to the use, retention and dissemination of that information? Should the congressional intelligence committees be briefed on any such collection activities?

Answer: Elements of the IC are authorized to collect, retain, or disseminate information concerning U.S. persons only in accordance with procedures approved by the Attorney General. As you know, not all intelligence activities are governed by FISA, and it is my understanding that in appropriate circumstances elements of the IC may lawfully purchase information from the private sector in furtherance of their authorized missions. Nonetheless, any intelligence activity not governed by FISA would be regulated by the Attorney General-approved procedures that govern the intelligence activities of that IC element. Consistent with the requirements of the National Security Act, if confirmed, I would keep the congressional intelligence committees informed of the intelligence activities of the United States.

 

John Ratcliffe Demonstrates How He’ll Politicize Intelligence by Claiming Trump Has Been Honest about COVID-19

John Ratcliffe just had his confirmation hearing to be Director of National Intelligence.

I’ll have more to say about what we learned about the Intelligence Committee after I walk June Bug the Terrorist FosteX Dog. But the main takeaway from the hearing is entirely encapsulated in this exchange (my transcription):

Kamala Harris: Do you believe President Trump has accurately conveyed the threat of COVID-19 to the American people?

Ratcliffe: Are you saying, presently?

Harris: We are in the midst of the pandemic, presently correct.

Ratcliffe: Can you repeat the question? I guess I’m misunderstanding the question. I’m sorry. Has he accurately represented the status of the pandemic?

Harris: Conveyed the severity of the pandemic, yes, Has he accurately conveyed the severity of COVID-19 to the American people.

Ratcliffe: I believe so.

Harris asked a question which has just one true answer. The only objective answer to this question is that no, Trump has not accurately conveyed the seriousness of COVID-19.

Ratcliffe answered yes.

Ratcliffe was asked over and over again whether he’ll politicize intelligence and each time he dutifully delivered his rehearsed answer, no, he won’t. Both Politico and NBC reported those rehearsed answers as the “news” of the hearing. Neither mentioned the Harris exchange, where Ratcliffe answered far more clearly than in any yes or no questions that he will, in fact, lie to the American people to serve Trump (and there were other instances where he made it clear he will politicize intelligence, just not so clear cut).

It is a matter of life or death during a pandemic to separate false information from truth. Everyone should be doing that, and such truthful reporting is supposed to be the job of journalists. For political accountability on the pandemic to happen, it must be clear that Trump appointed a sycophant as Director of National Intelligence, someone who is unwilling to tell the truth about it. It must be clearly reported that Ratcliffe lied in this hearing about a clear factual issue. Hiding that fact by treating Ratcliffe’s false assurances as truthful contributes to the danger of the pandemic.

Ratcliffe will be confirmed DNI. He might even get some Democratic votes, from people who view him as a less awful alternative than the Twitter troll turned German Ambassador turned part time DNI he would replace. But it matters that it be accurately reported that it was clear going into it that Ratcliffe would lie to and for Trump.

A Diverse America Votes to Uphold the Constitution; A Largely Male White America Votes to Abrogate It

The House Judiciary Committee just voted to send two articles of impeachment against Donald Trump to the full House.

The entire vote took just minutes. But it said so much about the state of America today.

It will forever be portrayed as a party line vote, with 23 Democrats in favor, and 17 Republicans against. But it was also a tribute to the degree to which polarization in America today pivots on issues of diversity.

The Democrats who voted in favor included 11 women, and 13 Latinx and people of color (Ted Lieu missed the vote recovering from a heart procedure). Three (plus Lieu) are immigrants. One is gay. These Democrats voted to uphold the Constitution a bunch of white men, several of them owners of African-American slaves, wrote hundreds of years ago.

The Republicans who voted against were all white. Just two were women.  These Republicans voted to permit a racist white male President to cheat to get reelected in violation of the rule of law.

This is about a clash between the rising America and the past. And it’s unclear who will win this battle for America. But the stakes are clear.

 

John Ratcliffe and Accountability for a President Who Lives in a Fox News Bubble

Garrett Graff argues that, even given the list of indicted or otherwise disgraced former Trump officials, John Ratcliffe may be Trump’s most alarming personnel decision. I don’t disagree that the Ratcliffe decision is dangerous. But Graff’s argument made me realize something else about the pick. Ratcliffe is dangerous because he may render the entire intelligence apparatus useless, but useless for a purpose it is not currently supposed to serve.

Graff describes, accurately, what the purported function of the Intelligence Community is: to provide the President with the best possible information that he will use — the assumption goes — to make the best possible decisions for our country.

The biggest danger Ratcliffe poses is to the integrity of the job of director of national intelligence in the first place; the core principle of the intelligence professional is to speak truth to power.

The US spends $60 billion a year on the nation’s intelligence apparatus, a workforce of tens of thousands ranging from CIA officers and FBI agents to NSA cryptologists and hackers, NGA analysts, interpretation experts at the NRO, financial wizards at the Treasury Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, and much more.

All of that money and all of those workers share a simple uniting goal: To ensure that the president of the United States is, in every conversation and decision, the most informed, knowledgeable, best-prepared person in the room. They enable the president and his advisors to anticipate problems and opportunities; understand the mind, decision-making, and internal pressures of foreign leaders far and wide; know from satellites overhead, cables underground, and agents in the field what’s happening the world over—and why.

It’s odd, when you think about it, that you can have this enormous bureaucracy and the sole justification for it all, in statute, is to make the President smart. That’s not even practically how it works anymore — so many people in and outside that bureaucracy make decisions based off their work, and Congress increasingly relies on it too, that that justification seems rather odd when laid out like that. But that is what the legal justification remains.

Having laid out that accurate justification, Graff argues, correctly, that Ratcliffe’s record as a toady for Trump means he won’t speak truth to power as Dan Coats has at key times.

With a president so divorced from daily reality as Trump, it’s all the more important to fill the role of DNI with someone whose first duty is to puncture the Fox News fever swamp bubble that surrounds the White House, and provide real facts, grounded analysis, and ensure—to whatever extent possible—that the information that flows into the Oval Office and the decisions that flow out of it are informed and strategic.’

This is, technically, the problem, at least if you buy all the arguments about the function of the IC. If Ratcliffe shades the intelligence and tells Trump what he wants to hear, rather than what the IC believes to be true, then Trump’s decisions won’t be as rigorous.

Except if all that’s true — if the most important role of the DNI is to accurately convey the true intelligence the IC has created — then it doesn’t much matter who Trump appoints. That’s because it doesn’t matter whether Trump hears the truth or not, he doesn’t use intelligence anyway. He’s going to do what his gut and Fox News tells him to do, regardless of whether it flies in the face of reality. Hell, much of the GOP will go along these days, including our Fox saturated Attorney General, who has in less obvious but no less dangerous ways lost his grip of a reality independent of the Fox bubble.

What Graff seems to suggest is that Coats currently serves as a signal to the rest of us, a siren letting us know what reality is and when the President is defying it with his policy choices. When Coats tells us North Korea will continue to pursue its nuclear program in spite of all the photo ops the President stages, it’s providing us a tool to say he’s wrong, but it’s doing little (outside of Congress) to force the President to adopt a policy on North Korea based on what Kim Jong Un will actually do.

Of course, Ratcliffe is a problem for a bunch of other reasons. It’s not just that he will brief the President with false claims the President wants to be true, but he will order up the entire bureaucracy to replicate the false claims the President wants to be true, in defiance of known facts. He will fire competent people and replace them with people willing to serve up the false claims the President wants to be true; indeed, both he and Trump have already said that’s what he wants to do. He will also probably sanction the misuse of intelligence (he has already called for investigations into Jim Comey and others that have already happened, with unknown conclusions, which suggests he wants the outcome of those investigations to be different than what they are).

Those are all dangerous things. But that they present the real threat to the Ratcliffe appointment, they signal that the IC doesn’t actually serve the purpose laid out in statute anymore and that — especially in the wake of the Iraq War debacle (in the wake of which the DNI position was created, as a way to avoid similar catastrophes in the future) — the public has grown to expect the IC to serve as a measure of whether the President has spun free of reality (Obama did this most notably on Syria and Afghanistan).

There’s a hope, I think, that the IC can save us all from being forced to live in Trump and Ratcliffe and Bill Barr’s Fox News bubble, or at the very least, bringing Trump back from the bubble into reality.

If that’s really what purpose we expect it to serve, we need a dramatically different IC than we currently have.

John Ratcliffe’s Lies about His Time at DOJ Raise New Questions about His Claim to Have Used Warrantless Searches

Both NBC and ABC have stories laying out how two key claims about his work at DOJ that John Ratcliffe has used to get elected three times are lies. Less important for this post, when Ratcliffe repeatedly took credit for “arresting over 300 illegal [sic] aliens in a single day,” he was actually taking credit for a poultry worker bust that was led by ICE and involved four other US Attorneys offices and a slew of other investigative agencies.

This is an ICE-led investigation with support from the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices in the Eastern District of Texas, the Eastern District of Arkansas, the Eastern District of Tennessee, the Middle District of Florida, and the Northern District of West Virginia. Also aiding in the investigation are the DOL-OIG; the Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General; the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General; U.S. Customs and Border Protection; the U.S. Postal Service; the U.S. Marshals Service; the West Virginia State Police; and numerous other state and local agencies.

More interesting, however, is Ratcliffe’s claim that, “There are individuals that currently sit in prison because I prosecuted them for funneling money to terrorist groups.” As both NBC and ABC note, there’s not a shred of evidence that Ratcliffe ever prosecuted a terrorism case. His own campaign press release botches the timing and titles of this, seemingly conflating his time as (an unconfirmed) US Attorney with his role as chief of the anti-terrorism section for the US Attorney office he’d eventually run.

In 2008, Ratcliffe served by special appointment as the prosecutor in U.S. v. Holy Land Foundation, one of the nation’s largest terrorism financing cases.  During his tenure as the Chief of the Anti-Terrorism and National Security Section for the Eastern District of Texas he personally managed dozens of international and domestic terrorism investigations.

The statement his office gave ABC, which explains that the reference pertained to his appointment as Special Counsel investigating why the Holy Land Foundation case resulted in a mistrial, conflates those two roles even worse.

Ratcliffe’s office clarified that his status regarding the case was instead related to investigating issues surrounding what led to the mistrial in the first case.

“Because the investigation did not result in any charges, it would not be in accordance with Department of Justice policies to make further details public,” Rachel Stephens, a spokesperson for Ratcliffe, said. “However, Department of Justice records will confirm that as both Chief of Anti-Terrorism and National Security for the Eastern District of Texas from 2004-2008, John Ratcliffe opened, managed and supervised numerous domestic and international terrorism related cases.”

The timing here is critical, for reasons I’ll get into in a second. Ratcliffe was appointed Acting US Attorney sometime between May 20 and June 20, 2007; prior to that, he had been the First AUSA and the chief of the anti-terrorism and national security division in a division that didn’t see many national security cases (though in his campaigns, Ratcliffe would take credit for a big meth bust he mostly oversaw the sentencing of).

The mistrial of the first Holy Land Foundation trial was on October 23, 2007.

Ratcliffe was appointed US Attorney by Michael Mukasey sometime after he was confirmed as Attorney General on November 8, 2007.

Ratcliffe’s tenure as US Attorney ended after his replacement was confirmed on April 29, 2008. It’s unclear whether he stayed on after that; he joined a law firm leveraging John Ashcroft’s name the next April.

I’m interested in those dates because, in a 2015 debate over whether to prohibit back door searches of data collected using Section 702 of FISA, Ratcliffe claimed he had used warrantless searches as a terrorism prosecutor.

In full disclosure to everyone, I am a former terrorism prosecutor that has used warrantless searches, and frankly have benefitted from them in a number of international and domestic terrorism cases.

The implication was that he had done back door searches, but (as I noted at the time) he could only have done back door searches of Section 702 content if he stuck around after being replaced as US Attorney, because the FISA Amendments Act did not become law until July 10, 2008, after he was replaced as US Attorney. It’s true that Protect America Act was in place during part of the time he was US Attorney and during the time he would have been investigating the Holy Land Foundation case, but that remained in flux until February 2008 and DOJ was claiming, in the Yahoo challenge, not to permit back door searches.

If, as Ratcliffe suggests, his big terrorism “prosecution” was on the Holy Land case, it suggests he was using data from Protect America Act. Any back door searches in conjunction with that would be particularly controversial given that a bunch of Muslim groups were improperly named in a list of unindicted co-conspirators in a filing in the case, and some of them (such as CAIR’s Executive Director Nihad Awad) was under FISA surveillance through that period. In other words, if he used back door searches in the wake of the Holy Land mistrial, there’s a good chance he was engaged in what Carter Page insists in FISA abuse. This was also a period when there were a slew of violations with the Section 215 phone dragnet, which was almost certainly used to map out all of CAIR during the period.

One possible alternative is still worse. Ratcliffe started his anti-terrorism position in 2004. At the time, the George Bush warrantless wiretap program Stellar Wind — on which the back door searches of FAA were modeled — remained active (though in somewhat constrained form in the wake of the hospital confrontation). If Ratcliffe did back door searches on Stellar Wind data, he was part of Bush’s illegal surveillance program, and not just involved in “FISA abuse” but in crimes under FISA.

Given the number of lies he has already been caught in, and given his obvious confusion in any number of public hearings since, it’s quite possible he was just pretending to be an expert on a national security issue to fluff up his credibility. Perhaps he didn’t really understand the subject of the debate, and mistook normal criminal process for FISA surveillance.

That said, there’s frankly no good answer for this claim: the least damning explanation is confusion or puffery, the most damning is that he was involved in criminal surveillance.

But it’s a specific detail that demands an answer if Ratcliffe wants to supervise the entire intelligence community.

Aspiring Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe Does Not Want DOJ’s Mob Experts Exchanging Information with Mob Experts

Last night, President Trump announced that Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats is resigning, effective August 15, and will be replaced by Congressman John Ratcliffe, who is totally unqualified for the job, but who said mean things to Robert Mueller the other day, which makes him the perfect Trump pick.

There will be many controversial steps in installing Ratcliffe (not least that Sue Gordon, currently the Principal Deputy, should take over as Acting DNI when Coats leaves, but Trump seems to have a plan to ignore the law that mandates that).

But I also think Ratcliffe’s confirmation process will be troubled, and not just because he’s totally unqualified for the job. Because he has been one of the key players into the Republican investigation into the Trump investigation, there are a bunch of transcripts of him acting really stupid in depositions, even more stupid than he acted in public in the Mueller hearing. As I noted in this post, in Michael Cohen’s second interview with HPSCI, for example, Ratcliffe got his ass handed to him by Cooley Law graduate Cohen.

The Republican conspiracy theory about Bruce Ohr depends on a series of misunderstandings

One of the most alarming examples involves the joint Oversight/Judiciary interview of Bruce Ohr.

The Republicans at the time (and still, I assume) believed that Bruce Ohr served as some secret back channel to keep feeding dossier tidbits to the FBI even after Christopher Steele had been fired as an informant for sharing details of his investigation with the press, part of a nefarious plot by Hillary to keep Steele’s intelligence reports flowing at the FBI. The evidence at least suggests that, instead, FBI was using Ohr as a way to monitor what Steele was doing while keeping the Brit completely firewalled from the actual investigation. In spite of being an expert on the topics implicated by the Russian investigation, Ohr was not read into the investigation or the Mueller probe, and had a relationship with Steele going back years. So he was a good way to get informed updates from Steele without risking Steele might learn more about the investigation.

Mr. Ohr. No. I think they just say thank you for the information, and then it disappears into the FBI.

Republicans also believe that Ohr should not have shared information with DOJ and FBI because his wife, Nellie, was doing contract work with Fusion GPS at the time. Virtually every time the Republicans talk about her role, however, they exhibit rank ignorance of the full scope of Fusion’s work for Democrats and Nellie’s role in that, as well as the way that Steele’s work was largely independent of those other efforts (though did respond to questions posed as part of it).

Mr. Ratcliffe. And if you did, then they would have known that your wife was being compensated in part for contributions to what we’ve referred to as the Steele dossier?

Mr. Ohr. Well, just to be careful about that, my wife was researching various entities who are some of the same people mentioned in the dossier.

My understanding of the dossier, and I didn’t look at it that carefully, but it seems to be reports from Chris Steele to Fusion GPS.

So I don’t think my wife’s information, as far as I knew, was reported in those specific reports. It was certainly provided to Fusion, which had both Chris Steele’s reports and my wife’s research.

Nellie did research that didn’t get published (though likely fed a few stories) that probably proved more accurate than Steele’s HUMINT and as such should have been the focus of the oppo campaign. But the public record (and Ohr’s impression knowing Steele’s past work) is that what is known as the dossier was entirely Steele’s work, not edited by Fusion or integrated with information otherwise obtained by them.

Some Republicans (though not Ratcliffe) also seemed to assume in the hearing that it is remarkable that a women qualified to do research on Russia would get hired to do research on Russia, and instead assume there’s some secret plot that got her hired. But as Bruce Ohr made clear several times in the hearing, he alerted the FBI of his wife’s tie to the contractor paying Steele from the very beginning.

Mr. Meadows. So you gave no commentary on the validity of what the source told you or what you thought? You gave no commentary?

Mr. Ohr. I —

Mr. Meadows. Your 302s don’t suggest that.

Mr. Ohr. No. I warned them that my wife work for Fusion GPS.

Mr. Meadows. When did you do that?

Mr. Ohr. When I first spoke with Mr. McCabe

But the core of the frothy Republican conspiracy about Ohr is an effort to shift the timeline of when Steele started feeding information to the FBI back before the investigation into Trump’s associates got opened, so as to be able to claim that Steele’s information predicated not just Carter Page’s FISA application, but the investigation as a whole.

The information Christopher Steele shared in the July 30 meeting is not the same information that appears in the dossier

An early attempt to do this was to point to communications between Steele and Ohr — who had been sharing information on Russian organized crime since 2007 — and claim a Steele reference to Oleg Deripaska was really proof of an early obsession between the two about Trump.

When that conspiracy was debunked, the frothy right then turned to a meeting Ohr and his wife had with Christopher Steele on July 30, 2016, at which Steele provided some information on Russia, including (but not limited to) some information that would eventually show up in the dossier. After the meeting, Ohr, of his own accord,  passed the information onto someone else he had worked organized crime matters with going back years, Andrew McCabe, whose counselor, Lisa Page, happened to be in the room when that meeting took place. That, in turn, led to a meeting with Peter Strzok. But both those meetings (and certainly the Strzok one) took place after the investigation into Trump’s associates had already gotten opened. Nevertheless, Republicans use that Ohr meeting to claim that Steele was trying to gin up an investigation into Trump even before he first formally shared his dossier with the FBI.

There are a few problems with this theory.

First, as noted, what Steele shared with Ohr on July 30, 2016 was not, precisely, what made it into the dossier. Over the course of his testimony, Ohr described four things that Steele shared with him that day.

Mr. Ohr. In the July 30th conversation, one of the items of information that Chris Steele gave to me was that he had information that a former head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, had stated to someone — I didn’t know who — that they had Donald Trump over a barrel.

[snip]

Mr. Ohr. So Chris Steele provided me with basically three items of information. One of them I’ve described to you already, the comment that information supposedly stated and made by the head, former head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service.

He also mentioned that Carter Page had met with certain high-level Russian officials when he was in Moscow. My recollection is at that time, the name Carter Page had already been in the press, and there had been some kind of statement about who he had met with when he went to Moscow. And so the first item that I recall Chris Steele telling me was he had information that Carter Page met with higher-level Russian officials, not just whoever was mentioned in the press article. So that was one item.

And then the third item he mentioned was that Paul Hauser, who was an attorney working for Oleg Deripaska, had information about Paul Manafort, that Paul Manafort had entered into some kind of business deal with Oleg Deripaska, had stolen a large amount of money from Oleg Deripaska, and that Paul Hauser was trying to gather information that would show that, you know, or give more detail about what Paul Manafort had done with respect to Deripaska.

[snip]

Q Were there any other topics that were discussed during your July 30, 2016, meeting?

A Yes, there were. Based on my sketchy notes from the time, I think there was some information relating to the Russian doping scandal, but I don’t recall the substance of that.

Those four things are:

  1. A former head of SVR (other Steele dossier notes make it clear that this is Vyacheslav Trubnikov) told someone else who told a Steele source that Russia had Trump “over a barrel.” (Note, Ohr’s telling of this adds to the evidence that the frothy right misread Kathleen Kavalec’s notes about Steele’s intelligence to understand Trubnikov as a source for Steele rather than as someone his source was reporting on.)
  2. Carter Page met with some high ranking Russians when he was on his publicized trip to Moscow in July.
  3. Oleg Deripaska was trying to expose details of Paul Manafort’s “theft” from him.
  4. Something about the Russian doping scandal.

Just item 1 and 2 on this list appear in any form in the dossier. But item 1 — which Ohr repeatedly describes, based off his notes, as stating just that Russia had Trump “over a barrel,” doesn’t mention the pee tape at all. (Remember, the allegations that Russia had a compromising video from Trump’s 2013 trip had been out there since shortly after the trip, and both Hope Hicks and Michael Cohen were aware of and responding to those allegations during the campaign.) Moreover, the general allegation that Russia had some means of embarrassing Trump was already true by that point: he had shown a willingness to work with a former GRU officer, sanctioned banks, and the Russian government to chase an improbably lucrative real estate deal in Moscow, and he had lied about having ongoing business projects with Russia just days before Ohr’s July 30 meeting with Steele.

And while the reference to Page meeting with top Russian officials was used in his FISA application, what appears in the application goes well beyond what Steele appears to have shared in the meeting, to include the apparent promise of kompromat before the DNC emails got released. Notably, Page’s actions in Moscow were one of the things the Mueller Report concludes remain unexplained.

Item 3 — that Trump’s campaign manager was at risk of being hit with damning new accusations by a very powerful Russian oligarch — doesn’t show up in the dossier, but was actually true and serves as crucial background to Manafort’s ongoing efforts, just days later, to share campaign information with Deripaska not just to stave off such disclosures, but also to restore his old role installing leaders who would be favorable to Deripaska business interests.

And item 4 has nothing to do with Trump at all, but was a subject of real interest to the FBI, not least because the same GRU officers who conducted the hack of the DNC were — at precisely the time this meeting took place — beginning a similar campaign against international anti-doping agencies.

In other words, none of the things Steele shared with Ohr at that first meeting have proven untrue (though the allegations about Page probably are not true). And the two details that go beyond the dossier — that Manafort was under pressure from Deripaska and that Russian continued to engage with its doping scandal — are not just true, but were unequivocally issues of urgent interest to the FBI.

John Ratcliffe thinks the FBI should remain ignorant about Russian organized crime

And John Ratcliffe, the guy who wants to oversee the entire intelligence community, didn’t think that one of DOJ’s foremost experts in Russian organized crime, Ohr, should learn what he could from another recognized expert in Russian organized crime, Steele, and pass on what he learned to another government expert in Russian organized crime, McCabe.

He grilled Ohr at length, suggesting that it was improper for him to share information with another expert in Russian organized crime, and improper for him to pass on information he obtained to the agents who could vet and, if credible. use the information.

Mr. Ratcliffe. And one of those was shortly after you met with Christopher Steele. On July 30, you had a meeting with Andy McCabe and Lisa Page.

Mr. Ohr. Yes.

[snip]

Mr. Ratcliffe. And it was sometime, you believe, in August, because it was shortly after the meeting with Christopher Steele?

Mr. Ohr. Probably, yes.

Mr. Ratcliffe. And that was because, at that point in time, you wanted the FBI to have that information and be aware of your contact with Christopher Steele?

Mr. Ohr. Yes.

Mr. Ratcliffe. Did anyone prompt that call to Andy McCabe?

Mr. Ohr. No, I don’t think so. I think that was me. Just me.

Mr. Ratcliffe. You, out of just an idea that that was the appropriate thing to do?

Mr. Ohr. Yes.

Mr. Ratcliffe. Okay. But you also thought it was appropriate to be communicating with Christopher Steele.

Mr. Ohr. Yes.

Mr. Ratcliffe. Okay. Even though you don’t have any authority, apparently.

Mr. Ohr. He is just calling me or meeting with me, as we had done on and off for many years. So if he tells me something that is of interest or concern, I pass that to the FBI.

Mr. Ratcliffe. And you said something about you thought that was your job.

Mr. Ohr. Yes. Part of my job, as I saw it, as having been for a long time responsible for organized crime at the Department, was to try to gather as much information or introduce the FBI to possible sources of information, whatever ways to further the program’s goals.

In fact, as Ohr explained in his interview, he had been sharing information with Steele going back almost a decade.

A I believe I met Chris Steele for the first time around 2007. That was an official meeting. At that time, he was still employed by the British Government. I went to London to talk with British Government officials about Russian organized crime and what they were doing to look at the threat, and the FBI office at the U.S. Embassy in London set up a meeting. That was with Chris Steele. And there were other members of different British Government agencies there. And we met and had a discussion. And afterwards, I believe the agent and I spoke with Chris Steele further over lunch. That was, I think, the first time I met him.

Q And you said that Mr. Steele worked for the British Government at the time. Was that at MI-6?

A Yes.

Q And you said in this meeting that he was one of several British Government employees at the meeting?

A Yes.

Q So, based on that introduction, is it fair to say that your contacts with Christopher Steele began as a, you know, shared professional specialization?

A Yes.

Q And that specialization would be Russian organized crime?

A Yes.

In other words, John Ratcliffe wants to make a big deal out of the fact that DOJ’s top person on organized crime was trying to combat organized crime by collecting and sharing information on organized crime. This is the guy Trump wants to be be in charge of the entire intelligence community.

Ratcliffe objects that Ohr shared information with career employees and not his political appointee boss

Ratcliffe didn’t just object that Bruce Ohr compared notes with other experts on Russian organized crime, he also objected to the fact that Ohr passed that information along not to political appointees — who according to the conspiracy theories could then use the information as part of an ultimately unsuccessful Deep State plot to undermine Trump — but instead to career people who could actually decide what to do with the information.

Mr. Ratcliffe. Okay. But yet Sally Yates — she was your boss, right?

Mr. Ohr. Yes.

Mr. Ratcliffe. You said she didn’t know that you were talking to Steele or Simpson?

Mr. Ohr. Correct.

Mr. Ratcliffe. How do you know she didn’t know?

Mr. Ohr. Well, I didn’t tell her.

[snip]

Mr. Ratcliffe. Okay. So, again, going back to the Sally Yates issue, is it your testimony that at some point in time as you were sitting down with the FBI for the purpose of talking to them about information that you were helping to coordinate from Christopher Steele that you shouldn’t have advised or didn’t advise Sally Yates about the fact that you were being interviewed for that purpose?

Mr. Ohr. I did not inform Sally Yates that I was talking to the FBI and that I was receiving information from Chris Steele. That’s correct.

Mr. Ratcliffe. My question is, did you have the thought that it might be a good idea to let my boss know that I’m being interviewed by the FBI?

Mr. Ohr. It was — my thought at the time was I should get this to the career people who would work on it, but that was my thought.

This is ultimately something that Ohr got disciplined for — not revealing the extent of his contacts with Steele earlier. But it was also the opposite of what he would do if he wanted to politicize the information, and precisely what he would do if he considered it the course of normal information exchange. By keeping this information within career channels, Ohr took the most appropriate step to avoid politicizing it.

It’s also true that, absent some proof that Yates found out about some of the details of Steele’s conversations with Ohr (in particular, how concerned Steele was about the possibility of Trump being elected) before she approved the FISA order on Carter Page, this conspiracy theory doesn’t make any sense. Which may be the real reason Ratcliffe is so infuriated that Ohr claims he didn’t inform Yates about what, to Ohr, was ordinary information sharing.

The echo chamber Ratcliffe occupies would prevent him from keeping America safe

Again, Ratcliffe’s own questioning of one of DOJ’s top experts on organized crime makes it appear that he affirmatively objects to the fact that that expert received true and timely information from another recognized expert and passed it on to another expert.

I actually don’t believe John Ratcliffe really is affirmatively opposed to the FBI receiving as much information about Russian Oligarchs threatening to expose top campaign managers or ongoing Russian efforts to retaliate for having been caught cheating in sports, even though that’s what his questioning of Ohr necessarily presumes. I think, instead, he is stuck so deep inside a Republican echo chamber looking for conspiracy theories even in events that can be easily explained that he is incapable of seeing how dangerous his assumptions really are: including the assumption that the FBI should reject information from credible sources about ongoing threats.

That he is so deeply ensconced in the frothy right is why Trump picked him for the job — because, to those who are equally ensconced in the echo chamber, he could appear to have damaged Robert Mueller last week. And of course, Trump will be perfectly happy to have someone who sees not what is, but what needs to be true to feed Trump’s own false claims.

But having picked Ratcliffe, Trump has given Democrats the perfect opportunity to turn frothy conspiracies on their head, to demonstrate the danger of them. Both before Ratcliffe’s eventual confirmation hearing and during it, Democrats will have abundant evidence — from Ratcliffe’s own performance in interviews where he repeatedly gets exposed as a fool — to demonstrate the dangers of appointing someone so deep inside an echo chamber he doesn’t even realize the entire premise of his questioning is that the US should not pursue as much information about threats as possible.

Sure, he’s likely to be confirmed anyway. But Democrats have the opportunity to lay out the costs of Republicans casting such a vote, to install someone who affirmatively objects to FBI getting information on urgent threats to oversee the intelligence community. And when Ratcliffe’s echo chamber beliefs serve to blow up — whether by feeding Trump what he wants to hear about North Korea or Iran or Russia — Democrats will then have the record that Republicans chose to put someone with a clear record arguing that the FBI should have less information about credible threats and not more.

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

The Republicans Complaining about Mueller’s Non-Exoneration of Trump Don’t Care that He Exonerated Jeff Sessions

One of the new attacks Republicans launched on the Mueller Report yesterday is that Mueller explicitly did not exonerate Trump, complaining that prosecutorial discretion doesn’t include the power to exonerate. Here’s how John Ratcliffe put it yesterday.

The special counsel’s job — nowhere does it say that you were to conclusively determine Donald Trump’s innocence, or that the special counsel report should determine whether or not to exonerate him. It not in any of the documents. It’s not in your appointment order. It’s not in the special counsel regulations. It’s not in the OLC opinions. It’s not in the Justice Manual. And it’s not in the Principles of Federal Prosecution.

Nowhere do those words appear together because, respectfully — respectfully, Director, it was not the special counsel’s job to conclusively determine Donald Trump’s innocence or to exonerate him. Because the bedrock principle of our justice system is a presumption of innocence. It exists for everyone. Everyone is entitled to it, including sitting presidents. And because there is a presumption of innocence, prosecutors never, ever need to conclusively determine it.

Except that Ratcliffe and other Republicans didn’t complain and aren’t complaining about the point in his report, as released, where he did exonerate someone, with Bill Barr’s approval: Jeff Sessions.

As set forth in Volume I, Section IV.A.6, supra, the investigation established that, while a U.S. Senator and a Trump Campaign advisor, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions interacted with Russian Ambassador Kislyak during the week of the Republican National Convention in July 2016 and again at a meeting in Sessions’ s Senate office in September 2016. The investigation also established that Sessions and Kislyak both attended a reception held before candidate Trump’s foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., in April 2016, and that it is possible that they met briefly at that reception.

The Office considered whether, in light of these interactions, Sessions committed perjury before, or made false statements to, Congress in connection with his confirmation as Attorney General. In January 2017 testimony during his confirmation hearing, Sessions stated in response to a question about Trump Campaign communications with the Russian government that he had “been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have – did not have communications with the Russians.” In written responses submitted on January 17, 2017, Sessions answered “[n]o” to a question asking whether he had “been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day.” And, in a March 2017 supplement to his testimony, Sessions identified two of the campaign-period contacts with Ambassador Kislyak noted above, which had been reported in the media following the January 2017 confirmation hearing. Sessions stated in the supplemental response that he did “not recall any discussions with the Russian Ambassador, or any other representatives of the Russian government, regarding the political campaign on these occasions or any other occasion.”

Although the investigation established that Sessions interacted with Kislyak on the occasions described above and that Kislyak mentioned the presidential campaign on at least one occasion, the evidence is not sufficient to prove that Sessions gave knowingly false answers to Russia-related questions in light of the wording and context of those questions. With respect to Sessions’s statements that he did “not recall any discussions with the Russian Ambassador . .. regarding the political campaign” and he had not been in contact with any Russian official “about the 2016 election,” the evidence concerning the nature of Sessions’s interactions with Kislyak makes it plausible that Sessions did not recall discussing the campaign with Kislyak at the time of his statements. Similarly, while Sessions stated in his January 2017 oral testimony that he “did not have communications with Russians,” he did so in response to a question that had linked such not have communications with Russians,” he did so in response to a question that had linked such communications to an alleged “continuing exchange of information” between the Trump Campaign and Russian government intermediaries. Sessions later explained to the Senate and to the Office that he understood the question as narrowly calling for disclosure of interactions with Russians that involved the exchange of campaign information, as distinguished from more routine contacts with Russian nationals. Given the context in which the question was asked, that understanding is plausible.

Accordingly, the Office concluded that the evidence was insufficient to prove that Sessions was willfully untruthful in his answers and thus insufficient to obtain or sustain a conviction for perjury or false statements. Consistent with the Principles of Federal Prosecution, the Office therefore determined not to pursue charges against Sessions and informed his counsel of that decision in March 2018.

In fact, Mueller must have provided similar explanations in at least four more instances, where he explained why other Trump people didn’t get charged, most often for lying.

But all of those other discussions were redacted under a personal privacy exemption (or, in the FOIA version, a b(5), b(6)/b(7)(C) exemption). Presumably, those other instances were less clearcut, or perhaps they simply weren’t someone as senior as Sessions. But redactions consistently applied would have redacted this passage too, denying Sessions (who would be running for his old Senate seat this year if Trump weren’t still angry that Sessions didn’t act more like Bill Barr while serving as Attorney General) of the public explanation why he wasn’t charged.

Nothing Mueller said yesterday indicated he had any complaints about the redactions in the report (though he was more willing to talk about why Trump Sr. didn’t testify — the discussion of which is partly redacted in the report — than Don Jr, which is redacted under the same grand jury justification).

But in the case of Jeff Sessions, the redaction process was not treated in the way applied with everyone else, especially including mentions of Don Jr. And Republican silence about that inconsistency suggests they don’t really have a principled stance about public decisions of exoneration.