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The Objection that Made Mueller’s Case

This will be a grandiose statement, but what the fuck, it’s a crazy day.

The moment when Robert Mueller made his case came on August 7 when Greg Andres objected to a line of Kevin Downing’s cross-examination of Rick Gates.

The lawyers went into a sidebar with Judge Ellis. According to a successful prosecution motion to seal that part of the sidebar, the two sides argued about details of Mueller’s investigation.

On August 7, 2018, the Court held a sidebar conference to address a line of questioning pursued by the defense during their cross-examination of witness Richard Gates. During the sidebar conference, substantive evidence pertaining to an ongoing investigation was revealed.

Ultimately, Ellis ruled that Manafort’s team could not pursue that line of questioning. I believe that objection is what led to Manafort’s plea deal today, and with it, likely the final bits to the key conspiracy case against Trump and his spawn.

I say that for the following reasons.

Manafort got very little (that we can see) from his plea deal

Start with Manafort’s plea deal. When I was thinking of Mueller’s leverage the other day, I imagined Manafort might plead to the charges he did today, but that Mueller would also bracket off some of Manafort’s forfeitures — probably the $16 million that the holdout juror saved Manafort in the EDVA case. That didn’t happen — Mueller dumped the EDVA forfeiture into this deal, so that Manafort will lose all of his thus far identified ill-gotten gains (he’s apparently swapping his Trump Tower apartment for one of the financial accounts, which means that the US government will soon own a Trump Tower property it has unlimited discretion to decide what to do with).

And unless he gets a downward departure for significant cooperation, he’ll do ten years. Under some scenarios, that’s what he would have gotten had he gone to trial in DC and lost. So aside from saving him from a second (and possibly third, if the government pursued the 10 hung charges in EDVA) trial, Manafort got very little that we can see in his plea — just the legal fees associated with the trial(s), while losing the forfeiture he had won by going to trial in EDVA. And for that very little, he kisses away all hope he’ll get a pardon, as well as the (admittedly slim) chance that he might not be found guilty in DC. He also forgoes any appeals and any profits off telling his story. He basically commits to going to prison and coming out an old man to a vastly diminished fortune.

The possible plea benefits we don’t know about

That says the reasons behind Manafort’s decision to accept this plea are things we can’t see but he can.

There are two related possibilities: First, that Manafort came to the conclusion that he’d never get the pardon he had been working towards. That might stem from justified distrust that Trump will ever keep his word, but I doubt it. A pardon was always Manafort’s best way out, and up to a point, it made sense for him to take his chances with Trump.

Which suggests that, for some reason, Manafort came to believe Trump wouldn’t be able to pardon him, probably because he came to understand it would be politically impossible or legally improbable.

Couple that with the other thing that might convince Manafort he’d be better off taking this plea now than continuing to fight his charges: that he knew the next thing he was going to be charged with would be far worse. Just as one example, I’ve suggested that once you’re working for the government of Ukraine (as Manafort was, in the charges settled today) or the government of Russia (as might be established if you showed Konstantin Kilimnik is a Russian intelligence officer, as Mueller has already alleged), very little separates a FARA charge (what he pled to today) from a 18 USC 951 charge, spying. It’s a lot harder to pardon someone for spying than to pardon him for obstruction and financial crimes.

It’s also possible that Manafort came to understand the scope of the conspiracy prosecutors are now pursuing. If he knew they already had the evidence to charge Trump as a co-conspirator in that conspiracy, it would also make it a lot harder for the President to pardon his co-conspirators.

In any case, whatever it is, it’s likely that Manafort had figured out where the prosecutors were heading, and he recognized he was far better off with this painful cooperation deal than being included in the next indictments. Losing his ostrich skin shirt (and five homes and $46 million) and trying to cooperate into a lesser sentence beats facing down a spying charge as part of a conspiracy with both the Russians and a president with severely curtailed pardon abilities, as it turns out.

The Rick Gates details he tried — but failed — to put into the public record

Which brings me back to that Andres objection on August 7.

Just before the EDVA trial, the government would have had to provide Manafort all their 302s from Rick Gates, so he could use that information to damage Gates’ credibility on the stand. And damage his credibility he did, among other things, by revealing that Gates stole money from the Trump transition.

But in addition to looking at those 302s for impeachment evidence, Manafort also surely looked at it to see what Gates had already provided to Mueller’s prosecutors. I’m guessing (based off what a number of people have said about the role Gates played on the campaign) that Gates got Mueller 90% of the way to a conspiracy involving the President, leaving just some meetings attended only by Manafort and Trump as gaps in the evidentiary record.

And that’s what I believe Downing was trying to do back on August 7: Elicit testimony from Gates that would lay out some of the evidence he had provided Mueller in such a way that didn’t violate the protective order he signed in the DC case (there’s not one in the EDVA case, but the DC one basically covers that, not least because the discovery significantly overlaps). So Downing was trying to put into the public record something about what Gates had told Mueller.

Had he succeeded, perhaps Trump would have recognized the jeopardy that put Manfort (and, presumably, himself) in. Perhaps he would have taken that moment to pardon Manafort, and save him from that jeopardy.

But Greg Andres piped up to object, Mueller’s team won the still sealed sidebar discussion, and Manafort failed to introduce whatever evidence into the public record for Trump and his other co-conspirators to see.

Which left Trump and his legal team, even as Manafort had his first proffer discussion with Mueller on Monday, still claiming that Manafort remained in a Joint Defense Agreement four days later, apparently blissfully unaware that Manafort had seen enough to decide it was time to flip.

Downing’s ploy probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. Pardoning Manafort might have helped Manafort, but if Mueller got 90% of the way to the conspiracy with the witnesses he has (including Sam Patten, whose plea surely contributed to Manafort’s certainty he was fucked going forward), then it wouldn’t have helped Trump and probably would have gotten us closer to when Republicans realize Trump has become an anvil rather than an electoral plus.

But I suspect that was the moment when Manafort’s cooperation, with whatever last little bits implicating Trump, became inevitable.

As I disclosed 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. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder Rudy thinks he knows everything that Mueller has.

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

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

The Trump Team Strategic Errors: Rockets Instead Bursting In Air

During the winter, when the government was threatening and then did charge Paul Manafort with a bunch of tax fraud charges, he chose not to waive venue, forcing himself into two trials, one in EDVA and one in DC. (Raising the perennial question, who is paying for his legal representation?)

At the time, Josh Gerstein suggested might be seeking to avail himself of EDVA’s famed “rocket docket” which pushes trials through quickly. The thought was perhaps Manafort would have a better result with EDVA’s more conservative jury pool before his DC trial started, which in turn might be a way to discredit the Mueller investigation (something that has always seemed key to any strategy pursuing a pardon).

Manafort’s attorneys’ decision to effectively force some — but not all — of special counsel Robert Mueller’s case against him to northern Virginia baffled many lawyers, since it puts Manafort at risk of two separate trials rather than one. To some, it’s akin to choosing to play Russian Roulette with two bullets in the gun instead of one.

However, because the Alexandria-based federal court’s “rocket docket” is known for providing quick trials, there’s a possibility that Manafort could get to trial on bank and tax fraud charges in Virginia before the Sept. 17 trial date set Wednesday by Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington in the original case, now scaled back to focus on money laundering and failure to register as a foreign agent.

That means Manafort has a chance of getting his case before a northern Virginia jury first — a panel more likely to include Trump supporters who may be skeptical of Mueller’s enterprise. Such jurors are likely to be a rarity in Washington.

[snip]

If Manafort could pull off an acquittal in Alexandria or even a hung jury, it could fuel President Donald Trump’s view of the Mueller probe as a prolonged “witch hunt” that is more persecution than prosecution. That would seem certain to lead to calls for Mueller to abandon the D.C. case and might prompt a pardon from Trump or some action to shut down the special counsel’s office altogether.

Even if nothing so dramatic happened, a stumble for Mueller’s team in Virginia and in its first contested trial could raise pressure for prosecutors to be more flexible in negotiating a plea deal.

Not long after at Manafort’s EDVA arraignment before the cantankerous TS Ellis, however, his attorney Kevin Downing admitted that they would prefer either everything move to EDVA, or the EDVA trial go second, after the DC trial still scheduled to start on September 17.

MR. DOWNING: We’re actually thinking trying to get the conspiracy to come here. We’re happy to be here.

[snip]

MR. DOWNING: In this perfect world where I have my rosy glasses on, we were envisioning that we would be trying this case in November following the case in D.C.

THE COURT: You need to go back to the optometrist, because that isn’t going to happen.

MR. DOWNING: Okay.

THE COURT: You’ve got a trial date in September in the District? Mr. Weissmann, this case seems — maybe I’m not familiar with the indictment in D.C., but this case seems less complex than the one in D.C.

MR. WEISSMANN: That’s our view as well. The tax charges, as we mentioned, do largely overlap. But unlike the D.C. case, there are no Foreign Agents Registration Act charges before this Court. And those involve quite an extensive array of evidence and different theories of liability. Here we have what I think are five bank frauds and they are discrete over a two-year period and the discovery has been produced.

THE COURT: All right. Mr. Downing, I’m going to set this matter in July. Now, if in the course of your preparation something comes up that suggests to you that you now have a more persuasive basis for me to consider on a later trial date, I’ll consider it. But for now, 12th of — or not 12th — 10th of July at 10 a.m. with a jury. Also having that earlier deadline is an important — it will focus your minds, everyone’s minds on it and get this matter done.

In July, Manafort used his jailing by Amy Berman Jackson as an excuse to ask for a delay in the EDVA trial.

In a response, the government demonstrated to Ellis that Manafort was still trying to have his desired outcome, to have the DC trial go first.

Manafort can hardly now complain about the order of the trials: he was on notice from the Honorable Amy Berman Jackson, when he elected last winter not to have the proposed tax and bank fraud charges all brought in the D.C. Case, that his decision would likely result in his going to trial in Virginia first. D.C. Case Status Hr’g Tr. (Jan. 16, 2018). That other reasons may account for this application is strongly suggested by a prison call in which Manafort discusses going to trial first in the D.C. Case and contends to the listener (who did not believe the D.C. venue was favorable) that the listener should “think about how it’ll play elsewhere….There is a strategy to it, even in failure, but there’s a hope in it.” Phone Call of Manafort (June 20, 2018), at 4:02-4:39.

The trial went off in July as scheduled, meaning Manafort faced the more traditional of charges first.

Still, getting one trial in EDVA almost worked, with a holdout juror that hung the jury on 10 of 18 charges (though that won’t have that big an effect on sentencing) and lots of good press stemming from Ellis beating up the prosecution, both during Manafort’s challenge to Mueller’s authority and during the trial in general.

Add in the fact that Manafort (again, with his seemingly endless supply of funds to pay defense attorneys) got two bites at key challenges to Mueller’s case in chief — his authority generally, and the search of Manafort’s condo for things including evidence about the June 9 meeting — and the dual trial strategy probably wasn’t a total flop (unless, of course, it means Manafort is running out of money). Along the way, he also got full discovery on what Rick Gates has provided Mueller, presumably including the real goods Gates gave Mueller on the conspiracy with Russia.

But Manafort’s still facing another trial in a less friendly venue before a no-nonsense judge, a trial he seems to have done nothing to prepare for. (WSJ reports the two sides did consider a plea on the DC charges while waiting for the EDVA verdict, to no avail.) And all of Rudy’s squealing about how indictments or even further investigation during the campaign season might be a distraction, Manafort’s trial (one that’s sexier than the EDVA one) will remain a constant focus in the last six weeks before the election.

To be fair, it’s hard to measure how Manafort’s strategy is playing, as it’s not clear what — besides a full pardon — his goals are. Plus, he’s got a shitty hand, no matter how you look at it (except for the seemingly endless supply of defense fund dollars).

But Manafort’s bid for a second trial seems like an even worse strategic decision than Michael Cohen’s bid for a Special Master (which I now admit at least gave Trump and his company an opportunity to undercut any Cohen bid for a plea deal) not least because he’ll be a felon in his DC trial which will in turn make sentencing worse if he is found guilty there.

At least the defense bar is making money.

On the TS Ellis Show and the Lies about Lying

The last words in the transcript of the hearing held Friday in Paul Manafort’s Eastern District of Virginia bank fraud and tax crime case go like this:

THE COURT: Mr. Asonye, I’m glad to see you here.

MR. ASONYE: I’m glad to see you as well, Your Honor.

Uzo Asonye is an Assistant US Attorney in EDVA who has prosecuted fraud cases before TS Ellis. Mueller’s team added Asonye to the EDVA case at the suggestion of Ellis. Ellis returned to his pleasure that Mueller had heeded his suggestion several other times over the course of the hearing, starting from his first comment after Michael Dreeben introduced himself.

THE COURT: Okay. And, Mr. Asonye, I’m glad to see you here. I indicated that the special counsel should have local counsel, and that’s you.

[snip]

MR. DREEBEN: The second point here is that we are within the Department of Justice. To the extent that Mr. Manafort is suggesting that we’re analogous to the independent counsels that operated under the old statute, that’s not right. Our indictment was reviewed and approved by the Tax Division, by the National Security Division. We operate within a framework of the Department of Justice. We’re not different from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in that respect. We’re all part of the same Department of Justice.

THE COURT: You resisted my suggestion to have someone here, and Mr. Asonye showed up. When did you ask Mr. Asonye to join you?

[snip]

MR. DREEBEN: Thank you, Your Honor. We took your admonition to heart, and we are very happy to have Mr. Asonye join us.

THE COURT: Good. I think that’s important for communications as well. Plus, you never know. If you have to try this case, you will have to try it before me. Mr. Asonye has some experience here. Is that right, Mr. Asonye?

MR. ASONYE: Yes, Your Honor.

THE COURT: And before me as well.

MR. ASONYE: Yes, Your Honor.

THE COURT: So he can tell you some interesting things.

[snip]

THE COURT: Of course, the difference is that if you did assign it to the Eastern District of Virginia, it wouldn’t come, Mr. Asonye, with a $10 million budget; would it?

You wouldn’t know that though, because most of the reports from the hearing have focused on exchanges like this, from Fox News:

Mueller’s team says its authorities are laid out in documents including the August 2017 scope memo – and that some powers are actually secret because they involve ongoing investigations and national security matters that cannot be publicly disclosed.

Ellis seemed amused and not persuaded.

He summed up the argument of the Special Counsel’s Office as, “We said this was what [the] investigation was about, but we are not bound by it and we were lying.”

He referenced the common exclamation from NFL announcers, saying: “C’mon man!” [my emphasis]

To be sure, Ellis was undeniably confrontational with Dreeben, in this and several other exchanges. But the Fox line, which it picked up from early reports, tells a distorted view of the hearing (even ignoring Ellis’ well known schtick of being confrontational in the court room).

First, the Fox representation is factually inaccurate in two ways. Here’s the transcript of the exchange Fox claims to have quoted directly.

DREEBEN: So it is not really appropriate to assume that the (b)(i) description is the factual statement that the regulations contemplate.

THE COURT: Well, I understand your argument, but let me characterize it and see if you find it as satisfying as you appear to indicate that you think it is: We said this is what the investigation was about. But we’re not going to be bound by it, and we weren’t really telling the truth in that May 17 letter.

I don’t watch pro football, but I used to enjoy the program that came beforehand where a bunch of players would get on and essentially make fun of everybody. But they would put on some ridiculous thing, and then they would all say in a chorus, Come on, man. [my emphasis]

Ellis was referring, explicitly, to the May 17 letter appointing Robert Mueller as special counsel and not, as Fox suggests, the August 2 Rosenstein memo that lays out what the Deputy Attorney General had included in Mueller’s scope by that point in time. The distinction is significant for the matter before the court, a two-part argument Manafort made that 1) the initial Mueller appointment was limited to Russia’s tampering and obstruction thereof, but the permission in the appointment to investigate anything “arising out of” that Russia investigation — which this prosecution had to be — was improper, and 2) that the August memorialization of Mueller’s authority incorporating the Ukrainian money laundering did not authorize this indictment because Mueller had improperly claimed the pre-existing investigation arose out of, rather than was subsumed into, the Russia investigation.

In a dispute in which the first issue is the memo appointing Mueller, Ellis is accusing Rosenstein of not incorporating everything he appointed Mueller to do in his May 17 statement, which Dreeben explained was done to hide the scope of the counterintelligence concerns from targets. That’s a claim backed by the government’s brief and the public Rosenstein testimony it cites.

Recognizing the need for confidentiality about the investigation, id. at 30, the Acting Attorney General “discussed that with [the Special Counsel] when he started” and has continued to have “ongoing discussion about exactly what is within the scope of his investigation,”

[snip]

The regulations do not provide that the factual statement must be made public.

The government brief argues that, because of his role in the campaign and his ongoing ties to Russians — including Oleg Deripaska, by name — the Manafort investigation falls under the original grant of authority. They make the “arises out of” argument only secondarily.

[E]ven assuming that paragraph (b)(i) does not cover all of the conduct charged in the Indictment—and, in the government’s view, it does—the conduct would fall within the scope of a matter that “arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”

Ellis’ concern that Rosenstein didn’t lay everything out in that first memo or might be hiding an ulterior motive of flipping Manafort go to two concerns that Dreeben (and Asonye’s presence) addressed head on. First, Ellis was concerned the Mueller team might be asserting it had unlimited power.

What we don’t want in this country is we don’t want anyone with unfettered power. We don’t want federal judges with unfettered power. We don’t want elected officials with unfettered power. We don’t want anybody, including the president of the United States, nobody to have unfettered power. So it’s unlikely you’re going to persuade me that the special prosecutor has unlimited powers to do anything he or she wants.

Though (again, given his reputation for beating up the side he plans to decide with) this line might be better understood as Ellis wanting to demonstrate a concern with the possibility that Mueller might think he has unfettered power.

Note, he includes the president in there.

Ellis also misstated, right as the discussion started, that the special counsel was not the government.

Let me ask the government — or not the government — the special counsel a few questions, Mr. Dreeben.

In correcting Ellis’ suggestion Mueller was not representing the government, Dreeben clarified that the Special Counsel was not operating under the Independent Counsel law that Ellis had elsewhere raised and seemed to be thinking of when suggesting they didn’t represent the government.

This is not the Independent Counsel Act that Your Honor was referring to in the conference that you spoke of. This is not a separate court-appointed prosecutor who’s operating under statutory independence. We are within the Department of Justice. We’re being supervised by an acting attorney general who has conferred upon us specific jurisdiction and who regularly is in a position to describe to us the metes and bounds of that.

To further establish this point the government notes — in both their brief and the hearing — that the Mueller team worked closely with the rest of DOJ in bringing the charges.

As explained above, every key step in this case has been authorized by the Acting Attorney General through ongoing consultation. Additionally, under the applicable rules, the Tax Division approved the tax-related charges. See 28 C.F.R. § 600.7(a) (Special Counsel must comply with DOJ rules, regulations, procedures, and policies); USAM § 6-4.200 (Tax Division must approve all criminal tax charges). And the Senior Assistant Special Counsel in charge of this prosecution is a long-time, career prosecutor with the internal authority to conduct this prosecution, separate and aside from his role in the Special Counsel’s Office.

While Ellis certainly made a public show of scolding the Mueller team claims, he did so in a hearing bracketed by his observation that Mueller had already done something — bring in Asonye — to assuage Ellis’ concerns about operating outside of normal DOJ procedure.

And while I hesitate to predict how Ellis will rule, I find the bracketing of the entire hearing with a focus on Asonye significant for two reasons. First, Ellis’ proposed remedy, if Mueller’s investigation were invalid, was to have EDVA prosecute the case (to which Downing suggested that that would make the search of his storage facility and home invalid, which for better and mostly worse is not how fourth amendment rulings work).

THE COURT: Let’s assume for a moment your argument that this delegation is in some way illegal. Why isn’t the right result simply to give to the Eastern District of Virginia’s U.S. Attorney’s Office — give it back to them and let them prosecute this indictment? Why isn’t that the right result?

MR. DOWNING: Well, the right result may be for the Department of Justice to finish the investigation they had started and make a determination as to whether or not to charge Mr. Manafort. But if, in fact, this order is defective, then Mr. Mueller did not have the authority of the U.S. Attorney to conduct a grand jury investigation, to get search warrants, or to return and sign an indictment.

THE COURT: All right. I think I understand.

Additionally, although many Manafort partisans view Ellis’ order that Mueller’s team give him an unredacted copy of the August 2 Rosenstein memo laying out everything that could be investigated as of that date as victory for Manafort, that actually falls far short of what Downing wanted, which was to have any other documentation showing the discussion behind appointing Mueller and approving subsequent steps thereafter.

MR. DOWNING: Just briefly, Your Honor. The one thing we would ask this Court to do before deciding the motion before the Court is to ask the government for what anybody who has had any experience with the Department of Justice knows exists, which is the written record. Where is the written record before Mr. Mueller was appointed? Where is the written record about the decision —

THE COURT: What do you mean by the written record?

MR. DOWNING: Mr. Rosenstein had a process he had to go through in order to determine that there was a conflict that gave rise to the appointment of special counsel, the specific matter that the special counsel was going to investigate in any additional jurisdiction he granted. It would all be written down somewhere. That’s how the Department of Justice works.

[snip]

THE COURT: All right. Is that what you’re — the record of identifying the conflict?

MR. DOWNING: I believe identification of the conflict, the matter that needed to be referred to a special counsel in order to — because of the conflict and the scope of the special counsel’s investigation, including any additional jurisdiction.

THE COURT: The May and August letters are the scope.

MR. DOWNING: That’s after the fact. You would expect that the Department of Justice, especially Mr. Rosenstein, would have had a memo before.

THE COURT: Why do you say that?

MR. DOWNING: Because in the Department of Justice generally, just in any situation —

THE COURT: Did you serve in the department?

MR. DOWNING: Fifteen years, five of which was under Mr. Rosenstein’s management. Mr. Rosenstein is a stickler for memos being written, for there to be a written record for the actions of the Department of Justice

In Rosenstein’s testimony and the government’s brief, they actually identify what the latter documents are: Urgent Reports documenting each major step, surely including the two searches on Manafort’s property.

The Special Counsel has an explicit notification obligation to the Attorney General: he “shall notify the Attorney General of events in the course of his or her investigation in conformity with the Departmental guidelines with respect to Urgent Reports.” 28 C.F.R. § 600.8(b). Those reports cover “[m]ajor developments in significant investigations and litigation,” which may include commencing an investigation; filing criminal charges; executing a search warrant; interviewing an important witness; and arresting a defendant.

So Downing specifically asked for (though not by name) the documentation that would have shown the back and forth discussions between Mueller and Rosenstein (and would have reflected Mueller’s compliance with the Urgent Reports requirement.

And Ellis didn’t grant that request. He asked only for the August 2 memo, not the Urgent Reports. That’s unsurprising — asking for the latter would have been a fairly breathtaking incursion on prosecutorial discretion.

But that suggests, at least thus far, Ellis is treating what he’s seeing as proper exercise of prosecutorial discretion.