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Rod Rosenstein’s Unfortunate Vocabulary: Defining a Criminal Investigation by “Links” and “Collusion”

Rod Rosenstein is the very unlikely hero of the Mueller investigation. “Rod is a survivor,” Jim Comey said after getting fired. “And you don’t get to survive that long across administrations without making compromises.”

Yet here we are, 22 months after he appointed Robert Mueller to investigate an investigation Trump tried to kill by firing Comey, awaiting the results of that investigation.

At times, I think Rosenstein didn’t imagine (and doesn’t now acknowledge) the damage his bend-don’t-break has done along the way. While based off the very sound precedent that existed until Comey’s declination speech about Hillary, it seems ridiculous for him to claim that the full results of the Mueller investigation can’t be shared with Congress, as he’s now claiming, given how he has provided unprecedented disclosure to Congress about the investigation already, including the first ever unsealed probable cause FISA application.

It will take some years to measure whether Rosenstein chose the best or perhaps only the least worst approach to the last several years.

But there’s one thing he did that really makes me uncomfortable, today, as we all await the results of the Mueller report: his mandate to Mueller.

As has been noted countless times in the last 22 months, Rosenstein asked Mueller to investigate:

    • any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and
    • any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation;
    • any other matters with the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a).
  • if the Special Counsel believes it is necessary and appropriate, the Special Counsel is authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters.

We actually know the answer to the first bullet, in part: As I laid out here, during five key interactions pertaining to the question of a possible conspiracy between Trump’s associates and Russia, there was direct contact between someone the government has deemed an agent of Russia and the Trump campaign:

  1. January 20, 2016, when Michael Cohen told Dmitry Peskov’s personal assistant that Trump would be willing to work with a GRU-tied broker and (soft and hard) sanctioned banks in pursuit of a $300 million Trump Tower deal in Russia.
  2. June 9, 2016, when Don Jr, knowing that currying favor with Russia could mean $300 million to the family, took a meeting offering dirt on Hillary Clinton as “part of  Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” At the end of the meeting, per the testimony of at least four attendees, Don Jr said they’d revisit Magnitsky sanctions if his dad won.
  3. August 2, 2016, when Paul Manafort and Rick Gates had a clandestine meeting with Konstantin Kilimnik at which Trump’s campaign manager walked Kilimnik through highly detailed poll data and the two discussed a “peace” plan for Ukraine understood to amount to sanctions relief.
  4. December 29, 2016, when (working on instructions relayed by KT McFarland, who was at Mar-a-Lago with Trump) Mike Flynn said something to Sergey Kislyak that led Putin not to respond to Obama’s election-related sanctions.
  5. January 11, 2017, when Erik Prince, acting as a back channel for Trump, met with sanctioned sovereign wealth fund Russian Direct Investment Fund CEO Kirill Dmitriev.

That Peskov’s assistant (and whatever representative from Putin’s office that called Felix Sater the next day), Sergey Kislyak, and Kirill Dmitriev are agents of Russia is clear. With the indictment of Natalia Veselnitskaya in December, the government deemed her to be working as an agent of Russia during the same time period she pitched sanctions relief to Trump’s campaign. And while the government hasn’t proven it beyond quoting Rick Gates acknowledging he knew of Konstantin Kilimnik’s past with the GRU and FBI’s belief that he continues to have ties, the government certainly maintains that Kilimnik does have ties to Russian intelligence.

Those are links. It’d be useful to have an official report on them. But since Mueller hasn’t charged them as a conspiracy, we may only learn what we’ve seen in plea agreements or official testimony to Congress.

Likewise Rosenstein’s invocation of “collusion” in the unredacted parts of his memo describing the scope of the investigation as it existed in August 2017 (it expanded and contracted after that point, so there are like different memos).

Allegations that Paul Manafort:

  • committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election for President of the United States, in violation of United States law;

Here, unlike in the initial mandate, Rosenstein at least noted that Mueller was assessing whether crimes were committed in using that squishy language. But he used the word “collusion,” which started to be politicized by March 2017, when Comey tried to correct it once and for all.

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

[snip]

Collusion is not a legal term. It is not one I have used today. I said we are investigating to see if there is any coordination between people associated with the campaign– [my emphasis]

Sure, “collusion” might be understood to incorporate a bunch of possible crimes, and so appropriately didn’t limit Mueller to one specific crime as he investigated Manafort (but then, so did the term, “coordination”). But I nevertheless think that using the word has confused the issue of what Rosenstein intended Mueller to be able to reveal, which would instead be conspiracy and a bunch of other crimes covering up evidence of coordination that Mueller has found necessary and appropriate to charge, and not whether there was “collusion.”

All the while, people on both sides of this debate have taken “collusion” to mean whatever minimalist or maximalist interpretation of wrong-doing that best serves their side.

There are two things at issue: whether Trump and his aides coordinated in a way that is criminal, which would be a conspiracy, and whether Trump has coordinated with Russia in a way that would be an abuse of power and/or puts the nation at risk.

Both are legitimate questions. And while Rosenstein says only crimes that are indicted are appropriate to reveal (and he may well be right about that, as a principle), he did ask Mueller to conduct an investigation of that other stuff, and Congress has deferred to Mueller even while that other stuff is squarely within their mandate.

Ideally, this weeks focus on Mueller’s discoveries would be on what the actual evidence showed, which we know to include, at a minimum, the following:

  • Trump pursued a ridiculously lucrative $300 million real estate deal even though the deal would use sanctioned banks, involve a former GRU officer as a broker, and require Putin’s personal involvement at least through July 2016.
  • The Russians chose to alert the campaign that they planned to dump Hillary emails, again packaging it with the promise of a meeting with Putin.
  • After the Russians had offered those emails and at a time when the family was pursuing that $300 million real estate deal, Don Jr took a meeting offering dirt on Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” At the end (per the sworn testimony of four people at the meeting) he said his father would revisit Magnitsky sanctions relief if he won. Contrary to the claim made in a statement authored by Trump, there was some effort to follow up on Jr’s assurances after the election.
  • The campaign asked rat-fucker Roger Stone to optimize the WikiLeaks releases and according to Jerome Corsi he had some success doing so.
  • In what Andrew Weissmann called a win-win (presumably meaning it could help Trump’s campaign or lead to a future business gig for him), Manafort provided Konstantin Kilimnik with polling data that got shared with Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs. At the same meeting, he discussed a “peace” plan for Ukraine that would amount to sanctions relief.
  • Trump undercut Obama’s response to the Russian hacks in December 2016, in part because he believed retaliation for the hacks devalued his victory. Either for that reason, to pay off Russia, and/or to pursue his preferred policy, Trump tried to mitigate any sanctions, an attempt that has (with the notable exception of those targeting Oleg Deripaska) been thwarted by Congress.

Instead, however, we’re still arguing about a word — collusion — that was stripped of all meaning years ago, with the result that Mueller’s presumably very measured assessment of what happened cannot serve as the arbiter of truth we need.

Rosenstein may well be the unlikely hero of preserving some semblance of rule of law in this country. But along the way, his choice of language has unfortunately twice fostered the confusion about where the line between crime and misconduct is.

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. 

Trump’s “Official Acts” to Pay Off a Russian Bribe Should Make Impeachment a Legal Issue, Not Just a Political One

The pearl clutchers screamed about Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib saying that we need to impeach the motherfucker, Donald Trump, demeaning the presidency.* While I’m glad that she has refused to back down from her beliefs in the face of the attacks, I think her more substantial argument about impeachment deserves further attention (which I hope to return to in a later post). More important, I think that the response to Tlaib’s comments has resulted in members of both parties retreating to a debate about Trump’s impeachment using the old formulation that it’s a political, not a legal question.

It is true that impeachment is political question insofar as, so long as there’s the political will, a president can be impeached for anything, even lying about a consensual blowjob immaterial to an investigation into financial scandal. But impeachment is also a legal question. Indeed, the Constitution mandates that the President be removed from office if he is impeached and convicted not just for the unenumerated grab bag of “high crimes and misdemeanors” — where Congress exercises the political will to decide whether a blowjob merits impeachment — but also the enumerated crimes of treason and bribery.

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

In spite of Emmet Sullivan’s question — as one of the only people who has read sealed documents laying out what Trump’s transition team did — about whether Mueller’s investigators considered charging Mike Flynn with treason, there’s no chance that Trump will be named in a treason charge.

But there is very good chance he will be named in a conspiracy involving a quid pro quo trading dirt and real estate deals for sanctions relief and other policy considerations.

The other day, I realized something ironic: in precisely the same period Trump was entering in an apparent quid pro quo with Russians, John Roberts was authoring a unanimous Supreme Court decision that clarified the limits of quid pro quo bribery.

And while the Supreme Court believed that Governor Bob McDonnell had not accepted bribes for setting up meetings in exchange for gifts, the language Roberts wrote in the weeks after Trump’s son told some Russians they would revisit Magnitsky sanctions if his father won does not so narrow the definition of bribery as to make Trump’s actions legally excusable.

Roberts described an official act this way:

In sum, an “official act” is a decision or action on a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.” The “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” must involve a formal exercise of governmental power that is similar in nature to a lawsuit before a court, a determination before an agency, or a hearing before a committee. It must also be something specific and focused that is “pending” or “may by law be brought” before a public official. To qualify as an “official act,” the public official must make a decision or take an action on that “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy,” or agree to do so.

Notably, the bribed public official doesn’t actually have to follow through on the official act he agreed to take, so it doesn’t help Trump that Congress has repeatedly prevented him from overturning sanctions on Russia.

Under this Court’s precedents, a public official is not required to actually make a decision or take an action on a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy”; it is enough that the official agree to do so.

And there are a number of data points in the public record that suggest Trump did believe he had made a deal with the Russians and that Russia had what it believed was a commitment from Trump. For example, four of the people who attended the June 9 meeting testified (most under oath) that Don Jr said his father would revisit sanctions relief if he got elected.

Natalia Veselnitskaya said Don Jr said they’d revisit the topic.

Mr. Trump, Jr. politely wound up the meeting with meaningless phrases about somewhat as follows: can do nothing about it, “if’ or “when” we come to power, we may return to this strange and confusing story.

Ike Kaveladze said that Don Jr said they might revisit the issue if his father won.

There was no request, but as I said, it was a suggestion that if Trump campaign wins, they might get back to the Magnitsky Act topic in the future.

Rinat Akhmetshin said that Don Jr said they would revisit Magnitsky when they won.

A. I don’t remember exact words which were said, but I remember at the end, Donald, Jr., said, you know, “Come back see us again when we win.” Not “if we win,” but “when we win.” And I kind of thought to myself like, “Yeah, right.” But it happened, so — but that’s something, see, he’s very kind of positive about, “When we win, come back and see us again.” Something to that effect, I guess.

Anatoli Samochornov, Veselnitskaya’s translator, who is the most independent witness and the only one who didn’t compare his story with others, said that Don Jr said they would revisit the issue if Trump won.

A. Like I described, I remember, not verbatim, the closing that Mr. Donald Trump, Jr., provided, but that’s all that I recall being said from the other side.

MR. PRIVOR: That closing being that Donald Trump, Jr., suggested —

MR. SAMOCHORNOV: If or when yes, and I do not remember if or when, but if or when my father becomes President, we will revisit this issue.

And Ike Kaveladze, in the call back to his boss to report on the meeting that witnesses observed, was happy with the outcome of the meeting.

It’s not just the Russians who seem to have acted on the meeting. Michael Cohen’s allocution seems to suggest that the meeting tied directly to the negotiations over a Trump Tower, because he took steps to travel to Russian on the day of the meeting.

From on or about June 9 to June 14, 2016, Individual 2 sent numerous messages to COHEN about the travel, including forms for COHEN to complete. However, on or about June 14 , 2016, COHEN met Individual 2 in the lobby of the Company’s headquarters to inform Individual 2 he would not be traveling at that time.

Remember: a “senior campaign official” was involved in discussions about trips to Russia. And had the President’s personal lawyer actually taken this trip to St. Petersburg, the plan was to meet Vladimir Putin (who did attend the forum that year).

While the dates provided in Cohen’s allocution also suggest the disclosure that Russia hacked the DNC halted Cohen’s plans “at that time,” we know that the plans did resume after that canceled trip into July.

The Russians certainly believed they had an agreement. They put in some effort to meet again after Trump won. While finding an appropriate communication channel failed for the Agalarovs, Flynn and Jared Kushner moved to establish a back channel via Sergey Kislyak. When Trump met with Preet Bharara and reportedly agreed to keep him on, Veselnitskaya panicked, and suggested Trump planned to keep him on so he could take him out.

In its indictment of Veselnitskaya, DOJ just established that she was actually working as part of the Russian government when she claimed to have fought to get an MLAT request in her Prevezon case. And Veselnitskaya believed that after Trump won the election, he would take out the prosecutor whom she was facing in court. Ultimately, Trump did take out Preet, firing all his US Attorneys in an effort to do so.

And details from Mike Flynn’s allocution provide one important piece of evidence that Russians believed they had received a commitment from Trump.

After Obama imposed sanctions on Russia partly in retaliation for the election year operation, Trump’s team panicked, both because they wanted to improve relations with Russia, but also because Russia’s role in his victory delegitimized the victory. That is, even those unlikely to be unaware of any quid pro quo recognized that the public accounting of Russia’s role in helping defeat Hillary would make it all the more difficult to deal with Russia.

Obama is doing three things politically:

  • discrediting Trump’s victory by saying it was due to Russian interference
  • lure trump into trap of saying something today that casts doubt on report on Russia’s culpability and then next week release report that catches Russia red handed
  • box trump in diplomatically with Russia. If there is a tit-for-tat escalation trump will have difficulty improving relations with Russia which has just thrown USA election to him.

Trump’s response, however, was to reach out to Russia and assure them they didn’t need to worry about Obama’s new policy. In response, the Russians made it very clear that Putin had decided not to respond based on the assurances that Flynn gave Kislyak.

On or about December 30, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin released a statement indicating that Russia would not take retaliatory measures in response to the U.S. Sanctions at that time.

On or about December 31, 2016, the Russian Ambassador called FLYNN and informed him that Russia had chosen not to retaliate in response to FL YNN’s request.

Mueller, of course, has the full transcript of what Flynn said to Kislyak that successfully placated Putin. It is highly likely the transcript provides explicit evidence of an official act to pay off his side of the deal, sanctions relief.

All of which is to say that Mueller may well be finalizing a conspiracy indictment of Don Jr and Trump Org laying out a quid pro quo in which Trump agreed to provide sanctions relief (and some other stuff) in exchange for Russia’s help winning the election.

That Mueller might be able to show all this is bribery may not affect Republican willingness to take the action laid out in the Constitution, to convict Trump in an impeachment inquiry. But given that the Constitution specifically envisions impeaching a President who has accepted a bribe, commentators should stop treating impeachment exclusively as a political issue.

Update: I posted this before I had read this analysis from Jack Goldsmith raising concerns about investigating the President for foreign policy decisions. While I think Goldsmith raises key points, he focuses on actions Trump took as President. But that’s one reason I think the transition activities are so important. If I’m right that the calls to Kislyak amount to an official act, then Trump took it to undermine the official policy of the government, not set it as President. Further, The Trump team had been asked — and at least one person had agreed — to not undermine Obama’s policies during the transition. There were several efforts to hide that they were doing so: the indications they couldn’t reengage on Magnitsky sanctions using the same channels as they used during the election, the request for a back channel, and the meeting with Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan that Susan Rice discovered by unmasking the identities of those who met with him.

The actions Trump took that led to Flynn and Comey’s firings were part of an effort to hide these clandestine efforts during the transition. Yes, they were conducted while he was President. But they were conducted to cover up actions taken before he became President. This is why I keep harping on the remarkable lack of curiosity about why Trump really fired Flynn. The public story Trump is telling is assuredly false. The real reason almost certainly ties back to these transition period actions.

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

*Full disclosure: I donated to Tlaib’s campaign.

The William Barr Case for Impeaching Donald Trump: From Whom Did Trump Suborn False Statements?

Last month, I argued that a memo William Barr wrote that many say disqualifies him to be Attorney General in fact (or perhaps, “also”) should make him utterly toxic to Trump, because he (unknowingly) makes the case for impeaching Trump.

That’s because of the specific content of a William Barr memo sent to Rod Rosenstein, first reported by WSJ last night. While I’m certain Barr didn’t intend to do so, the memo makes a compelling case that Trump must be impeached.

The memo is long, lacks pagination, and presents an alarming view of unitary executive power. Barr also adopts the logically and ethically problematic stance of assuming, in a memo that states, “I realize I am in the dark about many facts” in the second sentence, that he knows what Mueller is up to, repeating over and over claims about what theory of obstruction he knows Mueller is pursuing.

Yet even before Barr finishes the first page, he states something that poses serious problems for the White House.

Obviously, the President and any other official can commit obstruction in this classic sense of sabotaging a proceeding’s truth-finding function. Thus, for example, if a President knowingly destroys or alters evidence, suborns perjury, or induces a witness to change testimony, or commits any act deliberately impairing the integrity or availability of evidence, then he, like anyone else, commits the crime of obstruction.

Probably by the time Mueller’s office captured Peter Strzok’s testimony on July 19, 2017 — and almost certainly by the time they obtained Transition emails on August 23, 2017 (perhaps not coincidentally the day after Strzok’s 302 was formalized) showing Trump’s orchestration of Mike Flynn’s calls with Sergei Kislyak — Mueller has almost certainly had evidence that Trump suborned false statements from Mike Flynn. So even before he finishes the first page, Trump’s hand-picked guy to be Attorney General has made the argument that Trump broke the law and Mueller’s obstruction investigation is appropriate.

Today, as part of a rebuttal to Daniel Hemel and Eric Posner’s comments about the memo, Jack Goldsmith reviews an OLC memo they rely on to back my argument.

Barr’s invocation and application of the presidential plain-statement rule, far from shocking, is quite ordinary. It is so ordinary, in fact, that I doubt Mueller is pursuing the theory that Barr worries about, even though press reports have sometimes suggested that he is. (For similar doubts, see the analyses of Mikhaila Fogel and Benjamin Wittes and of Marty Lederman.) Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein implied that Barr misunderstood Mueller’s theory when he stated that Barr did not have the “actual facts of the case.” One can read Rosenstein’s statement, as Marcy Wheeler does, to mean that Mueller possesses facts—including evidence that Trump suborned false statements from Flynn—to show that Trump has obstructed justice under Barr’s “evidence impairment” theory and that, under the Barr memorandum’s separate discussion of impeachment, Trump can be impeached.

If Wheeler is right, then the Barr memorandum is more likely to be cited in support of an article of impeachment of President Trump for obstruction of justice than it is to be cited, as Hemel and Posner suggest, to immunize Trump from obstruction. We will see if the Democrats presiding over Barr’s confirmation hearings are clever enough not to take Hemel and Posner’s suggestion that Barr’s memo is extreme, and instead use Barr’s memo, as Wheeler counsels, “to talk the incoming Attorney General into backing the logic of the Mueller probe and impeachment in a very public way.”

Given the stakes on all this, I wanted to focus on why I think the public record suggests strongly that Trump suborned perjury (actually, false statements), meaning that Barr has already made the case for impeachment.

Mike Flynn lied to hide consultations with the Transition Team at Mar-a-Lago

First, let’s consider what Mike Flynn lied about, which I lay out in detail here. In addition to lies about being a foreign agent for Turkey and trying to undercut an Obama foreign policy decision pertaining to Israeli settlements, Flynn admitted to lying about whether he discussed sanctions during a series of conversations with Sergey Kislyak. The focus in reporting has always been on the conversations with Kislyak, but as the statement of the offense makes clear, Flynn’s conversations with other Transition Team members — most notably his Deputy, KT McFarland — got almost as much emphasis.

On or about January 24, 2017, FLYNN agreed to be interviewed by agents from the FBI (“January 24 voluntary interview”). During the interview, FLYNN falsely stated that he did not ask Russia’s Ambassador to the United States (“Russian Ambassador”) to refrain from escalating the situation in response to sanctions that the United States had imposed against Russia. FLYNN also falsely stated that he did not remember a follow-up conversation in which the Russian Ambassador stated that Russia had chosen to moderate its response to those sanctions as a result of FL YNN’s request. In truth and in fact, however, FLYNN then and there knew that the following had occurred:

a. On or about December 28, 2016, then-President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13757, which was to take effect the following day. The executive order announced sanctions against Russia in response to that government’s actions intended to interfere with the 2016 presidential election (“U.S. Sanctions”).

b. On or about December 28, 2016, the Russian Ambassador contacted FLYNN.

c. On or about December 29, 2016, FLYNN called a senior official of the Presidential Transition Team (“PTT official”), who was with other senior ·members of the Presidential Transition Team at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, to discuss what, if anything, to communicate to the Russian Ambassador about the U.S. Sanctions. On that call, FLYNN and the PTT official discussed the U.S. Sanctions, including the potential impact of those sanctions on the incoming administration’s foreign policy goals. The PIT official and FLYNN also discussed that the members of the Presidential Transition Team at Mar-a-Lago did not want Russia to escalate the situation.

d. Immediately after his phone call with the PTT official, FLYNN called the Russian Ambassador and requested that Russia not escalate the situation and only respond to the U.S. Sanctions in a reciprocal manner.

e. Shortly after his phone call with the Russian Ambassador, FLYNN spoke with the PTT official to report on the substance of his call with the Russian Ambassador, including their discussion of the U.S. Sanctions.

f. On or about December 30, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin released a statement indicating that Russia would not take retaliatory measures in response to the U.S. Sanctions at that time.

g. On or about December 31, 2016, the Russian Ambassador called FLYNN and informed him that Russia had chosen not to retaliate in response to FL YNN’s request.

h. After his phone call with the Russian Ambassador, FLYNN spoke with senior members of the Presidential Transition Team about FLYNN’s conversations with the Russian Ambassador regarding the U.S. Sanctions and Russia’s decision not to escalate the situation. [my emphasis]

And the 302 (302s are what the FBI calls interview reports) makes this even more clear: Flynn was not only lying about the content of his calls with Kislyak, he was lying about his consultations with McFarland, and through her, the rest of the Transition Team, almost certainly including Trump. Flynn was lying about using language, “tit-for-tat,” that came right out of those consultations.

He was lying to hide that his interactions with Kislyak reflect a deliberate Trump Transition policy choice, rather than his own choice to freelance foreign policy.

Flynn got other people to lie — to the public and to the FBI

But it’s not just Flynn’s lies. It’s also the lies others in the Administration told. According to the NYT story of the relevant emails, at a minimum both McFarland and Sean Spicer would have known that Flynn got instructions ahead of his call with Kislyak and reported positively afterwards.

Mr. Bossert forwarded Ms. McFarland’s Dec. 29 email exchange about the sanctions to six other Trump advisers, including Mr. Flynn; Reince Priebus, who had been named as chief of staff; Stephen K. Bannon, the senior strategist; and Sean Spicer, who would become the press secretary.

That’s important because both McFarland and Spicer lied to the press about the call in early 2017.

Early on the morning of Jan. 13, 2017, McFarland phoned one of the authors of this article to rebut a column in The Washington Post, which said Flynn and Kislyak had spoken “several times” on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced it was expelling 35 Russian officials and taking other punitive measures.

The column, by David Ignatius, questioned why Flynn was engaging in sensitive foreign policy discussions with Russia when Trump had yet to take office.

McFarland insisted in an on-the-record conversation that Flynn and Kislyak had never discussed sanctions and that they had actually spoken before the administration’s announcement on Dec. 29.

[snip]

McFarland’s earlier account from the on-the-record conversation also matches public statements from Sean Spicer, the transition team’s spokesman and future White House press secretary.

Spicer said that Flynn and Kislyak spoke Dec. 28, before the sanctions were announced, and that “the call centered around the logistics of setting up a call with the president of Russia and the president-elect after he was sworn in.”

“That was it, plain and simple,” he said.

Most of the focus on public statements about the Kislyak calls has been on Mike Pence, but there’s no public record that he was in the loop on discussions about the Kislyak call (nor is there a record of him being interviewed by either the FBI or Mueller, which is one of the reasons I keep saying there’s no public record of him doing anything for which he could or should be indicted).

With McFarland and Spicer, however, we can be sure they both knowingly lied when they told the press that sanctions had not come up.

That’s why I keep pointing to two passages from the addendum to Flynn’s sentencing memo describing the significance of his cooperation. This passage makes it clear there’s some significance to the fact that Transition Team people repeated Flynn’s lies.

This passage makes it clear that, in the wake of Flynn’s cooperation, several other people decided to cooperate.

We know that McFarland is included among the people who decided to be forthcoming with Mueller; Sean Spicer probably is too and others (like Reince Priebus) may be as well. Importantly, we know they decided to be forthcoming after not having been at first. McFarland, at a minimum, lied not just to the press, but also in her first interview with the FBI, after which she made a concerted effort to unforget what really transpired.

Note, too, that that redaction is the last line of the Flynn addendum. While we don’t know what it says, it’s likely that the addendum as a whole reflects something that Mueller seems to be doing with his cooperating witnesses: either finding ways to rehabilitate liars (as he did with Michael Cohen) or using their testimony to pressure others to tell the truth, resulting in witnesses who will be more credible on the stand (which is what I suspect he has done with a number of witnesses with Flynn).

Trump has changed stories about what his Administration knew about Flynn’s lies at least twice

The public record doesn’t actually say how it happened that McFarland and Spice lied about something they should have known to be false. As I’ve laid out, it’s clear that Flynn was not free-lancing when he discussed sanctions with Kislyak, but the record is still unclear about whether he was freelancing when he ordered others to lie about it or not.

But two things strongly suggest he was not.

First, nothing yet has come close to explaining Trump’s actions with Jim Comey, first asking for his loyalty, then, after firing Flynn, asking him to let Flynn’s lies go. That’s all the more true if, as is likely but not publicly proven yet, Pence also knew he was lying when he claimed sanctions didn’t come up in the Flynn-Kislyak call, because lying to Pence is the only explanation Trump has offered for firing Flynn.

It is virtually certain Flynn was following orders — Trump’s orders — when he engaged in discussions about sanctions with Kisylak. And so it is virtually certain that Trump knew, from before he was inaugurated, that his top aides were lying to the press. Yet Trump didn’t find those lies to be a fireable offense until it became clear the lies would lead to a sustained FBI investigation into why Flynn had Kislyak hold off on responding to sanctions.

And over the course of the Mueller investigation, Trump has struggled to come up with a credible explanation for why Flynn’s lies became a fireable offense only after the FBI started looking more closely at his plans for sanctions relief.

Don McGahn wrote a report inventing one explanation for the firing just after it happened (akin to the way he later orchestrated a paper trail justifying Comey’s firing). But even when he wrote the report, it was inconsistent with what Sally Yates told McGahn.

Then, after Flynn flipped and it became clear Comey also documented his side of events (and shared those events contemporaneously with others in DOJ and FBI), Trump’s lawyers tried to massage the story one more time.

Mike Flynn, KT McFarland, Sean Spicer, Don McGahn, and John Dowd (at a minimum — possibly Reince Priebus and others, too) have all had to revise the stories they told the press and even, for some, FBI or Mueller after the fact to try to come up with a non-incriminating explanation for why everyone lied, first to the press, and then to the government.

There’s really only one thing that might explain why at least five top Donald Trump aides or lawyers had to revise stories to try to come up with innocent explanations for non-credible stories they were willing to tell the government from the start. And that’s if Trump were involved in all these lies.

It may well be that Trump didn’t formally suborn false statements before Mike Flynn interviewed with the FBI on January 24, 2017. Perhaps he just instructed Flynn to lie to the press and Flynn sustained the story he had been ordered to tell when the FBI came calling (Trump may well be more involved in the lies that Michael Cohen told to Congress).

But there is little else that can explain why so many people were willing to tell bullshit stories about Flynn (both his conversation with Kislyak and his firing) except that Trump was involved in orchestrating those stories.

Mueller’s obstruction investigation was likely always premised on a theory of obstruction that Trump’s presumed Attorney General nominee William Barr has argued does merit investigation and impeachment: that Trump ordered his subordinates to lie to obstruct an investigation.

 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. 

Impeachment and the Narcissist’s Off-Ramp

Welcome to the 116th Congress, where Democrats in the House will finally exert some check on the unmanageable man sitting the Oval Office.

There’s a lot I’m excited about in the new Congress: the unprecedented diversity, some rules and agreements that should give progressives more sway in the House, and a fierce, talented leader holding the Speaker’s gavel (even if I disagree with some of Nancy Pelosi’s moves, such as Pay-Go).

Pelosi is taking a really aggressive approach with Trump. In an interview on NBC this morning, Pelosi suggested he doesn’t know how to deal with women in power or women with strength. She dinged Trump because he “may not know this, but Hawaii is part of the United States,” and wondered whether Trump actually “observed the religious holiday of Christmas.” (Here’s the actual interview; I have yet to find a transcript.)

Remarkably, given the way Pelosi categorically ruled it out in 2006, she spoke at length about impeachment (partly, though not entirely, because Savannah Guthrie pushed her repeatedly on this point). After agreeing with her past comments that an impeachment would be “sad and divisive” to impeach the president, Pelosi suggested that the law does not prohibit indicting a sitting president.

Asked if Mueller could legally indict a sitting president, Pelosi said: “Let’s just see what Mueller does. Let’s spend our time on getting results for the American people.”

The Office of Legal Counsel’s guidance, issued in 2000, says, “The indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would unconstitutionally undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions.”

“It’s not the law,” Pelosi told Guthrie. “Everything indicates that a president can be indicted after he is no longer president of the United States.”

Guthrie asked, “What about a sitting president?”

“Well, a sitting president when he is no longer president of the United States,” Pelosi answered.

Guthrie pressed again, asking, “A president who’s in office? Could Robert Mueller come back and say, ‘I am seeking an indictment?'”

“I think that is an open discussion,” Pelosi said. “I think that’s an open discussion in terms of the law.”

She also did not rule out impeachment proceedings against Trump.

“We have to wait and see what happens with the Mueller report,” Pelosi said. “We shouldn’t be impeaching for a political reason, and we shouldn’t avoid impeachment for a political reason.”

I’m totally okay with Pelosi making comments that will emasculate Trump in front of his base, particularly when it highlights his failed campaign promises, starting with his idiotic promise that Mexico would pay for his wall. I think making him appear as the weak coward he is is a necessary step to begin to chip away at unquestioning support among his supporters.

But I keep thinking back to something I raised in this post, where I pointed out that the increasing likelihood Trump Organization might be targeted by prosecutors might change Trump’s calculus as he tries to retain power.

If I’m right, there are a whole slew of implications, starting with the fact that (as I laid out on a Twitter rant this morning), it utterly changes the calculation Nixon faced as the walls started crumbling. Nixon could (and had the historical wisdom to) trade a pardon to avoid an impeachment fight; he didn’t save his presidency, but he salvaged his natural person. With Trump, a pardon won’t go far enough: he may well be facing the criminal indictment and possible financial ruin of his corporate person, and that would take a far different legal arrangement (such as a settlement or Deferred Prosecution Agreement) to salvage. Now throw in Trump’s narcissism, in which his own identity is inextricably linked to that of his brand. And, even beyond any difference in temperament between Nixon and Trump,  there’s no telling what he’d do if his corporate self were also cornered.

In other words, Trump might not be able to take the Nixon — resign for a pardon — deal, because that may not be enough to save his corporate personhood.

For virtually every other legal situation, it seems to me, existing in both natural and corporate form offers protection that can save both. But if you’re the President of the United States, simultaneously existing — and criminally conspiring — in corporate form may create all sorts of additional exposure any normal President would normally be protected from.

I think this is true not just of the presidency, though. I think it was almost immediately true of the Russian investigation, as exhibited by the emails KT McFarland sent from Mar-a-Lago as the Trump Transition responded to Obama’s sanctions on Russia.

Obama is doing three things politically:

  • discrediting Trump’s victory by saying it was due to Russian interference
  • lure trump into trap of saying something today that casts doubt on report on Russia’s culpability and then next week release report that catches Russia red handed
  • box trump in diplomatically with Russia. If there is a tit-for-tat escalation trump will have difficulty improving relations with Russia which has just thrown USA election to him.

There are many reasons that might explain why Trump responded to punishment of Russia the way he did: because he knew the Russians did have some role in his win, because he is a paranoid freak who always suspects an ulterior motive to hurt him.

Ultimately, though, it’s about his narcissism. Trump cannot admit any failures, any weakness. And admitting that he didn’t win the election fair and square would be like admitting that he had fewer inauguration visitors than Obama did.

I’m fairly confident that Trump thoroughly compromised himself with his eagerness to deal with the Russians for a Tower, for election help, for whatever else they demanded in response. I’m fairly confident that Putin has receipts from that compromise which creates a real dilemma for Trump on whether Mueller or Putin poses the biggest threat.

Trump and the Russians were engaged in a call-and-response, a call-and-response that appears in the Papadopoulos plea and (as Lawfare notes) the GRU indictment, one that ultimately did deal dirt and got at least efforts to undermine US sanctions (to say nothing of the Syria effort that Trump was implementing less than 14 hours after polls closed, an effort that has been a key part of both Jared Kushner and Mike Flynn’s claims about the Russian interactions).

At each stage of this romance with Russia, Russia got a Trump flunkie (first, Papadopoulos) or Trump himself to publicly engage in the call-and-response. All of that led up to the point where, on July 16, 2018, after Rod Rosenstein loaded Trump up with a carefully crafted indictment showing Putin that Mueller knew certain things that Trump wouldn’t fully understand, Trump came out of a meeting with Putin looking like he had been thoroughly owned and stood before the entire world and spoke from Putin’s script in defiance of what the US intelligence community has said.

People are looking in the entirely wrong place for the kompromat that Putin has on Trump, and missing all the evidence of it right in front of their faces.

Vladimir Putin obtained receipts at each stage of this romance of Trump’s willing engagement in a conspiracy with Russians for help getting elected. Putin knows what each of those receipts mean. Mueller has provided hints, most obviously in that GRU indictment, that he knows what some of them are.

For example, on or about July 27, 2016, the Conspirators  attempted after hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third-party provider and used by Clinton’s personal office. At or around the same time, they also targeted seventy-six email addresses at the domain for the Clinton Campaign.

But Mueller’s not telling whether he has obtained the actual receipts.

And that’s the kompromat. Trump knows that if Mueller can present those receipts, he’s sunk, unless he so discredits the Mueller investigation before that time as to convince voters not to give Democrats a majority in Congress, and convince Congress not to oust him as the sell-out to the country those receipts show him to be. He also knows that, on the off-chance Mueller hasn’t figured this all out yet, Putin can at any time make those receipts plain. Therein lies Trump’s uncertainty: It’s not that he has any doubt what Putin has on him. It’s that he’s not sure which path before him — placating Putin, even if it provides more evidence he’s paying off his campaign debt, or trying to end the Mueller inquiry before repaying that campaign debt, at the risk of Putin losing patience with him — holds more risk.

Trump knows he’s screwed. He’s just not sure whether Putin or Mueller presents the bigger threat.

But ultimately there is one other factor that makes Trump more self-destructively defensive about this investigation than he otherwise would be: his narcissism.

And while I’d welcome his utter humiliation before the world stage, I also believe that any single-minded pursuit of that humiliation will only increase the likelihood he’ll dig in, regardless of the damage that doing so will do to the country.

Even if we do get to the point where indictment or impeachment became viable (and I’m not sure we will), it’s worth thinking about whether pursuing either one might just trigger a narcissistic response that will only lead Trump to do further damage to this country. If we provide Trump an off-ramp that allows him to preserve some of his destructive ego, it may do less damage to the country.

Update: Fixed Guthrie’s first name–apologies to her for the error. h/t jk

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. 

Sam Patten Reminds Us Cooperation Deals Are Not Cookie Cutters

One of the last filings of 2018 in the cases I keep track of here was a three line joint motion in Sam Patten’s case, noting that the parties had filed a joint status report under seal. Sam Patten, recall, is the sleazy influence peddler who (like Paul Manafort) was a business partner with alleged GRU operative Konstantin Kilimnik who first proffered information to Mueller’s office on May 22 of last year, but who didn’t plead guilty until August 31. He pled guilty to lying on FARA registration, lying to the Senate Intelligence Committee and withholding documents from them, in part about setting up straw purchasers to let foreigners donate money to Trump’s inauguration. He’s also got ties to Cambridge Analytica, though that did not show up in his plea at all.

So rather than a routine status report — either telling the court that Patten continued to cooperate with Mueller, the DC US Attorney’s Office, and other law enforcement entities with which his deal required him to cooperate — or rather than moving towards sentencing, the government instead filed something under seal.

When asked what this might mean, I’ve deferred any answer, because it could be so many things and there’s so little to go on.

But CNN’s Katelyn Polantz has what (for any straight news outlet — and I mean that as a genre issue, not a competence one) is remarkably good analysis. She points to the timing of Patten’s plea (just before Paul Manafort was set to go to trial on his own FARA crimes, and thus just weeks before Manafort decided to flip) and to Patten’s multi-office cooperation obligations to suggest this sealed plea may have to do with Mueller’s case.

Patten agreed to cooperate with the Mueller investigation and other Justice Department actions before Manafort pleaded guilty to criminal charges in September. Manafort had been Mueller’s target for almost a year before his plea deal — and the Mueller team initially charged him with a host of financial crimes and foreign lobbying violations. A jury found Manafort guilty of tax and bank fraud related to his Ukrainian lobbying proceeds, then Manafort flipped and agreed to help prosecutors in September to avoid a second trial related to his foreign lobbying operation.

Patten was lined up by prosecutors as a person involved in that planned second trial against Manafort.

Typically, in a plea deal such as Patten’s, once prosecutors no longer need his cooperation for an upcoming trial or to put pressure on a criminal target, they would move the case to the sentencing phase. No date has been set yet by the court for Patten’s sentencing, and it’s still not determined when that process would even begin.

What she doesn’t say, but I would add, is that we’ve heard remarkably little about Manafort’s fate since a hearing on December 11 where Manafort’s lawyers pushed to begin adjudicating this month (in advance of his sentencing in the EDVA case) whether they agreed that Manafort had lied to the government while supposedly cooperating, even while saying they were having ongoing discussions with the government about those lies. Judge Amy Berman Jackson set a deadline for next Monday, January 7, for Manafort’s lawyers to file some kind of statement about whether they agree with the government or not. Sure, the holidays happened in the middle of that. But throughout the period before that, we got regular updates from Rudy Giuliani and Manafort’s lawyers making the extent of Manafort’s cooperation clear; we’ve gotten nothing since December 11.

Polantz also notes something most reporters covering the Mueller investigation forget: prosecutors don’t just hold off on sentencing until a cooperating witness testifies (note, the same mob of reporters also falsely suggest that Michael Cohen’s cooperation with Mueller is done, misunderstanding that Mueller will reward Cohen’s cooperation with a sentencing adjustment if it continues). Indeed, the only Mueller cooperating witness who has thus far testified before sentencing has been Rick Gates, and he remains under a cooperation agreement over five months later. Prosecutors also use (and Mueller seems to have especially) cooperating witnesses to pressure other witnesses. Indeed, that seems to be the significance of this passage from the addendum describing Mike Flynn’s cooperation.

Mueller used Flynn to get all the other people — starting with but by no means limited to KT McFarland — who originally lied about the Russian conspiracy to testify, and to do so as witnesses who clarified their testimony rather than sustained a lie and therefore got branded a liar making them less useful as witnesses at trial.

In other words, Polantz seems to suggest that Mueller rolled out Patten’s cooperation agreement just before Manafort’s trial in a bid to get him to flip. That worked. But not well enough to get Manafort to really cooperate.

Which may explain why his current status is such a big secret: because no one wants to give Manafort — or Trump — any hints about his status until Manafort decides what he’s going to do this week.

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. 

Tit-for-Tat: What Mike Flynn’s 302 Reveals about the Lies He Told

Last week, I wrote this post arguing that Mike Flynn’s 302 (FBI interview report) shows what Flynn was hiding when he lied to the FBI: In addition to his most fundamental lie — that he and Sergei Kislyak had talked about Russia moderating its response to new Obama sanctions, Flynn lied about his coordination with KT McFarland, who was with Trump at Mar-a-Lago.

Since people are still wondering why Flynn lied, I thought I’d write it up to make it even more plain. This post relies on these sources:

As Flynn’s Statement of the Offense lays out, Obama signed the Executive Order imposing new sanctions on December 28, 2016.

On or about December 28, 2016, then-President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13757, which was to take effect the following day. The executive order announced sanctions against Russia in response to that government’s actions intended to interfere with the 2016 presidential election (“U.S. Sanctions”).

Flynn admitted that Kislyak contacted him the day Obama imposed the sanctions.

On or about December 28, 2016, the Russian Ambassador contacted FLYNN.

Flynn told the FBI that was a text that, because of poor connectivity in Dominican Republic, he didn’t see for a day. (I suspect this is also a lie, but it is possible.)

Shortly after Christmas, 2016, FLYNN took a vacation to the Dominican Republic with his wife. On December 28th, KISLYAK sent FLYNN a text stating, “Can you call me?”

Sometime in the day after Obama imposed the sanctions, Lisa Monaco gave her successor, Tom Bossert, a heads up about how angry the Russians were, making it clear the Obama Administration had formally contacted them.

Obama administration officials were expecting a “bellicose” response to the expulsions and sanctions, according to the email exchange between Ms. McFarland and Mr. Bossert. Lisa Monaco, Mr. Obama’s homeland security adviser, had told Mr. Bossert that “the Russians have already responded with strong threats, promising to retaliate,” according to the emails.

That suggests that the Obama Administration formally alerted the Russians before Kislyak’s text and alerted the Trump Transition not long after. That is, the Flynn-Kislyak contacts occurred after Obama had informed both sides, if not Flynn directly.

In spite of that formal notification, Flynn attributed any delay in responding to Kislyak to Dominican Republic’s poor cell phone reception. He claims (probably assuming the only communications the FBI would ever review would be Kislyak’s communications) that he saw the text on the 29th, took a bit of time, then called the Russian Ambassador.

FLYNN noted cellular reception was poor and he was not checking his phone regularly, and consequently did not see the text until approximately 24 hours later. Upon seeing the text, FLYNN responded that he would call in 15-20 minutes, and he and KISLYAK subsequently spoke.

What Flynn didn’t tell the FBI is that, per his allocution, he spoke with KT McFarland immediately before his call with Kislyak (importantly, this is true whether he really didn’t find out until the 29th or if there was a longer conversation with McFarland).

On or about December 29, 2016, FLYNN called a senior official of the Presidential Transition Team (“PTT official”), who was with other senior ·members of the Presidential Transition Team at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, to discuss what, if anything, to communicate to the Russian Ambassador about the U.S. Sanctions. On that call, FLYNN and the PTT official discussed the U.S. Sanctions, including the potential impact of those sanctions on the incoming administration’s foreign policy goals. The PTT official and FLYNN also discussed that the members of the Presidential Transition Team at Mar-a-Lago did not want Russia to escalate the situation.

Immediately after his phone call with the PTT official, FLYNN called the Russian Ambassador and requested that Russia not escalate the situation and only respond to the U.S. Sanctions in a reciprocal manner.

The account of the timing of discussions both at Mar-a-Lago and with advisors who were dispersed across the globe in the NYT story is vague. Though NYT makes it clear that one email, at least, described the Flynn call with Kislyak prospectively.

As part of the outreach, Ms. McFarland wrote, Mr. Flynn would be speaking with the Russian ambassador, Mr. Kislyak, hours after Mr. Obama’s sanctions were announced.

One of those emails, importantly, included the following talking points.

Obama is doing three things politically:

  • discrediting Trump’s victory by saying it was due to Russian interference
  • lure trump into trap of saying something today that casts doubt on report on Russia’s culpability and then next week release report that catches Russia red handed
  • box trump in diplomatically with Russia. If there is a tit-for-tat escalation trump will have difficulty improving relations with Russia which has just thrown USA election to him. [my emphasis]

Per the NYT, that email appears to have been forwarded to — among others — Flynn.

Mr. Bossert forwarded Ms. McFarland’s Dec. 29 email exchange about the sanctions to six other Trump advisers, including Mr. Flynn; Reince Priebus, who had been named as chief of staff; Stephen K. Bannon, the senior strategist; and Sean Spicer, who would become the press secretary.

One thing makes it more likely that Flynn received McFarland’s email (or at least equivalent talking points via phone), and received it before he returned the call to Kislyak. When the Agents moved to the stage of the interview where — per Peter Strzok’s later description — “if Flynn said he did not remember something they knew he said, they would use the exact words Flynn used,” they quoted that “tit-for-tat” language.

The interviewing agents asked FLYNN if he recalled any conversation with KISLYAK in which the expulsions were discussed, where FLYNN might have encouraged KISLYAK not to escalate the situation, to keep the Russian response reciprocal, or not to engage in a “tit-for-tat.” FLYNN responded, “Not really. I don’t remember. It wasn’t, “Don’t do anything.” [my emphasis]

So whether Flynn saw this language in an email first, it seems clear he spoke to McFarland — who was coordinating all this from Mar-a-Lago, where Trump was — before he spoke with Kislyak. And that’s important, because Flynn claimed he had no idea that the US had expelled a bunch of Russian diplomats “until it was in the media.”

The U.S. Government’s response was a total surprise to FLYNN. FLYNN did not know about the Persona-Non-Grata (PNG) action until it was in the media.  KISLYAK and FLYNN were starting off on a good footing and FLYNN was looking forward to the relationship. With regard to the scope of the Russians who were expelled, FLYNN said he did not understand it. FLYNN stated he could understand one PNG, but not thirty-five.

It’s possible that Flynn didn’t learn about the expulsions until Obama’s press releases on the 29th, if he didn’t check with McFarland before that. Except he also claimed the FBI that he didn’t have access to TV news in DR.

FLYNN noted he was not aware of the then-upcoming actions as he did not have access to television news in the Dominican Republic and his government BlackBerry was not working.

In context in his 302, though, that seems to be offered as a substantiating detail to support his claim that he didn’t know about the expulsions before he spoke with Kislyak — or, indeed, the even crazier claim that Kislyak didn’t raise it on that call, regardless of what Flynn knew going into the call.

The interviewing agents asked FLYNN is he recalled any conversation with KISLYAK surrounding the expulsion of Russian diplomats or closing of Russian properties in response to Russian hacking activities surrounding the election. FLYNN stated that he did not. FLYNN reiterated his conversation was about [Astana peace conference] described earlier.

Consider how ridiculous this lie is: Flynn wanted the FBI to believe that, having asked Flynn to contact him after Russia was informed of Obama’s sanctions, Kislyak didn’t even mention the sanctions to him.

That’s obvious nonsense. But it was a necessary to hide two things. First, that he had spoken with Kislyak about sanctions — which is what the focus has been on until now.

But claiming that he hadn’t heard about the expulsions before he called Kislyak also served to hide an equally critical detail: Flynn had not only heard of the sanctions (if he hadn’t already heard) from his deputy, KT McFarland, who was at Mar-a-Lago with Trump, but she and he and a number of other people had coordinated what he would say to Kislyak before the call. And they did do based off the belief that Obama’s actions against Russia were all a political set-up and not a sound response to Russia’s involvement in the election.

Flynn not only coordinated his messaging with McFarland, but he used language she offered, writing from Mar-a-Lago: “tit-for-tat.”

After Flynn pled guilty, McFarland spent some time cleaning up what she had told the FBI the previous summer (at a time when everyone seemed to believe their emails recording all this would never be reviewed by the FBI). According to WaPo’s coverage, McFarland,

walked back her previous denial that sanctions were discussed, saying a general statement Flynn had made to her that things were going to be okay could have been a reference to sanctions, these people said.

Flynn’s statement of the offense actually reflects two conversations that McFarland may have initially lied about — one on December 29, when Flynn reported back on his call with Kislyak, and another after his December 31 call with Kislyak, when Flynn reported back to “senior members of the Presidential Transition Team.”

Shortly after his phone call with the Russian Ambassador, FLYNN spoke with the PTT official to report on the substance of his call with the Russian Ambassador, including their discussion of the U.S. Sanctions.

On or about December 30, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin released a statement indicating that Russia would not take retaliatory measures in response to the U.S. Sanctions at that time.

On or about December 31, 2016, the Russian Ambassador called FLYNN and informed him that Russia had chosen not to retaliate in response to FL YNN’s request.

After his phone call with the Russian Ambassador, FLYNN spoke with senior members of the Presidential Transition Team about FL YNN’s conversations with the Russian Ambassador regarding the U.S. Sanctions and Russia’s decision not to escalate the situation.

It appears that Flynn tried to hide the entire existence of the call on December 31 (unless that’s why he claimed he had to keep calling back to Kislyak because of connectivity issues).

The interviewing agents asked FLYNN if he recalled any conversation with KISLYAK in which KISLYAK told him the Government of Russia had taken into account the incoming administration’s position about the expulsions, or where KISLYAK said the Government of Russia had responded, or chosen to modulate their response, in any way to the U.S.’s actions as a result of a request by the incoming administration. FLYNN stated it was possible that he talked to KISLYAK on the issue, but if he did, he did not remember doing so. FLYNN stated he was attempting to start a good relationship with KISLYAK and move forward. FLYNN remembered making four to five calls that day about this issue, but that the Dominican Republic was a difficult place to make a call as he kept having connectivity issues. FLYNN reflected and stated that he did not think he would have had a conversation with KISLYAK about the matter.

The point, however, is multiple people in the Transition lied about this back-and-forth involving people at Mar-a-Lago with Trump.

Their correction of those stories is probably one thing described in this redaction in Flynn’s sentencing addendum.

The fact that Flynn’s lies attempted to hide coordination with Mar-a-Lago and the Transition team generally is significant for several reasons.

First, it appears that at least KT McFarland and probably Sean Spicer were in on at least part of Flynn’s cover story. If that’s right, it would require more coordination than we’ve seen reported based on emails. It’s still unclear how much those who lied about Flynn’s conversations early in January 2017 — including Spicer but especially Mike Pence, who has not been named as receiving the emails among the Transition team — knew about Flynn’s conversations.

A perhaps more important detail, legally, is one that Ty Cobb — at the time, still working for Trump — tried to deny: at least one person in the Trump camp had assured the Obama Administration that they would not undercut Obama’s efforts to retaliate against Russia.

The Trump transition team ignored a pointed request from the Obama administration to avoid sending conflicting signals to foreign officials before the inauguration and to include State Department personnel when contacting them. Besides the Russian ambassador, Mr. Flynn, at the request of the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, contacted several other foreign officials to urge them to delay or block a United Nations resolution condemning Israel over its building of settlements.

Mr. Cobb said the Trump team had never agreed to avoid such interactions. But one former White House official has disputed that, telling Mr. Mueller’s investigators that Trump transition officials had agreed to honor the Obama administration’s request.

This puts a totally different spin on Susan Rice’s role in unmasking intercepts involving Trump transition officials exhorting the Russian Ambassador to blow off Obama’s sanctions and working with Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan to keep a face-to-face meeting in NY secret (and probably also other intercepts assuring Bibi Netanyahu the Trump Transition would do all they could to undercut an Obama effort to punish Israeli settlements).

Rice would have unmasked those conversations having some reason to believe that the people involved in those discussions (Flynn and Kushner) were blowing off a Trump Transition commitment not to undercut Obama policy.

Such actions, then, would appear to go beyond a mere Logan Act violation. That is, Flynn and Kushner would have appeared to be pursuing their own foreign policy agenda, not just undercutting Obama’s policy, but also undercutting Trump’s (contested) agreement not to undercut Obama’s policies at least through the transition. And they would be doing so, by appearances, in pursuit of their own personal profit.

And those seeming instances of free-lancing would have accompanied Flynn’s request (in the days before it would be exposed that his Transition calls had been intercepted) to Rice to delay arming the Kurds, at a time when he was still legally hiding this relationship with Turkey.

Ultimately, we’re almost certainly going to learn all this was done with Trump’s explicit approval.

But because Flynn made such an effort to hide that his efforts to placate the Russians (and help the Turks and carry out undisclosed conversations with the Emirates and Israel) were done on the specific direction of Trump and Kushner, it would have looked like he was undermining both the Trump Administration and the interests of the United States.

It turns out he was only doing the latter.

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

Mike Flynn Steps in It: In a Bid to Feed the Frothy Right, He Leads to Release of Damning New Details Showing He Lied to Protect Trump

Last week, I suggested that Mike Flynn’s cute trick of publicly releasing information from Andy McCabe’s memo and Peter Strzok’s 302 might backfire.

He cited a memo that fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe wrote the day of Flynn’s interview and the interview report (called a “302”) that fired FBI Special Agent Peter Strzok had a hand in writing up in August 2017, some seven months after the interview.

In response, the judge in his case, Emmet Sullivan, issued an order asking not just for those two documents, but any documents related to the matters Flynn writes up, to be filed by tomorrow, along with the government’s reply to his memorandum.

And so it is that on the one year anniversary of the order Sullivan issued to ensure that Flynn got any exculpatory information relating to his plea, that the hopes among the frothy right that Flynn’s prosecution (including for lying about his sleazy influence peddling with Turkey) will be delegitimized and with it everything that happened subsequent to Flynn’s plea might be answered.

Or maybe not.

[snip]

DOJ has never had the opportunity to write its own explanation for what happened with Flynn’s interview. By inviting a reply specifically in the context of this Flynn claim, Sullivan has given DOJ the opportunity to do just that, finally.

[snip]

Sullivan’s order may result in documentation that reveals just how shoddy all the claims irregularity surrounding Flynn’s interview have been all this time.

Boy oh boy was I right.

In response to Judge Sullivan’s order, the government filed Flynn’s 302 under seal. After Sullivan reviewed it, he deemed it pertinent to Flynn’s sentencing, and had the government release a redacted version.

And it is unbelievably damning, in part because it shows the degree to which Flynn’s lies served to protect Trump.

The 302 shows how the FBI Agents first let Flynn offer up his explanation for his conversation with Kislyak. He lied about the purpose for his call to Kislyak on December 29 (he said he had called to offer condolences about the assassination of Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey) and he lied about the purpose of his call about Israel (he claimed he was, in part, doing a battle drill “to see who the administration could reach in a crisis” and in the process tried to find out how countries were voting on the Israeli motion; Flynn denied he had asked for any specific action).

Then, after the Agents specifically asked whether he recalled any conversation about the Obama actions, Flynn doubled down and claimed he did not know about those actions because he was in Dominican Republic.

He was hiding two things with this claim: first, I believe Susan Rice had given the Trump Administration a heads up on what Obama was going to do (at the very least the Obama Admin had asked the transition not to send mixed messages, and at least one person on the transition says they agreed not to). More importantly, he was hiding that he had already talked about the actions with KT McFarland, who was at Mar-a-Lago relaying orders from Trump.

And Flynn again denied having had a heads up from Susan Rice when he claimed he didn’t know that Russia’s diplomats were being expelled.

Finally, Flynn offered an excuse that is at least partly bullshit for why he called Kislyak multiple times.

The reason he kept calling Kislyak was, at least in part, because he was coordinating with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. His earlier claim that he didn’t respond to Kislyak is also probably a lie; he delayed his response to contact Mar-a-Lago first.

Sullivan said this 302 is relevant to Flynn’ sentencing, so he may actually use it to justify ignoring the joint requests of Flynn and Mueller for no jail time (though I’m not betting on it).

But by giving DOJ the opportunity to present this 302 for publication, Flynn provided proof of what has been hidden all this time — why Trump responded to the way he did about this investigation.

Flynn lied to hide Trump’s involvement in all this (and, to an extent, the degree to which it involved specifically ignoring a heads up from Obama).

Flynn lied to hide Trump’s personal involvement in telling the Russians to hold off on responding to Obama’s sanctions. And when the FBI investigated those lies, Trump fired the FBI Director to try to end that investigation.

Update: Jeebus. This 302 also reveals that he was quoting directly from the instructions KT McFarland had given him, relaying Trump’s orders. Here’s what McFarland said she had told Flynn, in an email shared with multiple transition officials.

She also wrote that the sanctions over Russian election meddling were intended to “lure Trump in trap of saying something” in defense of Russia, and were aimed at “discrediting Trump’s victory by saying it was due to Russian interference.”

“If there is a tit-for-tat escalation Trump will have difficulty improving relations with Russia, which has just thrown U.S.A. election to him,” she wrote.

And here’s what — quoting from the transcript of his calls with Kislyak — the Agents asked him if he said.

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

No, Mike Pence Is Not Going to Be Indicted

For a long time, I’ve pissed off the frothy anti-Trumpers because I insist there is nothing in the public record that suggests Mike Pence will be indicted as part of the Mueller investigation. Yes, it is true that Paul Manafort — who may yet get indicted six more times at the rate he’s going — installed him, but on top of being a Russian-backed sleaze, he’s also an expert on getting Republicans elected, and he was right that Trump needed someone with real Evangelical credentials and close ties to the Koch network to get elected. Yes, it is true that he got warnings that Flynn was an unregistered foreign agent, but as Vice President, he’s not the guy who decided Flynn would make a swell National Security Advisor. And as I’ve long argued, the fact that Mike Pence knowingly lied — if that’s what he did do — to hide that Mike Flynn had discussed sanctions with Sergei Kislyak is not an indictable offense, not even close to one.

Besides, Robert Mueller seems to believe he didn’t knowingly lie.

That’s what this passage from the Addendum laying out Flynn’s cooperation means.

Pence is, of course, the most obvious person who repeated the false story that Flynn had not discussed sanctions with Kislyak. But we don’t even have to know that to focus on Pence. That’s because the sentencing memo itself lays out how the progression from the David Ignatius column to Pence’s appearance on Face the Nation led up to Flynn’s FBI interview, according that progression and Pence’s role in it particular emphasis.

Days prior to the FBI’s interview of the defendant, the Washington Post had published a story alleging that he had spoken with Russia’s ambassador to the United States on December 29, 2016, the day the United States announced sanctions and other measures against Russia in response to that government’s actions intended to interfere with the 2016 election (collectively, “sanctions”). See David Ignatius, Why did Obama Dawdle on Russia’s hacking?, WASH. POST (Jan. 12, 2017). The Post story queried whether the defendant’s actions violated the Logan Act, which prohibits U.S. citizens from corresponding with a foreign government with the intent to influence the conduct of that foreign government regarding disputes with the United States. See 18 U.S.C. § 953. Subsequent to the publication of the Post article and prior to the defendant’s FBI interview, members of President-Elect Trump’s transition team publicly stated that they had spoken to the defendant, and that he denied speaking to the Russian ambassador about the sanctions. See, e.g., Face the Nation transcript January 15, 2017: Pence, Manchin, Gingrich, CBS NEWS (Jan. 15, 2017).

So the sentencing memo tells us that the progression from Ignatius to Pence was important, and one of the unredacted bits describing Flynn’s cooperation states that Flynn conveyed false information to several senior members of the transition team, which they publicly repeated.

And then the passage describing Flynn’s cooperation regarding transition events ends with three redacted lines.

I have, in the past, doubted that Flynn told Pence and Sean Spicer that sanctions didn’t come up. But Mueller seems to have no doubt.

So when Pence claimed on the teevee that Flynn did not talk sanctions with Kislyak, he believed — because that’s what Flynn told him — that Flynn did not talk sanctions with Kislyak.

Where things (especially those three redacted lines) get interesting is when you look at the story Trump’s lawyers told Mueller in the wake of Flynn’s plea deal in January in an attempt to spin a story McGahn wrote days after Flynn got fired into something that would still hold up almost a year later. Effectively, the original McGahn narrative invented reasons (which are inconsistent with Sally Yates’ version of events) why Trump didn’t fire Flynn right away on January 26, but instead — in a series of conversations memorialized by the then FBI Director — tried to convince Jim Comey to drop things. The original McGahn narrative further invented reasons why Flynn’s lies to Pence mattered on February 13 (when they were used as an excuse to fire Flynn in an attempt to kill the investigation) when they hadn’t mattered on January 26.

As I’ve laid out here, things got still worse when, on January 29, 2o18, they had to try to make that story fit Don McGahn’s testimony from fall 2017, Transition documents seized during the summer that Trump witnesses only belatedly realized Mueller had, and Flynn’s decision to cooperate in November. The most interesting of the glaring problems with the story, however, is this one:

The Trump letter didn’t address two of the questions asked about Flynn’s firing. In addition to remaining silent about what Trump really knew about what Flynn said to Pence, it doesn’t address Trump’s involvement in the transition period communications with Sergey Kislyak. That’s important because that’s the question that Flynn’s initial interview should have revealed. Contrary to what the letter claims, then, Flynn’s plea and Trump’s silence in the letter about the substance of the plea is proof not that Trump didn’t obstruct, but that Trump continues to refuse to explain why Flynn asked Kislyak to hold off on responding to sanctions, to say nothing of whether Flynn did so on his orders.

Remember: according to public reports, Trump refused to answer any questions pertaining to the transition period. Since January 8, 2018, Mueller’s team has been trying to get him to address his knowledge and involvement in (among other things):

  1. Former National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn — information regarding his contacts with Ambassador Kislyak about sanctions during the transition process;
  2. Lt. Gen. Flynn’s communications with Vice President Michael Pence regarding those contacts;

These, then, would be two of the questions Trump refused to answer by asserting Executive Privilege over issues from a period when he was not yet the Executive.

But then, Mueller probably doesn’t need Trump to answer questions to which the answer is almost certainly, “I ordered them.” As Flynn’s addendum on cooperation lays out, “the defendant’s decision to plead guilty and cooperate likely affected the decisions of related firsthand witnesses to be forthcoming with the SCO and cooperate,” which is (like the comment on Flynn’s lies to Pence) followed by several redacted lines, the last of the addendum. We know, for example, that one of the people that belatedly decided to unforget details she was a party to firsthand after Flynn flipped was KT McFarland, who would have conveyed Trump’s orders to Flynn.

In other words, with all the people who’ve followed Flynn’s lead and belatedly unforgotten what really happened, Mueller likely has abundant evidence both that Trump ordered both of these actions, and that his team kept inventing stories to try to explain away the aftermath.

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

The Mueller Investigation Is the Second Most Important Investigation into Which Flynn Assisted

The Flynn sentencing memo, with a largely redacted addendum describing his cooperation, is out. Effectively, Mueller recommends no prison time because of Flynn’s substantial cooperation, his early cooperation, his record of service to the country.

The section on cooperation describes Flynn’s assistance in three investigations. The Mueller investigation is actually the second thing listed, which I take to suggest that the the Mueller investigation is just the second most important. My wildarse guess is that these consist of A) a criminal national security investigation (the Turkish investigation tied to Reza Zarrab could be one possibility), B) the Mueller investigation, and C) a counterintelligence investigation into the Russians. But obviously the first and third are just a guess. [Update: This post considers another possibility, that the Mueller section involves three categories.)

Between the three investigations, Flynn sat for 19 interviews with prosecutors.

Here’s the structure of how the body of the cooperation section describes the three investigations:

A Criminal Investigation:

11+ line paragraph

6.5 line paragraph

2 line paragraph

B Mueller investigation:

Introductory paragraph (9 lines)

i) Interactions between Transition Team and Russia (12 lines, just one or two sentences redacted)

ii) Topic two

10 line paragraph

9 line paragraph

C Entirely redacted investigation:

4.5 line paragraph

The description of the first and third investigations are both almost entirely redacted.

The description of his cooperation with the Mueller investigation is split into two topics — i) interactions between the transition team and Russians, plus another ii) redacted section.

The transition discussions map what appeared in his criminal information. It does make it clear that Flynn reported false information to them about his conversation with Sergei Kislyak, which means what really went on between him and Kislyak goes beyond what appeared in emails involving KT McFarland, which is pretty damning by itself. That also suggests he really may have lied to Mike Pence.

The second, almost entirely redacted section, is actually the longest, and it’s two paragraphs. If the two sections split into the transition and post-inauguration period, there might be one paragraph on policy issues and another on his firing and obstruction.

The cooperation section emphasizes that Flynn cooperated early. It suggests that because he cooperated, “related firsthand witnesses” decided to be “forthcoming with the SCO and cooperate.” We know that happened with KT McFarland.

The memo also describes Flynn as “one of the few people with long-term and firsthand insight regarding events and issues under investigation by the SCO.” That says the Russian matters were actually fairly closely held, which is itself telling.

Finally, the description of the third investigation is just five lines long.

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

Trump Refuses to Answer Why He Ordered Mike Flynn to Placate the Russians on Sanctions

As I have repeatedly argued, a key detail of the Russian investigation that has never been adequately explained is the firing of Mike Flynn. Contrary to what Trump’s propaganda in early January 2017 suggested, it was no secret within the White House that Flynn had discussed delaying any response to Obama’s sanctions with Sergei Kislyak. Indeed, it is virtually certain Flynn did so on the Trump’s orders, conveyed via KT McFarland, and many of the people involved in creating Trump’s public explanations knew that.

Which is why it’s so interesting that Trump has refused to answer questions about the transition (in addition to questions about after inauguration).

But after months of negotiations with Mueller’s team, Trump’s lawyers have refused to answer any questions about his time as president-elect or president, arguing that the special counsel is not legally entitled to details about executive decision-making.

If, as I’ve posited, sanctions relief was one of the payoffs in a quid pro quo for election assistance, then by refusing to answer questions about the transition, Trump would effectively be refusing to go on the record about why he chose to undermine Obama’s policy (on this, and on assistance to Israel, probably among other things).

Now consider how this fits with regards to timing.

The WaPo reports that Trump was going to return his open book test to Mueller last Thursday, but balked, claiming they had questions about the legitimacy of the investigation.

Trump’s lawyers originally planned to submit the answers to Mueller last Thursday, but put on the brakes.

Giuliani said there were “more questions raised about the legitimacy of the investigation that we had to discuss and look into,” declining to elaborate.

That makes it more likely that the 10-day delay in a status report on Paul Manafort’s cooperation — from last Friday to next Monday — reflects Mueller’s effort to delay releasing that report until after he had received Trump’s responses (which, remember, he once said he’d return a day or so after returning from Paris).

It’s also possible that Trump got his first report on the status of the investigation from Whitaker last Thursday, one day after OLC released its memo deeming Whitaker’s appointment legal. Today, Chuck Schumer sent DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz a letter asking for an investigation into Whitaker’s communications with the White House, but I read it to relate exclusively to activity prior to his appointment as Acting Attorney General.

Or, less controversially, he may have gotten assurances from Whitaker that he, as Acting AG slash hatchetman, would deem transition period activities as protected by Executive Privilege.

And since we’re reading tea leaves, consider the additional motion Mueller submitted in the Mystery Appellant case.

Particularly given the motion Mueller submitted yesterday — which argued that any subpoena the Special Counsel issued before Whitaker’s appointment remains valid — I wonder whether the recent activity reflects Whitaker’s tampering as well, perhaps reflecting notice, after the OLC memo, that Whitaker does not agree with the subpoena. Today’s sealed motion is around 25% longer than yesterday’s brief, so it may be notice of that argument.

(I think the new motion raises the chances, slightly, that the Mystery Appellant is Trump, but if it were someone — like John Kelly — making an Executive Privilege claim, Whitaker’s intervention may rely on the same justification Trump might have made last week about withholding transition materials.)

In other words, not only is Trump trying to avoid providing sworn testimony about one key event in this investigation — his order to placate the Russians on sanctions — but there are other hints that Whitaker has started his work to undermine the Mueller investigation.

Still, it may be too little too late. Mike Flynn’s sentencing continues as scheduled, with his probation officer submitting his presentencing report today. The government will have to submit a report on his cooperation on December 4, in advance of his December 18 sentencing. So Mueller must feel confident he knows all the circumstances of those conversations with Kislyak regardless of Trump’s willingness to talk about it.