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The Record Supports Christine Blasey Ford

This may sound counterintuitive. But the Republican-led whitewash hearing into allegations that Brett Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Blasey Ford actually ended up supporting her case, not Kavanaugh’s.

Ford withstood Rachel Mitchell’s interrogation

As bmaz noted, the Republicans hired a skirt: Maricopa sex crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell.

Mitchell conducted all of the questioning — save one impetuous outburst from Lindsey Graham — of Ford. And Mitchell tried diligently to challenge Ford’s account. She started by asking Ford to review all her statements and correct and inconsistencies in her past statements, something she did not do thoroughly with Kavanaugh. She then challenged Ford’s story in a few places, first by shadowing the Ed Whelan theory that the house in question must belong to the parents of Kavanaugh’s doppelganger, Chris Garrett (later testimony would make clear Garrett was how Ford first got introduced to the Kavanaugh crowd); Ford dismissed that by answering that the house in question might be in a broader area. Mitchell tried to suggest that Ford’s symptoms — including PTSD and anxiety — might come from other reasons; but because this is Ford’s academic expertise, Ford swatted those away with science. Mitchell made much of the fact that Ford declined to travel to DC in spite of her dislike of air travel, even though she travels for a yearly family visit and vacations. Mitchell also tried to insinuate that some political actors either coached her or paid for Ford’s polygraph, but Ford’s lawyers pointed out they had paid for it, as is the norm. And Ford’s own timeline simply didn’t support the claim she was politically coached. Mitchell invented a claim, out of an indistinct claim by Ford, that she had wanted to keep her testimony confidential up until the original hearing. In the end, Mitchell got Ford to admit — relying on her expertise — that five minute sessions like this hearing weren’t the best way to get the truth from victims of trauma, which would seem to support a longer investigation, not the kind of hearing Mitchell had been paid to star in.

Ford withstood all those questions with grace (and the timely intervention of her attorneys).

Kavanaugh spent 45 minutes ranting like a belligerent drunk

Chuck Grassley unwisely let each witness take as much time as they wanted for opening statements.

After Ford took a normal amount of time, Kavanaugh, bidding for Trump’s support, took a full 45 minutes for his statement.

His statement was delivered shrilly, with an angry red face, just short of screaming. Coming after hours of testimony he was sometimes a violent drunk, Kavanaugh looked during his statement like the drunk you avoid in the parking lot of a bar, because it’s just not worthwhile human interaction. I don’t rule out him drinking while watching Ford’s testimony, nor did others.

In short, Kavanaugh looked like a guy who could not manage rage, just as numerous witnesses had described him being as as a drunk.

The Mark Judge Safeway timing suggests a late June/early July assault

One reason Ford repeatedly said she’d like an FBI interview is because she assumed that if she could date an exchange she had with Mark Judge after her assault, she might be able to narrow down when the actual event occurred. Republicans want to avoid having Judge’s public comments about drunken debauchery in the time period reviewed by any credible questioner.

Judge has written about that in his book, describing working at the local Safeway for a few weeks to pay for Football camp.

According to Kavanaugh’s calendar, football camp started on August 23 that year.

Ford testified that her exchange with Judge took place 6 to 8 weeks after the incident.

Ford: We had always been friendly with one another. I wouldn’t characterize him as not friendly. He looked ill. Says it happened 6-8 weeks after the incident.

If Judge was working for the few weeks prior to Football camp to pay for it and his and Kavanaugh’s exchange with Ford happened 6 to 8  weeks earlier, that would put the assault in early July.

That would mean this entry, for an event on Thursday, July 1, 1982, in Kavanaugh’s calendar would be solidly within that range.

The Republicans fire their prosecutor after she corroborates Ford’s story

And Kavanaugh’s testimony actually supports Ford.

Start with the claim, in his opening rant, that he usually only drank on weekends. That makes no sense because Judge’s book about the period describes being dysfunctionally hungover routinely while he worked at the Potomac Safeway to earn money for Football camp.

Kavanaugh claims this had to be a weekend bc they all worked. But Judge said he routinely went to work badly hungover.

Then Mitchell started questioning Kavanaugh. She started by asking him to review the definition of sexual assault, as she asked Ford to do. Kavanaugh got a weird set to his lips.

Shortly thereafter, she turned to his calendar, getting him to confirm that he wrote everything in there. In her next round, Mitchell’s first questions were about the July 1 entry. After filibustering about the earlier workout session (about which he wasn’t asked), Kavanaugh admitted that the entry showed he got together at Tim Gaudet’s —  with Mark Judge and PJ Smith — and Chris Garrett, whose nickname is Squi.

In other words, Kavanaugh confirmed he was at a small gathering with the boys Ford said were there, as well as the guy who had introduced her to these boys.

Durbin’s questioning followed, after which Lindsey Graham took over questioning from Mitchell and went on a tear, calling it an unethical sham. Having gotten Kavanaugh to identify a get-together that matched Ford’s description, Mitchell was done questioning for the day.

Effectively, the GOP hired a prosecutor to question a victim, but decided the alleged perpetrator could not withstand the same prosecutor’s questions as soon as she had him identify a get-together that resembled the one described by Ford.

Kavanaugh thrice stopped short of denying being a blackout drunk

One problem with Kavanaugh’s testimony is that he and his alleged accomplice, Mark Judge, are reported to be blackout drunks. Judge even wrote a book admitting to the fact. So Kavanaugh went to some lengths trying to avoid admitting that he had ever blacked out, even while he admitted, “I like beer,” over and over.

The first came, in her first round, when Mitchell asked Kavanaugh what he considered too many beers.

Mitchell: What do you consider to be too many beers?

Kav: I don’t know, whatever the chart says.

[snip]

Mitchell: Have you ever passed out from drinking?

Kav: Passed out would be no, but I’ve gone to sleep. I’ve never blacked out. That’s the allegation, and that’s wrong.

That’s when Republican Senators started to look worried. They gave Kavanaugh one of his three lifeline breaks.

Kavanaugh repeatedly dismissed his freshman roommate’s claim that he was a shy man who became belligerent after drinking by pointing to the squabble that one freshman roommate had with another, as if the normal animus between freshman roommates makes the observation of one invalid.

Finally, Blumenthal raised an incident from college that Kavanaugh had admitted he didn’t recall, only to have Kavanaugh insist he remembered all of it.

Let me ask you this. In a speech that you gave, you described, quote, falling out of the bus onto the front steps of the Yale Law School, at 4:45 AM.

Kavanaugh interrupted to try to prevent Blumenthal from finishing the quote.

The quote ends that you tried to piece things back together, end quote, to recall what happened that night. Meaning?

I know what happened. I know what happened that night.

The appellate court judge actually didn’t claim that he remembered it, just that he knows what happened.

Kavanaugh refuses to call Mark Judge

As a reminder, Ford alleges that Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape her in the presence of admitted dead drunk Mark Judge. Republicans refused to call Judge over and over.

Then Kavanaugh refused to answer questions about Judge’s own accounts of the period. In response to a question from Patrick Leahy about whether he was the drunk described as Bart O’Kavanaugh in Judge’s book, Kavanaugh refused to answer.

3rd Q: Are you Bart O’Kavanaugh.

Kav: not answering.

Kav finally says, “you’d have to ask him.” Which is the point.

Blumenthal noted to Kavanaugh that Judge’s statement was just six cursory and conclusory sentences signed by Judge’s lawyer, not a sworn statement.

So here’s what we saw yesterday: Christine Blasey Ford was unflappable and consistent. By comparison, Kavanaugh — at least in his statement — appeared to be precisely what he denied he was. His denials that he was a blackout drunk (and therefore that he assaulted Ford but didn’t remember it) were not credible and stopped well short of supporting his claim. And his own calendar, and the Republicans own prosecutor, identified a get-together that matches the time and attendees identified by Ford.

The GOP tried to set up a whitewash of this evidence. But instead, it failed, and they were left with screaming men.

And that won’t stop them from voting out his nomination.

Manafort Turns State’s Evidence: “It’s Time for Some Game Theory”

It took a day for the President to complain after his former campaign manager, having spent the week proffering up testimony, flipped on Friday. When he did, Trump tied the Mueller investigation to polls (and upcoming midterm elections) for the first time in a Tweet.

Of course, his freebie legal PR hack, Rudy Giuliani has been tying midterms to the investigation for some time in his insistence that no indictments can come between now and then. Rudy should be happy, then, that Paul Manfort’s plea avoids a four week trial for Trump’s campaign manager right in the middle of election season.

But he’s not.

I mean, at first, Rudy put a brave face on things Friday, claiming,

Once again an investigation has concluded with a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign. The reason: the President did nothing wrong and Paul Manafort will tell the truth.

But almost immediately after making that statement, Rudy took out the part about Manafort telling the truth.

Roger Stone, who’s shrewder than Rudy, immediately suggested anything Manafort may be saying (or may already have said) implicating him would be a lie.

I am uncertain of the details of Paul’s plea deal but certain it has no bearing on me since neither Paul Manafort or anyone else can testify truthfully that I am involved in Russian collusion, WikiLeaks collaboration or any other illegal act pertaining to the 2016 election.

Though of course, Stone’s seeming awareness that Mueller might pursue Manafort testimony about Stone reveals his brave comment for the lie it is.

I’m more interested, however, in Rudy’s (and John Dowd’s) apparent desperation to stave off a mass prisoner’s dilemma.

Manafort first proffered testimony Monday, September 10. Rudy was still boasting about how much he knew about Manafort’s thinking for a Thursday Politico story — though he based that off conversations before and after the EDVA trial, which had ended three weeks earlier.

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.

Immediately after Manafort’s cooperation was announced, both NPR and the same Politico team that had been quoting Rudy’s bravura reported that someone close to Manafort said there would be no cooperation against the President. In later stories, both quote Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Rudy claiming Manafort’s cooperation has nothing to do with the President.

Despite Manafort’s having led the campaign, the White House has sought to distance itself from him and his case.

“This had absolutely nothing to do with the president or his victorious 2016 presidential campaign,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday. “It is totally unrelated.”

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani echoed that idea, adding that “the president did nothing wrong.”

But the NPR version includes this correction.

Editor’s note: An early version of this story published before all the court documents in the case were available contained a characterization from a person familiar with the case that said Manafort’s cooperation would be limited. When charging documents and other materials appeared, they did not support that and the characterization was removed.

And the Politico noted how quickly Rudy backed off his claim that Manafort would testify truthfully.

Of course, anyone who has read the plea agreement closely — up to and including the government’s ability to declare Manafort in breach of the agreement with only a good faith rather than preponderance of the evidence standard —

— and it’s clear that if Mueller’s team wants Manafort to testify about Trump, he will.

Meanwhile, Rudy is yelling on Twitter that the morning shows aren’t taking his word about what Manafort is testifying about over what the clear text of the plea agreement suggests.

I’m more interested still that John Dowd emailed the lawyers for the (reportedly 37, though the number is likely smaller now) other witnesses in the Joint Defense Agreement, claiming outlandishly that Manafort has no evidence on Trump.

The President’s lawyers — the one who currently “works” for him for “free” and the one who allegedly doesn’t work for him anymore but recently got lionized in Woodward’s book as his main source about the Mueller investigation, and in that role was shown to be either an idiot or a fantasist, that the “free” one cites to claim that Woodward exonerates the President — are working very hard to convince others that Manafort’s plea deal doesn’t mean the calculation both other witnesses and the Republican party have been making has to change.

They’re trying to stave off an awful game of prisoner’s dilemma.

Consider if you’re one of the other 37 (which might be down to 34 given known cooperators, or maybe even fewer given how uncertain Rudy seems to be about Don McGahn’s third session of testimony) members of the Joint Defense Agreement, especially if you’re one who has already testified before the grand jury about matters that Manafort (and Gates) might be able to refute. So long as there’s no chance Trump will be touched, you’re probably still safe, as you can count on Trump rewarding those who maintain the omertà or at the very least working to kill the Mueller inquiry shortly after the election.

But if you have doubts about that — or concerns that other witnesses might have doubts about that — you still have an opportunity to recall the things you claimed you could not recall a year ago. Depending on how central your testimony is, you might even be able to slip in and fix your testimony unnoticed.

So each of 37 (or maybe just 30) people are considering whether they have to recalculate their decisions about whether to remain loyal to the President or take care of themselves.

Meanwhile, there’s the Republican party. Admittedly, the Republicans are unlikely to do anything until they rush through Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, even if doing so without first inquiring about the allegation that he assaulted a girl when he was in high school will damage their electoral prospects with women in November.

But once they’ve got Kavanaugh confirmed (assuming no big news breaks in the Mueller investigation before that), then the calculation may change. Right now, a lot of Republicans believe they have to stick with Trump through the election, if only to ensure the GOP base turns out. But if Trump’s poll numbers continue to sink — and as the numbers of those who strongly disapprove of Trump continue to grow — Republicans in certain kinds of districts (especially suburbs) will have an incentive to distance themselves from the President.

All that’s a straight calculation based on whether Trump will help or hurt more, come November. But the Republican party, from Trump’s endless repetition of “no collusion;” to Devin Nunes’ naked attempt to obstruct the Mueller investigation; to Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham’s referral of Christopher Steele rather than Don Jr for perjury charges; to Mark Meadows’ latest attempts to turn Lisa Page and Peter Strzok’s attempts to chase down someone leaking about Carter Page into a suggestion they themselves leaked; to Richard Burr’s cynical boasts that his committee hasn’t found stuff they wouldn’t chase down if they had been told of it, has invested everything on a gamble that Trump was telling the truth (or, more cynically, that he could stave off discovery of any conspiracy he entered into with Russia).

Republicans have invested a whole lot into attempting to give the President a clean bill of health.

Meanwhile, his campaign manager — a guy many of them have worked with — is presumably now doing the opposite, telling Mueller precisely what the Republicans have been working so hard to suppress for 18 months.

At some point, the ones who have been playing along even while admitting that the President probably did conspire with Russia (I know of some who believe that’s likely), will make their move.

If the GOP were less dysfunctional, they’d do it sooner rather than later, cut their losses with Trump to try to salvage the Pence presidency (whom they like far more anyway). But for now, that calculation of whether or not to do so is likely happening in private.

I’m in no way promising Manafort’s plea deal will set off two parallel floods of rats fleeing the Trump JDA or his presidency generally. These are Republicans, after all, and I’m sure they still would prefer obstructing the whole thing away.

I don’t think a mass abandonment of Trump is going to happen anytime soon.

But Trump’s lawyers do seem worried that could happen.

Trump needs his fellow Republicans to believe that Paul Manafort isn’t providing evidence that incriminates him. Because if they start to believe that, their calculations behind support for him may change, and change quickly.

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. 

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Strzok Is a Sideshow to Information that Directly Implicates the President

On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee will hold a public shaming of Peter Strzok, in yet another attempt to prove that the Mueller investigation is hopelessly tainted by Strzok’s belief — shared at the time by Republicans Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz — that Donald Trump is “an opportunist” who is “not fit to be President of the United States” and “Donald Trump can’t be trusted with common sense. Why would we trust him in the White House?”

But Strzok and his testimony is, in significant respect, a sideshow to evidence that directly implicates Donald Trump.

I say that based on the following information related to my own interview with the FBI.

  • DOJ probably used a clean team with me to ensure it shared nothing it already knew with me
  • Peter Strzok had no connection to my interview
  • Information I provided would change the importance of evidence otherwise obtained publicly

DOJ probably used a clean team with me

First, as I have suggested, I believe the team that interviewed me was a “clean team,” a prosecutor and FBI agents who weren’t centrally involved in the investigation I provided information on. I say that because the agents came into the interview with almost no information about either me or the person I was discussing.

My interview consisted of three sessions with two breaks. In the first session, the lead agent questioned me aggressively about a detail about the person I was discussing; he didn’t believe I had adequately vetted the detail. By the third session, however, he said something that suggested he had since confirmed the detail he had earlier challenged me on. From that I conclude that the FBI already knew of this person, but the agents who interviewed me did not.

I believe they didn’t know about me because, while the second agent seemed to know I would happily make small talk about cycling in northern Michigan, neither knew how well I know FBI surveillance (for the love of J Edgar Hoover, why would you put agents in a room with me without making that clear?). To be very clear: in the interview, they did not disclose anything I didn’t already know. But I did find myself citing information publicly available in the DIOG about the FBI’s rules on journalists to them. Given that that issue is one I’ve reported on more than virtually anyone else, I conclude they simply were unfamiliar with my work.

Peter Strzok had no connection to my interview

This point has gotten muddled, though I have tried to be very meticulous about it. As far as I understand things, I was not interviewed by Mueller’s team. Rather, I provided information to the FBI about a subject matter that was not part of the Mueller investigation at the time. One of the prosecutors who was in the loop on, but did not participate in, my interview was later incorporated into the Mueller team, and public reports say that one of the subject matters was as well.

Thus, whether my interview happened before or after Strzok was removed from Mueller’s team (remember I’m deliberately not sharing what date it happened), it doesn’t seem possible that he had any upstream or downstream involvement in it. So even if you believe Strzok tainted everything downstream of him, my information was neither up- nor downstream of him. It came into Mueller’s possession via a parallel stream.

Information I provided may have changed the importance of other publicly available information — information that implicates Trump directly

I apologize, but I’m going to be deliberately obscure on this point (and will neither confirm nor deny if I’m asked, as it’s not something I’ve run by the Mueller team). As I have said, I don’t think I was the first person to provide information on the person I went to the FBI about. I’ll add that this person has no discernible tie to Trump or the Republican Party. But I do think I was the first person to provide certain information about him that may have widened the scope of FBI’s understanding of the matter.

Subsequent to my interview with the FBI, I realized certain things about publicly available information. I’ve never shared that realization with the government, but it’s a realization they undoubtedly came to on their own from the same publicly available information.

And that realization I had and the government surely also had would have changed the importance of evidence Mueller received via means unrelated to Peter Strzok.

That evidence likely implicates the President directly.

Let me reiterate: when I went to the FBI, I did not believe this person had a direct tie to Trump or the Republicans at all and I know of none, still. The text about Mike Flynn is the only thing that provably suggested any tie (and that, only in conjunction with the Jared Kushner and Mike Flynn corroboration of it — at the time I received it I thought it was bullshit).  Any suspicions I had about a tie between information I had — and understood — when I went into that interview with the FBI and the Trump team would have been speculative and in any case tangential to the central point of what I went to the FBI about.

I believe that when the government had the same realization I had, the scope of their understanding about the person in question would have eventually expanded, though probably not as far as the information I provided may have. Which is to say the information that implicates the President in no way relies on my information, though my information would have made the import far more obvious. In any case, none of this comes from me. It’s just the evidence that is publicly available.

So tomorrow, as House Judiciary Republicans spend half the day or longer publicly flogging Peter Strzok, know that all that flogging cannot change the fact that key evidence in Mueller’s possession, evidence which I suspect implicates the President directly, has absolutely no tie to Peter Strzok at all. None. Tomorrow will be just one big giant show that in no way can alter the provenance of key, damning evidence in Mueller’s possession.

The Special Counsel’s office declined to comment for this post.

Name the Social Media Author: Lisa Page and Peter Strzok? Or Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz?

In Lindsey Graham’s questioning of DOJ IG Michale Horowitz in today’s hearing on the IG Report on the investigation of Hillary Clinton, he said, repeatedly, “none of this is normal.” By that, he meant the comments that Peter Strzok and Lisa Page had made about Trump back in 2016. (1:45)

Would you say that this investigation was done by the book?

[snip]

The whole idea that this is normal, folks, there’s nothing here normal. I don’t want you think the FBI does this day in and day out. This is not normal.

He then reviewed a couple of Peter Strzok and Lisa Page’s texts.

Trump’s not ever going to be come president right? right?

No, no he won’t. We’ll stop him.

[snip]

I want to believe the path you threw out in Andy’s office, that there’s no likelihood he’ll become President. It’s like an insurance policy.

[snip]

God Trump is a loathsome human.

Lindsey then repeated that such comments were not normal.

None of this is normal, folks.

Senator Graham, as a former longtime government lawyer as a JAG, should talk to Senator Graham how abnormal such thoughts about Donald Trump are.

“As early as March, these people hated Trump,” Graham said in the hearing, horrified by the thought that someone could come to such conclusions that early.

Former Texas Attorney General Ted Cruz was also alarmed about the mean things that Strzok and Page had said in their social media about Donald Trump. (3:04)

These are difficult days in the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Both the Department and the Bureau have long — decades long, in the Department’s case, century’s long traditions of fair and impartial administration of justice. There are thousands of honorable good men and women that work at the Bureau, that work at the Department of Justice, and yet their integrity has been called into question by misconduct and political bias at the highest level.

Cruz went on to quiz Horowitz about the things that Peter Strzok, as lead investigator, had said about Trump.

Is it true that during the period of the investigation in late 2015 and in 2016, when Mr. Strzok was in charge, he used an FBI device to call President [sic] Trump a quote Effing idiot, although I don’t believe he abbreviated it, a loathsome human, and a disaster?

Did he also say multiple times that, quote, Donald Trump cannot be President?

And on August 6, 2016, when FBI Counsel Lisa Page said to Strzok that, quote, maybe you’re meant to stay where you are because you’re meant to protect the country from this menace, meaning President [sic] Trump. Did Mr. Strzok reply that, quote, I can protect our country at many levels?

[snip]

And is it true that there are many similar statements by Mr. Strzok in the report?

[snip]

Does any of that conduct give anyone confidence in the fairness in the enforcement of justice?

These are some of the thoughts that this self-imagined arbiter of integrity had to say about Donald Trump during the period he defined, 2015 to 2016.

These are, of course, different things. Cruz and Lindsey were publicly sharing their thoughts about how unfit Donald Trump was to be President, how outrageous his racism, how unhinged he was. Strzok and Page were engaging in what they foolishly treated as private conversations, but did so on government owned devices at a time when they were conducting politically charged investigations.

I don’t mean to defend the decisions of Strzok and Page with regards to how they shared their thoughts about the unacceptability of Donald Trump.

But I will defend the principle that it is solidly normal to say that Trump is unacceptable.

And there are no better witnesses to that than Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz.

There’s one other lesson Lindsey teaches us. “I’m glad I don’t text and email,” he also said. If Graham and Cruz’ personal devices were investigated with the scrutiny that Strzok and Page’s were, Strzok and Page might look tame by comparison.

The Sekulow Questions, Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

In this series, I have been showing a framework for the investigation that the Mueller questions, as imagined by Jay Sekulow, maps out. Thus far I have shown:

  • Russians, led by the Aras Agalarov and his son, cultivated Trump for years by dangling two things: real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin.
  • During the election, the Russians and Trump appear to have danced towards a quid pro quo agreement, with the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for a commitment to sanctions relief, with some policy considerations thrown in.
  • During the transition period, Trump’s team took a series of actions that moved towards consummating the deal they had made with Russia, both in terms of policy concessions, particularly sanctions relief, and funding from Russian sources that could only be tapped if sanctions were lifted. The Trump team took measures to keep those actions secret.
  • Starting in January 2017, Trump came to learn that FBI was investigating Mike Flynn. His real reasons for firing Flynn remain unreported, but it appears he had some concerns that the investigation into Flynn would expose him.

This post lays out the questions on obstruction that lead up to Comey’s firing on May 9, 2017.

February 14, 2017: What was the purpose of your Feb. 14, 2017, meeting with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

On February 13, Trump fired Mike Flynn. The explanation he gave was one of the concerns Sally Yates had given to Don McGahn when she told him about the interview, that Flynn had lied to Mike Pence about having discussed sanctions relief with Sergey Kislyak on December 29, 2016. Except, coming from Trump, that excuse makes no sense, both because he had already shown he didn’t care about the counterintelligence implications of that lie by including Flynn in the January 28 phone call with Putin and other sensitive meetings. But also because at least seven people in the White House knew what occurred in Flynn’s calls, and Pence probably did too.

Against that backdrop, the next day, Trump had Jim Comey stay late after an oval office meeting so he could ask him to drop the investigation into Flynn. Leading up to this meeting, Trump had already:

  • Asked Comey to investigate the pee tape allegations so he could exonerate the President
  • Asked if FBI leaks
  • Asked if Comey was loyal shortly after asking him, for the third time, if he wanted to keep his job
  • Claimed he distrusted Flynn’s judgment because he had delayed telling Trump about a congratulatory call from Putin

After Trump asked everyone in the meeting to leave him and Comey alone, both Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner lingered.

While the description of this meeting usually focuses on the Flynn discussion, according to Comey’s discussion, it also focused closely on leaks, which shows how Trump linked the two in his mind.

Here’s what Comey claims Trump said about Flynn:

He began by saying he wanted to “talk about Mike Flynn.” He then said that, although Flynn “hadn’t done anything wrong” in his call with the Russians (a point he made at least two more times in the conversation), he had to let him go because he misled the Vice President, whom he described as “a good guy.” He explained that he just couldn’t have Flynn misleading the vice President and, in any event, he had other concerns about Flynn, and had a great guy coming in, so he had to let Flynn go.

[a discussion of Sean Spicer’s presser explaining the firing and another about the leaks of his calls to Mexican and Australian leaders]

He then referred at length to the leaks relating to Mike Flynn’s call with the Russians, which he stressed was not wrong in any way (“he made lots of calls”), but that the leaks were terrible.

[Comey’s agreement with Trump about the problem with leaks, but also his explanation that the leaks may not have been FBI; Reince Priebus tries to interrupt but Trump sends him away for a minute or two]

He then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying that Flynn is a good guy, and has been through a lot. He misled the Vice President but he didn’t do anything wrong on the call. He said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” I replied by saying, “I agree he is a good guy,” but said no more.

In addition to providing Trump an opportunity to rebut Comey, asking this question might aim to understand the real reason Trump fired Flynn.

March 2, 2017: What did you think and do regarding the recusal of Mr. Sessions?  What efforts did you make to try to get him to change his mind? Did you discuss whether Mr. Sessions would protect you, and reference past attorneys general?

On March 2, citing consultations with senior department officials, Sessions recused himself “from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States,” while noting that, “This announcement should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation or suggestive of the scope of any such investigation.” At that point, Dana Boente became Acting Attorney General for the investigation.

Note that this question isn’t just about Trump’s response to Sessions’ recusal — it’s also about what he did in advance of it. That’s likely because even before Sessions recused, Trump got Don McGahn to try to pressure the Attorney General not to do so. He also called Comey the night before and “talked about Sessions a bit.” When Sessions ultimately did recuse, Trump had a blow-up in which he expressed a belief that Attorneys General should protect their president.

[T]he president erupted in anger in front of numerous White House officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him. Mr. Trump said he had expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him the way he believed Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general, had done for his brother John F. Kennedy and Eric H. Holder Jr. had for Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump then asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

In the days after the Sessions recusal, Trump also kicked off the year-long panic about being wiretapped.

On Thursday, Jeff Sessions recused from the election-related parts of this investigation. In response, Trump went on a rant (inside the White House) reported to be as angry as any since he became President. The next morning, Trump responded to a Breitbart article alleging a coup by making accusations that suggest any wiretaps involved in this investigation would be improper. Having reframed wiretaps that would be targeted at Russian spies as illegitimate, Trump then invited Nunes to explore any surveillance of campaign officials, even that not directly tied to Trump himself.

And Nunes obliged.

Don McGahn and Jeff Sessions, among others, have already provided their side of this story to Mueller’s team.

March 2 to March 20, 2017: What did you know about the F.B.I.’s investigation into Mr. Flynn and Russia in the days leading up to Mr. Comey’s testimony on March 20, 2017?

As Sekulow has recorded Mueller’s question, the special counsel wants to know what Trump already knew of the investigation into Mike Flynn before Comey publicly confirmed it in Congressional testimony. This may be a baseline question, to measure how much of Trump’s response was a reaction to the investigation becoming public.

But there are other things that went down in the weeks leading up to Comey’s testimony. Devin Nunes had already made considerable efforts to undermine the investigation; he would have been briefed on the investigation on March 2 (see footnote 75), the same day as Sessions recused.Trump went into a panic on March 4, just days after Sessions recusal, about being wiretapped; I’m wondering if there’s any evidence that Trump or Steven Bannon seeded the Breitbart story that kicked off the claim of a coup against Trump. Also of note is Don McGahn’s delay in conveying the records retention request about the investigation to the White House, even as Sean Spicer conducted a device search to learn who was using encrypted messengers.

March 20, 2017: What did you do in reaction to the March 20 testimony? Describe your contacts with intelligence officials.

On March 20, in testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, Comey publicly confirmed the counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s campaign.

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.

In addition to questions about the investigation (including the revelation that FBI had not briefed the Gang of Eight on it until recently; we now know the briefing took place the day Jeff Sessions recused which suggests FBI avoided letting both Flynn and Sessions know details of it), Republicans used the hearing to delegitimize unmasking and the IC conclusion that Putin had affirmatively supported Trump.

Sekulow’s questions (or NYT’s rendition of them) lump the hearing, at which Admiral Mike Rogers also testified, in with Trump’s pressure on his spooks to issue a statement that he wasn’t under investigation. Two days after the hearing, Trump pressured Mike Pompeo and Dan Coats to intervene with Comey to stop the investigation.

It’s possible that the term “intelligence officials” includes HPSCI Chair Devin Nunes. On March 21, Nunes made his nighttime trip to the White House to accelerate the unmasking panic. Significantly, the panic didn’t just pertain to Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak; it also focused on the revelation of Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan’s secret trip to New York and probably other conversations with the Middle Eastern partners that have become part of this scandal.

The day after Nunes’ nighttime trip, Trump called Coats and Rogers (and probably Pompeo) and asked them to publicly deny any evidence of a conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia; NSA documented the call to Rogers.

It’s now clear that the calls Nunes complained about being unmasked actually are evidence of a conspiracy (and as such, they probably provided an easy roadmap for Mueller to find the non-Russian conversations).

March 30, 2017: What was the purpose of your call to Mr. Comey on March 30?

On March 30, Trump called Comey on official phone lines and asked him to exonerate him on the Russia investigation. According to Comey, the conversation included the following:

He then said he was trying to run the country and the cloud of this Russia business was making that difficult. He said he thinks he would have won the health care vote but for the cloud. He then went on at great length, explaining that he has nothing to do with Russia (has a letter from the largest law firm in DC saying he has gotten no income from Russia). was not involved with hookers in Russia (can you imagine me, hookers? I have a beautiful wife, and it has been very painful). is bringing a personal lawsuit against Christopher Steele, always advised people to assume they were being recorded in Russia. has accounts now from those who travelled with him to Miss Universe pageant that he didn’t do anything, etc.

He asked what he could do to lift the cloud. I explained that we were running it down as quickly as possible and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our Good Housekeeping seal of approval, but we had to do our work. He agreed, but then returned to the problems this was causing him, went on at great length about how bad he was for Russia because of his commitment to more oil and more nukes (ours are 40 years old).

He said something about the hearing last week. I responded by telling him I wasn’t there as a volunteer and he asked who was driving that, was it Nunes who wanted it? I said all the leadership wanted to know what was going on and mentioned that Grassley had even held up the DAG nominee to demand information. I said we had briefed the leadership on exactly what we were doing and who we were investigating.

I reminded him that I had told him we weren’t investigating him and that I had told the Congressional leadership the same thing. He said it would be great if that could get out and several times asked me to find a way to get that out.

He talked about the guy he read about in the Washington Post today (NOTE: I think he meant Sergei Millian) and said he didn’t know him at all. He said that if there was “some satellite” (NOTE: I took this to mean some associate of his or his campaign) that did something, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything and hoped I would find a way to get out that we weren’t investigating him.

Trump also raised “McCabe thing,” yet another apparent attempt to tie the retention of McCabe to public exoneration from Comey.

Given the news that Sergei Millian had been pitching George Papadopoulos on a Trump Tower deal in the post-election period, I wonder whether Trump’s invocation of him in conjunction with “some satellite” is a reference to Papadopoulos, who had already been interviewed twice by this time. Nunes would have learned of his inclusion in the investigation in the March 2 CI briefing.

On top of the clear evidence that this call represented a (well-documented, including a contemporaneous call to Dana Boente) effort to quash the investigation and get public exoneration, the conversation as presented by Comey also includes several bogus statements designed to exonerate him. For example, Millian had actually worked with Trump in past years selling condos to rich Russians. Trump never did sue Steele (Michael Cohen sued BuzzFeed and Fusion early this year, but he dropped it in the wake of the FBI raid on him). And the March 8 letter from Morgan Lewis certifying he didn’t get income from Russia is unrelated to whether he has been utterly reliant on investment from Russia (to say nothing of the huge sums raised from Russian oligarchs for his inauguration). In other words, like the earlier false claim that Trump hadn’t stayed overnight in Moscow during the Miss Universe pageant and therefore couldn’t have been compromised, even at this point, Trump’s attempts to persuade the FBI he was innocent were based off false claims.

March 30, 2017: Flynn asks for immunity

Mike Flynn first asked Congress for immunity on March 30, 2017, with Trump backing the effort in a tweet.

A later question deals with this topic — and suggests Trump may have contacted Flynn directly about immunity at this time, but that contact is not public, if it occurred.

April 11, 2017: What was the purpose of your call to Mr. Comey on April 11, 2017?

At 8:26AM on April 11, Comey returned a call to Trump. Trump asked again for Comey to lift the cloud on him.

He said he was following up to see if I did what he had asked last time–getting out that he personally is not under investigation. I relied that I had passed the request to the Acting AG and had not heard back from him. He spoke for a bit about why it was so important. He is trying to do work for the country, visit with foreign leaders, and any cloud, even a little cloud gets in the way of that. They keep bringing up the Russia thing as an excuse for losing the election.

[snip]

He then added, “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal, we had that thing, you know.”

[snip]

He then said that I was doing a great job and wished me well.

April 11, 2017: What was the purpose of your April 11, 2017, statement to Maria Bartiromo?

On April 12, Fox Business News broadcast an interview with Maria Bartiromo (Mueller must know it was recorded on April 11, so presumably after the call with Comey). There are three key aspects of the interview. First, in the context of Trump’s failures to staff his agencies, Bartiromo asks why Comey is still around [note, I bet in Hope Hicks’ several days of interviews, they asked her if these questions were planted]. Given public reports, Trump may have already been thinking about firing Comey, though Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, and Don McGahn staved off the firing for weeks.

TRUMP:  I wish it would be explained better, the obstructionist nature, though, because a lot of times I’ll say why doesn’t so and so have people under him or her?

The reason is because we can’t get them approved.

BARTIROMO:  Well, people are still wondering, though, they’re scratching their heads, right, so many Obama-era staffers are still here.

For example, was it a mistake not to ask Jim Comey to step down from the FBI at the outset of your presidency?

Is it too late now to ask him to step down?

TRUMP:  No, it’s not too late, but, you know, I have confidence in him.  We’ll see what happens.  You know, it’s going to be interesting.

On the same day he had asked Comey to publicly state he wasn’t being interviewed, Trump said he still had confidence in Comey, even while suggesting a lot of other people were angling for the job (something he had also said in an earlier exchange with Comey).  Trump immediately pivoted to claiming Comey had kept Hillary from being charged.

TRUMP: But, you know, we have to just — look, I have so many people that want to come into this administration.  They’re so excited about this administration and what’s happening — bankers, law enforcement — everybody wants to come into this administration.  Don’t forget, when Jim Comey came out, he saved Hillary Clinton.  People don’t realize that.  He saved her life, because — I call it Comey [one].  And I joke about it a little bit.

When he was reading those charges, she was guilty on every charge.  And then he said, she was essentially OK.  But he — she wasn’t OK, because she was guilty on every charge.

And then you had two and then you had three.

But Hillary Clinton won — or Comey won.  She was guilty on every charge.

BARTIROMO:  Yes.

TRUMP:  So Director Comey…

BARTIROMO:  Well, that’s (INAUDIBLE)…

TRUMP:  No, I’m just saying…

BARTIROMO:  (INAUDIBLE)?

TRUMP:  Well, because I want to give everybody a good, fair chance.  Director Comey was very, very good to Hillary Clinton, that I can tell you.  If he weren’t, she would be, right now, going to trial.

From there, Bartiromo asks Trump why President Obama had changed the rules on sharing EO 12333 data. Trump suggests it is so his administration could be spied on, using the Susan Rice unmasking pseudo scandal as shorthand for spying on his team.

BARTIROMO:  Mr. President, just a final question for you.

In the last weeks of the Obama presidency, he changed all the rules in terms of the intelligence agencies, allowing them to share raw data.

TRUMP:  Terrible.

BARTIROMO:  Why do you think he did this?

TRUMP:  Well, I’m going to let you figure that one out.  But it’s so obvious.  When you look at Susan Rice and what’s going on, and so many people are coming up to me and apologizing now.  They’re saying you know, you were right when you said that.

Perhaps I didn’t know how right I was, because nobody knew the extent of it.

Undoubtedly, Mueller wants to know whether these comments relate to his comments to Comey (and, as I suggested, Hope Hicks may have helped elucidate that). The invocation of Hillary sets up one rationale for firing Comey, but one that contradicts with the official reason.

But the conversation also reflects Trump’s consistent panic that his actions (and those of his aides) will be captured by wiretaps.

May 3, 2017: What did you think and do about Mr. Comey’s May 3, 2017, testimony?

On May 3, Comey testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee. It covered leaks (including whether he had ever authorized any, a question implicated in the Andrew McCabe firing), and the hacked email raising questions about whether Lynch could investigate Hillary. Comey described his actions in the Hillary investigation at length. This testimony would be cited by Rod Rosenstein in his letter supporting the firing of Comey. In addition, there were a number of questions about the Russia investigation, including questions focused on Trump, that would have driven Trump nuts.

Along with getting a reaction to the differences between what Comey said in testimony and Trump’s own version (which by this point he had shared several times), Mueller likely wants to know what Trump thinks of Comey’s claim that FBI treated the Russian investigation just like the Hillary one.

With respect to the Russian investigation, we treated it like we did with the Clinton investigation. We didn’t say a word about it until months into it and then the only thing we’ve confirmed so far about this is the same thing with the Clinton investigation. That we are investigating. And I would expect, we’re not going to say another peep about it until we’re done. And I don’t know what will be said when we’re done, but that’s the way we handled the Clinton investigation as well.

In a series of questions that were likely developed in conjunction with Trump, Lindsey Graham asked whether Comey stood by his earlier claim that there was an active investigation.

GRAHAM: Did you ever talk to Sally Yates about her concerns about General Flynn being compromised?

COMEY: I did, I don’t whether I can talk about it in this forum. But the answer is yes.

GRAHAM: That she had concerns about General Flynn and she expressed those concerns to you?

COMEY: Correct.

GRAHAM: We’ll talk about that later. Do you stand by your house testimony of March 20 that there was no surveillance of the Trump campaign that you’re aware of?

COMEY: Correct.

GRAHAM: You would know about it if they were, is that correct?

COMEY: I think so, yes.

GRAHAM: OK, Carter Page; was there a FISA warrant issued regarding Carter Page’s activity with the Russians.

COMEY: I can’t answer that here.

GRAHAM: Did you consider Carter page a agent of the campaign?

COMEY: Same answer, I can’t answer that here.

GRAHAM: OK. Do you stand by your testimony that there is an active investigation counterintelligence investigation regarding Trump campaign individuals in the Russian government as to whether not to collaborate? You said that in March…

COMEY: To see if there was any coordination between the Russian effort and peoples…

GRAHAM: Is that still going on?

COMEY: Yes.

GRAHAM: OK. So nothing’s changed. You stand by those two statements?

Curiously (not least because of certain investigative dates), Sheldon Whitehouse asked some pointed questions about whether Comey could reveal if an investigation was being starved by inaction.

WHITEHOUSE: Let’s say you’ve got a hypothetically, a RICO investigation and it has to go through procedures within the department necessary to allow a RICO investigation proceed if none of those have ever been invoked or implicated that would send a signal that maybe not much effort has been dedicated to it.

Would that be a legitimate question to ask? Have these — again, you’d have to know that it was a RICO investigation. But assuming that we knew that that was the case with those staging elements as an investigation moves forward and the internal department approvals be appropriate for us to ask about and you to answer about?

COMEY: Yes, that’s a harder question. I’m not sure it would be appropriate to answer it because it would give away what we were looking at potentially.

WHITEHOUSE: Would it be appropriate to ask if — whether any — any witnesses have been interviewed or whether any documents have been obtained pursuant to the investigation?

Richard Blumenthal asked Comey whether he could rule Trump in or out as a target of the investigation and specifically within that context, suggested appointing a special counsel (Patrick Leahy had already made the suggestion for a special counsel).

BLUMENTHAL: Have you — have you ruled out the president of the United States?

COMEY: I don’t — I don’t want people to over interpret this answer, I’m not going to comment on anyone in particular, because that puts me down a slope of — because if I say no to that then I have to answer succeeding questions. So what we’ve done is brief the chair and ranking on who the U.S. persons are that we’ve opened investigations on. And that’s — that’s as far as we’re going to go, at this point.

BLUMENTHAL: But as a former prosecutor, you know that when there’s an investigation into several potentially culpable individuals, the evidence from those individuals and the investigation can lead to others, correct?

COMEY: Correct. We’re always open-minded about — and we follow the evidence wherever it takes us.

BLUMENTHAL: So potentially, the president of the United States could be a target of your ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russian interference in our election, correct?

COMEY: I just worry — I don’t want to answer that — that — that seems to be unfair speculation. We will follow the evidence, we’ll try and find as much as we can and we’ll follow the evidence wherever it leads.

BLUMENTHAL: Wouldn’t this situation be ideal for the appointment of a special prosecutor, an independent counsel, in light of the fact that the attorney general has recused himself and, so far as your answers indicate today, no one has been ruled out publicly in your ongoing investigation. I understand the reasons that you want to avoid ruling out anyone publicly. But for exactly that reason, because of the appearance of a potential conflict of interest, isn’t this situation absolutely crying out for a special prosecutor?

Chuck Grassley asked Comey the first questions about what would become the year-long focus on Christopher Steele’s involvement in the FISA application on Carter Page.

GRASSLEY: On — on March 6, I wrote to you asking about the FBI’s relationship with the author of the trip — Trump-Russia dossier Christopher Steele. Most of these questions have not been answered, so I’m going to ask them now. Prior to the bureau launching the investigation of alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, did anyone from the FBI have interactions with Mr. Steele regarding the issue?

COMEY: That’s not a question that I can answer in this forum. As you know, I — I briefed you privately on this and if there’s more that’s necessary then I’d be happy to do it privately.

GRASSLEY: Have you ever represented to a judge that the FBI had interaction with Mr. Steele whether by name or not regarding alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia prior to the Bureau launching its investigation of the matter?

COMEY: I have to give you the same answer Mr. Chairman.

In a second round, Whitehouse asked about a Trump tweet suggesting Comey had given Hillary a free pass.

WHITEHOUSE: Thank you.

A couple of quick matters, for starters. Did you give Hillary Clinton quote, “a free pass for many bad deeds?” There was a tweet to that effect from the president.

COMEY: Oh, no, not — that was not my intention, certainly.

WHITEHOUSE: Well, did you give her a free pass for many bad deeds, whatever your intention may have been?

COMEY: We conducted a competent, honest and independent investigation, closed it while offering transparency to the American people. I believed what I said, there was not a prosecutable case, there.

Al Franken asked Comey whether the investigation might access Trump’s tax returns.

FRANKEN: I just want to clarify something — some of the answers that you gave me for example in response to director — I asked you would President Trump’s tax returns be material to the — such an investigation — the Russian investigation and does the investigation have access to President Trump’s tax returns and some other questions you answered I can’t say. And I’d like to get a clarification on that. Is it that you cant say or that you can’t say in this setting?

COMEY: That I won’t answer questions about the contours of the investigation. As I sit here I don’t know whether I would do it in a closed setting either. But for sure — I don’t want to begin answering questions about what we’re looking at and how.

Update: Contemporaneous reporting makes it clear that Trump was particularly irked by Comey’s admission that “It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election,” as that diminished Trump’s win. (h/t TC)

May 9, 2017: Regarding the decision to fire Mr. Comey: When was it made? Why? Who played a role?

The May 3 hearing is reportedly the precipitating event for Trump heading to Bedminster with Ivanka, Jared, and Stephen Miller on May 4 and deciding to fire Comey. Trump had Miller draft a letter explaining the firing, which Don McGahn would significantly edit when he saw it on May 8. McGahn also got Sessions and Rosenstein, who were peeved about different aspects of the hearing (those focused on Comey’s actions with regards to Hillary), to write letters supporting Comey’s firing.

Given that Mueller has the original draft of the firing letter and testimony from McGahn, Rosenstein, and Sessions, this question will largely allow Trump to refute evidence Mueller has already confirmed.

RESOURCES

These are some of the most useful resources in mapping these events.

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

Sally Yates and James Clapper Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, May 8, 2017

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

Part One: The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up

Part Two: The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief

Part Three: The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

The Significance of the January 12 Reauthorization of Carter Page’s FISA Order

I’d like to riff on a small but significant detail revealed in the Schiff memo. This paragraph adds detail to the same general timeframe for the orders obtained against Page laid out in the Nunes memo: the first application approved on October 21, with reauthorizations in early January, early April, and late June.

Republican judges approved the Carter Page FISA orders

The passage also narrows down the judges who approved the orders, necessarily including FISC’s sole Reagan appointee Raymond Dearie and FISC’s sole Poppy appointee Anne Conway, plus two of the following W appointees:

 

  • Rosemary Collyer (worst FISC judge ever)
  • Claire Eagan (OK, she may be worse than Collyer)
  • Robert Kugler
  • Michael Mosman (a good one)
  • Dennis Saylor (also good)

I won’t dwell on this here, but it means the conspiracy theory that Obama appointee Rudolph Contreras approved the order, and because of that recused in the Flynn case, is false.

The first reapplication came days after the dossier and a second Isikoff article came out

Back to the timing. The footnotes provide the dates for two of the other applications: June 29 (in footnotes 12, 14, 15, 16) and January 12 (footnote 31), meaning the third must date between April 1 and 12 (the latter date being 90 days after the second application).

As I laid out here, the timing of that second application is critical to the dispute about whether FBI handled Michael Isikoff’s September 23 article appropriately, because it places the reapplication either before or after two key events: the publication of the Steele dossier on January 10 and Isikoff’s publication of this story on January 11. Isikoff’s January article included a link back to his earlier piece, making it fairly clear that Steele had been his source for the earlier article. The publication of that second Isikoff piece should have tipped off the FBI that the earlier article had been based on Steele (not least because the second Isikoff piece IDs Steele as an “FBI asset,” which surely got the Bureau’s attention).

FBI didn’t respond to Isikoff in time for the second application

Now, you could say that FBI should have immediately reacted to the Isikoff piece by alerting the FISC, but that’s suggesting bureaucracies work far faster than they do. Moreover, the application would not have been drafted on January 12. Except in emergency, the FISC requires a week notice on applications. That says the original application would have been submitted on or before January 5, before the dossier and second Isikoff piece.

FBI appears to have dealt with the Isikoff article interestingly. The body of the Schiff memo explains that Isikoff’s article, along with another that might be either Josh Rogin’s or Julia Ioffe’s articles from the time period, both of which cite Isikoff (Rogin’s is the only one of the three that gets denials from Page directly), were mentioned to show that Page was denying his Moscow meetings were significant.

That redacted sentence must refer to the January 12 application, because that footnote is the only footnote citing that application and nothing else in the paragraph discusses it.

An earlier passage describes the first notice to FISC, in that same January 12 application, “that Steele told the FBI that he made his unauthorized media disclosure because of his frustration at Director Comey’s public announcement shortly before the election that the FBI reopened its investigation into candidate Clinton’s email use.”

It’s possible that redacted sentence distinguishes what Grassley and Graham did in their referral of Steele. The first application stated that, “The FBI does not believe that [Steele] directly provided this information to the press.” Whereas the January reapplication stated in a footnote that the FBI, “did not believe that Steele gave information to Yahoo News that ‘published the September 23 News Article.” Within a day or so, the FBI should have realized that was not the case.

So it’s true FBI was denying that the September Isikoff article was based off Steele reporting after the time they should have known it was, but that can probably best be explained by the application timelines and the lassitude of bureaucracy.

The submission of the preliminary second application likely coincides with the Obama briefing on the Russian threat

As noted above, the second application would have been submitted a full week earlier than it otherwise would have had to have been given the 90-day term on FISA orders targeting Americans. That means the preliminary application was probably submitted by January 5. Not only would that have been too early to incorporate the response to the dossier, most notably the second Isikoff piece, but it even preceded Trump’s briefing on the Russian tampering, which took place January 6.

It’s also interesting timing for another reason: it means FBI may have submitted its reapplication targeting Page on the same day that Jim Comey and Sally Yates briefed Obama, Susan Rice, and Joe Biden, in part, on the fact that Putin’s mild response to the election hack sanctions rolled out in late December arose in response to requests from Mike Flynn to Sergey Kislyak. As I addressed here, that briefing has become a subject of controversy again, as Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham tried to suggest that the Steele dossier may have contributed to the investigation of Flynn.

But contrary to what the Republican Senators claimed in their letter to Rice on the subject, Rice claims the Steele dossier and the counterintelligence investigation never came up.

The memorandum to file drafted by Ambassador Rice memorialized an important national security discussion between President Obama and the FBI Director and the Deputy Attorney General. President Obama and his national security team were justifiably concerned about potential risks to the Nation’s security from sharing highly classified information about Russia with certain members of the Trump transition team, particularly Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. In light of concerning communications between members of the Trump team and Russian officials, before and after the election, President Obama, on behalf of his national security team, appropriately sought the FBI and the Department of Justice’s guidance on this subject. In the conversation Ambassador Rice documented, there was no discussion of Christopher Steele or the Steele dossier, contrary to the suggestion in your letter.

Given the importance and sensitivity of the subject matter, and upon the advice of the White House Counsel’s Office, Ambassador Rice created a permanent record of the discussion. Ambassador Rice memorialized the discussion on January 20, because that was the first opportunity she had to do so, given the particularly intense responsibilities of the National Security Advisor during the remaining days of the Administration and transition. Ambassador Rice memorialized the discussion in an email sent to herself during the morning of January 20, 2017. The time stamp reflected on the email is not accurate, as Ambassador Rice departed the White House shortly before noon on January 20. While serving as National Security Advisor, Ambassador Rice was not briefed on the existence of any FBI investigation into allegations of collusion between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia, and she later learned of the fact of this investigation from Director Comey’s subsequent public testimony. Ambassador Rice was not informed of any FISA applications sought by the FBI in its investigation, and she only learned of them from press reports after leaving office.

Grassley and Graham appear to have confused the IC investigation with the counterintelligence investigation, only the latter of which incorporated the Steele dossier.

In any case, one reason the apparent coincidence between the January 5 briefing and the reapplication process is important is it suggests it was also pushed through a week early to provide room for error with the inauguration. If a FISA order on January 19 goes awry, it might not get approved under President Trump. But if anything happened to that application submitted around January 5, it’d be approved with plenty of time before the new Administration took over.

Intelligence from Page’s FISA collection helped support the government’s high confidence that Russia attempted to influence the election

Here’s one of the most interesting details in the Schiff memo, however. This passage describes that the wiretap on Page obtained important intelligence, though it won’t tell us what it is.

That redacted footnote, number 14, describes that the redacted intelligence is part of what gave the Intelligence Community “high confidence”

Admittedly, this footnote, with its citation to the October and June applications, is uncertain on this point. But for the wiretap on Page to have supported the December ICA assessment of the Russian tampering, then it would have had to have involved collection from that first period.

If that’s right, then it suggests the reason the Obama Administration may have applied for the order renewal early, the same day Comey and Yates briefed Obama on the ICA and Flynn, is because something from that order (possibly targeting Page’s December trip to Moscow) added to the IC’s certainty that the Russians had pulled off an election operation.

New Right Hook: Mike Flynn Lied When He Admitted to a Judge He Lied to the FBI

Apparently, the latest Grassley-Graham effort to spin a very understandable reaction to the discovery that the incoming National Security Advisor might be compromised by Russia — to have a meeting about whether that requires a change in the government’s investigative approach and then memorialize the meeting — as a Christopher Steele plots is not an isolated event. To accompany the Grassley-Graham effort to obscure, the right wing is now seeing a conspiracy, best captured in this Byron York piece with follow-ups elsewhere, in Mike Flynn’s guilty plea.

At issue is leaked March 2017 testimony from Jim Comey (in a piece complaining about the leak of Flynn’s FISA intercepts) that the FBI agents who interviewed Flynn on January 24, 2017 believed any inaccuracies in Flynn’s interview with the FBI were unintentional.

In March 2017, then-FBI Director James Comey briefed a number of Capitol Hill lawmakers on the Trump-Russia investigation.

[snip]

According to two sources familiar with the meetings, Comey told lawmakers that the FBI agents who interviewed Flynn did not believe that Flynn had lied to them, or that any inaccuracies in his answers were intentional. As a result, some of those in attendance came away with the impression that Flynn would not be charged with a crime pertaining to the Jan. 24 interview.

From that, York spins out a slew of laughable claims: Mike Flynn would have no reason to address the FBI amid swirling coverage of lies about Russian ties! The Deputy Attorney General “sends” FBI agents to conduct interviews! DOJ “effectively gave” Jim Comey authority to decide Hillary’s fate but then fired him for usurping that authority! They lead up to York’s theory that DOJ may have overridden the FBI agents in forcing Flynn to sign a plea admitting he made false statements.

It could be that the FBI agents who did the questioning were overruled by Justice Department officials who came up with theories like Flynn’s alleged violation of the Logan Act or his alleged vulnerability to blackmail.

[snip]

To some Republicans, it appears the Justice Department used a never-enforced law and a convoluted theory as a pretext to question Flynn — and then, when FBI questioners came away believing Flynn had not lied to them, forged ahead with a false-statements prosecution anyway. The Flynn matter is at the very heart of the Trump-Russia affair, and there is still a lot to learn about it.

Along the way, York feigns apparent ignorance of everything he knows about how criminal investigations work.

For example, York pretends to be unaware of all the pieces of evidence that have surfaced since that time that have changed the context of Flynn’s January 24 interview. There’s the weird dinner Trump invited Comey to on January 27, a day after Sally Yates first raised concerns about the interview with White House Counsel Don McGahn, where Trump told Comey “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” There’s the more troubling meeting on February 14, where (after asserting that Flynn had indeed lied to Mike Pence) Trump asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation.

He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President. He then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

There’s the March 30 phone call in which the President complained about the “cloud” of the Russian investigation. There’s the April 11 phone call where the President complained about that “cloud” again, and asked for public exoneration. There’s the newly reported Don McGahn call following that conversation, to Dana Boente asking for public exoneration. There’s Comey’s May 9 firing, just in time for Trump to tell Russians on May 10 that firing that “nut job” relieved pressure on him. There’s the letter Trump drafted with Stephen Miller’s help that made it clear Comey was being fired because of the Russian investigation.

Already by the time of Comey’s firing, the White House claim that Mike Flynn got fired because he lied about his conversations to Sergey Kislyak to Mike Pence, was falling apart.

Then, in August, the Mueller team obtained the transition emails that transition lawyers had withheld from congressional requests (and therefore from Mueller), including those of Flynn himself, Jared Kushner, and KT McFarland. The transition would go on to squawk that these emails, which didn’t include Trump and dated to before Trump became President, were subject to executive privilege, alerting Mueller that the emails would have been withheld because the emails (some sent from Mar-A-Lago) reflected the involvement of Trump. Not to mention that the emails tied conversations about Russia to the “thrown election.”

Then there’s Jared Kushner’s interview with Mueller’s team in the weeks before Mike Flynn decided to plead guilty. At it, prosecutors asked Jared if he had any information that might exculpate Flynn.

One source said the nature of this conversation was principally to make sure Kushner doesn’t have information that exonerates Flynn.

There were reports that Flynn felt like he had been sold out just before he flipped, and I would bet this is part of the reason why. In addition to instructions regarding the sanction calls with Kislyak, which were directed by KT McFarland, Flynn’s statement of offense describes someone we know to be Kushner directing Flynn to call countries, including Russia, to try to persuade them to avoid a vote on Israeli West Bank settlements.

On or about December 22, 2016, a very senior member of the Presidential Transition Team directed FLYNN to contact officials from foreign governments, including Russia, to learn where each government stood on the resolution and to influence those governments to delay the vote or defeat the resolution.

Granted, Mueller’s team didn’t make the point of the lies as obvious as they did with the George Papadopoulos plea, where they made clear Papadopoulos lied to hide that he learned of the “dirt” on Hillary in the form of emails after he started on the campaign and whether he told the campaign about those emails (not to mention that he had contacts with Ivan Timofeev).

Mueller’s not telling us why Flynn’s lies came to have more significance as Mueller collected more and more evidence.

But what they make clear is that the significance of Flynn’s lies was not, as it first appeared, that he was trying to hide the subject of the calls from Mike Pence. I mean, maybe he did lie to Pence about those calls. But discussions about how to work with the Russians were not secret; they included at least Kushner, McFarland, Tom Bossert, Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, and Sean Spicer. Some of those conversations happened with McFarland emailing while at Mar-A-Lago with the President-Elect.

So given the weight of the evidence collected since, Flynn’s lies now appear neither an effort to avoid incriminating himself on Logan Act charges, nor an effort to cover up a lie he told others in the White House, but the opposite. His lies appear to have hidden how broadly held the Russian discussions were within the transition team, not to mention that he was ordered to make the requests he did, possibly by people relaying orders from Trump, rather than doing them on his own.

That, by itself, doesn’t make the Flynn conversations (as distinct from the lies) illegal. But it means Trump went to great lengths to try to prevent Flynn from suffering any consequences for lying to hide the degree to which negotiations with Russia during the transition period were the official policy of the Trump team. And when Trump (or rather, his son-in-law) stopped protecting Flynn on that point, Flynn decided to admit to a judge that he had been knowingly lying.

It doesn’t take a conspiracy to realize that the FBI Agents who interviewed Flynn in January had none of the evidence since made available largely because Trump tried so hard to protect Flynn that he fired his FBI Director over it. It takes looking at the evidence, which makes it clear why those false statements looked very different as it became clear Flynn, after acting on Trump transition team instructions, got sold out as other senior Trump officials started trying to protect themselves.

Graham and Grassley Are Seeing Christopher Steele’s Ghost Where Mike Flynn Lurks

I get it. Trump is making us all crazy. But Chuck “Ethanol flipflop” Grassley and Lindsey “Trump’s best golfing buddy” Graham are going nuts not because of Trump but because of Christopher Steele. They’ve just written a letter to Susan Rice asking her why she emailed herself a letter, memorializing a January 5, 2017 meeting about the Russian hack, just before she left the White House.

In this email to yourself, you purport to document a meeting that had taken place more than two weeks before, on January 5, 2017. You wrote:

On January 5, following a briefing by IC leadership on Russian hacking during the 2016 Presidential election, President Obama had a brief follow-on conversation with FBI Director Jim Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in the Oval Office. Vice President Biden and I were also present.

That meeting reportedly included a discussion of the Steele dossier and the FBI’ s investigation of its claims. 1 Your email continued:

President Obama began the conversation by stressing his continued commitment to ensuring that every aspect of this issue is handled by the Intelligence and law enforcement communities “by the book”. The President stressed that he is not asking about, initiating or instructing anything from a law enforcement perspective. He reiterated that our law enforcement team needs to proceed as it normally would by the book. From a national security perspective, however, President Obama said he wants to be sure that, as we engage with the incoming team, we are mindful to ascertain if there is any reason that we cannot share information fully as it relates to Russia.

The next part of your email remains classified. After that, you wrote:

The President asked Comey to inform him if anything changes in the next few weeks that should affect how we share classified information with the incoming team. Comey said he would.

It strikes us as odd that, among your activities in the final moments on the final day of the Obama administration, you would feel the need to send yourself such an unusual email purporting to document a conversation involving President Obama and his interactions with the FBI regarding the Trump/Russia investigation. In addition, despite your claim that President Obama repeatedly told Mr. Comey to proceed “by the book,” substantial questions have arisen about whether officials at the FBI, as well as at the Justice Department and the State Department, actually did proceed “by the book.”

It pains me that two top Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee are too fucking stupid to see that, in fact, the FBI proceeded quite cautiously with the Russia investigation, not inappropriately, as they suggest. It pains me still more that they think this is all about the dossier.

7. During the meeting, did Mr. Comey or Ms. Yates mention potential press coverage of the Steele dossier? If so, what did they say?

8. During the meeting, did Mr. Comey describe the status of the FBI’s relationship with Mr. Steele, or the basis for that status?

9. When and how did you first become-aware of the allegations made by Christopher Steele?

10. When and how did you first become aware that the Clinton Campaign and the Democratic National Committee funded Mr. Steele’s efforts?

It’s certainly possible, given what I laid out here, that DOJ was prepping the second FISA application for Carter Page (though if the reauthorization were dated January 9, the application would have had to have been submitted by January 2).

But there are other reasons why you’d expect to have this meeting on January 5 and why Rice would want a record of it for posterity (the meeting generally probably relates to this story about the way Obama protected information on the investigation in the last days of the Administration).

As reporting on the discovery of Mike Flynn’s conversations about Russian sanctions with Sergey Kislyak make clear, the conversation wasn’t discovered in real time. Rather, after Putin didn’t respond to the December sanctions against Russia, analysts sought to figure out why. Only after that did they discover the conversation and Flynn’s role in it.

For Yates and other officials, concerns about the communications peaked in the days after the Obama administration on Dec. 29 announced measures to punish Russia for what it said was the Kremlin’s interference in the election in an attempt to help Trump.

After the sanctions were rolled out, the Obama administration braced itself for the Russian retaliation. To the surprise of many U.S. officials, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Dec. 30 that there would be no response. Trump praised the decision on Twitter.

Intelligence analysts began to search for clues that could help explain Putin’s move. The search turned up Kislyak’s communications, which the FBI routinely monitors, and the phone call in question with Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general with years of intelligence experience.

So it would be right around this time when law enforcement concerns about the incoming National Security Advisor would have arisen.

Update: This story confirms that the January 5 meeting was partly about the Flynn phone call.

On Jan. 5, FBI Director James B. Comey, CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. briefed Obama and a small group of his top White House advisers on the contents of a classified intelligence report showing that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump. That’s when White House officials learned that the FBI was investigating the Flynn-Kislyak calls. “The Flynn-Kislyak relationship was highlighted,” a former senior U.S. official said, adding that the bureau made clear “that there was an actual investigation” underway.

And, in a very significant way, the investigation did not proceed by the book, almost certainly because of Mike Flynn’s (and possibly even Jeff Sessions’) potential compromise. Back in March, Jim Comey admitted to Elise Stefanik that the FBI had delayed briefing Congress about the counterintelligence investigation into Trump because it had, in turn, delayed telling the Executive Branch until February.

Stefanik returned to her original point, when Congress gets briefed on CI investigations. Comey’s response was remarkable.

Stefanik: It seems to me, in my first line of questioning, the more serious a counterintelligence investigation is, that would seem to trigger the need to update not just the White House, the DNI, but also senior congressional leadership. And you stated it was due to the severity. I think moving forward, it seems the most severe and serious investigations should be notified to senior congressional leadership. And with that thanks for your lenience, Mr. Chairman, I yield back.

Comey could have been done with Stefanik yielding back. But instead, he interrupted, and suggested part of the delay had to do with the practice of briefing within the Executive Branch NSC before briefing Congress.

Comey: That’s good feedback, Ms. Stefanik, the challenge for is, sometimes we want to keep it tight within the executive branch, and if we’re going to go brief congressional leaders, the practice has been then we brief inside the executive branch, and so we have to try to figure out how to navigate that in a good way.

Which seems to suggest one reason why the FBI delayed briefing the Gang of Four (presumably, this is the Gang of Eight) is because they couldn’t brief all Executive Branch people the White House, and so couldn’t brief Congress without first having briefed the White House.

Which would suggest Mike Flynn may be a very central figure in this investigation.

Because the National Security Advisor was suspected of being compromised (and because the Attorney General had at least a conflict), the FBI couldn’t and didn’t proceed normally.

Plus, there’s one other issue about which Obama should have discussed normal procedure with Yates and Comey on January 5. Two days earlier, Loretta Lynch signed an order permitting, for the first time, the sharing of EO 12333 data in bulk. Among the first things I’m sure FBI would have asked for would have been EO 12333 data to support their Russian investigation. Yet doing so would expose Trump’s people. That’s all the more true given that the rules permit the retention of entirely domestic communications if they have significant counterintelligence value.

So one of the first things that would have happened, after signing data sharing rules the government had been working to implement since Stellar Wind, would have been the prospect that the very first Americans directly affected weren’t going to be some powerless Muslims or relatively powerless Chinese-Americans, but instead the President’s closest associates. Given what we’ve seen from the George Papadopoulos case, the FBI likely bent over backwards to insulate Trump aides (indeed, it’s hard to understand how they wouldn’t have known of Ivan Timofeev’s outreach to Papadopoulos before his interviews if they hadn’t).

Just before this meeting, FBI and DOJ had discovered that Trump’s most important national security aide had had surprising conversations with Russia. That clearly raised the prospect of necessary deviations from normal practices with regards to intelligence sharing.

Yet Grassley and Graham are seeing Christopher Steele’s ghost behind every single solitary action. Rather than the real challenges posed when top officials pose real counterintelligence concerns.

Update: Kathryn Ruemmler, representing Rice, pretty much confirms Grassley and Graham have gone on a wild Steele chase.

“There is nothing ‘unusual’ about the National Security Advisor memorializing an important discussion for the record,” Kathryn Ruemmler, a counsel for Rice, said in a statement. “The Obama White House was justifiably concerned about how comprehensive they should be in their briefings regarding Russia to members of the Trump transition team, particularly Lt. General Michael Flynn, given the concerning communications between him and Russian officials.”
Ruemmler added: “The discussion that Ambassador Rice documented did not involve the so-called Steele dossier. Any insinuation that Ambassador Rice’s actions in this matter were inappropriate is yet another attempt to distract and deflect from the importance of the ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in America’s democracy.”

On the Grassley-Feinstein Dispute

In a podcast with Preet Bharara this week, Sheldon Whitehouse had the following exchange about whether he thought Carter Page should have been surveilled. (after 24:30)

Whitehouse: I’ve got to be a little bit careful because I’m one of the few Senators who have been given access to the underlying material.

Bharara: Meaning the affidavit in support of the FISA application.

Whitehouse And related documents, yes. The package.

Bharara: And you’ve gone to read them?

Whitehouse: I’ve gone to read them.

Bharara: You didn’t send Trey Gowdy?

Whitehouse: [Laughs] I did not send Trey Gowdy. I actually went through them. And, so I’ve got to be careful because some of this is still classified. But the conclusion that I’ve reached is that there was abundant evidence outside of the Steele dossier that would have provoked any responsible FBI with a counterintelligence concern to look at whether Carter Page was an undisclosed foreign agent. And to this day the FBI continues to assert that he was a undisclosed Russian foreign agent.

For the following discussion, then, keep in mind that a very sober former US Attorney has read the case against Carter Page and says that the FBI still — still, after Page is as far as we know no longer under a FISA order — asserts he “was” an undisclosed foreign agent (it’s not clear what that past tense “was” is doing, as it could mean he was a foreign agent until the attention on him got too intense or remains one; also, I believe John Ratcliffe, a Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and also a former US Attorney, has read the application too).

With that background, I’d like to turn to the substance of the dispute between Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein over the dossier, which has played out in the form of a referral of Christopher Steele to FBI for lying. In the wake of the Nunes memo theatrics, Grassley released first a heavily redacted version of the referral he and Lindsey Graham sent the FBI in early January, followed by a less-redacted version this week. The referral, even as a transparent political stunt, is nevertheless more substantive than Devin Nunes’ memo, leading some to take it more seriously.  Which may be why Feinstein released a rebuttal this week.

In case you’re wondering, I’m tracking footnote escalation in these documents. They line up this way:

  • 0: Nunes memo (0 footnotes over 4 pages, or 1 over 6 if you count Don McGahn’s cover letter)
  • 2.6: Grassley referral (26 footnotes over 10 pages)
  • 3.6: Schiff memo (36 footnotes, per HPSCI transcript, over 10 pages)
  • 5.4: Feinstein rebuttal (27 footnotes over 5 pages)

So let me answer a series of questions about the memo as a way of arguing that, while by all means the FBI’s use of consultants might bear more scrutiny, this is still a side-show.

Did Christopher Steele lie?

The Grassely-Graham referral says Steele may have lied, but doesn’t commit to whether classified documents obtained by the Senate Judiciary Committee (presumably including the first two Page applications), a declaration Steele submitted in a British lawsuit, or Steele’s statements to the FBI include lies.

The FBI has since provided the Committee access to classified documents relevant to the FBI’s relationship with Mr. Steele and whether the FBI relied on his dossier work. As explained in greater detail below, when information in those classified documents is evaluated in light of sworn statements by Mr. Steele in British litigation, it appears that either Mr. Steele lied to the FBI or the British court, or that the classified documents reviewed by the Committee contain materially false statements.

On September 3, 2017 — a good three months before the Grassley-Graham referral — I pointed to a number of things in the Steele declaration, specifically pertaining to who got the dossier or heard about it when, that I deemed “improbable.”

That was the genius of the joint (!!) Russian-Republican campaign of lawfare against the dossier. As Steele and BuzzFeed and Fusion tried to avoid liability for false claims against Webzilla and Alfa Bank and their owners, they were backed into corners where they had to admit that Democrats funded the dossier and made claims that might crumble as Congress scrutinized the dossier.

So, yeah, I think it quite possible that Steele told some stretchers.

Did Christopher Steele lie to the FBI?

But that only matters if he lied to the FBI (and not really even there). The UK is not about to extradite one of its former spies because of lies told in the UK — they’re not even going to extradite alleged hacker Lauri Love, because we’re a barbaric country. And I assume the Brits give their spooks even more leeway to fib a little to courts than the US does.

The most critical passage of the referral on this point, which appears to make a claim about whether Steele told the FBI he had shared information with the press before they first used his dossier in a Page application, looks like this.

The footnote in the middle of that redacted passage goes to an unredacted footnote that says,

The FBI has failed to provide the Committee the 1023s documenting all of Mr. Steele’s statements to the FBI, so the Committee is relying on the accuracy of the FBI’s representation to the FISC regarding the statements.

1023s are Confidential Human Source reports.

I say that’s the most important passage because the referral goes on to admit that in subsequent FISA applications the FBI explained that the relationship with Steele had been terminated because of his obvious involvement in the October 31, 2016 David Corn story. Graham and Grassley complain that the FBI didn’t use Steele’s defiance of the FBI request not to share this information with anyone besides the FBI to downgrade his credibility rankings. Apparently FISC was less concerned about that than Graham and Grassley, which may say more about standards for informants in FISA applications than Steele or Carter Page.

The footnote, though, is the biggest tell. That’s because Feinstein’s rebuttal makes it quite clear that after Grassley and Graham made their referral, SJC received documents — which, given what we know has been given to HPSCI, surely include those 1023s — that would alter the claims made in the referral.

The Department of Justice has provided documents regarding its interactions with Mr. Steele to the Judiciary Committee both before and after the criminal referral was made. Despite this, the Majority did not modify the criminal referral and pressed forward with its original claims, which do not take into account the additional information provided after the initial January 4 referral.

Feinstein then goes on to state, several times and underlining almost everything for emphasis, that the referral provides no proof that Steele was ever asked if he had served as the source for Isikoff.

  • Importantly, the criminal referral fails to identify when, if ever, Mr. Steele was asked about and provided a materially false statement about his press contacts.
  • Tellingly, it also fails to explain any circumstances which would have required Mr. Steele to seek the FBI’s permission to speak to the press or to disclose if he had done so.

[snip]

But the criminal referral provides no evidence that Steele was ever asked about the Isikoff article, or if asked that he lied.

In other words, between the redacted claim about what Steele said and Feinstein’s repeated claims that the referral presents no evidence Steele was asked about his prior contacts with the press, the evidence seems to suggest that Steele was probably not asked. And once he was, after the Corn article, he clearly did admit to the FBI he had spoken with the press. So while it appears Steele blew off the FBI’s warnings not to leak to the press, the evidence that he lied to the FBI appears far weaker.

Does it harm the viability of the FISA application?

That should end the analysis, because the ostensible purpose of the referral is a criminal referral, not to make an argument about the FISA process.

But let’s assess the memo’s efforts to discredit the FISA application.

In two places, the referral suggests the dossier played a bigger role in the FISA application than, for example, Whitehouse suggests.

Indeed, the documents we have reviewed show that the FBI took important investigative steps largely based on Mr. Steele’s information–and relying heavily on his credibility.

[snip]

Mr. Steele’s information formed a significant portion of the FBI’s warrant application, and the FISA application relied more heavily on Steele’s credibility than on any independent verification or corroboration for his claims. Thus the basis for the warrant authorizing surveillance on a U.S. citizen rests largely on Mr. Steele’s credibility.

These claims would be more convincing, however, if they acknowledged that FBI had to have obtained valuable foreign intelligence off their Page wiretap over the course of the year they had him wiretapped to get three more applications approved.

Indeed, had Grassley and Graham commented on the addition of new information in each application, their more justifiable complaint that the FBI did not alert FISC to the UK filings in which Steele admitted more contact with the press than (they claim) show up in the applications would be more compelling. If you’re going to bitch about newly learned information not showing up in subsequent applications, then admit that newly acquired information showed up.

Likewise, I’m very sympathetic with the substance of the Grassley-Graham complaint that Steele’s discussions with the press made it more likely that disinformation got inserted into the dossier (see my most recently post on that topic), but I think the Grassley-Graham complaint undermines itself in several ways.

Simply put, the more people who contemporaneously knew that Mr. Steele was compiling his dossier, the more likely it was vulnerable to manipulation. In fact, the British litigation, which involves a post-election dossier memorandum, Mr. Steele admitted that he received and included in it unsolicited–and unverified–allegations. That filing implies that implies that he similar received unsolicited intelligence on these matters prior to the election as well, stating that Mr. Steele “continued to receive unsolicited intelligence on the matters covered by the pre-election memoranda after the US Presidential election.” [my underline]

The passage is followed by an entirely redacted paragraph that likely talks about disinformation.

This is actually an important claim, not just because it raises the possibility that Page might be unfairly surveilled as part of a Russian effort to distract attention from others (though its use in a secret application wouldn’t have sown the discord it has had it not leaked), but also because we can check whether their claims hold up against the Steele declaration. It’s one place we can check the referral to see whether their arguments accurately reflect the underlying evidence.

Importantly, to support a claim the potential for disinformation in the Steele dossier show up in the form of unsolicited information earlier than they otherwise substantiate, they claim a statement in Steele’s earlier declaration pertains to pre-election memos. Here’s what it looks like in that declaration:

That is, Steele didn’t say he was getting unsolicited information prior to the election; this was, in both declarations, a reference to the single December report.

Moreover, while I absolutely agree that the last report is the most likely to be disinformation, the referral is actually not clear whether that December 13 report ever actually got included in a FISA application. There’s no reason it would have been. While the last report mentions Page, the mention is only a referral back to earlier claims that Trump’s camp was trying to clean up after reports of Page’s involvement with the Russians got made public. So the risk that the December memorandum consisted partially or wholly of disinformation is likely utterly irrelevant to the validity of the three later FISA orders targeting Page.

Which is to say that, while I think worries about disinformation are real (particularly given their reference to Rinat Akhmetshin allegedly learning about the dossier during the summer, which I wrote about here), the case Grassley and Graham make on that point both miscites Steele’s own declaration and overstates the impact of their argued case on a Page application.

What about the Michael Isikoff reference?

Perhaps the most interesting detail in the Grassley-Graham referral pertains to their obsession with the applications’ references to the September 23 Michael Isikoff article based off Steele’s early discussions with the press. Grassley-Graham claim there’s no information corroborating the dossier (there’s a redacted Comey quote that likely says something similar). In that context, they point to the reference to Isikoff without explaining what it was doing there.

The application appears to contain no additional information corroborating the dossier allegations against Mr. Page, although it does cite to a news article that appears to be sourced to Mr. Steele’s dossier as well.

Elsewhere, I’ve seen people suggest the reference to Isikoff may have justified the need for secrecy or something, rater than as corroboration. But neither the referral nor Feinstein’s rebuttal explains what the reference is doing.

In this passage, Grassley and Graham not only focus on Isikoff, but they ascribe certain motives to the way FBI referred to it, suggesting the claim that they did not believe Steele was a source for Isikoff was an attempt to “shield Mr. Steele’s credibility.”

There’s absolutely no reason the FBI would have seen the need to shield Steele’s credibility in October. He was credible. More troubling is that the FBI said much the same thing in January.

In the January reapplication, the FBI stated in a footnote that, “it did not believe that Steele gave information to Yahoo News that ‘published the September 23 News Article.”

Let’s do some math.

If I’m doing my math correctly, if the FISA reapplications happened at a regular 90 day interval, they’d look like this.

That’d be consistent with what the Nunes memo said about who signed what, and would fit the firing dates of January 30 for Yates and May 9 for Comey, as well as the start date for Rosenstein of April 26 (Chris Wray started on August 1).

If that’s right, then Isikoff wrote his second article on the Steele dossier, one that made it clear via a link his earlier piece had been based off Steele, before the second application was submitted (though the application would have been finished and submitted in preliminary form a week earlier, meaning FBI would have had to note the Isikoff piece immediately to get it into the application, but the topic of the Isikoff piece — that Steele was an FBI asset — might have attracted their attention).

But that’s probably not right because the Grassley-Graham referral describes a June, not July, reapplication, meaning the application would have been no later than the last week of June. That makes the reauthorization dates look more like this, distributing the extra days roughly proportionately:

That would put the second footnote claiming the FBI had no reason to believe the September Isikoff piece was based on Steele before the time when the second Isikoff piece made it clear.

I’m doing this for a second reason, however. It’s possible (particularly given Whitehouse’s comments) Carter Page remains under surveillance, but for some reason it’s no longer contentious.

That might be the case if the reapplications no longer rely on the dossier.

And I’m interested in that timing because, on September 9, I made what was implicit clear: That pointing to the September Isikoff piece to claim the Steele dossier had been corroborated was self-referential. I’m not positive I was the first, but by that point, the Isikoff thing would have been made explicit.

Does this matter at all to the Mueller inquiry?

Ultimately, though, particularly given the Nunes memo confirmation that the counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s people all stems from the George Papadopoulos tip, and not Page (particularly given the evidence that the FBI was very conservative in their investigation of him) there’s not enough in even the Grassley-Graham referral to raise questions about the Mueller investigation, especially given a point I made out in the Politico last week.

According to a mid-January status report in the case against Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, the government has turned over “more than 590,000 items” to his defense team, “including (but not limited to) financial records, records from vendors identified in the indictment, email communications involving the defendants, and corporate records.” He and Gates have received imaged copies of 87 laptops, phones and thumb drives, and copies off 19 search-warrant applications. He has not received, however, a FISA notice, which the government would be required to provide if they planned to use anything acquired using evidence obtained using the reported FISA warrant against Manafort. That’s evidence of just how much of a distraction Manafort’s strategy [of using the Steele dossier to discredit the Mueller investigation] is, of turning the dossier into a surrogate for the far more substantive case against him and others.

And it’s not just Manafort. Not a single thing in the George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn guilty pleas—for lying to the FBI—stems from any recognizable mention in the dossier, either. Even if the Steele dossier were a poisoned fruit, rather than the kind of routine oppo research that Republicans themselves had pushed to the FBI to support investigations, Mueller has planted an entirely new tree blooming with incriminating details.

Thus the point of my graphic above. The Steele dossier evidence used in the Carter Page FISA application to support an investigation into Cater Page, no matter what else it says about the FISA application process or FBI candor, is just a small corner of the investigation into Trump’s people.