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Dragons Caught in the Crossfire: On the Genealogy of the Current and Future Mueller Investigation

As I laid out last week, 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. 

Lawfare has one of the best summaries of the Russian hack indictment on Friday. It does an excellent job of laying out what the indictment shows technically and legally. But I really wish it didn’t start with this passage.

This was the investigation over which the president of the United States fired James Comey as FBI director.

This is the investigation Comey confirmed on March 20, 2017, when he told Congress, “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.”

This was also the investigation that multiple congressional committees have spent more than a year seeking to discredit—most recently Thursday, when two House panels hauled the former deputy assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Department, Peter Strzok, a career FBI agent who worked on the Russia probe, up to Capitol Hill for 10 hours of public, televised, abusive conspiracy theorizing. When the president of the United States derides the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt,” and when congressional Republicans scream at FBI agents, this is the investigation they are trying to harass out of existence.

I get the sentiment. I get criticizing Republicans for attacking the “Mueller probe” (or whatever you want to call it). I’ve criticized the Republicans for doing that myself. But it is assuredly not the case that Friday’s indictment is the “investigation over which the president of the United States fired James Comey as FBI director” or the investigation Comey confirmed in March of 2017.

The investigation that resulted in Friday’s indictment is, rather, the result of investigations conducted primarily in San Francisco and Pittsburgh. At the time Comey confirmed the counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s camp and at the time Comey got fired for not shutting the Trump counterintelligence investigation down, those San Francisco and Pittsburgh investigations were totally separate. Those two investigations almost certainly had little if any involvement from Peter Strzok (indeed, they involved a bunch of FBI cyber agents, a division of FBI that Strzok never tired of mocking in his texts to Lisa Page). The DOJ press release from Friday states that explicitly.

This case was investigated with the help of the FBI’s cyber teams in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and San Francisco and the National Security Division.

Those two investigations (plus the separate one noted in Philadelphia that started later, as I understand it from what a lawyer who represented a witness in that investigation described to me) got moved under the Mueller umbrella sometime in or just before November, and now the GRU officer part of the investigation will be moved back to Pittsburgh where it started, to languish forever like some other nation-state hacker indictments investigated by Western District of Pennsylvania.

There are several reasons, besides exactitude, I’m harping on this point.

First, House Republicans, working in tandem with the President, have made the CI investigation Comey confirmed the end-all and be-all of the investigation, a way of simplifying it so as to villainize and discredit it. An entire stable of right wing journalists and members of Congress are trying to discredit something in the early stages of the investigation — whether it’s the inclusion of the Steele dossier among other evidence to obtain a FISA order on long-time suspected Russian asset Carter Page, the use of a lifelong Republican operative to conduct interviews in the least intrusive way, or the fact that even as he was losing the fight to investigate aggressively, Peter Strzok shared a widespread belief that Trump was not fit to be President. They believe that if they can do so, they can claim everything downstream of those actions is tainted. They’re doing so even while launching conspiracies off of stories that clearly show the existence of four counterintelligence investigations focused on the Russian operation, just one of which is known to have targeted Trump’s people.

“Crossfire Hurricane” was one of the code names for four separate investigations the FBI conducted related to Russia matters in the 2016 election.

“At a minimum, that keeps the hurry the F up pressure on him,” Strzok emailed Page on Oct. 14, 2016, less than four weeks before Election Day.

Four days later the same team was emailing about rushing to get approval for another FISA warrant for another Russia-related investigation code-named “Dragon.”

The GOP is literally bitching that the FBI was expediting FISA applications targeted at likely Russian targets during an ongoing Russian attack.

It is important to show how each of these attacks on the CI investigation into Trump is bullshit.

  • It is common to use information from consultants like Steele or paid informants in FISA applications. Their credibility is measured, in significant part, based on past credibility. And whatever you think about the impropriety of using oppo research (as DOJ also did with Clinton Cash) and whatever the likelihood that in this case Steele’s intelligence network got fed disinformation, it is the case that in 2016, Steele’s track record with the DOJ was far more reliable than a host of other consultants that presumably get included in FISA applications.
  • The FBI is permitted to use human informants at the assessment level (and when Stefan Halper interviewed Papadopoulos, it appears to have been a full investigation), and using a Republican operative like Halper to question George Papadopoulos was both less likely to affect the election in any way, and legally less dangerous for Papadopoulos than an undercover FBI officer would have been.
  • Strzok definitely believed Trump was unfit to be President, but (as I noted), he fought to use more aggressive investigative methods with both Hillary and Trump, and he lost that fight both times.

Ultimately, when you ask people wielding these complaints as if they’re a big deal what investigative steps against Page (after he left the campaign) or Papadopoulos (when he remained on it) would have been acceptable, they start to scramble, because (and I say this as someone who exposed herself to significant FBI scrutiny by going to them as a witness) these were reasonable steps to take. And the other favorite suggestion — that Trump would have responded to a defensive briefing — ignores that Trump hired Mike Flynn as his National Security Advisor even after President Obama gave him far more explicit warnings about the counterintelligence concerns about Flynn at the time.

At some point, GOP hoaxsters have to commit to whether they think it is legitimate to investigate suspected Russian spies or not, and if so how.

It is equally important to note that — as is demonstrably the case both with the GRU indictment rolled out Friday and with the information I provided — there is a ton of really damning evidence that never touched Peter Strzok. As I explained the other day, you can put information I provided to a team that had nothing to do with the Mueller team at the time I spoke to them, together with several other pieces of information Mueller obtained via other means (some of it was public!), and get right to the question of Trump conspiring with Russians to win the election.

Treating a range of investigations as only one investigation plays into the Trump game of discrediting an overly simplistic caricature of the investigation.

The other reason those covering the Russian investigation should be far more careful with what the investigation consisted of over time is, without understanding where the investigation came from, you can’t understand where the investigation is going. There have been a slew of reports reading dockets and citing anonymous DOJ and Trump sources. Some show an awareness of why prosecutors get added to dockets in particular cases. Others completely ignore things that are in the public record.

It is my well-educated opinion that we’re seeing several things with recent developments. First, where possible, Mueller is handing off things (the Concord Management and GRU hack prosecutions) that don’t need to be politically protected. He has also handed off issues (the Cohen search) that don’t relate directly to conspiring with Russians, even while any prosecution there could result in cooperation on the conspiracy case; though note, Mueller’s reported investigation of inauguration funding would also implicate Cohen. I suspect, eventually, he’ll hand off things that amount to garden variety corruption, as distinct from graft tied directly to the election money laundering.

But when reports say Mueller is preparing to wrap it up, I suspect the reality is Mueller is close to taking steps that will lay out a case for conspiracies with Russia involving people very close to Trump, which will make it much harder for Trump to refuse an interview without putting himself at risk to be indicted personally. Those steps will show what a farce six months of Trump-planted stories emphasizing a focus on obstruction have been. That prosecution Mueller’s team will see through, I imagine, not least because that’s precisely why he included four appellate specialists on his team, including Solicitor General star lawyer Michael Dreeben.

Update: Tweaked the San Francisco/Pittsburgh discussion because it was confusing several people.

Timeline

June 15, 2016: Likely start date for FBI investigation into hack of DNC/DCCC (the genesis for Friday’s indictment)

July 31, 2016: Peter Strzok opens up Operation Crossfire

October 21, 2016: Carter Page FISA approved

January 12, 2017: Carter Page FISA reauthorized

February 18, 2017: Reuters describes a tripartite division of investigation, with DNC hack investigation in Pittsburgh, Guccifer 2.0 investigation in San Francisco, and Trump CI investigation in DC

Early April, 2017: Carter Page FISA reauthorized

May 2017: I learn of Philadelphia investigation targeted in some way at Guccifer 2.0

May 17, 2017: Rod Rosenstein appoints Robert Mueller to take over Operation Crossfire

June 29, 2017: Carter Page FISA reauthorized

August 2, 2017: Mueller investigation includes, at a minimum, George Papadopoulos obstruction, Paul Manafort graft, collusion (including June 9 meeting), and obstruction

October 5, 2017: Papadopoulos pleads guilty (waiving venue)

Mid-October, 2017: Technical witness preparing for interview with Mueller’s team

October 30, 2017: Papadopoulos guilty plea unsealed

Early November, 2017: Mueller adds cyber prosecutor Ryan Dickey

November 2, 2017: WSJ reports DOJ will prosecute GRU hackers, reports that Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Philadelphia, along with DC remain in charge of investigation

December 1, 2017: Mike Flynn pleads guilty

February 12, 2018: Richard Pinedo pleads guilty, waives venue

February 16, 2018: Internet Research Agency (Concord Management) indictment

February 20, 2018: Alex van der Zwaan pleads guilty

February 22, 2018: Paul Manafort indicted in EDVA, refuses to waive venue

March 1, 2018: NBC reports that Mueller — not main DOJ — will prosecute GRU hackers

April 9, 2018: Michael Cohen searches executed by SDNY; SDNY investigation, covering taxi medallion fraud and hush money payments, is likely just part of his criminal exposure

May 3, 2018: Mueller adds Uzo Asonye to EDVA team prosecuting Paul Manafort at request of Judge TS Ellis

June 22, 2018: Mueller brings in DOJ team to prosecute Concord Management, freeing up tech-focused Mueller prosecutors

July 13, 2018: Mueller indicts GRU hackers, sends prosecution back to Pittsburgh

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.

In Attempt to Learn How Much Mueller Knows about Roger Stone’s “Collusion,” Devin Nunes Blames FBI for Stone and Michael Caputo’s Perjury to HPSCI

On Thursday, in the wake of the release of the DOJ IG Report showing that Jim Comey hurt Hillary Clinton with his intervention after the end of the email server investigation, the Gang of Eight met with Rod Rosenstein and Christopher Wray to discuss the House Intelligence Committee demand for documents allegedly investigating FISA abuse.

On Thursday night, Rudy Giuliani (whose receipt of leaks from the NY FBI field office received no attention in the IG Report) appeared on Sean Hannity and argued that the Mueller investigation (which removed Strzok once his inappropriate texts were revealed) should be suspended immediately and instead investigated by those very same NY FBI agents.

Every FBI agent should demand that that man be fired and tomorrow Mueller should suspend his investigation and he should go see Rod Rosenstein who created him and the Deputy Attorney General and Attorney General Sessions who should now step up big time to save his Department should suspend that investigation.  Throw out all the people is that have been involved in the phony Trump investigation and bring in honest FBI agents from the New York office who I can trust implicitly and they should turn their attention to Comey, Strzok, Page.

[snip]

Who are we providing them to? People who have already concluded to frame Donald Trump, agents who started a phony Russia investigation. That’s the whole core of this. That’s why the investigation should be suspended. And I am talking for myself now, not the president. But I believe he would agree with this. A very serious investigation has to be done of the FBI agents at the very top by FBI agents who are honest in order to prosecute them…

Rosenstein and Jeff Sessions have a chance to redeem themselves and that chance comes about tomorrow. It doesn’t go beyond tomorrow. Tomorrow, Mueller should be suspended and honest people should be brought in, impartial people to investigate these people like Peter Strzok. Strzok should be in jail by the end of next week.

On Friday, in the wake of the Thursday Gang of Eight meeting, Paul Ryan, Devin Nunes, Trey Gowdy, and Bob Goodlatte had a meeting with Wray and Rosenstein to demand documents on their investigation into alleged FISA abuse.

Also on Friday, Roger Stone appeared on Laura Ingraham’s show to comment on the IG Report. He made no comment about the story he was seeding with the WaPo, spinning that the Russian he reached out to learn about dirt on Hillary Clinton, whom he didn’t mention when the House Intelligence Committee asked him about contacts with Russians, was actually an FBI spy. In its story this morning, the WaPo didn’t point out all the reasons why it’s almost certain that “Henry Greenberg” was not operating under the control of the FBI; as a result, the WaPo gave the informant story credibility it shouldn’t have.

Today, Devin Nunes went on Fox to report on the Friday meeting. In three segments (one, two, three), Maria Bartiromo treated the Friday meeting as breaking news. Nunes said that their subpoenas “will be complied with” or the House would take other measures. When Bartiromo asked Nunes specifically what he was looking for, he didn’t respond. Instead, he posed the quest this way.

How did you use our nation’s counterintelligence capabilities. These are capabilities used to track terrorists and other bad guys around the globe. How did you weaponize that against a political campaign, against the Trump campaign, where ultimately it ended up in Carter Page having a FISA warrant put against him which allowed the government to go in and grab all of his emails and phone calls. So that’s primarily what we’ve been investigating for many many months. I will tell you that Chairman Gowdy was very very clear with the Department of Justice and FBI and said that if there was any vectoring of any informants or spies or whatever you want to call them into the Trump campaign before the investigation began, we better know about it by Sunday, meaning today. He was very very clear about that. And as you probably know there’s breaking news this morning that now you have a couple Trump campaign people who are saying that they were, that they’ve amended their testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, they sent in both Friday night and this morning, amendments to their testimony saying that in fact they feel like somebody, they’re not claiming that it was the FBI, but someone ran informants or spies into them to try to get information and offer up Russian dirt to the Trump campaign. Now this would have been in May of 2016. Which is obviously months before this counterintelligence investigation was opened by the FBI into the Trump campaign.

[snip]

If I were them I would pick up the phone and let us know what this is about, this story that broke in the Washington Post, this morning, just hours ago. They probably ought to tell us whether or not they were involved in that or else they have a major major problem on their hands.

[snip]

We should have been told about this about eight months ago. In compliance with the subpoena that we issued last August.But for sure a couple months ago, when we began to ask, we asked questions about, we had a subpoena, and we wanted to figure out what they were doing before and af, right before and right after the opening of the counterintelligence investigation. So we asked for specific information and documents. As you know, that’s what we’ve been fighting over for the last couple months now. And on Friday night it culminated with us telling them because they have swore up and down that they have given us everything that’s pertinent to our investigation after the investigation was open. And they have claimed that there is nothing else that exists before that date. Now, this Washington Post story, I don’t know that they’re claiming for sure that this was an FBI spy or informant, you know, I have no idea whether it is or not, but it has all the makings of the looks of some type of spy or informant. And that would be a major problem because that is not something that has ever been brought to us, and it would be totally out of bounds.

In an appearance providing extensive details about past classified requests and meetings with DOJ (including the one on Friday), Nunes also accuses Rosenstein of leaking by telling the press that Nunes hasn’t read the documents they’ve been demanding but which DOJ has already turned over.

At midnight, just a week ago, the Department of Justice put out something on Republicans saying that we had not read documents that the Department of Justice had provided for us to read. Now, that is a major leak, of a classified meeting, that also happens to be false because they knew that we ran out of time and didn’t have time to actually read these documents, but they did that to embarrass the Speaker of the House and myself and Chairman Gowdy who were given access to those documents but not given time to read those documents. That came from the top of the Department of Justice. Why are those people still working at the Department of Justice. They are leaking.

[snip]

Here’s the bottom line. Mr. Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, and Director Wray have to decide whether or not they want to be part of the cleanup crew or they want to be part of the cover-up crew.

Then Nunes ends by saying he will move towards impeaching Rosenstein and Wray this week, based off a claim that the FBI is withholding details about that contact with “Greenberg,” the one both Stone and Caputo lied to his own committee to cover up.

Nunes: There”s going to be hell to pay by Wednesday morning.

[snip]

This is going to go from myself and just a few committee chairmen to all the members of the House of Representatives who are going to begin to take action against the Department of Justice and FBI.

Bartiromo: Taking action meaning contempt of Congress?

Nunes: Well that’s just one of the options. That’s just one of many options. But I can tell you that it’s not gonna be pretty.

Bartiromo: Are you going to force the resignation of Rod Rosenstein?

Nunes: We can’t force the resignation, but we can hold in contempt, we can pass sense of Congress resolutions, we can impeach, and look, I think we’re getting close to there.

So let’s unpack what’s going on here, aside from a really well orchestrated campaign that has been in the works since January.

First, note how Nunes twists the meaning of counterintelligence here? When discussing why the FBI obtained a FISA order on Carter Page, whom FBI suspected was a willing Russian asset going back to 2013 and whom FBI had questioned the same month Trump added him to the campaign, as part of those ongoing concerns, Nunes suggests FISA orders are only used on terrorists and international bad guys, not people who’ve been suspected of being Russian assets for years. But later in the appearance, he treats the formal start of the counterintelligence investigation into Russians infiltrating Trump’s campaign — the counterintelligence investigation (he is now using counterintelligence in its traditional sense) — as if any investigation of Page or Manafort on their own right before that would be corrupt.

Then Nunes moves to suggest that a Russian contact that Mueller may have only discovered after he obtained a warrant for Stone’s phone on March 9 — a contact that both Caputo and Stone lied to the committee about — is something the FBI has been hiding, not Caputo and Stone.

In an appearance providing a slew of non-public information about a long series of contacts, Nunes accuses Rosenstein for once doing the same thing, with the important difference that Rosenstein was correcting the false claims that Nunes was presenting to the press.

And out of all that — out of Nunes’ willingness to blame the FBI for Stone and Caputo’s lies to his own committee — Nunes is going to bring an impeachment case against Rosenstein and Wray.

Obviously, there’s an easy way for Rosenstein and Wray to defuse this, in more of the bend don’t break approach they’ve been using with these extortionists. They could explain what I have surmised: that the materials about the contact with “Greenberg” that Stone and Caputo lied to him about actually came pursuant to a grand jury search warrant based on information Rick Gates provided in February and March. This is probably a grand jury search warrant (or one similar) that Paul Manafort already tried to, but failed, to get unsealed. As far as we know, Rosenstein and Wray haven’t provided any grand jury material to HPSCI.

Of course, providing the background to this question would require providing more details about what Mueller does and doesn’t know about Roger Stone’s efforts to conspire with Russians during the election.

That’s the hostage situation that Nunes is creating here: Impeachment or details about what Mueller knows of Roger Stone’s conspiracy with Russians to obtain dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The IG Report (and Public Evidence) Shows that Peter Strzok Lost the Argument to Investigate Aggressively

CNN provides an explanation, such as one is possible, for why Trump thinks the DOJ IG report on the Hillary investigation undermines the entire Russia investigation, which he just tweeted about.

The logic treats the FBI investigation into suspected Russian assets on Trump’s campaign as a conspiracy against Trump personally, based in part on Peter Strzok’s texts, taken out of the context of decisions made on the Russia investigation.

Trump’s lawyers now believe that since the IG report gave those at the FBI “the benefit of the doubt” about their behavior — finding no conspiracy — then the President should receive the same treatment. “Why doesn’t that apply to the President as well?” one source said.

In addition, while the IG report found no evidence of political bias, the President’s attorneys believe they can argue the entire investigation is tainted and corrupt, given the text from FBI Agent Peter Strzok that said about Trump’s election, “We’ll stop it.”

Of course, even within the context of the Hillary IG report, Strzok offers the evidence against the corruption of the FBI: that unlike the constant leaks about the Hillary investigation (the IG Report’s far biggest fault is that it doesn’t treat the leaking from SDNY as a topic unto itself), the FBI didn’t leak, at all, about the investigation into the suspected Russian assets on Trump’s campaign.

Strzok stated that had he—or the FBI in general—actually wanted to prevent Trump from being elected, they would not have maintained the confidentiality of the investigation into alleged collusion between Russia and members of the Trump campaign in the months before the election. Page similarly stated that, although she could not speak to what Strzok meant by that text message, the FBI’s decision to keep the Russia investigation confidential before the election shows that they did not take steps to impact the outcome of the election.

Because this is an IG Report on the Hillary investigation and not an IG Report on the Russia investigation, it does not explain the import of this answer from Strzok, explaining his insurance policy text.

In a text message exchange on August 15, 2016, Strzok told Page, “I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office—that there’s no way he gets elected—but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40….”

[snip]

Strzok provided a lengthy explanation for this text message. In substance, Strzok told us that he did not remember the specific conversation, but that it likely was part of a discussion about how to handle a variety of allegations of “collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the government of Russia.” As part of this discussion, the team debated how aggressive to be and whether to use overt investigative methods. Given that Clinton was the “prohibitive favorite” to win, Strzok said the reference in his text message to an “insurance policy” reflected his conclusion that the FBI should investigate the allegations thoroughly right away, as if Trump were going to win. Strzok stated that Clinton’s position in the polls did not ultimately impact the investigative decisions that were made in the Russia matter.

In the inevitable IG report on the Russia investigation, this passage will be followed with analysis of what the outcome of this debate was, whether to use overt investigative methods or not. It will show that Strzok lost that debate.

We know that, in part, because Sally Yates said as much, and said it about the investigation into Paul Manafort. This is her explanation to the IG about overt steps in advance of an election.

And the Bureau never pushed back on that concept. This actually came up with, in the connection with Paul Manafort. And they had an investigation on Manafort and I had a lengthy discussion with [McCabe], at least one, maybe more, about how important it was at that time that our investigation not be overt. And what they were, what the Bureau was doing with respect to Manafort because that could impact Trump even though he was no longer his campaign manager. That unless there was something they really needed to do, because they were getting records and doing that kind of, unless there was something they needed, really needed to do overt they really needed to stay under the radar screen…. Because it’s not fair to impact [an election].

That this comment is about Manafort is significant for two reasons. First, because Manafort’s corruption was — like the Hillary email investigation — public. More importantly, the date of Strzok’s text, August 15, likely means the discussion was specifically in the contexts of the stories that week about Manafort’s corruption.

Moreover, there’s additional evidence the FBI didn’t take overt steps, particularly with those still tied to Trump’s campaign. It wasn’t until some time after February 16, 2017  — literally six months after that text — that FBI subpoenaed George Papadopoulos’ call records, a move FBI could have taken at any time with a “relevance” standard. That delay meant that Papadopoulos hid the existence of his entire communication history with Ivan Timofeev until after his two interviews (and tried to hide it entirely by deleting his Facebook account).

In this post, I showed that, given that they didn’t know about Ivan Timofeev until after his interviews, they could not even have started pursuing a warrant until after the first interview, at best (and didn’t know about the existence communications over a Section 702 provider with Timofeev until after both). In this post, I suggested that it looked like the FBI first obtained a preservation order for the device GSA had on him on March 9, 21 days after his second interview.

Since then two details have come out. First, this Peter Strzok/Lisa Page SMS text highlighted by Matt Tait suggests that as late as June 6, 2017, the Special Counsel’s office was still debating whether searching Section 702 presented a litigation risk (meaning Trump’s buddies are getting far more protection than the rest of us might be).

Then there’s a point that Eric Swalwell made in Monday’s hearing debating whether or not to reveal the Schiff memo. In response to Michael Turner’s suggestion that there was no evidence of “collusion” between Trump and Russia, Swalwell pointed out that only after the FBI challenged Trump aide claims did the Bureau find evidence to support a conspiracy.

George Papadopoulos I think is the canary in the coal mine. He was interviewed January 27, 2017, by FBI. He lied about his contacts over in London with the professor. He was interviewed again in February, and he lied. Only when the FBI showed the willingness to subpoena his Skype and Facebook logs did he come around 6 months later.

This makes it clear that the FBI had not even obtained call records from Papadopoulos (via an NSL or a subpoena) before the second interview, the standard for which is really low.

Again, this shows that, at least during that phase of the investigation, the FBI was moving very conservatively.

And, as noted, even several weeks after Robert Mueller took over the investigation, the team was still debating whether they could do what FBI otherwise does at an assessment level, which is to search 702 data in the FBI’s custody. As I’ve noted, the use of lifetime Republican Stefan Halper to ask Papadopoulos questions (the FBI can use informants at the assessment level) rather than collecting actual call records not only seems to have been an effort to use least intrusive means possible to chase down leads, but it also badly delayed the discovery of key details about Russia’s attempts to curry favor with Trump aides.

If Peter Strzok argued in August that the FBI should be far more aggressive investigating suspected assets infiltrating the Trump campaign to prevent the possibility that a Manchurian candidate might take over the country, he lost that debate, and continued to lose it for the almost the entirety of the time he was involved in the investigation, which according to the IG Report came on July 28, the day after IG Michael Horowitz informed Rod Rosenstein and Mueller about his texts with Lisa Page.

We then obtained all text messages and instant messages for those FBI personnel for the entire period of the Midyear investigation through July 1, 2017, to capture post-election discussions.

[snip]

Strzok was removed from the Special Counsel’s investigation on approximately July 28, 2017, and returned to the FBI in another position, after the OIG informed the DAG and Special Counsel of the text messages discussed in this report on July 27, 2017.

So Strzok lost his argument to investigate more aggressively, and as soon as evidence of his alarm about the suspected assets infiltrating the Trump campaign and his disgust with Trump generally became known, he was removed from the case.

This is the evidence that Trump wants to turn into a conspiracy against him.

All that said, Strzok remained on the case just long enough to net its first arrest, that of Papadopoulos on July 26. Which is why I’m so interested in his explanation for a May 18, 2017 text, another one that disproves the conspiracy. In the text written 10 months after the start of the investigation, Strzok suggested his gut sense suggested “there’s no big there there.”

“you and I both know the odds are nothing. If I thought it was likely I’d be there no question. I hesitate in part because of my gut sense and concern there’s no big there there.”

Here’s his explanation of the text after the fact, which would incorporate information he learned in the two months he remained on the investigation after May 18.

As I looked at the predicating information, as I looked at the facts as we understood them from…the allegations that Russia had these emails, and offered to members of the Trump campaign to release them. As we looked at the various actors, the question [was,]…was that part of a broad, coordinated effort, or was that simply a bunch of opportunists seeking to advance their own or individual agendas…which of that is it? …My question [was] about whether or not this represented a large, coordinated conspiracy or not. And from that, as I looked at what would give me professional fulfillment, what I thought would be the best use of my skills and talents for the FBI and for the United States, whether to take, which path to take. [my emphasis]

On May 18, he suggested there was no big there there. But in a description of the investigation that reflects knowledge through July 28, during which period FBI finally started analyzing call records (and also learned about the June 9 Trump Tower meeting), he instead weighed it as a matter of determining whether there was a “broad, coordinated effort” or just “a bunch of opportunists seeking to advance their own or individual agendas.” Virtually all the evidence answering that question was collected and analyzed after Peter Strzok was removed from the investigation.

One detail here is new, however. When describing his understanding of the investigation through July 28, Strzok described Russians offering emails to members, plural, of the Trump campaign. Not just Papadopoulos.

Update: This post was edited for flow.

The Andrew McCabe Referral Is Unsurprising — and Probably Justified

I’ve been traveling a shit-ton in recent weeks (and still am, in a lovely gorgeous undisclosed location). So it wasn’t until a flight today that I read the DOJ IG Report on Andrew McCabe’s lack of candor about confirming an investigation into the Clinton Foundation. Having finally read it, though, I’m thoroughly unsurprised that DOJ made a criminal referral. Indeed, given the standards FBI holds subjects of investigation to, I think the referral was necessary to avoid the perception that the top FBI brass could get away with behavior that results in criminal charges (for people including George Papadopoulos and Mike Flynn) all the time.

Because boy did Deputy and Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe use a lot of the tricks that defendants (try, usually unsuccessfully) to use to get out of lying.

Andrew McCabe was investigated for screwing Hillary over

Before I get into the report, let’s make it clear what McCabe is accused of (because the right wing gets this wrong seemingly every time). As part of an investigation into several leaks, McCabe was interviewed repeatedly about this article by Devlin Barrett, specifically this passage.

According to a person familiar with the probes, on Aug. 12, a senior Justice Department official called Mr. McCabe to voice his displeasure at finding that New York FBI agents were still openly pursuing the Clinton Foundation probe during the election season. Mr. McCabe said agents still had the authority to pursue the issue as long as they didn’t use overt methods requiring Justice Department approvals.

The Justice Department official was “very pissed off,” according to one person close to Mr. McCabe, and pressed him to explain why the FBI was still chasing a matter the department considered dormant. Others said the Justice Department was simply trying to make sure FBI agents were following longstanding policy not to make overt investigative moves that could be seen as trying to influence an election. Those rules discourage investigators from making any such moves before a primary or general election, and, at a minimum, checking with anticorruption prosecutors before doing so.

“Are you telling me that I need to shut down a validly predicated investigation?” Mr. McCabe asked, according to people familiar with the conversation. After a pause, the official replied, “Of course not,” these people said.

The passage, coming in a story on the reopening of the investigation into Hillary’s emails, effectively confirmed the separate investigation into the Clinton Foundation.

After denying it in two interviews, he admitted in a third and fourth (though continued to lie about his transparency about the fact) that he had authorized Lisa Page to provide the background and the quote to Barrett.

Effectively, then, McCabe admitted to confirming 10 days before the election that there was a second investigation into Hillary Clinton. DOJ IG (and the FBI witnesses they consulted) concluded that McCabe did so to protect his own reputation, not to reassure the public that Hillary wasn’t above scrutiny. And they dismissed the notion it was a sanctioned confirmation, both because it was not discussed beforehand and carefully messaged, as such confirmations always are, and because it was anonymous.

So for all that Republicans, starting with Donald Trump, want to make this into a real scandal hurting Republicans, it’s the opposite. McCabe is accused of screwing over Hillary to protect his own reputation.

Signs the report was rushed

I find the report itself very credible; it makes a very damning case against McCabe.

But there are a few details of it that deserve mention, because they demonstrate that this report is just part of the larger report that will be released next month.

First, there is no methodology or request for comment from the bureau (though it includes rebuttals from McCabe), which are both standard features on IG Reports. The methodology would be really useful to see because it would provide a few more dates about when a draft was finalized, that might provide more information on how this came to be released early.

Then there’s a redaction in this passage.

Both public reporting and redaction matching suggests it has to be DAD — that is, Peter Strzok. Other references to him are not redacted. For some reason, and I suspect it’s an investigative one, the FBI didn’t want it known that he was party to the decision of forcing McCabe off the email investigation in late October, just days before the WSJ story in question.

That (and one other detail I get to below) suggests the FBI is protecting the details on Strzok and Page that will show up in the larger report.

So this report was, as public reporting has suggested, pulled out of the larger one and packaged up for February release.

That said, I’m not as convinced that served the nefarious purpose of serving up Andrew McCabe to Donald Trump’s voracious firing appetite. Rather, I suspect that’s when they reached the conclusion that McCabe’s behavior reached a level requiring criminal referral. And while I agree the circumstances surrounding McCabe’s firing still stink to high hell, if they had already made the decision to refer McCabe for criminal investigation, the timing, and the necessity of firing him, do make more sense.

This case really is about lying to FBI Agents

In the same way the Republican claim McCabe hurt Trump is bullshit, another public claim — one favored by some Democrats — is that this is simply a he-said he-said between McCabe and Comey.

While one conversation between them — an October 31, 2016 conversation where leaks came up and McCabe did not offer up that he was behind the WSJ passage — is included in the allegations, the other three, far more compelling, allegations include sworn conversations (the latter two taped) with FBI Inspection Division and Inspector General Agents.

And as I said, this is not — as McCabe has spun it — about an authorized confirmation of an investigation. It is true he gave permission for these conversations. But he did not go through the normal process before confirming an investigation (which wouldn’t have been approved but if it had would have resulted in an on-the-record comment). It’s likely McCabe, out of fury, just fucked up. But he did authorize the anonymous leak of stuff that shouldn’t have been released.

I won’t get into the evidence laid out (other than to say that it is convincing). But the report suggests McCabe didn’t come clean to Comey in October, and then in two subsequent interviews tried to create a cover story, only to discover that the investigation into Page and Strzok would reveal his deceit, at which point he tried to clean up his story in a way that wouldn’t put him in legal jeopardy.

Un-fucking-believably, as McCabe tried to get out of the problems he created he used three dodges often used by criminal defendants when complaining about FBI investigative tactics.

McCabe “can’t recall” diversion one

Along the way, McCabe  created two diversions to deflect blame (the IG Report doesn’t focus on this, but I find these actions to be among McCabe’s most reprehensible for the way they exposed others to disciplinary and legal jeopardy).

First, in the wake of the Barrett story that he was a second-hand anonymous source for, McCabe called the heads of the NY and DC office to bitch them out for leaking.

According to NY-ADIC’s contemporaneous October 30 calendar notes and testimony to the OIG, McCabe called NY-ADIC on Sunday, October 30, at 5:11 p.m., to express concerns over leaks from the FBI’s New York Field Office in the October 30 WSJ article. NY-ADIC told the OIG that McCabe was “ticked about leaks” in the article on the CF Investigation, but NY-ADIC “pushed back” a little to note that New York agents were not privy to some of the information in the article.

Also according to NY-ADIC’s calendar notes, as well as his testimony to the OIG, NY-ADIC spoke to EAD and other FBI managers after his call with McCabe to voice concerns “about getting yelled at about this stuff” when he was supposed to be dealing with EAD on Clinton Foundation issues because of his understanding that McCabe had recused himself from the matter.

W-ADIC told the OIG that he received a call from McCabe regarding the October 30 WSJ article and that McCabe admonished him regarding leaks in the article. According to W-ADIC, McCabe told him to “get his house in order.”

McCabe told us that he did not recall calling either NY-ADIC or W-ADIC to reprimand them for leaks in the October 30 WSJ article.

He did so with the NY-ADIC (probably justifiably) after a second Barrett story.

I believe the first of these scoldings served the purpose of creating a paper trail making it look like other offices were responsible for the Barrett leak.

With regards to both of these hypocritical conversations, in which McCabe pulled rank to yell at people for doing what he had himself done, he claimed afterwards not to recall the conversations in question (and bizarrely for a lifetime FBI Agent, didn’t take the notes that his counterparties did).

I think the first one is of particular concern, as by blaming the field offices, McCabe was deflecting from his own role. And like a long line of high level officials before him, he got away with it by claiming he didn’t recall these conversations.

McCabe blames diversion two on the perennial two-Agent, no recording complaint

McCabe also created a diversion in his first interview, with the Inspection Division (which, because of rank, he knew could not investigate him personally). He told them, falsely, that he had told a bunch of other people about the conversation described in the WSJ, leading INSD to believe there could be any number of suspects.

INSD-SSA1 further told the OIG that McCabe stated during the interview that he had related the account of the August 12 call to others numerous times, leaving INSD-SSA1 with the impression that INSD-SSA1 would “not get anywhere by asking” McCabe how many people could have known about what appeared to be a private conversation between him and PADAG. INSD-SSA1 told us that he didn’t need to take many notes during the interview because, at that point, he viewed McCabe as “the victim” of the leak and McCabe had told the INSD agents that he did not know how this happened. INSD-SSA1 also told us that the whole interaction was short, maybe 5 to 7 minutes, and flowing because McCabe was seemingly the victim and claimed he did not know who did it. INSD-SSA1 said that McCabe’s information could be summarized in one paragraph in his draft statement.

This led them to give up their investigation, for a period. When they sent him their version of the statements he had made to get him to sign and swear to them, he just blew off the request (he was Acting Director at this point, so he admittedly had tons of other things to do, but also real reason to believe his seniority would help him avoid any trouble for his actions).

When McCabe ultimately came clean about his role in this affair, he tried to suggest that the INSD version of what happened was not accurate (as defendants sometimes do, often for good reason, when an FBI 302 leaves out key details). Remarkably though, this guy who must have seen this ploy hundreds of times in his life and knew that FBI Agents always move in twos, suggested that the specific discussion involved just one of the Agents present.

McCabe also asserted that the May 9 meeting concerned an unrelated leak matter and that the discussion about the October 30 article occurred near the end of the meeting when “one of the people on that team pulled me aside and asked me a question about the Wall Street Journal article.” He elaborated by stating that as the INSD agents were “walking out of my office into the hallway, and [INSD Section Chief] kind of grabbed me by the arm and said, hey, let me ask you about something else.” McCabe said that he and INSD-Section Chief were still in his office, he thought standing, during the conversation but that the other two INSD agents (McCabe recalled there being three INSD agents present that day, not two) were outside his office. He said INSD-Section Chief showed him the October 30 WSJ article at that time and asked him “a question or two about it. And that was it. It was a very quick exchange.”

If it had indeed happened this way, it would have made the conversation other than investigative, and might have gotten him off the hook for lying.

Except that SSA-1 took notes, so was obviously present, and INSD made McCabe initial the WSJ article confirming he had read it.

Nevertheless, this is, ultimately, the same complaint criminal defendants make all the time about the FBI’s approach to interviews.

McCabe mounts a Miranda defense

Perhaps most un-fucking-believably, McCabe mounted a Miranda defense to excuse the fact that he lied when he was first asked about the Page-Strzok texts. Effectively, he said that he had an explicit agreement that OIG would not ask him any questions that might put him in legal jeopardy.

In response to review a draft of this report, counsel for McCabe argued that, in asking McCabe about the October 27-30 texts between Special Counsel and DAD regarding the WSJ article, the OIG engaged in improper and unethical conduct, and violated an allegedly explicit agreement with McCabe that when he was interviewed by the OIG on July 28 he would not be questioned outside the presence of counsel with respect to matters for which he was being investigated. McCabe provides no evidence in support of his claim, and based on the OIG’s review of the available evidence, including the transcript of McCabe’s recorded OIG interview on July 28 and the OIG’s contemporaneous notes, as described below, McCabe’s claim is contradicted by the investigative record.

As an initial matter, at the time of the July 28 interview, McCabe was not a subject of an OIG investigation of disclosures in the October 30 WSJ article, nor did the OIG suspect him of having been the source of an unauthorized disclosure of non-public information related to that article. The OIG did not open its investigation of McCabe concerning the WSJ article until August 31, after being informed by INSD that McCabe had provided INSD agents with information on August 18, 2017, that contradicted the information that he had provided to INSD agents on May 9.

Second, the OIG has no record that McCabe stated in advance of the July 28 interview that he was represented by counsel. Moreover, the recording of the July 28 interview shows that at no time did McCabe give any indication that he was represented by counsel. The transcript of the interview shows that the OIG informed McCabe, who has a law degree, that the interview was about “issues raised by the text messages” between Special Counsel and DAD, and that the OIG would not be asking McCabe questions about “other issues related to your recusal in the McAulliffe investigation . . . or any issues related to that.” McCabe responded “Okay” and did not articulate or request any further limitations on the questions he would answer. The OIG added that “This is a voluntary interview. What that means is that if you don’t want to answer a question, that’s fully within your rights.” That “will not be held against you . . . .” The recording of McCabe’s interview further demonstrates that the OIG was entirely solicitous of McCabe’s requests not to respond to certain questions. Towards the end of the interview, before beginning an area of questioning unrelated to Special Counsel/DAD texts or the WSJ article, the OIG prefaced his question to McCabe by stating “if you feel this is connected to the things that are making you uncomfortable, will you let me know?” McCabe responded, “Yes. Yeah, you can ask, I’ll let you . . . If I don’t feel comfortable going forward, I’ll let you know.” At a later point in the interview, after answering a number of questions unrelated to Special Counsel/DAD texts, McCabe expressed a preference for not answering further questions, and the OIG did not ask further questions on the topic. [my emphasis]

I mean, sure, OIG blew that excuse out of the water (and the rebuttal continued with further evidence this claim was bullshit). But when I was reading it I kept thinking “how many fucking times have you been the Agent giving the uneducated interviewee even less opportunity to invoke Miranda! Yet you fucked this up!?!?!”

Did McCabe coordinate his story with Page?

As noted, McCabe’s true undoing came when, in the course of the investigation into the treatment of Hillary, OIG discovered the Page-Strzok texts. McCabe was asked about them in the context of the Page-Strzok contacts, and realized (but lied in a sworn, recorded interview) that the texts disproved all his stories. That led him to correct his testimony to INSD, which then referred it to OIG so someone of the rank that could investigate McCabe could interview him.

Along the way, though, McCabe and Page had a conversation — one she subsequently copped to, but he did not.

McCabe denied that being shown the text messages on July 28 that indicated Special Counsel had spoken to Barrett caused him to change his account in order to protect Special Counsel. McCabe told the OIG that this “thinking process” was done “on my own” without talking to any FBI employees or reviewing past e-mails or text messages. He stated that he did not discuss the Devlin texts with Special Counsel after the July 28 interview. While Special Counsel told the OIG that following McCabe’s July 28 OIG interview, she and McCabe discussed her text messages, she said that McCabe did not discuss his OIG testimony about the WSJ article, or the WSJ article itself, at that time. Special Counsel stated that she and McCabe did not discuss “getting their stories straight” with respect to the WSJ article. Special Counsel told the OIG that the last time she spoke with McCabe about the WSJ article was in approximately October 2016 (when the article was published).

This was not included among the key lack of candor charges, but I suspect the prosecutor will test the veracity of this current operative story.

I get that the way McCabe was fired stinks. I get that McCabe may well be serving as cover for the Mueller interview.

But neither of those observations changes the fact that one of the most senior FBI executives tried all the tricks a lifetime of pursuing criminals would have familiarized him with, and he still blew it.

And because the FBI relies on false statements charges to conduct its interviews, I think the criminal referral is necessary.

On McCabe’s Firing

I’m going to refrain from making any conclusions about Andy McCabe’s firing until we have the Inspector General Report that underlies it. For now (update: I’ve now cleaned this up post-Yoga class), keep the following details in mind:

Michael Horowitz is a very good Inspector General

The allegations that McCabe lacked candor in discussions about his communications with Devlin Barrett all arise out of an investigation Democrats demanded in response to FBI’s treatment of the investigation into Hillary Clinton. It is being led by DOJ’s Inspector General, Michael Horowitz. Horowitz was nominated by Barack Obama and confirmed while Democrats still had the majority, in 2012.

I’ve never seen anything in Horowitz’ work that suggests he is influenced by politics, though he has shown an ability to protect his own department’s authority, in part by cultivating Congress. Of significant note, he fought with FBI to get the information his investigators needed to do the job, but was thwarted, extending into Jim Comey’s tenure (as I laid out in a fucking prescient post written on November 3, 2016).

As I’ve long covered, in 2010, the FBI started balking at the Inspector General’s proper investigative demands. Among other things, the FBI refused to provide information on grand jury investigations unless some top official in FBI said that it would help the FBI if the IG obtained it. In addition, the FBI (and DEA) have responded to requests very selectively, pulling investigations they don’t want to be reviewed. In 2014, the IG asked OLC for a memo on whether it should be able to get the information it needs to do its job. Last year, OLC basically responded, Nope, can’t have the stuff you need to exercise proper oversight of the FBI.

DOJ’s Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, has been trying for some time to get Congress to affirmatively authorize his office (and IGs generally, because the problem exists at other agencies) to receive the information he needs to do his job. But thus far — probably because Jim Comey used to be known as the world’s biggest Boy Scout — Congress has failed to do so.

I care about how FBI’s misconduct affects the election (thus far, polling suggests it hasn’t done so, though polls are getting closer as Republican Gary Johnson supporters move back to supporting the GOP nominee, as almost always happens with third party candidates). But I care even more about how fucked up the FBI is. Even if Comey is ousted, I can’t think of a likely candidate that could actually fix the problems at FBI. One of the few entities that I think might be able to do something about the stench at FBI is the IG.

Except the FBI has spent 6 years making sure the IG can’t fully review its conduct.

So while I don’t think he’d be motivated by politics, he has had a running fight with top FBI officials about their willingness to subject FBI to scrutiny for the entirety of the Comey tenure.

McCabe has suggested that the investigation into him was “accelerated” only after he testified to the House Intelligence Committee that he would corroborate Jim Comey’s version of his firing.

I am being singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took, and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey. The release of this report was accelerated only after my testimony to the House Intelligence Committee revealed that I would corroborate former Director Comey’s accounts of his discussions with the President. The OIG’s focus on me and this report became a part of an unprecedented effort by the Administration, driven by the President himself, to remove me from my position, destroy my reputation, and possibly strip me of a pension that I worked 21 years to earn. The accelerated release of the report, and the punitive actions taken in response, make sense only when viewed through this lens.

I’m not sure this timeline bears out (the investigation was supposed to be done last year, but actually got extended into this year). The statement stops short of saying that he was targeted because his testimony — presumably already delivered to Robert Mueller by the time of his HPSCI testimony — corroborated Comey’s.

What we’ve seen of the other personnel moves as a result of this investigation — the reassignment of Peter Strzok and Lisa Page for texts that really did raise conflict issues (to say nothing of operational security problems), and the reassignment of James Baker — seem reasonable. McCabe’s firing was reviewed by a whole bunch of people who have been around DOJ a long time.

So it’s possible the underlying claim has merit. It’s also possible that McCabe is getting the same punishment that a line agent would get if he did not answer the IG honestly.

Trump’s comments matter

Obviously, all that cannot be taken out of context of Trump’s own statements and Jeff Sessions’ efforts to keep his job.

We will get these details in upcoming days, and almost all the details will come from people who’ve got a big stake in the process.

Michael Bromwich — McCabe’s lawyer — says they didn’t get a review of the allegations against McCabe until very recently, and were still trying to contest the firing two days ago (as was publicly reported). I find his claim that this was “cleaved off” from the larger investigation unconvincing: so were Strzok and Page, but that was done to preserve the integrity of the Mueller investigation, and Chris Wray had said publicly that he wanted to act on problems as they found them. Bromwich curiously is not saying that McCabe’s firing violates any agreement McCabe made when he took leave to await retirement.

Undoubtedly, Jeff Sessions did this in the most cowardly way possible. While I think it’s likely, I’m not 100% convinced that the timing was anything other than trying to make a real decision rather than let the retirement make it.

There’s no evidence, yet, that McCabe will lose all his pension

It has been said for over a month that McCabe was just waiting out his birthday so he could “get” his pension. That was so he could start drawing on it immediately. Josh Gerstein laid out the best thing I’ve seen on the implications (as well as what limited legal recourse McCabe has).

The financial stakes for McCabe could be significant. If he had made it to his 50th birthday on Sunday while still in federal service, he would have been eligible to begin drawing a full pension immediately under provisions that apply to federal law enforcement officers, said Kimberly Berry, a lawyer in Arlington, Virginia, who specializes in federal retirement issues.

Berry disputed reports, however, that McCabe would lose his pension altogether.

“He doesn’t lose his retirement,” she said. “It’s not all thrown out in the garbage.“

Even after his dismissal, McCabe will probably be eligible to begin collecting his pension at about age 57, although he would likely lose access to federal health coverage and would probably get a smaller pension than if he stayed on the federal payroll, experts said.

There have been claims McCabe could get hired by a member of Congress for a week so he can start drawing on it. But I’ve heard the finances aren’t even the issue, it’s the principle, which if you want to be a martyr, being fired works better.

This will have a far smaller impact on the Mueller probe than Comey-McCabe loyalists and John Dowd lay out

McCabe and others have suggested that there has been a successful effort to retaliate against Comey’s three corroborating witnesses, though that is least convincing with regards to Jim Rybicki, who was replaced as happens as a matter of course every time a new FBI Director comes in.

But the Comey-McCabe loyalists make far too much of their role in the Mueller probe, making themselves the central actors in the drama. Yes, if their credibility is hurt it does do some damage to any obstruction charges against Trump, which, as I keep repeating, will not be the primary thrust of any charges against Trump. Mueller is investigating Trump for a conspiracy with Russians; the obstruction is just the act that led to his appointment as Special Counsel and with that, a much more thorough investigation. Contrary to what you’re hearing, little we’ve seen thus far is fruit of the decisions Comey and his people made. While all were involved in the decision to charge Mike Flynn, he has already pled guilty and started spilling his guts to Mueller. There’s no reason to believe McCabe or Comey are direct witnesses in the conspiracy charges that will be filed against people close to Trump, if not against Trump himself.

For all those reasons, John Dowd’s claim that McCabe’s firing should end the investigation is equally unavailing.

I pray that Acting Attorney General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe’s boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier.

I mean, if this really is Dowd’s impression of why his client is being investigated, I almost feel sorry for Trump.

But the truth is the dossier has always been a distraction. The obstruction charge was probably used to distract Trump (and his NYT stenographers) while Mueller’s team collected the far more serious evidence on the conspiracy charges, though events of this week may well add to the conspiracy charges. And Comey didn’t manufacture any investigation; if anything, his people were not aggressive enough in the months he oversaw the investigation, particularly as it pertains to George Papadopoulos.

So if Dowd thinks McCabe’s firing will affect the core of the evidence Mueller has already developed (and, I suspect, started hanging on a sealed magnet indictment), he is likely to be very disappointed.

Regardless of the merits of the McCabe firing, it (and the related shit storm) may give Rosenstein and Mueller more time to work. It’s not clear they need that much more time to put together the conspiracy charges that are sitting right beneath the surface.

Finally — and I’m about to do a post on this — the far more important news from yesterday is that Facebook is cutting off Cambridge Analytica for violating its agreements about data use. That may well lead to some far more important changes, changes that Trump has less ability to politicize.

George Papadopoulos’ Social Media Call Records Were Not Subpoenaed Until After His Interviews

I’ve been tracking questions about how aggressively (or not) the FBI investigated George Papadopoulos after receiving a tip, in July 2016, that he had heard the Russians bragging about having dirt in the form of emails from Hillary Clinton in April 2016. In this post, I showed that, given that they didn’t know about Ivan Timofeev until after his interviews, they could not even have started pursuing a warrant until after the first interview, at best (and didn’t know about the existence communications over a Section 702 provider with Timofeev until after both). In this post, I suggested that it looked like the FBI first obtained a preservation order for the device GSA had on him on March 9, 21 days after his second interview.

Since then two details have come out. First, this Peter Strzok/Lisa Page SMS text highlighted by Matt Tait suggests that as late as June 6, 2017, the Special Counsel’s office was still debating whether searching Section 702 presented a litigation risk (meaning Trump’s buddies are getting far more protection than the rest of us might be).

Then there’s a point that Eric Swalwell made in Monday’s hearing debating whether or not to reveal the Schiff memo. In response to Michael Turner’s suggestion that there was no evidence of “collusion” between Trump and Russia, Swalwell pointed out that only after the FBI challenged Trump aide claims did the Bureau find evidence to support a conspiracy.

George Papadopoulos I think is the canary in the coal mine. He was interviewed January 27, 2017, by FBI. He lied about his contacts over in London with the professor. He was interviewed again in February, and he lied. Only when the FBI showed the willingness to subpoena his Skype and Facebook logs did he come around 6 months later.

This makes it clear that the FBI had not even obtained call records from Papadopoulos (via an NSL or a subpoena) before the second interview, the standard for which is really low.

Again, this shows that, at least during that phase of the investigation, the FBI was moving very conservatively. The GOP keep complaining that Carter Page, who had been a suspected foreign agent for years, was targeted under FISA. But they’re not acknowledging that the FBI appears to have treated the other Trump aides with kid gloves. for nine months after the period when they obtained a real tip about their involvement.

The Timing of Mark Warner’s PseudoScandal Texts

By now, you’ve heard about Fox News’ scoop that Mark Warner made efforts last year to obtain testimony from two key figures in the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election via DC fixer Adam Waldman: Christopher Steele and Oleg Deripaska. (In my opinion, the news buried at the bottom of the story that Deripaska agreed to provide testimony if he could get immunity, but did not get it, is far more interesting than the rest of this, but I’m not a Fox News editor.)

“We have so much to discuss u need to be careful but we can help our country,” Warner texted the lobbyist, Adam Waldman, on March 22, 2017.

“I’m in,” Waldman, whose firm has ties to Hillary Clinton, texted back to Warner.

The story also includes this paragraph, which also has gotten less attention.

Warner began texting with Waldman in February 2017 about the possibility of helping to broker a deal with the Justice Department to get the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States to potentially face criminal charges. That went nowhere, though a Warner aide told Fox News that the senator shared his previously undisclosed private conversations about WikiLeaks with the FBI.

Interestingly, the Fox story relies on texts that Warner and Richard Burr jointly requested in June (targeting Waldman’s phone, not Warner’s, apparently), and then turned over to the committee in October. I look forward to seeing how the notoriously anti-leak Burr deals with the apparent leak of committee sensitive materials to the right wing press.

Even while the story links to texts from SSCI, it comes a week after a woman duped the famously paranoid Julian Assange into exchanging texts with her fake Sean Hannity account promising news on Mark Warner.

[Dell] Gilliam, a technical writer from Texas, was bored with the flu when she created @SeanHannity__ early Saturday morning. The Fox News host’s real account was temporarily deleted after cryptically tweeting the phrase “Form Submission 1649 | #Hannity” on Friday night. Twitter said the account had been “briefly compromised,” according to a statement provided to The Daily Beast, and was back up on Sunday morning.

[snip]

Just minutes after @SeanHannity disappeared, several accounts quickly sprung up posing as the real Hannity, shouting from Twitter exile. None were as successful as Gilliam’s @SeanHannity__ account, which has since amassed over 24,000 followers.

Gilliam then used her newfound prominence to direct message Assange as Hannity within hours.

“I can’t believe this is happening. I mean… I can. It’s crazy. Nothing can be put past people,” Gilliam, posing as Hannity, wrote to Assange. “I’m exhausted from the whole night. What about you, though? You doing ok?”

“I’m happy as long as there is a fight!” Assange responded.

Gilliam reassured Assange that she, or Hannity, was also “definitely up for a fight” and set up a call for 9:30 a.m. Eastern, about six hours later.

“You can send me messages on other channels,” said Assange, the second reference to “other channels” he made since their conversation began.

“Have some news about Warner.”

With that in mind, I want to look at the timing of some security issues last year.

While the texts turned over to Congress date to February 14, the conversation pertaining to Steele started around March 22. That puts it not long after news of a massive hack involving T-Mobile, first reported March 16.

An unusual amount of highly suspicious cellphone activity in the Washington, D.C., region is fueling concerns that a rogue entity is surveying the communications of numerous individuals, likely including U.S. government officials and foreign diplomats, according to documents viewed by the Washington Free Beacon and conversations with security insiders.

A large spike in suspicious activity on a major U.S. cellular carrier has raised red flags in the Department of Homeland Security and prompted concerns that cellphones in the region are being tracked. Such activity could allow pernicious actors to clone devices and other mobile equipment used by civilians and government insiders, according to information obtained by the Free Beacon.

It remains unclear who is behind the attacks, but the sophistication and amount of time indicates it could be a foreign nation, sources said.

I would hope to hell that former cell company mogul and current Ranking Member on the Senate Intelligence Committee running an important counterintelligence investigation Mark Warner would be aware of the security problems with mobile phones. But what do I know? [Update: Not much. Looking more closely it looks like he was using Signal.] In the last several months we’ve learned that FBI’s investigators discuss the even more sensitive aspects of the more important side of counterintelligence investigation on SMS texts on their Samsung cell phones.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But who knows what Waldman (who apparently chats a lot with spies, mobbed up Russian oligarchs, and — as Mike Pompeo deemed Wikileaks — non-state hostile intelligence services) knows about cell phone security?

In any case, the day before that was reported publicly, Ron Wyden and Ted Lieu sent a letter to John Kelly (who, as a reminder, in spite of or because he ran DHS for a while, had his own cell phone compromised), stating in part,

We are also concerned that the government has not adequately considered the counterintelligence threat posed by SS7-enabled surveillance.

[snip]

What resources has DHS allocated to identifying and addressing SS7-related threats? Are these resources sufficient to protect U.S. government officials and the private sector.

If the government started considering such issues in March, they might have gotten around to discovering what kinds of problems were created by the T-Mobile hack in June, when Warner and Burr moved to get the texts for SSCI.

In any case, at around that point in time, APT 28 (one of the entities blamed for hacking the DNC the previous year) started a phishing campaign targeting the Senate’s email server.

Beginning in June 2017, phishing sites were set up mimicking the ADFS (Active Directory Federation Services) of the U.S. Senate. By looking at the digital fingerprints of these phishing sites and comparing them with a large data set that spans almost five years, we can uniquely relate them to a couple of Pawn Storm incidents in 2016 and 2017. The real ADFS server of the U.S. Senate is not reachable on the open internet, however phishing of users’ credentials on an ADFS server that is behind a firewall still makes sense. In case an actor already has a foothold in an organization after compromising one user account, credential phishing could help him get closer to high profile users of interest.

Reporting at the time suggested this was an effort in advance of the 2018 election (which aside from minimizing the damage Russia might do in the interim, ignores the fact that staffers are ostensibly prohibited from using Senate resources for election related activities). But it always seemed to me it would more profitably target policy.

Or, maybe the only reasonable work Congress is doing to investigate the Russians?

Whether there’s a connection between these two compromises last year or not, and Julian Assange, and this Mark Warner story, it’s clear that DC remains ill-prepared to address the counterintelligence problems they’re faced with.

The “Insurance” Text Explained: A Debate on How Urgently to Investigation Trump’s Russian Ties

WSJ has the fascinating explanation for Peter Strzok’s August 15, 2016 “insurance” text that Republicans have been spinning into a grand scandal. Effectively, Strzok and Lisa Page were debating about how aggressively FBI should investigate Trump’s Russian ties. Page figured they could do so deliberately, and therefore avoid any risk they’d burn sources, because he wasn’t going to win. Strzok disagreed, arguing they had to investigate more aggressively in case he did win.

The text came after a meeting involving Ms. Page, Mr. Strzok and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, according to people close to the pair and familiar with their version of events. At the meeting, Ms. Page suggested they could take their time investigating the alleged collusion because Mrs. Clinton was likely to win, the people said.

If they move more deliberately, she argued, they could reduce the risk of burning sensitive sources.

Mr. Strzok felt otherwise, according to these people.

His text was meant to convey his belief that the investigation couldn’t afford to take a more measured approach because Mr. Trump could very well win the election, they said. It would be better to be aggressive and gather evidence quickly, he believed, because some of Mr. Trump’s associates could land administration jobs and it was important to know if they had colluded with Russia.

The investigation is telling for a number of reasons.

First, the comments came after just 7 of the 17 dossier reports — even assuming FBI got two reports dated August 10 immediately. Many of the most inflammatory ones — notably all the ones involving Michael Cohen — came after this. As WSJ notes, the text also comes four days after another Strozk one, dated August 11, exclaiming, “OMG I CANNOT BELIEVE WE ARE SERIOUSLY LOOKING AT THESE ALLEGATIONS AND THE PERVASIVE CONNECTIONS.” That’s probably not the dossier per se. But it may well be Paul Manafort’s burgeoning scandal; Manafort would resign August 19.

I’m also interested in how this plays with the report that Trump was warned Russians — and other countries — would try to infiltrate his campaign. The report is not that newsworthy; this kind of briefing is routine. But I wonder whether it’s coming out because the timing is of interest — perhaps in conjunction with Strzok’s increasing panic. I even wonder whether Strzok participated in the briefing.

All of which is to say that on this matter, Strzok and Page were not in agreement. Indeed, the text is actually a work debate about the tradeoff of guarding sources and methods and the urgency of excluding any compromised figures from joining Trump’s government.

How Does the Strzok Text Dump Differ from Jim Comey’s July 5, 2016 Speech?

I’m a bit bemused by the response to DOJ’s release of the texts between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. As Rod Rosenstein testified before HJC yesterday, the release came after notice to Strzok and Page through their lawyers. The release of the texts came with the approval of DOJ IG Michael Horowitz — who says the investigation into the underlying conduct may last through spring. And Rosenstein strongly implied he wanted them released, taking responsibility for it (while claiming not to know whether Jeff Sessions had a role in their release).

As he explained to Trey Gowdy — who, like a number of Republicans, claimed to be at a loss of what to say to constituents who asked “what in the hell is going on with DOJ and the FBI” — the release of the texts proves that any wrongdoing will be met with consequences.

Gowdy: What happens when people who are supposed to cure the conflict of interest have even greater conflicts of interests than those they replace? That’s not a rhetorical question. Neither you nor I nor anyone else would ever sit Peter Strzok on a jury, we wouldn’t have him objectively dispassionately investigate anything, knowing what we now know. Why didn’t we know it ahead of time, and my last question, my final question — and I appreciate the Chairman’s patience — how would you help me answer that question when I go back to South Carolina this weekend?

Rosenstein: Congressman, first of all, with regard to the Special Counsel, Mr. Strzok was already working on the investigation when the Special Counsel was appointed. The appointment I made was of Robert Mueller. So what I’d recommend you tell your constituents is that Robert Mueller and Rod Rosenstein and Chris Wray are accountable and that we will ensure that no bias is reflected in any actions taken by the Special Counsel or any matter within the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice. When we have evidence of any inappropriate conduct, we’re going to take action on it. And that’s what Mr. Mueller did here as soon as he learned about this issue — he took action — and that’s what I anticipate the rest of our prosecutors, the new group of US Attorneys, our Justice Department appointees. They understand the rules and they understand the responsibility to defend the integrity of the Department. If they find evidence of improper conduct, they’re going to take action.

So Congressman, that’s the best assurance I can give you. But actually, there’s one other point, which is you should tell your constituents that we exposed this issue because we’re ensuring that the Inspector General conducts a thorough and effective investigation, and if there is any evidence of impropriety, he’s going to surface it and report about it publicly.

I actually think Rosenstein did a much better job than others apparently do, yesterday, at distinguishing between the Strzok texts (which apparently were on DOJ issued cell phones and, in spite of having Hillary investigation subject lines may not have been logged into Sentinel) and the political views of Andrew Weissmann or the past representation of Jeannie Rhee. Furthermore, he repeatedly said he would only fire Mueller for cause, and made it clear there had been no cause. Several times he talked about how closely he has worked with Mueller, such as on the scope of what gets included in his investigation (even while defending the charges against Manafort as appropriately included).

That said, I wonder how Rosenstein distinguishes, in his own mind, what he did in approving the release of the texts from an ongoing investigation and what Jim Comey did on July 5, 2016, when he gave a press conference about why Hillary Clinton had not been charged. While Rosenstein’s biggest complaint in his letter supporting the firing of Comey was that he substituted his decision for that of prosecutors, he also argued that the Department shouldn’t release derogatory information gratuitously.

Compounding the error, the Director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation. Derogatory information sometimes is disclosed in the course of criminal investigations and prosecutions, but we never release it gratuitously. The Director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial. It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.

In response to skeptical question at a congressional hearing, the Director defended his remarks by saying that his “goal was to say what is true. What did we do, what did we find, what do we think about it.” But the goal of a federal criminal investigation is not to announce our thoughts at a press conference. The goal is to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to justify a federal criminal prosecution, then allow a federal prosecutor who exercises authority delegated by the Attorney General to make a prosecutorial decision, and then – if prosecution is warranted – let the judge and jury determine the facts. We sometimes release information about closed investigations in appropriate ways, but the FBI does not do it sua sponte.

In some ways this is worse because of the off chance that Inspector General Michael Horowitz finds that these texts don’t merit some kind of response; the investigation is not finished yet.

That said, I actually do think there’s a difference: Strzok and Page are department employees, rather than subjects of an external investigation. DOJ exercises awesome power, and usually DOJ is releasing the texts of private citizens in this kind of embarrassing way.

Even former clearance holders seem surprised that these texts were discovered. It is unbelievable to me how few people understand the great liberty that counterintelligence investigators like Strzok can have in obtaining the communications of investigative targets like he has now become, particularly during leak or insider threat investigations. That may not be a good thing, but it is what other targets have been subjected to. So I think it reasonable to have FBI’s own subject to the same scrutiny, for better and worse.

I do think it worthwhile for DOJ to show that it will hold people accountable for improper actions.

Plus, aside from one August comment — which we may obtain more context on when Horowitz does finish this investigation — about an “insurance” policy against Trump, the texts simply aren’t that damning (though they do raise questions about Strzok’s role in the investigation). Strzok agrees with Rex Tillerson, after all, that Trump is an idiot.

So as far as that goes, I’m actually okay with Rosenstein’s release of these texts.

Except I worry about something else.

I actually worry less about Mueller getting fired than just about every other Trump opponent on the planet. Rosenstein seems intent to let him do his work, and (notably at several times during the hearing) seems to agree with the gravity of the investigation. Trump can’t get to Mueller without taking out Rosenstein (and Rachel Brand). And I actually think Rosenstein has thus far balanced the position of a Republican protecting a Republican from Republican ire fairly well. I expect the next shoes Mueller drops — whenever that happens — will change the tone dramatically.

What bothers me most about the release of these texts, however, is that they are a response to the same pressure that Comey was responding to (and which he thought he was smart enough to manage, just as Rosenstein surely thinks he can handle it here).

They are a response — from the same people who ran the Benghazi investigation then ignored DOJ’s prosecution of the Benghazi mastermind — to a willingness to challenge the very core of DOJ functionality, all in a bid to politicize it.

Perhaps Rosenstein is right to bide his time — to create space for Mueller to drop the next few shoes — with the release of the Strzok texts.

But at some point, Republicans need to start calling out Republicans for the damage they’re doing to rule of law with this constant playing of the refs, this demand for proof that Democrats aren’t getting some advantage through the rule of law. If those next shoes don’t have the effect I imagine, it may be too late.