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On Narrating Donald Trump: “Shoot me like I’m shot on ‘The Apprentice'”


Pretty much everyone I know is recommending this New Yorker profile describing how Mark Burnett created Donald Trump’s current image (and with it his electoral prospects).

Along with describing how both Trump and Burnett came to turn the popularity of the show into a marketing vehicle and a Trump’s telling claim that he initially hesitated before signing onto reality teevee because the, “contractors, politicians, mobsters, and everyone else I have to deal with in my business … don’t like, as they’re talking to me, having cameras all over the room,” the piece describes how the show depicted not reality, but a heavily edited narrative trying to retroactively justify Trump’s capricious firing decisions each week.

The result created the illusion that a serially bankrupt joker was, instead, a king.

Burnett has often boasted that, for each televised hour of “The Apprentice,” his crews shot as many as three hundred hours of footage. The real alchemy of reality television is the editing—sifting through a compost heap of clips and piecing together an absorbing story. Jonathon Braun, an editor who started working with Burnett on “Survivor” and then worked on the first six seasons of “The Apprentice,” told me, “You don’t make anything up. But you accentuate things that you see as themes.” He readily conceded how distorting this process can be. Much of reality TV consists of reaction shots: one participant says something outrageous, and the camera cuts away to another participant rolling her eyes. Often, Braun said, editors lift an eye roll from an entirely different part of the conversation.

At the end of each episode, Trump determined which competitor should be “fired.” But, as Braun explained, Trump was frequently unprepared for these sessions, with little grasp of who had performed well. Sometimes a candidate distinguished herself during the contest only to get fired, on a whim, by Trump. When this happened, Braun said, the editors were often obliged to “reverse engineer” the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage to emphasize the few moments when the exemplary candidate might have slipped up, in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense. During the making of “The Apprentice,” Burnett conceded that the stories were constructed in this way, saying, “We know each week who has been fired, and, therefore, you’re editing in reverse.” Braun noted that President Trump’s staff seems to have been similarly forced to learn the art of retroactive narrative construction, adding, “I find it strangely validating to hear that they’re doing the same thing in the White House.”

Such sleight of hand is the industry standard in reality television. But the entire premise of “The Apprentice” was also something of a con. When Trump and Burnett told the story of their partnership, both suggested that Trump was initially wary of committing to a TV show, because he was so busy running his flourishing real-estate empire. During a 2004 panel at the Museum of Television and Radio, in Los Angeles, Trump claimed that “every network” had tried to get him to do a reality show, but he wasn’t interested: “I don’t want to have cameras all over my office, dealing with contractors, politicians, mobsters, and everyone else I have to deal with in my business. You know, mobsters don’t like, as they’re talking to me, having cameras all over the room. It would play well on television, but it doesn’t play well with them.”

“The Apprentice” portrayed Trump not as a skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters but as a plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth—a titan who always seemed to be climbing out of helicopters or into limousines. “Most of us knew he was a fake,” Braun told me. “He had just gone through I don’t know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king.” Bill Pruitt, another producer, recalled, “We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture. We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise.

[snip]

Trump took to his part more nimbly than anyone might have predicted. He wouldn’t read a script—he stumbled over the words and got the enunciation all wrong. But off the cuff he delivered the kind of zesty banter that is the lifeblood of reality television. He barked at one contestant, “Sam, you’re sort of a disaster. Don’t take offense, but everyone hates you.” Katherine Walker told me that producers often struggled to make Trump seem coherent, editing out garbled syntax and malapropisms. “We cleaned it up so that he was his best self,” she said, adding, “I’m sure Donald thinks that he was never edited.” [my emphasis]

Throughout, the piece both implicitly and explicitly suggests that the White House is adopting techniques from the show in burnishing Trump’s power. Or, at least, Trump is asking that his handlers replicate the same frames of power that Burnett used.

The show’s camera operators often shot Trump from low angles, as you would a basketball pro, or Mt. Rushmore. Trump loomed over the viewer, his face in a jowly glower, his hair darker than it is now, the metallic auburn of a new penny. (“Apprentice” employees were instructed not to fiddle with Trump’s hair, which he dyed and styled himself.) Trump’s entrances were choreographed for maximum impact, and often set to a moody accompaniment of synthesized drums and cymbals. The “boardroom”—a stage set where Trump determined which candidate should be fired—had the menacing gloom of a “Godfather” movie. In one scene, Trump ushered contestants through his rococo Trump Tower aerie, and said, “I show this apartment to very few people. Presidents. Kings.” In the tabloid ecosystem in which he had long languished, Trump was always Donald, or the Donald. On “The Apprentice,” he finally became Mr. Trump.

[snip]

Trump has succeeded in politics, in part, by borrowing the tropes of the show. Jonathon Braun pointed out to me that when Trump announced his candidacy, in 2015, he did so in the atrium of Trump Tower, and made his entrance by descending the gold-colored escalator—choreography that Burnett and his team had repeatedly used on the show. After Trump’s announcement, reports suggested that people who had filled the space and cheered during his speech had been hired to do so, like TV extras, for a day rate of fifty dollars. Earlier this year, the White House started issuing brief video monologues from the President that strongly evoke his appearances on Burnett’s show. Justin McConney, a former director of new media for the Trump Organization, told New York that, whenever Trump works with camera people, he instructs them, “Shoot me like I’m shot on ‘The Apprentice.’ ” [my emphasis]

One of the most interesting details in the piece is that Democrats actively (and successfully) lobbied musical talent to blow off Trump’s inauguration, themselves performing a kind of script-writing that has haunted Trump since.

A Democratic political operative who was involved in a back-channel campaign to dissuade big-name stars from appearing at the event told me that Burnett had tried to enlist musicians to perform. “Mark was somebody we were actively working against,” the operative said. Trump’s wish list included Elton John, Aretha Franklin, and Paul Anka—who, he hoped, would sing “My Way”—but they all claimed to be otherwise engaged. The event ended up with sparse crowds and a feeble roster of performers.

Because I dawdled before reading the piece, I was reading it at the same time as reading coverage of the shutdown. That coverage highlights the results of running a Reality Teevee star as President. There’s NYT report that the reason why Trump has shut down the government to get Congress to fund him a wall is because Sam Nunberg and Roger Stone (and Steve Bannon) used the wall as a mnemonic device to get Trump to repeat his lines.

“How do we get him to continue to talk about immigration?” Sam Nunberg, one of Mr. Trump’s early political advisers, recalled telling Roger J. Stone Jr., another adviser. “We’re going to get him to talk about he’s going to build a wall.”

[snip]

“As a messaging strategy, it was pretty successful,” [anti-immigration activist Mark] Krikorian said. “The problem is, you got elected; now what do you do? Having made it his signature issue, Trump handed the Democrats a weapon against him.”

We’ve shut down the entire government because an entertainment professional always refused to memorize his lines (or as someone on Twitter noted, use a teleprompter), and so the unstable hacks who managed him early on invented a policy promise that not even hardline anti-immigration experts want.

And Trump seems to be judging the advice on the shutdown he receives based on how sycophantically his interlocutors judge his “performance” trying to ratchet up pressure for a wall.

Trump spent much of Saturday on the phone with allies, talking through his positioning on the shutdown and hearing their reviews of his Rose Garden performance, according to a person close to him. Two people regularly on his call list — Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) — have encouraged Trump to take a hard line and refuse to agree to reopen the government unless wall funding is secured, the person said.

Trump, who doesn’t understand the successful tycoon that starred in The Apprentice was the product of heavy editing, has now taken to editing himself, trying to fulfill the things the Campaign Reality Teevee star said over and over, based off what Mark Meadows and Lindsey Graham  tell him.

The New Yorker profile, however, offers scant solutions to the problem that Burnett created — just his ex-wife imploring him to tell Trump he’s not actually living a reality show, as if that will fix the problem.

One day this past fall, Burnett got a call from his first wife, Kym Gold, with whom he remains friendly. Gold was upset about what was happening in the country, and asked Burnett to intervene with Trump. “We had it out,” she told me. “I said, ‘You’ve got to help our children, for the future and safety of this country.’ ” Gold implored Burnett, “Tell him this is not a reality show. This is real life. You’re the President. You’re saying things you cannot say—to reporters, to other world leaders.”

But that wouldn’t fix it even if Burnett were willing to risk losing access to Trump by telling him.

The problem, and any potential solutions, is something I’ve been thinking about for some time. No one is going to cure Trump of his addiction to being framed to look powerful. If he doesn’t get that high from his White House handlers, he will continue to fire them and look elsewhere, to people who are even better trained at flattery than Burnett. Trump now believes he can produce himself, based largely on the feedback of nutjobs like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity.

I’m not actually advocating letting Trump frame himself as a king. But I also think that much of Democrats’ response involves trying to fact check Trump rather than reframe him. Your typical Trump voter isn’t going to give a damn that Trump is lying until some policy he has bragged about (up to and including the shutdown, but also his trade wars) ends up making them feel personally betrayed.

Mind you, I think Nancy Pelosi understands all this. She understands (like that other great female politician, Angela Merkel) that Trump will lose more if he is shown looking weak next to a woman than if someone proves his 100,000th lie.

That last of the self-imagined productive sycophants left with John Kelly. Trump now has a temporary Chief of Staff, one who will be gone once Trump decides to internalize Mick Mulvaney’s labeling of Trump’s position on the wall as “childish.” That creates a vacuum in the function of framing Trump’s image.

Update, January 12: This important op-ed from an OLC veteran describes how lawyers there do much the same as what editors on The Apprentice does.

But when I was at OLC, I saw again and again how the decision to trust the president failed the office’s attorneys, the Justice Department and the American people. The failure took different forms. Sometimes, we just wouldn’t look that closely at the claims the president was making about the state of the world. When we did look closely, we could give only nudges. For example, if I identified a claim by the president that was provably false, I would ask the White House to supply a fig leaf of supporting evidence. Or if the White House’s justification for taking an action reeked of unconstitutional animus, I would suggest a less pungent framing or better tailoring of the actions described in the order.

I often wondered, though, whether my attempts to remove the most basic inaccuracies from the face of a presidential order meant that I was myself failing to carry out my oath to protect and defend the Constitution. After all, the president had already submitted, through his early drafts or via Twitter, his reasons for issuing a particular order. I sometimes felt that, rather than engaging in professionally responsible advocacy, my OLC colleagues and I were using the law to legitimize lies.

I felt more than a twinge of recognition this month when reading a New Yorker article about Trump and the reality-TV show “The Apprentice.” Jonathan Braun, an editor on “The Apprentice,” described how editors would “reverse engineer” episodes after Trump made impulsive decisions about firing a contestant. The article described editors “scouring hundreds of hours of footage . . . in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense.” Like a staff member at “The Apprentice,” I occasionally caught myself fashioning a pretext, building an alibi.

The Dossier Is Not the Measure of the Trump-Russia Conspiracy

It seems like the whole world has decided to measure Trump’s conspiracy with Russia not from the available evidence, but based on whether the Steele dossier correctly predicted all the incriminating evidence we now have before us.

The trend started with NPR. According to them (or, at least, NPR’s Phillip Ewing doing a summary without first getting command of the facts), if Michael Cohen didn’t coordinate a Tower-for-sanctions-relief deal from Prague, then such a deal didn’t happen. That’s the logic of a column dismissing the implications of the recent Cohen allocution showing that when Don Jr took a meeting offering dirt on Hillary as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” he knew his family stood to make hundreds of millions if they stayed on Vladimir Putin’s good side.

Item: Cohen ostensibly played a key role in the version of events told by the infamous, partly unverified Russia dossier. He denied that strongly to Congress. He also has admitted lying to Congress and submitted an important new version of other events.

But that new story didn’t include a trip to Prague, as described in the dossier. Nor did Cohen discuss that in his interview on Friday on ABC News. Could the trip, or a trip, still be substantiated? Yes, maybe — but if it happened, would a man go to prison for three years without anyone having mentioned it?

As I noted, Mueller laid out the following in the unredacted summary of Cohen’s cooperation.

Consider this passage in the Mueller Cohen sentencing memo.

The defendant’s false statements obscured the fact that the Moscow Project was a lucrative business opportunity that sought, and likely required, the assistance of the Russian government. If the project was completed, the Company could have received hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources in licensing fees and other revenues. The fact that Cohen continued to work on the project and discuss it with Individual 1 well into the campaign was material to the ongoing congressional and SCO investigations, particularly because it occurred at a time of sustained efforts by the Russian government to interfere with the U.S. presidential election. Similarly, it was material that Cohen, during the campaign, had a substantive telephone call about the project with an assistant to the press secretary for the President of Russia.

Cohen’s lies, aside from attempting to short circuit the parallel Russian investigations, hid the following facts:

  • Trump Organization stood to earn “hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources” if the Trump Tower deal went through.
  • Cohen’s work on the deal continued “well into the campaign” even as the Russian government made “sustained efforts … to interfere in the U.S. presidential election.”
  • The project “likely required[] the assistance of the Russian government.”
  • “Cohen [during May 2016] had a substantive telephone call about the project with an assistant to the press secretary for the President of Russia [Dmitri Peskov].”

But because the new Cohen details (along with the fact that he booked tickets for St. Petersburg the day of the June 9 meeting, only to cancel after the Russian hack of the DNC became public) didn’t happen in Prague, it’s proof, according to NPR, that there is no collusion. [Note, NPR has revised this lead and added an editors note labeling this piece as analysis, not news.]

Political and legal danger for President Trump may be sharpening by the day, but the case that his campaign might have conspired with the Russian attack on the 2016 election looks weaker than ever.

There are other errors in the piece. It claims “Manafort’s lawyers say he gave the government valuable information,” but they actually claimed he didn’t lie (and it doesn’t note that the two sides may have gone back to the drawing board after that public claim). Moreover, the column seems to entirely misunderstand that Manafort’s plea (would have) excused him from the crimes in chief, which is why they weren’t charged. Nor does it acknowledge the details from prosecutors list of lies that implicate alleged GRU associate Konstantin Kilimnik in an ongoing role throughout Trump’s campaign.

Then there’s the NPR complaint that Mike Flynn, after a year of cooperation, is likely to get no prison time. It uses that to debunk a straw man that Flynn was a Russian foreign agent.

Does that sound like the attitude they would take with someone who had been serving as a Russian factotum and who had been serving as a foreign agent from inside the White House as national security adviser, steps away from the Oval Office?

That’s never been the claim (though the Russians sure seemed like they were cultivating it). Rather, the claim was that Flynn hid details of Trump’s plans to ease sanctions, an easing of sanctions Russians had asked Don Jr to do six months earlier in a meeting when they offered him dirt. The 302 from his FBI interview released last night makes it clear that indeed he did.

Finally, NPR is sad that Carter Page hasn’t been charged.

Will the feds ever charge Trump’s sometime foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, whom they called a Russian agent in the partly declassified application they made to surveil him?

This is not a checklist, where Trump will be implicated in a conspiracy only if the hapless Page is indicted (any case against whom has likely been spoiled anyway given all the leaking). The question, instead, is whether Trump and his spawn and campaign manager and longtime political advisor (the piece names neither Don Jr nor Roger Stone, both of whom have been saying they’ll be indicted) entered into a conspiracy with Russians.

In short, this piece aims to measure whether there was “collusion” not by looking at the evidence, but by looking instead at the Steele dossier to see if it’s a mirror of the known facts.

But NPR isn’t the only outlet measuring reality by how it matches up to the Steele dossier. This piece describes that Michael Isikoff thinks, “All the signs to me are, Mueller is reaching his end game, and we may see less than what many people want him to find,” in part because of the same three points made in the NPR piece (Cohen didn’t go to Prague, no pee tape has been released, and Flynn will get no prison time), but also because Maria Butina — whose investigation was not tied to the Trump one, but whom Isikoff himself had claimed might be — will mostly implicate her former boyfriend, Paul Erickson. In the interview, Isikoff notes that because the dossier has not been corroborated, calling it a “mixed record, at best … most of the specific allegations have not been borne out” and notes his own past predictions have not been fulfilled.  Perhaps Isikoff’s reliance on the dossier arises from his own central role in it, but Isikoff misstates some of what has come out in legal filings to back his claim that less will come of the Mueller investigation than he thought.

Then there is Chuck Ross. Like Isikoff, Ross has invested much of his investigative focus into the dossier, and thus is no better able than Isikoff to see a reality but for the false mirror of the dossier. His tweet linking a story laying out more evidence that Michael Cohen did not go to Prague claims that that news is “a huge blow for the collusion narrative.”

Even when Ross wrote a post pretending to assess whether the Michael Cohen plea allocution shows “collusion,” Ross ultimately fell back on assessing whether the documents instead proved the dossier was true.

Notably absent from the Mueller filing is any indication that Cohen provided information that matches the allegations laid out in the Steele dossier, the infamous document that Democrats tout as the roadmap to collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian government.

The most prominent allegation against Cohen in the 35-page report is that he traveled to Prague in August 2016 to meet with Kremlin insiders to discuss paying off hackers who stole Democrats’ emails.

The Isikoff comments appear to have traveled via Ross to Trump’s Twitter thumbs, all without assessing the evidence in plain sight.

Meanwhile, Lawfare is erring in a parallel direction, checking on the dossier to see “whether information made public as a result of the Mueller investigation—and the passage of two years—has tended to buttress or diminish the crux of Steele’s original reporting.”

Such an exercise is worthwhile, if conducted as a measure of whether Christopher Steele obtained accurate intelligence before it otherwise got reported by credible, public sources. But much of what Lawfare does does the opposite — assessing reports (it even gets the number of reports wrong, saying there are 16, not 17, which might be excusable if precisely that issue hadn’t been the subject of litigation) out of context of when they were published. Even still, aside from Steele’s reports on stuff that was already public (Carter Page’s trip to Moscow, Viktor Yanukovych’s close ties to Paul Manafort), the post reaches one after another conclusion that the dossier actually hasn’t been confirmed.

There’s the 8-year conspiracy of cooperation, including Trump providing Russia intelligence. [my emphasis throughout here]

Most significantly, the dossier reports a “well-developed conspiracy of co-operation between [Trump and his associates] and the Russian leadership,” including an “intelligence exchange [that] had been running between them for at least 8 years.” There has been significant investigative reporting about long-standing connections between Trump, his associates and Kremlin-affiliated individuals, and Trump himself acknowledged that the purpose of a June 2016 meeting between his son, Donald Trump Jr. and a Kremlin-connected lawyer was to obtain “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. But there is, at present, no evidence in the official record that confirms other direct ties or their relevance to the 2016 presidential campaign.

There’s the knowing support for the hack-and-leak among Trump and his top lackeys.

It does not, however, corroborate the statement in the dossier that the Russian intelligence “operation had been conducted with the full knowledge and support of Trump and senior members of his campaign team.”

There’s Cohen’s Trump Tower deal.

These documents relate to Cohen’s false statements to Congress regarding attempted Trump Organization business dealings in Russia. The details buttress Steele’s reporting to some extent, but mostly run parallel, neither corroborating nor disproving information in the dossier.

There’s Cohen’s role in the hack-and-leak, including his trip to Prague.

Even with the additional detail from the Cohen documents, certain core allegations in the dossier related to Cohen—which, if true, would be of utmost relevance to Mueller’s investigation—remain largely unconfirmed, at least from the unredacted material. Specifically, the dossier reports that there was well-established, continuing cooperation between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin; that Cohen played a central role in the coordination of joint efforts; and that he traveled to Prague to meet with Russian officials and cut-outs.

There’s Papadopoulos, who (as Lawfare admits) doesn’t show up in the dossier; here they argue he could have, without asking why Steele missed him running around London talking to people who traveled in Steele’s circles.

We revisit his case because it resonates with one of the themes of the dossier, which is the extensive Russian outreach effort to an array of individuals connected to the Trump campaign. Steele’s sources reported on alleged interactions between Carter Page and Russian officials, but Papadopoulos’s conduct would have fit right in.

Again, except for the stuff that was publicly known, Lawfare assesses one after another claim from the dossier and finds that Mueller’s investigation has not corroborated the specific claims, even while Mueller has provided ample evidence of something else going on. But that doesn’t stop Lawfare from claiming that Mueller has “confirm[ed] pieces of the dossier.”

The Mueller investigation has clearly produced public records that confirm pieces of the dossier. And even where the details are not exact, the general thrust of Steele’s reporting seems credible in light of what we now know about extensive contacts between numerous individuals associated with the Trump campaign and Russian government officials.

However, there is also a good deal in the dossier that has not been corroborated in the official record and perhaps never will be—whether because it’s untrue, unimportant or too sensitive. As a raw intelligence document, the Steele dossier, we believe, holds up well so far. But surely there is more to come from Mueller’s team. We will return to it as the public record develops.

In the end, I actually think Mueller may show that Trump, Stone, and Manafort did abet the hack-and-leak campaign, certainly the later parts of it, and that the Trump Tower deal was a key part of the quid pro quo. That’s aside from anything that Trump did with analytics data made available, if it was. But Mueller has just shown the outlines of where a case in chief might fit thus far. And where has has, those outlines raise one after another question of why Steele missed evidence (like the June 9 meeting) that was literally sitting in front of him. No one is answering those questions in these retrospectives.

One reason this effort, coming from Lawfare, is particularly unfortunate is because of a detail recently disclosed in Comey’s recent testimony to Congress. As you read, remember that this exchange involves Mark Meadows, who is the source of many of the most misleading allegations pertaining to the Russian investigation. In Comey’s first appearance this month (given Comey’s comments after testifying yesterday, I expect we’ll see more of the same today when his transcript is released), Meadows seemed to make much of the fact that Michael Sussman, who works with Marc Elias at Perkins Coie, provided information directly to Lawfare contributor James Baker.

Mr. Meadows. So are you saying that James Baker, your general counsel, who received direct information from Perkins Coie, did so and conveyed that to your team without your knowledge?

Mr. Comey. I don’t know.

Mr. Meadows. What do you mean you don’t know? I mean, did he tell you or not?

Mr. Comey. Oh, I — well —

Mr. Meadows. James Baker, we have testimony that would indicate that he received information directly from Perkins Coie; he had knowledge that they were representing the Democrat National Committee and, indeed, collected that information and conveyed it to the investigative team. Did he tell you that he received that information from them? And I can give you a name if you want to know who he received it from.

Mr. Comey. I don’t remember the name Perkins Coie at all.

Mr. Meadows. What about Michael Sussmann?

Mr. Comey. I think I’ve read that name since then. I don’t remember learning that name when I was FBI Director. I was going to ask you a followup, though. When you say “that information,” what do you mean?

Mr. Meadows. Well, it was cyber information as it relates to the investigation.

Mr. Comey. Yeah, I have some recollection of Baker interacting with — you said the DNC, which sparked my recollection — with the DNC about our effort to get information about the Russian hack of them —

Mr. Meadows. Yeah, that’s — that’s not — that’s not what I’m referring to.

Mr. Comey. — but I don’t — I don’t remember anything beyond that.

Mr. Meadows. And so I can give you something so that you — your counsel can look at it and refresh your memory, perhaps, as we look at that, but I guess my concern is your earlier testimony acted like this was news to you that Perkins Coie represented the Democratic National Committee, and yet your general counsel not only knew that but received information from them that was transmitted to other people in the investigative team. [my emphasis]

I have long wondered how the Perkins Coie meeting with the FBI on the hack timed up with the hiring, by Fusion GPS working for Perkins Coie, of Christopher Steele lined up, and that appears to be where Meadows is going to make his final, desperate stand. An earlier version of this hoax revealed that it pertained to materials on hacking, but did not specify that Steele had anything to do with it (indeed, Steele was always behind public reporting on the hack-and-leak).

Still, it would be of more public utility for Lawfare to clarify this detail than engage in yet another exercise in rehabilitating the dossier.

Instead, they — just like everyone else choosing not to look for evidence (or lack thereof) in the actual evidence before us — instead look back to see whether Steele’s dossier was a mirror of reality or something else entirely. If it’s the latter — and it increasingly looks like it is — then it’s time to figure out how and what it is.

Update: Cheryl Rofer did a line by line assessment of Steele’s dossier which is worthwhile. I would dispute a number of her claims (and insist that Steele’s reporting on the hacks be read in the temporal context in which he always lagged public reporting) and wish she’d note where the public record shows facts that actually conflict with the dosser. But it is a decent read.

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

The Year Long Trump Flunky Effort to Free Julian Assange

The NYT has an unbelievable story about how Paul Manafort went to Ecuador to try to get Julian Assange turned over. I say it’s unbelievable because it is 28 paragraphs long, yet it never once explains whether Assange would be turned over to the US for prosecution or for a golf retirement. Instead, the story stops short multiple times of what it implies: that Manafort was there as part of paying off Trump’s part of a deal, but the effort stopped as soon as Mueller was appointed.

Within a couple of days of Mr. Manafort’s final meeting in Quito, Robert S. Mueller III was appointed as the special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and related matters, and it quickly became clear that Mr. Manafort was a primary target. His talks with Ecuador ended without any deals.

The story itself — which given that it stopped once Mueller was appointed must be a limited hangout revealing that Manafort tried to free Assange, complete with participation from the spox that Manafort unbelievably continues to employ from his bankrupt jail cell — doesn’t surprise me at all.

After all, the people involved in the election conspiracy made multiple efforts to free Assange.

WikiLeaks kicked off the effort at least by December, when they sent a DM to Don Jr suggesting Trump should make him Australian Ambassador to the US.

Hi Don. Hope you’re doing well! In relation to Mr. Assange: Obama/Clinton placed pressure on Sweden, UK and Australia (his home country) to illicitly go after Mr. Assange. It would be real easy and helpful for your dad to suggest that Australia appoint Assange ambassador to DC “That’s a really smart tough guy and the most famous australian you have! ” or something similar. They won’t do it, but it will send the right signals to Australia, UK + Sweden to start following the law and stop bending it to ingratiate themselves with the Clintons. 12/16/16 12:38PM

Weeks later, Hannity would go to the Embassy to interview Assange. Assange fed him the alternate view of how he obtained the DNC emails, a story that would be critical to Trump’s success at putting the election year heist behind him, if it were successful. Trump and Hannity pushed the line that the hackers were not GRU, but some 400 pound guy in someone’s basement.

Then the effort actually shifted to Democrats and DOJ. Starting in February through May 2017, Oleg Deripaska and Julian Assange broker Adam Waldman tried to convince Bruce Ohr or Mark Warner to bring Assange to the US, using the threat of the Vault 7 files as leverage. In February, Jim Comey told DOJ to halt that effort. But Waldman continued negotiations, offering to throw testimony from Deripaska in as well. He even used testimony from Christopher Steele as leverage.

This effort has been consistently spun by the Mark Meadows/Devin Nunes/Jim Jordan crowd — feeding right wing propagandists like John Solomon — as an attempt to obstruct a beneficial counterintelligence discussion. It’s a testament to the extent to which GOP “investigations” have been an effort to spin an attempt to coerce freedom for Assange.

Shortly after this effort failed, Manafort picked it up, as laid out by the NYT. That continued until Mueller got hired.

There may have been a break (or maybe I’m missing the next step). But by the summer, Dana Rohrabacher and Chuck Johnson got in the act, with Rohrabacher going to the Embassy to learn the alternate story, which he offered to share with Trump.

Next up was Bill Binney, whom Trump started pushing Mike Pompeo to meet with, to hear Binney’s alternative story.

At around the same time, WikiLeaks released the single Vault 8 file they would release, followed shortly by Assange publicly re-upping his offer to set up a whistleblower hotel in DC.

Those events contributed to a crackdown on Assange and may have led to the jailing of accused Vault 7 source Joshua Schulte.

In December, Ecuador and Russia started working on a plan to sneak Assange out of the Embassy.

A few weeks later, Roger Stone got into the act, telling Randy Credico he was close to winning Assange a pardon.

These efforts have all fizzled, and I suspect as Mueller put together more information on Trump’s conspiracy with Russia, not only did the hopes of telling an alternative theory fade, but so did the possibility that a Trump pardon for Assange would look like anything other than a payoff for help getting elected. In June, the government finally got around to charging Schulte for Vault 7. But during the entire time he was in jail, he was apparently still attempting to leak information, which the government therefore obtained on video.

Ecuador’s increasing crackdown on Assange has paralleled the Schulte prosecution, with new restrictions, perhaps designed to provide the excuse to boot Assange from the Embassy, going into effect on December 1.

Don’t get me wrong: if I were Assange I’d use any means I could to obtain safe passage.

Indeed, this series of negotiations — and the players involved — may be far, far more damning for those close to Trump. Sean Hannity, Oleg Deripaska, Paul Manafort, Chuck Johnson, Dana Rohrabacher, Roger Stone, and Don Jr, may all worked to find a way to free Assange, all in the wake of Assange playing a key role in getting Trump elected. And they were conducting these negotiations even as WikiLeaks was burning the CIA’s hacking tools.

Maria Butina’s Legal Team Embraces Disinformation (with Help from Russia)

One key prong of Republican propaganda attempting to discredit the Mueller investigation has been to claim Trump associates were targeted by informants. Perhaps the most brazen example was when Roger Stone claimed a Russian whose offer of dirt he entertained (but claims to have refused to pay for) was an FBI informant. But George Papapdopoulos has spawned an entire subindustry of such claims.

It appears that Maria Butina’s attorneys have adopted that approach. In a letter to her attorneys the prosecutors posted to the docket the other day, they insist (as DOJ has had to insist to Republicans in Congress) that they are not sitting on evidence of approaches by informants.

During our previous discussions, you have advanced certain hypothetical scenarios involving your client, including a supposed “dangle” operation or the acquisition of exculpatory information from “Cis,” which we take to mean confidential government informants. It appeared at the time of our discussions, that you based these ideas not on firsthand knowledge of any events, but rather on speculation based on claims made in some unidentified media articles. Inexplicably, however, in your October 18, 2018 email, you–for the first time–firmly assert that “[w]e know this information exists [and] have called it out by name…” [emphasis added]. The government was surprised by this newly adamant assertion, and we invite you to provide us any additional information you may have concerning the provenance or existence of the information you request.

Notwithstanding its speculative nature, the government took your original request seriously and made specific inquiries about the hypothetical scenarios you advanced. Regarding the scenarios described in your October 18, 2018 email, based on our reviews to date, we are not aware of any information that would trigger any disclosure obligations regarding either a “dangle,” successful or otherwise, or information obtained from any confidential informant. We are aware of no surveillance targeting your client that occurred prior to in or around [redacted] We will obviously continue to review the government’s holdings for such information, as well as any additional surveillance records of your client and we will continue to discuss with you any other materials that you consider potentially exculpatory. If that ongoing review yields information that should be disclosed to you, we will certainly do so.

Don’t get me wrong. DOJ has a history of playing games with discovery, or of interpreting discovery narrowly so as to hide other prongs of an investigation. So the allegation from Butina’s lawyers, by itself, is not outrageous.

Except it seems to be a part of the Devin Nunes/Mark Meadows/Jim Jordan propaganda effort in Congress, driven by a bunch of half-wits who leak information that they don’t understand.

Indeed, this incident raises real questions for me on whether the House effort has now taken not only to defending Donald Trump, but also Maria Butina, an alleged foreign spy whose own writings indicate Putin knew of her operation.

Meanwhile, DOJ’s letter to Butina’s team reveals that they have not picked up a hard drive of discovery DOJ made available a month ago.

With respect to materials provided to you so far, we have made an FBI CART examiner available to you to help you navigate the electronic evidence, and we made a second hard drive of electronic evidence available to you over a month ago, which you have thus far reclined to retrieve.

The claim that Butina’s team has left evidence sitting for a month comes just days before Russia’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, claimed that DOJ has not handed over discovery to her and used that to claim DOJ is treating her unfairly.

It is baffling that the court considering Maria Butina’s case has not yet handed over the case material to her, although the hearing is scheduled for November 13. Unfortunately, this gives us yet another reason to doubt the impartiality of American justice system.

Again, it is not unheard of for DOJ to play games with discovery. But in this case, particularly in context of obvious propaganda serving Trump and other Republicans’ interest, it seems like Butina’s defenders both in and outside the country have decided on a disinformation strategy rather than a direct defense of her case.

Update: The parties just asked for Butina’s case to be put off for three weeks to deal with discovery. Maybe in the interim, the government will find the evidence of informants sidling up to Butina that the claim is not exculpatory.

Donald Trump’s Bubble May Be Robert Mueller’s Greatest Weapon

Robert Mueller has a slew of really good lawyers working for him. But I think his biggest asset is Donald Trump’s bubble.

Consider this NYT story, in which a bunch of lawyers anonymously blame each other for getting 16 months into the Special Counsel investigation without ever figuring out what the President did.

The lawyers have only a limited sense of what many witnesses — including senior administration officials and the president’s business associates — have told investigators and what the Justice Department plans to do with any incriminating information it has about Mr. Trump, according to interviews with more than a dozen people close to the president.

What is more, it is not clear if Mr. Trump has given his lawyers a full account of some key events in which he has been involved as president or during his decades running the Trump Organization.

[snip]

Mr. Dowd took Mr. Trump at his word that he had done nothing wrong and never conducted a full internal investigation to determine the president’s true legal exposure.

[snip]

And once Mr. Dowd was gone, the new legal team had to spend at least 20 hours interviewing the president about the episodes under investigation, another necessary step Mr. Dowd and his associates had apparently not completed.

In spite of the effort to blame all this on Dowd, the NYT article provides abundant evidence (which they, in typical Maggie and Mike fashion, don’t seem aware of) that Trump’s lawyers continue to be clueless.

There’s the notion that just 20 hours of Trump interviews would be sufficient for nailing down the actual story. Don McGahn, after all, has had 30 hours of interviews with Mueller’s team, and while he has played several central roles, he’s not the principal. And, unlike Trump, he can and presumably did tell a mostly consistent story.

There’s the admission that Trump’s lawyers actually don’t know how ten senior officials testified.

During Mr. Dowd’s tenure, prosecutors interviewed at least 10 senior administration officials without Mr. Trump’s lawyers first learning what the witnesses planned to say, or debriefing their lawyers afterward — a basic step that could have given the president’s lawyers a view into what Mr. Mueller had learned.

Complain all you want that Dowd didn’t obstruct competently. But the Joint Defense Agreement (the one that gave Rudy no advance warning that Paul Manafort had flipped on the President) is what Rudy has always pointed to to justify his confidence that Trump is not at any risk. So Rudy is, by the standards of the anonymous people leaking to Maggie and Mike, just as incompetent.

Perhaps best of all is the claim of an anonymous Maggie and Mike source that poor Jay Sekulow was left to clean up after Dowd’s, and only Dowd’s, mistakes.

In March, Mr. Dowd resigned, telling associates that he disagreed with the president’s desire to sit for an interview with Mr. Mueller — one form of cooperation he opposed — and leaving Mr. Sekulow with the task of rebuilding the legal team from scratch, and without knowing many of the details of the case. Mr. Dowd left few notes or files about the case, which had to be recreated months after the fact.

Somehow, Ty Cobb, the guy brought in after Marc Kasowitz left amid concerns that Trump was obstructing justice, who oversaw responding to discovery requests and who was initially celebrated as being very aggressive, gets no blame. Cobb was the guy who put McGahn in a defensive crouch — leading directly to 20 of his 30 hours of testimony — after blabbing in public about him hiding documents.

Crazier still, Jay Sekulow gets no blame in this narrative, even though Sekulow was around during all of Dowd’s purportedly mistaken decisions. As recently as March, Sekulow was quite confident that his undeniable expertise in litigating the right wing’s ressentiment prepared him to deal with the challenges of a Special Counsel investigation.

When Jay Sekulow joined President Donald Trump’s legal team for the Russia investigation last summer, he was largely expected to serve as the public face of the group. But after former lead attorney John Dowd resigned last week, and with other top lawyers reportedly reluctant to join the team, Sekulow is now the key player in one of the most high-stakes investigations in the world.

“I have maintained since the beginning of the representation that my interest is representing the client,” Sekulow tells TIME. “And it may take different forms at different times, and we’re just right now in a different phase.”

[snip]

Peter Flaherty, who worked for Romney on both campaigns and has known Sekulow for more than a decade, offers effusive praise for Sekulow that draws on the world of Boston sports.

“Jay is a combination of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, wrapped into one super-lawyer,” Flaherty says, citing the New England Patriots’ coach and quarterback. “He is capable of both devising successful strategy in a conference room, as well as being able to execute it in a courtroom.”

Critics say that legal expertise in high-minded constitutional issues won’t translate well to the guts of a criminal case. But Sekulow says he feels his “broad background” in the law has prepared him for the current challenge, citing a recent case he worked on in which the IRS admitted to unfairly scrutinizing tax forms of conservative groups.

In the wake of Manafort’s plea deal, Sekulow seems less certain he’s got control of the situation.

Here’s the thing though. This is a 2,100-word story presented as truth, disclosing evidence (albeit unacknowledged) that the lawyers who have serially managed press outreach (Sekulow, then Rudy) are clueless. It repeats, as Maggie and Mike always do, two key threads of the spin from these men: that Trump’s only exposure is obstruction and that the end result will be a report.

[Manafort’s] plea brings to four the number of former close associates of Mr. Trump who have agreed to cooperate with Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the election and obstruction of justice by the president.

And while Mr. Trump’s lawyers insist Mr. Mueller has nothing on their client about colluding with Russia, they are bracing for him to write a damaging report to Congress about whether the president obstructed justice.

[snip]

The sense of unease among the president’s lawyers can be traced, in part, to their client. Mr. Trump has repeatedly undermined his position by posting on Twitter or taking other actions that could add to the obstruction case against him.

[snip]

Even after Mr. Mueller’s appointment, Mr. Trump did things like ask witnesses about what they told Mr. Mueller’s investigators and put out misleading statements about contacts between his campaign and Russia, which appear to have deepened the special counsel’s examination of possible obstruction.

A mere review of Jay Sekulow’s own list, drafted in March, of questions Mueller might ask Trump, should make it clear to anyone exercising a tiny degree of skepticism that the claim Mueller is exclusively focused on obstruction is utter nonsense. And after the speaking criminal information released with Manafort’s plea, the expectation of a report should be treated far more critically.

But it’s not.

In an article about how Trump’s lawyers, generally, are clueless, and demonstrating though not reporting that the lawyers providing information to the press are part of that general cluelessness, Maggie and Mike don’t pause to reflect on whether that leaves them, too, clueless.

So when Trump tries to understand his plight by reading Maggie and Mike, he would believe a fiction largely created by the lies he has already told his lawyers and his preference for PR rather than solid legal advice.

Of course, it gets worse from there. Trump has benefitted from nine months of Devin Nunes-led intelligence, fed both via staffers and through a stable of incompetent right wing stenographers, about the investigation. I know for a fact that the most competent Republicans who have read the most investigative documents do not have a grasp about either the scope of the investigation or how it evolved (though someone at least understands that after August 1, 2017, the investigation got far more risky for the President).

But when you take that misunderstanding about the investigation and launder it through incompetent hacks like John Solomon, then the picture it provides is even more misleading.

Which led us to Trump’s decision on Monday to declassify a bunch of stuff.

That led Mark Warner, who has a better though still incomplete understanding of the potential risk to Trump, to quip, “Be careful what you wish for,” suggesting that the documents might be very incriminating to Trump.

Batshit crazier still, Trump went on to do an interview with the aforementioned John Solomon. (The Hill, unlike the NYT and virtually all other outlets, has the dignity to label interviews where Trump tells reporters a bunch of bullshit “opinion.”) In it, Trump suggests he had the authority and should have fired Jim Comey they day he won the primaries (an interesting suggestion by itself as Mueller appears to be investigating Roger Stone’s activities from that time period), which would likely have resulted in a Hillary win.

“If I did one mistake with Comey, I should have fired him before I got here. I should have fired him the day I won the primaries,” Trump said. “I should have fired him right after the convention, say I don’t want that guy. Or at least fired him the first day on the job. … I would have been better off firing him or putting out a statement that I don’t want him there when I get there.”

Crazier still, Trump admits that he has no idea what is included in the vast swath of documents he has already ordered to be released.

Trump said he had not read the documents he ordered declassified but said he expected to show they would prove the FBI case started as a political “hoax.”

“I have had many people ask me to release them. Not that I didn’t like the idea but I wanted to wait, I wanted to see where it was all going,” he said.

In the end, he said, his goal was to let the public decide by seeing the documents that have been kept secret for more than two years. “All I want to do is be transparent,” he said.

As I’ve noted here and elsewhere, even careful readers, to say nothing of the frothy right, have little visibility on how this investigation evolved (even the tiny bit more visibility I have makes me aware of how much I don’t know). If the smartest Republican upstream of Trump’s concerns about the genesis of the investigation doesn’t understand it, then far stupider Congressmen like Mark Meadows, who hasn’t reviewed all the documents, is surely misrepresenting it.

And yet Trump, from within the bubble of sycophants, clueless lawyers, and credulous reporters is blindly taking action in the hope of undercutting the pardon-proof plea deal of his campaign manager.

Update: Thanks to those who corrected my error in the bracketed description of the fourth plea.

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. 

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. 

The Frothy Right Is Furious that Peter Strzok Pursued the Guy Leaking about Carter Page

Close to midnight on June 3, 2017, Lisa Page texted Peter Strzok to let him know that Reality Winner was in custody. Page used the same shorthand she and Strzok (and presumably, those around them) consistently use to describe leak investigations, ML, media leaks.

They used the term elsewhere, as when Strzok said “media leaks and what I do for a living” when responding to the first reports that Mueller was investigating Trump (and hypothesizing about who the WaPo’s likely sources were).

Significantly, they used the term on April 10, 2017, when trying to figure out how to respond to DOJ’s effort to increasingly politicize leak investigations.

Indeed, Strzok’s lawyer has issued a statement confirming this is how Strzok and Page used the term.

The term ‘media leak strategy’ in Mr. Strzok’s text refers to a Department-wide initiative to detect and stop leaks to the media. The President and his enablers are once again peddling unfounded conspiracy theories to mislead the American People.

In spite of all that context, Mark Meadows has the entire frothy right, from Sara Carter to Fox News to Don Jr to his dad, worked up about two newly produced texts, based on this letter to Rod Rosenstein, which gets just about every thing wrong.

Before I explain how wrong Mark Meadows’ letter is, let me point out two things.

Michael Horowitz has already investigated a media leak text and found no misconduct

First, Michael Horowitz is (with the possible exception of DOD’s Glenn Fine) the best Inspector General in government. His office spent over a year investigating the work of Peter Strzok and Lisa Page; he wrote a 500-page report on it. And when he found evidence that even looked like impropriety, acted on it immediately and then formally, leading to Strzok’s firing. He has also spent a year investigating whatever calls went between FBI lines and reporters covering Hillary or Trump. He even drew pretty pictures showing each one of concern.

As part of both investigations, he examined a text in the series Meadows is concerned about (the April 10 one, above). And in spite of examining Page and Strzok, including a relevant text, at such length, Horowitz found no impropriety with the discussions about how to investigate leaks to the media.

We know the likely culprit for the leak the frothy right is blaming on Page and Strzok

The punchline of Meadows’ letter — as fed via the always-wrong Sara Carter — is a claim that Strzok and Page were the source for the WaPo story revealing that FBI obtained a FISA order on Carter Page.

The review of the documents suggests that the FBI and DOJ coordinated efforts to get information to the press that would potentially be “harmful to President Trump’s administration.” Those leaks pertained to information regarding the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant used to spy on short-term campaign volunteer Carter Page.

Aside from how fucking stupid you’d have to be to believe that Strzok would go to great lengths to get a FISA order on Page and then tell the entire world about it, there’s another reason that the frothy right should know this is wrong: because we know the likely culprit for it.

As I noted in my first post on the James Wolfe indictment, that investigation appears to have started to (and focused on) finding the source for the WaPo story the frothy right now blames on Strzok and Page.

The government lays out clear proof Wolfe lied about conversations with three reporters. With Watkins and another, they point to stories about Carter Page to do so. The Watkins story is this one, confirming he is the person identified in the Evgeny Buryakov indictment. Another must be one of two stories revealing Page was subpoenaed for testimony by the Senate Intelligence Committee — either this one or this one.

I’m most interested, however, in this reference to a story the FBI raised with Wolfe in its interview, a story for which (unlike the others) the indictment never confirms whether Wolfe is the source.

During the interview, FBI agents showed WOLFE a copy of a news article authored by three reporters, including REPORTER #1, about an individual (referred to herein as “MALE-l), that contained classified information that had been provided to the SSCI by the Executive Branch for official purposes

The story suggests they don’t have content for the communications between Wolfe and Reporter #1, and the call records they’re interested in ended last June (meaning the story must precede it).

For example, between in or around December 2015 and in or around June 2017, WOLFE and REPORTER #1 communicated at least five times using his SSCI email account.

For that reason, I suspect this is the story they asked about — whether Wolfe is a source for the original credible story on Carter Page’s FISA order. The focus on Page generally in the indictment suggests this investigation started as an investigation into who leaked the fact that Page had been targeted under FISA, and continued to look at the stories that revealed classified details about the investigative focus on him (stories which he rightly complained to SSCI about).

The government didn’t charge Wolfe for that story — they just (appear to have) included his lies about whether he knew the reporters behind it among the lies they charged him for. But that’s a common strategy for FBI when dealing with a leak investigation the direct prosecution of which would require declassifying information, particularly with someone like Wolfe who could easily graymail the government. Moreover, the docket in his case has the look of one where the defense is considering a plea to avoid more serious charges.

Now consider how they got Wolfe. Not only did the government go after a trusted employee, not only did they very publicly access his Signal and WhatsApp texts, not only did they get Congress to waive speech and debate (which very rarely happens), but they also obtained years of Ali Watkins’ call records, both directly and via Temple University.

In other words, the prosecution of James Wolfe pushed prior protocols on leak investigations on a number of fronts: going after favored insiders, going after encrypted comms, going after employees of Congress, and going far more aggressively after a journalist and a college student than would seem necessary. That’s precisely the kind of thing that FBI and DOJ would debate as part of revising their strategy to more aggressively pursue media leaks.

So the James Wolfe case not only provides a likely culprit for the leak, but probably even evidence that shifts in the media leak strategy did happen, shifts resulting in far more aggressive pursuit of leaks than happened at the end of the Obama Administration.

Mark Meadows dangerously wrong

Which brings us, finally, to the many errors of Mark Meadows’ letter to Rosenstein. Once again, the premise of the letter is that two next texts (one of which obviously relates the one I posted above) create grave new concerns.

As you may know, we recently received a new production of documents from the Department providing greater insight into FBI and DOJ activity during the 2016 election and the early stages of the Trump administration. Our review of these new documents raises grave concerns regarding an apparent systemic culture of media leaking by high-ranking officials at the FBI and DOJ related to ongoing investigations.

Review of these new documents suggests a coordinated effort on the part of the FBI and DOJ to release information in the public domain potentially harmful to President Donald Trump’s administration. For example, the following text exchange should lead a reasonable person to question whether there was a since desire to investigate wrongdoing or to place derogatory information in the media to justify a continued probe.

April 10, 2017: Peter Strozk [sic] contacts Lisa Page to discuss a “media leak strategy.” Specifically, the text says: “I had literally just gone to find this phone to tell you I want to talk to you about media leak strategy with DOJ before you go.”

April 12, 2017: Peter Strozk [sic] congratulates Lisa Page on a job well done while referring to two derogatory articles about Carter Page. In the text, Strzok warns Page two articles are coming out, one which his “worse” than the other about Lisa’s “namesake.” [see update below] Strzok added: “Well done, Page.”

Meadows goes on to cite the WaPo story revealing Page’s FISA order and Andrew Weissman’s meeting with the AP (in which, per court testimony from the Manafort trial, the AP provided information useful to the investigation into Manafort, but which — significantly — led to the warrant on Manafort’s condo which may have led to the discovery of information that implicates Trump).

Meadows is just wrong. Both texts he already has and the Wolfe case “should lead a reasonable person” to understand that the same people who had long pursued leak investigations still were doing so, doing so in an increasingly politicized environment, but doing so with results that would employ more aggressive techniques and would find the likely culprit behind the WaPo story in question (not to mention send Reality Winner to prison for five years).

But all that’s just a premise to claim that because he imagines, fancifully, that Page and Strzok were leaking about ongoing investigations to the press (when in fact they were investigating such leaks), he should be able to get the FBI to talk about ongoing investigations.

During our interviews with Peter Strozk [sic] and Lisa Page, FBI attorneys consistently suggested witnesses could not answer questions due to the US Attorneys’ Manual’s policy for ongoing investigations. However, documents strongly suggest that these same witnesses discussed the ongoing investigations multiple times with individuals outside of the investigative team on a regular basis.

Not only is Meadows almost certainly wrong in his accusations against Strzok and Page, but he’s also ignoring that there are two ongoing investigations being protected here — both the general Russian investigation, but also the prosecution of Wolfe for behavior that likely includes the story he’s bitching about.

Meadows then uses what he even seems to admit are authorized media contacts as a transition paragraph.

Our task force continues to receive troubling evidence that the practice of coordinated media interactions continues to exist within the DOJ and FBI. While this activity may be authorized and not part of the inappropriate behavior highlighted above, it fails to advance the private march to justice, and as such, warrants your attention to end this practice.

The transition paragraph — which I’ll return to — leads to the whole point of the letter, Meadows’ demand that, because he has trumped up a false accusation against Strzok and Page, he should be able to interview FBI agents he believes will undermine the investigation into Donald Trump.

In light of the new information, our task force is requesting to review text messages, emails, and written communication from FBI and DOJ officials Stu Evans, Mike Kortan, and Joe Pientka between June 2016 to June 2017. To be clear, we are not suggesting wrongdoing on the part of Evans, Kortan, and Pientka–and, in fact, previously reviewed documents suggest that some of these individuals may share the committees’ same concerns. However, these additional documents, with an emphasis on communications between the aforementioned individuals and Peter Strozk [sic], Andrew McCabe, Lisa Page, Bruce Ohr and Andrew Weissman, would provide critical insight into the backdrop of the Russian investigation.

Meadows is looking, among other things, testimony that says Pientka didn’t believe Mike Flynn lied when he interviewed Trump’s National Security Advisor with Strzok. But he’s doing so specifically for a time period that ends before the evidence showing that Flynn did lie came into FBI (in part, when Mueller obtained Transition emails showing Trump closely directed Flynn’s conversations with Sergei Kislyak.

Now back to authorized media interactions. I happen to know something about how they work. I had a conversation with the FBI that pertained, in part, to whether there was a tie between Russian criminals and the President, one that also pertained to my perception of possible threats. Apparently Meadows thinks that such a conversation “fails to advance the private march to justice,” though it’s not clear what he means by that.  I mean, thus far, I have been very circumspect about the content of such conversations; is Meadows really asking me to air details before the midterms? I have thus far hesitated to share suspicions I had, believing it would be inappropriate for anyone besides Mueller and the FBI to air such things publicly, until they had corroborated my suspicions. But Meadows apparently believes it important to air investigative details before the election.

The better option — one that would put the rule of law and the security of the nation ahead of partisan obstruction — would be for Meadows to stop inciting hoaxes among the frothy right. Or maybe, at least, the frothy right can recognize that Meadows has serially embarrassed them as they credulously repeat whatever hoax he floats?

Update: After Jerrold Nadler and Elijah Cummings released a response noting some of Meadows’ errors, he fixed just one of the errors in his letter, admitting that the “well done, Page” language was actually from an April 22, 2017 text that reads, “article is out! Well done, Page,” and which obviously refers to this story on Jim Comey.

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

Devin Nunes’ Promise of Shock!! Shock!! in the Evolving Steele Claims in the Fourth Carter Page FISA Application

As I laid out a few weeks ago, 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.

Devin Nunes and the right wing press corps (Catherine HerridgeByron York, Chuck Ross) have now made it clear where Nunes’ games to discredit the Mueller investigation goes next: to claiming that a portion of the Carter Page FISA application say “shocking” things about Christopher Steele and the FBI. That’s based on a letter the House Intelligence Republicans signed inviting President Trump to “declassify and release publicly, and in unredacted form, pages 10-12 and 17-34, along with all associated footnotes, of the third renewal of the FISA application on Mr. Page. That renewal was filed in June 2017 and signed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.”

They’re playing a bit of a game with this, permitting right wing scribes to compare the first and the fourth application as if nothing (including applications signed by people not named Rod Rosenstein) came between.

So what is on pages 10-12 and 17-34? That is certainly a tantalizing clue dropped by the House Intel members, but it’s not clear what it means. Comparing the relevant sections from the initial FISA application, in October 2016, and the third renewal, in June 2017, much appears the same, but in pages 10-12 of the third renewal there is a slightly different headline — “The Russian Government’s Coordinated Efforts to Influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election” — plus a footnote, seven lines long, that was not in the original application.

As for pages 17-34, there appear to be, in the third renewal, new text and footnotes throughout the section headlined “Page’s Coordination with Russian Government Officials on 2016 U.S. Presidential Election Influence Activities.” (That is the same headline as the original application.) The Republican lawmakers ask that it be unredacted in its entirety, suggesting they don’t believe revealing it would compromise any FBI sources or methods.

Clearly, the GOP lawmakers believe pages 10-12 and 17-34 contain critical information, so it seems likely that the release of those pages would affect the current public debate over the FISA application

I guess, in this, they’re working a bit harder than Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows did in their Rosenstein impeachment effort.

As it happens, I’ve done a ridiculously anal 20 page analysis of the application (for the near future, I’m not going to be releasing any of my surveillance analysis publicly; for those interested, let me know separately), so I’ve tracked what changes in each application. So, for example, whereas York suggests that the title in the first section the Republicans want declassified changed in the fourth application, it actually changed in the second, submitted in early January 2017. Here’s how that title looks in each of the four applications, in order (see PDF 8, 93, 191, and 301 for the start of this section in each application).

It’s pretty clear the changes in this section stem in part from a shift to the past tense and an understanding of the extent of Russian interference.

Similarly, while York points to a footnote in the fourth application he claims doesn’t appear in the first, a footnote of similar length, though not the same shape (suggesting slightly different wording) appears in the third application. Here’s how footnote 4 looks in those two applications.

Otherwise, the discussion in applications three and four in this section appears the same. Which is to say that Republicans are trying to suggest this “shocking!!!” content derives from Rosenstein, when in fact much of it was probably approved by Dana Boente. It turns out Nunes’ efforts to discredit Rosenstein are barely more rigorous than Meadows’.

The second section Republicans want selectively declassified pertains to Steele. And there, there are significant changes to the application over the course of the four applications, second only to section where the most changes get made over the course of the four applications, the entirely redacted Section VI (it grows from 3 pages in the first application to 23 in the fourth). The Steele section grows from 7 pages in the first application to 11 in the last, with changes in each application and substantial changes in the last two. Here are all the sections that are new in the fourth, the one the Republicans want declassified:

As a measure of how inattentive the right wing story line is, Byron claims in follow-up reporting that DOJ never told FISC about Steele’s reaction to Jim Comey’s reopening of the Hillary investigation, in spite of unclassified language in footnote 22 (as numbered in the fourth application, though it was added in the second) revealing that,

In or about late October 2016, however, after the FBI Director sent a letter to the U.S. Congress, which stated that the FBI had learned of new information that might be pertinent to an investigation that the FBI was conducting of Candidate #2, Source #1 told the FBI that he/she was frustrated with this action and believed it would likely influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. In response to Source #1’s concerns, Source #1 independently, and against the prior admonishment from the FBI to speak only with the FBI on this matter, released the reporting discussed herein to an identified news organization. Although the FBI continues to assess Source #1’s reporting is reliable, as noted above, the FBI closed Source #1 as an active source. (PDF 320)

Byron appears not to understand that Steele’s response to Comey’s actions on October 28 could not have added bias to his reporting from prior to that date, which is when all of his reports shared formally with the FBI date to (the one other report, dated December 13, was only shared informally).

Whatever the additional caveats on Steele that Nunes is so sure will shock! shock!! the press when all his past predictions of shock have fallen flat, the Minority apparently disagrees. That’s because the Schiff Memo cites precisely the passage that Nunes is so sure will shock us for the following claims:

How odd that the Majority didn’t fight to have these passages, which derive from the passage they claim is so critical to have declassified, declassified in the Schiff Memo (not that I totally buy the Schiff memo on this point either: he claims that Page’s meeting with other key Russians, not the ones Steele described him meeting with, corroborate Steele’s reporting when it doesn’t). Similarly, the Majority also doesn’t want the passages of the fourth application that support this claim to be declassified.

For what it’s worth, a Republican who has reviewed these things told me last week that there was abundant evidence to support the surveillance on Page. So mostly this is just an attempt to beat up the Democrats for the Steele dossier; honest Republicans agree that Page was a legitimate surveillance target.

This is something the right wing press corps is struggling with (the cognitive dissonance among people like Ross would be palpable if logic were a requirement in his work) as much as the left wing, however. It appears increasingly likely that Steele was fed disinformation as a way to confuse the Democrats and ensure any investigation would look at marginal dolts like Page rather than centrally important dolts like Don Jr. I’ll even present a new factoid about how that may have happened in a follow-up.

That doesn’t mean that when the FBI relied on Steele, using the same measure they use for all consultants (past track record), they had reason to know it was disinformation. Rather, it’s yet another indication that Russia was really really intent on making sure it could get Trump elected, via whatever deceit.

But that doesn’t help the GOP claim that Trump isn’t thereby implicated.

Update: Fixed Dana Boente, not Sally Yates, as approving the third application h/t jr.

The Worm Turns: Neither Devin Nunes Nor Ron DeSantis (Thus Far) Support Jim Jordan’s Impeachment Bid

As I laid out a few weeks ago, 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.

I was in DC when Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan rolled out articles of impeachment against Rod Rosenstein. As a number of people have noted, the articles themselves are batshit crazy, calling over-redaction subsequently corrected a high crime and misdemeanor.

And some of the articles would require a time machine to prove, such as holding Rosenstein responsible for a FISA application submitted when he was merely the US Attorney for MD with no role in the investigation.

But something else is even more interesting to me.

The original press release included the names of 6 congressmen, in addition to Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan, who co-sponsored the articles HR 1028:

  1. Mark Meadows
  2. Jim Jordan
  3. Andy Biggs
  4. Scott Perry
  5. Paul “Dentists Read Body Language” Gosar
  6. Jody Hice
  7. Matt Gaetz
  8. Scott DesJarlais

And while the other three congressmen who joined as co-sponsors seemed a lot more sheepish about signing on, the following me also joined:

  1. John Duncan
  2. Louie Gohmert
  3. Bill Posey

By mid-morning yesterday, in the face of opposition from Paul Ryan and citing some deal with Bob Goodlatte, Meadows and Jordan admitted defeat. Shortly thereafter, Jordan announced a bid to be Speaker, with support from Meadows.

Apparently this morning, the following men signed on:

  1. Tom Massie
  2. Ted Yoho
  3. Ralph Norman
  4. Duncan Hunter

We’re two days into this effort, and thus far, two names are conspicuously absent: Devin Nunes (who has admittedly refrained from officially participating in some of the batshittery to — apparently — limit his legal exposure) and Ron DeSantis, who has spent the last seven months leading efforts to discredit Mueller’s investigation.

While I was in DC, a Republican admitted to me that this was just about ginning up votes and predicted that the House is done meeting until November — meaning Rosenstein should be safe from Congressional tampering until then.

If so, DeSantis’ non-participation in this stunt is telling. He’s running for governor with the vocal support of President Trump.

Indeed, DeSantis currently has a healthy lead against Adam Putnam in the GOP primary, with the primary date a month away, August 28, largely due to Trump’s support.

DeSantis is also one of the people who most obviously benefitted from Russian interference in 2016.

That Ron DeSantis has not (yet) signed onto this stunt suggests he’s not sure that, in a month (or perhaps in three, in the general), having done so will benefit his electoral chances to be governor.

So apparently Jim Jordan (facing sexual assault cover-up charges) and Duncan Hunter (facing even more serious legal troubles) think it’s a smart idea to go all-in on supporting Trump. But Ron DeSantis does not.

Why Are Republicans Still Squealing about FISA Applications If HPSCI Report Cedes Carter Page Concerns?

Republicans in Congress continue to make fairly breath-taking demands on Rod Rosenstein and Christopher Wray in what seems to be an attempt to create a bogus claim of non-responsiveness that Trump can use to fire one or both of them.

First there was the demand that the House Intelligence Committee get all of FBI’s non-grand jury records on the Mueller investigation, a demand Paul Ryan backed. Then there was the push to publish the Nunes memo over DOJ’s objections. More recently, after Wray’s doubling the number of FBI staffers (to 54) in an attempt to meet a Bob Goodlatte document deadline for FISA, Hillary investigation, and McCabe firing materials proved insufficient, Jeff Sessions has put Chicago’s US Attorney, John Lausch, in charge of the response. As with Sessions’ selection of Utah US Attorney John Huber to review other GOP demands, Sessions seems to be giving himself and his deputies cover from fairly ridiculous GOP demands.

Nevertheless, such concessions have not entirely sheltered Trump’s main targets from the kinds of complaints that might expose Robert Mueller’s investigation below them. Mark Meadows, one of the lead attack dogs in this congressional obstruction effort, even suggested Congress might impeach Rosenstein for failing to meet a 2-week deadline on a Bob Goodlatte subpoena.

Through it all, the complaints that FBI used the Steele dossier as one piece of evidence in Carter Page’s FISA application, persist. This, in spite of the fact that Page had been under FISA surveillance years before, and in spite of the fact that all sides agree that the counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s aides started in response to the George Papadopoulos tip from Australia.

This, in spite of the passage from the Schiff memo (including one redacted sentence) that seems to assert that FBI considered Page an on-going counterintelligence concern.

DOJ cited multiple sources to support the case for surveillance Page — but made only narrow use of information from Steele’s sources about Page’s specific activities in 2016, chiefly his suspected July 2016 meetings in Moscow with Russian officials. [entire short sentence redacted] In fact, the FBI interviewed Page in March 2016 about his contact with Russian intelligence, the very month candidate Donald Trump named hi a foreign policy advisor.

And the Schiff memo is consistent with what Sheldon Whitehouse (among the few other people who had read the application at the time) said.

Whitehouse: 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.

Importantly, however, it’s no longer just former prosecutors in the Democratic party who seem to confirm that Page was a real counterintelligence concern, and therefore legitimately a FISA target. At least, that’s what these two passages from the GOP House Intelligence Report suggest.

If you’re complaining that the Intelligence Community didn’t inform Trump about that members of his campaign team were “assessed to be potential counterintelligence concerns,” (and this likely includes Paul Manafort, as well as Page), then you can’t very well complain if FBI obtained a FISA warrant once those counterintelligence concerns left the campaign team. Hell, you’re practically inviting the FBI to obtain such a warrant while the counterintelligence concern is on the campaign, to help warn the candidate.

I know this is a bit to ask, but the GOP should not be able to have it both ways, to try to discredit the Trump investigation by pointing to the use of the Steele dossier in targeting Page, even while demanding FBI should have shared what it knew about Page because he posed a risk to Trump.