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There Are Almost Certainly Other DAG Rosenstein Memos

As I noted in this post, Robert Mueller’s team of “Attorneys for the United States of America” responded to Paul Manafort’s claim that Rod Rosenstein’s grant of authority to the Special Counsel did not extend to the money laundering he is currently being prosecuted for by revealing an August 2, 2017 memo from Rosenstein authorizing Mueller to investigate, along with a bunch of redacted stuff,

Allegations that Paul Manafort:

  • Committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election for President of the United States, in violation of United States law;
  • Committed a crime or crimes arising out of payments he received from the Ukrainian government before and during the tenure of President Viktor Yanukovych.

As the filing notes, this memo has not been revealed before, neither to us nor to Manafort.

That’s all very interesting (and has the DC press corps running around claiming this is a big scoop, when it is instead predictable). More interesting, however, is the date, which strongly suggests that there are more of these memos out there.

Mueller is unlikely to have waited two and a half months to memorialize his scope

I say that, first of all, because Rosenstein wrote the August 2 memo two and a half months after he appointed Mueller. Given Trump’s raging attacks on the investigation, it’d be imprudent not to get memorialization of the scope of the investigation at each step. Indeed, as I’ve noted, in the filing Mueller points to the Libby precedent, arguing that this memo “has the same legal significance” as the two memos Jim Comey used to (publicly) memorialize the scope of Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation.

The August 2 Scope Memorandum is precisely the type of material that has previously been considered in evaluating a Special Counsel’s jurisdiction. United States v. Libby, 429 F. Supp. 2d 27 (D.D.C. 2006), involved a statutory and constitutional challenge to the authority of a Special Counsel who was appointed outside the framework of 28 C.F.R. Part 600. In rejecting that challenge, Judge Walton considered similar materials that defined the scope of the Special Counsel’s authority. See id. at 28-29, 31-32, 39 (considering the Acting Attorney General’s letter of appointment and clarification of jurisdiction as “concrete evidence * * * that delineates the Special Counsel’s authority,” and “conclud[ing] that the Special Counsel’s delegated authority is described within the four corners of the December 30, 2003 and February 6, 2004 letters”). The August 2 Scope Memorandum has the same legal significance as the original Appointment Order on the question of scope.

The first of those Comey letters, dated December 30, 2003, authorized Fitz to investigate the leak of Valerie Plame’s identity. The second of those, dated February 6, 2004, memorialized that Fitz could also investigate,

federal crimes committed in the course of, and with intent to interfere with, your investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses; to conduct appeals arising out of the matter being investigated and/or prosecuted; and to pursue administrative remedies and civil sanctions (such as civil contempt) that are within the Attorney General’s authority to impose or pursue.

It’s the second memo that memorialized Fitz’ authority to prosecute Scooter Libby for protecting Dick Cheney’s role in outing Valerie Plame.

Mueller, then the acting FBI Director, would presumably have been in the loop of the Fitz investigation (as Christopher Wray is in Mueller’s) and would have known how these two letters proceeded. So it would stand to reason he’d ask for a memo from the start, particularly given that the investigation already included multiple known targets and that Trump is even more hostile to this investigation than George Bush and Dick Cheney were to Fitz’s.

Admittedly, unlike the Comey memo, which was designed for public release, there’s no obvious, unredacted reference to a prior memo. Though something that might imply a prior memo is redacted at the top of the released memo (though this is probably a classification marking).

And, given that this memo was designed to be secret, Rosenstein may have written the memo to obscure whether there are prior ones and if so how many.

The memo closely follows two key dates

That said, the date of the memo, August 2, is mighty curious. It is six days after the July 27 Papadopoulos arrest at Dulles airport. And seven days after the July 26 no knock search of Paul Manafort’s Alexandria home.

That timing might suggest any of several things. It’s certainly possible (though unlikely) the timing is unrelated.

It’s possible that Rosenstein wrote the memo to ensure those two recent steps were covered by his grant. That wouldn’t mean that the search and arrest wouldn’t have been authorized. The memo itself notes that Mueller would be obliged to inform Rosenstein before each major investigative step.

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

Both Papadopoulos’ arrest and that dramatic search would fit this criteria. So it’s virtually certain Rosenstein reviewed Urgent Memos on both these events before they happened. Plus, his memo makes it clear that the allegations included in his memo “were within the scope of the Investigation at the time of your appointment and are within the scope of the Order,” meaning that the inclusion of them in the memo would retroactively authorize any activities that had already taken place, such as the collection of evidence at Manafort’s home outside the scope of the election inquiry.

As I noted, the memo also asserts that Special Counsels’ investigative authority, generally, extends to investigating obstruction and crimes the prosecutor might use to flip witnesses.

The filing is perhaps most interesting for the other authorities casually asserted, which are not necessarily directly relevant in this prosecution, but are for others. First, Mueller includes this footnote, making it clear his authority includes obstruction, including witness tampering.

The Special Counsel also has “the authority to investigate and prosecute federal crimes committed in the course of, and with intent to interfere with, the Special Counsel’s investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses” and has the authority “to conduct appeals arising out of the matter being investigated and/or prosecuted.” 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a). Those authorities are not at issue here.

Those authorities are not at issue here, but they are for the Flynn, Papadopoulos, Gates, and Van der Zwaan prosecutions, and for any obstruction the White House has been engaging in. But because it is relevant for the Gates and Van der Zwaan prosecutions, that mention should preempt any Manafort attempt to discredit their pleas for the way they expose him.

The filing includes a quotation from DOJ’s discussion of special counsels making it clear that it’s normal to investigate crimes that might lead someone to flip.

[I]n deciding when additional jurisdiction is needed, the Special Counsel can draw guidance from the Department’s discussion accompanying the issuance of the Special Counsel regulations. That discussion illustrated the type of “adjustments to jurisdiction” that fall within Section 600.4(b). “For example,” the discussion stated, “a Special Counsel assigned responsibility for an alleged false statement about a government program may request additional jurisdiction to investigate allegations of misconduct with respect to the administration of that program; [or] a Special Counsel may conclude that investigating otherwise unrelated allegations against a central witness in the matter is necessary to obtain cooperation.”

That one is technically relevant here — one thing Mueller is doing with the Manafort prosecution (and successfully did with the Gates one) is to flip witnesses against Trump. But it also makes it clear that Mueller could do so more generally.

Mueller used the false statements charges against Papadopoulos to flip him. He surely hopes to use the money laundering charges against Manafort to flip him, too. Both issues may have been at issue in any memo written to newly cover the events of late July.

Mueller may not have revealed the scope of the Manafort investigation at that time

Now consider this detail: the second bullet describing the extent of the investigation into Manafort has a semi-colon, not a period.

It’s possible Mueller used semi-colons after all these bullets (of which Manafort’s is the second or third entry). But that, plus the resumption of the redaction without a double space suggests there may be another bulleted allegation in the Manafort allegation.

There are two other (known) things that might merit a special bullet. First, while it would seem to fall under the general election collusion bullet, Rosenstein may have included a bullet describing collusion with Aras Agalarov and friends in the wake of learning about the June 9 Trump Tower meeting with his employees. More likely, Rosenstein may have included a bullet specifically authorizing an investigation of Manafort’s ties with Oleg Deripaska and Konstantin Kilimnik.

The Mueller memo actually includes a specific reference to that, which as I’ve noted I will return to.

Open-source reporting also has described business arrangements between Manafort and “a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin.”

The latter might be of particular import, given that we know a bunch of fall 2017 interviews focused on Manafort’s ties to Deripaska and the ongoing cover-up with Kilimnik regarding the Skadden Arps report on the Yulia Tymoshenko prosecution.

All of which is to say that this memo may reflect a new expansion of the Manafort investigation, perhaps pursuant to whatever the FBI discovered in that raid on Manafort’s home. If so, that should be apparent to him, as he and his lawyers know what was seized.

Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if he inquired about what authorized that July 26 raid, if for no other reason than to sustain his effort to make more information on Mueller’s investigation public.

The redactions almost certainly hide two expansions to the investigation as it existed in October 2016

Now let’s turn to what else (besides another possible Manafort bullet) the redactions might show, and what may have been added since.

The unredacted description of the Manafort investigation takes up very roughly about one fifth of the section describing allegations Mueller was pursuing.

The Schiff Memo revealed that DOJ had sub-investigations into four individuals in October 2016.

Endnote 7 made it clear that, in addition to Page, this included Flynn and Papadopoulos, probably not Rick Gates, and one other person, possibly Roger Stone.

In August 2017, all four of those would have been included in a Rosenstein memo, possibly with a bullet dedicated to Gates alone added. That said, not all of these would require two or more bullets (and therefore as much space as the Manafort description). Papadopoulos’ description might include two, one dedicated to the collusion and one to the lying about collusion, or just one encompassing both the collusion and the lying. Flynn’s might include three, one dedicated to the collusion, one to the lying about it, and one to the unregistered foreign agent work, including with Turkey, that we know Mueller to have been investigating; or, as with Papadopoulos, the lying about the collusion might be incorporated into that bullet. Stone’s bullet would likely have only reflected the collusion, an investigation that is currently very active. Carter Page’s suspected role as a foreign agent might be one bullet or two.

That suggests, though doesn’t confirm, that there are a few other things included in those redacted bullets, things not included in the investigation in October 2016 as reflected in the Schiff memo.

Indeed, we should expect two more things to be included in the bullet points: First, the name of any suspect, including the President, associated with the obstruction of justice. Rosenstein himself had already been interviewed with respect to that aspect of the investigation by August 2, so surely Rosenstein had already authorized that aspect of the investigation.

The redactions most likely also include the names of Don Jr and Jared Kushner (and Paul Manafort), for their suspected collusion with Russia as reflected in the June 9 meeting. At least according to public reporting, Mueller may have first learned of this in June when Manafort and Kushner confirmed it in turning over evidence to Congress and Mueller. The first revelations that Mueller was obtaining subpoenas from a dedicated grand jury were on August 3, just one day after this memo. That same day, reports described Mueller issuing subpoenas related to the June 9 meeting.

Indeed, it’s quite possible Rosenstein issued this memo to memorialize the inclusion of the President’s spawn among the suspects of the investigation.

Rosenstein has almost certainly updated this memo since August 2

All that said, there’s not enough redacted space to include the known expanded current scope of the investigation, and given that the newly expanded scope gets closer to the President, Rosenstein has surely issued an update to this memo since then. These things are all definitively included in the current scope of the investigation and might warrant special mention in any update to Rosenstein’s authorizing memo:

Many of these — particularly the ones that affect only Russians — might be included under a generic “collusion with Russia” bullet. The closer scrutiny on Jared, however, surely would get an update, as would any special focus on the Attorney General.

More importantly, to the extent Mueller really is investigating Trump’s business interests (whether that investigation is limited just to Russian business, or more broadly) — the red line the NYT helpfully set for the President — that would necessarily be included in the most up-to-date memo authorizing Mueller’s activities. There is no way Mueller would take actions involving the President personally without having the authorization to do so in writing.

Which is why we can be virtually certain the August 2 memo is not the last memo Rosenstein has written to authorize Mueller’s actions.

Mind you, Mueller probably wouldn’t want to release a memo with several pages of redacted allegations. Which may be why we’re looking at the redacted version of an almost certainly superseded memo.

Updated: Later today Mueller’s team asked to file a copy of an exhibit–which given Judge Berman Jackson’s description of it as released in redacted form, has to be the Rosenstein memo–under seal. Which suggests they’re going to show Manafort what else they’re investigating (which I bet is the Deripaska stuff).

Buried Amid the John Dowd News, Mueller’s Team Seems to Think Trump Knows about the June 9 Meeting

I didn’t get a chance to unpack this story before John Dowd up and resigned. It lays out the four areas that Dowd was, until yesterday, negotiating with Mueller’s office regarding Trump’s testimony. It actually provides less detail than the WaPo and CNN stories I covered here. Those stories laid out that Mueller’s team was asking specific questions about:

Flynn’s Firing

  • Whether Trump knew about Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition?
  • What instructions, if any, the president gave Flynn about the contact?Whether he fired Flynn because he had misled Vice President Pence about his contact with Kislyak?

Comey’s Firing

  • Whether he fired Comey because he had mishandled an investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton?
  • What was Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ involvement in the Comey dismissal?

While far less detailed than those earlier articles, however, yesterday’s pre-Dowd departure story describes Mueller’s team asking questions about four areas (I’ve reordered these to make them chronological):

  1. The circumstances surrounding [the June 9, 2016] Trump Tower meeting
  2. The President’s role in crafting a statement aboard Air Force One that miscast Donald Trump Jr.’s campaign June 2016 meeting with Russians in Trump Tower
  3. The firing of national security adviser Michael Flynn
  4. The firing of FBI Director James Comey

It was this focus, according to CNN, that pissed Trump off because,

The focus on Trump himself in Mueller’s pursuits has alarmed and angered the President, who adhered to a legal strategy of holding back set by his attorney John Dowd and White House special counsel Ty Cobb, who have said for months the investigation was likely to conclude soon.

And now Dowd is gone and Ty Cobb is reportedly likely to follow him, to be replaced by table-pounders who will make noise rather than argue the facts.

Bullet 1 — seven words slipped into the CNN story between stuff we’ve long talked about Trump’s involvement in — ought to be blaring headlines.

BREAKING: “Robert Mueller’s prosecutors are going to ask the President about the circumstances surrounding the meeting at which some Russians, including representatives from Trump’s old business associate Aras Agalarov, pitched Junior, Jared, and Trump’s corrupt campaign manager, on dirt about Hillary in the context of relaxing sanctions,” the headline should have read.

Call me crazy. But I doubt Mueller’s team would ask the President about this unless they had reason to believe Trump knew something about it.

And that changes the import of the three other bullets dramatically.

For example, most people have assumed Bullet 2, Trump’s claim this meeting pertained to adoptions and not dirt-for-sactions, is about obstruction charges (Elizabeth de la Vega lays out how that might serve as the basis for one or another conspiracy charge here). But that ignores that Trump spent the weekend leading up to that statement meeting, twice, with Vladimir Putin, including that bizarre meeting over dinner with no babysitter right before the White House released the statement.

BREAKING: The President met twice with Vladimir Putin while he was taking the lead on responding to questions about a meeting we’re all pretending Trump knew nothing about, and then came out with the spin that Vladimir Putin would most likely give it, the designated Russian propaganda line to cover up its campaign against Magnitsky sanctions.

Which brings us to Bullet 3: Whether Trump (via KT McFarland serving as a go-between from Mar a Lago) ordered Flynn to ask Sergey Kislyak to hold off on responding to sanctions, and if so, why he fired Flynn for doing what he told him to do.

Trump surely didn’t fire Flynn because he lied to Mike Pence (if indeed he did lie). Did he fire Flynn because he didn’t lie about it, making an otherwise marginally legally problematic discussion a legally problematic issue? Or did he fire Flynn because he believed it was the most efficacious way to make the focus on his efforts to roll back sanctions on Russia go away?

Bullet 4. Mueller’s prosecutors want to know why, a day before the Russians showed up for a meeting at which Trump refused to have US press, Trump fired Comey, and then told the Russians,

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Mr. Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.”

Laid out like this, this is what Mueller’s four bullets might look like:

  1. What Trump knew about the dirt-for-sanctions relief deal his one-time business partner Aras Agalarov pitched
  2. Whether Trump gave his National Security Adviser orders to deliver that dirt-for-sanctions deal even before being inaugurated
  3. Why Trump fired Flynn if he was following his orders delivering on that dirt-for-sanctions deal
  4. What Trump meant when he said he fired Comey because firing him took care of the great pressure he had because of Russia

Even as Mueller was negotiating these four questions, Trump called up Putin, at which, according to the Kremlin, “It was agreed to develop further bilateral contacts in light of [the fact that Trump had just fired Rex Tillerson, the next guy standing in the way of fulfilling the dirt-for-sanctions relief deal]. The possibility of organizing a top-level meeting received special attention.” “We will probably get together in the not-too-distant future,” Trump said of the call on Tuesday. “I suspect that we’ll probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future,” he said a second time, a line that reportedly surprised his aides, another piece of news lost in the legal team shake-up. “I think, probably, we’ll be seeing President Putin in the not-too-distant future,” Trump said a third time in his public comments.

So now Dowd is gone, which is probably lucky for him because otherwise he’d be business negotiating over Bullet 5.

5. Why did Trump fire Rex Tillerson and how does that relate to this big new push to meet with Putin again?

“What Did the President Do and What Do His Lawyers Claim He Was Thinking?”

Ever since Richard Nixon, the big question one asks of presidential involvement in scandals is about the cover-up: “what did the president know and when did he know it?” Not so Trump in the investigation into his campaign’s conspiracy with Russia.

Robert Mueller’s prosecutors are already asking about the president’s actions: “What did the president do and what was he thinking when he did it?” WaPo describes the Trump team’s effort to dodge such questions by offering a summary of what his lawyers claim he did and was thinking.

The written materials provided to Mueller’s office include summaries of internal White House memos and contemporaneous correspondence about events Mueller is investigating, including the ousters of national security adviser Michael Flynn and FBI Director James B. Comey. The documents describe the White House players involved and the president’s actions.

Special counsel investigators have told Trump’s lawyers that their main questions about the president fall into two simple categories, the two people said: “What did he do?” and “What was he thinking when he did it?”

Trump’s lawyers expect Mueller’s team to ask whether Trump knew about Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition, for example, and what instructions, if any, the president gave Flynn about the contact, according to two advisers.

Trump said in February that he fired Flynn because he had misled Vice President Pence about his contact with Kislyak. He said he fired Comey because he had mishandled an investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

CNN’s version of the same story seems to suggest such a summary is something they’ve already done, that what was new about last week was a sit-down with Watergate lawyer James Quarles.

As President Donald Trump’s reaction to special counsel Robert Mueller grows more irate by the day, attorneys on both sides sat down last week in a rare face-to-face discussion about the topics investigators could inquire of the President. It was the first in-person meeting after several weeks of informal discussions between the two sides, according to two sources familiar with the talks.

Mueller’s team added granularity to the topics it originally discussed with the defense team months ago, like the firing of FBI Director James Comey, according to one of the sources.

[snip]

The President’s attorneys sent the special counsel a summary of evidence they had turned over to prosecutors already, a practice they’ve followed multiple times throughout the investigation. Mueller himself didn’t attend the meeting. But prosecutors including former Watergate prosecutor James Quarles III gave Trump’s lawyers enough detail that the President’s team wrote a memo with possible questions they expect to be asked of him.

In addition to Trump’s involvement in directing Mike Flynn to ask Sergey Kislyak to defer any response to the new sanctions imposed in December 2016, CNN says that Jeff Sessions’ involvement in firing Comey is also on the list of questions they have for the president.

This time around, for instance, the prosecutors said they would ask about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ involvement in the Comey dismissal and what Trump knew about national security adviser Michael Flynn’s phone calls with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December 2016.

[snip]

CNN reported in January that Mueller’s team had given the President’s lawyers general topics for an interview, such as Trump’s request that Comey drop the investigation into Flynn, his reaction to Comey’s May 2017 testimony on Capitol Hill, and Trump’s contact with intelligence officials about the Russia investigation.

A source familiar with the talks said more recent discussions about Trump’s interview also touched on Sessions and Flynn. Sessions previously spoke to Mueller’s team while investigators looked into possible obstruction of justice. And during the transition, Flynn had spoken to Kisklyak about sanctions and the United Nations, then lied to investigators about the calls before Trump fired him. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to investigators and agreed to cooperate with Mueller in December.

The questions about Sessions and Flynn are both interesting because of recent events.

First, CNN’s story reporting an interest in Sessions’ role in Comey’s firing came out after the report that Sessions and the president traveled separately yesterday to the opioid event they appeared at together. I found that odd at first — Trump should be happy that Sessions fired Andy McCabe for him last Friday. Perhaps Trump is mad that by firing McCabe, Sessions and Rod Rosenstein have taken one excuse he could use to fire both of them off the table. Or perhaps Sessions has realized that he needs to avoid talking to Trump about his own conversations with prosecutors. But if Sessions has become a witness against Trump and the discussions last week made that clear, then it puts the president in a particularly exquisite bind, because the Senate would not take kindly if Trump fired one of their own after he went to such lengths to fire McCabe.

The separate flight is all the more interesting given the news that three witnesses have testified that Sessions was actually more supportive of Trump’s outreach to Russia than he himself (and JD Gordon) has claimed.

And given Mueller’s apparent efforts to confirm what has long been obvious — that KT McFarland was relaying Trump’s orders to Flynn on what to say to Kislyak back in December 2016, consider Mike Flynn’s odd campaign appearance last Friday. Amid stories that he’s beginning to rebuild his life, Flynn started a campaign speech for a right wing nut job attempting to unseat Maxine Waters by alluding to his unfair treatment in an unfair process.

“I’m not here to complain about who has done me wrong or how unfair I’ve been treated or how unfair the entire process has been,” Flynn said to a small audience, which laughed at his remark, though Flynn did not.

Flynn then went on to reflect his role in getting Trump elected.

“All of us are imperfect,” he said. “Heck, I used to introduce … Trump during our various campaign stops as an imperfect candidate. I mean, clearly, he’s not a traditional politician. But his ‘Make America Great Again’ philosophy energized the country enough to get him overwhelmingly elected.”

“Whether we like it or not, that’s what happened,” Flynn added.

Particularly given the others who’ve endorsed Omar Navarro, like Roger Stone and Alex Jones, you’d think this was all a dig at Mueller, and it may well be. Except that Jared Kushner had an opportunity to exonerate Flynn last fall; his failure to do so is what led Flynn to flip, leading to these questions about whether Trump ordered Flynn to ask the Russians to delay their response to sanctions.

Now, any confirmation that the president ordered Flynn to ask Kislyak to delay his response on one level makes Flynn’s effort less damning: it’s one thing for an incoming National Security Advisor to freelance in trying to undermine the incumbent’s policies. It’s another thing for the incoming president to do so.

But contrary to the obstruction narrative that every fool has been repeating, Mueller is not just interested in how and why Jim Comey got fired. He’s also interested in why Trump fired Flynn. That question becomes more pressing if the president ordered Flynn to chat up Kislyak, and if the president ordered Flynn to lie to hide what he had done (leading to his lie to the FBI). Why not just admit that that was incoming policy? Why not just admit to the FBI that Flynn was acting on Trump’s orders? Instead of doing that, Flynn lied and Trump tried instead to thwart the investigation into Flynn, up to and including firing Comey.

Why fire Comey just before the meeting with the Russians and then brag about it to them?

For months, credulous journalists have been distinguishing between the president’s presumed obstruction and the substantive conspiracy others were being accused of, as if no Trump flunkies were involved in the cover-up and Trump was walled off from the conspiracy. But that distinction has never held up, especially not given the interest in why Trump fired Flynn.

“What did the president do and what the fuck was he thinking when he did it?” are questions not about the cover-up, but about the substantive crime.

And that’s the question Mueller’s Watergate prosecutor has now posed to the president’s lawyers.

The Timing of the Felix Sater Interviews

Back in my first post on the structure of Robert Mueller’s team, “Robert Mueller’s Grand Jury and the Significance of Felix Sater,” I noted that he would know what he was dealing with because of past history with Felix Sater, the sometimes business partner of Donald Trump, who has served as an FBI informant on (among other things) the mob.

In BuzzFeed’s fascinating story on Sater’s past as an intelligence and FBI informant, Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold go further. They point out that Andrew Weissmann signed Sater’s FBI cooperation agreement and Sater has ties with another five members of Mueller’s team.

Today, as he is being questioned about Trump’s business deals and ties to Russia, he has built relationships with at least six members of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, some going back more than 10 years.

[snip]

Signing Sater’s cooperation agreement for the Department of Justice was Andrew Weissmann, then an assistant US attorney and now a key member of the special counsel’s team. Mueller himself would be the FBI director for most of the time Sater served as a source.

The mob and fraud and corruption lawyers working for Mueller have a remarkable amount of firsthand knowledge about who Felix Sater is.

Which is why I find the timing of the interviews Sater has had with the three main Russia investigations to be so interesting. These are:

December 2017 [Leopold clarified this via Twitter]: Mueller interview

December 2017 [CNN has reported it occurring on the 20th]: HPSCI interview in lawyer’s office

April 2018: Scheduled interview with SSCI

This, in spite of the fact that Sater’s role in helping pitch a Ukrainian peace deal to Mike Flynn first got reported in February.

A week before Michael T. Flynn resigned as national security adviser, a sealed proposal was hand-delivered to his office, outlining a way for President Trump to lift sanctions against Russia.

[snip]

The amateur diplomats say their goal is simply to help settle a grueling, three-year conflict that has cost 10,000 lives. “Who doesn’t want to help bring about peace?” Mr. Cohen asked.

But the proposal contains more than just a peace plan. Andrii V. Artemenko, the Ukrainian lawmaker, who sees himself as a Trump-style leader of a future Ukraine, claims to have evidence — “names of companies, wire transfers” — showing corruption by the Ukrainian president, Petro O. Poroshenko, that could help oust him. And Mr. Artemenko said he had received encouragement for his plans from top aides to Mr. Putin.

[snip]

Mr. Artemenko said a mutual friend had put him in touch with Mr. Sater. Helping to advance the proposal, Mr. Sater said, made sense.

“I want to stop a war, number one,” he said. “Number two, I absolutely believe that the U.S. and Russia need to be allies, not enemies. If I could achieve both in one stroke, it would be a home run.”

After speaking with Mr. Sater and Mr. Artemenko in person, Mr. Cohen said he would deliver the plan to the White House.

Mr. Cohen said he did not know who in the Russian government had offered encouragement on it, as Mr. Artemenko claims, but he understood there was a promise of proof of corruption by the Ukrainian president.

“Fraud is never good, right?” Mr. Cohen said.

He said Mr. Sater had given him the written proposal in a sealed envelope. When Mr. Cohen met with Mr. Trump in the Oval Office in early February, he said, he left the proposal in Mr. Flynn’s office.

And in spite of the fact that Sater’s role in pitching a Trump Tower deal became known at least as early as August, when Michael Cohen reported it to Congress.

While Donald Trump was running for president in late 2015 and early 2016, his company was pursuing a plan to develop a massive Trump Tower in Moscow, according to several people familiar with the proposal and new records reviewed by Trump Organization lawyers.

As part of the discussions, a Russian-born real estate developer urged Trump to come to Moscow to tout the proposal and suggested that he could get President Vladimir Putin to say “great things” about Trump, according to several people who have been briefed on his correspondence.

The developer, Felix Sater, predicted in a November 2015 email that he and Trump Organization leaders would soon be celebrating — both one of the biggest residential projects in real estate history and Donald Trump’s election as president, according to two of the people with knowledge of the exchange.

Sater wrote to Trump Organization Executive Vice President Michael Cohen “something to the effect of, ‘Can you believe two guys from Brooklyn are going to elect a president?’ ” said one person briefed on the email exchange. Sater emigrated from what was then the Soviet Union when he was 6 and grew up in Brooklyn.

So even Mueller’s prosecutors, who know Sater well, waited at least four months before they interviewed him.

Plus, the timing of these interviews is interesting given the other known interview schedules (see this CNN timeline for the easiest comparison). Sater’s HPSCI interview, for example, took place the same week as long-time, loyal Trump assistant Rhona Graff got interviewed, at a time when Republicans had started blowing through interviews in an attempt to finish their investigation (HPSCI announced they were done with interviews today).

SSCI, by comparison, first tried to interview Michael Cohen — an important participant in both Sater roles — in September, but brought him back on October 25 after he released a public statement.

In Mueller’s investigation, Sater got interviewed around the same time the team was interviewing Hope Hicks and Don McGahn, really high level people with a good degree of personal exposure.

And of course, all of these interviews took place in the wake of the November 30 Mike Flynn plea deal, who reportedly received the Ukrainian pitch.

So December Mueller and HPSCI interviews and an April SSCI interview suggests that all parties, for different reasons, felt like they had to do a lot of work before bringing in Sater, in spite of the fact that he was an identified interest as soon as the Flynn concerns were raised. Remember, too, that the subpoena Mueller just issued to Sam Nunberg started at almost exactly the same time Sater was pitching that Trump Tower deal.

Mind you, I don’t know what to make of the timing. But I do find it interesting that Sater’s old friends didn’t immediately seek him out for his honest testimony.

The Mueller Subpoena Starts at the Moment a Real Estate Deal in Moscow Might Get Trump Elected

Axios got a copy of a subpoena someone got from Robert Mueller last month. It asks for all communications (including handwritten notes) “this witness sent and received regarding the following people.” The list of people includes a lot of people you’d expect, but it’s missing a few:

  1. Carter Page
  2. Corey Lewandowski
  3. Donald J. Trump
  4. Hope Hicks
  5. Keith Schiller
  6. Michael Cohen
  7. Paul Manafort
  8. Rick Gates
  9. Roger Stone
  10. Steve Bannon

Cooperating witnesses George Papadopoulos and Mike Flynn aren’t on this list, but cooperating witness Rick Gates is (which may date the subpoena to before Gates flipped on February 23). The order is of particular interest (or, maybe they’re just alpha order by first name): Page, the long term suspected Russian asset, followed immediately by Lewandowski, who was in the loop on the stolen email offer, followed by the President and those closest to him, followed by Manafort and his closest aide. Then Stone and then — in the same month he gave 20 hours of testimony — Bannon.

Neither Don Jr nor Kushner is on this list. Given the emphasis on communications “regarding” the listed people, and given the way that Abbe Lowell purposely avoided giving “about”communications to Congress (and possibly to Mueller), and also given that Jonathan Swan is Axios’ key White House scoopster, I actually don’t rule out the witness being Jared. Or, as I joked on Twitter, like Flynn and Papadopoulos, maybe he has already flipped and so isn’t on this list.

Whoever it is, the absences on the list are probably a function of who is legitimately in this person’s circle.

Perhaps most telling, however, is the timing: November 1, 2015, to the present. Recall that on November 3, sometime FBI informant Felix Sater sent Michael Cohen (on the list) an email promising that a real estate deal in Moscow might lead to Trump becoming President. (Here’s the original WaPo scoop on the story.)

On November 3, 2015, two months before the GOP primary started in earnest and barely over a year before the presidential election, mobbed up real estate broker and sometime FBI informant Felix Sater emailed Trump Organization Executive Vice President and Special Counsel to Trump, Michael Cohen. According to the fragment we read, Sater boasts of his access to Putin going back to 2006 (when the Ivanka incident reportedly happened), and said “we can engineer” “our boy” becoming “President of the USA.”

[snip]

Mr. Sater, a Russian immigrant, said he had lined up financing for the Trump Tower deal with VTB Bank, a Russian bank that was under American sanctions for involvement in Moscow’s efforts to undermine democracy in Ukraine. In another email, Mr. Sater envisioned a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Moscow.

“I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected,” Mr. Sater wrote.

That’s the start date Mueller uses for potential communications among people including Trump’s closest aides, including Cohen (but not including Sater) in the Russian investigation.

Update: Adding, we know that on October 21, 2016, the FBI had investigations into Manafort, Page, Stone, and possibly Gates. Is it possible this list is the sum of all those against whom sub-investigations have been opened (or were at the time this subpoena was issued)?

The Silent Cast of Characters in the Very Noisy Recent Mueller Moves

A fuck-ton has happened in the Mueller investigation already this month. Amid the noisy pleas and indictments, we’ve seen indications of hidden cooperation from a range of people, cooperation that may point to where Mueller’s next steps are.

Here, arranged by the date of the development, are hints at who either was or soon is likely to be talking to Mueller’s team.

February 1: In a proffer to Mueller’s team, Rick Gates lied about a March 19, 2013 meeting with Paul Manafort, Vin Weber, and Dana Rohrabacher.

Rohrabacher’s statement in response to the guilty plea is inconsistent with the version laid out in the plea, suggesting he’s not the means by which Mueller’s team learned it was a lie.

After the guilty plea on Friday, a spokesman for Rohrabacher, who has sought better relations with Russia, said: “As the congressman has acknowledged before, the meeting was a dinner with two longtime acquaintances –- Manafort and Weber –- from back in his White House and early congressional days.”

“The three reminisced and talked mostly about politics,” the spokesman said. “The subject of Ukraine came up in passing. It is no secret that Manafort represented Viktor Yanukovych’s interests, but as chairman of the relevant European subcommittee, the congressman has listened to all points of view on Ukraine.”

This suggests someone else provided the version of the meeting the government included in the plea. While it’s possible the other version came from Gates’ former lawyers, it’s more likely the version came from someone else. Vin Weber is the most likely source of that information.

Back in August 2016, as news of the secret ledger was breaking,Weber suggested he may have been misled by Manafort, both as to the purpose of his lobbying and regarding the need to register as a foreign agent for Ukraine. If he felt that way in August 2016, I imagine he came to feel that even more strongly as Manafort’s legal woes intensified.

February 9: Returning a call from John Kelly but speaking to Don McGahn, Rod Rosenstein spoke of “important new information” about Jared Kushner that will delay his clearance.

Given all the evidence that suggests Jared faces very significant exposure in this investigation, this new information could be any number of things. But two possibilities are likely. First, it might reflect Jared’s January 3 disclosure of additional business interests in yet another update to his SF-86, or his family’s increasing debt over the last year.

More likely, it reflects things the government has learned from Mike Flynn (who has an incentive to burn Jared, given that the President’s son-in-law was asked for and didn’t provide exonerating information tied to Flynn’s own lies to the FBI). Indeed, that seems to be one theory of those who reported on this phone call.

Kushner’s actions during the transition have been referenced in the guilty plea of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who admitted he lied to the FBI about contacts with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Prosecutors said Flynn was acting in consultation with a senior Trump transition official, whom people familiar with the matter have identified as Kushner.

All that said, there are two more possibilities. Given that she appears to have lied to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in her confirmation process, KT McFarland would be an obvious follow-up interview after the Mike Flynn plea; she asked Trump to withdraw her nomination to be Ambassador to Singapore on February 3. And February 9 might be (though probably isn’t, quite) late enough to catch the first sessions of Steve Bannon’s 20 hours of interviews with Mueller, and Bannon has long had it in for Jared.

February 14: Alex Van der Zwaan got caught and pled guilty to lying about communications he had with Rick Gates, Konstantin Kilimnik, and Greg Craig in September 2016. On top of whatever he had to say to prosecutors between his second interview on December 1 and his plea on February 14, both Craig and Skadden Arps have surely provided a great deal of cooperation before and since September 2016. (As I was finishing this, NYT posted this story that details some, but not all, of that cooperation.)

February 16: As I noted in my post on the Internet Research Agency indictment, Rod Rosenstein was quite clear: “There is no allegation in the indictment that any American was a knowing participant in the alleged unlawful activity.” That said, there are three (presumed) Americans who, both the indictment and subsequent reporting make clear, are treated differently in the indictment than all the other Americans cited as innocent people duped by Russians: Campaign Official 1, Campaign Official 2, and Campaign Official 3. We know, from CNN’s coverage of Harry Miller’s role in building a cage to be used in a fake “jailed Hillary” stunt, that at least some other people described in the indictment were interviewed — in his case, for six hours! — by the FBI. But no one else is named using the convention to indicate those not indicted but perhaps more involved in the operation. Furthermore, the indictment doesn’t actually describe what action (if any) these three Trump campaign officials took after being contacted by trolls emailing under false names.

On approximately the same day, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the email address of a false U.S. persona, [email protected], to send an email to Campaign Official 1 at that donaldtrump.com email account, which read in part:

Hello [Campaign Official 1], [w]e are organizing a state-wide event in Florida on August, 20 to support Mr. Trump. Let us introduce ourselves first. “Being Patriotic” is a grassroots conservative online movement trying to unite people offline. . . . [W]e gained a huge lot of followers and decided to somehow help Mr. Trump get elected. You know, simple yelling on the Internet is not enough. There should be real action. We organized rallies in New York before. Now we’re focusing on purple states such as Florida.

The email also identified thirteen “confirmed locations” in Florida for the rallies and requested the campaign provide “assistance in each location.”

[snip]

Defendants and their co-conspirators used the false U.S. persona [email protected] account to send an email to Campaign Official 2 at that donaldtrump.com email account.

[snip]

On or about August 20, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the “Matt Skiber” Facebook account to contact Campaign Official 3.

Again, the DOJ convention of naming makes it clear these people have not been charged with anything. But we know from other Mueller indictments that those specifically named (which include the slew of Trump campaign officials named in the George Papadopoulos plea, KT McFarland and Jared Kushner in the Flynn plea, Kilimnik in the Van der Zwaan plea, and the various companies and foreign leaders that did Manafort’s bidding, including the Podesta Group and Mercury Public Affairs in his indictment) may be the next step in the investigation. As a reminder: Florida Republicans are those who most tangibly can be shown to have benefitted from Russia’s hack-and-leak, given that Guccifer 2.0 leaked a slew of Democratic targeting data for the state. (In perhaps related news, this week Tom Rooney became the third Florida Republican member of Congress to announce his retirement this cycle, which is all the more interesting given that he’s been involved in the HPSCI investigation into Russian tampering.)

February 23: Manafort’s superseding indictment (a version of which was originally filed February 16) added the description of the Hapsburg Group for former European officials who lobbied at the direction (to some degree via cut-outs) of Manafort.

MANAFORT explained in an “EYES ONLY” memorandum created in or about June 2012 that the purpose of the “SUPER VIP” effort would be to “assemble a small group of high-level European highly influencial [sic] champions and politically credible friends who can act informally and without any visible relationship with the Government of Ukraine.” The group was managed by a former European Chancellor, Foreign Politician A, in coordination with MANAFORT.

It may be that the government only recently obtained this document (meaning it was not among the 590,000 pages of documents obtained and turned over to Manafort in discovery thus far). But it’s likely this also reflects further testimony. Former Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer denied he is Foreign Politician A to BBC, though that may be a non-denial denial tied to his claim he wasn’t directed by Manafort and only met him a few times (this Austrian story suggests only he doesn’t remember what American or English firm paid him). NYT reported that Gusenbauer’s lobbying during the relevant time period was registered under Mercury Public Affairs. This is another piece of evidence suggesting the group — and Vin Weber personally — has been cooperating since the original indictment.

Note, I assume that Mercury/Weber’s cooperation has been mirrored by Tony Podesta’s.

Updated Mueller Docket Census: We Still Don’t Know What 6 Prosecutors Are Doing

With each development in the Mueller investigation, I’ve been tracking which of Mueller’s 17 prosecutors show up on which dockets, as a way of understanding how little we know about the case. This post updates what we know given Friday’s events (I’ve also updated the numbering and am only counting someone actually named on a given docket, with the James Quarles exception since obstruction involving the White House may be the last or least likely to be docketed).

Manafort docket:

  • Andrew Weissmann (1)
  • Greg Andres (2)
  • Kyle Freeny (3)

Papadopoulos docket:

  • Jeannie Rhee (4)
  • Andrew Goldstein (5)
  • Aaron Zelinsky (6)

Flynn docket:

  • Brandon L. Van Grack (7)
  • Zainab Ahmad (8)

Obstruction docket:

Internet Research Agency docket:

  • Jeannie Rhee (4)
  • Rush Atkinson (10)
  • Ryan Dickey (11)

Richard Pinedo docket:

  • Jeannie Rhee (4)
  • Rush Atkinson (10)
  • Ryan Dickey (11)

Still unaccounted for:

  • Aaron Zebley (12): probably working on coordinating SCO activities
  • Michael Dreeben (13): appellate wizard
  • Adam Jed (14): appellate specialist
  • Elizabeth Prelogar (15): appellate specialist and Russian speaker
  • Scott Meisler (16): appellate specialist
  • Mystery prosecutor (17)

 

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Grassley-Feinstein Dispute

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

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

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

Whitehouse And related documents, yes. The package.

Bharara: And you’ve gone to read them?

Whitehouse: I’ve gone to read them.

Bharara: You didn’t send Trey Gowdy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Christopher Steele lie?

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

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

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

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

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

Did Christopher Steele lie to the FBI?

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

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

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

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

1023s are Confidential Human Source reports.

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

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

Does it harm the viability of the FISA application?

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the Michael Isikoff reference?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s do some math.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does this matter at all to the Mueller inquiry?

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

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

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

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