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Alfa-Trump Redux: Full Spectrum Circumstance

The Trump Tower – Alfa Bank story is back!

Back in October 2016, Franklin Foer wrote about some metadata analysis showing that a marketing server paid for by Trump Organization was messaging with a server at Russia’s Alfa Bank. The story, as Foer presented it, was quickly challenged. I myself focused on a side angle to the story: that in addition to communications with Alfa Bank, the Trump marketing server was also communicating with Grand Rapids’ Spectrum Health, which (the original public pitch of the story suggested) might show a tie between the DeVos family — or maybe Erik Prince — and Trump. From the vantage of October 2016, that didn’t make sense, as the DeVoses (as distinct from Betsy’s brother Erik) were actually remarkably hesitant to support Trump until after the DNS lookups ended.

Dexter Filkins has now reexamined the story. It concludes — via a proliferating set of academics and cybersecurity experts departing from the norm in both those fields and insisting on hiding their identities — that there must be some kind of communication going on.

(Max and his colleagues did not see any D.N.S. evidence that the Trump Organization was attempting to access the server; they speculated that the organization was using a virtual private network, or V.P.N., a common security measure that obscures users’ digital footprints.)

If this was a communications mechanism, it appeared to have been relatively simple, suggesting that it had been set up spontaneously and refined over time. Because the Trump Organization did not have administrative control of the server, Paul and Leto theorized that any such system would have incorporated software that one of the parties was already using. “The likely scenario is not that the people using the server were incredibly sophisticated networking geniuses doing something obscure and special,” Max said. “The likely scenario is that they adapted a server and vender already available to them, which they felt was away from prying eyes.” Leto told me that he envisioned “something like a bulletin-board system.” Or it could have been an instant-messaging system that was part of software already in use on the server.

Kramer, of Listrak, insisted that his company’s servers were used exclusively for mass marketing. “We only do one thing here,” he told me. But Listrak’s services can be integrated with numerous Cendyn software packages, some of which allow instant messaging. One possibility is Metron, used to manage events at hotels. In fact, the Trump Organization’s October, 2016, statement, blaming the unusual traffic on a “banking customer” of Cendyn, suggested that the communications had gone through Metron, which supports both messaging and e-mail.

The parties might also have been using Webmail—e-mail that leaves few digital traces, other than D.N.S. lookups. Or, Paul and Leto said, they could have been communicating through software used to compose marketing e-mails. They might have used a method called foldering, in which messages are written but not sent; instead, they are saved in a drafts folder, where an accomplice who also has access to the account can read them. “This is a very common way for people to communicate with each other who don’t want to be detected,” Leto told me.

I hope to return to some of the moves Filkins makes in his story generally after I come home from this trip. But for now, I just want to look at how Filkins deals with the Spectrum Health tie, which Filkins focuses on even more than Foer. Here’s how he introduces the connection:

Only one other entity seemed to be reaching out to the Trump Organization’s domain with any frequency: Spectrum Health, of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Spectrum Health is closely linked to the DeVos family; Richard DeVos, Jr., is the chairman of the board, and one of its hospitals is named after his mother. His wife, Betsy DeVos, was appointed Secretary of Education by Donald Trump. Her brother, Erik Prince, is a Trump associate who has attracted the scrutiny of Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Trump’s ties to Russia. Mueller has been looking into Prince’s meeting, following the election, with a Russian official in the Seychelles, at which he reportedly discussed setting up a back channel between Trump and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. (Prince maintains that the meeting was “incidental.”) In the summer of 2016, Max and the others weren’t aware of any of this. “We didn’t know who DeVos was,” Max said.

This is a remarkable paragraph, repeating a lot of the shitty link analysis that people always do when they try to explain the Spectrum tie. In it, a children’s hospital named after Dick DeVos’ mother is the smoking gun in an international spy plot. Then, having utterly ignored the status of the relationship between the DeVoses and Trump at the time of the DNS lookups, Filkins looks at what has happened since: the appointment of close Mike Pence ally and leading GOP education ideologue Betsy to be Education Secretary, and Erik Prince’s covert meeting with an entirely different — and far more suspect — bank, using means that are precisely the kinds of means you’d expect Erik Prince to use (and not using the network of a hospital that his brother-in-law chairs but doesn’t run, because why the fuck would a Navy Seal use more covert methods that Navy Seals know well instead of using a server with an easily subpoenaed footprint in the US??).

The paragraph misses some other details of note. For example, after Dick got on a commercial puddle jumper to fly to interview with Trump, he was appointed to the FAA Advisory Board, another position for which he is an obvious and arguably well-qualified pick. It also doesn’t note that Prince — who is a separate political entity from his sister and brother-in-law — was threatening anti-Trump Republicans both before and after the election, something that might support this theory except for all the other more obvious ways Prince accomplished such efforts.

Which is to say that, while the piece acknowledges that to conclude the Trump – Alfa Bank records are suspect, you also have to explain why the Spectrum ones would be, it does no reporting to discern why that would be the case.

Later in the piece, after trying to explain DNC lookups involving a third entity that had previously only been alluded to (and only alluded to because without explanation, it would have and did problematize past claims), Filkins strains further to suggest the ties between Spectrum and Trump have been proven by events that have taken place since.

In one tranche of data that he gave them, they noticed that a third entity, in addition to Alfa Bank and Spectrum Health, had been looking up the Trump domain: Heartland Payment Systems, a payments processor based in Princeton. Of the thirty-five hundred D.N.S. queries seen for the Trump domain, Heartland made only seventy-six—but no other visible entity made more than two. Heartland had a link to Alfa Bank, but a tenuous one. It had recently been acquired by Global Payments, which, in 2009, had paid seventy-five million dollars for United Card Services, Russia’s leading credit-card-processing company; two years later, United Card Services bought Alfa Bank’s credit-card-processing unit. (A spokesperson for Global Payments said that her company had never had any relationship with the Trump Organization or with Alfa Bank, and that its U.S. and Russia operations functioned entirely independently.)

Spectrum Health has a similarly indirect business tie to Alfa Bank. Richard DeVos’ father co-founded Amway, and his brother, Doug, has served as the company’s president since 2002. In 2014, Amway joined with Alfa Bank to create an “Alfa-Amway” loyalty-card program in Russia. But such connections are circumstantial at best; the DeVos family seems far more clearly linked to Trump than to Russia.

It’s this sentence — “the DeVos family seems far more clearly linked to Trump than to Russia” — that exemplifies this story, and its epistemology, for me. It treats the DeVos family — Dick, his wife Betsy Prince DeVos, his brother Doug, his charitable mother Helen, and his brother-in-law Erik Prince, to say nothing of the hospital administrators that actually run Spectrum — as a monolith they’re simply not, reads their current varied relationships with Trump back into a history where only Erik’s relationship resembled his current one, and then concludes that a link with Dick through Helen-Betsy-Erik is all you need to explain why these presumed conspirators would use a hospital rather than any of the many entities the DeVoses privately hold (and therefore more directly manage) or the Prince entities that already have built-in covert channels with a proven past ability to reach out to oligarchs discretely.

I mean, I absolutely think there’s a place for more journalism on what Erik was doing during the election, his role as a cut-out to Trump, and how he has helped to discipline the Republican party since. Or, if you want to pursue some theory of nefarious plot explaining how the originally reluctant DeVoses came to become close Trump associates, you’d explore far more about Mike Pence’s obvious role in it all (to say nothing of Pence’s frequent meetings with the DeVoses since), something Jean Camp is well situated to do from Indiana.

But one thing any such journalism would show is that Prince has the ability to conduct convert communications via much more effective channels, and Betsy and Dick DeVos have the network to achieve their political goals via means that don’t require hijacking a hospital server they don’t directly control.

Meanwhile, the story doesn’t explore the tangential role of Alfa Bank, via Alex van der Zwaan, in the Skadden Arps part of the Paul Manafort story, and doesn’t explain that any focus on Alfa Bank prior to Trump’s inauguration might have distracted from the sanctioned Russian banks that, at least as far as is currently known, are the actual key players in the Trump Russia story. It also doesn’t explain that key events in any conspiracy between Trump and Russia were communicated via insecure Trump Organization hosted email, often (in Manafort’s case, for long after he had been indicted) backed up to the iCloud.

This Trump Tower – Alfa Bank story continues to spin journalists, not to mention academics and infosec experts, into uncharacteristic habits that don’t appear to be leading to any real clarity about the topic at hand.

Denial and Deception: Did Trump Really Hire and Fire the Suspected Russian Assets on His Campaign?

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.

Recent developments in both the investigations into Carter Page and Paul Manafort have focused attention on a question I’ve been wondering about for some time: how any investigation will prove whether suspected Russian assets on the Trump campaign were ever with the campaign or really got fired.

Carter Page’s alleged denial and deception that he did what a potentially disinformation-filled dossier says he did

First, consider the Carter Page FISA applications. As I’ve said repeatedly, I actually think the FBI should be held accountable for their inclusion of the September 23, 2016 Michael Isikoff article based off of Steele’s work given their credulity that that reporting wasn’t downstream from Steele, particularly their continued inclusion of it after such time as Isikoff had made it clear the report relied on Steele. To be clear — given that they include this from the start, I’m not suggesting bad faith on the part of the FBI; I’m arguing it reflects an inability to properly read journalism that gets integrated into secret affidavits (this is something almost certainly repeated in the Keith Gartenlaub case). If you’re going to use public reporting in affidavits that will never see the light of day, learn how to read journalistic sourcing, goddamnit.

The Page application defenders argue that the inclusion of Isikoff in the Page application is not big deal because it didn’t serve to corroborate the Steele dossier on which it was based. That’s generally true. Instead, Isikoff is used in a section titled, “Page’s Denial of Cooperation with the Russian Government to Influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.” The section serves, I think, to show that Page was engaging in clandestine support of a Russian effort to undermine the election. The application claims FBI had probable cause that Page was an agent of a foreign power because he met clause E, someone who aids, abets, or conspires with someone engaging in clandestine activities, including sabotaging the election.

(A) knowingly engages in clandestine intelligence gathering activities for or on behalf of a foreign power, which activities involve or may involve a violation of the criminal statutes of the United States;

(B) pursuant to the direction of an intelligence service or network of a foreign power, knowingly engages in any other clandestine intelligence activities for or on behalf of such foreign power, which activities involve or are about to involve a violation of the criminal statutes of the United States;

(C) knowingly engages in sabotage or international terrorism, or activities that are in preparation therefor, for or on behalf of a foreign power;

[snip]

(E) knowingly aids or abets any person in the conduct of activities described in subparagraph (A), (B), or (C) or knowingly conspires with any person to engage in activities described in subparagraph (A), (B), or (C).

To prove this is all clandestine, the FBI needs to show Page and his alleged co-conspirators were hiding it, in spite of the public reporting on it.

The FBI cites this Josh Rogin interview with Page as well as a letter he sent to Jim Comey, to show that Page was denying that he was conspiring with Russians.

“All of these accusations are just complete garbage,” Page said about attacks on him by top officials in the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and unnamed intelligence officials, who have suggested that on a July trip to Moscow, Page met with “highly-sanctioned individuals” and perhaps even discussed an unholy alliance between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

As far as Page’s denials, he was specifically denying meeting with Igor Sechin and Igor Diveykin. He was definitely downplaying the likelihood that he got the invitation to Moscow because he was associated with Trump’s campaign, and he was not fulsome about having a quick exchange with other high ranking Russians.

But to this day, there is no evidence that Page did meet with Sechin and Diveykin (in the Schiff memo, he points to Page’s dodges about meeting other Russians as proof but it’s not). So citing Page’s denials to Rogin and Comey that he had had these meetings worked a lot like Saddam’s denials leading up to the Iraq War. Sometimes, when someone denies something, it’s true, and not proof of deception.

A similar structure appears to be repeated when what appears to be the section describing ongoing intelligence collection, starting with the third application (see PDF 340-1) excerpts a letter Page wrote in February 2017 attacking Hillary for “false evidence” that he met with Sechin and Diyevkin; as batshit as the letter sounds, as far as we know that specific claim is not true, and therefore this attack should only be treated as deception and denial if FBI has corroboration for other claims he denies here.

In other words, because the specific claims in the Steele dossier were the form of the accusations against Page, rather than the years-long effort the Russians made to recruit him, his willingness to play along, his interest in cuddling up to Russia, and his potential involvement in ensuring that Trump’s policy would be more pro-Russian than it otherwise might, Page’s specific denials of being an agent of Russia may well have been true even if in fact he was or at least reasonably looked like one based off other facts.

But was the Trump campaign deceiving about his departure from the campaign?

The applications don’t just show Page denying (correctly, as far as we know) that he met with Sechin and Diveykin. They also show great interest in the terms of his departure from the Trump campaign. Here’s part of what the application says about the Isikoff article:

Based on statements in the September 23rd News Article, as well as in other articles published by identified news organizations, Candidate #1’s campaign repeatedly made public statements in an attempt to distance Candidate #1 from Page. For example, the September 23rd News Article noted that Page’s precise role in Candidate #1’s campaign is unclear. According to the article, a spokesperson for Candidate #1’s campaign called Page an “informal foreign advisor” who” does not speak for [Candidate #1] or the campaign.” In addition, another spokesperson for Candidate #1’s campaign said that Page “has no role” and added “[w]e are not aware of his activities, past or present.” However, the article stated that the campaign spokesperson did not respond when asked why Candidate #1 had previously described Page as an advisor. In addition, on or about September 25, 2016, an identified news organization published an article that was based primarily on an interview with Candidate #1’s then campaign manager. During the interview, the campaign manager stated, “[Page is] not part of the campaign I’m running.” The campaign manager added that Page has not been part of Candidate #1’s national security or foreign policy briefings since he/she became campaign manager. In response to a question to a question from the interviewer regarding reports that Page was meeting with Russian officials to essentially attempt to conduct diplomatic negotiations with the Russian Government, the campaign manager responded, “If [Page is] doing that, he’s certainly not doing it with the permission or knowledge of the campaign . . . “

That passage is followed by three lines redacted under FOIA’s “techniques and procedures” (7E) and “enforcement proceedings” (7A) exemptions.

Again, this section seems dedicated to proving that Page and his conspirators are attempting to operate clandestinely — that they’re denying this ongoing operation. And the FBI treats Page’s and the campaign’s denials of any association as proof of deception.

To this day, of course, President Trump considers the Page FISA to be an investigation into his campaign.

Sure, the continued conflation of the Page FISA with his campaign serves a sustained strategy to confuse his base and discredit the investigation. But by willingly conflating the two, Trump only adds to the basis for which FBI might treat the conflicting admissions and denials of Page’s past and ongoing role in the campaign in fall 2016 as part of an effort to deceive.

Which is to say that while Page’s denials of meeting with Igor Sechin might be bogus analysis, the competing claims from the campaign — while they were likely at least partly incompetent efforts to limit damage during a campaign — might (especially as they persist) more justifiably be taken as proof of deception.

Steve Bannon got picked up on Page’s wiretaps in January 2017

All the more so given that Steve Bannon reached out to Page — via communication channels that were almost surely wiretapped — in early 2017 to prevent him from publicly appearing and reminding of his role on the campaign. As Page explained in his testimony to HPSCI:

MR. SCHIFF: Have you had any interaction with Steve Bannon?

MR. PAGE: We — we had a brief conversation in January, and we shared some text messages. That’s about it.

MR. SCHIFF: January of this year?

MR. PAGE: Yes.

MR. SCHIFF: What was the nature of your text message exchange?

MR. PAGE: It was — he had heard I was going to be on I believe it was an MSNBC event. And he just said it’s probably not a good idea. So —

MR. SCHIFF: And he heard this from?

MR. PAGE: I am not sure, but —

MR. SCHIFF: So he was telling you not to go on MSNBC?

MR. PAGE: Yes.

MR. SCHIFF: And he texted this to you?

MR. PAGE: He called me. It was right when I was — it was in mid-January, so —

MR. SCHIFF: And how did he have your number?

MR. PAGE: Well, I mean, I think there is the campaign had my number. He probably got it from the campaign, if I had to guess. I don’t know.

MR. SCHIFF: And did Mr. Bannon tell you why he didn’t want you to go on MSNBC?

MR. PAGE: No. But it turns out, I mean, I saw eventually the same day and in the same hour slot in the “Meet the Press” daily, it was Vice President Pence. And this is kind of a week after the dodgy dossier was fully released. And so I can understand, you know, given reality, why it might not be a good idea when he heard, probably from the producer — somehow the word got back via the producers that I would be on there, so —

MR. SCHIFF: I am not sure that I follow that, but in any event, apart from your speculating about it, what did he communicate as to why he thought you should not go on MSNBC?

MR. PAGE: I can’t recall the specifics.

MR. SCHIFF: Did he tell you he thought it would be hurtful to the President?

MR. PAGE: Not specifically, although there was a — I had received — we had some — letter exchanges perviously, kind of sharing — between Jones Day and myself, just saying — I forget the exact terminology, but — you know, the overall message was: Don’t give the wrong impression. Or my interpretation of the message was: Don’t give the wrong impression that you’re part of the administration or the Trump campaign.

And my response to that was, of course, I’m not. The only reason I ever talked to the media is to try to clear up this massive mess which has been created about my name.

[snip]

MR. SCHIFF: So, when Mr. Bannon called you to ask you not to go on, did he make any reference to the correspondence from the campaign?

MR. PAGE: I can’t recall. Again, I had just gotten off a 14-hour flight from Abu Dhabi.

MR. SCHIFF: He just made it clear he didn’t want you to do the interview?

MR. PAGE: That’s all I recall, yeah.

MR. SCHIFF: And what did you tell him?

MR. PAGE: I told him: I won’t do it. That’s fine. No big deal.

In the wake of the release of the Steele dossier, Trump’s top political advisor Steve Bannon (who, we now know, was in the loop on some discussions of a back channel to Russia) called up Carter Page on a wiretapped phone and told him not to go on MSNBC to try to rebut the Steele dossier.

I can get why that’d be sound judgment, from a political standpoint. But the attempt to quash a Page appearance and/or present any link to Pence during a period when he was pushing back about Mike Flynn and when Bannon was setting up back channels with Russians sure seems like an attempt to dissociate from Page as the visible symbol of conspiring with Russia all while continuing that conspiracy.

Speaking of Paul Manafort’s many conspiracies

Which brings me, finally, to a filing the government submitted in Paul Manafort’s DC trial yesterday.

Every time people claim that neither of the Manafort indictments relate to conspiring with Russia, I point out (in part) that Manafort sought to hide his long-term tie with Viktor Yanukovych and the Russian oligarchs paying his bills in an attempt to limit damage such associations would have to the ongoing Trump campaign. Effectively, when those ties became clear, Manafort stepped down and allegedly engaged in a conspiracy to hide those ties, all while remaining among Trump’s advisors.

In response to Manafort’s effort to preclude any mention of the Trump campaign in the DC case, the Mueller team argued they might discuss it if Manafort raises it in an attempt to impeach Rick Gates.

Manafort’s role in the Trump campaign, however, is relevant to the false-statement offenses charged in Counts 4 and 5 of the indictment. Indeed, Manafort’s position as chairman of the Trump campaign and his incentive to keep that position are relevant to his strong interest in distancing himself from former Ukrainian President Yanukovych, the subject of the false statements that he then reiterated to his FARA attorney to convey to the Department of Justice. In particular, the press reports described in paragraphs 26 and 27 of the indictment prompted Manafort and Gates to develop their scheme to conceal their lobbying. Dkt. 318 ¶¶ 26-27.

For example, on August 15, 2016, a member of the press e-mailed Manafort and copied a spokesperson for the Trump campaign to solicit a comment for a forthcoming story describing his lobbying. Gates corresponded with Manafort about this outreach and explained that he “provided” the journalist “information on background and then agreed that we would provide these answers to his questions on record.” He then proposed a series of answers to the journalist’s questions and asked Manafort to “review the below and let me know if anything else is needed,” to which Manafort replied, in part, “These answers look fine.” Gates sent a materially identical message to one of the principals of Company B approximately an hour later and “per our conversation.” The proposed answers Gates conveyed to Manafort, the press, and Company B are those excerpted in the indictment in paragraph 26.

An article by this member of the press associating Manafort with undisclosed lobbying on behalf of Ukraine was published shortly after Gates circulated the Manafort-approved false narrative to Company B and the member of the press. Manafort, Gates, and an associate of Manafort’s corresponded about how to respond to this article, including the publication of an article to “punch back” that contended that Manafort had in fact pushed President Yanukovych to join the European Union. Gates responded to the punch-back article that “[w]e need to get this out to as many places as possible. I will see if I can get it to some people,” and Manafort thanked the author by writing “I love you! Thank you.” Manafort resigned his position as chairman of the Trump campaign within days of the press article disclosing his lobbying for Ukraine.

Manafort’s role with the Trump campaign is thus relevant to his motive for undertaking the charged scheme to conceal his lobbying activities on behalf of Ukraine. Here, it would be difficult for the jury to understand why Manafort and Gates began crafting and disseminating a false story regarding their Ukrainian lobbying work nearly two years after that work ceased—but before any inquiry by the FARA Unit—without being made aware of the reason why public scrutiny of Manafort’s work intensified in mid-2016. Nor would Manafort’s motives for continuing to convey that false information to the FARA Unit make sense: having disseminated a false narrative to the press while his position on the Trump campaign was in peril, Manafort either had to admit these falsehoods publicly or continue telling the lie. [my emphasis]

Finally, Mueller is making this argument. The reason Manafort went to significant lengths in 2016 to avoid registering for all this Ukraine work, Mueller has finally argued, is because of his actions to deny the ties in an effort to remain on the Trump campaign and his effort to limit fallout afterwards.

This argument, of course, is unrelated to the competing stories that Trump told about why he fired Manafort (or whether, for example, Roger Stone was formally affiliated with the campaign during the period when he was reaching out to WikiLeaks and Guccifer 2.0). But since at least fall 2016 the FBI has been documenting efforts to lie about Trump’s willing ties to a bunch of people with close ties to Russians helping to steal the election and/or set up Trump as a Russian patsy.

And while the evidence that Page was lying when denying the specifics about the accusations against him in the dossier remains weak (at least as far as the unredacted sections are concerned), the evidence that the campaign has been involved in denial and deception since they got rid of first Manafort and then Page is not.

Carter Page’s incoherent ramblings may not actually be denial and deception. But Donald Trump’s sure look to be.

The Sekulow Questions, Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

In this series, it feels like time is marked by big Russian meetings and key firings.

I’m talking, of course, about my efforts to use the Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow to map out what the structure of the investigation (at least as it pertains to Trump personally) might be. Thus far, I’ve shown:

  • Russians, led by the Aras Agalarov and his son, cultivated Trump for years by dangling two things: real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin.
  • During the election, the Russians and Trump appear to have danced towards a quid pro quo agreement, with the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for a commitment to sanctions relief, with some policy considerations thrown in.
  • During the transition period, Trump’s team took a series of actions that moved towards consummating the deal they had made with Russia, both in terms of policy concessions, particularly sanctions relief, and funding from Russian sources that could only be tapped if sanctions were lifted. The Trump team took measures to keep those actions secret.
  • Starting in January 2017, Trump came to learn that FBI was investigating Mike Flynn. His real reasons for firing Flynn remain unreported, but it appears he had some concerns that the investigation into Flynn would expose him personally to investigation.
  • After a failed attempt to quash the investigation into his Administration by firing Flynn, Trump grew increasingly angry that Jim Comey wouldn’t provide a quick exoneration without conducting an investigation first, leading to his firing.

May 10, 2017: What did you mean when you told Russian diplomats on May 10, 2017, that firing Mr. Comey had taken the pressure off?

Trump fired Comey just in time to report to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a meeting the next day that doing took the pressure off he felt because of Russia.

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” Remarkably, he also felt the need to reassure the Russians that, “I’m not under investigation.”

The reports that Trump’s lawyers need to have clearance because of the inclusion of this meeting in the list of questions suggests Mueller wants to learn more about the meeting beyond the public reports. That may include Trump’s sharing of classified information provided by the Israelis.

May 11, 2017: What did you mean in your interview with Lester Holt about Mr. Comey and Russia?

The day after meeting with the Russians, he told Lester Holt he was going to fire Comey regardless of what Rod Rosenstein recommended. [These are excerpts and a little rough; here’s a partial transcript that leaves out a lot of the Russian comments]

He’s a showboat, he’s a grand-stander, the FBI has been in turmoil, you know that. I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil. Less than a year ago. It hasn’t recovered from that.

[in response to a question about Rosenstein’s recommendation] What I did was I was going to fire Comey. My decision. I was going to fire Comey. There’s no good time to do it, by the way. I was going to fire regardless of recommendation. [Rosenstein] made a recommendation, he’s highly respected. Very good guy, very smart guy. The Democrats like him. The Republicans like him. But regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey. Knowing there was no good time to do it.

And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won. And the reason they should have won it is the electoral college is almost impossible for a Republican to win. Very hard. Because you start off at such a disadvantage. So everybody was thinking, they should have won the election. This was an excuse for having lost an election.

I just want somebody that’s competent. I’m a big fan of the FBI. I love the people of the FBI.

As far as I’m concerned, I want that [investigation] to be absolutely done properly. When I did this now, I said I’ll probably, maybe confuse that. Maybe I’ll expand that, you know, lengthen the time because it should be over with, in my opinion, should have been over with a long time ago. ‘Cause all it is, is an excuse but I said to myself, I might even lengthen out the investigation, but I have to do the right thing for the American people.

[in response to question about why he put he was not under investigation in his termination letter] Because he told me that, I mean he told me that. I’ve heard that from others. I had a dinner him, he wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on, we had a very nice dinner at the White House very early on. [He asked to have dinner?] A dinner was arranged. I think he asked for the dinner. And he wanted to stay on as the FBI head. And I said, I’ll consider, we’ll see what happens. We had a very nice dinner. And at that time he told me you’re not under investigation. I knew anyway. First of all, when you’re under investigation, you’re giving all sorts of documents and everything. I knew I wasn’t under — and I heard it was stated at the committee, at some committee level, number one. Then during the phone call he said it, then during another phone call he said it. He said it at dinner, and then he said it twice during phone calls.

In one case I called him, in one case he called me.

I actually asked him, yes. I said, if it’s possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation? He said you are not under investigation. All I can tell you is that I know that I’m not under investigation. Personally. I’m not talking about campaigns, I’m not talking about anything else. I’m not under investigation.

[did you ask him to drop the investigation] No. Never. I want the investigation speeded up. Why would we do that? Iw ant to find out if there was a problem with an election having to do with Russia, or anyone else, any other country, I want it to be so strong and so good.

I want somebody that’s going to do a great job.

I think that looking into me and the campaign, I have nothing to do, his was set up by the Democrats. There’s no collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians. The other things is the Russians did not affect the vote.

If Russia hacked, If Russia had to anything to do with our election, I want to know about it. If Russia or anybody elseis trying to interfere with our elections I want to make sure that will never ever happen

[wiretapping] I was surprised [Comey said no spying] but I wasn’t angry. There’s a big thing going on right now, spying, to me that’s the big story.

I want a great FBI Director. I expect that [they will continue investigation].

[Flynn’s access to secrets] My White House Counsel it did not sound like an emergency. She didn’t make it sound that way either in the hearings the other day. It didn’t sound like it had to be done immediately. This man has served for many years. He’s a general. In my opinion a very good person. It would be very unfair to hear from someone we don’t even know to immediately run out and fire a general. We ultimately fired, but we fired for a different reason. Everything plays into it. We fired him because he said something to the Vice President that wasn’t true. He had clearance from the Obama Administration. I think it’s a very unfair thing that the media doesn’t talk about that.

I just sent a letter from one of the most prestigious law firms in the country that I have nothing to do with Russia, I have no investments in Russia, I don’t have property in Russia. I’m in total compliance in every way.

I had the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow a long time ago. I have a certified letter. I’m not just saying that. I assume he’s gonna give the letter out. No loans, no nothing.

I never thought about it [optics of Lavrov meeting]. What difference does it make.

When I spoke with Putin he asked me whether I’d see Lavrov. I think we had a great discussion having to do with Syria, having to do with the Ukraine. Maybe that discussion will lead to peace.

Ultimately, Trump said several things here (aside from putting into the public record the meetings with Comey, though he got details that can almost certainly be proved wrong wrong). He differentiated between an investigation into himself personally and others, denied asking to halt the investigation into Flynn, provided his bogus self-exoneration claim of not having business ties with Russians. He also reiterated the claim he had been spied on.

May 12, 2017: What was the purpose of your May 12, 2017, tweet?

By this point, Trump and Comey were in a war of credibility. And Trump suggested that he might have tapes of his meetings with Comey.

The White House answers about whether there were tapes have dodged some, so it’s possible.

May 17, 2017: What did you think and what did you do in reaction to the news of the appointment of the special counsel?

In the wake of reporting that Comey had documented a request from Trump to halt the investigation into Flynn, on May 17, Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to investigate any links between the Russian government and individuals associated with Trump’s campaign and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” The latter phrase made it clear that by firing Comey, Trump had put himself under investigation for obstructing the investigation in chief.

In the middle of a meeting with Sessions, Don McGahn, Mike Pence, and several others on replacing Comey, Rosenstein called McGahn and told him he had appointed Mueller. Trump took it out on Sessions, calling him an idiot and telling him he should resign. Sessions left and sent a resignation letter, but Pence, Steve Bannon, and Reince Priebus convinced him to hold off on accepting it. This piece describes Priebus’ side of that story.

May 31, 2017: Why did you hold Mr. Sessions’s resignation until May 31, 2017, and with whom did you discuss it?

Mueller has received testimony from most of the people who counseled Trump not to fire Sessions, including McGahn, Bannon, and Priebus (but not Pence). He has also gotten Sessions’ testimony on this point.

I’m particularly interested in whether Trump consulted with people not listed in the NYT story on this, such as Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller (who had counseled him to fire Comey in the first place). I also suspect that Trump had already reached out Flynn by this point to talk pardons.

June 8, 2017: What did you think about Mr. Comey’s June 8, 2017, testimony regarding Mr. Flynn, and what did you do about it?

On June 8, Comey testified to SSCI. The night before, he released a statement that reviewed much of what appeared in his memos. The hearing consisted of senators from each party trying to spin Comey’s report of being asked to drop the Flynn investigation, with little news  — though Comey did make clear the investigation covered false statements.

BLUNT: On the Flynn issue specifically, I believe you said earlier that you believe the president was suggesting you drop any investigation of Flynn’s account of his conversation with the Russian ambassador. Which was essentially misleading the vice president and others?

COMEY: Correct. I’m not going to go into the details but whether there were false statements made to government investigators, as well.

Comey refuted Trump’s claim that he didn’t ask him to stop the investigation into Flynn.

KING: In his press conference May 18th, the president responded, quote, no, no, when asked about asking you to stop the investigation into general Flynn. Is that a true statement?

COMEY: I don’t believe it is.

Comey said he viewed the Flynn investigation and the Russian one as touching, but separate, though raised the possibility of flipping Flynn.

KING: Back to Mr. Flynn. Would the — would closing out the Flynn investigation have impeded the overall Russian investigation?

COMEY: No. Well, unlikely, except to the extent — there is always a possibility if you have a criminal case against someone and squeeze them, flip them and they give you information about something else. But I saw the two as touching each other but separate.

Comey also revealed that he had shared memos memorializing his conversations with Trump with a friend.

BLUNT: You said something earlier and I don’t want to fail to follow up on, you said after dismissed, you gave information to a friend so that friend could get that information into the public media.

COMEY: Correct.

BLUNT: What kind of information was that? What kind of information did you give to a friend?

COMEY: That the — the Flynn conversation. The president had asked me to let the Flynn — forgetting my exact own words. But the conversation in the Oval Office.

Much of the hearing covered Sessions’ non-involvement. Comey deferred a number of questions to the closed session.

Trump used the Comey hearing — and his confirmation that at the time he left the president wasn’t under investigation — to have Marc Kasowitz make a statement claiming Trump never impeded the investigation and never demanded loyalty.

I am Marc Kasowitz, Predisent Trump’s personal lawyer.

Contrary to numerous false press accounts leading up to today’s hearing, Mr. Comey has now finally confirmed publicly what he repeatedly told the President privately: The President was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference. He also admitted that there is no evidence that a single vote changed as a result of any Russian interference.

Mr Comey’s testimony also makes clear that the President never sought to impede the investigation into attempted Russian interference in the 2016 election, and in fact, according to Mr. Comey, the President told Mr. Comey “it would be good to find out” in that investigation if there were “some ‘satellite’ associates of his who did something wrong.” And he did not exclude anyone from that statement. Consistent with that statement, the President never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone, including suggesting that that Mr. Comey“let Flynn go.” As he publicly stated the next day, he did say to Mr. Comey, “General Flynn is a good guy, he has been through a lot” and also “asked how is General Flynn is doing.”

Admiral Rogers testified that the President never “directed [him] to do anything . . . illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate” and never “pressured [him] to do so.” Director Coates said the same thing. The President likewise never pressured Mr. Comey. .

The President also never told Mr. Comey, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty” in form or substance. Of course, the Office of the President is entitled to expect loyalty from those who are serving in an administration, and, from before this President took office to this day, it is overwhelmingly clear that there have been and continue to be those in government who are actively attempting to undermine this administration with selective and illegal leaks of classified information and privileged communications.

Kasowitz also accused Comey of leaking in order to lead to a special counsel investigation.

Mr. Comey has now admitted that he is one of these leakers. Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the President. The leaks of this privileged information began no later than March 2017 when friends of Mr. Comey have stated he disclosed to them the conversations he had with the President during their January 27, 2017 dinner and February 14, 2017 White House meeting. Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he leaked to friends his purported memos of these privileged conversations, one of which he testified was classified. He also testified that immediately after he was terminated he authorized his friends to leak the contents of these memos to the press in order to “prompt the appointment of a special counsel.” Although Mr. Comey testified he only leaked the memos in response to a tweet, the public record reveals that the New York Times was quoting from these memos the day before the referenced tweet, which belies Mr. Comey’s excuse for this unauthorized disclosure of privileged information and appears to entirely retaliatory. We will leave it the appropriate authorities to determine whether this leaks should be investigated along with all those others being investigated. .

In sum, it is now established that there the President was not being investigated for colluding with the or attempting to obstruct that investigation. As the Committee pointed out today, these important facts for the country to know are virtually the only facts that have not leaked during the long course of these events.

This sort of kicked off the official campaign to discredit Comey and those who would back his story.

June 12, 2017: What did you think and do in reaction to the news that the special counsel was speaking to Mr. Rogers, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Coats?

Public reports date Rogers and Coats’ interviews with Mueller to the week of June 12, 2017, so Pompeo’s must have been around that same time. Rogers and Coats, at least, testified that Trump tried to get them to state publicly that there was no collusion. They said the interaction was odd and uncomfortable, but that he did not order them to interfere.

Clearly, Trump responded to public reports of their being called as witnesses, though we don’t know what the response was. It’s possible that’s when Trump threatened to fire Mueller, only to back off when Don McGahn threatened to quit.

July 7, 2017: What involvement did you have in the communication strategy, including the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails?

I’ve laid out that I believe the evolving June 9 story is a limited hangout orchestrated by Agalarov lawyer Scott Balber. The strategy would have begun when Jared Kushner wrestled with the need to disclose the meeting, both in response to congressional investigations and for his clearance. Manafort, too, turned over emails backing the event about a month before the story came out publicly. This post talks about the response the weekend of the G-20 in Hamburg, including Ivanka sitting in on a meeting so Trump could strategize, and Hope Hicks suggesting the emails would never come out.

As a reminder, on the same day Trump had a second hour long meeting with Putin, he dictated Putin’s propaganda line that the meeting pertained to adoptions. Importantly, he hid what I’ve suggested was the quo in the quid pro quo, sanctions relief. Mueller undoubtedly would like to know if Putin helped him come up with that message, which would be really damning.

Mueller also wants to know about the decision to leak Don Jr’s emails. Bannon suspects that a Jared aide leaked the emails (his then lawyer Jamie Gorelick would cut back her work with him shortly thereafter). But remember: in a DM, Assange proposed that he give Wikileaks the email.

There’s clearly far more back story to the leaked email we don’t know yet.

If Trump’s involvement here involves coordination with Russians (like the Agalrovs, to say nothing of Putin) or Assange, it would provide damning evidence not of obstruction, but of collusion, an effort to coordinate a story about a key meeting. Trump’s lawyers have always suggested questions about Trump’s role in this statement are improper, which is itself a telling indicator that they don’t understand (or want to spin) the risk of the original June 9 meeting.

July 20, 2017: After the resignations, what efforts were made to reach out to Mr. Flynn about seeking immunity or possible pardon?

Mike Flynn tried to get Congressional immunity in March 2017, with Trump’s backing the effort in a tweet.

Mueller’s question seems to suggest even at that earlier period, someone from Trump’s camp reached out and discussed immunity with Flynn. Shortly before April 25, Trump also sent Flynn a message to “stay strong.” (h/t TC)

On July 20, the WaPo reported that Trump’s team was researching pardons. The NYT report first revealing that Trump offered pardons to Mike Flynn (and Manafort, who is curiously not mentioned in this question) describes it happening after John Dowd took over, in the wake of the revelation of the June 9 meeting and the Kasowitz firing. Dowd denied any such thing was happening on July 21, which is probably a good sign such discussions were taking place.

July 25, 2017: What was the purpose of your July 2017 criticism of Mr. Sessions? What discussions did you have with Reince Priebus in July 2017 about obtaining the Sessions resignation? With whom did you discuss it?

In late July, 2017, Trump accused Sessions of several sins: failing to crack down on leaks, failing to prosecute Hillary, and failing to fire Andrew McCabe. That must be the same time when Trump ordered Priebus to get Sessions’ resignation, which he dodged by stalling, which probably answers the “what was the purpose” question: to lay predicate to fire Sessions.

I’m particularly interested in the question about who Trump discussed this with, particularly given the provocative timing — the days before George Papadopoulos’s July 26 arrest and Paul Manafort’s July 27 condo search (using a warrant that, unlike a warrant from a May 27 storage unit search, invoked the June 9 meeting). It’s possible Trump had advance knowledge of this stuff (which would be alarming), but likely it’s a coincidence.

In any case, Mueller clearly has reason to believe Trump learned something about the investigation and discussed it with people that led him to try, again, to stop it by firing someone.

What was the purpose of the September and October 2017 statements, including tweets, regarding an investigation of Mr. Comey?

On September 1, Trump responded to reports that because Comey had a declination written before interviewing Hillary, he rigged the outcome of the investigation. In mid-October, in the wake of the Manafort indictment and George Papadopoulos plea, Trump returned to this attack. Rudy Giuliani has renewed this attack in recent days, which is presumably an attempt to undercut Comey’s credibility.

What discussions did you have regarding terminating the special counsel, and what did you do when that consideration was reported in January 2018?

The NYT report that Trump tried to fire Mueller in June 2017 made it clear that Mueller had received testimony about it (presumably from McGahn and others). Clearly, Mueller has reason to know that Trump did something else in response. Note that this report came out in the wake of the Michael Wolff book, which would give Mueller an excuse to call several of the relevant witnesses (such as Mark Corallo and Steve Bannon) as witnesses. This time period also closely follows the increasingly aggressive response in Congress.

What is the reason for your continued criticism of Mr. Comey and his former deputy, Andrew G. McCabe?

The assumption is that Trump continues to attack Comey and McCabe because doing so might harm their credibility with regards to an obstruction investigation, and that’s surely true (made all the worse by McCabe’s firing and his criminal referral).

But I increasingly believe (particularly given that the other contemporaneous witnesses to Comey’s concerns, like James Baker, are not named) that’s not the only reason Trump is doing this. My guess is it’s an attempt to undermine their decision to investigate Flynn. We now know, for example, that McCabe set up the interview with Flynn on Comey’s direction. So in addition to discrediting key witnesses against him, it seems possible that Trump is also trying to discredit the decision, at a time when  FBI was about to close a counterintelligence investigation into Flynn, to instead interview him, leading to the exposure of Trump’s efforts to undermine US policy during the transition period.

RESOURCES

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

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

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

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

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

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

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

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation (Part Four)

In this series, I’m analyzing the Mueller questions as understood by Jay Sekulow and leaked to the NYT to show how they set up a more damning investigative framework than commentary has reflected.

This post laid out how the Agalarovs had been cultivating Trump for years, in part by dangling real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin. This post shows how during the election, the Russians and Trump danced towards a quid pro quo agreement, with the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for a commitment to sanctions relief, with some policy considerations thrown in. This post laid out how, during the transition period, Trump’s team took a series of actions they attempted to keep secret that moved towards consummating the deal they had made with Russia, both in terms of policy concessions, particularly sanctions relief, and funding from Russian sources that could only be tapped if sanctions were lifted.

This post will look at Mueller’s reported investigative interest in Trump’s reaction to discovering the “Deep State” was investigating the election year operation, including the actions his team had tried to keep secret. Note, I have put all of the events leading up to Flynn’s firing here (not least because I think the firing itself often gets treated improperly as obstruction), though just some of the Jim Comey events. I will repeat the timeline of events in the next post, which overlaps temporally, for clarity.

January 6, 2017: What was your opinion of Mr. Comey during the transition?

This is a baseline question for Trump’s firing of Jim Comey. At a minimum, Trump would need to explain his decision to keep Comey. It also provides Trump an opportunity to rebut Comey’s claim that, in the January 6 meeting, Trump told Comey he:

had conducted myself honorably and had a great reputation. He said I was repeatedly put in impossible positions. He said you saved her and then they hated you for what you did later, but what coice did you have? He said he thought very highly of me and looked forward to working with me, saying he hoped I planned to stay on. I assured him I intended to stay. He said good.

January 6, 2017: What did you think about Mr. Comey’s intelligence briefing on Jan. 6, 2017, about Russian election interference?

One key detail Comey (and the other representatives of the intelligence community) would have detailed for Trump that day is not just that Russia interfered in the election, but their basis for concluding that “We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances,” a conclusion Republicans have objected to repeatedly.

In his book, but not his memos, Comey describes that immediately after the briefing, Trump first asked for assurances Russian interference hadn’t affected the outcome and then, with his team, started strategizing how to spin the conclusions so as to dismiss any outcome on the election.

‘I recall Trump listening without interrupting, and asking only one question, which was really more of a statement: “But you found there was no impact on the result, right?” The intelligence team said they had done no such analysis.

‘What I found telling was what Trump and his team didn’t ask. They were about to lead a country that had been attacked by a foreign adversary, yet they had no questions about what the future Russian threat might be.’

Instead, Trump and his team immediately started discussing how they would “spin” the information on Russia as if the intelligence officers were not in the room. ‘They were keen to emphasize that there was no impact on the vote, meaning that the Russians hadn’t elected Trump.’

This reflects the same concern expressed in the KT McFarland email from just days earlier (which probably reflected detailed Trump involvement) that acknowledging Russian involvement would “discredit[] Trump’s victory by saying it was due to Russian interference.”

January 6, 2017: What was your reaction to Mr. Comey’s briefing that day about other intelligence matters?

In its analysis of the questions, NYT takes this question to be exclusively about Comey’s briefing on the Steele dossier, and it may be. But in Obama’s January 5 briefing covering the same issues, according to Susan Rice, Comey and others discussed concerns about sharing classified information with the Trump team, especially Mike Flynn.

The memorandum to file drafted by Ambassador Rice memorialized an important national security discussion between President Obama and the FBI Director and the Deputy Attorney General. President Obama and his national security team were justifiably concerned about potential risks to the Nation’s security from sharing highly classified information about Russia with certain members of the Trump transition team, particularly Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

Even though concerns about Flynn came up in that Obama briefing, the FBI counterintelligence investigation did not. It’s possible that this passage from Comey’s memo, which describes the main part of the briefing and not that part dedicated to the Steele dossier, pertained to the counterintelligence concerns about Flynn,which Obama had already shared with Trump the previous fall; such a warning may or may not have included Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak.

If Comey briefed anything to do with Flynn, it would significantly change the importance of subsequent events.

As for the Steele dossier conversation, which surely is included with this question, Comey has claimed that Trump first tried to convince Comey is wasn’t true that he would need to “go there” to sleeping with prostitutes, “there were never prostitutes,” even though Trump’s reference to “the women who had falsely accused him of grabbing or touching them” actually undermined his defense.

Comey has also claimed that Trump seemed relieved when he said (in the context of the Steele briefing), that the FBI was not investigating him. Importantly, this took place after Comey had said he didn’t want people to claim the information came from the FBI.

I said media like CNN had them and were looking for a news hook. I said it was important that we not give them an excuse to write that the FBI has the material or [redacted] and that we were keeping it very close-hold.

[snip]

I responded that we were not investigating him and the stuff might be totally made up but that it was being said out of Russia and our job was to protect the President from efforts to coerce him. I said we try to understand what the Russians are doing and what they might do. I added that I also wanted him to know this in case it came out in the media.

He said he was grateful for the conversation, said more nice things about me and how he looks forward to working with me and we departed the room.

January 12, 2017: What was your reaction to news reports on Jan. 12, 2017?

On January 12, in the context of a discussion of Trump aiming for better relationships with Putin, David Ignatius reported revealed that Flynn had called Sergey Kislyak “several times,” asking whether but not asserting that it might be an attempt to undercut sanctions.

Trump said Wednesday that his relationship with President Vladimir Putin is “an asset, not a liability.” Fair enough, but until he’s president, Trump needs to let Obama manage U.S.-Russia policy.

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s choice for national security adviser, cultivates close Russian contacts. He has appeared on Russia Today and received a speaking fee from the cable network, which was described in last week’s unclassified intelligence briefing on Russian hacking as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.”

According to a senior U.S. government official, Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking. What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions? The Logan Act(though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about “disputes” with the United States. Was its spirit violated? The Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The report neither revealed the FBI had intercepts of the conversation nor confirmed an investigation. But it may have alerted Trump that the actions he was probably a party to weeks earlier might have legal consequences.

January 24: FBI interviews Mike Flynn and he lies about talking about sanctions

January 26 and 27, 2017: What did you know about Sally Yates’s meetings about Mr. Flynn?

According to Sally Yates’ public testimony, she met with Don McGahn to discuss Mike Flynn’s interview with the FBI on January 26, 2017. She framed it by describing that DOJ knew Mike Pence’s January 15 comments about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak were not correct.

YATES: So I told them again that there were a number of press accounts of statements that had been made by the vice president and other high-ranking White House officials about General Flynn’s conduct that we knew to be untrue. And we told them how we knew that this – how we had this information, how we had acquired it, and how we knew that it was untrue.

And we walked the White House Counsel who also had an associate there with him through General Flynn’s underlying conduct, the contents of which I obviously cannot go through with you today because it’s classified. But we took him through in a fair amount of detail of the underlying conduct, what General Flynn had done, and then we walked through the various press accounts and how it had been falsely reported.

We also told the White House Counsel that General Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI on February [sic] 24. Mr. McGahn asked me how he did and I declined to give him an answer to that. And we then walked through with Mr. McGahn essentially why we were telling them about this and the first thing we did was to explain to Mr. McGahn that the underlying conduct that General Flynn had engaged in was problematic in and of itself.

Secondly, we told him we felt like the vice president and others were entitled to know that the information that they were conveying to the American people wasn’t true. And we wanted to make it really clear right out of the gate that we were not accusing Vice President Pence of knowingly providing false information to the American people.

And, in fact, Mr. McGahn responded back to me to let me know that anything that General Flynn would’ve said would have been based — excuse me — anything that Vice President Pence would have said would have been based on what General Flynn had told him.

We told him the third reason was — is because we were concerned that the American people had been misled about the underlying conduct and what General Flynn had done, and additionally, that we weren’t the only ones that knew all of this, that the Russians also knew about what General Flynn had done.

And the Russians also knew that General Flynn had misled the vice president and others, because in the media accounts, it was clear from the vice president and others that they were repeating what General Flynn had told them, and that this was a problem because not only did we believe that the Russians knew this, but that they likely had proof of this information.

And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians. Finally, we told them that we were giving them all of this information so that they could take action, the action that they deemed appropriate.

I remember that Mr. McGahn asked me whether or not General Flynn should be fired, and I told him that that really wasn’t our call, that was up to them, but that we were giving them this information so that they could take action, and that was the first meeting.

Then there was a follow-up meeting on January 27. Among the five topics discussed, McGahn asked if Flynn was in legal jeopardy, and if “they” (presumably meaning he and the Associate WHCO in the meeting) could see the underlying intelligence.

WHITEHOUSE: Did you discuss criminal prosecution of Mr. Flynn — General Flynn?

YATES: My recollection is that did not really come up much in the first meeting. It did come up in the second meeting, when Mr. McGahn called me back the next morning and asked the — the morning after — this is the morning of the 27th, now — and asked me if I could come back to his office.

And so I went back with the NSD official, and there were essentially four topics that he wanted to discuss there, and one of those topics was precisely that. He asked about the applicability of certain statutes, certain criminal statutes and, more specifically,

[snip]

And there was a request made by Mr. McGahn, in the second meeting as to whether or not they would be able to look at the underlying evidence that we had that we had described for him of General Flynn’s conduct. And we told him that we were inclined to allow them to look at that underlying evidence, that we wanted to go back to DOJ and be able to make the logistical arrangements for that. This second meeting on the 27th occurred late in the afternoon, this is Friday the 27th. So we told him that we would work with the FBI over the weekend on this issue and get back with him on Monday morning. And I called him first thing Monday morning to let him know that we would allow them to come over and to review the underlying evidence.

By the time the materials for review became available on January 30, Yates had been fired, nominally because she refused to defend Trump’s Muslim ban.

The HPSCI report (particularly content newly unredacted on May 4; see PDF 63 ff) reveals there were several concerns about Flynn’s contradictory comments (which Republicans bizarrely present as conflict). First, there had been a counterintelligence investigation into Flynn still active in December 2016, though FBI may have been moving to shut it down. The interview may have been sparked by Logan Act concerns, or it may have been Flynn’s public comments to Pence (the Republican report ignores that this would pose a blackmail problem). Comey told HPSCI that the agents found Flynn — a lifetime intelligence officer — exhibited no physical signs of deceit, but made it clear the Agents did find his statements plainly conflicted with known facts.

When Mueller asks the President what he knew about the meetings, he likely wants to know (and already has answers from McGahn and likely the Associate) whether they told him about the Flynn interview, if so when, and in how much detail. If they did tell Trump, Mueller may also want to know about whether McGahn’s questions on the 27th (including whether Flynn was in legal jeopardy) reflect Trump’s own questions.

Obviously, one other subtext of this question pertains to whether Yates’ pursuit of Flynn contributed to her firing.

The other critical point about whether and what Trump knew of Yates’ meetings with McGahn: on January 27, he had his first creepy meeting with Jim Comey. Then, on January 28, he had his first phone call with Vladimir Putin, a call Flynn attended.

January 27, 2017: What was the purpose of your Jan. 27, 2017, dinner with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

At lunchtime on January 27 — so after McGahn had called Yates to set up a follow-up meeting and indicated concerns about Flynn’s legal jeopardy, but before that meeting happened — Trump called Comey and set up dinner that day. According to Comey, several minor things that would recur later came up, including questions about Andrew McCabe and Trump’s exposition of the Hillary email investigation.

In addition, five other key things happened at the meeting.

He invited the FBI to investigate “the Golden Showers” thing to prove it was a lie:

At this point, he turned to what he called “the golden showers thing”

[snip]

He said he had spoken to people who had been on the Miss Universe trip with him and they had reminded him that he didn’t stay over night in Russia for that. [this is not true]

[snip]

He said he thought maybe he should ask me to investigate the whole thing to prove it was a lie. I did not ask any questions. I replied that it was up to him, but I wouldn’t want to create a narrative that we were investigating him, because we were not and I worried such a thing would be misconstrued. Ii also said that is very difficult to disprove a lie. He said ‘maybe you’re right,’ but several times asked me to think about it and said he would also think about it.

He asked if the FBI leaks:

He asked whether the FBI leaks and I answered that of course in an organization of 36,000 we were going to have some of that, but I said I think the FBI leaks far less than people often say.

He asked if Comey wanted to keep his job, even though they had discussed it twice before:

He touched on my future at various points. The first time he asked “so what do you want to do,” explaining that lots of people wanted my job (“about 20 people”), that he thought very highly of me, but he would understand if I wanted to walk away given all I had been through, although he thought that would be bad for me personally because it would look like I had done something wrong, that he of course can make a change at FBI if he wants, but he wants to know what I think. There was no acknowledgement by him (or me) that we had already talked about this twice.

I responded by saying that he could fire me any time he wished, but that I wanted to stay and do a job I love to and think I am doing well.

He asked for loyalty:

He replied that he needed loyalty and expected loyalty.

[snip — this comes after the request for an investigation]

He then returned to loyalty, saying “I need loyalty.” I replied that he would always get honesty from me. He paused and said that’s what he wants, “honest loyalty.” I replied, “you will get that from me.”

He claimed to suspect Mike Flynn’s judgment because he had delayed in telling Trump about Putin’s congratulatory phone call:

He then went on to explain that he has serious reservations about Mike Flynn’s judgment and illustrated with a story from that day in which the President apparently discovered during his toast to Teresa May that [Vladimir Putin] had called four days ago. Apparently, as the President was toasting PM May, he was explaining that she had been the first to call him after his inauguration and Flynn interrupted to say that [Putin] had called (first, apparently). It was then that the President learned of [Putin’s] call and he confronted Flynn about it (not clear whether that was in the moment or after the lunch with PM May). Flynn said the return call was scheduled for Saturday, which prompted a heated reply from the President that six days was not an appropriate period of time to return a call from the [President] of a country like [Russia]. (“This isn’t [redacted] we are talking about.”) He said that if he called [redacted] and didn’t get a return call for six days he would be very upset. In telling the story, the President pointed his fingers at his head and said “the guy has serious judgment issues.” I did not comment at any point during this topic and there was no mention or acknowledgement of any FBI interest in or contact with General Flynn.

Trump would be hard pressed to argue the meeting was unrelated to the Yates meeting and the FBI investigation. Which would mean one thing Trump did — in a meeting where he also lied to claim he hadn’t had sex in Moscow — was to disclaim prior knowledge of the Putin meeting the next day (even while emphasizing the import of it).

Of course, the claim he thought Flynn had poor judgment didn’t lead him to keep Flynn out of the phone call with Putin the next day.

January 28: Trump, Pence, Flynn, Priebus, Bannon, and Spicer phone Vladimir Putin

February 9, 2017: What was your reaction to news reports on Feb. 8-9, 2017?

According to Jim Comey, he went for a meet and greet with Reince Priebus on February 8. While he was waiting, Mike Flynn sat down to chat with him though didn’t mention the FBI interview. Then, after clarifying that the conversation with Comey was a “private conversation,” he asked if there was a FISA order on Flynn. Comey appears to have answered in the negative. Priebus then took Comey in to meet with Trump, who defended his answer in an interview with Bill O’Reilly released on February 6) that “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” After Comey criticized that part of the answer, Trump, “clearly noticed I had directly criticized him.” (h/t TC for reminding me to add this.) Since Yates had told McGahn how they knew Flynn had lied, Priebus’ question about a FISA order suggests the White House was trying to find out whether the collection was just incidental, or whether both sides of all Flynn’s conversations would have been picked up.

On February 9, the WaPo reported that Flynn had discussed sanctions, in spite of public denials from the White House that he had.

National security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials, current and former U.S. officials said.

Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election.

Flynn on Wednesday [February 8] denied that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak. Asked in an interview whether he had ever done so, he twice said, “No.”

On Thursday [February 9], Flynn, through his spokesman, backed away from the denial. The spokesman said Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

Officials said this week that the FBI is continuing to examine Flynn’s communications with Kislyak. Several officials emphasized that while sanctions were discussed, they did not see evidence that Flynn had an intent to convey an explicit promise to take action after the inauguration.

In addition to tracking Flynn’s changing claims, it also noted that on January 15, Mike Pence had denied both any discussion of sanctions in the December call and discussions with Russia during the campaign.

On February 10, Trump was asked by reporters about Flynn’s answer. Trump played dumb: “I don’t know about that. I haven’t seen it. What report is that? I haven’t seen that. I’ll look into that.” (h/t TC)

Presumably, Mueller wants to know how surprised Trump was about this story (which actually builds on whether McGahn told him about the Yates conversation). But given Trump’s earlier question about FBI leaks, I also wonder whether Mueller knows that Trump knew this was coming. That is, some of the leaks may have come from closer to the White House, as an excuse to fire Flynn, using the same emphasis that the story (and Yates) had: the claim that Flynn had lied to Pence.

Except Mueller probably knows that the effort to soothe Russia’s concerns about sanctions made in December were a surprise to few top aides in the White House, least of all Trump.

February 13, 2017: How was the decision made to fire Mr. Flynn on Feb. 13, 2017?

We have remarkably little reporting on how and why Flynn was actually fired — mostly just the cover story that it was because Flynn lied to Pence — though after Flynn flipped last year, Trump newly claimed he had to fire Flynn because he lied to the FBI (something that, if the claims about the original 302 are correct, FBI hadn’t concluded at the time Trump fired him).

The thing is, neither story makes sense. It’s virtually certain that many people in the White House knew what Flynn had said to Sergey Kislyak back in December 2016; Tom Bossert was included in KT McFarland’s emails to Mike Flynn, and he sent it to Reince Priebus, Stephen Bannon, Sean Spicer, and at least two other people. All of those people, save Bossert, are known to have provided testimony to Mueller’s team.

But it also makes little sense to argue that Trump had to fire Flynn because he lied. If so, he would have done so either immediately, before the Putin meeting, or much later, after FBI actually came to the conclusion he had lied.

One logical explanation is that Flynn lied because he was told to lie, in an effort to continue to hide what the Trump Administration was doing in the transition period to pay off its debts to Russia. But faced with the prospect that the FBI would continue to investigate Flynn, Trump cut him out in an effort to end the investigation. Which explains why things with Comey proceeded the way they did.

Update: This post has been updated with new details surrounding February 8-10 and newly unredacted details from the HPSCI report.

RESOURCES

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

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

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

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

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

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

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

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

Earlier in the Week, Trump May Have Looked Presidential; on Friday, He Looked Like a Criminal Suspect


Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted out this image last night, stating,

Last night the President put our adversaries on notice: when he draws a red line he enforces it. (Inside the Situation Room as President is briefed on Syria – Official WH photos by Shealah Craighead)

While she didn’t actually make the claim but implied it, the photo couldn’t have been taken “last night” (that is, Friday, just before the decision to bomb Syria), because Mike Pence was in Peru on Friday. My guess, given that Mike Pompeo is not in the frame, is it may have been taken on Thursday during the CIA Director’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In any case, the significance of Sanders using this dated photo to show Trump looking presidential has little to do with Pence. Rather, it has to do with Trump.

The White House, presumably, doesn’t have a picture of Trump looking presidential on Friday to offer (Sanders would have been better tweeting out Trump’s Friday speech).

And there’s a likely reason for that. Rather than acting presidential on Friday, Trump was acting like a criminal suspect, calling his consigliere, Michael Cohen, while he was blowing off a court hearing to hang out with mobbed up friends, to try to understand the full impact of a FBI raid on the two of them.

As his lawyers went to court in New York on Friday to try to block prosecutors from reading files that were seized from the personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, this week, Mr. Trump found himself increasingly isolated in mounting a response. He continued to struggle to hire a new criminal lawyer, and some of his own aides were reluctant to advise him about a response for fear of being dragged into a criminal investigation themselves.

The raids on Mr. Cohen came as part of a monthslong federal investigation based in New York, court records show, and were sweeping in their breadth. In addition to searching his home, office and hotel room, F.B.I. agents seized material from Mr. Cohen’s cellphones, tablet, laptop and safe deposit box, according to people briefed on the warrants. Prosecutors revealed in court documents that they had already secretly obtained many of Mr. Cohen’s emails.

Mr. Trump called Mr. Cohen on Friday to “check in,” according to two people briefed on the call. Depending on what else was discussed, the call could be problematic, as lawyers typically advise their clients against discussing investigations.

Reports are that Trump sees more risk from this investigation than he does from the Mueller one (I’ll post later why I think that’s not quite right, but a lot depends on what happens tomorrow in court). Whichever investigation will end up getting Trump, I agree with Adam Davidson (though he, like virtually all journalists, gets NYT’s self-appointed red line wrong) that if the FBI is able to go through Cohen’s files thoroughly, it will bring Trump’s presidency to an end.

There are lots of details and surprises to come, but the endgame of this Presidency seems as clear now as those of Iraq and the financial crisis did months before they unfolded. Last week, federal investigators raided the offices of Michael Cohen, the man who has been closer than anybody to Trump’s most problematic business and personal relationships. This week, we learned that Cohen has been under criminal investigation for months—his e-mails have been read, presumably his phones have been tapped, and his meetings have been monitored. Trump has long declared a red line: Robert Mueller must not investigate his businesses, and must only look at any possible collusion with Russia. That red line is now crossed and, for Trump, in the most troubling of ways. Even if he were to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and then had Mueller and his investigation put on ice, and even if—as is disturbingly possible—Congress did nothing, the Cohen prosecution would continue. Even if Trump pardons Cohen, the information the Feds have on him can become the basis for charges against others in the Trump Organization.

This is the week we know, with increasing certainty, that we are entering the last phase of the Trump Presidency. This doesn’t feel like a prophecy; it feels like a simple statement of the apparent truth. I know dozens of reporters and other investigators who have studied Donald Trump and his business and political ties. Some have been skeptical of the idea that President Trump himself knowingly colluded with Russian officials. It seems not at all Trumpian to participate in a complex plan with a long-term, uncertain payoff. Collusion is an imprecise word, but it does seem close to certain that his son Donald, Jr., and several people who worked for him colluded with people close to the Kremlin; it is up to prosecutors and then the courts to figure out if this was illegal or merely deceitful. We may have a hard time finding out what President Trump himself knew and approved.

However, I am unaware of anybody who has taken a serious look at Trump’s business who doesn’t believe that there is a high likelihood of rampant criminality.

As well as Davidson describes this moment, I think the photo does so even better. A White House concerned first and foremost about the president’s image has no photo of him looking presidential before “he” made the decision to make an illegal military strike. And the reason for that may well be that he was far more occupied with his legal jeopardy than with doing his job.

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.

Trump Transition Team Outraged To Be Treated as Transition Team!!

This is a general post on the GOP claim Mueller improperly obtained emails from ~13 Transition officials, updated as new news comes available. This post explains what is really going on: the Transition appears to have withheld emails — including the KT McFarland one referring to the election as having been “thrown” — and Mueller obtained proof they were withholding things. 

Both Fox News and Axios have pieces reflecting the outrage!!! among Trump people that they got asked questions about emails they thought they had hidden from Mueller’s investigation. Axios reveals that Mueller obtained the full contents of 12 accounts (Reuters says 13), one including 7,000 emails, from people on the “political leadership” and “foreign-policy team;” it says it includes “sensitive emails of Jared Kushner.”

Fox reveals that a transition lawyer wrote Congress today claiming that it was unlawful for government employees to turn over emails hosted on government servers for a criminal investigation.

A lawyer for the Trump presidential transition team is accusing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office of inappropriately obtaining transition documents as part of its Russia probe, including confidential attorney-client communications and privileged communications.

In a letter obtained by Fox News and sent to House and Senate committees on Saturday, the transition team’s attorney alleges “unlawful conduct” by the career staff at the General Services Administration in handing over transition documents to the special counsel’s office.

Officials familiar with the case argue Mueller could have a problem relating to the 4th Amendment – which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Kory Langhofer, the counsel to Trump for America, wrote in the letter that the the GSA “did not own or control the records in question.”

But, Langhofer says, Mueller’s team has “extensively used the materials in question, including portions that are susceptible to claims of privilege.”

And Axios explains that the Trump people actually sorted through this stuff. “The sources say that transition officials assumed that Mueller would come calling, and had sifted through the emails and separated the ones they considered privileged.”

I’m really looking forward to hearing the full story about this, rather than just this partisan spin. For example, I’m interested in whether Mueller realized via some means (perhaps from someone like Reince Priebus or Sean Spicer — update, or George Papadopoulos) that the White House had withheld stuff that was clearly responsive to his requests, so he used that to ask GSA to turn over the full set.

I’m also interested in how they’ll claim any of this was privileged. The top 13 political and foreign policy people on the Trump team might include (asterisks mark people confirmed to be among those whose accounts were obtained):

  1. Pence
  2. Bannon
  3. Jared*
  4. Flynn*
  5. KT McFarland
  6. Spicer
  7. Priebus
  8. Nunes
  9. Sessions
  10. Seb Gorka
  11. Stephen Miller
  12. Hope Hicks
  13. Ivanka
  14. Don Jr
  15. Rebekah Mercer
  16. Kelly Anne Conway
  17. Rudy Giuliani
  18. Steven Mnuchin
  19. Rick Gates
  20. Corey Lewandowski
  21. Tom Bossert

Just one of those people — Sessions — is a practicing lawyer (and he wasn’t, then), and he wasn’t playing a legal role in the transition (though both Sessions and Nunes may have been using their congressional email, in which case Mueller likely would show far more deference; update: I’ve added Rudy 911 to the list, and he’d obviously qualify as a practicing lawyer). Though I suppose they might have been talking with a lawyer. But I would bet Mueller’s legal whiz, Michael Dreeben, would point to the Clinton White House Counsel precedent and say that transition lawyers don’t get privilege.

Furthermore, Trump wasn’t President yet! This has come up repeatedly in congressional hearings. You don’t get privilege until after you’re president, in part to prevent you from doing things like — say — undermining existing foreign policy efforts of the actually still serving President. So even if these people were repeating things Trump said, it wouldn’t be entitled to privilege yet.

Finally, consider that some of these people were testifying to the grand jury months and months ago. But we’re only seeing this complaint today. That’s probably true for two reasons. One, because Mueller used the emails in question (most notably, the emails between McFarland and Flynn from December 29 where they discussed Russian sanctions) to obtain a guilty plea from Flynn. And, second, because Republicans are pushing to get Trump to fire Mueller.

Update: I’ve added Pence, Don Jr., Ivanka, Hope Hicks, Kelly Anne Conway, Rudy Giuliani, Steven Mnuchin back in here.

Update: Here’s more from Reuters.

Langhofer, the Trump transition team lawyer, wrote in his letter that the GSA’s transfer of materials was discovered on Dec. 12 and 13.

The FBI had requested the materials from GSA staff last Aug. 23, asking for copies of the emails, laptops, cell phones and other materials associated with nine members of the Trump transition team response for national security and policy matters, the letter said.

On Aug. 30, the FBI requested the materials of four additional senior members of the Trump transition team, it said.

The GSA transfer may only have been discovered this week (probably as a result of Congress’ investigation). But the witnesses had to have known these emails went beyond the scope of what the transition turned over. And the request date definitely is late enough for Mueller to have discovered not everything got turned over, perhaps even from George Papadopoulos, who flipped in late July.

Update: One more thing. Remember that there were worries that transition officials were copying files out of a SCIF. That, by itself, would create an Insider Threat concern that would merit FBI obtaining these emails directly.

Update: Here’s a report dated June 15 on a transition lawyer instructing aides and volunteers to save anything relating to Russia, Ukraine, or known targets (Flynn, Manafort, Page, Gates, and Stone).

Update: AP reports that Flynn was (unsurprisingly) among those whose email was obtained.

Update: Here’s the letter. I unpacked it here. It’s a load of — I believe this is the technical term — shite. First, it stakes everything on PTT not being an agency. That doesn’t matter at all for a criminal investigation — Robert Mueller was no FOIAing this stuff. It then later invokes a bunch of privileges (the exception is the attorney client one) that only come with the consequent responsibilities. It then complains that Mueller’s team didn’t use a taint team.

Perhaps the craziest thing is they call for a law that would only permit someone to access such emails for a national security purpose — as if an espionage related investigation isn’t national security purpose!

Update: Chris Geidner got GSA’s side of the story. Turns out they claim the now dead cover up GC didn’t make the agreement the TFA lawyer says he did. In any case, GSA device users agreed their devices could be monitored.

“Beckler never made that commitment,” he said of the claim that any requests for transition records would be routed to the Trump campaign’s counsel.

Specifically, Loewentritt said, “in using our devices,” transition team members were informed that materials “would not be held back in any law enforcement” actions.

Loewentritt read to BuzzFeed News a series of agreements that anyone had to agree to when using GSA materials during the transition, including that there could be monitoring and auditing of devices and that, “Therefore, no expectation of privacy can be assumed.”

Update: Mueller’s spox, Peter Carr, issued a statement saying, “When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process.”

The “Liberal” NY Times Focuses on the Next Disastrous GOP Daddy

It is never enough for the “liberal” media. Despite how the “liberal media” gets relentlessly dumped on and marginalized by the right wing nut machine, they are ALWAYS there to hand out some candy to the nutters.

Here are the estimable Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns in the Only Bunk That’s Fits To Print Gray Lady:

WASHINGTON — Senators Tom Cotton and Ben Sasse have already been to Iowa this year, Gov. John Kasich is eyeing a return visit to New Hampshire, and Mike Pence’s schedule is so full of political events that Republicans joke that he is acting more like a second-term vice president hoping to clear the field than a No. 2 sworn in a little over six months ago.

Well, crikey, good that the paper of record is covering this. What else they got?

It may get worse, said Jay Bergman, an Illinois petroleum executive and a leading Republican donor. Grievous setbacks in the midterm elections of 2018 could bolster challengers in the party.

“If the Republicans have lost a lot of seats in the Congress and they blame Trump for it, then there are going to be people who emerge who are political opportunists,” Mr. Bergman said.

Well, sorry I asked, turned out it was some entitled crap from a “petroleum executive”. Great call guys!

Swell. Excellent follow up to all those “Ignorant average Trump voters still ignorantly averagely love Trump” reports that are rampant in the beloved balanced media.

Today’s GOP, fronted by Trump and his ilk, is NOT an aberration, but rather the culmination of where the Republican party has been headed for decades, since at least Reagan’s bigoted opening salvo in Philadelphia Mississippi. It is the party of nationalism, racism, bigotry, scientific ignorance and revanchism.

But, hey, never underestimate the ability of the national media to keep on singing like they don’t know their actions helped put this country in the lurch it is in (Her Emails!!). And that their continued refusal to unequivocally call out the current President for the blithering dangerous loon he is, may lead to making the lurch far worse.

The answer to America’s ills do NOT come from the discredited daddies in the GOP, whether older like Mike Pence and John Kasich, or younger like Ben Sasse. We have seen this movie before, and it sucks in a very disastrous way.

Does Vice President Pence Believe He Has Declassification Authority?

It is, as I understand it, fairly customary for each new presidential administration to rewrite the Executive Order on classification. George W Bush didn’t do so right away — he finalized his classification EO on March 23, 2003. Obama moved a bit more quickly, superseding the Bush EO with his own classification EO on December 29, 2009.

But even among the flood of Executive Orders that Trump has signed thus far in his term, I don’t believe he has modified the Obama one.

That means a change made in 2003, which was retained in the Obama EO, remains in place: the inclusion of the Vice President among those who is and can name Original Classification Authorities (here’s Bill Clinton’s EO for comparison). Here’s the language that gave Dick Cheney classification authorities:

Classification Authority. (a) The authority to classify information originally may be exercised only by:

    (1) the President and, in the performance of executive duties, the Vice President;

And here’s how Obama slightly tweaked that language to retain that authority for Joe Biden:

a) The authority to classify information originally may be exercised only by:

(1) the President and the Vice President;

Now, Cheney got this authority at an interesting time. That was a key time for Torture cover-up; in fact, sometime in that period, someone in the White House ordered George Tenet to make torture a Special Access Program. He was already pushing back against the CIA whistleblowers who knew the intelligence behind Iraq was crap, an effort that would lead to Scooter Libby sharing Valerie Plame’s identity with Judy Miller on Cheney’s orders (it remains unclear whether Cheney had Bush’s permission to leak this). Yet for some reason, the new classification rules appear most closely connected with Stellar Wind (I believe this had to do with a change in whom Stellar Wind could target).

In any case, from that moment forward, the Vice President has had the authority to classify things. As you can imagine, given Cheney’s role in the Plame outing, there was a heated and still publicly unresolved debate whether the Vice President also got declassification authorities, including of things that the President or Presidential authority had classified.

I raise this issue because more and more people have started raising questions about whether Mike Pence is sabotaging Donald Trump, especially as leaks like this come out of the White House.

President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, had relieved “great pressure” on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting.

“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.”

The conversation, during a May 10 meeting — the day after he fired Mr. Comey — reinforces the notion that Mr. Trump dismissed him primarily because of the bureau’s investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and Russian operatives. Mr. Trump said as much in one televised interview, but the White House has offered changing justifications for the firing.

The White House document that contained Mr. Trump’s comments was based on notes taken from inside the Oval Office and has been circulated as the official account of the meeting. One official read quotations to The Times, and a second official confirmed the broad outlines of the discussion.

If Pence believes — perhaps based on knowledge personally imparted by Cheney allies — that he has the ability to declassify anything that the President can, then he can leak details of White House events with utter impunity. Having him insta-declassify things would be a fairly safe way to feed the never-ending stream of embarrassing information coming out of the White House.

Oh, sure. He’d have utterly venal motive to do so. By feeding the Trump Russian scandal, Pence would make it increasingly likely he’d become President without having to expose his regressive views to the review of voters. But there’s nothing Trump could do about it so long as an EO granting Pence the same authorities that Cheney abused to great effect remains on the book.

The Curious Timing of Flynn Events and EO 13769

The crew here has been seasonally busy; there are graduations, returns from college, business and vacation travel, many other demands keeping us away from the keyboard. Bear with us.

That’s not to say we’re not stewing about — well, everything. EVERYTHING. Pick a subject and it’s probably on fire if it’s not smoldering. Touch it and it may burst into flame, kind of like James Comey’s job.

Yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with testimony from Sally Yates and James Clapper is one such topic utterly ablaze. How to even start with what went wrong — like Ted ‘Zodiac Killer’ Cruz and his sidling up to ‘But her emails!’. Or John Kennedy’s [string a bunch of expletives together and insert here] questions which did nothing to further any investigation.

I’m glad Sally Yates laid one across Cruz on the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (INA); he deserved it for his particularly egregious mansplaining.

As you can see from their tweets, I know my fellow contributors have much they wish they could post about the hearing. I know after the closing gavel I had many more questions, not fewer.

Like timing. Timing seemed so inter-related on seemingly disparate issues.

What about the timing of Yates’ discussion with White House Counsel Don McGahn about Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (ret.) and the timing of the Muslim travel ban, Executive Order 13769?

10-NOV-2017 — First warning about Flynn to Trump by Obama during post-election meeting.

18-NOV-2017 — Flynn named National Security Adviser by Trump.

25-DEC-2017 — Flynn allegedly sends text messages to Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak including holiday greetings.

29-DEC-2017 — New sanctions announced by Obama, including eviction of 35 Russians (including family members) from two compounds.

29-DEC-2017 — Michael Flynn talks with Kislyak more than once on the same day.

30-DEC-2017 — Trump tweeted positively about Russian president Vladimir Putin’s refusal to retaliate against the new sanctions.

12-JAN-2017 — The Washington Post reported on the Flynn-Kislyak conversations; source cited is “a senior U.S. government official.”

15-JAN-2017 — VP Mike Pence says in a TV interview that he had talked with Flynn about contact with Kislyak:

JOHN DICKERSON: Let me ask you about it was reported by David Ignatius that the incoming national security advisor Michael Flynn was in touch with the Russian ambassador on the day the United States government announced sanctions for Russian interference with the election. Did that contact help with that Russian kind of moderate response to it? That there was no counter-reaction from Russia. Did the Flynn conversation help pave the way for that sort of more temperate Russian response?

MIKE PENCE: I talked to General Flynn about that conversation and actually was initiated on Christmas Day he had sent a text to the Russian ambassador to express not only Christmas wishes but sympathy for the loss of life in the airplane crash that took place. It was strictly coincidental that they had a conversation. They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.

JOHN DICKERSON: So did they ever have a conversation about sanctions ever on those days or any other day?

MIKE PENCE: They did not have a discussion contemporaneous with U.S. actions on—

JOHN DICKERSON: But what about after—

MIKE PENCE: —my conversation with General Flynn. Well, look. General Flynn has been in touch with diplomatic leaders, security leaders in some 30 countries. That’s exactly what the incoming national security advisor—

JOHN DICKERSON: Absolutely.

MIKE PENCE: —should do. But what I can confirm, having spoken to him about it, is that those conversations that happened to occur around the time that the United States took action to expel diplomats had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions.

JOHN DICKERSON: But that still leaves open the possibility that there might have been other conversations about the sanctions.

MIKE PENCE: I don’t believe there were more conversations.

20-JAN-2017 — Inauguration Day

21-JAN-2017 — Flynn has a follow-up call with Kislyak with regard to a future phone call between Trump and Putin.

23-JAN-2017 — Answers to questions during a press briefing with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer didn’t match what Pence said in the 15-JAN interview. Spicer said, “There’s been one call. I talked to Gen. Flynn about this again last night. One call, talked about four subjects. … During the transition, I asked Gen. Flynn that – whether or not there were any other conversations beyond the ambassador and he said no.”(Come on, Spicey. Come the fuck on. Pure sloppiness; this isn’t the time for disinformation.)

24-JAN-2017 — Flynn is interviewed by the FBI and without a lawyer present. Yates informed McGahn about Flynn’s interview.

25-JAN-2017 — Yates reviews Flynn’s interview.

25-JAN-2017 — Draft of the travel ban EO leaked and published by WaPo

A provision about safe zones in Syria appears in this draft. It will not appear in the final EO.

26-JAN-2017 — Yates called McGahn that morning and asked for an in-person meeting about a sensitive topic she could not discuss on the phone. They met later that afternoon at McGahn’s office:

…We began our meeting telling him that there had been press accounts of statements from the vice president and others that related conduct that Mr. Flynn had been involved in that we knew not to be the truth.”

A senior member of the DOJ’s National Security Division accompanied Yates. Yates explained why Flynn was compromised and how his actions set Pence up to make unknowingly false statements to the public.

Spicer has said McGahn immediately notified and briefed Trump after meeting with Yates.

27-JAN-2017 — McGahn called Yates and asked for a second in-person meeting. Yates met him at his office. During their conversation, McGahn asked, “Why does it matter to DOJ if one White House official lies to another?” Yates re-reviews the FBI’s concerns shared the previous day. (I want to ask if McGahn got his JD out of a box of Cracker Jacks.) McGahn asked,

“And there was a request made by Mr. McGahn, in the second meeting as to whether or not they would be able to look at the underlying evidence that we had that we had described for him of General Flynn’s conduct.” (Bold mine; who is ‘they’?)

Yates indicated she would work with FBI team and “get back with him on Monday morning.”

27-JAN-2017 — Travel ban EO signed and distributed. Rex Tillerson has not yet appeared before the Senate in a confirmation hearing. Defense Department’s James Mattis did not see the EO until morning of January 27; the EO is signed later in the day after Mattis was sworn in just before 3:00 p.m. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said he saw final EO draft not long before it was signed. Office of Legal Counsel issued a determination about the EO that day, “the proposed order is approved with respect to form and legality.” According to Yates’ SJC testimony the OLC’s determination goes to the form and not the content of the EO.

28-JAN-2017 — Federal Judge Ann Donnelly issued a stay late Saturday on deportations of persons with valid visas.

29-JAN-2017 — Though not yet confirmed as Secretary of State, Tillerson involved in cabinet-level meetings in pre-dawn hours regarding the travel ban.

30-JAN-2017 — Yates called McGahn that morning and told him he could go to FBI to look at “underlying evidence.” McGahn does not reply until the afternoon. Yates didn’t know whether McGahn looked at evidence because “because that was my last day with DOJ.” Yates ordered DOJ not to defend the EO in court

30-JAN-2017 — Yates is fired by the White House Monday night. White House statement said,

“The acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States … This order was approved as to form and legality by the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel. … Ms. Yates is an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration. It is time to get serious about protecting our country. Calling for tougher vetting for individuals travelling from seven dangerous places is not extreme. It is reasonable and necessary to protect our country.”

08-FEB-2017 — WaPo reports Flynn denied twice discussing Russian sanctions with Kislyak.

09-FEB-2017 — Allegedly, Pence learned this day Flynn was not straight with him about his interactions with Kislyak. WaPo reported Flynn had discussed sanctions with Kislyak prior to the inauguration.

10-FEB-2017 — ABC News reported Flynn wasn’t certain he talked about the sanctions with Kislyak. Pence spoke with Flynn twice this day.

12-FEB-2017 — Stephen Miller dodges questions about Flynn’s status during Sunday morning TV interviews.

13-FEB-2017 — Flynn resigns, 18 days after Yates raised questions with the White House about his vulnerability to compromise.

Yates’ directive not to enforce the illegal travel ban EO is the prima facie reason why she was fired a week after the EO was pushed. But was it really the travel ban or the fact she had not only warned the White House about Flynn’s compromised status but the implication there might be more at stake?

The rushed timing of the EO — pushed out on a Friday night after business hours — and its inception generate more questions about the travel ban.

Who really wrote the travel ban? Some reports say the ‘major architects’ were Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, neither of whom have law degrees or any experience in legal profession. Wikipedia entry for Bannon indicates he has a master’s in national security studies from Georgetown, but there’s no indication about the date this was conferred and it’s still not a law degree. Miller has a BA from Duke and a bunch of cred from writing conservative stuff, much of it with a white nationalist bent. (Yeah, stuff, because none of it provided adequate background to write effective executive orders.)

There were reports a week after the first travel ban EO was issued which indicated Congressional aides actually wrote the executive order — aides from Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s office.

Who were those aides?

Why Goodlatte’s aides? Was it because Goodlatte is the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee?

Was it because of Goodlatte’s immigration bills circa 2013:

H.R. 2278, the “Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act” (The SAFE Act)
H.R. 1773, the “Agricultural Guestworker Act”
H.R. 1772, the “Legal Workforce Act”
H.R. 2131, the “SKILLS Visa Act”

In other words, did the aides who wrote those bills also assist with and/or write the EO?

If these aides helped the ‘major architects’, why did the travel ban EO look so clearly illegal?

Did these aides ever refer the ‘major architects’ to the Office of Legal Counsel for assistance with the EO’s wording?

Did media try to interview the aides in question? If not, why? If not permitted to do so, why?

Did those aides sign a non-disclosure agreement with the White House? (Why the hell are there NDAs for ANY government employee anyhow, especially those with security clearance of any level? This is OUR government, not the Trump holding company.) Did the aides limit their work to transition team support, or were they working on the EO post-inauguration? Did they take vacation time to do the work? Or were they performing work for the White House on Congress’ dime?

In spite of his iffy-sounding support for their work, did Goodlatte kick those aides in the ass for moonlighting while puncturing the separation between the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch, making it appear (if tenuously) there was a degree of concurrence between the two branches?

Did Michael Flynn talk about the EO with these aides?

And was Flynn one of the ‘major architects’ of the travel ban EO along with Miller and Bannon as reported in some outlets?

Assuming Flynn was a co-architect/co-author of the EO, was the EO pushed through in a hurry to effect Flynn’s work before he might be terminated and/or prosecuted?

Was the execution of a travel ban EO part of a quid pro quo with a foreign entity?
Is this the reason why Trump reduced the role of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence to “an as-needed basis” on National Security Council — to reduce potential interference by seasoned security professionals who might stop the EO?

Was Miller’s role in the creation of the travel ban EO less about any experience he has but instead related to his former work during 113th Congress with the Gang of Eight on immigration reform? (We come full circle – see Goodlatte’s bills above.)

How might this travel ban EO — banning Muslims from specific countries — help a foreign entity?

Or was the Muslim travel ban EO simply launched early — before the administration even had a Secretary of State, before its content was reasonably defensible — to distract Yates and the DOJ and derail further investigation into Flynn’s compromised status?

I’m sure if I spend any more time re-reading the SJC’s hearing transcript I’ll come up with even more questions. But as events around Flynn and the travel ban EO unfolded as if knit together, I can’t help wondering if they really were of a piece.

How odd that the first thing the first SJC non-chair member did, before asking witnesses any questions, was hand out a timeline of events to all the participants.

And how convenient FBI Director James Comey screwed up his last testimony before congress enough that his firing this evening by the White House would look entirely justified — immediately removing him not only from the next FBI flight from Los Angeles to DC but from any further investigation into Michael Flynn.

What timing.