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“I’m Just There to Open the Envelopes:” The Select Committee and DOJ Investigations Converge at Mike Pence

You might not understand this from following just traditional news outlets, but over the course of a year, the news-friendly January 6 Select Committee and even the public parts of the locked-down DOJ investigation have met at a common pivot point in their investigation of January 6: on Trump’s efforts to pressure Mike Pence to violate the Constitution.

Trump did so, first, with personal pressure. Then he sent his mob.

The pressure on Pence is how Trump’s plotting in advance of January 6 affirmatively led  directly to — not just through inaction, but through action — specific steps taken by confessed mobsters to assault the Capitol.

Already in February of last year, both the House Impeachment Managers and I recognized the centrality of Trump’s treatment of his Vice President to his liability for the January 6 insurrection.

Trump had nothing to say in defense of his actions with regards to Mike Pence.

The House brief mentions Pence, by title and sometimes by name, 36 times. Those mentions include a description of how Pence was presiding over the counting of the electoral vote, how he fled when Trump’s mobsters flooded into the Capitol, how the attackers targeted him by name, how Secret Service barely kept him safe, how Trump’s own actions made Pence’s danger worse.

The House brief dedicates a section to how Pence refused to do what Trump explicitly asked him to do, to unilaterally discount certain electoral votes.

C. Vice President Pence Refuses to Overturn the Election Results

By the time the rally began, President Trump had nearly run out of options. He had only one card left to play: his Vice President. But in an act that President Trump saw as an unforgivable betrayal, Vice President Pence refused to violate his oath and constitutional duty—and, just hours later, had to be rushed from the Senate chamber to escape an armed mob seeking vengeance.

In the weeks leading up to the rally, President Trump had furiously lobbied Vice President Pence to refuse to count electoral votes for President Biden from any of the swing states.68 These demands ignored the reality that the Vice President has no constitutional or statutory authority to take that step. Over and over again, President Trump publicly declared that if Vice President Pence refused to block the Joint Session from finalizing President Biden’s victory, then the election, the party, and the country would be lost. “I hope Mike Pence comes through for us, I have to tell you,” President Trump said in Georgia on January 4.69 The next day, he tweeted: “If Vice President @Mike_Pence comes through for us, we will win the Presidency.”70 President Trump reiterated this demand just hours before the rally: “States want to correct their votes, which they now know were based on irregularities and fraud, plus corrupt process never received legislative approval. All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN. Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!”71 On the morning of January 6, President Trump reportedly told Vice President Pence, “You can either go down in history as a patriot, or you can go down in history as a pussy.”72

Later that day, while President Trump was speaking at his rally, Vice President Pence issued a public letter rejecting President Trump’s threats. “It is my considered judgment,” he wrote, “that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not.”73

This letter sounded the death knell to any peaceful methods of overturning the election outcome. It was well known that the House and Senate were going to count the lawfully certified electoral votes they had received. President Trump’s efforts to coerce election officials, state legislatures, the DOJ, Members of Congress, and his own Vice President had all failed. But he had long made it clear that he would never accept defeat. He would fight until the bitter end. And all that remained for President Trump was the seething crowd before him—known to be poised for violence at his instigation—and the Capitol building just a short march away, where Vice President Pence presided over the final, definitive accounting of President Trump’s electoral loss.

[snip]

In other words, a key part of the House brief describes Trump giving Pence an illegal order, and then, after Pence refused to follow that order and announced he would do his own Constitutional duty, Trump took actions to focus the anger of the mob on his own Vice President.

It’s not just what Trump said about Pence, the incitement of an assassination attempt against his Vice President that Trump claims is protected by the First Amendment, but it’s about an illegal order Trump gave to Pence, which Pence duly ignored.

That order was unconstitutional, and as such is not protected by the First Amendment.

Trump’s brief, by contrast, mentions the Vice President (only by title) just three times, two of which are simply citations from the House brief. The sole mention of the man he almost got hanged involves a concession that the Vice President was, indeed, presiding over the counting of the votes.

It is admitted that on January 6, 2021 a joint session of Congress met with the Vice President, the House and the Senate, to count the votes of the Electoral College.

But in response to the second citation from the House brief mentioning Pence, Trump instead pivots to defending the Republican members of Congress challenging state results. As part of that discussion, Trump denies any intention of interfering with the counting of Electoral votes. That denial focuses exclusively on the actions of Members of Congress, not Pence.

Since that time, Congress has been investigating from the top down, aided by the press and a healthy bunch of Pence staffers horrified by what happened to their boss. DOJ has been investigating (at a minimum) from the crime scene up.

The Select Committee appears to have corroborated stories told by Bobs Woodward and Costa in Peril. After losing all their attempts to challenge the election in the courts and backed by a coup memo from John Eastman, in December 2020, Trump’s people started demanding that Pence refuse the vote totals from a select group of states.

At the end, he announces that because of the ongoing disputes in the 7 States, there are no electors that can be deemed validly appointed in those States. That means the total number of “electors appointed” – the language of the 12th Amendment — is 454. This reading of the 12th Amendment has also been advanced by Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe (here). A “majority of the electors appointed” would therefore be 228. There are at this point 232 votes for Trump, 222 votes for Biden. Pence then gavels President Trump as re-elected.

Howls, of course, from the Democrats, who now claim, contrary to Tribe’s prior position, that 270 is required. So Pence says, fine. Pursuant to the 12th Amendment, no candidate has achieved the necessary majority. That sends the matter to the House, where the “the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote . . . .” Republicans currently control 26 of the state delegations, the bare majority needed to win that vote. President Trump is re-elected there as well.

Pence conducted a series of consultations, most notably with his predecessor Dan Quayle, who counseled Pence could only open the ballots. In the hours before the riot, conservative legal stars John Yoo and Michael Luttig backed the Vice President as well.

That led to the remarkable scene on January 5 (as described in Peril, though Keith Kellogg is among the witnesses who cooperated with the Select Committee under a friendly subpoena and Peril’s account relies heavily on him and other Pence aides), as Trump invited Pence to call on unconstitutional power from the mob.

On the evening of January 5, as he waited for Pence to arrive from a coronavirus task force meeting, an aide informed Trump his supporters were gathering near the White House on Freedom Plaza near Pennsylvania Avenue.

Despite the bitter cold, the supporters were cheering loudly and chanting his name. They were waving “Make America Great Again” flags.

When Pence arrived, Trump told him about the thousands of supporters. They love me, he said.

Pence nodded. “Of course, they’re here to support you,” he said. “They love you, Mr. President.

“But,” Pence added, “they also love our Constitution.”

Trump grimaced.

That may be, Trump said, but they agree with him regardless: Pence could and should throw Biden’s electors out. Make it fair. Take it back.

That is all I want you to do, Mike, Trump said. Let the House decide the election. Trump was not ready to give up, especially to a man he maligned as “Sleepy Joe.”

“What do you think, Mike?” Trump asked.

Pence returned to his mantra: He did not have the authority to do anything other than count the electoral votes.

“Well, what if these people say you do?” Trump asked, gesturing beyond the White House to the crowds outside. Raucous cheering and blasting bullhorns could be heard through the Oval Office windows.

“If these people say you had the power, wouldn’t you want to?” Trump asked.

“I wouldn’t want any one person to have that authority,” Pence said.

“But wouldn’t it almost be cool to have that power?” Trump asked.

“No,” Pence said. “Look, I’ve read this, and I don’t see a way to do it.

“We’ve exhausted every option. I’ve done everything I could and then some to find a way around this. It’s simply not possible. My interpretation is: No.

“I’ve met with all of these people,” Pence said, “they’re all on the same page. I personally believe these are the limits to what I can do. So, if you have a strategy for the 6th, it really shouldn’t involve me because I’m just there to open the envelopes. You should be talking to the House and Senate. Your team should be talking to them about what kind of evidence they’re going to present.”

In spite of Pence’s refusals, Trump released a false statement that the Vice President would, in fact, do Trump’s dirty work.

Late Tuesday evening, January 5, as word dripped out in the press that Pence was holding, Trump directed his campaign to issue a statement claiming that he and Pence were in “total agreement that the Vice President has the power to act.”

This set the expectation with the already enraged mob that their efforts to keep Trump in office might just work.

As the Select Committee revealed last night, the White House Counsel’s Office was objecting to all of this, and threatening to resign if Trump tried it. Sean Hannity learned about those threats as early as December 31 and shared his concerns with Mark Meadows.

We can’t lose the entire WH counsels office. I do NOT see January 6 happening the way he is being told. After the 6 th. [sic] He should announce will lead the nationwide effort to reform voting integrity.

Go to Fl and watch Joe mess up daily. Stay engaged. When he speaks people will listen.

The night of January 5, the same night Trump falsely claimed that Pence would go along with the plan, Hannity again told Mark Meadows he was worried the White House Counsel lawyers would quit.

Pence pressure. WH counsel will leave.

Whether or not Hannity sits for an interview with the Select Committee, the release of texts showing that Trump or Meadows shared privileged advice that the White House Counsel gave to Trump (thereby waiving any privilege claim) may have made the testimony of those lawyers themselves accessible, if not to the Select Committee, then under subpoena from DOJ.

That’s important, because as the DOJ prosecutor guiding DOJ’s use of 18 USC 1512(c)(2) to charge those who participated in the insurrection, James Pearce, has already noted, one way an unnamed person just like Trump might act corruptly would be by asking someone else to violate their duty: If that person, “calls Vice President Pence to seek to have him adjudge the certification in a particular way … knowing it is not an available argument [and is] asking the vice president to do something the individual knows is wrongful … one of the definitions of ‘corruptly’ is trying to get someone to violate a legal duty.”

By publicly releasing those Hannity texts, the Select Committee may have made proof that Trump knew his request to Pence was illegal available to DOJ.

Still, any testimony Hannity could offer is important for what came next: because Hannity seems to have known that Trump’s persistence would lead to trouble.

Already knowing that Pence would not reject the vote tallies, already knowing Pence didn’t have that power, Trump riled up his mob in his speech by making it clear everything came down to Pence.

And he looked at Mike Pence, and I hope Mike is going to do the right thing. I hope so. I hope so.

Because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election. All he has to do, all this is, this is from the number one, or certainly one of the top, Constitutional lawyers in our country. He has the absolute right to do it. We’re supposed to protect our country, support our country, support our Constitution, and protect our constitution.

States want to revote. The states got defrauded. They were given false information. They voted on it. Now they want to recertify. They want it back. All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the states to recertify and we become president and you are the happiest people.

And I actually, I just spoke to Mike. I said: “Mike, that doesn’t take courage. What takes courage is to do nothing. That takes courage.” And then we’re stuck with a president who lost the election by a lot and we have to live with that for four more years. We’re just not going to let that happen.

Trump led his mob to believe only Pence could help them, and if Pence did, Trump falsely led many of them to believe, it would amount to following the Constitution (precisely the opposite of what his White House Counsel appears to have had told him).

Pennsylvania has now seen all of this. They didn’t know because it was so quick. They had a vote. They voted. But now they see all this stuff, it’s all come to light. Doesn’t happen that fast. And they want to recertify their votes. They want to recertify. But the only way that can happen is if Mike Pence agrees to send it back. Mike Pence has to agree to send it back.

And many people in Congress want it sent back.

And think of what you’re doing. Let’s say you don’t do it. Somebody says, “Well, we have to obey the Constitution.” And you are, because you’re protecting our country and you’re protecting the Constitution. So you are.

That’s what Trump left his mob with as he falsely promised he would walk to the Capitol with them.

So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Already, at that moment, the Proud Boys had kicked off the attack. Moments later, Pence released his letter stating he would certify the vote. “Four years ago, surrounded by my family, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, which ended with the words, ‘So help me God.'”

And Trump’s Tweets and speech had the direct and desired effect. When Trump called out, “I hope Pence is going to do the right thing,” Gina Bisignano responded, “I hope so. He’s a deep state.” When she set off to the Capitol, Bisignano explained, “we are marching to the Capitol to put some pressure on Mike Pence.” After declaring, “I’m going to break into Congress,” Bisignano rallied some of the mobsters by talking about “what Pence has done.” She cheered through a blowhorn as mobsters made a renewed assault on the Capitol. “Break the window! she cheered, as she ultimately helped another break a window, an act amounting to a team act of terrorism.

Josiah Colt and his co-conspirators learned that Pence would not prevent the vote certification as Trump demanded. In response, they aimed to “breach the building.” Colt set out to where Pence was presiding. “We’re making it to the main room. The Senate room.” Where they’re meeting.” His co-conspirators Ronnie Sandlin and Nate DeGrave are accused of assaulting a cop to get into the Senate.

Jacob Chansley mounted the dais where Pence should have been overseeing the vote count and declared, “Mike Pence is a fucking traitor,” and left him a note, “It’s Only A Matter of Time. Justice Is Coming!”

Matthew Greene never went to listen to Trump speak. Instead, he was following orders from top Proud Boys, a bit player in an orchestrated attack to surround and breach the Capitol. His goal in doing so was to pressure Pence.

Greene’s intent in conspiring with others to unlawfully enter the restricted area of the Capitol grounds was to send a message to legislators and Vice President Pence. Greene knew he lawmakers and the Vice President were inside the Capitol building conducting the certification of the Electoral College Vote at the time the riot occurred. Green hoped that his actions and those of his co-conspirators would cause legislators and the Vice President to act differently during the course of the certification of the Electoral Vote than they would have otherwise. Greene believed that by unlawfully entering the Capitol grounds, he and other rioters outside the building would send a stronger message to lawmakers and the Vice President inside the building, than if Green and others had stayed outside the restricted area.

There is a direct line of corrupt intent from the moment where Trump asked Pence, “If these people say you had the power, wouldn’t you want to [exercise it]?” and efforts that his mobsters — both those who planned this in advance and those who reacted to Trump’s incitement — made at the Capitol. Some of the most central players in the attack on the Capitol have testified under oath that they understood their goal to be pressuring Mike Pence. In pursuit of that, they broke into the Capitol, they assaulted cops, they occupied the Mike Pence’s seat.

Congress is currently focused on showing what Trump did during the 187 minutes after his mob had breached the Capitol — aside from his tweet focusing again on Pence.

Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!

DOJ is finalizing its understanding of the coordinated effort, using the mobs Alex Jones lured to the Capitol and to a second front, that resulted in multiple breaches of the building and vastly inflated risk to Pence and members of Congress.

But on one point, both investigations have already converged: the motive of a vast many involved, from Trump to his scheming associates to organized militias to unwitting trespassers, was to was pressure Mike Pence to violate his duty.

Trump Breached His Own Privilege by Blabbing to Sean Hannity

The January 6 Committee is inviting Sean Hannity for a voluntary interview with the committee.

It’s unclear whether he’ll take them up on that investigation. But it seems the damage has already been done. That’s because texts involving Hannity make it clear he knew about the White House Counsel’s concerns about Trump’s actions.

The Select Committee is in possession of dozens of text messages you sent to and received from former White House Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows and others related to the 2020 election and President Trump’s efforts to contest the outcome of the vote. At this time, we are specifically focused on a series of your communications with President Trump, White House staff and President Trump’s legal team between December 31, 2020, and January 20, 2021. For example, on December 31, 2020, you texted Mr. Meadows the following:

“We can’t lose the entire WH counsels office. I do NOT see January 6 happening the way he is being told. After the 6 th. [sic] He should announce will lead the nationwide effort to reform voting integrity.

Go to Fl and watch Joe mess up daily. Stay engaged. When he speaks people will listen.”

Among other things, this text suggests that you had knowledge of concerns by President Trump’s White House Counsel’s Office regarding the legality of the former President’s plans for January 6th. These facts are directly relevant to our inquiry.

Similarly, on January 5th, the night before the violent riot, you sent and received a stream of texts. You wrote: “Im very worried about the next 48 hours.” With the counting of electoral votes scheduled for January 6th at 1 p.m., why were you concerned about the next 48 hours?

Also, on the evening of January 5th, you texted Mr. Meadows: “Pence pressure. WH counsel will leave.” Wha communications or information led you to conclude that White House Counsel would leave? What precisely did you know at that time?

Effectively, Trump breached the privileged advice the White House Counsel gave him by blabbing it to Hannity (or by Meadows doing so). The Committee can’t get that advice directly. But whatever got shared with a journalist has lost its privileged status.

[Photo: National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, MD via Wikimedia]

Paul Nakasone’s Concerns about Mike Ellis Hiring Vindicated

DOD Inspector General released a report yesterday finding there was no evidence of impropriety in the hiring of Michael Ellis as General Counsel, but also suggesting that NSA Director Paul Nakasone was vindicated in his concerns about Ellis’ hiring. DOD IG made those conclusions without succeeding in getting Pat Cipollone — who might know a back story to Ellis’ hiring — to sit for an interview about his role in the process.

The hiring process

As the report lays out, Ellis was one of 29 candidates who were deemed qualified for the position to apply in early 2020. An initial vetting process did not work as one of the participants said it had in the past, partly because of how the panel considered the technical requirements, partly because they did not conduct interviews. But by all accounts Ellis was deemed one of the top seven candidates, and so qualified for the position.

In the next round, just three people were reviewed, including Ellis. Several of the three panel members deemed a different candidate to have had an exceptionally good interview, but all agreed Ellis did quite well and that it was a close decision.

After that DOD General Counsel Paul Ney, who had selection authority, chose Ellis. When asked why he preferred Ellis, he cited Ellis’ more extensive Intelligence Community experience and his experience both on the Hill (where he wrote dodgy reports for Devin Nunes) and in the White House (where he ran interference for Trump), though there’s no evidence Ney understood Ellis’ role on those bodies. Ney told DOD IG that he had several calls with John Eisenberg and one with Pat Cipollone where the lawyers spoke favorably of Ellis during the hiring process, but he did not regard those as being an attempt to pressure him.

The law requires that the NSA Director be consulted in this process. After the decision was made, Nakasone conducted interviews and decided that the same candidate who had had the exceptionally good interview would best manage the 100-person General Counsel department at the NSA. He also shared concerns with Ney about the way that Ellis had done the classification review of John Bolton’s book (probably reflecting that Ellis was pursuing a political objective on that front). Nevertheless, Ney picked Ellis, and after the election, his hiring was announced.

As the transition wore on and Congress got involved, Nakasone raised concerns about whether the Office of Personnel Management had done an adequate review of the hiring of a political appointee. The review is not required (the IG Report recommended that it be required going forward), and was not used with Obama’s General Counsels Raj De and Glenn Gerstell either. On January 15, Nakasone attempted to stall the on-boarding process, citing the OPM review and concerns from Congress. But then Ney got Christopher Miller to order Nakasone to hire Ellis by the end of the following day, which Nakasone did.

After that (but before the inauguration), Nakasone learned of two security incidents involving Ellis, and based on that and the ongoing IG investigation, put the newly hired General Counsel on leave.

The Eisenberg and Cipollone calls

The IG Report considered whether in calls from John Eisenberg and Pat Cipollone, they inappropriately influenced Ney. It credibly shows they did not. That’s true, first of all, because the IG Report makes it clear that Ney had regular interactions with Eisenberg, Ellis, and Cipollone. Ellis’ bosses at the White House wouldn’t have needed to push him — he was a known figure to Ney.

Eisenberg’s positive comments were credibly described as a supervisor expressing positive comments about someone.

When we asked Mr. Eisenberg about the rationale for his comments to Mr. Ney, he told us,“I would not have been happy with myself if somebody who … works so hard for me, that I … couldn’t be bothered to basically give a recommendation before somebody makes a decision.” Mr. Eisenberg told us, “[T]here’s nothing inappropriate about … somebody from the White House in an appropriate context, providing an evaluation of their employee.”

The IG Report doesn’t describe (and it would be beyond its scope) that Eisenberg played a central role in some key cover-ups for Trump, the most notable of which was Trump’s attempt to coerce election assistance from Ukraine. Ellis was a part of those cover-ups (indeed, that’s arguably what the Bolton classification review was). Eisenberg also played a key role, way back in 2008, in withholding information from FISC for the first programmatic review of PRISM.

That is, a recommendation from Eisenberg is a recommendation from someone who did questionable things to protect the President, often with Ellis’ help. John Eisenberg is a very credible, experienced national security lawyer. He’s also someone who helped Trump undermine democracy.

Still, the IG Report credibly describes this as the normal kind of comment that a supervisor would make. It’s only important given who the supervisor was and what the supervisor had asked Ellis to do in the past.

I’m rather interested, however, that Cipollone blew off DOD IG’s request for information.

Shortly after interviewing Mr. Ney on March 15, 2021, we attempted to contact Mr. Cipollone. He did not respond; however, his assistant responded on July 12, 2021, and we asked to interview Mr. Cipollone. Neither Mr. Cipollone nor his assistant provided any response to our request. Based on the witness testimony and documents we reviewed, we determined that Mr. Cipollone likely did not have any additional information different from what we obtained from other sources, and we decided, therefore, not to further delay our review waiting for a response from Mr. Cipollone or his assistant.

Cipollone had no legal obligation to cooperate, and DOD IG had no legal means to coerce him to do so. But he’s also the kind of person who would know better than to get himself in an interview where he might have to reveal other pertinent details. For whatever reason, he just blew off the request.

In the days after January 6, Ellis was discovered to have two security violations

After determining, credibly, that Ellis was legally hired, DOD IG then considered whether Ellis was legally put on leave as soon as he was hired. The analysis involves the discovery of two security violations on January 7 and January 8, as laid out in this table.

In the first incident, NSA discovered that Ellis had put together and shared notebooks of documents of “compartmented, classified [NSA] information” without NSA knowledge or consent.

An NSA employee received a controlled, classified NSA notebook of documents on January 7, 2021, from a Department of State official who was not authorized to access that information. An initial NSA review further found that several copies of the notebook had been produced without NSA authorization. This event raised concerns that other individuals possessed copies of these sensitive materials without NSA authorization.

[NSA Deputy Director George] Barnes told us that “[they] were spending the last week or so of the administration trying to find out who had them, where they were, and trying to get them back into positive control before the administration members left.” NSA officials received information on January 13, 2021, that Mr. Ellis either created or directed the copying of these notebooks of documents with compartmented, classified information without NSA knowledge, consent, or control.

In the second, more alarming instance, two days after Trump’s coup attempt, an NSA employee tried to retrieve “some of the most sensitive information that NSA possesses” from Ellis, only to discover he was storing it with inadequate security and refusing to return it. (After DDIRNSA Barnes asked for help from Eisenberg, NSA got the information back.)

On January 8, 2021, an NSA employee tried to retrieve an NSA document from Mr. Ellis that contained information of a classified, controlled, compartmented NSA program “of some of the most sensitive information that NSA possesses.” Mr. Barnes told us that Mr. Ellis refused to return the document, retained it for the White House archives, and, based on what the NSA employee saw, placed the document in a container that did not meet the security storage requirements for such a sensitive program. Mr. Barnes told us that he contacted Mr. Eisenberg on January 9, 2021, for help obtaining the document, and the document was returned to the NSA on January 14, 2021. Mr. Barnes said, “The White House people were all leaving so every day new members were leaving and so we were prioritizing on identifying our documents that needed to be brought under positive control and accounted for.” Mr. Barnes added:

And then we started to get the pressure on the 15th is when Acting SecDef ordered us to issue a job offer to him. And so, in that intervening several days, all’s we knew his [sic]is we have a problem, we have to investigate the nature of how these documents were handled, distributed outside of our purview and control. And so that was—the flares were up but we didn’t have time to actually do anything yet and Mr. Ellis was not our employee so we didn’t have a chance to contact him yet for questioning for anything. We had to get security involved to do it right whenever we do an investigation because we didn’t know if there was a disconnect or an understanding that so these were just—the flares went up on the 7th and the 8th.

Effectively, at a time when NSA was trying to ensure that outgoing Trump officials didn’t walk out with NSA’s crown jewels, they learned that Ellis wanted to keep the crown jewels on White House servers.

Importantly, two aspects of these violations repeat earlier concerns about Ellis’ tenure: He shared information with people (like Nunes) not authorized to have it, and that he and Eisenberg played games with White House servers to avoid accountability. And while it’s not clear why Ellis was violating NSA’s security rules, it does seem of a part of his efforts to politicize classification with the John Bolton review.

DOD IG found that it was not proper to put Ellis on leave based on the then-ongoing IG investigation. But it did find Nakasone’s decision to put Ellis on leave was proper based on Nakasone having control over Ellis’ clearance.

The investigation into Ellis’ security violations appears to have ended when he resigned in April. The IG Report includes a recommendation that it be reconsidered.

The Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security should review the allegation and supporting material that Mr. Ellis improperly handled classified information on two occasions to determine what, if any, further actions the NSA or another agency should take regarding this allegation.

It’s possible, though, that this investigation didn’t go further for a different reason. That’s because the President is ultimately the Original Classification Authority for the entire US government. If Ellis was distributing these notebooks and withholding the NSA crown jewels based on Trump’s authorization, it wouldn’t be a violation at all.

That said, that seems reason enough to chase down why he did those things.

A DOJ IG Investigation Is Insufficient to Investigate Trump’s Attempt to Get DOJ Help to Steal the Election

As many news outlets are reporting, DOJ’s Inspector General Michael Horowitz is opening an investigation into whether any former or current DOJ official helped Trump try to overturn an election.

The DOJ Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is initiating an investigation into whether any former or current DOJ official engaged in an improper attempt to have DOJ seek to alter the outcome of the 2020 Presidential Election.  The investigation will encompass all relevant allegations that may arise that are within the scope of the OIG’s jurisdiction.  The OIG has jurisdiction to investigate allegations concerning the conduct of former and current DOJ employees.  The OIG’s jurisdiction does not extend to allegations against other government officials.

The OIG is making this statement, consistent with DOJ policy, to reassure the public that an appropriate agency is investigating the allegations.  Consistent with OIG policy, we will not comment further on the investigation until it is completed.  When our investigation is concluded, we will proceed with our usual process for releasing our findings publicly in accordance with relevant laws, and DOJ and OIG policies.

This is welcome news, but nowhere near as big a deal as people are making out. That’s true for several reasons. First, while DOJ IG will have access to internal DOJ communications, DOJ IG cannot compel testimony of former employees. So if Jeffrey Bossert Clark — or any of the sources leaking anonymously with no threat of legal consequences — don’t want to cooperate with this inquiry, they can avoid doing so.

More importantly, as Horowitz notes, his office’s jurisdiction, “does not extend to allegations against other government officials.” He can’t investigate Scott Perry, the GOP Congressperson who was reportedly involved in this, he can’t investigate Pat Cipollone, who reportedly sided with others at DOJ to undercut Trump’s efforts, and he can’t investigate Trump himself.

Still, it will serve one welcome purpose. As I noted in this post, one way to get investigations into Trump conduct started without appearing as if Joe Biden’s DOJ has it in for Trump is to start them with Inspectors General. A year from now, DOJ IG will likely produce a report showing improper behavior from Clark (probably because he went around his superiors, not for any good legal reason), while noting that he was unable to get further cooperation. That could provide predicate for opening an investigation into the Former President.

Now We Know Why Jeffrey Rosen Has Been Silent, How About Chris Wray?

Since the attempted coup, both Jeffrey Rosen and Chris Wray (and Wray’s then-Deputy David Bowdich) were almost silent about the attack. A week after the attack, Rosen  a video in the middle of the night, explaining what he had done during the coup.

The day after, Wray released a short statement. More than a week later, he spoke at a closed-press meeting on inauguration security. Neither provided the kind of daily updates one would expect after such an attack.

Last night (as Rayne laid out here), NYT reported on why Rosen was so silent: because he’s a witness in what should be a criminal investigation into how the attack relates to the effort to overturn the election.

As the NYT lays out, in the days leading up to the coup attempt, Trump already tried to replace Rosen with someone, Jeffrey Bossert Clark, who would be willing to take steps to overturn the vote.

The effort to force Rosen to use DOJ resources to undermine a democratic election started on December 15, the day after Bill Barr resigned.

When Mr. Trump said on Dec. 14 that Attorney General William P. Barr was leaving the department, some officials thought that he might allow Mr. Rosen a short reprieve before pressing him about voter fraud. After all, Mr. Barr would be around for another week.

Instead, Mr. Trump summoned Mr. Rosen to the Oval Office the next day. He wanted the Justice Department to file legal briefs supporting his allies’ lawsuits seeking to overturn his election loss. And he urged Mr. Rosen to appoint special counsels to investigate not only unfounded accusations of widespread voter fraud, but also Dominion, the voting machines firm.

Then, over the weekend in advance of the certification, Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark told Rosen Trump was going to make him Attorney General so he could chase Rudy Giuliani’s conspiracy theories.

On New Year’s Eve, the trio met to discuss Mr. Clark’s refusal to hew to the department’s conclusion that the election results were valid. Mr. Donoghue flatly told Mr. Clark that what he was doing was wrong. The next day, Mr. Clark told Mr. Rosen — who had mentored him while they worked together at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis — that he was going to discuss his strategy to the president early the next week, just before Congress was set to certify Mr. Biden’s electoral victory.

Unbeknown to the acting attorney general, Mr. Clark’s timeline moved up. He met with Mr. Trump over the weekend, then informed Mr. Rosen midday on Sunday that the president intended to replace him with Mr. Clark, who could then try to stop Congress from certifying the Electoral College results. He said that Mr. Rosen could stay on as his deputy attorney general, leaving Mr. Rosen speechless.

In a replay of the 2004 Hospital Hero moment, the others involved (including White House Counsel Pat Cipollone) agreed they’d resign en masse if Trump replaced Rosen, which led him to back off the plan.

NYT had four sources for this story, all of whom fear — even after Trump has been relegated to Florida — retaliation.

This account of the department’s final days under Mr. Trump’s leadership is based on interviews with four former Trump administration officials who asked not to be named because of fear of retaliation.

Clark claimed there were errors in this story, but ultimately he claimed Executive Privilege (his statement to WaPo on the topic, which I’ve used here, is more expansive).

In a statement that seemed to draw on language in the New York Times account, Clark said, “I categorically deny that I ‘devised a plan . . . to oust’ Jeff Rosen. . . . Nor did I formulate recommendations for action based on factual inaccuracies gleaned from the Internet.”

“My practice is to rely on sworn testimony to assess disputed factual claims,” Clark said. “There were no ‘maneuver[s].’ There was a candid discussion of options and pros and cons with the President. It is unfortunate that those who were part of a privileged legal conversation would comment in public about such internal deliberations, while also distorting any discussions. . . . Observing legal privileges, which I will adhere to even if others will not, prevent me from divulging specifics regarding the conversation.”

The WaPo version of this story names all who were involved in the confrontation with Trump (though the sources for the story are likely, in part, their aides).

At the meeting were Trump, Clark and Rosen, along with Richard Donoghue, the acting deputy attorney general; Steven A. Engel, the head of the department’s Office of Legal Counsel; and Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, the people familiar with the matter said. The people said Rosen, Donoghue, Engel and Cipollone pushed against the idea of replacing Rosen, and warned of a mass resignation.

Clark says he will only respond to a sworn statement. By all means, the impeachment managers should demand sworn testimony, from all involved.

Of course, that would mean Pat Cipollone, who led the former President’s defense in his first impeachment trial, would be asked about the second time Trump tried to use government resources to cheat. Steve Engel, who authorized the withholding of a whistleblower complaint describing Trump’s earlier attempt, would also testify. Rosen, who participated in having DOJ chase Sidney Powell’s conspiracy theories about Mike Flynn, would be asked to testify about why the conspiracy theories about Dominion machines were any less credible than the Flynn ones. And Donoghue, who served as a filter for some of the conspiracy theories Rudy Giuliani had been fed by men who have since been named Russian agents, would be asked to testify about why Rudy wasn’t a credible source.

Rosen was silent in his final two weeks, presumably, for fear he might get fired and replaced by someone who would be more pliant to a coup attempt. But he — and the three others — are also witnesses to a larger plot that ended up in violence and death.

I wonder if Chris Wray has similar evidence he’ll be asked to share.

Trump’s Second Impeachment Has Already Had a Beneficial Effect

After Billy Barr spent eight months dedicating DOJ resources to supporting Sidney Powell’s conspiracy theories about Mike Flynn, Trump pardoned his short-lived National Security Advisor for everything associated with the Mueller investigation. Within weeks, Flynn called for martial law, a three-star General with an avid QAnon following inciting an insurrection.

After Billy Barr dismissed the seriousness of threats against Randy Credico and Amy Berman Jackson backed by Proud Boy associates of Roger Stone, Trump first ensured that Stone would do no prison time and then pardoned him for his cover-up of the Trump campaign’s efforts to optimize the release of stolen John Podesta files. While Roger Stone claims to have had no role, the key organization behind the riot, Stop the Steal, adopted the name and the methods he used in 2016. And thus far five members of the Proud Boys have been arrested in association with the coup attempt.

It seems that Trump’s belief in his own invincibility — one he got, in significant part, by successfully obstructing the Mueller investigation by buying silence with promised pardons, then hiring an Attorney General who would and did repeatedly protect him from consequences — not only led him to believe he could incite a riot, but led key bridges between him and the foot soldiers in this coup attempt to believe they had impunity too.

But according to stories in virtually all major outlets (here’s the CNN version), in the wake of both the coup attempt and impeachment for it, Trump has backed off plans to complete that act of impunity by pardoning his spawn and himself.

Initially, two major batches had been ready to roll out, one at the end of last week and one on Tuesday. Now, officials expect the last batch to be the only one — unless Trump decides at the last minute to grant pardons to controversial allies, members of his family or himself.

[snip]

The January 6 riots that led to Trump’s second impeachment have complicated his desire to pardon himself, his kids and personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. At this point, aides do not think he will do so, but caution only Trump knows what he will do with his last bit of presidential power before he is officially out of office at noon on January 20.

After the riots, advisers encouraged Trump to forgo a self-pardon because it would appear like he was guilty of something, according to one person familiar with the conversations. Several of Trump’s closest advisers have also urged him not to grant clemency to anyone involved in the siege on the US Capitol, despite Trump’s initial stance that those involved had done nothing wrong.

I predicted this would happen here.

To be clear, I don’t think Trump’s moderated plans come from any remorse or sense of contrition. Rather, after the riot Pat Cipollone apparently refused to be a part of such plans anymore (though I also think the Stone and Paul Manafort pardons were far more modest than they might have been). Lindsey Graham’s efforts to minimize the impeachment trial in the Senate also helped, as Lindsey knows any attempt to prevent conviction in the Senate is premised on Trump avoiding any further abuse.

None of this changes the fact that Trump has abused the pardon power far more than any president before him. Nor will it prevent a great many other abusive pardons today.

But to restore legitimacy and belief in the rule of law, the story of Trump’s crimes needs to be told, and told in a way that makes the damage he caused and the betrayal of his supporters clear. If, indeed, Trump decides not to pardon his lawyer, his spawn, and himself, it will be one important step in that process.

Update: This CNN story reports on precisely this phenomenon.

The decision to not pardon any Republican lawmakers or his family members was a last minute one. After initially defending the idea that he may pardon himself or his family members out of concern they would be targeted once he’s out of office, Trump decided Saturday night that he would not pardon anyone in his family or himself.

Trump agreed with the attorneys and other advisers that doing so would increase the appearance of guilt and could make them more vulnerable, but was disappointed at the outcome, according to people familiar with the matter.

Trump, according to people he’d spoken to, appeared more taken with the message of unchecked power it might send to his naysayers than actual protection from liability. His pardon power was among his favorite perks of the job.

The newfound concerns about actually exercising this favorite perk of the job extends to members of Congress worried about their own legal exposure and Ed Snowden and Julian Assange.

Several Republican lawmakers who are alleged to have been involved in the rally that preceded the deadly riot on the US Capitol have sought clemency from Trump before he leaves office, but after meeting with his legal advisers for several hours on Saturday, the President decided he would not grant them, according to two people familiar with his plans.

[snip]

Trump is also not expected to pardon Edward Snowden or Julian Assange, whose roles in revealing US secrets infuriated official Washington.

While he had once entertained the idea, Trump decided against it because he did not want to anger Senate Republicans who will soon determine whether he’s convicted during his Senate trial. Multiple GOP lawmakers had sent messages through aides that they felt strongly about not granting clemency to Assange or Snowden.

Triage and Impeachment: Prioritize a Legitimate Criminal Investigation into the Wider Plot over Impeachment

I want to talk about triage in the wake of the terrorist attack on Wednesday as it affects consideration of how to hold Trump accountable for his role in it.

First, some dates:

If Mike Pence were to invoke the 25th Amendment (with the approval of a bunch of Trump’s cabinet members), it could go into effect immediately for at least four days. Trump can challenge his determination, but if the same cabinet members hold with Pence, then Trump’s disqualification remains in place for 21 more days, enough to get through Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Both the House and Senate are not in session, and can’t deviate from the existing schedule without unanimous consent, meaning Mo Brooks in the House or Josh Hawley in the Senate could single-handedly prevent any business.

Because of that, impeachment in the House can’t be started until tomorrow. Right now, Pelosi is using the threat of impeachment as leverage to try to get Pence to act (or Trump to resign, though he won’t). If that doesn’t work, then the House seems prepared to move on a single article of impeachment tied to Trump’s attempts to cheat and his incitement of the insurrection. Pelosi won’t move forward on it until she’s sure it has the votes to succeed.

Even assuming a majority of the House votes to impeach Trump, that will have no impact on his authority to pardon co-conspirators, and he’ll surely attempt to pardon himself, one way or another. Because of Wednesday’s events, he will be doing that without the assistance of Pat Cipollone, which means he’s much more likely to make his plight worse.

Impeaching this week would, however, force Republicans to cast votes before it is clear how the post-insurrection politics will work out (indeed, while Trump still has the power of the Presidency). Significantly, a number of incoming members are angry that Kevin McCarthy advised them to support the insurrection. The vote may be as much an attempt to undo complicity with Wednesday’s actions as it is anything else. Done right, impeachment may exacerbate the fractures in the GOP; done wrong, it could have the opposite effect.

If the House does impeach, then the Senate will not — barring a change of heart from Hawley and everyone else who was still willing to be part of this insurrection — take up the impeachment until January 19 (the parliamentarian has already ruled on this point). That means, the trial for impeachment either happens in Joe Biden’s first week in office, or the House holds off on sending the article of impeachment over to the Senate until Chuck Schumer deems it a worthwhile time. He can also opt to have a committee consider it, calling witnesses and accruing evidence, which will provide the Senate (where there are more Republicans aiming to distance from Trump) a way to further elaborate Trump’s role in the terrorism.

Meanwhile, by losing all access to social media except Parler and with Amazon’s decision yesterday to stop hosting Parler (which will mean it’ll stay down at least a week, until January 17), Trump’s primary mouthpieces have been shut down. There’s reason to believe that the more sophisticated insurrectionists have moved onto more secure platforms like chat rooms and Signal. While that’ll pose some challenges for law enforcement trying to prevent follow-on attacks on January 17, 19, or 20, being on such less accessible platforms will limit their ability to mobilize the kinds of masses that came out on Wednesday. Trump has lost one of the most important weapons he can wield without demanding clearly criminal behavior from others. That said, the urgency of preventing those sophisticated plotters — and a good chunk of these people have military training — from engaging in more targeted strikes needs to be a priority.

But Trump is still President, with his hand on the nuclear codes, and in charge of the chain of command that goes through a bunch of Devin Nunes flunkies at DOD. Nancy Pelosi called Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley and come away with assurances that Trump won’t be able to deploy nukes.

Preventing an Unhinged President From Using the Nuclear Codes: This morning, I spoke to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike. The situation of this unhinged President could not be more dangerous, and we must do everything that we can to protect the American people from his unbalanced assault on our country and our democracy.

Nevertheless that still leaves Trump in charge of the vast federal bureaucracy, which has been emptied out and the filled back up with people who could pass Johnny McEntee’s loyalty oaths to Trump.

Because this is where we’re at, I have argued that there needs to be a higher priority on getting at least Biden’s operational nominees, along with Merrick Garland, confirmed over impeaching Trump — yet — in the Senate.

We have not yet heard why DOD and DHS and the FBI — on top of the Capitol Police — failed to prevent the terrorist attack on Wednesday (I’ll have more to say about this later). It will take a year to sort out all the conflicting claims. But as we attempt, via reporting, via oversight in Congress (including impeachment), and via a criminal investigation to figure that out, those same people who failed to prevent the attack remain in place. Indeed, most of these entities have offered little to no explanation for why they failed, which is a bad sign.

Because of that, I think Biden needs to prioritize getting at least Garland and Lisa Monaco confirmed as Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General at DOJ, along with a new Acting US Attorney for DC, as soon as possible. I have two specific concerns. First, while FBI has generally been good at policing white supremacists in recent months, they failed miserably here, when it mattered most. One effect of retaliating against anyone who investigated Trump for his “collusion” with Russia has been to install people who were either Trump loyalists or really skilled at avoiding any slight to Trump. Indeed, one of the most charitable possible excuses for FBI’s delayed response is that after years of badgering, otherwise reasonable people were loathe to get involved in something that Trump defined as an election issue.

I have more specific concerns about the DC US Attorney’s office. Michael Sherwin, who has been less awful as Acting US Attorney than Timothy Shea, originally said on the record all options in the investigation that will be led out of his office were on the table, including incitement by Trump. But then someone said off the record that Trump was not a focus of the investigation. I suspect that person is Ken Kohl, who as Acting First Assistant US Attorney is in charge of the investigation and has been cited in other announcements about the investigation.

Ken Kohl at least oversaw, if not participated in, the alteration of documents to help Trump get elected. I’ve been told he’s got a long history of being both corrupt and less than competent. The decisions he will oversee in upcoming weeks could have the effect of giving people the opportunity to destroy evidence that lays out a much broader conspiracy, all while rolling out showy charges against people who were so stupid they took selfies of themselves committing crimes. We want this investigation to go beyond a slew of trespassing charges to incorporate the actual plotting that made this attack possible. It’s not clear Kohl will do that.

Even assuming that people currently in DOJ are willing to collect evidence implicating Trump, short of having a confirmed Attorney General overseeing such decisions, we’re back in the same situation Andrew McCabe was in on May 10, 2017, an Acting official trying to decide what to do in the immediate aftermath of a Trump crime. Trump’s backers have exploited the fact that McCabe made the right choices albeit in urgent conditions, and they’ve done so with the willing participation of some of the people — notably, FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich — who are currently in charge of this investigation.

I’m happy to entertain a range of possible courses going forward, so long as all of them involve holding Trump accountable to the utmost degree possible. I assume Nancy Pelosi, whatever else she’ll be doing, will also be counting the votes to understand precisely what is possible, given the schedule.

But I also know that I’d far rather have Trump and those he directly conspired with criminally charged than have an impeachment delay the thorough fumigation of a government riddled with people who may have had a role in this plot. And that’s not going to happen if the investigation is scoped in such a way in the days ahead to rule out his involvement.

Update: Here’s a much-cited interview with Michael Sherwin. He adopts all the right language (pointedly disavowing labels of sedition or coup, saying he’s just looking at crimes) and repeats his statement that if there’s evidence Trump is involved he’ll be investigated.

On Thursday you were quoted saying the conduct of “all actors” would be examined, which was interpreted to mean President Trump might face charges. Is that what you meant — the man who gave the speech at the start of the day could be looking at charges?

Look, I meant what I said before. In any criminal investigation, I don’t care if it’s a drug trafficking conspiracy case, a human trafficking case or the Capitol — all persons will be looked at, OK? If the evidence is there, great. If it’s not, you move on. But we follow the evidence. If the evidence leads to any actor that may have had a role in this and if that evidence meets the four corners of a federal charge or a local charge, we’re going to pursue it.

Update: This story describes how a senior McConnell aide called Bill Barr’s Chief of Staff who called David Bowdich who then deployed three quick reaction teams in response.

The senior McConnell adviser reached a former law firm colleague who had just left the Justice Department: Will Levi, who had served as Attorney General William P. Barr’s chief of staff.

They needed help — now, he told Levi.

From his home, Levi immediately called FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich, who was in the command center in the FBI’s Washington Field Office.

Capitol police had lost control of the building, Levi told Bowdich.

The FBI official had been hearing radio traffic of aggressive protesters pushing through the perimeter, but Levi said it had gone even further: The mob had already crashed the gates and lives were at risk.

Capitol police had said previously they didn’t need help, but Bowdich decided he couldn’t wait for a formal invitation.

He dispatched the first of three tactical teams, including one from the Washington field office to secure the safety of U.S. senators and provide whatever aid they could. He instructed two more SWAT teams to follow, including one that raced from Baltimore.

These teams typically gather at a staging area off-site to coordinate and plan, and then rush together to the area where they are needed. Bowdich told their commander there was no time.

“Get their asses over there. Go now,” he said to the first team’s commander. “We don’t have time to huddle.”

Not explained: why Bowdich was watching protestors get through the perimeter without deploying teams on his own. Again, I’m not saying he was complicit. I’m saying he has spent the last four years by letting Trump’s claims about politicization direct the Bureau, and can see how that habit might have led to a delayed response here.

Bunker: Trump’s Exposure in the Insurrection Makes PardonPalooza More Complicated

There have been numerous accounts of Trump’s desperate days since he incited a coup attempt. Most, including this CNN version, describe how — on the advice of (among others) White House Counsel Pat Cipollone — Trump recorded and released a very heavily edited video from a script written for him in an attempt to stave off removal proceedings.

His daughter Ivanka Trump, White House counsel Pat Cipollone, chief of staff Mark Meadows and others told Trump there was a real chance he would be removed from office — whether by his own Cabinet or lawmakers — if he did not more forcefully denounce the actions of his supporters who attacked the US Capitol the day before.

Trump did not initially want to issue a video decrying the loyalists whose actions he largely supported — and whom he said he “loved” a day earlier — but he told aides to prepare a speech and then he would decide.

Once he read over the brief script they had prepared, Trump agreed to record it Thursday evening — a relief to the senior staff, though concerns lingered he could backtrack during his final days in office given his actual position has remained unchanged: that he lost the election unfairly.

This WaPo version describes him holing up with really unsavory characters, including white supremacist Stephen Miller and John McEntee, who previously had been forcibly removed from his position at the White House because of gambling problems.

Trump spent Wednesday afternoon and evening cocooned at the White House and listening only to a small coterie of loyal aides — including Meadows, Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino, personnel director Johnny McEntee and policy adviser Stephen Miller. McEnany also spent time with the president. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, was described as disengaged.

CNN also reports that’s he’s still planning on pardonpalooza covering at least his kids

And a raft of pardons, including potentially for himself and his family, are expected in the coming days.

According to this Bloomberg piece, he’s considering pardoning his bunker mates, Meadows, Miller, and McEntee, along with Kimberly Guilfoyle, none of whom had any obvious legal exposure before the last several weeks.

The biggest question facing his legal team may be whether the president has the authority to pardon himself, as he has discussed in recent weeks with top aides, according to the people familiar with his conversations. Trump has previously claimed the power, though it’s a matter of legal dispute and has never before been attempted by a president.

A self-pardon could also prove a major political liability and hamstring another presidential bid, with opponents sure to suggest the self-pardon amounted to an admission that he thought he might be prosecuted for breaking the law.

Preemptive pardons are under discussion for top White House officials who have not been charged with crimes, including Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, senior adviser Stephen Miller, personnel chief John McEntee, and social media director Dan Scavino.

The president’s eldest daughter, Ivanka Trump, her husband, Jared Kushner, who both hold White House positions, are also under consideration, the people said. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has also discussed the issue of a pardon with the president.

Preemptive pardons are also under consideration for other members of the president’s family, as well as friends and allies. For instance, Trump has floated a preemptive pardon for Kimberly Guilfoyle, the former Fox News host who is dating his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.

The president wants the preemptive pardons to shield recipients from prosecutions for any federal crimes committed before the pardons were issued.

It notes that White House Counsel Pat Cipollone is “vetting” the pardons, with some concern that they create more exposure for obstruction of justice.

Trump’s list is currently being vetted by lawyers who are concerned that pardons could create new allegations of obstruction of justice for members of the administration. The process is being managed in part by White House Counsel Pat Cipollone.

Except, CNN also reports that Pat Cipollone is considering resigning.

Trump’s role in (at a minimum) inciting an insurrection the other day may make his effort to pardon himself and his associates out of legal trouble more difficult.

Start with a self-pardon. Before the insurrection, Cipollone might have advised Trump he might as well try it. He literally has nothing to lose, since he’s unlikely to trust Pence with a pardon at this point, so even if the self-pardon doesn’t work, he would be no worse off. Except, as a number of people have suggested, a self-pardon makes it far more likely DOJ will test the concept and prosecute him (though I think he’s done enough to be charged anyway). And because Trump’s exposure now includes insurrection, the conservative majority on SCOTUS might find the self-pardon particularly offensive. In addition, because Clarence Thomas’ wife Ginni was cheering on the terrorists, DOJ might — fairly — ask Thomas to recuse.

Then there’s Rudy. He was always going to be pardoned, because he knows where the bodies are buried and Trump believes (mistakenly) that Rudy has served his interests loyally. Except, to a far greater extent than before November, a Rudy pardon frees him to testify about crimes that Trump committed for which Rudy does not have attorney-client privilege, such as coordinating with coup plotters. This is exacerbated by the byzantine legal structure behind the fraudulent Trump lawsuits, where there was never any clarity about who was representing Trump and who was not. Once upon a time, Trump might have been able to pardon Rudy without increasing his own legal exposure. That’s probably not true anymore.

Then there’s Cipollone himself, a formidable lawyer who wants to get the fuck out of dodge. Cipollone, briefly, got Trump to see reason in making that video. Then as soon as Trump got his Twitter account he sent more messages riling up his terrorists. That suggests Cipollone recognized that Trump had real exposure in the insurgency, and took measures to limit them. Then Trump ignored his advice. All while asking Cipollone to help him pardon his co-conspirators.

While Cipollone has limited Executive Privilege with Trump (one breached in case of crime), under Clinton precedent he doesn’t have attorney-client privilege with Trump. That makes it likely that no matter what happens, he’ll be sitting for lengthy sessions with prosecutors in months ahead, just as Don McGahn also did.

When this whole Transition process started, Trump had Cipollone and Bill Barr — the latter the best cover-up artist in recent US history — around to help him out of his legal troubles. Now, his post-election antics have drove both of them away.

Once upon a time, Trump might well have been able to pardon himself out of a good deal of the criminal exposure he already faced. That’s far less likely now.

Update: Just in the last hour, Ginni Thomas made her Facebook account unavailable.

The Three Types (Thus Far) of Trump Mueller Pardons

To date, Trump has pardoned five people who were prosecuted by Mueller. I’m seeing a good deal of misunderstanding about what those pardons mean for any legal proceedings going forward, so I’d like to address some of that.

First, a lot of people say that accepting a pardon is tantamount to accepting guilt, under Burdick v.United States. It’s not. It’s narrower, though importantly goes to questions about whether a witness who has been pardoned has to testify or not. It also says that someone who has been pardoned must inform the court of the fact for it to be valid in any legal proceeding before the court.

That said, claims that Trump flunkies who’ve been pardoned have to testify are also too broad. If the people have any remaining legal exposure (as I’ll explain, Roger Stone and Paul Manafort do), they can still invoke the Fifth. That’s also true if they have state exposure for something like fraud or tax evasion. But in cases where the pardoned crime is only federal, such as Papadopoulos’ lies, it would be easy for prosecutors to immunize him in case he invoked his Fifth Amendment privileges, effectively forcing him to testify on penalty of contempt.

Thus far, Trump has issued three kinds of pardons for people prosecuted by Mueller:

  • Pardons for people with no further known (Mueller) legal exposure
  • Pardons for people with potentially grave further legal exposure
  • Fruit of the poison tree pardon for anything Mueller touched

Alex Van der Zwaan and George Papadopoulos:

Both Van Der Zwaan and Papadopoulos were pardoned for the single False Statements charge against them. Neither is known to have committed another crime. In Papadopoulos’ case, however, things could get dicey on several points. Trump forgave his $9,500 fine, which was the amount Papadopoulos accepted from suspected Israeli spooks. If he asks for that back that may raise questions about his exposure on FARA grounds. In addition, Papadopoulos has already testified before Congress that he called Marc Kasowitz after he was first interviewed by the FBI. If there were a larger prosecution about Trump’s obstruction, he might have been able to plead the Fifth for making that call — except he has already testified to it.

Papadopoulos withheld documents from Congress. With a DOJ that can enforce subpoenas, he might be asked to share those documents, which may require him to testify contrary to his 2018 OGR/HJC testimony.

If DOJ decided to reopen the investigation into a suspected Egyptian bribe to Trump because serving a subpoena on Trump Organization would now be less controversial than it was last summer, then Papadopoulos might be a key witness in that investigation, though since that’s unrelated to his charged false statements, he could still invoke the Fifth if questioned about it.

Roger Stone and Paul Manafort:

Like Van der Zwaan and Papadopoulos, Stone and Manafort were just pardoned for the crimes that they were found or pled guilty to, the money laundering, tax evasion, and FARA crimes in Manafort’s case, and the cover-up crimes in Stone’s case. For both, however, that’s not the full extent of what they were investigated or might be witnesses for.

Before I get there, let me note that multiple sources are claiming that, because Trump included Manafort’s criminal forfeiture in the language of his pardon, he’ll get his ill-gotten gains back. I’m not an expert on this, but I do know that Manafort also civilly forfeited these goods in his plea agreement.

So to attempt to reverse this forfeiture, Manafort would have to spend a great deal of money litigating it, and it’s not at all clear it’d work.

Manafort was also referred for suspected FECA violations involving two PACs that, prosecutors suspected, he got paid through via a kickback system. These cases must be closed, because they were unsealed in the Mueller Report back in September. But Manafort may face more scrutiny on them if DOJ investigates Trump’s other corrupt PACs.

Unless he, too, is pardoned, Konstantin Kilimnik remains under investigation. That’s an area where things might get more interesting for Manafort, because during the period when he was purportedly cooperating, he lied about the fact that he had conspired with Kilimnik. In any case, until the Kilimnik and Oleg Deripaska investigations are closed, Manafort has some exposure.

Things are more complicated still for Stone. There were at least two investigations into Stone — probably on conspiracy and foreign agent crimes — still active in April. If the redactions if Mueller 302s are any indication, Barr shut parts of that investigation down since, which will be of interest on its own right (Congress learned of these ongoing investigations when they got unsealed portions of the Mueller Report that have only recently been made public, and I know there is some interest in learning what those investigations were or are, and that was true even before any discussions about Trump’s abuse of pardons).

In any case, the investigation into a pardon for Julian Assange was active at least as recently as October. Stone has already called on Trump to pardon Assange since his own pardon, potentially a new overt act in a conspiracy. And Trump might well pardon Assange; even pardoning him for the crimes currently charged would be a new overt act in that conspiracy, which would implicate Stone. So even if Barr shut that investigation down, there is already reason to reopen it.

So while Barr may have tried to clean up the remaining criminal exposure against Stone, it’s not clear he could succeed at doing so, much less without creating problems for others going forward.

Mike Flynn:

As I have written, Mike Flynn’s pardon was constructed in a way that attempted to eliminate all criminal exposure that might arise from anything associated with the Mueller investigation for him. In addition to pardoning Flynn for the false statements charge he pled guilty to, it pardons him for lying about being an Agent of Turkey, for being an Agent of Turkey, and for lying to Judge Sullivan.

But it also attempts to pardon Flynn for any crime that might arise out of facts known to Mueller. While, generally, I think the pardon power is very broad, this effectively tried to pardon Flynn for an investigation, not for crimes. Plus, the broadness of the pardon may backfire, insofar as it would strip Flynn of the ability to plead the Fifth more broadly. Even just a retrial of Bijan Kian (unless Trump pardons him and Mike Jr) might force Flynn to commit new crimes, because both telling the truth and lying about his secret relationship with Turkey would be a new crime.

Given his seditious behavior, Flynn might have entirely new criminal exposure by the time Joe Biden is sworn in any case. But the attempt to be expansive with Flynn’s pardon might backfire for him.

Of the five Mueller criminals pardoned so far, only Van der Zwaan is clearly free of danger going forward.

And these five don’t even cover some of the most complex pardon recipients. Any Assange pardon may be the most obviously illegal for Trump (save a self-pardon), because it would involve a quid pro quo entered before he was elected. With Steve Bannon, Trump will need to pardon for another crime, fraud associated with Build the Wall, but if it covers Mueller, it may make it easier for Bannon to repeat what truths he already told to the grand jury. With Rudy Giuliani, Trump will need to pardon for unidentified crimes currently under investigation, but also Rudy’s efforts to broker pardons, which may make the pardon itself more dicey. With Trump’s children (including Jared Kushner), I assume he’ll offer a Nixon type pardon for all crimes committed before the day of pardon. But there may be ways to make them admit to these crimes.

Billy Barr is the best cover-up artist in the history of DOJ. But Trump is attempting to pardon himself out of a dicier situation than Poppy Bush was in Iran-Contra. Plus, even assuming Mueller’s team left everything available for Barr’s discovery, Barr may be hamstrung by the fact that he doesn’t believe in most of the crimes Trump committed, something that could become especially problematic as the full extent of Trump’s dalliance with Russia becomes known going forward. Barr didn’t support some of these pardons, like a hypothetical Assange one. And now, in his absence, Trump has grown increasingly paranoid about Pat Cipollone, who will have to shepherd the rest.

The pardon power is awesome and fairly unlimited. But it’s not yet clear the Mueller pardons will do what Trump hopes they will. With virtually all of them, there are loose strings that, if they get pulled, may undo the immunity Trump has tried to offer.

Missing the National Security Crises for the Trump Temper Tantrums

Even after Republicans and Vladimir Putin have conceded that Donald Trump will no longer be President in 35 days, key parts of the press corps seem unable to look beyond Trump’s temper tantrums to the state of the country.

NBC,  for example, has a 17-paragraph story about Pat Cipollone’s efforts to persuade Trump not to fire Chris Wray and maybe Chad Wolf and maybe Gina Haspel and who knows maybe some more national security figures Trump is pissy about because they haven’t catered to his personal demands. The story doesn’t once mention that these same national security officials — especially Wray and Wolf — are neck deep in a crisis attempting to assess and respond to the SolarWinds compromise of multiple US agencies.

While Trump’s frustrations with Attorney General Bill Barr boiled over in recent days, and Barr resigned on Monday, the president’s advisers hope he’s been persuaded against ousting Wray. Multiple current and former senior administration officials said firing Wray does not appear imminent, but they also point out that the president could make such a decision on a whim at any time. Indeed officials said they are prepared for Trump to go on a firing spree before leaving office next month.

“I wouldn’t take anything off the table in coming weeks,” the senior administration official said of personnel changes, as well as presidential pardons. The official said to expect “some more fairly significant terminations in the national security or intelligence community.”

That this story could even be reported with an unrelenting focus on Trump’s revenge fantasies and not, instead, an extended discussion of the way these revenge fantasies have distracted the entire Administration from urgent crises which Trump’s past revenge fantasies have invited and made worse is an alarming failure of basic framing.

Similarly, in the middle of a 19-paragraph AP story on the transition at DOJ from Bill Barr to Jeffrey Rosen, it summarizes the main point of the story: the biggest issue before DOJ as it prepares for pardonpalooza, continues to cope with running prisons and fraud investigations during a pandemic, sues some of the world’s biggest tech companies, and deals with Mexico’s withdrawal from virtually all drug enforcement cooperation is whether or not the Attorney General, some Attorney General, any Attorney General appoints a special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden.

As Barr exits, the biggest thing by far hanging over the Trump Justice Department is its investigation into Hunter Biden, which involves multiple U.S. attorney offices and FBI field offices.

The AP is so deep inside Trump’s manic delusions that it states, as fact, that appointing a special counsel would by itself make for a more complicated investigation, as if someone could just chase Rudy Giuliani conspiracies for four years without Biden’s Attorney General making a solid case the person should be fired.

Appointing a special counsel for the Hunter Biden probe would also signal a more prolonged and complicated investigation than the current inquiry, so far largely centered on his taxes.

DOJ has already spent something like 4 US Attorney years investigating Hunter Biden and has yet to charge him with a single crime; while it remains to be seen whether the tax charges are real, at some point an investigation will butt up against the reality that even the politicized Scott Brady one did: most of the allegations against Hunter Biden are the product of very frothy conspiracy theorizing and aggressive disinformation that straight reporters are not obliged to adopt.

It is useful — important even — to report on the Trump’s temper tantrums. But his tantrums, at this point, are most important for the way they’ve paralyzed and corrupted the entire government during a time it faces multiple urgent crises. Don’t let sources dodge how indulging the President’s childish whims means they, too, are failing to do their real job serving the country.

The country is burning. It is burning, in significant part, because the President has always prioritized his own personal vendettas over the good of the country.

If you need to report on how Trump has put his own revenge fantasies over all else during his Lame Duck, do so as a first step towards holding him accountable for the wreckage that has resulted, not to indulge those fantasies as if the rest of us should care about them anymore.