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How the Concord Management Prosecution Fell Apart

The frothy right and anti-Trump left both politicized DOJ’s decision to dismiss the single count of conspiracy charged against Concord Management and Concord Catering in the Russian troll indictment that Mueller’s team obtained on February 16, 2018. The right — including the President — and the alt-Left are falsely claiming the prosecution against all the trolls fell apart and suggesting this undermines the claims Russia tampered in the 2016 election.

The mainstream left speculated, without any apparent basis, that Bill Barr deliberately undermined the prosecution by classifying some of the evidence needed to prove the case.

The politicization of the outcome is unfortunate, because the outcome raises important policy questions about DOJ’s recent efforts to name-and-shame nation-state activities in cyberspace.

The IRA indictment intersects with a number of important policy discussions

The decision to indict the Internet Research Agency, its owner Yevgeniy Prigozhin, two of the shell companies he used to fund Internet Research Agency (Concord Management and Concord Catering, the defendants against which charges were dropped), and twelve of the employees involved in his troll operations intersects with three policy approaches adopted in bipartisan fashion in recent years:

  • The use of indictments and criminal complaints to publicly attribute and expose the methods of nation-state hackers and the vehicles (including shell companies) they use.
  • A recent focus on Foreign Agents Registration Act compliance and prosecutions in an attempt to crack down on undisclosed foreign influence peddling.
  • An expansive view of US jurisdiction, facilitated but not limited to the role of the US banking system in global commerce.

There is — or should be — more debate about all of these policies. Some of the prosecutions the US has pursued (one that particularly rankles Russia is of their Erik Prince equivalent, Viktor Bout, who was caught in a DEA sting selling weapons to FARC) would instill outrage if other countries tried them with US citizens. Given the way Trump has squandered soft power, that is increasingly likely. While DOJ has obtained some guilty pleas in FARA cases (most notably from Paul Manafort, but Mike Flynn also included his FARA violations with Turkey in his Statement of the Offense), the FARA prosecutions of Greg Craig (which ended in acquittal) and Flynn’s partner Bijan Kian (which ended in a guilty verdict that Judge Anthony Trenga overturned) have thus far faced difficulties. Perhaps most problematic of all, the US has indicted official members of foreign state intelligence services for activities (hacking), though arguably not targets (private sector technology), that official members of our own military and intelligence services also hack. That’s what indictments (in 2014 for hacks targeting a bunch of victims, most of them in Pittsburgh and this year for hacking Equifax) against members of China’s People’s Liberation Army and Russia’s military intelligence GRU (both the July 2018 indictment for the hack-and-leak targeting the 2016 election and an October 2018 one for targeting anti-doping organizations) amount to. Those indictments have raised real concerns about our intelligence officers being similarly targeted or arrested without notice when they travel overseas.

The IRA indictment is different because, while Prigozhin runs numerous mercenary activities (including his Wagner paramilitary operation) that coordinate closely with the Russian state, his employees work for him, not the Russian state. But the Yahoo indictment from 2017 included both FSB officers and criminal hackers and a number of the hackers DOJ has otherwise indicted at times work for the Russian government. So even that is not unprecedented.

The indictment did serve an important messaging function. It laid out the stakes of the larger Russian investigation in ways that should have been nonpartisan (and largely were, until Concord made an appearance in the courts and started trolling the legal system). It asserted that IRA’s efforts to thwart our electoral and campaign finance functions amounted to a fraud against the United States. And it explained how the IRA effort succeeded in getting Americans to unwittingly assist the Russian effort. The latter two issues, however, may be central to the issues that undid the prosecution.

Make no mistake: the IRA indictment pushed new boundaries on FARA in ways that may raise concerns and are probably significant to the decision to drop charges against Concord. It did so at a time when DOJ’s newfound focus on FARA was not yet well-established, meaning DOJ might have done it differently with the benefit of the lessons learned since early 2018. Here’s a shorter and a longer version of an argument from Joshua Fattal on this interpretation of FARA. Though I think he misses something about DOJ’s argument that became clear (or, arguably, changed) last fall, that DOJ is not just arguing that the trolls themselves are unregistered foreign agents, but that they tricked innocent Americans into being agents. And DOJ surely assumed it would likely never prosecute any of those charged, unless one of the human targets foolishly decided to vacation in Prague or Spain or any other country with extradition treaties with the US. So the indictment was a calculated risk, a risk that may not have paid off.

But that’s why it’s worth understanding the decision to drop the prosecution based off the record, rather than presumptions about DOJ and the Russia investigation.

Just the funding side of the conspiracy to defraud indictment got dropped

The first step to understanding why DOJ dropped the charges is to understand what the two Concord entities were charged with. The indictment as a whole charged eight counts:

  • Conspiracy to defraud the United States for preventing DOJ and FEC from policing our campaign finance and election system (and State for issuing visas)
  • Conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud by using stolen identities to open financial accounts with which to evade PayPal’s security
  • Six counts of aggravated identity theft for stealing the identities of Americans used in the wire and bank fraud

The wire and bank fraud charges remain untouched by DOJ’s decision. If any of those defendants shows up in court, DOJ remains fully prepared to hold them accountable for stealing Americans’ identities to thwart PayPal’s security protocols so as to fool Americans into doing Russia’s work. Such an identity theft prosecution would not rely on the aggressive FARA theory the Concord charge does.

Even still, most of the conspiracy to defraud (ConFraudUS) charge remains.

The two Concord entities were only named in the ConFraudUS charge. The overt acts involving Concord entail funding the entire operation and hiding those payments by laundering them through fourteen different affiliates and calling the payments “software support.”

3. Beginning as early as 2014, Defendant ORGANIZATION began operations to interfere with the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Defendant ORGANIZATION received funding for its operations from Defendant YEVGENIY VIKTOROVICH PRIGOZHIN and companies he controlled, including Defendants CONCORD MANAGEMENT AND CONSULTING LLC and CONCORD CATERING (collectively “CONCORD”). Defendants CONCORD and PRIGOZHIN spent significant funds to further the ORGANIZATION’s operations and to pay the remaining Defendants, along with other uncharged ORGANIZATION employees, salaries and bonuses for their work at the ORGANIZATION.

[snip]

11. Defendants CONCORD MANAGEMENT AND CONSULTING LLC (Конкорд Менеджмент и Консалтинг) and CONCORD CATERING are related Russian entities with various Russian government contracts. CONCORD was the ORGANIZATION’s primary source of funding for its interference operations. CONCORD controlled funding, recommended personnel, and oversaw ORGANIZATION activities through reporting and interaction with ORGANIZATION management.

a. CONCORD funded the ORGANIZATION as part of a larger CONCORD-funded interference operation that it referred to as “Project Lakhta.” Project Lakhta had multiple components, some involving domestic audiences within the Russian Federation and others targeting foreign audiences in various countries, including the United States.

b. By in or around September 2016, the ORGANIZATION’s monthly budget for Project Lakhta submitted to CONCORD exceeded 73 million Russian rubles (over 1,250,000 U.S. dollars), including approximately one million rubles in bonus payments.

c. To conceal its involvement, CONCORD labeled the monies paid to the ORGANIZATION for Project Lakhta as payments related to software support and development. To further conceal the source of funds, CONCORD distributed monies to the ORGANIZATION through approximately fourteen bank accounts held in the names of CONCORD affiliates, including Glavnaya Liniya LLC, Merkuriy LLC, Obshchepit LLC, Potentsial LLC, RSP LLC, ASP LLC, MTTs LLC, Kompleksservis LLC, SPb Kulinariya LLC, Almira LLC, Pishchevik LLC, Galant LLC, Rayteks LLC, and Standart LLC.

Concord was likely included because it tied Prigozhin into the conspiracy, and through him, Vladimir Putin. That tie has been cause for confusion and outright disinformation during the course of the prosecution, as during pretrial motions there were two legal fights over whether DOJ could or needed to say that the Russian state had a role in the operation. Since doing so was never necessary to legally prove the charges, DOJ didn’t fight that issue, which led certain useful idiots to declare, falsely, that DOJ had disclaimed any tie, which is either absurd misunderstanding of how trials work and/or an outright bad faith representation of the abundant public evidence about the ties between Prigozhin and Putin.

By including Concord, the government asserted that it had proof not just that IRA’s use of fake identities had prevented DOJ and the FEC from policing electoral transparency, but also that Putin’s go-to guy in the private sector had used a series of shell companies to fund that effort.

By dropping the charges against the shell companies, that link is partly broken, but the overall ConFraudUS charge (and the charge against Prigozhin) remains, and all but one of the defendants are now biological persons who, if they mounted a defense, would also face criminal penalties that might make prosecution worth it. (I believe the Internet Research Agency has folded as a legal institution, so it would not be able to replay this farce.)

Going to legal war with a shell company

As noted, the indictment included two shell companies — Concord Management and Concord Catering — among the defendants in a period when Russia has increasingly pursued lawfare to try to discredit our judicial system. That’s precisely what happened: Prigozhin hired lawyers who relished trolling the courts to try to make DOJ regret it had charged the case.

As ceded above, DOJ surely didn’t expect that anyone would affirmatively show up to defend against this prosecution. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have the evidence to prove the crimes — both the first level one that bots hid their identities to evade electoral protections, and the second level conspiracy that Prigozhin funded all that through some shell companies. But it likely means DOJ didn’t account for the difficulties of going to legal war against a shell company.

One of the two explanations the government offered for dropping the prosecution admits that the costs of  trying a shell company have come to outweigh any judicial benefits.

When defense counsel first appeared on behalf of Concord, counsel stated that they were “authorized” to appear and “to make representations on behalf” of Concord, and that Concord was fully subjecting itself to the Court’s jurisdiction. 5/9/18 Tr. 5 (ECF No. 9). Though skeptical of Concord’s (but not counsel’s) asserted commitments at the initial appearance, the government has proceeded in good faith—expending the resources of the Department of Justice and other government agencies; incurring the costs of disclosing sensitive non-public information in discovery that has gone to Russia; and, importantly, causing the Court to expend significant resources in resolving dozens of often-complex motions and otherwise ensuring that the litigation has proceeded fairly and efficiently. Throughout, the government’s intent has been to prosecute this matter consistent with the interests of justice. As this case has proceeded, however, it has become increasingly apparent to the government that Concord seeks to selectively enjoy the benefits of the American criminal process without subjecting itself to the concomitant obligations.

From the start, there were ongoing disputes about whether the shell company Concord Management was really showing up to defend against this conspiracy charge. On May 5, 2018, DOJ filed a motion aiming to make sure that — given the uncertainty that Concord had been properly served with a summons, since, “Acceptance of service is ordinarily an indispensable precondition providing assurance that a defendant will submit to the jurisdiction of the court, obey its orders, and comply with any judgment.” Concord’s lawyers responded by complaining that DOJ was stalling on extensive discovery requests Concord made immediately.

Next, an extended and recurrent fight over a protective order for discovery broke out. Prigozhin was personally charged in the indictment along with his shell company. The government tried to prevent defense attorneys from sharing discovery deemed “sensitive” with officers of Concord (Prighozhin formally made himself an officer just before this effort started) who were also defendants without prior approval or at least a requirement such access to take place in the United States, accompanied by a defense attorney lawyer. That fight evolved to include a dispute about whether “sensitive” discovery was limited to just Personally Identifiable Information or included law enforcement sensitive information, too (unsurprisingly, Concord said it only wanted the latter and even demanded that DOJ sift out the former). The two sides established a protective order at start. But in December, after the government had delivered 4 million documents, of which it deemed 3.2 million “sensitive,” Concord renewed their demand that Prighozhin have access to discovery. They trollishly argued that only Prigozhin could determine whether the proper translation of the phrase “Putin’s chef” meant he was the guy who cooked for Putin or actually Putin’s boss. At this point, the US started filing sealed motions opposing the discovery effort, but did not yet resort to the Classified Information Procedures Act, meaning they still seemed to believe they could prove this case with unclassified, albeit sensitive, evidence.

Shortly thereafter, DOJ revealed that nothing had changed to alter the terms of the original protective order, and in the interim, some of the non-sensitive discovery (that is, the stuff that could be shared with Prigozhn) had been altered and used in a disinformation campaign.

The subsequent investigation has revealed that certain non-sensitive discovery materials in the defense’s possession appear to have been altered and disseminated as part of a disinformation campaign aimed (apparently) at discrediting ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the U.S. political system. These facts establish a use of the non-sensitive discovery in this case in a manner inconsistent with the terms of the protective order and demonstrate the risks of permitting sensitive discovery to reside outside the confines of the United States.

With a biological defendant, such a stunt might have gotten the defendant thrown in jail (and arguably, this is one of two moments when Judge Dabney Friedrich should have considered a more forceful response to defiance of her authority). Here, though, the prosecution just chugged along.

Perhaps the best proof that Prigozhin was using Concord’s defense as an intelligence-collecting effort came when, late last year, Concord demanded all the underlying materials behind Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control decision to sanction Prigozhin and his companies. As Friedrich noted in her short notation denying the request, OFAC’s decision to sanction Prigozhin had nothing to do with the criminal charges against Concord. Nevertheless, Prigozhin used the indictment of his shell companies in an attempt to obtain classified information on the decision leading to sanctions being imposed on him.

Prigozhin’s goal of using his defense as a means of learning the US government’s sources and methods was clear from the first discovery request. That — and his unwavering efforts to continue the trolling operations — likely significantly influenced the later classification determination that contributed to DOJ dropping the case.

The government intended to try this case with unclassified information

That’s the other cited reason the government dismissed this case: because a classification determination made some of the evidence collected during the investigation unavailable as unclassified information.

[A]s described in greater detail in the classified addendum to this motion, a classification determination bearing on the evidence the government properly gathered during the investigation, limits the unclassified proof now available to the government at trial. That forces the prosecutors to choose between a materially weaker case and the compromise of classified material.

At the beginning of this case, the government said that all its evidence was unclassified, but that much of it was sensitive, either for law enforcement reasons or the privacy of victims in the case.

As described further in the government’s ex parte affidavit, the discovery in this case contains unclassified but sensitive information that remains relevant to ongoing national security investigations and efforts to protect the integrity of future U.S. elections. At a high level, the sensitive-but-unclassified discovery in this case includes information describing the government’s investigative steps taken to identify foreign parties responsible for interfering in U.S. elections; the techniques used by foreign parties to mask their true identities while conducting operations online; the relationships of charged and uncharged parties to other uncharged foreign entities and governments; the government’s evidence-collection capabilities related to online conduct; and the identities of cooperating individuals and, or companies. Discovery in this case contains sensitive information about investigative techniques and cooperating witnesses that goes well beyond the information that will be disclosed at trial.

Nevertheless, after the very long and serial dispute about how information could be shared with the defendant noted above (especially Prigozhin, as an officer of Concord), later in the process, something either became classified or the government decided they needed to present evidence they hadn’t originally planned on needing.

This is one way, Barr critics suggest, that the Attorney General may have sabotaged the prosecution: by deeming information prosecutors had planned to rely on classified, and therefore making key evidence inaccessible for use at trial.

That’s certainly possible! I don’t rule out any kind of maliciousness on Barr’s part. But I think the available record suggests that the government made a good faith classification decision, possibly in December 2019 or January 2020, that ended up posing new difficulties for proving the case at trial. One possibility is that, in the process of applying a very novel interpretation of FARA to this prosecution, the types of evidence the government needed to rely on may have changed. It’s also possible that Prigozhin’s continued trolling efforts — and maybe even evidence that his trolling operations had integrated lessons learned from discovery to evade detection — made sharing heretofore sensitive unclassified information far more damaging to US national security (raising its classification level).

As discussed below, the record also suggests that the government tried to access some evidence via other means, by subpoenaing it from Concord. But Concord’s ability to defy subpoenas without punishment (which gets back to trying to prosecute a shell company) prevented that approach.

The fight over what criminalizes a troll conspiring to fool DOJ (and FEC)

Over the course of the prosecution, the theory of the ConFraudUS conspiracy either got more detailed (and thereby required more specific kinds of evidence to prove) or changed. That may have contributed to changing evidentiary requirements.

Even as the dispute about whether Concord was really present in the court fighting these charges, Concord’s lawyers challenged the very novel application of FARA by attacking the conspiracy charge against it. This is precisely what you’d expect any good defense attorney to do, and our judicial system guarantees any defendant, even obnoxious Russian trolls who refuse to actually show up in court, a vigorous defense, which is one of the risks of indicting foreign corporate persons.

To be clear: the way Concord challenged the conspiracy charge was often frivolous (particularly in the way that Concord’s Reed Smith lawyers, led by Eric Dubelier, argued it). The government can charge a conspiracy under 18 USC § 371 without proving that the defendant violated the underlying crimes the implementation of which the conspiracy thwarted (as Friedrich agreed in one of the rulings on Concord’s efforts). And on one of the charged overt acts — the conspiracy to hide the real purpose of two reconnaissance trips to the US on visa applications — Concord offered only a half-hearted defense; at trial DOJ would likely have easily proven that when IRA employees came to the US in advance of the operation, they lied about the purpose of their travel to get a visa.

That said, while Concord never succeeded in getting the charges against it dismissed, it forced DOJ to clarify (and possibly even alter) its theory of the crime.

That started as part of a motion to dismiss the indictment based on a variety of claims about the application of FARA to conspiracy, arguing in part that DOJ had to allege that Concord willfully failed to comply with FECA and FARA. The government argued that that’s not how a ConFraudUS charge works — that the defendants don’t have to be shown to be guilty of the underlying crimes. Concord replied by claiming that its poor trolls had no knowledge of the government functions that their secrecy thwarted. Friedrich posed two questions about how this worked.

Should the Court assume for purposes of this motion that neither Concord nor its coconspirators had any legal duty to report expenditures or to register as a foreign agent?

Specifically, should the Court assume for purposes of this motion that neither Concord nor its co-conspirators knowingly or unknowingly violated any provision, civil or criminal, of FECA or FARA by failing to report expenditures or by failing to register as a foreign agent?

The government responded by arguing that whether or not the Russian trolls had a legal duty to register, their deception meant that regulatory agencies were still thwarted.

As the government argued in its opposition and at the motions hearing, the Court need not decide whether the defendants had a legal duty to file reports with the FEC or to register under FARA because “the impairment or obstruction of a governmental function contemplated by section 371’s ban on conspiracies to defraud need not involve the violation of a separate statute.” United States v. Rosengarten, 857 F.2d 76, 78 (2d Cir. 1988); Dkt. No. 56, at 9-13. Moreover, the indictment alleges numerous coordinated, structured, and organized acts of deception in addition to the failure to report under FECA or to register under FARA, including the use of false social media accounts, Dkt. No. 1 ¶¶ 32-34, 36, the creation and use of U.S.- based virtual computer infrastructure to “mask[] the Russian origin and control” of those false online identities, id. ¶¶ 5, 39, and the use of email accounts under false names, id. ¶ 40. The indictment alleges that a purpose of these manifold acts of deception was to frustrate the lawful government functions of the United States. Id. ¶ 9; see also id. ¶ 5 (alleging that U.S.-based computer infrastructure was used “to avoid detection by U.S. regulators and law enforcement”); id. ¶ 58 (alleging later obstructive acts that reflect knowledge of U.S. regulation of conspirators’ conduct). Those allegations are sufficient to support the charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States regardless of whether the defendants agreed to engage in conduct that violated FECA or FARA because the “defraud clause does not depend on allegations of other offenses.”

Friedrich ruled against the trolls, except in doing so stated strongly that the government had conceded that they had to have been acting to impair lawful government functions, though not which specific relevant laws were at issue.

Although the § 371 conspiracy alleged does not require willfulness, the parties’ disagreement may be narrower than it first appears. The government concedes that § 371 requires the specific intent to carry out the unlawful object of the agreement—in this case, the obstruction of lawful government functions. Gov’t’s Opp’n at 16 (“Because Concord is charged with conspiring to defraud the United States, . . . the requisite mental state is the intent of impairing, obstructing, or defeating the lawful function of any department of government through deception.” (internal quotation marks omitted)). Further, the government agrees that to form the intent to impair or obstruct a government function, one must first be aware of that function. See Hr’g Tr. at 40 (“[Y]ou can’t act with an intent to impair a lawful government function if you don’t know about the lawful government function.”). Thus, Concord is correct—and the government does not dispute—that the government “must, at a minimum, show that Concord knew what ‘lawful governmental functions’ it was allegedly impeding or obstructing.” Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss at 22; Def.’s Reply at 5. Here, as alleged in the indictment, the government must show that Concord knew that it was impairing the “lawful functions” of the FEC, DOJ, or DOS “in administering federal requirements for disclosure of foreign involvement in certain domestic activities.” Indictment ¶ 9. But Concord goes too far in asserting that the Special Counsel must also show that Concord knew with specificity “how the relevant laws described those functions.” Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss at 22; Def.’s Reply at 5. A general knowledge that U.S. agencies are tasked with collecting the kinds of information the defendants agreed to withhold and conceal would suffice.

Then Concord shifted its efforts with a demand for a Bill of Particulars. The demand itself — and the government’s opposition — included a demand for information about co-conspirators and VPNs, yet another attempt to get intelligence rather than discovery. But Friedrich granted the motion with respect to the application of FECA and FARA.

In other words, it will be difficult for the government to establish that the defendants intended to use deceptive tactics to conceal their Russian identities and affiliations from the United States if the defendants had no duty to disclose that information to the United States in the first place. For that reason, the specific laws—and underlying conduct—that triggered such a duty are critical for Concord to know well in advance of trial so it can prepare its defense.

The indictment alleges that the defendants agreed to a course of conduct that would violate FECA’s and FARA’s disclosure requirements, see Indictment ¶¶ 7, 25–26, 48, 51, and provides specific examples of the kinds of expenditures and activities that required disclosure, see id. ¶¶ 48– 57. Concord, 347 F. Supp. 3d at 50. But the indictment does not cite the specific statutory and regulatory disclosure requirements that the defendants violated. Nor does it clearly identify which expenditures and activities violated which disclosure requirements. Accordingly, the Court will order the government to:

  • Identify any statutory or regulatory disclosure requirements whose administration the defendants allegedly conspired to impair, along with supporting citations to the U.S. Code, Code of Federal Regulations, or comparable authority.
  • With respect to FECA, identify each category of expenditures that the government intends to establish required disclosure to the FEC. See, e.g., Indictment ¶ 48 (alleging that the defendants or their co-conspirators “produce[d], purchase[d], and post[ed] advertisements on U.S. social media and other online sites expressly advocating for the election of then-candidate Trump or expressly opposing Clinton”) (emphasis added)). The government must also identify for each category of expenditures which disclosure provisions the defendants or their co-conspirators allegedly violated.
  • With respect to FARA, identify each category of activities that the government intends to establish triggered a duty to register as a foreign agent under FARA. See, e.g., id. ¶ 48 (same); id. ¶ 51 (alleging that the defendants or their coconspirators “organized and coordinated political rallies in the United States” (emphasis added)). The government must also identify for each category of activities which disclosure provisions the defendants or their co-conspirators allegedly violated.

In a supplemental motion for a bill of particulars, Concord asked which defendants were obliged to file with DOJ and FEC.

That came to a head last fall. In a September 16, 2019 hearing, both sides and Friedrich discussed at length precisely what the legal theory behind the conspiracy was. On Friedrich’s order, the government provided Concord a list of people (whose names were redacted) that,

the defendants conspired to cause some or all of the following individuals or organizations to act as agents of a foreign principal while concealing from those individuals that they were acting as agents of a foreign principal [who should register under FARA].

That is, whether or not this was the original theory of the case, by last fall the government made it clear that it wasn’t (just) Prigozhin or his trolls who needed to register; rather, it was (also) the Americans who were duped into acting and spending money on their behalf. But because they didn’t know they were working on behalf of a foreign principal, they did not register.

Meanwhile, in a motion for clarification, the government argued that it had always intended to include foreigners spending money in the indictment. Friedrich held that that had not actually been included in the original indictment.

These two issues — the claim that duped Americans would have had to register if they knew they were working with a foreign agent, and the need to strengthen the assertion about foreign campaign expenditures — forced the government to go back and supersede the original indictment.

DOJ obtains a superseding indictment with more specific (and potentially new) theories of the case

On November 8, 2019, the government obtained a superseding indictment to include language about foreign donations that Friedrich had ruled was not in the original indictment and language covering the duped Americans who had unknowingly acted as agents of Russian trolls.

New language in the superseding indictment provided more detail of reporting requirements.

¶1 U.S. law also requires reporting of certain election-related expenditures to the Federal Election Commission.

[snip]

U.S. also imposes an ongoing requirement for such foreign agents to register with the Attorney General.

The paragraph explaining the means of the ConFraudUS added detail about what FEC, DOJ, and State functions the trolls’ deceit had thwarted.

¶7 In order to carry out their activities to interfere in the U.S. political and electoral processes without detection of their Russian affiliation, Defendants conspired to obstruct through fraud and deceit lawful functions of the United States government in monitoring, regulating, and enforcing laws concerning foreign influence on and involvement in U.S. elections and the U.S. political system. These functions include (a) the enforcement of the statutory prohibition on certain election-related expenditures by foreign nationals; (b) the enforcement of the statutory requirements for filing reports in connection with certain election-related expenditures; (c) the enforcement of the statutory ban on acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign principal in the United States; (d) the enforcement of the statutory requirements for registration as an agent of a foreign principal (e) the enforcement of the requirement that foreign national seeking entry into the United States provide truthful and accurate information to the government. The defendants conspired to do so by obtaining visas through false and fraudulent statements, camouflaging their activities by foreign nationals as being conducted by U.S. persons, making unlawful expenditures and failing to report expenditures in connection with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and failing to register as foreign agents carrying out political activities within the United States, and by causing others to take these actions.

These allegations were repeated in ¶9 in the section laying out the ConFraudUs count.

The superseding indictment added a section describing what FEC and DOJ do.

¶25 One of the lawful functions of the Federal Election Commission is to monitor and enforce this prohibition. FECA also requires that individuals or entities who make certain independent expenditures in federal elections report those expenditures to the Federal Election Commission. Another lawful government function of the Federal Election Commission is to monitor and enforce this reporting requirement.

[snip]

¶26 The U.S. Department of Justice enforces the Foreign Agent Registration Act (“FARA”), which makes it illegal to act in the United States as an “agent of a foreign principal,” as defined at Title 22, United States Code, Section 661(c), without following certain registration, reporting, and disclosure requirements established by the Act. Under FARA, the term “foreign principal” includes foreign non-government individuals and entities. FARA requires, among other things, that persons subject to its requirements submit periodic registration statements containing truthful information about their activities and income earned from them. One of the lawful government functions of the Department of Justice is to monitor and enforce this registration, reporting, and disclosure regime.

In perhaps the most interesting addition, the superseding indictment also added language to include the actions of unwitting Americans.

¶48 …and caused unwitting persons to produce, purchase, and post advertisements on U.S. social media and other online sites expressly advocating for the election of then-candidate Trump or expressly opposing Clinton. Defendants and their co-conspirators did not report these expenditures to the Federal Election Commission, or register as foreign agents with the U.S. Department of Justice, nor did any of the unwitting persons they caused to engage in such activities.

The superseding indictment repeated this “unwitting” language in ¶51.

This superseding indictment is significant for two reasons, given the dismissal of the count against the two Concord defendants. First, the possibly changed theory of the conspiracy may have changed what evidence the government needed to prove the crime. For example, it may be that DOJ has evidence of IRA employees acknowledging, for the period of this indictment, that spending money on these activities was illegal, whether or not they knew they had to report such expenditures. It may be that DOJ has evidence of communications between the trolls and actual Americans they otherwise wouldn’t have had to rely on. It may be that DOJ has evidence about the regulatory knowledge of those same Americans about their own reporting obligations. Some of this evidence might well be classified.

Just as importantly, if Bill Barr wanted to jettison this prosecution, he could have done so last November by refusing to permit the superseding indictment. That likely would have undermined the case just as surely (and might have led Friedrich to dismiss it herself), and would have been far better for Trump’s messaging. Moreover, from that point in time, it would have been clear that trial might introduce evidence of how three Trump campaign officials coordinated (unknowingly) with the Russian trolls, something bound to embarrass Trump even if it posed no legal hazard. If Barr had wanted to undermine the prosecution to benefit Trump, November would have been the optimal time to do that, not February and March.

While it’s not clear whether this superseding indictment changed certain evidentiary challenges or not, three key strands of activity that seem to have resulted in the dismissal started only after the superseding: an effort to authenticate digital evidence on social media activity, an effort to subpoena some of that same evidence, and the CIPA process to try to substitute for classified information.

The government goes to some lengths to try to pre-approve normally routine evidence

The last of those efforts, chronologically, may hint at some of the evidentiary issues that led DOJ to drop the case.

In a motion submitted on February 17, the government sought to admit a great deal of the social media and related forensic data in the case. In many trials, this kind of evidence is stipulated into evidence, but here, Concord had been making it clear it would challenge the evidence at trial. So the government submitted a motion in limine to try to make sure it could get that evidence admitted in advance.

Among the issues raised in the motion was how the government planned to authenticate the IP addresses that tied the IRA trolls to specific Facebook and Twitter accounts and other members of the conspiracy (Prigozhin, Concord, and the interim shell companies) to each other. The government redacted significant sections of the filing describing how it intended to authenticate these ties (see, for example, the redaction on page 8, which by reference must discuss subscriber information and IP addresses, and footnote 7 on page 9, the redaction pertaining to how they were going to authenticate emails on page 16, the very long redaction on how they would authenticate emails between IRA and Concord starting on page 17, and the very long redaction on how they were going to authenticate Prigozhin to the IRA starting on page 21).

Concord got special permission to write an overly long 56-page response. Some of it makes it clear they’re undermining the government’s efforts to assert just that, for example on IP addresses.

IP addresses, subscriber information, and cookie data are not self-authenticating. The first link in the government’s authentication argument is that IP addresses,6 subscriber information, and cookie data are self-authenticating business records under Rules 803(6) and 902(11). But the cases the government cites are easily distinguishable and undercut its argument.

6 The IP addresses do not link an account to a specific location or fixed address. For example, for the Russian IP addresses the government indicates that they were somewhere within the city of St. Petersburg, Russia.

[snip]

It should come as no surprise then, given the lack of reliability and untrustworthiness in social media evidence such as that the government seeks to introduce, that the case law forecloses the government’s facile effort at authentication of content here. Unlike Browne, Lewisbey, and the other cases cited above, the government has offered no social media accounts bearing the name of any alleged conspirator and no pictures appearing to be a conspirator adorning such page.7 Nor has the government pointed to a single witness who can testify that she saw a conspirator sign up for the various social media accounts or send an email, or who can describe patterns of consistency across the various digital communications to indicate they come from the same source.

7 The government has indicated to Concord that it intends to introduce at trial Fed. R. Evid. 1006 summaries of IP address records, apparently to create the link between the social media accounts and IRA that is not addressed in the motion. See Ex. B, Jan. 6, 2020 letter. Despite repeated requests from undersigned counsel, the government has identified the 40 social media accounts for it intends to summarize but has not provided the summaries or indicated when it will do so.

Some of this is obviously bullshit, particularly given the government’s contention, elsewhere, that Concord (or IRA, if it was a typo) had dedicated IP addresses. Mostly, though, it appears to have been an attempt to put sand in the wheels of normal criminal prosecution by challenging stuff that is normally routine. That doesn’t mean it’s improper, from a defense standpoint. But given how often DOJ’s nation-state indictments rely on such forensic evidence, it’s a warning about potential pitfalls to them.

The government resorts to CIPA

Even while the government had originally set out to prove this case using only unclassified information, late in the process, it decided it needed to use the Classified Information Procedures Act. That process is where one would look for any evidence that Barr sabotaged the prosecution by classifying necessary evidence (though normally the approval for CIPA could come from Assistant Attorney General for National Security Division John Demers, who is not the hack that Barr is).

In October 2019, Friedrich had imposed a deadline for CIPA if the government were going to use it, of January 20, 2020.

On December 17, the government asked for a two week delay, “to ensure appropriate coordination within the Executive Branch that must occur prior to the filing of the motion,” a request Friedrich denied (even though Concord did not oppose it). This was likely when the classification determination referenced in the motion to withdraw was debated, given that such determinations would dictate what prosecutors had to do via CIPA.

On January 10, 2020, the government filed its first motion under CIPA Section 4, asking to substitute classified information for discovery and use at trial. According to the docket, Friedrich discussed CIPA issues at a hearing on January 24. Then on January 29 and February 10, she posted classified orders to the court security officer, presumably as part of the CIPA discussion.

On February 13, the government asked for and obtained a one-day extension to file a follow-up CIPA filing, from February 17 to February 18, “to complete necessary consultation within the Executive Branch regarding the filing and to ensure proper supervisory review.” If Barr intervened on classification issues, that’s almost certainly when he did, because this happened days after Barr intervened on February 11 in Roger Stone’s sentencing and after Jonathan Kravis, who had been one of the lead prosecutors in this case as well, quit in protest over Barr’s Stone intervention. At the very least, in the wake of that fiasco, Timothy Shea made damn sure he ran his decision by Barr. But the phrase, “consultation within the Executive Branch,” certainly entertains consultation with whatever agency owned the classified information prosecutors were deciding whether they could declassify (and parallels the language used in the earlier request for a filing extension). And Adam Jed, who had been part of the Mueller team, was added to the team not long before this and remained on it through the dismissal, suggesting nothing akin to what happened with Stone happened here.

The government submitted its CIPA filing on the new deadline of February 18, Friedrich issued an order the next day, the government filed another CIPA filing on February 20, Friedrich issued another order on February 28.

Under CIPA, if a judge rules that evidence cannot be substituted, the government can either choose not to use that evidence in trial or drop the prosecution. It’s likely that Friedrich ruled that, if the government wanted to use the evidence in question, they had to disclose it to Concord, including Prigozhin, and at trial. In other words, that decision — and the two earlier consultations (from December to early January, and then again in mid-February) within the Executive Branch — are likely where classification issues helped sink the prosecution.

It’s certainly possible Bill Barr had a key role in that. But there’s no explicit evidence of it. And there’s abundant reason to believe that Prigozhin’s extensive efforts to use the prosecution as an intelligence-gathering exercise both for ongoing disinformation efforts and to optimize ongoing trolling efforts was a more important consideration. Barr may be an asshole, but there’s no evidence in the public record to think that in this case, Prigozhin wasn’t the key asshole behind a decision.

DOJ attempts to treat Concord as a legit party to the court’s authority

Even before that CIPA process started playing out, beginning on December 3, the government pursued an ultimately unsuccessful effort to subpoena Concord. This may have been an attempt to obtain via other means evidence that either had been obtained using means that DOJ had since decided to classify or the routine authentication of which Concord planned to challenge.

DOJ asked to subpoena a number of things that would provide details of how Concord and Prigozhin personally interacted with the trolls. Among other requests, the government asked to subpoena Concord for the IP addresses it used during the period of the indictment (precisely the kind of evidence that Concord would later challenge).

3. Documents sufficient to identify any Internet Protocol address used by Concord Management and Consulting LLC from January 1, 2014 to February 1, 2018.

Concord responded with a load of absolute bullshit about why, under Russian law, Concord could not comply with a subpoena. Judge Friedrich granted the some of the government’s request (including for IP addresses), but directed the government to more narrowly tailor its other subpoena requests.

On December 20, the government renewed its request for other materials, providing some evidence of why it was sure Concord had responsive materials. Concord quickly objected again, again wailing mightily. In its reply, the government reminded Friedrich that she had the ability to order Concord to comply with the subpoena — and indeed, had gotten Concord’s assurances it would comply with orders of the court when it first decided to defend against the charges. It even included a declaration from an expert on Russian law, Paul Stephan, debunking many of the claims Concord had made about Russian law. Concord wailed, again. On January 24, Friedrich approved the 3 categories of the subpoena she had already approved. On January 29, the government tried again, narrowing the request even to — in one example — specific days.

Calendar entries reflecting meetings between Prigozhin and “Misha Lakhta” on or about January 27, 2016, February 1, 2016, February 2, 2016, February 14, 2016, February 23, 2016, February 29, 2016, May 22, 2016, May 23, 2016, May 28, 2016, May 29, 2016, June 7, 2016, June 27, 2016, July 1, 2016, September 22, 2016, October 5, 2016, October 23, 2016, October 30, 2016, November 6, 2016, November 13, 2016, November 26, 2016, December 3, 2016, December 5, 2016, December 29, 2016, January 19, 2017, and February 1, 2017.

Vast swaths of the motion (and five exhibits) explaining why the government was sure that Concord had the requested records are sealed. Concord responded, wailing less, but providing a helpful geography lesson to offer some alternative explanation for the moniker “Lakhta,” which the government has long claimed was the global term for Prigozhin’s information war against the US and other countries.

But the government fails to inform the Court that “Lakhta” actually means a multitude of other things, including: Lake Lakhta, a lake in the St. Petersburg area, and Lakhta Center, the tallest building in Europe, which is located in an area within St. Petersburg called the Lakhta-Olgino Municipal Okrug.

On February 7, Friedrich largely granted the government’s subpoena request, approving subpoenas to get communications involving Prigozhin and alleged co-conspirators, as well as records of payments and emails discussing them.  That same day and again on February 21, Concord claimed that it had communicated with the government with regards to the subpoenas, but what would soon be clear was non-responsive.

On February 27, the government moved to show cause for why Concord should not be held in contempt for blowing off the subpoenas, including the request for IP addresses and the entirety of the second subpoena (for meetings involving Prigozhin and records of payments to IRA). Concord wailed in response. The government responded by summarizing Concord’s response:

Concord’s 18-page pleading can be distilled to three material points: Concord’s attorneys will not make any representations about compliance; Concord will not otherwise make any representations about compliance; and Concord will not comply with a court order to send a representative to answer for its production. The Court should therefore enter a contempt order and impose an appropriate sanction to compel compliance.

Friedrich issued an order that subpoena really does mean subpoena, demanding some kind of representation from Concord explaining its compliance.  In response, Prigozhin sent a declaration partly stating that his businesses had deleted all available records, partly disclaiming an ability to comply because he had played games with corporate structure.

With respect to category one in the February 10, 2020 trial subpoena, Concord never had any calendar entries for me during the period before I became General Director, and I became General Director after February 1, 2018, so no searches were able to be performed in Concord’s documents. Concord did not and does not have access to the previous General Director’s telephone from which the prosecution claims to have obtained photographs of calendars and other documents, so Concord is unable to confirm the origin of such photographs.

He claimed to be unable to comply with the request for IP addresses because his contractors “cannot” provide them.

In order to comply with category three in the trial subpoena dated January 24, 2020, in Concord’s records I found contracts between Concord and Severen-Telecom JSC and Unitel LLC, the two internet service providers with which Concord contracted between January 1, 2014 and February 1, 2018. Because these contracts do not identify the internet protocol (“IP”) addresses used by Concord during that period, on January 7, 2020 I sent letters on behalf of Concord to Severen-Telecom JSC and Unitel LLC transmitting copies of these contracts and requesting that the companies advise as to which IP addresses were provided to or used by Concord during that period. Copies of these letters and English translations, as well as the attached contracts, are attached as Exhibits 2 and 3. Severen-Telecom JSC responded in writing that the requested information cannot be provided. A copy of Severen-Telecom JSC’s letter and an English translation are attached as Exhibit 2. Unitel LLC responded that information regarding IP addresses cannot be provided. A copy of Unitel LLC’s letter and an English translation of is attached as Exhibit 3. Accordingly, Concord does not have any documents that could be provided in response to category three (3) of the January 24, 2020 subpoena.

The government responded by pointing out how bogus Prigozhin’s declaration was, not least his insistence that any oligarch like him would really be the person in charge of his companies’ record-keeping. It also described evidence — which is redacted — that Concord had an in-house IT provider at the time (though notes that “as the Court knows, it appears that Concord [sic; this is probably IRA] registered and maintained multiple dedicated IP addresses during the relevant time period”). It further noted that the date that Prigozhin claimed his company started destroying records after 3 months perfectly coincided to cover the start date of this subpoena. In short, it provided fairly compelling evidence that Prigozhin, after agreeing that his company would be subject to the authority of the court when it first filed an appearance in the case, was trolling the court from the safety of Russia.

On March 5, Judge Friedrich nevertheless allowed that bullshit response in her court and declined to hold Concord in contempt. Eleven days later, the government moved to dismiss the case.

The government files the motion to dismiss before the evidentiary dispute finishes but after the subpoena and CIPA fail

On March 16 — 17 days after what appears to be the final CIPA order and 11 days after Friedrich declined to hold Concord or Prigozhin in contempt, and one day before the government was due to file a follow-up to its motion in limine to authenticate normally routine evidence in the case — the government moved to dismiss the case.

While it’s unclear what evidence was deemed to be classified late in the prosecution (likely in December), it seems fairly clear that it affected (and possibly was a source or method used to collect) key forensic proof in the case. It’s also unclear whether an honest response to the government’s trial subpoenas would have replaced that evidence.

What is clear, however, is that there is sufficient explanation in the public record to support the government’s explanation — that Prigozhin was using the prosecution to reap benefits of obtaining information about US government efforts to thwart his activities without risking anything himself. And whether or not the government would be able to prove its case with the classification and CIPA decisions reflected in the docket, the trial itself would shift more evidence into the category of information that would get shared with Prigozhin.

None of that disproves that Barr sabotaged the case. But it does provide sufficient evidence to explain why DOJ dismissed the case, without assuming that Barr sabotaged it.

Other cases of interest

As noted above, not only do the identity theft related charges remain, but so does the ConFraudUS case for all the biological defendants, including Prigozhin. It may be that, given the opportunity to imprison Prigozhin in the highly unlikely event that he ever showed up in the US for trial, the classification trade-offs would be very different.

But there are three other legal issues of interest, given this outcome.

First, there’s one more unsurprising detail about the superseding indictment: It also included an end-date, January 2018. That’s not surprising because adding later activities probably would presented all sorts of problems given how advanced the trial was last November. But it’s also significant because it means double jeopardy would not attach for later activities. So the government could, if the calculus on classification ever changed, simply charge all the things Prigozhin and his trolls have been doing since January 2018 in an indictment charged under its revised theory.

That’s particularly significant given that, in September 2018, prosecutors in EDVA charged Prigozhin’s accountant, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova. Even at the time, I imagined it might be a vehicle to move the IRA prosecution if anything happened to it in DC. Unsurprisingly, given that she’s the accountant at the center of all this, the Khusyaynova complaint focused more closely on the money laundering part of the prosecution. Plus, that complaint incorporated evidence of Prigozhin’s trolls reveling in their own indictment, providing easy proof of knowledge of the legal claims DOJ made that didn’t exist for the earlier indictment. None of that would change the calculus around classified evidence (indeed, some of the overt acts described in the Khusyaynova complaint seem like the kind of evidence that Prigozhin would have turned over had he complied with the Concord subpoena. So there is another vehicle for such a prosecution, if DOJ wanted to pursue it.

Finally, Prigozhin has not succeeded with all his attempts to wage lawfare in support of his disinformation efforts. In January, he lost his bid to force Facebook to reinstate his fake news site, Federal Agency of News, based off an argument that because Facebook worked so closely with the government, it cannot exercise its own discretion on its private site. As I laid out here, the suit intersected with both the IRA indictment and Khusyaynova complaint, and engaged in similar kinds of corporate laundry and trollish bullshit. The decision was a no-brainer decision based on Section 230 grounds, giving providers immunity when they boot entities from their services. But the decision also confirms what is already evident: when it comes to shell companies in the business of trolling, thus far whack-a-mole removals have worked more consistently than seemingly symbolic prosecution.

DOJ may well revisit how it charged this to try to attach a FARA liability onto online disinformation. But ultimately the biological humans, not the corporation shells or the bots, need to be targeted.

The Kinds and Significance of Russian Interference — 2016 and 2020

Trump’s meltdown last week — in which he purged top staffers at the Director of National Intelligence after a briefing on Russian interference in the 2020 election, followed by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien making shit up on Meet the Press — has created a firestorm about Russian interference in the 2020 election. That firestorm, however, has spun free of what ways Russia interfered in 2016 and what effect it had.

Five ways Russia interfered in 2016

First, remember that there were at least five ways Russia interfered in 2016:

  • Stealing information then releasing it in a way that treats it as dirt
  • Creating on-going security challenges for Hillary
  • Using trolls to magnify divisions and feed disinformation
  • Tampering with the voting infrastructure
  • Influence peddling and/or attempting to recruit Trump aides for policy benefits

Stealing information then releasing it in a way that treats it as dirt

The most obvious way Russia interfered in 2016 was by hacking the DNC, DCCC, and John Podesta (it also hacked some Republicans it did not like). It released both the DNC and Podesta data in such a way as to exaggerate any derogatory information in the releases, successfully distracting the press for much of the campaign and focusing attention on Hillary rather than Trump. It released DCCC information that was of some use for Republican candidates.

Roger Stone took steps — not all of which are public yet — to optimize this effort. In the wake of Stone’s efforts, he moved to pay off one participant in this effort by trying to get a pardon for Julian Assange.

Creating on-going security challenges for Hillary

In addition to creating a messaging problem, the hack-and-leak campaign created ongoing security challenges for Hillary. Someone who played a key role in InfoSec on the campaign has described the Russian effort as a series of waves of attacks. The GRU indictment describes one of those waves — the efforts to hack Hillary’s personal server — which came in seeming response to Trump’s “Russia are you listening” comment. An attack that is often forgotten, and from a data perspective was likely one of the most dangerous, involved a month-long effort to obtain Hillary’s analytics from the campaign’s AWS server.

Whatever happened with this data, the persistence of these attacks created additional problems for Hillary, as her staff had to spend time playing whack-a-mole with Russian hackers rather than optimizing their campaign efforts.

Using trolls to magnify divisions and feed disinformation

Putin’s “chef,” Yevgeniy Prigozhin, also had staffers from his troll factory in St. Petersburg shift an ongoing campaign that attempted to sow division in the US to adopt a specific campaign focus, pushing Trump and attacking Hillary. Importantly, Prigozhin’s US-based troll effort was part of a larger multinational effort. And it was in no way the only disinformation and trolling entity involved in the election. Both parties did some of this, other countries did some, and mercenaries trying to exploit social media algorithms for profit did some as well.

Tampering with the voting infrastructure

Russia also tampered with US voting infrastructure. In 2016, this consisted of probing most states and accessing voter rolls in at least two, though there’s no evidence that Russian hackers made any changes. In addition, Russian hackers targeted a vendor that provided polling books, with uncertain results. The most substantive evidence of possible success affecting the vote in 2016 involved failures of polling books in Durham County, NC, which created a real slowdown in voting in one of the state’s most Democratic areas.

In recent days, there have been reports of a ransomware attack hitting Palm Beach County in September 2016, but it is unclear whether this was part of the Russian effort.

Because there’s no certainty whether the Russian hack of VR Systems was behind the Durham County problems, there’s no proof that any of these efforts affected the outcome. But they point to the easiest way to use hacking to do so: by making it harder for voters in particular areas to vote and harder for specific localities to count the vote.

Some of what Russia did in 2016 — such as probes of a particularly conservative county in FL — may have been part of Russia’s effort to discredit the outcome. They didn’t fully deploy this effort because Trump won.

Influence peddling and/or attempting to recruit Trump aides for policy benefits

Finally, Russia accompanied its other efforts with various kinds of influence peddling targeting Trump’s aides. It was not the only country that did so: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, UAE, and Israel were some of the others. Foreign countries were similarly trying to target Hillary’s campaign — and the UAE effort, at least, targeted both campaigns at once, through George Nader.

Importantly, however, these efforts intersected with Russia’s other efforts to interfere in the election in ways that tied specific policy outcomes to Russia’s interference:

  • An unrealistically lucrative Trump Tower deal involved a former GRU officer and sanctioned banks
  • At a meeting convened to offer Trump dirt about Hillary, Don Jr agreed in principle to revisit ending Magnitsky sanctions if Trump won
  • George Papadopoulos pitched ending sanctions to Joseph Mifsud, who had alerted him that Russia had emails they intended to drop to help Trump
  • Paul Manafort had a meeting that tied winning the Rust Belt, carving up Ukraine, and getting paid personally together; the meeting took place against the background of sharing internal polling data throughout the campaign

As I’ll note in a follow-up, information coming out in FOIAed 302s makes it clear that Mike Flynn’s effort to undercut Obama’s December 2016 sanctions was more systematic than the Mueller Report concludes. So not only did Russia make it clear it wanted sanctions relief, Trump moved to give it to them even before he got elected (and his Administration found a way to exempt Oleg Deripaska from some of these sanctions).

Manafort continued to pursue efforts to carve up Ukraine until he went to jail. In addition, Trump continues to take actions that undercut Ukraine’s efforts to fight Russia and corruption. Neither of these have been tied to a specific quid pro quo (though the investigation into Manafort’s actions, especially, remained inconclusive at the time of the Mueller Report).

So while none of these was charged as a quid pro quo or a conspiracy (and the reasons why they weren’t vary; Manafort lied about what he was doing, and why, whereas Mueller couldn’t prove Don Jr had the mens rea of entering into a quid pro quo), Russia tied certain policy outcomes to its interference.

Trump’s narcissism and legal exposure exacerbated the effects

The Russian attack was more effective than it otherwise would have been for two reasons. First, because he’s a narcissist and because Russia built in plausible deniability, Trump refused to admit that Russia did try to help him. Indeed, he clings more and more to Russian disinformation about what happened, leading the IC to refuse to brief him on the threat, leading to last week’s meltdown.

In addition, rather than let FBI investigate the people who had entered into discussions of a quid pro quo, Trump obstructed the investigation. Trump has spent years now attacking the rule of law and institutions of government rather than admit what DOJ IG found — there was reason to open the investigation, or admit what DOJ found — there was reason to prosecute six of his aides for lying about what happened.

The Russian effort was just one of the reasons Hillary lost

It’s also important to remember that Russia’s interference was just one of the many things that contributed to Hillary’s loss.

Other aspects were probably more important. For example, Republican voter suppression, particularly in Wisconsin and North Carolina, was far more important than any effect the VR Systems hack may have had in Durham County. Jim Comey’s public statements about the email investigation had at least as much effect as the Russian hack-and-leak campaign did on press focus. Hillary made some boneheaded choices — like barely campaigning in WI and MI; while I had worried that she made those choices because Russia tampered with her analytics (with the AWS hack), that doesn’t seem to have happened. Disinformation sent by the Trump campaign and associates was more significant than Russian disinformation. It didn’t help that the Obama Administration announced a sharp spike in ObamaCare prices right before the election.

The response matters

As noted, Trump’s narcissism dramatically increased the effect of the Russian efforts in 2016, because he has always refused to admit it happened.

Compare that to Bernie’s response to learning that Russia was trying to help his campaign, which accepted that it is happening and rejected the help.

“I don’t care, frankly, who [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants to be president,” Sanders said in a statement. “My message to Putin is clear: Stay out of American elections, and as president I will make sure that you do.

“In 2016, Russia used Internet propaganda to sow division in our country, and my understanding is that they are doing it again in 2020. Some of the ugly stuff on the Internet attributed to our campaign may well not be coming from real supporters.”

This was not perfect — Bernie could have revealed this briefing himself weeks ago, Bernie blamed the WaPo for reporting it when it seems like the story was seeded by O’Brien. But it was very good, in that it highlighted the point of Russian interference — sowing divisions — and it reaffirmed the import of Americans selecting who wins. Plus, contrary to Trump, there’s no reason to believe Bernie would pursue policies that specifically advantaged Russia.

Other factors remain more important than Russian interference

There’s very serious reason to be concerned that Russia will hack the outcome of 2020. After all, it would need only to affect the outcome in a small number of precincts to tip the result, and the prospect of power outages or ransomware doing so in urgent fashion have grown since 2016.

That said, as with 2016, there are far more urgent concerns, and those concerns are entirely American.

Republicans continue to seek out new ways to suppress the vote, including by throwing large swaths of voters off the rolls without adequate vetting. There are real concerns about voting machines, particularly in Georgia (and there are credible concerns about the reliability of GA’s tally in past elections). Republicans have continued to make polling locations less accessible in Democratic precincts than in Republican ones.

Facebook refuses to police the accuracy of political ads, and Trump has flooded Facebook with disinformation.

And Bloomberg’s efforts this year — which include a good deal of trolling and disinformation — are unprecedented in recent memory. His ad spending has undercut the ability to weigh candidates. And his personnel spending is increasing the costs for other candidates.

Russian efforts to sway the vote are real. Denying them — as some of Bernie’s supporters are doing in ways that hurt the candidate — does not help. But, assuming DHS continues to work with localities to ensure the integrity of voting infrastructure, neither does overplaying them. Between now and November there’s far more reason to be concerned about American-funded disinformation and American money distorting our democratic process.

The Frothy Right Is Complaining that Amy Berman Jackson Sentenced Roger Stone to 57% of Lower Guidelines

In the aftermath of the news of Roger Stone’s sentence yesterday, some of DOJ’s beat journalists are doing irresponsible pieces giving Bill Barr’s close associates anonymity to lie, with no pushback, about what happened.

Another Justice Department official called Stone’s sentence a “vindication” of the attorney general’s decision last week to insert himself into the process, calling for a revised sentencing memorandum that undercut the line prosecutors’ prior recommendation of seven to nine years in prison. Four prosecutors quit the Stone case over the disagreement, and current and former Justice Department officials grew alarmed Trump was short-circuiting the law enforcement agency’s traditional independence. More than 2,600 former employees have signed onto a letter calling on Barr to resign over his handling of the matter.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson in no way vindicated Bill Barr’s intervention, and any experienced DOJ reporter passing on the claim unchallenged is doing their readers a gross disservice.

Worse still, confusion about what happened yesterday has permitted the frothy right to attack ABJ for what was a lenient sentence.

So I’d like to show how ABJ came up with her sentence. It shows that ABJ sentenced Stone to 57% of the sentence she judged the guidelines call for.

Probation Recommendation: 70-87 months

Between the original sentencing memo and Stone’s own memo, we can obtain what probation initially recommended. It started with a base offense level for Stone’s Obstruction, False Statements, and Witness Tampering of 14 (which would result in a 15 to 21 month guidelines sentence). Then it added four enhancements (Stone even cites the paragraphs of the presentencing report where Probation recommended these enhancements). First, it called for an 8-level enhancement under U.S.S.G. §2J1.2(b)(1)(B), which reads (PDF 243):

If the offense involved causing or threatening to cause physical injury to a person, or property damage, in order to obstruct the administration of justice, increase by 8 levels.

Next, it called for a 3-level enhancement for substantial interference with the administration of justice under U.S.S.G. §2J1.2(b)(1)(2) (meaning, the obstruction worked):

If the offense resulted in substantial interference with the administration of justice, increase by 3 levels.

Probation called for a 2-level enhancement under U.S.S.G. §2J1.2(b)(3)(C) for the extensive nature of Stone’s obstruction:

If the offense … (C) was otherwise extensive in scope, planning, or preparation, increase by 2 levels.

Given a footnote in Stone’s memo (and something ABJ said in the hearing yesterday), it appears that the government objected to the original January 16 recommendation from the Probation office and convinced them to apply this enhancement.

Obstruction of Justice 2 U.S.S.G. §2J1.2(b)(3)(C) 2 level increase ¶77

2 Government’s Objection to Presentence Investigation Report, dated January 30, 2020.

Finally, it called for a 2-level enhancement U.S.S.G. §3C1.1 2 for obstruction of this proceeding (meaning, his prosecution for the original obstruction charge; this is at PDF 367).

If (1) the defendant willfully obstructed or impeded, or attempted to obstruct or impede, the administration of justice with respect to the investigation, prosecution, or sentencing of the instant offense of conviction, and (2) the obstructive conduct related to (A) the defendant’s offense of conviction and any relevant conduct; or (B) a closely related offense, increase the offense level by 2 levels.

The sentencing table can be found at PDF 415. It provides a range of 87 to 108 months for a first time offender, as Stone is.

According to the transcript, however, the final recommendation did not apply the 2-level enhancement for the extensive obstruction. That provides a range for 70-87 months.

Prosecution Recommendation: 87-108 months

In May 2017, Jeff Sessions issued an order stating that “prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense,” which are, “by definition … those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence.” It also stated that, “In most cases, recommending a sentence within the advisory guideline range will be appropriate.”

ABJ noted this policy yesterday in the sentencing hearing.

And that’s what the prosecution team did — recommend the same 87 to 108 months the Probation Office came up with. They justified each of the enhancements in their sentencing memo.

They argued the witness tampering enhancement was justified — even in spite of Randy Credico’s letter asking for leniency — because Credico still expressed fear that Stone’s associates might respond to his threats by attacking him, and because the threat itself triggers the enhancement.

Pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 2J1.2(b)(1)(B), eight levels are added because the offense “involved causing or threatening to cause physical injury to a person, or property damage, in order to obstruct the administration of justice.” As detailed above, as part of Stone’s campaign to keep Credico silent, Stone told Credico in writing, “Prepare to die, cocksucker.” Stone also threatened (again in writing) to “take that dog away from you.” Stone may point to the letter submitted by Credico and argue that he did not have a serious plan to harm Credico or that Credico did not seriously believe that Stone would follow through on his threats. But Credico testified that Stone’s threats concerned him because he was worried that Stone’s words, if repeated in public, might make “other people get ideas.” Tr. 11/8/19, at 795.

In any event, it is the threat itself, not the likelihood of carrying out the threat, that triggers the enhancement. Endeavoring to tamper with a witness can involve a wide range of conduct. This enhancement recognizes that when the conduct involves threats of injury or property damage, rather than simple persuasion for example, the base offense level does not accurately capture the seriousness of the crime. To apply the enhancement, there is no “additional ‘seriousness’ requirement beyond the fact of a violent threat.” See United States v. Plumley, 207 F.3d 1086, 1089-1091 (8th Cir. 2000) (applying § 2J1.2(b)(1)(B) to a defendant who told coconspirators to “‘keep our mouth shut,’ because if anyone cooperated with the police he would ‘kick our ass’”); United States v. Bakhtairi, 714 F.3d 1057, 1061 (8th Cir. 2013) (holding there was no seriousness requirement and applying § 2J1.2(b)(1) to a defendant who wrote a menacing email, displayed a loaded rifle to a law partner, and doctored photographs of witnesses children to “add . . . crosshairs”); United States v. Smith, 387 F.3d 826, (9th Cir. 2004) (applying § 2J1.2(b)(1)(B) to a defendant who threatened to kill a witness and “kick [her] ass,” and noting that § 2J1.2(b)(1) does not contain a “seriousness requirement”).

Prosecutors argued the 3-level enhancement for substantial interference was justified because Stone’s obstruction led HPSCI not to call Jerome Corsi and not to subpoena Corsi and Credico for documents, both of which led to errors in the HPSCI report.

Pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 2J1.2(b)(2), three levels are added because the offense resulted in substantial interference with the administration of justice. Because of Stone’s conduct, the House Intelligence Committee never received important documents, never heard from Credico (who pled the Fifth), and never heard from Corsi (who was never identified to the Committee as the real “back-channel” that Stone had referenced in August 2016). The Committee’s report even wrongly stated that there was no evidence contradicting Stone’s claim that all his information about WikiLeaks was from publicly available sources.

Prosecutors argued that the multi-year effort Stone engaged in merited the 2-level enhancement because of his obstruction’s extensive scope.

Pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 2B1.2(b)(3)(C), two levels are added because the offense was otherwise extensive in scope, planning, or preparation. Stone engaged in a multi-year scheme involving (1) false statements in sworn testimony; (2) the concealment of important documentary evidence; (3) further lies in a written submission to Congress; and (4) a relentless and elaborate campaign to silence Credico that involved cajoling, flattering, crafting forged documents, badgering, and threatening Credico’s reputation, friend, life, and dog. Stone’s efforts were as extensive, if not more extensive, than those of other defendants who received this two-level enhancement at sentencing. See, e.g., United States v. Petruk, 836 F.3d 974 (8th Cir. 2016) (enlisting a friend to create a false alibi and scripting a false confession); United States v. Jensen, 248 Fed. Appx. 849 (10th Cir. 2007) (giving advance notice of testing and falsifying results of tests).

Finally, prosecutors argued for a 2-level enhancement for all the violations of ABJ’s orders during the trial, notably his implicit threat against her.

Finally, pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 3C1.1, two levels are added because the defendant “willfully obstructed or impeded, or attempted to obstruct or impede, the administration of justice with respect to the prosecution of the instant offense of conviction.” Shortly after the case was indicted, Stone posted an image of the presiding judge with a crosshair next to her head. In a hearing to address, among other things, Stone’s ongoing pretrial release, Stone gave sworn testimony about this matter that was not credible. Stone then repeatedly violated a more specific court order by posting messages on social media about matters related to the case.

This enhancement is warranted based on that conduct. See U.S.S.G. § 3C1.C Cmt. 4(F) (“providing materially false information to a magistrate or judge”); see, e.g., United States v. Lassequ, 806 F.3d 618, 625 (1st Cir. 2015) (“Providing false information to a judge in the course of a bail hearing can serve as a basis for the obstruction of justice enhancement.”); United States v. Jones, 911 F. Supp. 54 (S.D.N.Y. 1996) (applying §3C1.1 enhancement to a defendant who submitted false information at hearing on modifying defendant’s conditions of release).

Prosecutors then showed how, under the guidelines, this adds up to an 87 to 108 month sentence.

Accordingly, Stone’s total offense level is 29 (14 + 8 + 3 + 2 + 2), and his Criminal History Category is I. His Guidelines Range is therefore 87-108 months.

Barr Recommendation: 30-46 months

In addition to violating DOJ policy of not deviating downwards from the Probation recommendation, the memo submitted under John Crabb Jr’s name (which his statements yesterday strongly indicate he did not write) offered little justification for why it was deviating from the Probation Office recommendation and never ultimately made a recommendation. But the memo suggested two of the enhancements — the 8-level enhancement for making a threat, and the 2-level enhancement for threatening ABJ — should not apply.

The memo suggested the 8-level enhancement shouldn’t apply, first, because doing so would double Stone’s exposure.

Notably, however, the Sentencing Guidelines enhancements in this case—while perhaps technically applicable— more than double the defendant’s total offense level and, as a result, disproportionately escalate the defendant’s sentencing exposure to an offense level of 29, which typically applies in cases involving violent offenses, such as armed robbery, not obstruction cases. Cf. U.S.S.G. § 2B3.1(a)-(b). As explained below, removing these enhancements would have a significant effect on the defendant’s Guidelines range. For example, if the Court were not to apply the eight-level enhancement for threatening a witness with physical injury, it would result in the defendant receiving an advisory Guidelines range of 37 to 46 months, which as explained below is more in line with the typical sentences imposed in obstruction cases.

It pointed to Credico’s letter to justify ignoring it.

First, as noted above, the most serious sentencing enhancement in this case—the eightlevel enhancement under Section 2J1.2(b)(1)(B) for “threatening to cause physical injury”—has been disputed by the victim of that threat, Randy Credico, who asserts that he did not perceive a genuine threat from the defendant but rather stated that “I never in any way felt that Stone himself posed a direct physical threat to me or my dog.” (ECF No. 273). While Mr. Credico’s subjective beliefs are not dispositive as to this enhancement, the Court may consider them when assessing the impact of applying the enhancement – particularly given the significant impact that the enhancement has on the defendant’s total Guidelines range.

Then, Barr’s memo argued (and this is the truly outrageous argument) that Stone’s attempts to obstruct his own prosecution overlapped with his efforts to obstruct the HPSCI investigation.

Second, the two-level enhancement for obstruction of justice (§ 3C1.1) overlaps to a degree with the offense conduct in this case. Moreover, it is unclear to what extent the Second, the two-level enhancement for obstruction of justice (§ 3C1.1) overlaps to a degree with the offense conduct in this case. Moreover, it is unclear to what extent the

Effectively, this language treated threats against a judge as unworthy of enhancement.

Probably the only part of this memo that really affected ABJ’s sentence was a discussion of avoiding disparities in sentencing, where it mentions Scooter Libby’s 30 month sentence (and Manafort’s obstruction-related sentence, by ABJ, which was just one part of her 7.5 year sentence of him).

Third, the Court must “avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities.” See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6). In its prior filing, the Government directed the Court’s attention to a non-exhaustive list of witness tampering, false statement, and obstruction of justice cases that resulted in sentences of thirty months (Libby), thirteen months (Manafort), six months (Lavelle), twelve months (Hansen), and thirty-five months (Solofa). While these cases involved lesser offense conduct, the sentences imposed constituted a fraction of the penalty suggested by the advisory Guidelines in this case.

In comments to Lindsey Graham, Bill Barr said he thought the guidelines should say 3.5-4.5 years, slightly more than the guidelines if the witness tampering were removed, but if you eliminate both the witness tampering and obstruction of proceedings enhancement the range would be 30-47 months.

ABJ Guidelines Calculation: 70-87 months

In court yesterday, ABJ started by going through the recommended sentence. Ultimately, she did the following with the guidelines (h/t Andrew Prokop for his great live tweeting):

  • Accepted the 8-level enhancement for witness tampering, but said she’d take Credico’s comments into account
  • Accepted the 3-level enhancement for substantial interference, noting that HPSCI was totally diverted by focusing on Credico
  • Rejected the 2-level enhancement for the extensive nature of Stone’s obstruction (thereby agreeing with the original Probation office recommendation)
  • Accepted the 2-level enhancement for Stone’s obstruction in this prosecution

That works out to a base level of 14 + 8 for the witness tampering threat + 3 for substantial interference + 2 for his obstruction in this prosecution. As ABJ calculated in court yesterday, that amounts to a guidelines offense level of 27, or a guidelines range of 70 to 87 months.

Importantly, these decisions mean ABJ disagreed with both the recommendations made in the Barr memo that she throw out the witness tampering threat and Stone’s interference in this trial (which included the threat against her).

Contrary to what the WaPo lets DOJ claim under cover of anonymity, this in no way vindicates Barr. Rather, it rebukes him, stating that neither of his interventions are valid.

ABJ Sentence: 40 months

Nevertheless, ABJ came up with a sentence of 40 months, a sentence that’s solidly in the range of what Barr wanted (and therefore a sentence he’s on the record as saying is just for Stone’s crimes).

ABJ got there, in part, by taking Credico’s comments into consideration, while still treating Stone’s threat as real. She got there in part by arguing that the sentencing guidelines are “inflated” — something anathema to Bill Barr’s policies at DOJ, and a stance that would say all defendants should be sentenced more leniently, not just Trump’s rat-fucker.

In her sentence, she explicitly said she was ignoring Trump’s comments and comments from the left asking for harsh punishment.

Ultimately, ABJ calculated the guidelines — which she said were inflated (and would be for all defendants) — at 70-87 months. She then sentenced Stone to 57% of the lower end of those guidelines.

And that is what has the frothy right in a tizzy — that she extended Roger Stone the same leniency that she would extend to other defendants, in defiance of Bill Barr’s demands that every defendant not covering up for the President be sentenced harshly.

This is in no way a vindication of Bill Barr. It is also, in no way, abusive.

Update: This has been updated to reflect what the transcript says about the final probation recommendation.

The President’s Conspiracy Theories Get More Whacko than George Papadopoulos’

Perhaps because the entire legal establishment is pushing back against Bill Barr’s wholesale politicization of DOJ, the President is disturbed on Twitter. After launching a 3-tweet tirade against juror Tameka Hart and Judge Amy Berman Jackson based off a Judge Andrew Napolitano appearance on Fox on Friends (that perhaps unsurprisingly neglects to remind his followers that Napolitano made a case in favor of Trump’s removal by the Senate). he then launched a 3-tweet tirade against the Stone prosecution more generally.

I’m interested in it because of the way Trump attempts to deploy all the other conspiracy theories he has against the Russian investigation to the Stone prosecution, to which they simply don’t apply.

Start with the way Trump claims that 1) the Mueller investigation was “illegally set up” based on the Steele dossier and 2) “forging documents to the FISA Court.”

This is a conceit that has worked well since Paul Manafort, fresh off a meeting with an Oleg Deripaska deputy, suggested Trump could use attacks on the dossier to attack the Mueller Report.

Except one glaring fault of the dossier is that Roger Stone, who had already made comments that suggested he had a direct role in the operation by the time FBI opened investigations on the four initial subjects of it, doesn’t appear in the Steele dossier.

Moreover, whatever else the DOJ IG Report on the Carter Page FISA applications showed, it also showed that the predication of the investigation had nothing to do with the Steele dossier; in fact, Steele’s reports didn’t make it to the investigative team until about six weeks after opening the investigation.

Further, the suggestion that Kevin Clinesmith’s alteration of an email in June 2017 to claim that Page was “not a source” for CIA had anything to do with Roger Stone’s investigation falls flat given that Mueller’s team obtained the first warrant targeting Roger Stone on August 4, 2017, and there’s no insinuation anywhere that Stone ever spoke with Carter Page. (Indeed, in spring 2016, Stone was bitching to Rick Gates that he was not in the loop of foreign policy discussions.) In fact, had Roger Stone been more closely associated with Trump’s freebie foreign policy team, than both Page and George Papadopoulos’ claims to know nothing of campaign efforts to optimize WikiLeaks’ releases would be anything but exculpatory, as DOJ IG treated them, since Stone was doing just that in the time period when they were asked by informants.

Plus, Robert Mueller testified under oath that his team didn’t have anything to do with the Carter Page FISA order. And the investigative record shows that the investigation into Page was largely done by the time Mueller took over.

There’s simply no tie between either the Steele dossier or the Page FISA warrants and Roger Stone’s prosecution.

Trump continues to claim that Mueller interviewed to be FBI Director, even after evidence showing that Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, and Don McGahn debunked this in real time, not to mention Rod Rosenstein’s 302 that shows that Mueller specifically said he did not want to be interviewed before he met with Trump about Jim Comey’s replacement. That is, a bunch of witnesses — all Republicans — say Trump is wrong.

The most interesting accusation is that the prosecutors who won a conviction against Stone “were Mueller prosecutors.”

Two were: Aaron Zelinsky and Adam Jed.

But two weren’t. Jonathan Kravis (the sole prosecutor who quit DOJ entirely) and Michael Marando were career DC prosecutors brought in to prosecute the case after Mueller shut down. These were, pointedly, not Mueller prosecutors, and the case still went off without a hitch.

In fact, in his interview the other day, Bill Barr made quite clear that this prosecution happened on his watch, and he believes it’s a righteous prosecution.

BARR: Well, as you know, the Stone case was prosecuted while I was attorney general. And I supported it. I think it was established, he was convicted of obstructing Congress and witness tampering. And I thought that was a righteous prosecution. And I was happy that he was convicted.

If Trump has a problem with the guy who prosecuted the case against Roger Stone, he has a problem with his Attorney General Bill Barr.

Which may be why Trump — who shouldn’t be affected by mere lies by Roger Stone to Congress — is threatening to “sue everyone all over the place.” Of course, he is affected by Stone — Stone is going to prison to protect the President, to avoid describing the multiple conversations they had about optimizing the WikiLeaks releases. And suing (whom?!?!) won’t help Trump suppress that.

The President sounds crazier than George Papadopoulos in this rant, and his conspiracy theories are just as unhinged. Which is, I guess, what happens when all the conspiracy theories you’ve been using to undermine the prosecution implicating you turn out to be utterly irrelevant to the most important firewall to protect.

The Size of Bill Barr’s Cover-Up Hints at the Magnitude of What He’s Covering Up

After the Tuesday Afternoon Massacre — where four prosecutors withdrew from the Roger Stone case rather than be party to Bill Barr interfering in the prosecution of Trump’s rat-fucker — we learned on Friday that Bill Barr had deployed a third US Attorney — Saint Louis’ Jeffrey Jensen — to the DC US Attorney’s office as part of an elaborate cover-up for Trump’s crimes. I’m going to attempt to lay out the full scope of Barr’s attempted cover-up. This post will serve as an overview and I will update it with links to the known or suspected evidence and crimes that Barr is covering up. I’m not including efforts to launch or sustain investigations into those Trump perceives to be his enemies.

The cover-up has the following aspects:

Interim US Attorneys oversee investigations implicating Trump’s actions

Geoffrey Berman, Southern District of New York: For the most part, Berman seems to have operated independently after his appointment as US Attorney for SDNY, but there are recent concerns that investigations implicating Trump have been stymied:

  • Hush payments: After getting Michael Cohen to plead guilty to covering up Trump’s past sex partners during the election and obtaining testimony from National Enquirer, the investigation closed with no further charges on or before July 17, 2019.
  • Ukrainian grifters: There are conflicting stories about the scope of the investigation into Ukrainian grifters Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, particularly with regards to how seriously SDNY is considering charges against Rudy Giuliani. WaPo reported steps taken implicating Rudy’s activities on February 14, 2020. But Parnas has insinuated that his sudden arrest on October 9 was an attempt to keep him silent; Barr visited SDNY that day and subsequently visited Rupert Murdoch at his home. SDNY showed unusual concern for the privacy of third parties as Parnas tried to share more information with the House Intelligence Committee. And Bill Barr has not recused in spite of a clear conflict and a request from Parnas.
  • Halkbank: Barr tried to pre-empt an indictment of Turkey’s Halkbank with a settlement.

Timothy Shea, District of Columbia: While Berman worked for several years without any show of corruption, that’s not true of Timothy Shea, a trusted Barr aide. The very first day he started work — having been installed by Barr with just a day’s notice — he started questioning the guidelines sentence of Roger Stone, who has promised to remain silent about details of Trump’s involvement in his efforts to optimize the release of emails stolen by Russian. Then, Shea worked with Bill Barr to reverse the guidelines sentence recommended by career prosecutors. In addition, Shea’s appointment coincided with the start of a “review” of other prosecutions and investigations of Trump associates in DC including, but not limited to, Mike Flynn and Erik Prince.

Confirmed US Attorneys “review” investigations into Trump and his associates

John Durham, Connecticut: In May 2019, Barr ordered John Durham to conduct an investigation into the origins of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation of Trump associates’ ties to Russia. He predicated the investigation, explicitly, on the absence of evidence. In clear contrast to the Mueller investigation, DOJ has produced no documentation regarding the scope of the investigation (including whether Durham could pursue crimes by Trump’s associates or even Barr himself if he found evidence of a crime), and Barr has remained personally involved, completely negating the entire point of appointing a US Attorney to conduct the investigation. Republicans have described the point of this investigation as an effort to discredit the Mueller investigation. It has included the following:

  • Bill Barr’s worldwide tour chasing the hoaxes rolled out through George Papadopoulos via the right wing echo chamber
  • Some disinformation likely fed via Rudy
  • The legitimate criminal investigation of FBI Attorney Kevin Clinesmith, the actual venue for which should be Washington DC
  • CIA’s 2016 determination — confirmed by more recent intelligence collection and reviewed approvingly by the Senate Intelligence Committee — that Russia not only wanted to hurt Hillary, but help Trump in the 2016 election
  • Communications between John Brennan and Jim Comey and Andrew McCabe

Jeffrey Jensen, Eastern District of Missouri: The “review” Jeffrey Jensen is conducting of DC US Attorney cases seems to couple with Durham’s investigation. It reportedly is second-guessing decisions made by prosecutors on the Mike Flynn and Erik Prince investigation, as well as other non-public investigations. The review is almost certainly assessing rumors started by known propagandists that have already been investigated three times, including by FBI’s Inspection Division, rumors already reviewed and dismissed in a meticulous 92-page opinion from Emmet Sullivan. This “review” seems to have been part of the installment of Shea at DC and may amount to an attempt to thwart investigations that Jessie Liu let proceed without political interference.

DOJ diverts disinformation from Rudy Giuliani to another confirmed US Attorneys

In recent weeks, Barr has appointed Scott Brady, US Attorney for Western District of Pennsylvania, to vet incoming information from Rudy’s foreign influence peddling in Ukraine. It’s unclear whether Barr did this to try to make something out of that disinformation, or to prevent evidence that might support foreign influence peddling charges against Rudy from getting to prosecutors in SDNY.

Richard Donoghue, Eastern District of New York: Donoghue is apparently “handling certain Ukraine-related matters.” In connection to that, Jeffrey Rosen put Donoghue in charge of coordinating all investigations that pertain to Ukraine,

to avoid duplication of efforts across Offices and components, to obviate the need for deconfliction at a later stage of potentially overlapping investigations, and to efficiently marshal the resources of the Department to address the appropriate handling of potentially relevant new information.

That in and of itself is not problematic. But by putting Jensen in charge of intake, presumably before it gets to Donoghue, Rosen has ensured that information that — because it is disinformation — would be incriminating to Rudy, not Joe Biden (or anyone else).

DOJ prevents full investigation of Ukraine complaint

Barr and his DOJ engaged in multiple acts of obstruction of the Ukraine complaint. First, Barr did not recuse from a complaint mentioning him by name. Then (knowing that Barr was personally implicated), DOJ did not conduct a full assessment of the whistleblower complaint, which would have identified a tie to the SDNY investigation of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. Then OLC invented an excuse not to share whistleblower complaint with Congress, which resulted in a significant delay and almost led Ukraine to make concessions to obtain aid. Then, DOJ did not share whistleblower complaint with FEC as required by Memorandum of Notification. Finally, DOJ made a comment claiming Trump was exonerated, precisely the abuse — speaking about ongoing investigations — that Jim Comey got fired for.

The Slow Firing of Robert Mueller[‘s Replacement]

On December 5, I suggested that Speaker Pelosi delay the full House vote on impeachment until early February. I intimated there were public reasons — the possibility of a ruling on the Don McGahn subpoena and superseding charges for Lev Parnas — I thought so and private ones. One of the ones I did not share was the Stone sentencing, which at that point was scheduled for February 6. Had Pelosi listened to me (!!!) and had events proceeded as scheduled, Stone would have been sentenced before the final vote on Trump’s impeachment.

But things didn’t work out that way. Not only didn’t Pelosi heed my suggestion (unsurprisingly), but two things happened in the interim.

First, Stone invented a bullshit reason for delay on December 19, the day after the full House voted on impeachment. The prosecutors who all resigned from the case yesterday objected to the delay, to no avail, which is how sentencing got scheduled for February 20 rather than the day after the Senate voted to acquit.

Then, on January 6, Trump nominated Jessie Liu, then the US Attorney for DC, to be Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Crimes, basically the person who oversees the process of tracking criminal flows of finance. She won’t get that position — her nomination was pulled yesterday in advance of a Thursday confirmation hearing. But her nomination gave Barr the excuse to install a trusted aide, Timothy Shea, at US Attorney for DC last Thursday, the day after the impeachment vote and in advance of the now-delayed Stone sentencing.

Liu, who is very conservative and a true Trump supporter, had been nominated for a more obvious promotion before. On March 5, Trump nominated her to be Associate Attorney General, the number 3 ranking person at DOJ. But then she pulled her nomination on March 28 because Senators objected to her views on choice.

But let’s go back, to late August 2018. Michael Cohen and Sam Patten had just pled guilty, and Cohen was trying to find a way to sort of cooperate. Rudy Giuliani was talking about how Robert Mueller would need to shut down his investigation starting on September 1, because of the election. I wrote a post noting that, while Randy Credico’s imminent grand jury appearance suggested Mueller might be close to finishing an indictment of Stone, they still had to wait for Andrew Miller’s testimony.

Even as a I wrote it, Jay Sekulow was reaching out to Jerome Corsi to include him in the Joint Defense Agreement.

During the entire election season, both Paul Manafort and Jerome Corsi were stalling, lying to prosecutors while reporting back to Trump what they were doing.

Then, the day after the election, Trump fired Jeff Sessions and installed Matt Whitaker. Whitaker, not Rosenstein, became the nominal supervisor of the Mueller investigation. Not long after, both Manafort and Corsi made their game clear. They hadn’t been cooperating, they had been stalling to get past the time when Trump could start the process of ending the Mueller investigation.

But Whitaker only reactively kept Mueller in check. After Michael Cohen’s December sentencing made it clear that Trump was an unindicted co-conspirator in a plot to cheat to win, Whitaker started policing any statement that implicated Trump. By the time Roger Stone was indicted on January 24, 2019 — after Trump’s plan to replace Whitaker with the expert in cover ups, Bill Barr — Mueller no longer noted when Trump was personally involved, as he was in Stone’s efforts to optimize the WikiLeaks releases.

But then, when Barr came in, everything started to shut down. Mueller moved ongoing prosecutions to other offices, largely to DC, under Jessie Liu’s supervision. As Barr came to understand where the investigation might head, he tried to promote Liu out of that position, only to have GOP ideology prevent it.

Barr successfully dampened the impeach of the Mueller Report, pretending that it didn’t provide clear basis for impeaching the President. It was immediately clear, when he did that, that Barr was spinning the Stone charges to minimize the damage on Trump. But Barr did not remove Mueller right away, and the Special Counsel remained up until literally the moment when he secured Andrew Miller’s testimony on May 29.

The next day, I noted the import of raising the stakes for Trump on any Roger Stone pardon, because Stone implicated him personally. That was more important, I argued, than impeaching Trump for past actions to try to fire Mueller, which Democrats were focused on with their attempt to obtain Don McGahn’s testimony.

Still, those ongoing investigations continued under Jessie Liu, and Stone inched along towards trial, even as Trump leveraged taxpayer dollars to try to establish an excuse to pardon Manafort (and, possibly, to pay off the debts Manafort incurred during the 2016 election). As Stone’s trial laid out evidence that the President was personally involved in optimizing the release of emails Russia had stolen from Trump’s opponent, attention was instead focused on impeachment, his more recent effort to cheat.

In Stone’s trial, he invented a new lie: both Randy Credico and Jerome Corsi had falsely led him to believe they had a tie to WikiLeaks. That didn’t help Stone avoid conviction: Stone was found guilty on all counts. But it gave Stone yet another cover story to avoid revealing what his ties to WikiLeaks actually were and what he did — probably with Trump’s assent — to get it. For some reason, prosecutors decided not to reveal what they were otherwise prepared to: what Stone had really done.

Immediately after his conviction, Stone spent the weekend lobbying for a pardon. His wife appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show and someone got inside White House gates to make the case.

But, as impeachment proceeded, nothing happened, as the Probation Office started collecting information to argue that Stone should go to prison for a long while. The day Democrats finished their case against Donald Trump, though, Bill Barr made his move, replacing Liu before she was confirmed, removing a very conservative Senate confirmed US Attorney to install his flunkie, Timothy Shea. But even that wasn’t enough. Prosecutors successfully convinced Shea that they should stick to the probation office guidelines recommending a stiff sentence. When Timothy Shea didn’t do what Barr expected him to, Barr intervened and very publicly ordered up the cover up he had promised.

Effectively, Bill Barr is micro-managing the DC US Attorney’s office now, overseeing the sentencing of the man who could explain just how involved Trump was in the effort to maximize the advantage Trump got from Russia’s interference in 2016, as well as all the other prosecutions that we don’t know about.

Trump has, finally, succeeded in firing the person who oversaw the investigations into his role in the Russian operation in 2016. Just as Stone was about to have reason to explain what that role was.

Timeline

August 21, 2018: Michael Cohen pleads guilty

August 31, 2018: Sam Patten pleads guilty

September 5, 2018: Jay Sekulow reaches out to Corsi lawyer to enter into Joint Defense Agreement

September 6, 2018: In first Mueller interview, Corsi lies

September 17, 2018: In second interview, Corsi invents story about how he learned of Podesta emails

September 21, 2018: In third interview, Corsi confesses to establishing a cover story about Podesta’s emails with Roger Stone starting on August 30, 2016; NYT publishes irresponsible story that almost leads to Rod Rosenstein’s firing

October 25, 2018: Rick Gates interviewed about the campaign knowledge of Podesta emails

October 26, 2018: Steve Bannon admits he spoke with Stone about WikiLeaks

October 31, 2018: Prosecutors probably show Corsi evidence proving he lied about source of knowledge on Podesta emails

November 1 and 2, 2018: Corsi continues to spew bullshit in interviews

November 6, 2018: Election day

November 7, 2018: Jeff Sessions is fired; Matt Whitaker named Acting Attorney General

November 9, 2018: Corsi appears before grand jury but gives a false story about how he learned of Podesta emails; Mueller threatens to charge him with perjury

November 15, 2018: Trump tweets bullshit about Corsi’s testimony being coerced

November 23, 2018: Corsi tells the world he is in plea negotiations

November 26, 2018: Corsi rejects plea

December 7, 2018: Trump nominates Bill Barr Attorney General

January 18, 2019: Steve Bannon testifies to the grand jury (and for the first time enters into a proffer)

January 24, 2019: Roger Stone indicted for covering up what really happened with WikiLeaks

February 14, 2019: Bill Barr confirmed as Attorney General

March 5, 2019: Jessie Liu nominated to AAG; Bill Barr briefed on Mueller investigation

March 22, 2019: Mueller announces the end of his investigation

March 24, 2019: Bill Barr releases totally misleading version of Mueller results, downplaying Stone role

March 28, 2019: Liu pulls her nomination from AAG

April 19, 2019: Mueller Report released with Stone details redacted

May 29, 2019: As Mueller gives final press conference, Andrew Miller testifies before grand jury

November 12, 2019: Prosecutors apparently change Stone trial strategy, withhold details of Stone’s actual back channel

November 15, 2019: Roger Stone convicted on all counts

January 6, 2020: Jessie Liu nominated to Treasury

January 16, 2020: Probation Office issues Presentence Report calling for 7-9 years

January 30, 2020: Bill Barr replaces Liu with Timothy Barr, effective February 3; DOJ submits objection to Presentence Report

February 3, 2020: Timothy Shea becomes acting US Attorney

February 5, 2020 : Senate votes to acquit Trump

February 6, 2020: Initial sentencing date for Roger Stone

February 10, 2020: Stone sentencing memoranda submitted

February 11, 2020: DOJ overrules DC on Stone sentencing memorandum, all four prosecutors resign from case

February 20, 2020: Current sentencing date for Roger Stone

Timothy Shea Signs Off on Aggressive Sentencing Recommendation for Roger Stone

Update: As Fox first reported and WaPo has written up, the highers up at DOJ have now announced they’re going to change the sentencing guidelines submitted last night. This means they’re arguing that Stone should not have the guidelines sentence submitted by the Probation Office.

I’ll have more to say about the government’s sentencing memorandum for Roger Stone once Stone submits his. But I want to emphasize something notable about the recommended sentence of 87-108 months: it’s that prosecutors recommended a sentence at all.

Up until now, the government has placed sentencing, within guideline ranges, into the judge’s hands, as laid out explicitly in the second Paul Manafort sentencing memo.

Consistent with the practice the Special Counsel’s Office has followed, the government does not take a position with respect to a particular sentence to be imposed. Instead, the government sets forth its assessment of the nature of the offenses and offender and the applicable advisory sentencing guidelines and sentencing factors.

As recently as January 29, they took a similar stance with Mike Flynn, repeating “guidelines sentence” when they wanted Judge Emmet Sullivan to sentence him favorably, “guidelines sentence” when they wanted to punish him for reneging on his plea deal, and “guidelines sentence” when they backed off that somewhat.

Prosecutors were far more aggressive with Stone, though, adding on four sentencing enhancements — one hefty, for the threat to Randy Credico, who wrote a letter asking for leniency —  and calling for real punishment at the end.

Roger Stone obstructed Congress’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, lied under oath, and tampered with a witness. And when his crimes were revealed by the indictment in this case, he displayed contempt for this Court and the rule of law. For that, he should be punished in accord with the advisory Guidelines.

Just as interestingly, the newly appointed US Attorney approved this aggressive stance, though not without some pushback.

Front-line prosecutors, some previously with Mueller’s team, argued for a sentence on the higher end for Stone than some of their supervisors were comfortable with, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

A recommendation on the higher end prevailed, with prosecutors’ filings citing federal sentencing guidelines that ratchet up in cases involving obstruction that impedes the administration of justice.

[snip]

Hours before the filing was due Monday, the new head of the D.C. office, interim U.S. attorney Timothy Shea — a former close adviser to Attorney General William P. Barr — had not made a final decision on Stone’s sentencing recommendation, according to the people, who were granted anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Disagreements among prosecutors about sentencing recommendations are not uncommon, especially when it comes to politically sensitive high-profile cases. It would have been unusual, however, for the U.S. attorney’s office to endorse a sentence below the guideline range after winning conviction at trial, according to former federal prosecutors.

I think WaPo understates how aggressive this memo is, and I suspect Judge Amy Berman Jackson will find it so too (I wouldn’t be surprised if Stone pushed for probation to 12 months).

And, as WaPo notes, it’s the Mueller prosecutors left on the team (just Aaron Zelinsky and Adam Jed remain on the team) who pushed for this aggressive stance.

 

The Real News in Bill Barr’s Announcement: He’s Vetoing Campaign Finance Investigations, Too

Yesterday, NYT broke the news that Attorney General Barr had issued a memo, as promised, requiring his approval before opening an investigation into a presidential candidate. (Update: here’s the memo.)

The memo, which said the Justice Department had a duty to ensure that elections are “free from improper activity or influences,” was issued on the same day that President Trump was acquitted on charges that he had abused his office to push a foreign power to publicly announce investigations into his political rivals. The memo said that the F.B.I. and all other divisions under the department’s purview must get Mr. Barr’s approval before investigating any of the 2020 presidential candidates.

The NBC version of this — written by Barr mouthpiece Pete Williams — falsely suggests this decision was justified by the entirety of the IG Report.

His directive follows a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general that harshly criticized the FBI’s investigation of the 2016 Trump campaign. It recommended an evaluation of the kind of sensitive matters that should require high-level approval, particularly those involving politics.

While the IG Report recommended different practices for sensitive investigations going forward, the report actually showed that a lot of conspiracy theories that Barr had embraced about the opening of the investigation and the use of informants were false. The criticisms — as distinct from recommendations — were largely limited to the Carter Page FISA.

The distinction is important because the other excuse Barr offers is that, if an investigation became known — like both the Hillary email investigation and the Breitbart-dirt predicated Clinton Foundations ones — it might affect the election.

“In certain cases, the existence of a federal criminal or counterintelligence investigation, if it becomes known to the public, may have unintended effects on our elections,” Mr. Barr wrote.

Those concerns, combined with the inspector general’s findings, seemed to underpin Mr. Barr’s memo to top Justice Department officials.

All the evidence in the world suggests that the known problems in Crossfire Hurricane stemmed from the opposite problem, working too hard to keep the investigation secret. Had the FBI not worked so hard to keep it secret, it wouldn’t have been run out of FBI HQ, and so would have had more resources available. Had the FBI not avoided overt steps, it would have obtained call records to indicate that George Papadopoulos (and Paul Manafort and Roger Stone), and not Carter Page, should have been the priority targets. Had the FBI not worked so hard to keep this secret, it might have caught several of Trump’s flunkies in the act of selling out the country. (And all three of those men hid information to prevent their actions from becoming known.) And now Bill Barr wants to make it harder, not easier, to find people selling out our country before they do real damage.

Indeed, this extends even to the larger investigation into Russian interference. SSCI released its report on what the Obama Administration should have done better in 2016 yesterday, and many of the criticisms stem from how closely it held the intelligence about the attack, from Congress, election professionals, and agencies that might respond. (The report also undermined Barr’s justification for the Durham investigation, in that it suggested the IC should have warned policy makers far earlier than happened about Russian intentions, and points to John Brennan’s sensitive intelligence about the operation as the first alarm.)

So the stated purpose doesn’t hold up, as most of Barr’s stated purposes don’t. That’s all the more true when you look at how Barr’s rule has dramatically expanded since he first floated it.

As both NYT and NBC noted, Barr announced the policy in January. The policy, as laid out back then, was far more limited — extending just to counterintelligence investigations.

Attorney General William Barr on Monday announced the Justice Department’s first policy change in response to the FBI’s mucking around in the 2016 election. Henceforth, both an AG and the FBI director must sign off on any proposed counterintelligence investigation into a presidential campaign.

Neither the NYT nor NBC describe any such limitation. Indeed, the make it clear that criminal investigations, including into donors!!!, must be approved.

While the department must respond “swiftly and decisively” to credible threats to the electoral process, “we also must be sensitive to safeguarding the department’s reputation for fairness, neutrality and nonpartisanship,” he wrote.

He previewed the new policy at a news conference in January, when he said his approval would be required in future investigations involving presidential candidates or campaigns.
In the memo, Mr. Barr established a series of requirements governing whether investigators could open preliminary or full “politically sensitive” criminal and counterintelligence investigations into candidates or their donors.

No investigation into a presidential or vice-presidential candidate — or their senior campaign staff or advisers — can begin without written notification to the Justice Department and the written approval of Mr. Barr.

The F.B.I. must also notify and consult with the relevant leaders at the department — like the heads of the criminal division, the national security division or a United States attorney’s office — before investigating Senate or House candidates or their campaigns, or opening an inquiry related to “illegal contributions, donations or expenditures by foreign nationals to a presidential or congressional campaign.”

This rule would have protected the following people from any investigation in 2016:

  • Trump, for paying off former sex partners
  • Paul Manafort, for taking $2.4M after discussing carving up Ukraine to Russia’s liking in 2016
  • Roger Stone, for dark money activity and coordination still unresolved as well as optimizing materials stolen from the Democrats
  • Mike Flynn, for being on Turkey’s payroll while attending Top Secret candidate briefings
  • George Papadopoulos, for trying to monetize his access to Trump with foreign countries including Israel
  • Illegal donations from Russians, Malaysians, Emiratis, and Ukrainians in 2016
  • Illegal coordination between the campaign and its SuperPAC

The only criminal investigations into Trump flunkies that wouldn’t have been covered in 2016 would be the money laundering investigation into Manafort (which started two months before he joined the campaign) and, possibly, the counterintelligence investigation into Page (because his tie to the campaign was not known at the time).

As stated, the rule would require pre-approval for the Ukrainian grifter investigation and any investigation into known coordination problems Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale has engaged in. It would protect not just Trump, but also (because they work on his campaign) his failson and son-in-law.

Plus, Barr believes that because the President can’t be indicted, he should not be investigated. So this is, quite literally, a guarantee that no crime Trump commits between now and election day will be investigated — not even shooting someone on Fifth Avenue  (at the federal level, at least, but DOJ has maintained that NYS cannot investigate the sitting president either). Barr has just announced, using fancy language to avoid headlines describing what this is, that from now until November, he will hold President Trump above the law.

Citizens United has opened up a floodgate of barely hidden cash from foreign donors into our elections. This is not a partisan thing; as noted, Mohammed bin Zayed was dumping huge money into both Hillary and Trump’s campaign. And the Attorney General of the United States has just made it easier for foreigners to tamper in our elections.

Barr has snookered reporters into believing this is the same announcement as he made in January.

It’s not. This is not about spying on a campaign, much as Pete Williams wants to pretend it is. This is about telling Trump and his associates they will not be prosecuted by DOJ, going forward, for the same crimes they’ve committed in the past.

Update: Two more details. The memo requires signed approval by the Deputy Attorney General to open a preliminary investigation of any presidential candidate. But it also requires prompt notice to the Assistant Attorney General for any assessment. That means the AG is demanding that his top deputies learn when someone does a database search.

Manafort’s Efforts to Insinuate Himself into Trump’s Campaign Earlier Than Previously Known

The Mueller Report describes Trump’s decision to hire Paul Manafort this way.

Manafort served on the Trump Campaign from late March to August 19, 2016. On March 29, 2016, the Campaign announced that Manafort would serve as the Campaign’s “Convention Manager.”871 On May 19, 2016, Manafort was promoted to campaign chairman and chief strategist, and Gates, who had been assisting Manafort on the Campaign, was appointed deputy campaign chairman.872 Thomas Barrack and Roger Stone both recommended Manafort to candidate Trump.873

In early 2016, at Manafort’s request, Barrack suggested to Trump that Manafort join the Campaign to manage the Republican Convention.874 Stone had worked with Manafort from approximately 1980 until the mid-1990s through various consulting and lobbying firms. Manafort met Trump in 1982 when Trump hired the Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly lobbying firm.875 Over the years, Manafort saw Trump at political and social events in New York City and at Stone’s wedding, and Trump requested VIP status at the 1988 and 1996 Republican conventions worked by Manafort.876

According to Gates, in March 2016, Manafort traveled to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida to meet with Trump. Trump hired him at that time.877 Manafort agreed to work on the Campaign without pay. Manafort had no meaningful income at this point in time, but resuscitating his domestic political campaign career could be financially beneficial in the future. Gates reported that Manafort intended, if Trump won the Presidency, to remain outside the Administration and monetize his relationship with the Administration. 878

Gates’ description for some of this (two of the cited Gates 302s and all of the Manafort ones have not been released yet) is fairly anodyne:

Thomas Barrack and Roger Stone acted as liaisons between Manafort and the Trump Campaign prior to Manafort’s hiring. Trump had just lost the primary in Wisconsin and then won the primary in Louisiana, but the delegates refused to support him. Trump did not understand the mechanics of delegates and the way the system worked. Barrack and Stone had been lobbying for Trump to hire Manafort for some time and it wasn’t until after the Wisconsin and Louisiana primaries that Trump agreed. Barrack was the person who set up Manafort’s first meeting with Trump, Hicks and Lewandowski in Mar a Lago.

The bolded footnotes in the Mueller passage above derive, at least in part, from Tom Barrack’s 302, which was released yesterday.

That 302 describes the background in more interesting fashion:

In January 2016, knowing of BARRACK’s close association with then U.S. Presidential candidate TRUMP, MANAFORT asked BARRACK to intervene on his behalf to become the convention manager for the TRUMP Presidential Campaign. BARRACK initially thought this was MANAFORT being MANAFORT. In other words, BARRACK described MANAFORT as an opportunist. MANAFORT was a good political strategist and had good ideas. But MANAFORT’s relationship with [redacted] would make it difficult for BARRACK to intervene on his behalf. BARRACK stated MANAFORT’s biggest impediment to joining the campaign was [redacted] who BARRACK described as someone with brilliance and bizarreness all wrapped up into one. Nonetheless, BARRACK met MANAFORT for coffee in Los Angeles, California to discuss the concept. MANAFORT told him TRUMP needed help and MANAFORT was the person who could help TRUMP. At this coffee meeting, MANAFORT also asked BARRACK whether he could do him a favor and give [redacted] a job interview with BARRACK’s company.

BARRACK eventually approached TRUMP with the idea of MANAFORT helping the Presidential campaign but TRUMP dismissed the idea because of MANAFORT’s connection to [redacted]

MANAFORT followed up their coffee meeting with a briefing paper about why the Republican Convention and its delegates were so important to the TRUMP campaign. In February or the beginning of March 2016, BARRACK again approached TRUMP about MANAFORT’s involvement with the Convention, which TRUMP eventually agreed. MANAFORT stated he did not need to be paid by the campaign for his work on the convention, which TRUMP liked because he was paying for the campaign out of his own pocket.

[snip]

BARRACK stated the TRUMP campaign did not conduct any due diligence into MANAFORT’s background before bringing him on to be the Convention Manager. BARRACK described the campaign at the time as amateur, which is why bringing on an experienced political professional like MANAFORT was important. BARRACK also stated STONE, who had a continuing and intermittent relationship with TRUMP, weight in on supporting MANAFORT as the Convention Manager.

Those redactions in bold appear to be 5-characters long, so could well be Stone. The convention in 302s is to introduce someone’s full name then include it in parentheses, but Stone would have been introduced pages earlier when Barrack described meeting Manafort’s business partners from when Stone was a named partner. As noted, Stone shows up a paragraph later in the 302 in the same kind of context.

Whoever it is, the exemptions in that paragraph include b7A, ongoing investigation.

Whoever the redacted name, that Manafort was affirmatively asking for the Convention Manager job as soon as January is of particular interest. That’s when DOJ opened the money laundering investigation into Manafort, after all. That was after the time when Felix Sater was pitching the Trump Tower deal.

And significantly, it raised the stakes on Trump’s failure to manage his delegates before Manafort came in, something that Manafort buddy Roger Stone was closely involved with in his initial Stop the Steal effort. It also makes Manafort’s second offer — to work for free — appear even more desperate (though he was financially desperate at the time).

Update: Added the follow-on language referencing Stone.

“Project Rasputin:” The Michael Caputo Interview

Yesterday, the government released another tranche of 302s in response to the BuzzFeed/CNN FOIA. There are actually a slew of interesting interviews.

One of those is Michael Caputo’s. Remember, in addition to having a background in and ongoing ties with Russia (which may have unfairly led to more scrutiny of him than others in the early days of the congressional investigations), he’s very close to Roger Stone. Shortly after Stone was indicted, the government put together a sealed list of witnesses with whom Stone could not have contact, and Caputo learned he was on it. After Stone’s guilty verdict, Caputo wrote Judge Amy Berman Jackson to request that she lift the gag so they could spend time over Christmas together.

Mr. Stone and I have been close friends since 1986. We work together, we dine together, our families share holidays together. I still do not fully understand why this order was entered — I was never a witness in his case and I had never testified before the grand jury — but I respected your order. Even as I attended his recent trial, we did not communicate. Mr. Stone has been especially obedient in this matter and I do not wish to disrupt his commitment to staying within the letter and spirit of your order.

But it’s Christmas, Judge, and our family wants to spend time with his. I also want his wife and children to know they can count on us to assist them through this difficult time, and that we’ll always be there to help them. I want them to know this now.

ABJ never responded to Caputo, and given that yesterday she invited prosecutors to complain about Stone’s violations of her gag in the weekend after his guilty verdict, I suspect she’s less convinced than Caputo is that Stone abided by her gag order.

MINUTE ORDER as to ROGER J. STONE, JR. The parties are directed to include in their sentencing memoranda any arguments they wish to make concerning the defendant’s compliance with the Court’s media communications orders 36 149 and conditions of release as modified on February 21, 2019 and July 16, 2019, including, in particular, his compliance during the trial, and on or about November 13-15, 2019. SO ORDERED.

Caputo’s interview is all the more interesting given that he gave among the most detailed descriptions of his testimony of any witness the day he testified back in 2018.

Caputo described that the Mueller investigators knew more about the Trump campaign than anyone who ever worked there.

After being interviewed by special counsel investigators on Wednesday, former aide to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign Michael Caputo told CNN that Robert Mueller’s team is “focused on Russia collusion.”

“It’s clear they are still really focused on Russia collusion,” Caputo said, adding, “They know more about the Trump campaign than anyone who ever worked there.”

[snip]

“The Senate and the House are net fishing,” Caputo said. “The special counsel is spearfishing. They know what they are aiming at and are deadly accurate.”

In other words, hours after Caputo finished testifying, he went to CNN to alert everyone, including (presumably) Stone that Mueller knew of things they were otherwise not telling.

The 302 describes that Caputo started the interview by noting that he had prepared a binder of notes and documents for the Senate Intelligence Committee interview he had the day before. Particularly given Caputo’s response after his testimony, that’s significant because multiple SSCI witnesses put together carefully massaged stories to tell less damning stories. Caputo obviously missed some things.

From the 302, it appears Caputo was asked (of Mueller’s prosecutors, just Aaron Zelinsky attended this interview) a general question from the start: what his official and unofficial role in the 2016 election was. He was hired by longtime Roger Stone friend Paul Manafort.

After Donald J. Trump (Trump) won the primary, Caputo was invited to join the Trump Campaign by Paul Manafort. A meeting was held at Trump Tower on 04/25/2016 to discuss the opportunity. After the meeting, Caputo served as a senior advisor to the Trump Campaign in charge of communications for the candidate in New York until his resignation on 06/20/2016.

Note that Manafort was not yet campaign manager when Caputo was hired, and his Convention Manager job at the time had little to do with the daily talking points that it sounds like Caputo spent his time doing. So his hiring is fairly curious. There are other 302s where references to what is probably Caputo — and his June resignation — are redacted.

After Caputo resigned, he worked for Tom Barrack, fundraising. It’s clear he emphasized he only raised money from American donors. Barrack’s 302 was also released yesterday; we know the government still has questions about whether that American donor claim is true.

Relatively early on, there is a 5-paragraph redacted discussion preceded by Caputo’s comment that,

Regarding the pursuit of Hillary Clinton’s missing 33,000 emails, Caputo thought it implausible to think that wasn’t happening.

The passage ends with Caputo saying he wasn’t involved in such activities and denying that he heard any discussion of WikiLeaks or Julian Assange.

Caputo said there was no coordination on his part on those types of activities. Additionally, Caputo did not recall hacking and/or Assange being a topic of conversation at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Caputo initially said Stone never mentioned WikiLeaks or Julian Assange, however, Caputo later modified this statement as documented below.

That was his second denial that he had made about WikiLeaks thus far into his interview. That comment is followed by four redacted paragraphs. There’s also a later 12-paragraph section that is entirely redacted, which immediately precedes questions about DC Leaks. Both those of those passages, plus the 5-paragraph redaction noted above, are redacted under B6, B7C, and B7A exemptions. The first two exemptions are for privacy, and are very common. But the B7A exemption reflects an ongoing investigation. This formula is particularly interesting given that up until now, everything Stone related has been redacted under B7ABC exemptions tied to ABJ’s gag.

In other words, just days before Stone and prosecutors will submit their sentencing memoranda, DOJ is still redacting things relating to Stone because of an ongoing investigation.

The balance of the 302 discusses Sergei Millian and Caputo’s ties to Russia and includes a redacted list of the people he told he had an interview with Mueller (also protected under b7A).

Finally, the interview includes Caputo’s explanation for the Henry Greenberg story, which WaPo first reported this way, based in part on Stone’s version of events

One day in late May 2016, Roger Stone — the political dark sorcerer and longtime confidant of Donald Trump — slipped into his Jaguar and headed out to meet a man with a “Make America Great Again” hat and a viscous Russian accent.

The man, who called himself Henry Greenberg, offered damaging information about Hillary Clinton, Trump’s presumptive Democratic opponent in the upcoming presidential election, according to Stone, who spoke about the previously unreported incident in interviews with The Washington Post. Greenberg, who did not reveal the information he claimed to possess, wanted Trump to pay $2 million for the political dirt, Stone said.

“You don’t understand Donald Trump,” Stone recalled saying before rejecting the offer at a restaurant in the Russian-expat magnet of Sunny Isles, Fla. “He doesn’t pay for anything.”

Later, Stone got a text message from Michael Caputo, a Trump campaign communications official who’d arranged the meeting after Greenberg had approached Caputo’s Russian-immigrant business partner.

“How crazy is the Russian?” Caputo wrote, according to a text message reviewed by The Post. Noting that Greenberg wanted “big” money, Stone replied, “waste of time.”

Two years later, the brief sit-down in Florida has resurfaced as part of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s sprawling investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, according to Caputo. Caputo said he was asked about the meeting by prosecutors during a sometimes-heated questioning session last month.

Stone and Caputo, who did not previously disclose the meeting to congressional investigators, now say they believe they were the targets of a setup by U.S. law enforcement officials hostile to Trump.

As noted, the story deserves particular attention given that both Stone and Caputo failed to disclose this to the Intelligence Committees (though both sent revisions admitting to it after Caputo’s testimony, which distinguishes it from Stone’s lies about having a back channel to WikiLeaks).

When Zelinsky originally asked Caputo, generally, about any “connection to Russians and/or Russian nationals during the campaign” — the same question that had been asked by the Intelligence Committees — he claimed “this event occurred after his involvement with the campaign,” the same kind of story that George Papadopoulos told to separate a possible Russian dangle, temporally, from involvement in the campaign. But then he admitted it happened in May, before he resigned.

It’s clear Caputo offered a bunch of stories for why he believed this guy was Russian, which seems like an effort to minimize what he had learned before the event:

  • He assumed he was a Russian US citizen of Russian descent (meaning, not an immigrant)
  • He had an accent
  • His close friend [redacted] had made this assertion

Caputo revealed that he met Greenberg again on January 5, 2017 at a cancer research fundraiser he ran and claims Greenberg told him at that time he was a US citizen.

Caputo also dodged when asked why he referred this information to Stone.

Caputo didn’t recall why he sent Greenberg to Stone, but thought it was probably because [redacted] and was involved in opposition research for years. Caputo typically didn’t like relaying this type of opposition research material, and was not likely to give it to anyone at Trump Tower.

In other words, after unsuccessfully attempting to distance the event from the campaign temporally, he tried to do so ethically, suggesting he would never share this with the actual campaign, just with his rat-fucker buddy.

Perhaps the most interesting line in his description of Henry Greenberg, however, distinguished that Russian tie he tried to hide from something called “Project Rasputin.”

“Project Rasputin” was mutually exclusive from anything having to do with Greenberg.

That reference to a heretofore unidentified project immediately precedes yet another paragraph redacted because of an ongoing investigation. And there’s one more ongoing investigation paragraph before that passage ends with Caputo’s explanation about how Stone might be easily duped by Russians.

Caputo advised he lived in Russia for approximately seven years, thereby having more experience with Russian than Stone.

Michael Caputo doesn’t understand why ABJ still won’t let him talk to Stone. The redactions in his 302 appear to provide some hint.