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Hope Hicks Had More Awareness of the Flynn-Kislyak Aftermath Than the Mueller Report Discloses

As I noted in this post, even though the reporting on Hope Hicks’ testimony last week focused on the White House’s efforts to prevent her from fully testifying, she clearly did what she could to protect Trump even regarding his actions during the election and transition.

Which is why I want to look at two of her comments on matters more central to Mueller’s investigation — in this post, her elaboration of some comments she made about Mike Flynn.

Norm Eisen walked Hicks through something that shows up in this footnote of the Mueller Report:

Several witnesses said that the President was unhappy with Flynn for other reasons at this time. Bannon said that Flynn’s standing with the President was not good by December 2016. Bannon 2/12/18 302, at 12. The President-Elect had concerns because President Obama had warned him about Flynn shortly after the election. Bannon 2/12/18 302, at 4-5; Hicks 12/8/17 302, at 7 (President Obama’s comment sat with President-Elect Trump more than Hicks expected). Priebus said that the President had become unhappy with Flynn even before the story of his calls with Kislyak broke and had become so upset with Flynn that he would not look at him during intelligence briefings. Priebus 1/18/18 302, at 8. Hicks said that the President thought Flynn had bad judgment and was angered by tweets sent by Flynn and his son, and she described Flynn as “being on thin ice” by early February 2017. Hicks 12/8/17 302, at 7, 10.

As I pointed out earlier, Eisen was hired to make sure questioning of witnesses is conducted professionally. It’s also worth noting that some House Judiciary Committee members and staffers have seen backup documents on the Mueller Report and the Hicks’ 302s were among the documents requested; both of these exchanges seem to reflect non-public information.

Eisen has Hicks describe how, even before the FBI interviewed Flynn, Trump had some concerns about him. At first, Hicks tries to spin Trump’s response to President Obama’s counterintelligence warning about Flynn as a reaction about the importance Obama assigned the warning, rather than anything having to do with Flynn himself.

Q Okay. Who was Michael Flynn?

A Michael Flynn was somebody that supported Mr. Trump. He was at one point in time considered a possible Vice Presidential candidate. And he became somebody who frequently traveled with the candidate and introduced him at rallies.

Q And are you aware that President Obama made comments about Mr. Flynn to the —

A Yes.

Q — the President-elect?

A Yes.

Q And how did the President-elect receive those comments?

Mr. Purpura. You can answer.

Ms. Hicks. I think he was a bit bewildered that, you know, of all the things that the two of them could have been discussing, that that was something that came up.

Mr. Eisen. And did you feel that President Obama’s comments sat with the President-elect more than you expected?

Ms. Hicks. I did, yes.

Mr. Eisen. Can you — go ahead. Sorry. I cut you off.

Ms. Hicks. That’s okay. I feel like it maybe tainted his view of General Flynn just a little bit.

Mr. Eisen. Did there come a time when the President formed the opinion — during the transition; I’m asking now about the transition — that Flynn had bad judgment?

White House lawyer Pat Philbin interrupts here to invite Hicks to read the footnote. (Note, I find it weird that Philbin did this, and not Hicks’ attorney Robert Trout.)

Mr. Philbin. Could you give us a moment there?

[Discussion off the record.]

Mr. Eisen. Can you read the question back, please? Okay. I’ve asked the court reporter to read the question back. [The reporter read back the record as requested.]

Ms. Hicks. Yes.

Mr. Eisen. Tell me about that.

Having just reviewed the footnote, Hicks nevertheless tries to minimize Trump’s concerns. So Philbin asks her to read the footnote again, which leads her to blame all this on Flynn’s spawn setting off a media frenzy that came to incorporate Flynn himself.

Ms. Hicks. I don’t think this was an overall characterization. I think that this was something where he felt like there were a few things that maybe caused him to think that he was capable of being a person who exercised bad judgment.

Mr. Eisen. What were those things?

Mr. Philbin. I’m sorry. Can I again suggest that, since the  question seemed to be based on footnote 155, page 32, Ms. Hicks have a chance to review that footnote?

Ms. Hicks. Yeah. I mean, primarily the comment by President Obama and the incident with General Flynn’s son concerning a fake news story and some of the tweets that were posted surrounding that.

BY MR. EISEN: Q Posted by?

A I believe they were posted by his son, and then it led to reporters also looking back at tweets that General Flynn had posted.

From here, Eisen moves on to the response to David Ignatius’ revelation that the Obama Administration had identified Flynn’s calls with Sergei Kislyak. He establishes that Hicks was on the email thread discussing the response, though she claims she wasn’t involved in the messaging surrounding it.

Q Do you recall David Ignatius writing a column about a Michael Flynn phone conversation with the Russian Ambassador during the transition?

A Yes.

Q And what do you remember about that?

A I don’t remember much about the substance of the column, to be honest, but I remember several email exchanges between the National Security Advisor, General Flynn at the time, and some of his national security staffers, a desire to perhaps have David Ignatius clarify some things in that column, and a failure to do so.

Q Were you involved in the clarification efforts?

A I was on the email thread, so I was following the discussion that ensued, but I was not involved in any kind of message development or outreach to Mr. Ignatius.

Note that the Mueller Report does not mention Hicks at all in its discussion of the Flynn-Kislyak response. In addition to KT McFarland (who called Ignatius to push back), it cites just Reince Priebus and Stephen Miller.

On January 12, 2017, a Washington Post columnist reported that Flynn and Kislyak communicated on the day the Obama Administration announced the Russia sanctions. 122 The column questioned whether Flynn had said something to “undercut the U.S. sanctions” and whether Flynn’s communications had violated the letter or spirit of the Logan Act. 123

President-Elect Trump called Priebus after the story was published and expressed anger about it. 124 Priebus recalled that the President-Elect asked, “What the hell is this all about?”125 Priebus called Flynn and told him that the President-Elect was angry about the reporting on Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak. 126 Flynn recalled that he felt a lot of pressure because Priebus had spoken to the “boss” and said Flynn needed to “kill the story.” 127 Flynn directed McFarland to call the Washington Post columnist and inform him that no discussion of sanctions had occurred. 128 McFarland recalled that Flynn said words to the effect of, “I want to kill the story.” 129 McFarland made the call as Flynn had requested although she knew she was providing false information, and the Washington Post updated the column to reflect that a “Trump official” had denied that Flynn and Kislyak discussed sanctions. 130

When Priebus and other incoming Administration officials questioned Flynn internally about the Washington Post column, Flynn maintained that he had not discussed sanctions with Kislyak.131 Flynn repeated that claim to Vice President-Elect Michael Pence and to incoming press secretary Sean Spicer. 132 In subsequent media interviews in mid-January, Pence, Priebus, and Spicer denied that Flynn and Kislyak had discussed sanctions, basing those denials on their conversations with Flynn. 133

13 1 Flynn 11117/17 302, at I, 8; Flynn 1/19/18 302, at 7; Priebus 10/13/17 302, at 7-8; S. Miller 8/3 I /17 3 02, at 8-1 I.

And that’s interesting because — as Eisen goes on to establish — Hope Hicks learned about the Flynn-Kislyak call at a minimum just days afterwards and (per her initial response) possibly the day it was made.

Q Did you have any advance knowledge of a phone call between Mr. Flynn and the Russian Ambassador that was the subject of this Ignatius reporting?

A I believe I was aware of it the day that it took place. I don’t know if it was before or after. But I recall being at Mar-a-Lago, and Flynn, I think — sorry. Off the record.

[Discussion off the record.]

Ms. Hicks. I think it was afterwards. Perhaps even several days afterwards.

Again, the Mueller Report describes a conversation Flynn had with Steve Bannon in the aftermath of the call, but not Hicks. The Report also mentions a discussion between Flynn and Trump, but Flynn doesn’t “have a specific recollection” of telling Trump about the call.

Flynn recalled discussing the sanctions issue with incoming Administration official Stephen Bannon the next day. 10° Flynn said that Bannon appeared to know about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak, and he and Bannon agreed that they had “stopped the train on Russia’s response” to the sanctions. 101 On January 3, 2017, Flynn saw the President-Elect in person and thought they discussed the Russian reaction to the sanctions, but Flynn did not have a specific recollection of telling the President-Elect about the substance of his calls with Kislyak. 102

And that’s important because, even before Eisen started pursuing these questions, Congressman Steve Cohen had gotten Hicks to admit (after first denying it) that she had knowledge of Russian sanctions that apparently included Trump.

Mr. Cohen. All right. So with all those caveats, before January 20, 2017, did you have any knowledge of any discussions of Russian sanctions?

Ms. Hicks. No.

Mr. Cohen. There was no discussions at all with Mr. Trump and you weren’t privy to them about Russian sanctions that we had issued? You’re sure of that? Think about it.

Ms. Hicks. I am thinking. Thank you. You know, there was — there was a phone call obviously between General Flynn and the Russian ambassador. There was news reports after that where it was unclear what was discussed, but that would have been the only context in which Russian sanctions were brought up in my capacity as communications adviser. [my emphasis]

When Eisen followed up about when Hicks learned that Flynn had lied about sanctions, Hicks claimed to have no recollection of learning that during the transition.

Mr. Eisen. When did you first learn that there was an issue about — if you learned — actually, let me rephrase that question. Did Mr. Flynn talk to you after the column was published about the column?

Mr. Philbin. And we’re still asking —

Mr. Eisen. We’re asking transition. We’re about to come to the post-transition period.

Ms. Hicks. I don’t recall any direct conversations with him, only the email thread that I described.

Mr. Eisen. During the transition, did you develop any additional information about the truth or falsity of anything in the Ignatius column?

Ms. Hicks. Not to my recollection.

Predictably, when Eisen asks about how Hicks came to learn more about this after the Transition, Philbin objected.

Mr. Eisen. What about after the transition?

Mr. Philbin. Objection.

Let me be clear: even with this questioning, the record on what Hicks knew when is inconclusive (and she appears to want to keep it that way). Which may be one reason why Hicks doesn’t appear in any of the discussions in the Mueller Report about this incident, because even Mueller doesn’t find her answers completely credible. As far as is known, she was first interviewed in December 2017, after Flynn’s guilty plea would have made it clear he had relayed some of this, though some FBI interviews that happened the summer before don’t appear in the Mueller Report. So at least given the public record, Hicks would have been able to temper her answers based off what Flynn was known to have admitted in his plea.

The public record certainly sustains a version akin to the public version about Priebus: that he knew about the call to Kislyak in real time, but only came to learn that they talked about sanctions after the FBI interview.

But Hicks’ answers and evasions — and her constant access to Trump — leave open another possibility.

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

Why Didn’t Mueller Hold Counterintelligence Suspect Mike Flynn Responsible for Sanctions Call?

There’s a problem with the way the Mueller Report describes events pertaining to Mike Flynn.

It describes how someone under active counterintelligence investigation for his ties to Russia and already on thin ice with the President-Elect got on the phone and, through the Russian Ambassador, persuaded Vladimir Putin to hold off on retaliating for US sanctions. It describes how Flynn avoided leaving a paper trail of that call. Ultimately, the report remains inconclusive about whether Flynn made that call on his own initiative — which would seem to bolster the case he had suspect loyalties with the Russians — or at the direction of the President — in which case his actions would be appropriate from a constitutional standpoint (because this is the kind of thing the President can choose to do), but not a legal one (because he was purposely hiding it from the Obama Administration). One or the other would seem to be a necessary conclusion, but the Mueller Report reaches neither one.

In part, that’s because both Flynn and KT McFarland seem to have protected President Trump’s plausible deniability even after both got caught lying about these events. But it also appears that Mueller is more certain about the answer than he lets on in the public report.

This is the subject that, in my post noting that the Mueller Report has huge gaps precisely where the most acute counterintelligence concerns about Trump’s relationship with Putin are, I suggested created a logical problem for the report as a whole.

If it is the case that Flynn did what he did on Trump’s orders — which seems the only possible conclusion given Mueller’s favorable treatment of Flynn — then it changes the meaning of all of Trump’s actions with regard to the Russian investigation, but also suggests that that conclusion remains a counterintelligence one, not a criminal one.

Mike Flynn was under active counterintelligence investigation but he’s not an Agent of Russia

According to the Mueller Report, the first Rosenstein memo laying out the detailed scope of the investigation, dated August 2, 2017, included “four sets of allegations involving Michael Flynn, the former National Security Advisor to President Trump.” Two of those four must be his unregistered sleazy influence peddling for Turkey (which he got to plead off of as part of his plea agreement) and the Peter Smith operation to obtain Hillary’s deleted emails (about which his testimony is reflected in the Mueller Report).

Then there’s the counterintelligence investigation into Flynn. We’ve known that the FBI had a counterintelligence investigation into Flynn since before HPSCI released its Russian Report, and a later release of that report described that the investigation was still active when the FBI interviewed Flynn on January 24, 2017.

A key focus of that investigation —  one reflected in Flynn’s January 24, 2017 302 — was his paid attendance at a December 10, 2015 RT event in Moscow in December 2015, where he sat with Putin. The Mueller Report makes just one reference to that event, and only as a way of describing the public reporting on Trump flunkies’ ties to Russia during the campaign.

Beginning in February 2016 and continuing through the summer, the media reported that several Trump campaign advisors appeared to have ties to Russia. For example, the press reported that campaign advisor Michael Flynn was seated next to Vladimir Putin at an RT gala in Moscow in December 2015 and that Flynn had appeared regularly on RT as an analyst.15

15 See, e.g., Mark Hosenball & Steve Holland, Trump being advised by ex-US. Lieutenant General who favors closer Russia ties, Reuters (Feb. 26, 2016); Tom Hamburger et al., Inside Trump’s financial ties to Russia and his unusual flattery of Vladimir Putin, Washington Post (June 17, 2016). Certain matters pertaining to Flynn are described in Volume I, Section TV.B.7, supra.

However, in addition to that trip, the FBI must have been scrutinizing earlier Kislyak contacts that don’t show up in the Report at all:

  • A meeting on December 2, 2015 (described in the HPSCI report) that Kislyak that Flynn and his failson attended in advance of the RT trip at the Russian Embassy
  • A call to Kislyak sometime after GRU head Igor Sergun’s death in Lebanon on January 6, 2016; in his interview with the FBI; Flynn said he called to offer condolences, though he used that excuse for other calls that involved substantive policy discussions; he also claimed, not entirely credibly, not to be associated with the Trump campaign yet
  • Other conversations during the campaign that Flynn revealed to friends that otherwise don’t show up in public documents

In one of the only (unredacted) references to the counterintelligence investigation into Flynn, the Mueller Report describes that Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak became a key focus of that investigation.

Previously, the FBI had opened an investigation of Flynn based on his relationship with the Russian government.105 Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak became a key component of that investigation.10

But that passage doesn’t reveal the scope of those contacts and, in spite of detailed analysis of other people’s contacts with Kislyak (including an invite to JD Gordan to his residence that appears similar to the December 2015 one Kislyak extended to Flynn and his son), the Report doesn’t mention those earlier contacts.

Perhaps far more interesting, in the report’s analysis of whether any Trump aide was an agent of Russia, it does not include Flynn in the paragraph explaining why Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos, and Carter Page were not charged as such. Instead, his foreign influence peddling is treated in a separate paragraph discussing just Turkey.

In addition, the investigation produced evidence of FARA violations involving Michael Flynn. Those potential violations, however, concerned a country other than Russia (i.e., Turkey) and were resolved when Flynn admitted to the underlying facts in the Statement of Offense that accompanied his guilty plea to a false-statements charge. Statement of Offense, United States v. Michael T Flynn, No. l:17-cr-232 (D.D.C. Dec. 1, 2017), Doc. 4 (“Flynn Statement of Offense”). 1281

The footnote to that paragraph, which given the admission elsewhere that a separate counterintelligence investigation into Flynn focused on Russia, likely deals with Russia, is entirely redacted for Harm to Ongoing Matters reasons.

While we can’t be sure (hell, we can’t even be totally sure this does relate to Russia!), this seems to suggest that the investigation into Russian efforts to cultivate Flynn is ongoing, but he has been absolved of any responsibility for — as an intelligence officer with 30 years of counterintelligence training — nevertheless falling prey to such efforts.

All of which is to say that, along with the descriptions of Trump’s most alarming interactions with Russians including Vladimir Putin, many of Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak and other Russians (including not just Putin but the guy who headed GRU until just before the election hacking started in earnest in January 2016) appear to be treated as counterintelligence information not suitable for public sharing.

The Mueller Report deliberately obscures key details of the timeline on the sanctions call

That’s important to note, because the counterintelligence conclusion on Flynn has to be utterly central to the analysis of Trump’s attempt to obstruct the investigation into Flynn.

The two discussions in the Mueller Report (Volume I pages 168 to 173 and Volume II pages 24 to 48) of Flynn’s December 2016 conversations with Sergey Kislyak are totally unsatisfying, probably in part because two key witnesses (Flynn and KT McFarland, and possibly others including Steve Bannon) lied when the FBI first interviewed them about the calls; they had also created a deliberately misleading paper trail for the events.

In both places, the Report provides times for some events on December 29, but obscures the most critical part of the timeline. I’ve put the Volume I language at the end of this post. It provides the following timeline for December 29, 2016:

1:53PM: McFarland and other Transition Team members and advisors (including Flynn, via email) discuss sanctions.

2:07PM: [Transition Team Member] Flaherty, an aide to McFarland, texts Flynn a link to a NYT article about the sanctions.

2:29PM: McFarland calls Flynn, but they don’t talk.

Shortly after 2:29PM: McFarland and Bannon discuss sanctions; according to McFarland’s clean-up interview, she may have told Bannon that Flynn would speak to Kislyak that night.

3:14PM: Flynn texts Flaherty and asks “time for a call??,” meaning McFarland. Flaherty responds that McFarland was on the phone with Tom Bossert. Flynn informs Flaherty in writing that he had a call with Kislyak coming up, using the language, “tit for tat,” that McFarland used on emails with others and that Flynn himself would use with Kislyak later that day.

Tit for tat w Russia not good. Russian AMBO reaching out to me today.

Sometime in here but the Report doesn’t tell us precisely when: Flynn talks to Michael Ledeen, KT McFarland, and then Kislyak. [my emphasis]

4:43PM: McFarland emails other transition team members saying that,  “Gen [F]lynn is talking to russian ambassador this evening.”

Before 5:45PM: McFarland briefed President-Elect Trump, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, and others on the sanctions. McFarland remembers that someone at the briefing may have mentioned the upcoming Kislyak call.

After the briefing: McFarland and Flynn speak by phone. Flynn tells McFarland, “that the Russian response to the sanctions was not going to be escalatory because they wanted a good relationship with the incoming Administration,” and McFarland tells Flynn about the briefing with Trump.

The next day, December 30, 2016 — after Putin announced they would not retaliate to Obama’s sanctions — Flynn sent a text message to McFarland that very deliberately did not reflect the true content of his communication with Kislyak, reportedly because he wanted to hide that from the Obama Administration (the Trump team had falsely told Obama they would not fuck with their existing policy initiatives).

Shortly thereafter, Flynn sent a text message to McFarland summarizing his call with Kislyak from the day before, which she emailed to Kushner, Bannon, Priebus, and other Transition Team members. 1265 The text message and email did not include sanctions as one of the topics discussed with Kislyak. 1266 Flynn told the Office that he did not document his discussion of sanctions because it could be perceived as getting in the way of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy.126

On December 31, after Kislyak called again to tell Flynn that Putin had decided not to retaliate because of the Trump Administration request not to, he and McFarland communicated again about their attempts to convince Russia not to respond to sanctions. Flynn spoke with others that day but “does not recall” whether they discussed the sanctions, though he remembers (but Bannon does not) that Bannon seemed to know about Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak.

The narrative for the same events in the obstruction section has less detail, but infuriatingly, similarly manages to leave out all the details (in bold above) about when Flynn spoke to McFarland and when he called Kisylak.

The thing is, Mueller knows precisely when those Flynn calls happened. The Volume I version of events make it clear they have the call records of Flynn, Michael Ledeen, and McFarland that would provide a precise timeline.

They just refuse to provide those times and the times of key emails, which would add to the clarity about whether Trump learned of Flynn’s plans before he contacted Kislyak.

In the “Intent” discussion regarding obstruction, however, the report suggests that the Trump briefing, where sanctions did come up, preceded the first Flynn call to Kislyak (even though the timeline here suggests it did not).

In advance of Flynn’s initial call with Kislyak, the President attended a meeting where the sanctions were discussed and an advisor may have mentioned that Flynn was scheduled to talk to Kislyak.

That’s particularly interesting given that the Volume II discussion of events describes how, after Trump fired Flynn, he also fired KT McFarland but offered her a position as Ambassador to Singapore. There’s very little discussion of the explanation for her firing, but they do describe how Trump tried to make McFarland write a memo — very similar to the false one he tried to make Don McGahn write denying that Trump had ordered him to have Rod Rosenstein removed — denying that he had any role in Flynn’s discussion with Kislyak about sanctions. McFarland did not write the memo, as she explained in a Memo for the Record, because she did not know whether Trump had spoken with Flynn or with Russia directly.

The next day, the President asked Priebus to have McFarland draft an internal email that would confirm that the President did not direct Flynn to call the Russian Ambassador about sanctions.253 Priebus said he told the President he would only direct McFarland to write such a letter if she were comfortable with it.254 Priebus called McFarland into his office to convey the President’s request that she memorialize in writing that the President did not direct Flynn to talk to Kislyak.255 McFarland told Priebus she did not know whether the President had directed Flynn to talk to Kislyak about sanctions, and she declined to say yes or no to the request.256

256 KTMF _00000047 (McFarland 2/26/ 17 Memorandum_ for the Record) (“I said I did not know whether he did or didn’t, but was in Maralago the week between Christmas and New Year’s (while Flynn was on vacation in Carribean) and I was not aware of any Flynn-Trump, or Trump-Russian phone calls”); McFarland 12/22/ 17 302, at 17.

Again, at a minimum, Mueller knows if Trump called Flynn, and may know if Trump called Kislyak or — more likely — Putin. But he’s not telling.

Trump was already pissy with Flynn, so why didn’t he blame him for the sanctions calls?

There’s one more contradictory detail about Trump’s behavior in this narrative.

According to enough witnesses to make it a reliable claim, Trump had already soured on Flynn in December 2016, before all this blew up (but not before Obama warned Trump and Elijah Cummings warned Mike Pence about Flynn’s suspect loyalties).

Several witnesses said that the President was unhappy with Flynn for other reasons at this time. Bannon said that Flynn’s standing with the President was not good by December 2016. Bannon 2/12/18 302, at 12. The President-Elect had concerns because President Obama had warned him about Flynn shortly after the election. Bannon 2/12/18 302, at 4-5; Hicks 12/8/17 302, at 7 (President Obama’s comment sat with President-Elect Trump more than Hicks expected). Priebus said that the President had become unhappy with Flynn even before the story of his calls with Kislyak broke and had become so upset with Flynn that he would not look at him during intelligence briefings. Priebus 1/18/18 302, at 8. Hicks said that the President thought Flynn had bad judgment and was angered by tweets sent by Flynn and his son, and she described Flynn as “being on thin ice” by early February 2017. Hicks 12/8/17 302, at 7, 10

As I’ve noted before, Trump made the same complaint to Jim Comey in their “loyalty demand” dinner on January 27, 2017 — but he did so in the context of Flynn not informing him that Vladimir Putin had beaten Theresa May to congratulating him about his inauguration.

All these details — including that Flynn publicly informed Trump of Putin’s call — should make Flynn a bigger counterintelligence concern, not one that could be dismissed more easily than Page and Manafort and Papadopoulos.

Unless Mueller had more certainty that Trump was in the loop of these sanctions discussions — either through Flynn or directly with Putin — than he lets on in the public report.

Mike Flynn’s Interviews with Prosecutors

To sum up, Mueller knows that someone already under investigation for his suspect calls to Russia and Sergey Kislyak got on the phone with Kislyak and undercut the Obama Administration’s attempt to punish Russia for its election interference. Flynn deliberately created a false record of that call, then lied about it when it became public the following month, and continued to lie about it when the FBI asked him about it.Trump allegedly got pissy that Flynn’s counterintelligence exposure had already been raised by Obama, but also got pissy that Flynn wasn’t being obsequious enough to Putin. But, when this all began to blow up in the press, rather than firing Flynn right away for being a counterintelligence problem — the outcome Sally Yates clearly expected would be the no-brainer result — Trump instead repeatedly tried to protect Flynn.

Which is why the likelihood that a key part of Flynn’s cooperation, that relating to the counterintelligence side of the equation, is so interesting.

As I noted when the addendum showing Flynn’s cooperation came out, it likely broke into the Turkish influence peddling [A], two (or maybe three?) topics relating to Trump [B], as well as more classified part of the investigation conducted under Mueller [C].

A Criminal Investigation:

11+ line paragraph

6.5 line paragraph

2 line paragraph

B Mueller investigation:

Introductory paragraph (9 lines)

i) Interactions between Transition Team and Russia (12 lines, just one or two sentences redacted)

ii) Topic two

10 line paragraph

9 line paragraph

C Entirely redacted investigation:

4.5 line paragraph

The footnotes from the Mueller Report describing what Flynn told prosecutors when seems to reinforce this.

  1. November 16, 2017: Trump appoint Flynn as NSA, first call with Putin, Israel vote, communications with Kislyak, December Kislyak call
  2. November 17, 2017: Israel vote, December Kislyak call, especially comms with Mar a Lago, re Ignatius Flynn said he had not talked sanctions, Mar a Lago with Trump, Flynn’s last meeting with Trump, “we’ll take care of you”
  3. November 19, 2017: Why sanctions, whether he told others at MAL, comms on 12/29, re Ignatius Flynn said he had not talked sanctions, Mar a Lago with Trump
  4. November 20, 2017: Whether he told others at MAL, response to Ignatius
  5. November 21, 2017: Whether he told others at MAL, response to Ignatius, meeting with Trump
  6. November 29, 2017: Peter Smith
  7. January 11, 2018: November 30 meeting with Kislyak
  8. January 19, 2018: Flynn did not have specific recollection about telling POTUS on January 3, 2017
  9. April 25, 2018: Peter Smith
  10. May 1, 2018: Peter Smith
  11. September 26, 2018: Proffer response on meetings with Foresman

We know from court filings that Flynn had 19 interviews with prosecutors, of which four pertain to his sleazy influence peddling with Turkey. Here’s what that seems to suggest about his interviews (assuming, probably incorrectly, that they didn’t cover multiple topics at once):

  • Turkish influence peddling: 4 interviews, unknown dates
  • Transition events, 7 interviews: 11/16/17, 11/17/17, 11/19/17, 11/20/17, 11/21/17, 1/11/18, 1/19/18
  • Peter Smith, 3 interviews: 11/29/17, 4/25/18, 5/1/18
  • Counterintelligence: Remaining 5 interviews???, unknown dates

It’s possible, however, there’s a third “links” topic pertaining to Transition era graft, which for scope reasons would not appear in the Mueller Report.

The possibility that Flynn may have had five interviews dedicated to a counterintelligence investigation that implicated Trump would make this Brian Ross story far more interesting. As the Report lays out, when hints that Flynn flipped first came out on November 22, 2017, one of Trump’s lawyers (probably John Dowd) left a voice mail message (!!!) with one of Flynn’s lawyers (probably Rob Kelner). He specifically wanted a heads up about anything that “implicates the President” which would create a “national security issue.”

I understand your situation, but let me see if I can’t state it in starker terms. . . . [I]t wouldn’t surprise me if you’ve gone on to make a deal with … the government. … [I]f . .. there’s information that implicates the President, then we’ve got a national security issue, . . . so, you know, . . . we need some kind of heads up. Um, just for the sake of protecting all our interests ifwe can …. [R]emember what we’ve always said about the ‘ President and his feelings toward Flynn and, that still remains ….

The following day, Trump’s lawyer told Flynn’s that cooperating would reflect hostility to the President.

A week later, once the plea was official on December 1, Flynn had the following leaked to ABC.

During the campaign, Trump asked Flynn to be one of a small group of close advisors charged with improving relations in Russia and other hot spots. The source said Trump phoned Flynn shortly after the election to explicitly ask him to “serve as point person on Russia,” and to reach out personally to Russian officials to develop strategies to jointly combat ISIS.

[snip]

“Flynn is very angry,” the confidant told ABC News Friday. “He will cooperate truthfully on any question they ask him.” [my emphasis]

Only, originally, the story read that Trump asked Flynn to reach out to Russia before the election. The story is often cited as one of the big gaffes of the Russian investigation, but Mother Jones has since corroborated the pre-election timeline with two Flynn associates.

For some reason, Mueller did not hold Mike Flynn responsible for — at a time when he was under active counterintelligence investigation for his ties to Russia — undercutting the official policy of the US on punishing Russia for its election year attack. I wonder whether the content of up to five counterintelligence interviews with Flynn may explain why.

As they are elsewhere, the Washington Post is trying to liberate the filings about Flynn’s cooperation that would explain all this. On Thursday, Emmet Sullivan — the same judge who, after seeing all the sealed filings in Flynn’s case, used some really inflammatory language about Flynn’s loyalty — set a briefing schedule for that effort. Then, acting on his own on Friday, Sullivan scheduled a hearing for June 24 (after the next status report in Flynn’s case but before he would be sentenced) to discuss liberating those filings.

So maybe we’ll find out from the WaPo’s efforts to liberate those documents.

Timeline of known Flynn investigation

November 10, 2016: Obama warns Trump that Mike Flynn’s name kept surfacing in concerns about Russia.

November 18, 2016: Trump names Flynn National Security Adviser.

November 18, 2016: Elijah Cummings warns Mike Pence of Flynn’s Turkish lobbying.

Shortly after inauguration: On “first” call with Kislyak, Flynn responds to Ambassador’s invitation to Russian Embassy that, “You keep telling me that,” alerting others to previous contacts between them.

January 24, 2017: In interview with FBI, Flynn lies about his contacts with Sergey Kislyak.

January 26 and 27, 2017: Sally Yates warns the White House about Flynn’s lies.

February 2, 2017: WHCO lawyer John Eisenberg reviews materials on Flynn’s interview.

February 13, 2017: Flynn fired.

July 19, 2017: Peter Strzok interviewed, in part, about Flynn interview, presumably as part of obstruction investigation.

November 16, 2017: Interview covers: Trump appoint Flynn as NSA, first call with Putin, Israel vote, communications with Kislyak, December Kislyak call.

November 17, 2017: Interview covers: Israel vote, December Kislyak call, especially comms with Mar a Lago, re Ignatius Flynn said he had not talked sanctions, Mar a Lago with Trump, Flynn’s last meeting with Trump, “we’ll take care of you.”

November 19, 2017: Interview covers: Why sanctions, whether he told others at MAL, comms on 12/29, re Ignatius Flynn said he had not talked sanctions, Mar a Lago with Trump.

November 20, 2017: Interview covers: Whether he told others at MAL, response to Ignatius.

November 21, 2017: Interview covers: Whether he told others at MAL, response to Ignatius, meeting with Trump.

November 22, 2017: Flynn withdraws from Joint Defense Agreement; Trump’s lawyer leaves a message for Flynn’s lawyer stating, in part, “if… there’s information that implicates the President, then we’ve got a national security
issue,…so, you know,…we need some kind of heads up.”

November 23, 2017: Flynn’s attorney returns Trump’s attorney’s call, the latter says cooperation would reflect hostility to the President.

November 29, 2017: Interview covers Peter Smith.

December 1, 2017: Flynn pleads guilty, has story leaked to Brian Ross that his cooperation covers Trump’s orders that he take “serve as point person on Russia,” originally stating that the order preceded the election; the story is corrected to say the order comes ” shortly after the election.” Two Flynn associates subsequently told Mother Jones the contacts did start before the election.

January 11, 2018: Interview covers November 30 meeting with Kislyak.

January 19, 2018: Interview covers Flynn did not have specific recollection about telling POTUS on January 3, 2017.

April 25, 2018: Interview covers Peter Smith.

May 1, 2018: Interview covers Peter Smith.

September 17, 2018: Status report asking for sentencing.

September 26, 2018: Flynn’s attorney offers proffer response on meetings with Bob Foresman.

December 18, 2018: After Judge Emmet Sullivan invokes treason and selling out his country, Flynn delays sentencing.


The Volume I Narrative about December 29, 2016

Shortly thereafter, Flynn sent a text message to McFarland summarizing his call with Kislyak from the day before, which she emailed to Kushner, Bannon, Priebus, and other Transition Team members. 1265 The text message and email did not include sanctions as one of the topics discussed with Kislyak. 1266 Flynn told the Office that he did not document his discussion of sanctions because it could be perceived as getting in the way of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy.126

The sanctions were announced publicly on December 29, 2016. 1231 At 1 :53 p.m. that day, McFarland began exchanging emails with multiple Transition Team members and advisors about the impact the sanctions would have on the incoming Administration. 1232 At 2:07 p.m., a Transition Team member texted Flynn a link to a New York Times article about the sanctions. 1233 At 2:29 p.m., McFarland called Flynn, but they did not talk. 1234 Shortly thereafter, McFarland and Bannon discussed the sanctions. 1235 According to McFarland, Bannon remarked that the sanctions would hurt their ability to have good relations with Russia, and that Russian escalation would make things more difficult. 1236 McFarland believed she told Bannon that Flynn was scheduled to talk to Kislyak later that night. 1237 McFarland also believed she may have discussed the sanctions with Priebus, and likewise told him that Flynn was scheduled to talk to Kislyak that night. 1238 At 3: 14 p.m., Flynn texted a Transition Team member who was assisting McFarland, “Time for a call???”1239 The Transition Team member responded that McFarland was on the phone with Tom Bossert, a Transition Team senior official, to which Flynn responded, “Tit for tat w Russia not good. Russian AMBO reaching out to me today.” 1240

Flynn recalled that he chose not to communicate with Kislyak about the sanctions until he had heard from the team at Mar-a-Lago.1241 He first spoke with Michael Ledeen, 1242 a Transition Team member who advised on foreign policy and national security matters, for 20 minutes. 1243 Flynn then spoke with McFarland for almost 20 minutes to discuss what, if anything, to communicate to Kislyak about the sanctions. 1244 On that call, McFarland and Flynn discussed the sanctions, including their potential impact on the incoming Trump Administration’s foreign policy goals. 1245 McFarland and Flynn also discussed that Transition Team members in Mar-a-Lago did not want Russia to escalate the situation. 1246 They both understood that Flynn would relay a message to Kislyak in hopes of making sure the situation would not get out of hand.1247

Immediately after speaking with McFarland, Flynn called and spoke with Kislyak. 1248 Flynn discussed multiple topics with Kislyak, including the sanctions, scheduling a video teleconference between President-Elect Trump and Putin, an upcoming terrorism conference, and Russia’s views about the Middle East. 1249 With respect to the sanctions, Flynn requested that Russia not escalate the situation, not get into a “tit for tat,” and only respond to the sanctions in a reciprocal manner.1250

Multiple Transition Team members were aware that Flynn was speaking with Kislyak that day. In addition to her conversations with Bannon and Reince Priebus, at 4:43 p.m., McFarland sent an email to Transition Team members about the sanctions, informing the group that “Gen [F]lynn is talking to russian ambassador this evening.” 1251 Less than an hour later, McFarland briefed President-Elect Trump. Bannon, Priebus, Sean Spicer, and other Transition Team members were present. 1252 During the briefing, President-Elect Trump asked McFarland if the Russians did “it,” meaning the intrusions intended to influence the presidential election. 1253 McFarland said yes, and President-Elect Trump expressed doubt that it was the Russians.1254 McFarland also discussed potential Russian responses to the sanctions, and said Russia’s response would be an indicator of what the Russians wanted going forward. 1255 President-Elect Trump opined that the sanctions provided him with leverage to use with the Russians. 1256 McFarland recalled that at the end of the meeting, someone may have mentioned to President-Elect Trump that Flynn was speaking to the Russian ambassador that evening. 1257

After the briefing, Flynn and McFarland spoke over the phone. 1258 Flynn reported on the substance of his call with Kislyak, including their discussion of the sanctions. 1259 According to McFarland, Flynn mentioned that the Russian response to the sanctions was not going to be escalatory because they wanted a good relationship with the incoming Administration.1260 McFarland also gave Flynn a summary of her recent briefing with President-Elect Trump. 1261

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

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Self-Promoting Republican Lawyer Scorned

Yesterday, Jerry Nadler subpoenaed Don McGahn, both to appear and testify on May 21, but also to turn over a slew of documents pertaining to 36 topics, the two most interesting of which are:

23. President Trump’s exposure in the Special Counsel Investigation relating to “other contacts,” calls,” or “ask re Flynn” as mentioned in Volume II, page 82 of the Report.

[snip]

34.  Communications relating to United States imposed sanctions or potential sanctions against the Russian Federation from June 16, 2015 to October 18, 2018, including but not limited to the sanctions imposed pursuant to the Magnitsky Act.

I suspect this is a friendly subpoena — a subpoena giving the witness an excuse for testifying. I say that not just because McGahn is a self-promoter who likes to pretend he’s the hero of saving Trump from prison, but also because McGahn got noticeably more chatty with Mueller’s office as Trump grew more unmanageable and the risk to McGahn’s future increased. Indeed, because he leaked his heroic role to the press, he ended up getting called in for further interviews.

At least as described by its footnotes, the Mueller Report revealed that McGahn testified five times. The first three seem to be largely sequential interviews covering three big events:

  • November 30, 2017: Flynn’s firing
  • December 12, 2017: Sessions’ recusal and Comey’s firing
  • December 14, 2017: Mueller’s appointment and Trump’s efforts to fire him, both directly (through McGahn) and indirectly (by firing Sessions)

Then, after the NYT and WaPo reported two versions of the story, in January of last year, that Trump asked McGahn to fire Mueller, McGahn was interviewed at more length about that.

  • March 8, 2018: Trump’s order to fire Mueller and attempt to force McGahn to correct the NYT story

Then, this year, after he had been fired for cooperating with Mueller, he was interviewed again, apparently to clarify some timing related issues (the interview apparently focused on his private phone records), and to explain why he didn’t tell Anne Donaldson, Reince Priebus, and others about the order to fire Mueller.

  • February 28, 2019

There are signs that, during the first set of interviews, McGahn was shading the truth. As expected, his story about the Flynn firing (and the CYA memo he drafted the day after Flynn’s firing) is dodgy — some of which I’ll return to, For example, his CYA memo claimed that, “Yates was unwilling to confirm or deny that there was an ongoing investigation but did indicate that the Department of Justice would not object to the White House taking action against Flynn,” when in fact she had told him she alerted him to Flynn’s lies precisely so the White House could take action. At times, it was clear McGahn was trying to put a less damning spin on things, especially notes taken by Anne Donaldson or Sessions Chief of Staff Jody Hunt. For example, he claimed a note that said “No comms, / Serious concerns about obstruction” didn’t mean that his office had tried to set a rule not to speak to Sessions about the investigation, reflected instead a concern about the press spin; that spin might reflect his own concern about his efforts to convince Sessions not to recuse.

In those initial interviews, too, McGahn’s story about his effort to get DOJ to issue a statement claiming the President wasn’t being investigated differs significantly from Dana Boente’s, which is useful to his story as it provides an excuse for his orchestration of blaming the Jim Comey firing on Rod Rosenstein. Perhaps the most ridiculous claim, from the initial meetings, is that Trump insisted on emphasizing Comey’s refusal to say he wasn’t under investigation because he didn’t want everyone to know Comey was fired over the Russia investigation. “McGahn said he believed the President wanted the language included so that people would not think that the President had terminated Comey because the President was under investigation” — this, even in spite of the fact that Trump told McGahn that he had told Sergey Lavrov he fired Comey because of the Russian investigation to take the pressure off.

McGahn,  and to a lesser degree Donaldson, both invented a bullshit story for why they were asking Richard Burr which Trump aides were targeted by the investigation, which a footnote dismantles.

The week after Comey’s briefing, the White House Counsel’s Office was in contact with SSCI Chairman Senator Richard Burr about the Russia investigations and appears to have received information about the status of the FBI investigation.309

309 Donaldson 11/6/17 302, at 14-15. On March 16, 2017, the White House Counsel’s Office was briefed by Senator Burr on the existence of “4-5 targets.” Donaldson 11 /6/17 302, at 15. The “targets” were identified in notes taken by Donaldson as “Flynn (FBI was ~ooking for phone records”; “Comey~Manafort (Ukr + Russia, not campaign)”; [redacted] “Carter Page ($ game)”; and “Greek Guy” (potentially referring to George Papadopoulos, later charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 1001 for lying to the FBI). SC_AD_00l98 (Donaldson 3/16/17 Notes). Donaldson and McGahn both said they believed these were targets ofSSCI. Donaldson 11/6/17 302, at 15; McGahn 12/ 12/17 302, at 4. But SSCI does not formally investigate individuals as “targets”; the notes on their face reference the FBI, the Department of Justice, and Corney; and the notes track the background materials prepared by the FBI for Comey’s briefing to the Gang of8 on March 9. See SNS-Classified-0000140-44 (3/8/17 Email, Gauhar to Page et al.); see also Donaldson 11 /6/17 302, at 15 (Donaldson could not rule out that Burr had told McGahn those individuals were the FBI’s targets).

Perhaps most tellingly, the first time McGahn got asked about Trump’s efforts to fire Mueller, he was not all that forthcoming.

When this Office first interviewed McGahn about this topic, he was reluctant to share detailed information about what had occurred and only did so after continued questioning.

From the footnotes, it appears that Mueller’s office went back to Don McGahn in March 2018, after flattering stories about his heroic role showed up in NYT, WaPo, and CNN and got more clarification about how McGahn prevented Trump from firing Mueller (basically, by ignoring him). That interview, too, gathered information about how Trump tried to bully McGahn into correcting the NYT story, which falsely claimed that McGahn had told Trump he would quit. (Truthfully, McGahn’s threats to quit are as pathetic as I expected when the stories first came out, and the NYT story is as misleadingly flattering as I expected.)

It’s at that March 2018 meeting where McGahn admitted his real motivation: he envisioned himself as an esteemed judicial ideologue and not a historic hack.

McGahn also had made clear to the President that the White House Counsel’s Office should not be involved in any effort to press the issue of conflicts.578 McGahn was concerned about having any role in asking the Acting Attorney General to fire the Special Counsel because he had grown up in the Reagan era and wanted to be more like Judge Robert Bork and not ” Saturday Night Massacre Bork.”579

Finally, after being fired himself for cooperating with Mueller (and, probably, for seeding so many self-serving stories with the NYT), Mueller interviewed McGahn once more, this February, one of the very last interviews that appears in the report. It appears they were cleaning up two discrepancies: the dates of the calls (it appears McGahn may have said one happened later than it did to separate it from coverage that Trump was under investigation for obstruction), and to get McGahn to explain why he didn’t tell Donaldson or Priebus and Bannon that he had been ordered to get Rosenstein to fire Mueller.

Incidentally, while self-proclaimed Mueller investigation hero McGahn appears to have been happy to tell Mueller’s team that Trump’s claims that Mueller had a conflict, he never told the press, not even in any of those seeded stories to the NYT.

There’s one detail about the Mueller report of particular interest, however, given the subpoena to testify. That note Donaldson took, recording that “McGahn told the President that his ‘biggest exposure’ was not his act of firing Comey but his ‘other contacts’ and ‘calls,’ and his ‘ask re: Flynn”?

Nowhere is his explanation for that comment cited to an interview report from him.

Which brings us to the subpoena, which (as I said) I suspect is a friendly one.

McGahn is almost certainly one of the people who sourced stories (including with his favorite reporters at the NYT) saying they were worried about all the damning things they said exposed in the Mueller Report. In McGahn’s case, he was right to be worried. The other day, Politico revealed that Trump replaced Jones Day as his 2020 campaign firm, in a move that was attributed to cost-cutting but that Politico’s sources say is retaliation not just for McGahn’s cooperation with Mueller but also a story (written by McGahn’s favorite NYT journos the same day he last interviewed with Mueller) on Jared Kushner’s inappropriate security clearance.

[C]lose Trump advisers say the decision also stems from disappointment with the White House’s former top attorney and current Jones Day partner, Don McGahn, whose behavior has irked the president and some of his family members.

Taking business away from Jones Day is payback, these advisers say, for McGahn’s soured relationship with the Trump family and a handful articles in high-profile newspapers that the family blames, unfairly or not, on the former White House counsel.

“Why in the world would you want to put your enemy on the payroll?” said one adviser close to the White House. “They do not want to reward his firm. Trump arrived at that point long ago, but the security clearance memo stories put a fine point on it.”

One February 2019 story, in particular, caught the White House’s attention, when The New York Times reported that the president ordered John Kelly, his chief of staff at the time, to grant a security clearance to Jared Kushner. Kelly had written an internal memo on it, according to the Times. That fact was closely held inside the White House, and few officials other than Kelly and McGahn knew, say two close White House advisers — and the administration blamed McGahn for the leak.

One other thing HJC is asking for are “communications with the Executive Office of the President regarding your response to the March 4, 2019 document request” by HJC.

Which, I’m sure they have reason to know, reflect White House opposition to his public testimony.

Don McGahn apparently imagined working for a corrupt asshole like Trump would get him named to the Supreme Court.

Instead, his firm has a lost a very lucrative client. He appears to be upping the ante by further distancing himself from Trump’s corruption. That may get ugly, because Don McGahn knows where a whole lot of Donald Trump’s bodies are buried. And given that McGahn, not Trump, is the one who packed the courts, the Republicans may have really divided loyalties over this fight.

Update: The White House is fighting McGahn’s subpoena.

The William Barr Case for Impeaching Donald Trump: From Whom Did Trump Suborn False Statements?

Last month, I argued that a memo William Barr wrote that many say disqualifies him to be Attorney General in fact (or perhaps, “also”) should make him utterly toxic to Trump, because he (unknowingly) makes the case for impeaching Trump.

That’s because of the specific content of a William Barr memo sent to Rod Rosenstein, first reported by WSJ last night. While I’m certain Barr didn’t intend to do so, the memo makes a compelling case that Trump must be impeached.

The memo is long, lacks pagination, and presents an alarming view of unitary executive power. Barr also adopts the logically and ethically problematic stance of assuming, in a memo that states, “I realize I am in the dark about many facts” in the second sentence, that he knows what Mueller is up to, repeating over and over claims about what theory of obstruction he knows Mueller is pursuing.

Yet even before Barr finishes the first page, he states something that poses serious problems for the White House.

Obviously, the President and any other official can commit obstruction in this classic sense of sabotaging a proceeding’s truth-finding function. Thus, for example, if a President knowingly destroys or alters evidence, suborns perjury, or induces a witness to change testimony, or commits any act deliberately impairing the integrity or availability of evidence, then he, like anyone else, commits the crime of obstruction.

Probably by the time Mueller’s office captured Peter Strzok’s testimony on July 19, 2017 — and almost certainly by the time they obtained Transition emails on August 23, 2017 (perhaps not coincidentally the day after Strzok’s 302 was formalized) showing Trump’s orchestration of Mike Flynn’s calls with Sergei Kislyak — Mueller has almost certainly had evidence that Trump suborned false statements from Mike Flynn. So even before he finishes the first page, Trump’s hand-picked guy to be Attorney General has made the argument that Trump broke the law and Mueller’s obstruction investigation is appropriate.

Today, as part of a rebuttal to Daniel Hemel and Eric Posner’s comments about the memo, Jack Goldsmith reviews an OLC memo they rely on to back my argument.

Barr’s invocation and application of the presidential plain-statement rule, far from shocking, is quite ordinary. It is so ordinary, in fact, that I doubt Mueller is pursuing the theory that Barr worries about, even though press reports have sometimes suggested that he is. (For similar doubts, see the analyses of Mikhaila Fogel and Benjamin Wittes and of Marty Lederman.) Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein implied that Barr misunderstood Mueller’s theory when he stated that Barr did not have the “actual facts of the case.” One can read Rosenstein’s statement, as Marcy Wheeler does, to mean that Mueller possesses facts—including evidence that Trump suborned false statements from Flynn—to show that Trump has obstructed justice under Barr’s “evidence impairment” theory and that, under the Barr memorandum’s separate discussion of impeachment, Trump can be impeached.

If Wheeler is right, then the Barr memorandum is more likely to be cited in support of an article of impeachment of President Trump for obstruction of justice than it is to be cited, as Hemel and Posner suggest, to immunize Trump from obstruction. We will see if the Democrats presiding over Barr’s confirmation hearings are clever enough not to take Hemel and Posner’s suggestion that Barr’s memo is extreme, and instead use Barr’s memo, as Wheeler counsels, “to talk the incoming Attorney General into backing the logic of the Mueller probe and impeachment in a very public way.”

Given the stakes on all this, I wanted to focus on why I think the public record suggests strongly that Trump suborned perjury (actually, false statements), meaning that Barr has already made the case for impeachment.

Mike Flynn lied to hide consultations with the Transition Team at Mar-a-Lago

First, let’s consider what Mike Flynn lied about, which I lay out in detail here. In addition to lies about being a foreign agent for Turkey and trying to undercut an Obama foreign policy decision pertaining to Israeli settlements, Flynn admitted to lying about whether he discussed sanctions during a series of conversations with Sergey Kislyak. The focus in reporting has always been on the conversations with Kislyak, but as the statement of the offense makes clear, Flynn’s conversations with other Transition Team members — most notably his Deputy, KT McFarland — got almost as much emphasis.

On or about January 24, 2017, FLYNN agreed to be interviewed by agents from the FBI (“January 24 voluntary interview”). During the interview, FLYNN falsely stated that he did not ask Russia’s Ambassador to the United States (“Russian Ambassador”) to refrain from escalating the situation in response to sanctions that the United States had imposed against Russia. FLYNN also falsely stated that he did not remember a follow-up conversation in which the Russian Ambassador stated that Russia had chosen to moderate its response to those sanctions as a result of FL YNN’s request. In truth and in fact, however, FLYNN then and there knew that the following had occurred:

a. On or about December 28, 2016, then-President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13757, which was to take effect the following day. The executive order announced sanctions against Russia in response to that government’s actions intended to interfere with the 2016 presidential election (“U.S. Sanctions”).

b. On or about December 28, 2016, the Russian Ambassador contacted FLYNN.

c. On or about December 29, 2016, FLYNN called a senior official of the Presidential Transition Team (“PTT official”), who was with other senior ·members of the Presidential Transition Team at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, to discuss what, if anything, to communicate to the Russian Ambassador about the U.S. Sanctions. On that call, FLYNN and the PTT official discussed the U.S. Sanctions, including the potential impact of those sanctions on the incoming administration’s foreign policy goals. The PIT official and FLYNN also discussed that the members of the Presidential Transition Team at Mar-a-Lago did not want Russia to escalate the situation.

d. Immediately after his phone call with the PTT official, FLYNN called the Russian Ambassador and requested that Russia not escalate the situation and only respond to the U.S. Sanctions in a reciprocal manner.

e. Shortly after his phone call with the Russian Ambassador, FLYNN spoke with the PTT official to report on the substance of his call with the Russian Ambassador, including their discussion of the U.S. Sanctions.

f. On or about December 30, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin released a statement indicating that Russia would not take retaliatory measures in response to the U.S. Sanctions at that time.

g. On or about December 31, 2016, the Russian Ambassador called FLYNN and informed him that Russia had chosen not to retaliate in response to FL YNN’s request.

h. After his phone call with the Russian Ambassador, FLYNN spoke with senior members of the Presidential Transition Team about FLYNN’s conversations with the Russian Ambassador regarding the U.S. Sanctions and Russia’s decision not to escalate the situation. [my emphasis]

And the 302 (302s are what the FBI calls interview reports) makes this even more clear: Flynn was not only lying about the content of his calls with Kislyak, he was lying about his consultations with McFarland, and through her, the rest of the Transition Team, almost certainly including Trump. Flynn was lying about using language, “tit-for-tat,” that came right out of those consultations.

He was lying to hide that his interactions with Kislyak reflect a deliberate Trump Transition policy choice, rather than his own choice to freelance foreign policy.

Flynn got other people to lie — to the public and to the FBI

But it’s not just Flynn’s lies. It’s also the lies others in the Administration told. According to the NYT story of the relevant emails, at a minimum both McFarland and Sean Spicer would have known that Flynn got instructions ahead of his call with Kislyak and reported positively afterwards.

Mr. Bossert forwarded Ms. McFarland’s Dec. 29 email exchange about the sanctions to six other Trump advisers, including Mr. Flynn; Reince Priebus, who had been named as chief of staff; Stephen K. Bannon, the senior strategist; and Sean Spicer, who would become the press secretary.

That’s important because both McFarland and Spicer lied to the press about the call in early 2017.

Early on the morning of Jan. 13, 2017, McFarland phoned one of the authors of this article to rebut a column in The Washington Post, which said Flynn and Kislyak had spoken “several times” on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced it was expelling 35 Russian officials and taking other punitive measures.

The column, by David Ignatius, questioned why Flynn was engaging in sensitive foreign policy discussions with Russia when Trump had yet to take office.

McFarland insisted in an on-the-record conversation that Flynn and Kislyak had never discussed sanctions and that they had actually spoken before the administration’s announcement on Dec. 29.

[snip]

McFarland’s earlier account from the on-the-record conversation also matches public statements from Sean Spicer, the transition team’s spokesman and future White House press secretary.

Spicer said that Flynn and Kislyak spoke Dec. 28, before the sanctions were announced, and that “the call centered around the logistics of setting up a call with the president of Russia and the president-elect after he was sworn in.”

“That was it, plain and simple,” he said.

Most of the focus on public statements about the Kislyak calls has been on Mike Pence, but there’s no public record that he was in the loop on discussions about the Kislyak call (nor is there a record of him being interviewed by either the FBI or Mueller, which is one of the reasons I keep saying there’s no public record of him doing anything for which he could or should be indicted).

With McFarland and Spicer, however, we can be sure they both knowingly lied when they told the press that sanctions had not come up.

That’s why I keep pointing to two passages from the addendum to Flynn’s sentencing memo describing the significance of his cooperation. This passage makes it clear there’s some significance to the fact that Transition Team people repeated Flynn’s lies.

This passage makes it clear that, in the wake of Flynn’s cooperation, several other people decided to cooperate.

We know that McFarland is included among the people who decided to be forthcoming with Mueller; Sean Spicer probably is too and others (like Reince Priebus) may be as well. Importantly, we know they decided to be forthcoming after not having been at first. McFarland, at a minimum, lied not just to the press, but also in her first interview with the FBI, after which she made a concerted effort to unforget what really transpired.

Note, too, that that redaction is the last line of the Flynn addendum. While we don’t know what it says, it’s likely that the addendum as a whole reflects something that Mueller seems to be doing with his cooperating witnesses: either finding ways to rehabilitate liars (as he did with Michael Cohen) or using their testimony to pressure others to tell the truth, resulting in witnesses who will be more credible on the stand (which is what I suspect he has done with a number of witnesses with Flynn).

Trump has changed stories about what his Administration knew about Flynn’s lies at least twice

The public record doesn’t actually say how it happened that McFarland and Spice lied about something they should have known to be false. As I’ve laid out, it’s clear that Flynn was not free-lancing when he discussed sanctions with Kislyak, but the record is still unclear about whether he was freelancing when he ordered others to lie about it or not.

But two things strongly suggest he was not.

First, nothing yet has come close to explaining Trump’s actions with Jim Comey, first asking for his loyalty, then, after firing Flynn, asking him to let Flynn’s lies go. That’s all the more true if, as is likely but not publicly proven yet, Pence also knew he was lying when he claimed sanctions didn’t come up in the Flynn-Kislyak call, because lying to Pence is the only explanation Trump has offered for firing Flynn.

It is virtually certain Flynn was following orders — Trump’s orders — when he engaged in discussions about sanctions with Kisylak. And so it is virtually certain that Trump knew, from before he was inaugurated, that his top aides were lying to the press. Yet Trump didn’t find those lies to be a fireable offense until it became clear the lies would lead to a sustained FBI investigation into why Flynn had Kislyak hold off on responding to sanctions.

And over the course of the Mueller investigation, Trump has struggled to come up with a credible explanation for why Flynn’s lies became a fireable offense only after the FBI started looking more closely at his plans for sanctions relief.

Don McGahn wrote a report inventing one explanation for the firing just after it happened (akin to the way he later orchestrated a paper trail justifying Comey’s firing). But even when he wrote the report, it was inconsistent with what Sally Yates told McGahn.

Then, after Flynn flipped and it became clear Comey also documented his side of events (and shared those events contemporaneously with others in DOJ and FBI), Trump’s lawyers tried to massage the story one more time.

Mike Flynn, KT McFarland, Sean Spicer, Don McGahn, and John Dowd (at a minimum — possibly Reince Priebus and others, too) have all had to revise the stories they told the press and even, for some, FBI or Mueller after the fact to try to come up with a non-incriminating explanation for why everyone lied, first to the press, and then to the government.

There’s really only one thing that might explain why at least five top Donald Trump aides or lawyers had to revise stories to try to come up with innocent explanations for non-credible stories they were willing to tell the government from the start. And that’s if Trump were involved in all these lies.

It may well be that Trump didn’t formally suborn false statements before Mike Flynn interviewed with the FBI on January 24, 2017. Perhaps he just instructed Flynn to lie to the press and Flynn sustained the story he had been ordered to tell when the FBI came calling (Trump may well be more involved in the lies that Michael Cohen told to Congress).

But there is little else that can explain why so many people were willing to tell bullshit stories about Flynn (both his conversation with Kislyak and his firing) except that Trump was involved in orchestrating those stories.

Mueller’s obstruction investigation was likely always premised on a theory of obstruction that Trump’s presumed Attorney General nominee William Barr has argued does merit investigation and impeachment: that Trump ordered his subordinates to lie to obstruct an investigation.

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

The Manafort Election Season Lying Bonanza Stall

I’d like to look at the timing laid out in Mueller’s filing arguing that Paul Manafort breached his plea agreement.

Manafort lied about his handler and his bankers

As the government lays out, Manafort lied about several things.

  • His communications with Konstantin Kilimnik: He appears to have denied his ongoing reporting to Kilimnik during the campaign, and (as WSJ reported), he appears to have hidden details about a boat trip he made with Tom Barrack after being fired from the campaign. There’s one more instance of a Kilimnik contact he’s lying about.
  • Kilimnik’s role in witness tampering: This one is frankly remarkable. As part of Manafort’s plea, he agreed that Kilimnik helped him attempt to witness tamper. Then, after that plea, he denied that very thing. Then, “when asked whether his prior plea and sworn admissions were truthful, Manafort conceded that Kilimnik had conspired with him.”
  • Payment to a firm working for him: Manafort lied about someone — it doesn’t say whom — paying off a $125,000 debt for him. Maybe this explains who is paying his spox, or maybe it even pertains to legal fees (though the amounts don’t come close to the fees covering the latter he must have incurred).
  • Another DOJ investigation: After proffering information that would help another investigation before his plea, Manafort told an exculpatory story after he signed his plea agreement. I suspect @liberty_42 is correct that this investigation pertains to the mortgage Manafort got from Steve Calk, especially given that his bank is (remarkably) contesting the forfeiture and the charges pertaining to him are among those Mueller seems to be considering retrying.
  • Contact with the Administration: I said in this post that if Mueller has evidence that Manafort discussed pardons with the Administration, now would be a good time to show it. In the passage describing Manafort’s lies about contacts with the Administration, it records him making a blanket denial; he had “no direct or indirect communications with anyone in the Administration while they were in the Administration” [my emphasis], but then goes on to suggest that Mueller had interest in “certain individuals.” Manafort claimed he had only spoken with those “certain individuals” before or after they worked for the Administration. This is kind of a dumb lie by Manafort to begin with, as there’s reporting of him talking to people like Reince Priebus. But Mueller’s invocation of a text from a specific date — May 26, 2018 — as well as what appears to be Rick Gates’ testimony that Manafort remained in communication with a senior Administration official up until February 2018 (when Gates flipped), suggests Mueller not only knows that Manafort had these discussions, but knows what was discussed. And I’m betting that involves pardons. If I’m right, then it would mean that Amy Berman Jackson will soon review whether Manafort lied about asking for a pardon.

June 9 lies are not alleged

There are a few things to conclude about the substance of Manafort’s claimed lies — aside from the fact that he really doesn’t want to tell the truth about Konstantin Kilimnik, whom the government alleges has ties to GRU.

First, the government notes that “at four of the post-plea meetings, prosecutors from other Department of Justice components attended.” If Manafort lied about Calk, that makes sense, because Calk would be prosecuted in NDIL or SDNY (where Mueller referred everything else). Konstantin Kilmnik’s other business partner, Sam Patten, is being managed out of DC, so prosecutors from there may have sat in. It may just be that National Security Division lawyers attended because all this involves counterintelligence. But the presence of outsiders at almost half of the post-plea meetings suggests that the Mueller investigation was not the prime focus.

And in spite of CNN’s scoop today that the June 9, 2016 meeting did come up with Manafort, it’s not mentioned here. That seems to suggest that while Mueller did get Manafort on the record on certain subjects relating to the election, aside from lies about his handler Kilimnik, Mueller is not including those lies here.

But Mueller did put Manafort before a grand jury on two occasions, after what must be weeks of lying, but right before the election, on October 26 and November. Significantly, that was a key time for Mueller’s Roger Stone investigation, especially November 2, when other Stone witnesses testified. We know that Mueller did ask Manafort for information about his lifelong buddy Roger Stone even in the time period leading up to Manafort’s grand jury testimony.

Still, aside from lying about his handler, Mueller doesn’t lay out any of Manafort’s lies on these subjects, if he did tell lies.

Immediately after the election Mueller started to deal with their liar

Here’s the timeline of what all this lays out.

Prior to September 14: Three proffers that presumably matched what prosecutors knew

September 14: Manafort pleads guilty

October 14: Based on CNN’s accurate count, end date for regular meetings between Manafort and Mueller

October 22: Rudy mouths off about continuing to get reports from Manafort

October 26: Manafort testifies to the grand jury

November 2: Manafort testifies to the grand jury

November 8: The government informs Manafort he has breached his plea agreement; Trump’s people work the press suggesting he may not respond to Mueller’s questions

November 13 [one day after return from France]: Trump initially promised to turn in open book test

November 15: Blaming leaked Corsi plea, Trump balks on submitting his open book test

November 13-16: Manafort’s lawyers argue he didn’t lie

November 20: Trump turns in his open book test, having refused to answer questions on the transition

November 26: Manafort’s lawyers argue he didn’t lie; Mueller refuses another extension to continue that effort

Thanks to CNN’s stakeout journalism, which accurately reported 9 meetings in the post-plea four weeks, we know that it’s not like Mueller suddenly realized at the end of all this that Manafort was lying. Because all the meetings they counted predated Manafort’s two grand jury appearances, we can be virtually certain that Mueller knew by that point Manafort was lying, and lying about silly stuff to which he had just pled guilty. Mueller gave Manafort nine post-plea changes to tell the truth, put him before the grand jury twice after that, and then less than a week later (the day after Sessions got fired and the first day that Matt Whitaker would have been Acting Attorney General, and on the very day Trump publicly balked on whether he was really going to turn in his open book test), Mueller for the first time told Manafort he had failed to meet the terms of the plea agreement.

Then starting again on the day when Trump said he maybe kind of would turn in his answers after taking a day to recover after his Paris trip, Manafort’s lawyers started to argue that their client hadn’t lied. That argument continued until the day after Trump balked again and the government got a 10-day extension on the status report on Manafort. Finally, after using that 10 day extension to … apparently do nothing, Manafort’s lawyers made one more try to argue their client didn’t lie.

In the interim period, Trump turned in his open book test.

Throughout this period, at least according to the government, Manafort’s lawyers didn’t advance any argument to refute the government claim their client lied. “In none of the communications with Manafort’s counsel was any factual or legal argument made as to why the government’s assessment was erroneous or made without good faith.”

Who was stalling whom?

I have argued that by entering a pardon-proof plea deal with a known liar while Trump pondered how to answer Mueller’s open book test, Mueller may have lulled Trump into answering those questions. The record doesn’t entirely support that case (though it is not incompatible with it), as Trump knew before he handed in his open book test that Mueller had branded Manafort a liar. Plus, because Mueller doesn’t allege that Manafort lied about some of the big questions — and because Mueller seems to have been tending other investigative priorities, like Steve Calk — we can’t tell (aside from the public report that Manafort got asked about his buddy Roger and Rudy’s claim Mueller’s prosecutors told Manafort Trump was lying about June 9) whether Mueller asked questions about key events like the June 9 meeting and Manafort lied, whether he just didn’t pose them, or whether he doesn’t have the other credible sources to present to Amy Berman Jackson.

So it’s unclear how Mueller approached the aborted election season plea deal.

But if Mueller’s claims that Manafort lied hold up — and his lies look really contemptuous — then it appears clear that Manafort is either hopelessly pathological and/or he used the plea deal just to buy time, presumably for Trump.

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

Trump’s Open Book Test Still Poses a Big Perjury Risk

In spite of a great deal of encouragement to do so on Twitter, I can’t muster a victory lap from the news that the Mueller team has agreed that Trump’s first round of open book test will focus only on conspiracy with Russia.

President Donald Trump’s legal team is preparing answers to written questions provided by special counsel Robert Mueller, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The move represents a major development after months of negotiations and signals that the Mueller investigation could be entering a final phase with regard to the President.

The questions are focused on matters related to the investigation of possible collusion between Trump associates and Russians seeking to meddle in the 2016 election, the sources said. Trump’s lawyers are preparing written responses, in part relying on documents previously provided to the special counsel, the sources said.

[snip]

Negotiations for Trump’s testimony lasted for the better part of a year. The two sides nearly reached a deal in January for Trump to be questioned at the presidential retreat in rural Maryland, Camp David, only for talks to break down at the last minute. What followed was a series of letters and meetings — some hostile — in which Trump’s lawyers raised objections and sought to limit any potential testimony.

For months, Mueller told Trump’s lawyers that he needed to hear from the President to determine his intent on key events in the obstruction inquiry.

While I find it significant that this report came first from Evan Perez and (?!?!) Dana Bash, not Maggie and Mike (suggesting it may come from different sources than the people who fed the NYT the line that Mueller was primarily interested in obstruction), this report seems to suggest that after letting Trump stall for almost a year, Mueller has decided to finally get him on the record on the key crimes.

While CNN has not said anything about timing — that is, how long Trump’s lawyers will stall over an open book test that they claim they’ve already written many of the answers to — this agreement may have as much to do with preparation for the post-election period in which Mueller can roll out any indictments he has been working on and Trump can start firing people. That is, before he makes any big moves in the case in chief, he has to get Trump on the record in some form or other. Better to get him on the record in sworn written statements than launch a subpoena fight that will last past that post-election period.

So I don’t think this says much about the relative legal exposure Mueller thinks Trump has for obstruction versus conspiracy (though, again, if you’ve got the conspiracy charges, the obstruction charges will be minor by comparison). It says that Mueller has decided it’s time to get Trump committed to one story, under penalty of perjury.

That said, consider two details about obstruction.

First, Mueller has gotten both of the men Trump reportedly dangled pardons to, Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort, to enter cooperation agreements. That means he’s got both men — possibly along with the non-felon lawyers who passed on the offer — describing that they were offered pardons if they protected the President. That, to my mind, is the most slam dunk instance of obstruction even considered. So by obtaining Manafort’s cooperation, Mueller may have already obtained the most compelling evidence of obstruction possible.

Also, it’s not at all clear that Trump can avoid perjury exposure even on an open book test. We’ve already seen that some of the written responses the Trump team has provided Mueller — such as the two versions of their explanation for the Flynn firing — obscure key details (including Trump’s own role in ordering Flynn to tell Russia not to worry about sanctions). Plus, Trump’s lawyers have recently come to realize they not only don’t know as much as they thought they did about what other “friendly” witnesses had to say (Bill Burck seems to have reconfirmed last week that his clients — which include, at a minimum, Don McGahn, Steve Bannon, and Reince Priebus — don’t have Joint Defense Agreements with Trump), but that they don’t actually know everything they need to know from Trump. Trump is unmanageable as a client, so it’s likely he continues to lie to his own lawyers.

Most importantly, on all of the key conspiracy questions Mueller posed to Trump last March (the first two were also in his first set of questions in January), Mueller has at least one and sometimes several cooperating witnesses.

  • What did you know about phone calls that Mr. Flynn made with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, in late December 2016? [Flynn]
  • When did you become aware of the Trump Tower meeting? [Manafort]
  • During a 2013 trip to Russia, what communication and relationships did you have with the Agalarovs and Russian government officials? [Cohen, Goldstone, Kaveladze]
  • What communication did you have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign? [Cohen, Sater]
  • What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding any meeting with Mr. Putin? Did you discuss it with others? [Manafort, Gates, Cohen]
  • What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding Russian sanctions? [Manafort, Flynn]
  • What involvement did you have concerning platform changes regarding arming Ukraine? [Manafort, Gates]
  • During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign? [Stone’s associates, Gates, Manafort]
  • What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign? [Manafort]
  • What did you know about communication between Roger Stone, his associates, Julian Assange or WikiLeaks? [Stone’s associates, Manafort]
  • What did you know during the transition about an attempt to establish back-channel communication to Russia, and Jared Kushner’s efforts? [Flynn]
  • What do you know about a 2017 meeting in Seychelles involving Erik Prince? [Flynn]
  • What do you know about a Ukrainian peace proposal provided to Mr. Cohen in 2017? [Cohen]

The one area where that’s not true is with Roger Stone (though Rick Gates, at least, seems to have been in the loop on some of that), but then Mueller has spent the last 10 months collecting every imaginable piece of evidence pertaining to Stone.

Between Trump’s lawyers’ incomplete grasp of what their client did and the witnesses and other evidence regarding these activities, Mueller has a much better idea of what happened than Trump’s lawyers do. Which means they may not be able to help their client avoid lying.

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

Paul Manafort Is One of 37 People in an Omertà with the President

Apparently, Bob Woodward committed some journalism along with canonizing racist John Kelly and wife-beater Rob Porter in his book: he got a number for how many people are included the Joint Defense Agreement that gives Rudy Giuliani such confidence the President is not at risk: 37.

And Politico committed still more journalism and answered the question we’ve all been asking: yes, Paul Manafort is among those 37.

Giuliani also confirmed that Trump’s lawyers and Manafort’s have been in regular contact and that they are part of a joint defense agreement that allows confidential information sharing.

“All during the investigation we have an open communication with them,” he said. “Defense lawyers talk to each other all the time where as long as our clients authorize it therefore we have a better idea of what’s going to happen. That’s very common.”

Giuliani confirmed he spoke with Manafort’s lead defense lawyer Kevin Downing shortly before and after the verdicts were returned in the Virginia trial, but the former mayor wouldn’t say what he discusses with the Manafort team. “It’d all be attorney-client privilege not just from our point of view but from theirs,” he said.

That means when John Dowd complained that the raid of Manafort’s condo (where his eight iPods were seized), that was based on privileged conversations between lawyers. And when, in January, Trump confidently said he was sure Manafort would protect him, that was based on privileged conversations between lawyers.  And when, just before the EDVA trial, Kevin Downing was ostentatiously saying there was no way Manafort was flipping, and when he was balking on a plea with Mueller immediately after the trial, he was also talking to Rudy Giuliani.

Mind you, Rudy G will learn right away if Manafort starts considering cooperating, rather than just pleading, because Manafort will have to (finally!) drop out of the JDA before those discussions start.

And while I suspect Mueller has slowly been peeling away people like Sam Patten, that the JDA is so big likely means some or most of the following people are part of the omertà (and Michael Cohen, Rick Gates, and Mike Flynn were part of it):

  • Paul Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik
  • Jared Kushner
  • The Trump Org defendants: Don Jr, Rhonna Graff
  • Bill Burck’s clients: Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Don McGahn (and up to three more)
  • Victoria Toensing’s clients: Mark Corallo, Erik Prince, Sam Clovis
  • The hush payment recipients: Hope Hicks, Brad Parscale, Keith Schiller
  • Roger Stone and his buddies: Stone, Michael Caputo, Sam Nunberg, Andrew Miller, plus some (probably)

That’s 20. Some other likely (and enticing) JDA members are: Devin Nunes, Jeff Sessions, Tom Barrack, Keith Kellogg, John Mashburn, KT McFarland, JD Gordon, Walid Phares, Stephen Miller, Sean Spicer, Rob Porter, Corey Lewandowski, John Kelly. Heck, it’s not even clear that George Papadopoulos is not part of the JDA.

But that still leaves space in the JDA for people who were already comparing notes with known members of the JDA, including Rinat Akhmetshin, Rob Goldstone, and Ike Kaveladze (along with Emin and Aras Agalarov, who are all represented by Scott Balber).

No wonder Rudy thinks he knows everything that Mueller has.

That’s why the collective panic on the discovery that Stone’s phone was likely among the ~10 or so that Mueller got warrants for in the wake of Rick Gates’ cooperation agreement is so interesting, and also why Manafort, playing his part as point, tried so hard to find out who the other four AT&T users whose phones were obtained with his own.

These guys may be good at omertà. But every single one we’ve seen so far has shitty OpSec; they’ve been saying their co-conspiracy communications on their phones and on iCloud. Plus there are people like Omarosa wandering among them, dismissed as irrelevant even while they record everything they hear. And meanwhile, Mueller is chipping away at the edges, people they haven’t considered (like Patten). And all the while he’s been building his case against Stone and Don Jr.

Don McGahn’s Bullshit Report Covering Up the Flynn Firing

Murray Waas, who writes about one and only one subject on the Russian investigation, has for the second time written a story claiming that a report Don McGahn wrote on February 15, 2017 — and not Trump’s serial offers to pardon people who are serving as his firewall —  is “the strongest evidence to date implicating the president of the United States in an obstruction of justice” and “the most compelling evidence we yet know of that Donald Trump may have obstructed justice.” Murray then goes on to parrot Rudy Giuliani’s preferred narrative about what would happen next.

Several people who have reviewed a portion of this evidence say that, based on what they know, they believe it is now all but inevitable that the special counsel will complete a confidential report presenting evidence that President Trump violated the law. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the special counsel’s work, would then decide on turning over that report to Congress for the House of Representatives to consider whether to instigate impeachment proceedings.

Because even people covering the story closely mistake the Flynn firing for an obstruction crime instead evidence of the conspiracy, I’d like to lay out why this story is silly. This will lay out things implicit in this post, which shows that in fact the White House narrative about Flynn is all an effort to treat his firing as obstruction and not “collusion.”

Neither story about Don McGahn’s exoneration of Trump should be credited

Murray claims that because Trump knew that Mike Flynn was under investigation when he asked Jim Comey to let the investigation into Flynn go, it will undercut an explanation offered in January that Trump thought Flynn had been cleared by the FBI.

In arguing in their January 29 letter that Trump did not obstruct justice, the president’s attorneys Dowd and Sekulow quoted selectively from this same memo, relying only on a few small portions of it. They also asserted that even if Trump knew there had been an FBI investigation of Flynn, Trump believed that Flynn had been cleared. Full review of the memo flatly contradicts this story.

The memo’s own statement that Trump was indeed told that Flynn was under FBI investigation was, in turn, based in part on contemporaneous notes written by Reince Priebus after discussing the matter with the president, as well as McGahn’s recollections to his staff about what he personally had told Trump, according to other records I was able to review. Moreover, people familiar with the matter have told me that both Priebus and McGahn have confirmed in separate interviews with the special counsel that they had told Trump that Flynn was under investigation by the FBI before he met with Comey.

Murray repeats a suspect McGahn timeline describing himself, along with Reince Priebus and White House lawyer John Eisenberg, “confronting” Flynn about intercepts showing that he had raised sanctions with Kislyak, contrary to what (they were claiming) he had told them.

On February 8, 2017, The Washington Post contacted the White House to say that it was about to publish a story citing no less than nine sources that Flynn had indeed spoken to Kislyak about sanctions. In attempting to formulate a response, Priebus, McGahn, and Eisenberg questioned Flynn. Confronted with the information that there were intercepts showing exactly what was said between him and Kislyak, Flynn’s story broke down. Instead of denying that he had spoken to Kislyak about sanctions, the timeline said, Flynn’s “recollection was inconclusive.” Flynn “either was not sure whether he discussed sanctions, or did not remember doing so,” the McGahn timeline says.

Priebus then “specifically asked Flynn whether he was interviewed by the FBI,” the timeline says. In response, “Flynn stated that FBI agents met with him to inform him that their investigation was over.” That claim, of course, was a lie. The FBI never told Flynn their investigation of him was over. Shortly thereafter, Vice President Pence, Priebus, and McGahn recommended that Flynn be fired.

According to the story Murray got snookered into repeating, because those three never informed Trump about this confrontation, his understanding of the investigation would remain what Priebus and McGahn had already briefed him — that Flynn was under investigation — and so by asking Comey to back off, he was obstructing justice.

In arguing that the president did nothing wrong, Trump defense attorneys John Dowd and Jay Sekulow, in both informal conversations and later in formal correspondence with the special counsel, relied on the false statements of Flynn to Priebus, McGahn, and Eisenberg that the FBI had closed out their investigation of him. In the attorneys’ reasoning, if Trump had no reason to think that Flynn was under criminal investigation when he allegedly pressured Comey to go easy on Flynn, the president did not obstruct justice. More broadly, Sekulow and Dowd argued in correspondence with the special counsel that the “White House’s understanding” was that “there was no FBI investigation that could conceivably have been impeded” at the time of Trump’s White House meeting with Comey.

But Sekulow and Dowd’s account of these conversations is partial and misleading. In fact, there is no information or evidence that Flynn’s false assertions were ever relayed to the president.

Murray doesn’t ask an obvious question: why, if Priebus and McGahn had already briefed Trump that Flynn was under investigation, they would have to confront Flynn about it. Nor does he mention a lot of other relevant details.

Two narratives

Before I get into the most relevant details, consider what we’re looking at: what Murray claims is his scoop, which provides more details on the original McGahn report, written the day after Trump tried to get Comey to end an investigation into why Mike Flynn lied about his conversation about sanctions on December 29, 2016. As always seemed the case and still appears to be true based on Murray’s claims about the report, the McGahn report misrepresented what Sally Yates said and a bunch of other things, but  in so doing laid out a narrative whereby the firing of Mike Flynn would serve as punishment for something Flynn did wrong.

Murray contrasts that with the letter Trump’s lawyers sent at the end of January but leaked in June in part to feed a narrative — one that had already been debunked — that Mueller was primarily investigating Trump for obstruction. The letter was Jay Sekulow and John Dowd’s attempt, in the wake of Mike Flynn’s cooperation agreement, to use the McGahn narrative to spin the firing of Flynn. In the January 29, 2018 telling, Flynn is not at fault, he’s just confused. And so, in the January letter, is the president. It portrays a story where no one really knew what Flynn said to Kislyak and everything that followed was just a big game of confused telephone for which the participants can’t be held legally liable. If Flynn were confused, of course, then his purported lies to Mike Pence would need to be excused, which is probably why Sekulow and Dowd didn’t address that part of the story.

When this whole process started — before Trump fired Jim Comey and in the process extended the investigation and got Robert Mueller looking into the stories being told — McGahn and Priebus and everyone else probably presumed that firing Flynn would shut everything down. That was the intent, anyway. Fire Flynn, end of investigation about why he lied to the FBI about discussing sanctions with Sergei Kislyak. And if you end the investigation, there would be no further scrutiny into what everyone else knew at the time, nor would anyone ask Comey and Yates their side of the story.

Of course, Trump fucked that all up, and fired Comey, which led to Mueller’s appointment, which led to his convening of a grand jury, which led to all that falling apart.

Bill Burck’s other clients already knew that Flynn had discussed sanctions

Which brings us to the most important of the missing details.

As noted, Trump couldn’t leave well enough alone and so fired Comey which led to Mueller which led to an actual investigation which led, in August, to Mueller obtaining the transition communications of 13 key members of the transition team, unmediated by Trump lawyers, who at the time were just responding to wholly inadequate document requests from Congress and sharing with Mueller.

Specifically, on August 23, 2017, the FBI sent a letter (i.e., not a subpoena) to career GSA staff requesting copies of the emails, laptops, cell phones, and other materials associated with nine PTT members responsible for national security and policy matters. On August 30, 2017, the FBI sent a letter (again, not a subpoena) to career GSA staff requesting such materials for four additional senior PTT members.

Among others, Mueller would have obtained emails that would have revealed that contrary to the story the White House had told in early January 2017 (which Murray repeats in his story), numerous Transition officials were aware of the emails regarding sanctions. Indeed, Reince Priebus, along with Flynn, Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, and two other people (Kushner’s inclusion is implied elsewhere in the story), got forwarded an email KT McFarland sent Tom Bossert the day that Mike Flynn made his calls with Kislyak, talking about Flynn’s upcoming call with Kislyak and the need to avoid public comment defending Russia. McFarland also relayed what Obama’s Homeland Security Czar, Lisa Monaco, expected from the call, and the expectation Kislyak would respond with threats.

On Dec. 29, a transition adviser to Mr. Trump, K. T. McFarland, wrote in an email to a colleague that sanctions announced hours before by the Obama administration in retaliation for Russian election meddling were aimed at discrediting Mr. Trump’s victory. The sanctions could also make it much harder for Mr. Trump to ease tensions with Russia, “which has just thrown the U.S.A. election to him,” she wrote in the emails obtained by The Times.

[snip]

McFarland wrote, Mr. Flynn would be speaking with the Russian ambassador, Mr. Kislyak, hours after Mr. Obama’s sanctions were announced.

“Key will be Russia’s response over the next few days,” Ms. McFarland wrote in an email to another transition official, Thomas P. Bossert, now the president’s homeland security adviser.

[snip]

Bossert forwarded Ms. McFarland’s Dec. 29 email exchange about the sanctions to six other Trump advisers, including Mr. Flynn; Reince Priebus, who had been named as chief of staff; Stephen K. Bannon, the senior strategist; and Sean Spicer, who would become the press secretary.

[snip]

“If there is a tit-for-tat escalation Trump will have difficulty improving relations with Russia, which has just thrown U.S.A. election to him,” she wrote.

Mr. Bossert replied by urging all the top advisers to “defend election legitimacy now.”

[snip]

Obama administration officials were expecting a “bellicose” response to the expulsions and sanctions, according to the email exchange between Ms. McFarland and Mr. Bossert. Lisa Monaco, Mr. Obama’s homeland security adviser, had told Mr. Bossert that “the Russians have already responded with strong threats, promising to retaliate,” according to the emails.

Flynn took orders on and relayed his results to McFarland, who was in Mar-a-Lago with Trump. And the transition team, when it complained that Mueller obtained these emails, suggested that they would have — perhaps did, in their compliance with congressional requests — treat this one as privileged. The day after Flynn’s calls, Trump hailed the outcome his National Security Advisor appointee had accomplished on the calls the day before.

In other words, a great deal of evidence suggests that Trump not only knew what went on in those calls, but directed Flynn through McFarland to placate the Russians.

Within days after the call, Flynn briefed other members of the transition team on the call. It is highly unlikely that he lied to people who had been informed in advance of his call that he would be discussing sanctions.

FBI may have believed, in January 2017 and even February 2017, when McGahn wrote his memo, that Flynn lied on his own, to hide the contents of his calls from others in the Administration. But by November 2017, they knew that the most important people in the transition — including Bill Burck’s other clients, Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus — knew well what had transpired in the calls with Kislyak.

None of this, of course, shows up in the tale White House sources are telling Murray. As a result, he tells a story that presents the McGahn narrative as more closely matching the “truth” than the later Sekulow and Dowd letter.

The problems with the McGahn narrative

But neither are true, and so while it’s nifty for Murray to claim this is the biggest yet proof of obstruction (it’s not, compared to the pardons promised), that’s not actually what happened, and Mueller would know that.

For example, the entire story about Flynn lying to Pence — which is something Sekulow and Dowd simply ignored in their January letter — is probably not true; and if it is, key White House staffers, including at least two of Burck’s clients, were lying to the nominal Transition head and were parties to Flynn’s lie.

On January 12, 2017, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius disclosed that US intelligence agencies had intercepted the phone calls, although Ignatius’s sources did not disclose the specifics of what either Flynn or Kislyak said. Vice President Mike Pence was immediately enlisted to defend Flynn. Flynn assured Pence that he never spoke to Kislyak about sanctions, whereupon Pence repeated those denials on Fox News and CBS’s Face the Nation. Flynn was then also questioned by the FBI about the phone calls, but once again denied that he had ever spoken to Kislyak about sanctions.

Similarly, the notion that Priebus would have to ask Flynn what he said to Kislyak on February 8 (when he had known it would include sanctions before Flynn made the call) is nonsense.

 On February 8, 2017, The Washington Post contacted the White House to say that it was about to publish a story citing no less than nine sources that Flynn had indeed spoken to Kislyak about sanctions. In attempting to formulate a response, Priebus, McGahn, and Eisenberg questioned Flynn. Confronted with the information that there were intercepts showing exactly what was said between him and Kislyak, Flynn’s story broke down. Instead of denying that he had spoken to Kislyak about sanctions, the timeline said, Flynn’s “recollection was inconclusive.” Flynn “either was not sure whether he discussed sanctions, or did not remember doing so,” the McGahn timeline says.

Both Priebus and Flynn would know better. It’s possible Flynn and Priebus were putting on a show for the lawyers (but if so, that show would likely be just for John Eisenberg, because otherwise Burck would have a major conflict). It’s more likely the McGahn narrative was an attempt to make the internal story consistent with the public claims that only Flynn knew of the content of the calls.

One of the other key pieces of bullshit in the McGahn narrative is the claim that there was any doubt whether Flynn could be fired when Yates first presented her concerns to McGahn.

The McGahn timeline recounts: “Part of [our] concern was a recognition by McGahn that it was unclear from the meeting with Yates whether or not an action could be taken without jeopardizing an ongoing investigation.”

She clearly suggested (and would be backed by Mary McCord) that’s what they should do.

Finally, there’s something else missing from this narrative: that Flynn had spent the weekend between this alleged grilling from Priebus and McGahn in Mar-a-Lago with the President, sitting in on yet more sensitive meetings (in that case, with Shinzo Abe).

McGahn’s narrative may offer an explanation for why Trump fired Flynn, even if it doesn’t accord with known facts. But the entire narrative fails to explain why, if all the players knew and did what they said, Trump didn’t fire Flynn as soon as Yates suggested he should, or after they reviewed the intercepts (showing what they knew the conversation entailed), or after Priebus and McGahn grilled Flynn.

Which is not to say that McGahn’s letter isn’t proof of obstruction (albeit far less damning than Trump’s offers of pardons). It’s just an entirely different model of obstruction, and Murray’s story may be yet more PR from Don McGahn to make sure he’s on the right side of any obstruction charges.

Why Would Don McGahn (and His Lawyer) Cooperate in a Piece Claiming He Cooperated with Mueller (on Obstruction)?

As I laid out here, the latest NYT obstruct-a-palooza on Don McGahn “cooperating” with Robert Mueller spins what is probably a lawyer covering his own legal jeopardy with a claim of full cooperation.

But why did he (and his lawyer, William Burck) cooperate in it? Why spin a fanciful tale of being disloyal to your boss, even if it’s just to blame him for it before he blames you?

The most obvious answer is he’s trying to convince Mueller he’s not responsible for the legal shenanigans of (as the NYT continues to spin it) the obstruction of the investigation, or of the legal shenanigans of Trump generally.

There may well be an aspect of that, though I wouldn’t want to be (and hope I’m not) in a position where my legal jeopardy relied on how successfully I could spin Maggie and Mike, even if I were as expert at doing so as Don McGahn is.

A better answer may lie in this observation from my last post:

By far the most telling passage in this 2,225+ word story laying out Don McGahn’s “cooperation” with the Mueller inquiry is this passage:

Though he was a senior campaign aide, it is not clear whether Mr. Mueller’s investigators have questioned Mr. McGahn about whether Trump associates coordinated with Russia’s effort to influence the election.

Over two thousand words and over a dozen sources, and Maggie and Mike never get around to explaining whether Don McGahn has any exposure in or provided testimony for the investigation in chief, the conspiracy with Russia to win the election.

Consider: the story Maggie and Mike (and Don McGahn’s lawyer) spin is that Don McGahn let Trump bully him around on some issues in early 2017, which led to some things that might look like obstruction of justice. An unfortunate occurrence, surely. But McGahn might be forgiven for fucking things up in early January 2017. After all, he was new to the whole White House Counseling thing; he had never worked in a White House before. Beginner’s mistake(s), you might call the long list of things he fucked up at the beginning of his tenure, which Maggie and Mike nod to but don’t describe in full resplendent glory.

His relationship with the president had soured as Mr. Trump blamed him for a number of fraught moments in his first months in office, including the chaotic, failed early attempts at a ban on travelers from some majority-Muslim countries and, in particular, the existence of Mr. Mueller’s investigation.

Don McGahn’s skills, it turns out, lie elsewhere.

While he has bolloxed most of the things White House Counsels are supposed to do (like keeping the White House out of legal and ethical trouble), he has had unsurpassed success at stacking the courts. I doubt there’s an ideological Republican in the country who isn’t thrilled with McGahn’s success at stacking the courts.

Update: Case in point.

Indeed (this becomes important in just a bit), McGahn’s success at stacking the courts is one of the biggest reasons why Republicans in Congress put up with the rest of Trump’s shit. Being President, for many Republicans, isn’t about governing; it’s about stacking the courts.

It turns out, though, that McGahn had another job before he became an expert court-stacker. For decades, Don McGahn has been one of the Republican party’s key campaign finance lawyers.

That’s how he grew to be close to Trump when, as Maggie and Mike describe,

McGahn joined the Trump team as an early hire said to like the candidate’s outsider position.

Don McGahn had come to prominence in the party at the NRCC and was rewarded for it with a seat on the FEC, where he made campaign finance more slushy.

But probably not slushy enough.

Here’s where Maggie and Mike’s failure to get an answer for whether longtime Republican campaign finance expert Don McGahn has been questioned about his role in the conspiracy with Russians to win the election (not to mention their failure to pin down when his third interview with Mueller’s team took place, after he happily revealed when the first two did) becomes important.

Don McGahn might be forgiven for bolloxing up the White House Counsel job. He was new at that (and he was busy, anyway, stacking the courts).

But at least three of the areas where Mueller’s team might find a conspiracy with Russia (or other foreigners) to win the election involve campaign finance issues — Don McGahn’s expertise. Those are:

  • Whether knowingly employing British Cambridge Analytica employees without getting them proper visas constitutes illegal foreign influence?
  • Whether accepting a Trump Tower meeting with Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton constitutes accepting a thing of value?
  • Whether the campaign was sufficiently firewalled from the  dodgy shit Roger Stone was doing (which has been a focus of the last six months of Mueller’s time)?

My wildarse guess is that campaign finance expert Don McGahn might find a way to finesse hiring foreign Cambridge Analytica employees. My wildarse guess is that campaign finance expert Don McGahn could claim ignorance about the illegal details of the Trump Tower and other foreign influence peddling meetings.

My wildarse guess is that campaign finance expert Don McGahn did not sufficiently firewall Stone off from the campaign. Especially given that he was involved in both incarnations of Stop the Steal — the effort to stamp down a convention rebellion, and the effort (which worked in parallel to a Russian one) to use claims of a “rigged” election to suppress Democratic voters. Especially given that he was loved in the Republican party for leaning towards slush over legal compliance.

Given how central campaign finance violations are in any question of a conspiracy with Russia, it is malpractice for Maggie and Mike to publish a story without determining whether — after being grilled by Mueller’s team for two days last fall about whether he fucked up White House Counseling — McGahn has more recently been grilled extensively about whether he fucked up campaign finance, the thing he got hired for in the first place. The thing he’s supposed to be an expert in.

But Maggie and Mike believe Trump is only being investigated for obstruction, so seeding a big puff piece with them is a sure bet you won’t get asked about your obviously central role (or not) in any conspiracy involving campaign finance.

That’s just part of a potential explanation for why Don McGahn (and his lawyer) would seed a big puff piece with Maggie and Mike, making it look like McGahn had cooperated a lot on something he was never an expert in — White House Counseling — but remaining utterly silent on whether he cooperated on something he is undoubtedly an expert in (even if he tends to prefer slush to law). Better to get in trouble for cooperating on the stuff Trump and his lawyers have been successfully distracting with for the last six months rather than cooperating with prosecutors on a case about conspiring with Russian spies to win an election, the stuff that will elicit cries of Treason and with it badly tarnish the Republican party.

Then there’s this, the last great court-stack. Numerous people have noted, but Maggie and Mike did not, even while noting that McGahn is in the middle of a SCOTUS fight:

Mr. McGahn is still the White House counsel, shepherding the president’s second Supreme Court nominee, Brett M. Kavanaugh, through the confirmation process.

William Burck, McGahn’s lawyer, is his partner-in-crime in his last great court-stack.

When Trump (presumably based on the advice of his chief court-stacker, Don McGahn) nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, people (including Mitch McConnell) warned him of the danger of nominating someone with such an extensive paper record. Nevertheless, Republicans started with an assumption that that record would be made public. Until July 24, when Republicans had a private meeting and realized they had to suppress Kavanaugh’s record as White House Staff Secretary.

It is not surprising then, that on July 19, 2018, while discussing preparations for Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, Senator Cornyn — the Majority Whip and a senior member of the Judiciary Committee — said that the production of documents Judge Kavanaugh had “generated . . . authored…or contributed to” during his tenure as White House Staff Secretary should be produced to the Committee.  He stated that it “just seems to be common sense.”

However, less than a week later, following a White House meeting with you on the records production on July 24, the Republican position abruptly and inexplicably shifted.  Since that meeting, Senate Republicans refused to request any and all documents from Judge Kavanaugh’s three years as White House Staff Secretary, regardless of authorship.  Immediately after the meeting, Senator Cornyn described requesting any Staff Secretary records as “a bridge too far.”  Days later, Chairman Chuck Grassley submitted a records request to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and omitted any of Judge Kavanaugh’s records as Staff Secretary.

Since then, William Burck has taken time away from representing Don McGahn and Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon to personally suppress lots of Kavanaugh’s records as White House Staff Secretary. And Chuck Grassley has moved up Kavanaugh’s confirmation process to make sure that some of production being slow-rolled by Don McGahn’s lawyer will not be release before Kavanaugh gets a vote on a lifetime appointment.

There’s clearly something in Kavanaugh’s record as White House Staff Secretary that might lead Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski to vote against Kavanaugh — or make the entire nomination toxic in time for the mid-terms.

Mind you, whether Don McGahn’s failures on the topic he is supposed to be an expert on, campaign finance, contribute to getting the President’s lackeys indicted for a conspiracy may not directly relate to his last great hurrah in stacking the courts, solidifying a regressive majority on SCOTUS for a generation and with it adding someone who will suppress this investigation.

Then again it might.

Most Republicans, I suspect, will one day become willing to jettison Trump so long as they can continue stacking the courts. Trump, one day, may be expendable so long as McGahn’s expertise at stacking the court holds sway. At that level, McGahn’s political fortunes may actually conflict with Trump’s.

But not if he (and his lawyer) fuck up the last great court-stack. Not if they get blamed for failing on McGahn’s area of expertise — campaign finance — and in so doing lead to a delay in and with it the demise of the Kavanaugh confirmation.

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

 

The NYT’s Latest McGahnObstructAPalooza: Sometimes “Cooperation” Is Just Cover Your Ass

By far the most telling passage in this 2,225+ word story laying out Don McGahn’s “cooperation” with the Mueller inquiry is this passage:

Though he was a senior campaign aide, it is not clear whether Mr. Mueller’s investigators have questioned Mr. McGahn about whether Trump associates coordinated with Russia’s effort to influence the election.

Over two thousand words and over a dozen sources, and Maggie and Mike never get around to explaining whether Don McGahn has any exposure in or provided testimony for the investigation in chief, the conspiracy with Russia to win the election.

Instead, along the way, Maggie and Mike repeat some version of “obstruction” fourteen times –obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct — perpetuating the grossly misleading myth, once again, that Trump and his cronies are only at risk for obstruction charges. They do so even while describing a lawyer who represents three high placed witnesses in the case (along with McGahn, William Burck represents Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon) opining that the President’s legal exposure makes cooperation “insane.”

Mr. Burck has explained to others that he told White House advisers that they did not appreciate the president’s legal exposure and that it was “insane” that Mr. Trump did not fight a McGahn interview in court.

Along the way, the story engages in other kinds of spin, all of which happens to make Don McGahn look far better than he should.

White House Counsels have limited attorney-client privilege

A big part of this tale is premised on the notion that McGahn cooperated when he otherwise might not have had to, based on claims like this:

For a lawyer to share so much with investigators scrutinizing his client is unusual. Lawyers are rarely so open with investigators, not only because they are advocating on behalf of their clients but also because their conversations with clients are potentially shielded by attorney-client privilege, and in the case of presidents, executive privilege.

For a story that discusses John Dean explicitly, this claim is sheer malpractice. White House Counsels work for us, not for the President as private citizen, and as such, have limited attorney-client privilege, something that has now been litigated.

The story admits McGahn might have legal exposure, but doesn’t explain what that is

Much of the rest of the story is spun around an admittedly interesting tension, John Dowd’s decision to “cooperate” with the Mueller probe, including to make no executive privilege claims over McGahn’s testimony (which he could have done). As the story makes out, that led McGahn and the lawyer he hired because he thought he might have some criminal exposure, Burck, to worry about his criminal exposure.

Mr. McGahn and his lawyer, William A. Burck, could not understand why Mr. Trump was so willing to allow Mr. McGahn to speak freely to the special counsel and feared Mr. Trump was setting up Mr. McGahn to take the blame for any possible illegal acts of obstruction, according to people close to him. So he and Mr. Burck devised their own strategy to do as much as possible to cooperate with Mr. Mueller to demonstrate that Mr. McGahn did nothing wrong.

And in a piece claiming McGahn worried Trump would blame him for any legally sketchy behavior, this paragraph shows McGahn instead blaming Trump.

In fact, Mr. McGahn laid out how Mr. Trump tried to ensure control of the investigation, giving investigators a mix of information both potentially damaging and favorable to the president. Mr. McGahn cautioned to investigators that he never saw Mr. Trump go beyond his legal authorities, though the limits of executive power are murky.

Yet the NYT doesn’t seem to think about why McGahn and the three-witness lawyer alarmed at the President’s legal exposure might also think he, McGahn, had legal exposure.

The problems with Don McGahn’s Flynn story

One bit of legal exposure that the NYT has provided evidence for — but confused as yet more actual legal discussion — is in McGahn’s role in the Mike Flynn firing (which the NYT inexplicably always treats as obstruction of justice).

Mr. McGahn gave to Mr. Mueller’s investigators, the people said, a sense of the president’s mind-set in the days leading to the firing of Mr. Comey; how the White House handled the firing of the former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn; and how Mr. Trump repeatedly berated Mr. Sessions, tried to get him to assert control over the investigation and threatened to fire him.

As I have noted, the White House materials published by the NYT actually show that McGahn wrote an obviously misleading explanation for the Flynn firing, one that suppressed transition period emails that would undermine all the claims about Flynn deciding to lie about his discussion with Sergi Kislyak, and one which would conflict in material ways with the contemporaneous reports of Jim Comey, Sally Yates, and a number of other DOJ witnesses.

  • Don McGahn wrote a memo on the lead-up to Flynn’s firing two days after the firing, and one day after Trump’s “let it go” conversation with Jim Comey. It appears to be inconsistent with Transition materials, particularly an email showing (among other things) that Reince Priebus knew in real time what Flynn told Kislyak on December 29. Firing Comey would have been an effort to prevent FBI from discovering those transition period communications.

[snip]

Yates’ public testimony (to which Mary McCord would also be a witness) adds several elements to McGahn’s: she said the sanction discussion itself was wrong (elsewhere HPSCI has claimed she raised Logan Act violations). She talked about concerns about Pence’s credibility (remember–the White House doesn’t address getting Pence’s side of this story at all). And she claims she specifically suggested the White House should take action — that is, fire Flynn.

Finally, note that this passage cites an email chain dated January 12 — what was treated as campaign production with the Bates stamp “DJTJFP.” This is the only time the letter cites that production; they don’t, for example, cite the email chains referenced in Flynn’s plea that make it clear how hard it would have been to forget the Kislyak call because he was basically acting on orders from the President.

[snip]

After Yates spoke to McGahn, he had a meeting with Trump and Priebus and others.

On January 26, 2017, Mr. McGahn briefed the President concerning the information conveyed by Ms. Yates. Additional advisors were brought in, including White House Chief of Staff Mr. Priebus. It was agreed that additional information would be needed before any action was taken. As recorded by Mr. McGahn, “Part of this concern was a recognition by McGahn that it was unclear from the meeting with Yates whether an action could be taken without jeopardizing an ongoing investigation.” At that time “President Trump asked McGahn to further look into the issue as well as finding out more about the calls.”

Note how important it is that the letter ignore Yates’ public statements? She claims she suggested the White House should take action, meaning they should fire Flynn. The White House claimed (in a piece written after the “let it go” conversation) that they didn’t know whether they could fire Flynn because there might be an ongoing investigation. And Trump used that as an excuse to get more information on the investigation.

McGahn may have spent 30 hours blaming Trump for writing this obvious retrospective CYA piece (one piece of news in this piece is that McGahn has been called by for a third appearance by Mueller’s team, but the story doesn’t reveal when that was). But he wrote it. And he likely has some legal risk for having done so.

Sometimes cooperation is just a failure to obstruct

Which is one of my gripes with this story overall. In spite of describing how McGahn and his lawyer worried about the former’s legal exposure, exposure that led them to embrace the ability to appear before Mueller directly, the whole theme of this story is that McGahn “cooperated” with Mueller’s inquiry. The word, in some legal contexts, may mean “responded to legal requests in a way that limited a person’s own criminal exposure” and in others may mean “helped convict co-conspirators.”

In this story, the former connotation is used though the latter connotation is sold. Because the story doesn’t explain the difference in connotations, it makes McGahn look far more cooperative than he has necessarily been.

I mean, maybe he has been. But to make that case, you’d need to ask that basic question: is he also answering questions about the election conspiracy, questions that likely go beyond his own legal exposure?

Mueller can lay out Trump’s actions in an indictment listing him as a non-indicted witness or an Unindicted Co-Conspirator

There are two other details, regular features of Maggie and Mike’s stories on what White House lawyers tell them to say, that are pure PR.  First (because people on Twitter never understand this point), Maggie and Mike repeat something that Rudy Giuliani appears to have them chanting in their sleep, that the end product of this investigation is going to be a report to Congress.

Mr. Mueller has told the president’s lawyers that he will follow Justice Department guidance that sitting presidents cannot be indicted. Rather than charge Mr. Trump if he finds evidence of wrongdoing, he is more likely to write a report that can be sent to Congress for lawmakers to consider impeachment proceedings.

Thus far, Mueller has obtained four indictments and five guilty pleas, each laying out some potentially criminal conduct of associates. Indeed, the most recent indictment included this language, making it clear that Russian hackers responded to Trump’s request that Russia hack Hillary by … attempting to hack Hillary.

For example, on or about July 27, 2016, the Conspirators attempted after hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a thirdparty provider and used by Clinton’s personal office. At or around the same time, they also targeted seventy-six email addresses at the domain for the Clinton Campaign.

That is, we’ve already seen nods towards Trump’s involvement in a conspiracy, without any report to Congress. Laying out Trump’s criminal actions as unindicted conduct in indictments has several legal advantages over just reporting it to Congress, including it would raise the stakes on pardoning any co-conspirators and potentially force Trump to sit for an interview. Moreover, indictments are how Mueller has communicated thus far, and how Rod Rosenstein has said they intend to communicate. So perhaps the NYT should stop simply repeating Rudy’s spin on this point?

Trump has demonstrably not provided unparalleled cooperation

Finally, Maggie and Mike include these three paragraphs uncritically in their piece.

Mr. Dowd said that cooperation was the right approach but that Mr. Mueller had “snookered” Mr. Trump’s legal team. The White House has handed over more than one million documents and allowed more than two dozen administration officials to meet with Mr. Mueller in the belief that he would be forced to conclude there was no obstruction case.

“It was an extraordinary cooperation — more cooperation than in any major case — no president has ever been more cooperative than this,” Mr. Dowd said, adding that Mr. Mueller knew as far back as October, when he received many White House documents, that the president did not break the law.

As the months passed on, the misinterpretation by Mr. McGahn and Mr. Burck that the president would let Mr. McGahn be blamed for any obstruction case has become apparent. Rather than placing the blame on Mr. McGahn for possible acts of obstruction, Mr. Trump has yet to even meet with the special counsel, his lawyers resisting an invitation for an interview.

As I have laid out, it is simply not the case that Trump has “more cooperation than in any major case.” George Bush’s White House provided similar cooperation in the (less major) CIA leak case, even before you fluff the numbers by counting texts as pages of documents. But that’s assuming something that this passage makes clear you can’t assume: that Trump will ever sit for an interview. Both Dick Cheney and George Bush were willing to sit for interviews; the former even did so under oath.

Compare that to the Plame affair leak investigation, when Bush sat for an interview in June 2004, and Cheney — who himself made some grossly false statements in his tenure — sat for one in May 2004 and a little-known follow-up that August. According to Cheney’s autobiography, “[T]he second session was conducted under oath so that [his] testimony could be submitted to the grand jury.” Zeidenberg, for his part, doesn’t remember any of those interviews requiring a subpoena.

Samborn, the Fitzgerald spokesperson who was famously reticent during the whole CIA leak investigation, offered an expansive rebuttal to Dowd’s claim that this White House has offered unprecedented cooperation. “Trump’s team can claim all the cooperation it wants, and whether justifiably so or not, it seems to me that it all gets negated, if at the end, he personally refuses to be questioned when so much substance depends on what he knew and did, as well as his state of mind.”

Any refusal to sit for an interview, Samborn said, was central evaluating the level of cooperation.

At some point, the NYT might stop repeating breathless stories premised on the notion that Trump will ever sit for an interview and instead report the fact — that Trump has refused the kind of cooperation with a legal investigation his predecessors have offered.