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Sometimes a Plea Is Just a Plea: The Ongoing Criminal Exposure of Mueller’s “Cooperating” Witnesses

One of the most interesting details from the government’s George Papadopoulos Sentencing Memo released last night is this passage, stating that Papadopoulos’ plea was not a standard cooperation agreement.

The plea agreement entered into by the government and the defendant was not a standard cooperation agreement, and the government did not agree to make a motion under U.S.S.G. § 5K1.1 based on cooperation by the defendant. Nevertheless, the government agreed to “bring to the Court’s attention at sentencing the defendant’s efforts to cooperate with the Government, on the condition that [the defendant] continues to respond and provide information regarding any and all matters as to which the Government deems relevant.” (Plea Agreement p. 4). Pursuant to this agreement, the Government provides the Court with the following information.

[snip]

The defendant did not provide “substantial assistance,” and much of the information provided by the defendant came only after the government confronted him with his own emails, text messages, internet search history, and other information it had obtained via search warrants and subpoenas well after the defendant’s FBI interview as the government continued its investigation. The defendant also did not notify the government about a cellular phone he used in London during the course of the campaign – that had on it substantial communications between the defendant and the Professor – until his fourth and final proffer session.

While there had been some discussion about what kind of plea deal Papadopoulos got, this statement seems to say that Papadopoulos didn’t offer up any specific cooperation against co-conspirators. Rather, the deal was simply that if he offered up his cooperation about his own actions, the government would tell the court that he did so, with no obligation to ask the court for any downward sentencing. The deal, then, was to limit his exposure to just one false statements charge, rather than the multiple false statements and obstruction charge he could have gotten for trying to confuse the FBI.

Importantly, the deal only applied to conduct specified in the offense — that is, the lies to the FBI and the obstruction of justice by hiding his Facebook and cell phone data. While his statement of offense includes much of his discussion with Russian assets about setting up a meeting, it says nothing about other conduct, such as accepting $10,000 from a suspected Israeli asset, or his ongoing negotiations with Sergei Millian, basically to spy on the Trump administration in exchange for a monthly payment (which was conditioned on getting a job in the administration, which is one of the reasons — the government suggests in the memo — why Papadopoulos may have lied to the FBI in January 2017).

That is, Papadopoulos not only faces prison time if the court accepts the government’s recommended sentence, but he may have ongoing exposure for foreign agent or conspiracy charges not covered by this plea agreement.

He made a deal to get several false statements and obstruction charges turned into one, but he didn’t even capitalize on that deal, and may still face additional legal risk tied to the Russian tampering.

That led me to compare the language for all the other plea deals Mueller’s team has made (something NYCSouthpaw started to do in this thread in February). It’s clear that Alex van der Zwaan got the least out of his plea deal (though he may have cooperated more in getting to that deal, which would have been important given his foreign status). That’s significant, because the prosecutor compared van der Zwaan to Papadopoulos in their memo.

The other three plea deals — Mike Flynn, Richard Pinedo (for identity theft tied to the Internet trolls), and Rick Gates — do obligate the government to submit a 5K statement for downward departure on sentencing if the person provides substantial cooperation.

But Pinedo and Flynn’s deals are limited just to the statement of offense. In Flynn’s case, his statement includes several lies to the FBI and his failure to register under FARA, but not a lot of other known conduct, even aside from any conspiracy involving Russia.

Only Gates’ plea includes broad forgiveness for criminal conduct (though the charges he pled to also include more significant penalties than Flynn and Papadopoulos). That’s yet another sign that he offered quite a bit in his proffer, well beyond incriminating Paul Manafort.

I’ve been nudging the attentive lawyers to explain what this means in terms of ongoing exposure. But if I were Mike Flynn, the Papadopoulos example might really incentivize me to be more cooperative.


George Papadopoulos:

In consideration of your client’s guilty plea to the above offense, your client will not be further prosecuted criminally by this Office for the conduct set forth in the attached Statement of the Offense.

No government obligation section beyond,

agreeing to bring to the Court’s attention at sentencing the defendant’s efforts to cooperate with the Government, on the condition that your client continues to respond and provide information regarding any and all matters as to which the Government deems relevant.

Mike Flynn:

In consideration of your client’s guilty plea to the above offense, your client will not be further prosecuted criminally by this Office for the conduct set forth in the attached Statement of the Offense.

5K language included.

Alex van der Zwaan:

In consideration of your client’s guilty plea to the above offense, your client will not be further prosecuted criminally by this Office for the conduct set forth in the attached Statement of the Offense, for any other false statements made by him to the Office on November 3 and December 1, 2017, any destruction, deletion, and withholding of documents and evidence in connection with requests by this Office or his law firm, and any violations of the Foreign Agent Registration Act or other law arising from the preparation and/or roll out of the Tymoshenko report for the Ukraine Ministry of Justice.

No government obligation section.

Richard Pinedo:

In consideration of your client’s guilty plea to the above offense, your client will not be further prosecuted crininally by this Office for the conduct set forth in the attached Statement of the Offense.

5K language included.

Rick Gates:

In consideration of your client’s guilty plea to the above offenses, and upon the completion of full cooperation as described herein, no additional criminal charges will be brought against the defendant for his heretofore disclosed participation in criminal activity, including money laundering, false statements, personal and corporate tax and FBAR offenses, bank fraud, and obstruction of justice. In addition, subject to the terms of this Agreement, at the time of sentence, the Government will move to dismiss the remaining counts of the Indictment in this matter. In addition, the Office will move promptly to dismiss without prejudice the charges brought against your client in the Eastern District of Virginia and your client waives venue as to such charges in the event he breaches this Agreement.

5K language included.

The Crimes with which NSD Envisions Charging Those Attacking Elections

The Senate Judiciary Committee had a hearing on how to protect our elections today. Among others, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Adam Hickey from DOJ’s National Security Division testified. He gave a list of some of the crimes he thought might be used to charge people who tampered with elections.

Foreign influence operations, though not always illegal, can implicate several U.S. Federal criminal statutes, including (but not limited to) 18 U.S.C. § 371 (conspiracy to defraud the United States); 18 U.S.C. § 951 (acting in the United States as an agent of a foreign government without prior notification to the Attorney General); 18 U.S.C. § 1001 (false statements); 18 U.S.C. § 1028A (aggravated identity theft); 18 U.S.C. § 1030 (computer fraud and abuse); 18 U.S.C. §§ 1343, 1344 (wire fraud and bank fraud); 18 U.S.C. § 1519 (destruction of evidence); 18 U.S.C. § 1546 (visa fraud); 22 U.S.C. § 618 (Foreign Agents Registration Act); and 52 U.S.C. §§ 30109, 30121 (soliciting or making foreign contributions to influence Federal elections, or donations to influence State or local elections).

In their testimony, Ken Wainstein (someone with extensive experience of national security prosecutions, but less apparent focus on the available evidence in this investigation) and Ryan Goodman (who doesn’t have the prosecutorial experience of Wainstein, but who is familiar with the public facts about the investigation) also list what crimes they think will get charged.

I find a comparison of what each raised, along with what has already been charged, to be instructive. I believe that comparison looks like this:

I’m interested, in part, because Hickey, who likely has at least a sense of the Mueller investigation (if not personal involvement), sees the case somewhat differently than two differently expert lawyers. Two charges — agent of a foreign power (basically, being a foreign spy in the US not working under official cover) and CFAA (hacking) seem obvious to both National Security Division prosecutors, but have not yet been publicly charged. Illegal foreign contributions seems obvious to those paying close attention, but also has not been charged. We might expect to see all three charges before we’re done.

Neither Wainstein nor Goodman mentioned false statements, but of course that’s what we’ve seen charged most often so far.

Then there are the two crimes Hickey mentions that the others don’t, but that have not yet been charged (both have been alleged as overt acts in the Internet Research Agency indictment): Visa fraud (alleged against the trolls who came to the US to reconnoiter in 2014) and destruction of evidence (again, alleged against IRA employees destroying evidence after Facebook’s role was discovered). Mueller also described George Papadopoulos destroying evidencec when he deleted his Facebook account, but like the Russian trolls, he didn’t get charged for it. Visa fraud, in particular, is something that multiple figures might be accused of — Alexander Torshin and others reaching out via NRA, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and even Brits who worked illegally during the election for Cambridge Analytica.

I confess I’m most interested in Hickey’s mention of destruction of evidence, though. That’s true, in part, because SDNY seems to think Michael Cohen might destroy evidence.

Hope Hicks, too, reportedly thought about hiding evidence from authorities. Then there’s the report that Mueller is checking encrypted messaging apps as people turn in phones when they arrive for interviews.

Huckey seems to think some of the people being investigated — beyond Papadopoulos and IRA troll Viktorovna Kaverzina — may have been destroying evidence.

I wonder if he has reason to suspect that.

Rudy 9/11’s Latest Outrageous Attempts to Obstruct the Mueller Probe

I’ve been noting Trey Gowdy’s expressed support for Mueller’s investigation since he announced his retirement back in February.

On Sunday, on one of the Sunday shows, Trey—I think it was a Fox show—Trey Gowdy said, “You know, this memo should come out. It’s important. But my side should not use it to undermine the Mueller investigation.” And the reason he gave is that what is not being seen about the Mueller investigation is there’s a whole counterintelligence side to it. There’s a whole side of it investigating how the Russians tampered in our election. And according to Gowdy, who has seen these underlying documents, he thinks that’s an important and legitimate investigation.

This Sunday, in the wake of last week’s briefing on Stefan Halper’s role in the investigation of Carter Page and George Papadopoulos (and, possibly, other aspects of the Russian investigation), Gowdy did it again, explaining that the FBI did precisely what they should have done in response to identifying counterintelligence concerns in Trump’s campaign.

GOWDY: [I]t was President Trump, himself who said, number one, “I didn’t collude with the Russia but if anyone connected with my campaign did, I want the FBI to find that out.” It looks to me like the FBI was doing what President Trump said I want you to do, find it out. He is not the target. So, when Schiff and others don’t make that clear, they’re doing the disservice to our fellow citizens. He is not the target.

MACCALLUM: But this raises the question that the president raised in this — in this one of those tweets, there were a lot of them. In which we talked about quite a bit here last week, is if that were the case, why didn’t they give him a little briefing?

So, here is what we found out. You know, we do have somebody who asked some questions of George Papadopoulos. We do have somebody who’s asked questions of Carter Page. Here’s what you need to know.

GOWDY: I think, defensive briefings are done a lot. And why the Comey FBI didn’t do it? I don’t know, but Chris Wray and Rod Rosenstein have at least made it clear to us, Donald Trump was never the target of the investigation. He is not the current target of the investigation. Now, keep in mind that can all change depending on what a witness says.

But as of now, I think Chris Wray and Rod Rosenstein are stunned whenever people think Trump is the target of their investigation. I’ll leave it up to them how to brief the president, or how to brief his lawyers.

MACCALLUM: Was that point of view that you’re talking about right now, was that strengthened when you went into this briefing last week?

GOWDY: Yes, I am — I am even more convinced that the FBI did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do when they got the information they got. And that it has nothing to do with Donald Trump.

MACCALLUM: All right. So, given the things that were over here on your right hand, all the frustrations, do you think it’s problematic the way the president has — is tweeting about this all the time? Because he feels like he needs to get — he needs to vent. He’s got to get his message out there. Is it legally problematic in your mind what he is doing?

GOWDY: I think any time you create prior statements, you give Mueller or other folks a chance to question you on them and ask what was your factual basis, why did you say that? The president should have access to the best legal minds in the country. And I think he should take advantage of those. And he has got some really good communicators that are on his staff and at his — at his call. If I were his lawyer, and I never will be, I would tell him to rely on his lawyers and his comes folks.

MACCALLUM: All right, here is one of them, Rudy Giuliani, speaking with Bill Hemmer over the holiday weekend. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL HEMMER, FOX NEWS CO-ANCHOR: What’s wrong with the government trying to figure out what Russia was up to?

RUDY GIULIANI, ATTORNEY TO PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Nothing wrong with the government doing that. Everything wrong with the government spying on a candidate of the opposition party, that’s a Watergate, a spy gate. I mean, and without any warning to him. And now, to compound that, to make it into a criminal investigation bill? That’s why this is a rigged investigation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GOWDY: There are two things wrong with what the former U.S. attorney said. Number one, no one knows whether this is a criminal investigation. Mueller was told to do a counterintelligence investigation into what Russia did. And number two, President Trump himself in the Comey memos said if anyone connected with my campaign was working with Russia, I want you to investigate it.

And it sounds to me like that is exactly what the FBI did, I think when the president finds out what happened, he is going to be not just fine, he’s going to be glad that we have an FBI that took seriously what they heard. He was never the target, Russia is the target.

MACCALLUM: So, it sounds to me as if you would advise him that there’s no problem with him sitting down with Robert Muller.

GOWDY: Oh, absolutely no. I have always said, I think you want to sit down with Bob Mueller. You’ve told us publicly there was no collusion, you’ve told us publicly there was no obstruction. Say in private what you’ve said publicly, limit the scope to exactly what the — what the Mueller memo is, but if he were my client and I’d say if you’ve done nothing wrong, then you need to sit down and tell Mueller what you know.

Mind you, Gowdy wasn’t the only one who said this. Mitch McConnell came out of the briefing (I’m still not sure whether Gowdy was in the Gang of Eight briefing or just the one with Devin Nunes) and said he supports Mueller. Nunes has gone silent, either because he, too, believes the FBI’s actions were proper, or because because he attended a briefing with the rest of the Gang of Eight, he’ll be more constrained about any bullshit claims he makes.

Nevertheless, Rudy is now targeting Gowdy in the same way Republicans have targeted Adam Schiff for supporting the investigation, even attacking him for running a never-ending investigation into Hillary.

Giuliani lashed out at Gowdy — who isn’t running for reelection — for his comments, saying that his constituents “would probably be outraged at what he’s doing.”

He then veered off-topic, adding that those constituents “probably want to figure out what the hell he did with Benghazi.” Gowdy was the chair of the House committee that looked into the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that left four dead, including Christopher Stevens, the US Ambassador to Libya.

“He sure screwed that one up. You got four families that do not think that Trey Gowdy did his job,” Giuliani said.

Rudy did something else in that interview with BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner that Geidner didn’t emphasize, but deserves closer focus. He asserted that Trump’s legal team would still demand to see the files on Halper.

“We want to review all of the documentation they have for the investigation of what they call the spying on Russia and the spying — that led to the spying on the Trump campaign,” he said. He said the president’s attorneys have no plans to ask for the alleged informant’s identity — which has been reported in multiple outlets to be Professor Stefan Halper.

“Once we see what they’ve revealed,” Giuliani said of the documents, “I think we’ll need his identity even less, because I think it revealed bullshit. Which is why they don’t want to show it to us. This informant was a total waste of money, a total lark, a complete attempt to try to frame Trump, and it’s gonna show that he did nothing wrong. And that’s why they concealed it for a year.”

As Adam Schiff noted, this move demolishes any claim that the document request is about oversight; it makes it clear this request — and, I agree with Schiff, the prior ones — are all about giving Trump a peek into the investigation.

“Rudy Giuliani has effectively admitted that [House Intelligence Committee] Chairman [Devin] Nunes’ demand for information about the investigation is a charade designed only to obtain material for the Trump legal defense team,” Schiff said. “He now seeks to use the improper effort to obtain information about an investigation implicating the president as a justification to refuse to allow the president to testify.

Meanwhile, I’ve got new questions about whether Trump already has gotten information on the investigation.

Among the things Rudy has said of late, he mocked the Internet Research Agency indictment, suggesting it’s phony.

Even those Russians, the phony indictment they have of the Russians who will never come here for trial, they colluded with each other. Russians colluding. Oh wow that’s big news. Russians have been colluding since the Soviet Union to interfere in our elections.

Mind you, as I’ve noted, Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s firm, Concord Consulting, is mounting a defense. Even there, Concord and the government just jointly proposed a schedule to lead towards trial (which would take place sometime after November). So that’s happening, at least until the US butts up against evidence it refuses to share even with Concord’s US lawyers (the parties are still discussing a protection order now).

But I’m interested in Rudy’s comment for another reason. While a lot of attention has been paid to the news that the government and George Papadopoulos have moved towards sentencing, a similar announcement came this week in the Richard Pinedo case — the guy who sold identities that IRA used to create troll accounts. I have no idea what the Papadopoulos move means, but with Pinedo, I’ve wondered what cooperation he offered to get the plea in the first place. And I’ve wondered whether the move to sentencing actually means Mueller has finished any investigation of Campaign Official 1, 2, and 3 named in the indictment.

Which is to say that I find the timing of Rudy’s mockery of the IRA indictment, which is a real description of the damage Russia did, to be of interest.

Did Mueller’s Team Decide They No Longer Need Manafort to Flip?

One detail of the attacks TS Ellis made on Mueller’s team on Friday has gotten a lot of attention: his insinuation that Mueller’s team was only charging Manafort with bank fraud and tax evasion to get him to flip on Trump.

THE COURT: Apparently, if I look at the indictment, none of that information has anything to do with links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of Donald Trump. That seems to me to be obvious because they all long predate any contact or any affiliation of this defendant with the campaign. So I don’t see what relation this indictment has with anything the special prosecutor is authorized to investigate.

It looks to me instead that what is happening is that this investigation was underway. It had something. The special prosecutor took it, got indictments, and then in a time-honored practice which I’m fully familiar with — it exists largely in the drug area. If you get somebody in a conspiracy and get something against them, you can then tighten the screws, and they will begin to provide information in what you’re really interested in. That seems to me to be what is happening here. I’m not saying it’s illegitimate, but I think we ought to be very clear about these facts and what is happening.

[snip]

THE COURT: That’s right, but your argument says, Even though the investigation was really done by the Justice Department, handed to you, and then you’re now using it, as I indicated before, as a means of persuading Mr. Manafort to provide information.

It’s vernacular by the way. I’ve been here a long time. The vernacular is to sing. That’s what prosecutors use, but what you’ve got to be careful of is they may not just sing. They may also compose.

[snip]

THE COURT: It factually did not arise from the investigation. Now, saying it could have arised under it is another matter, but factually, it’s very clear. This was an ongoing investigation. You all got it from the Department of Justice. You’re pursuing it. Now I had speculated about why you’re really interested in it in this case. You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud. Well, the government does. You really care about what information Mr. Manafort can give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment or whatever. That’s what you’re really interested in.

In spite of Ellis’ repeated suggestion that Mueller was just trying to get Manafort to flip and that that might not be illegitimate, Michael Dreeben never took Ellis’ bait, each time returning to the government’s argument that the indictment was clearly authorized by Rod Rosenstein’s  initial appointment memo, and in any case Manafort can’t challenge his indictment based off whether Mueller adhered to internal DOJ regulations.

THE COURT: Where am I wrong in that regard?

MR. DREEBEN: The issue, I think, before you is whether Mr. Manafort can dismiss the indictment based on his claim.

[snip]

In any event, your point, if I can distill it to its essence, is that this indictment can be traced to the authority the special prosecutor was given in the May and August letters. That, as far as you’re concerned, is the beginning and end of the matter.

MR. DREEBEN: Yes, Your Honor, it is the beginning and almost the end. And this is my last point, I promise.

THE COURT: All right.

MR. DREEBEN: The special counsel regulations that my friend is relying on are internal DOJ regulations. He referred to them as if they’re a statute. I want to be clear. They are not enacted by Congress. They are internal regulations of the Department of Justice.

Dreeben’s refusal to engage is all the more striking given one of the differences between the 45-page government response dated April 2 for Manafort’s DC challenge and the 30-page government response dated April 10 for Manafort’s EDVA challenge.

The two briefs are very similar and in some passages verbatim or nearly so. The DC version has more discussion of the Acting Attorney General’s statutory authority to appoint a Special Counsel — language like this:

Finally, Manafort’s remedial arguments lack merit. The Acting Attorney General had, and exercised, statutory authority to appoint a Special Counsel here, see 28 U.S.C. §§ 509, 510, 515, and the Special Counsel accordingly has authority to represent the United States in this prosecution. None of the authorities Manafort cites justifies dismissing an indictment signed by a duly appointed Department of Justice prosecutor based on an asserted regulatory violation, and none calls into question the jurisdiction of this Court.

It includes a longer discussion about how a Special Counsel differs from a Ken Starr type Independent Counsel. It cites some DC-specific precedents. And in general, the discussion in the DC brief is more extensive than the EDVA.

Generally, the differences are probably explained by differing page limits in DC and EDVA.

But along the way, an interesting passage I noted here got dropped: in addition to the general language about a special counsel appointment including the investigation of obstruction of that investigation, the DC brief noted the underlying discussion on Special Counsel regulations envisions the prosecution of people if “otherwise unrelated allegations against a central witness in the matter is necessary to obtain cooperation.”

[I]n deciding when additional jurisdiction is needed, the Special Counsel can draw guidance from the Department’s discussion accompanying the issuance of the Special Counsel regulations. That discussion illustrated the type of “adjustments to jurisdiction” that fall within Section 600.4(b). “For example,” the discussion stated, “a Special Counsel assigned responsibility for an alleged false statement about a government program may request additional jurisdiction to investigate allegations of misconduct with respect to the administration of that program; [or] a Special Counsel may conclude that investigating otherwise unrelated allegations against a central witness in the matter is necessary to obtain cooperation.” 64 Fed. Reg. at 37,039. “Rather than leaving the issue to argument and misunderstanding as to whether the new matters are included within a vague category of ‘related matters,’ the regulations clarify that the decision as to which component would handle such new matters would be made by the Attorney General.” Id.9

9 The allusion to “related matters” refers to the Independent Counsel Act’s provision that the independent counsel’s jurisdiction shall include “all matters related to” the subject of the appointment (28 U.S.C. § 593(b)(3)), which prompted the D.C. Circuit to observe that “the scope of a special prosecutor’s investigatory jurisdiction can be both wide in perimeter and fuzzy at the borders.” United States v. Wilson, 26 F.3d 142, 148 (D.C. Cir.), cert. denied, 514 U.S. 1051 (1995).

This exclusion, too, likely arises from page limits (and its exclusion may explain why Dreeben didn’t point to it in Friday’s argument).

But given Ellis’ focus on it, I find the exclusion notable.

Again, it’s most likely this is just a decision dictated by page limits. But it’s possible that Mueller’s team believed this language less important to include in any decisions issued in EDVA than DC. For example, the existing cooperation agreements were all signed in DC, even where (with George Papadopoulos and Richard Pinedo) at least some of the crimes occurred elsewhere. If Manafort ever flips, that plea agreement will presumably go through DC as well.

Or maybe, given Rick Gates’ cooperation, Mueller’s team has decided they can proceed without Manafort flipping, and instead send him to prison the same way Al Capone went: with tax charges rather than the most heinous crimes.

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

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

Manafort docket:

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

Papadopoulos docket:

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

Flynn docket:

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

Obstruction docket:

Internet Research Agency docket:

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

Richard Pinedo docket:

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

Still unaccounted for:

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

 

What Did Mueller Achieve with the Internet Research Agency Indictment?

Back during Nunes Week, Trey Gowdy described the importance of Robert Mueller’s investigation by stating that we were only seeing half of what he was doing. The other half of his work, Gowdy said, was the counterintelligence side, the investigation into what Russia did to the US in 2016.

Friday, Rod Rosenstein rolled out the first glimpse of the other half of that investigation, an indictment of 13 Russians tied to the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll factory. The indictment accuses IRA of 8 crimes: criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and five counts of aggravated identity theft.

In the wake of that indictment, the court unsealed a February 7  plea agreement with Californian Richard Pinedo, for identity theft (basically, selling bank account numbers; the information doesn’t identify the users who purchased the bank account numbers as IRA personnel who used them to set up “American” identities, but that is clearly what happened).

The 13 Russians charged in the IRA indictment — which include Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the close Putin associate who owns the company, those in charge of the operation (which was not limited to US targeting), down to a few of the analysts who did the troll work — will never be extradited to the US, though the most senior among them will surely be sanctioned. Nor will Putin in any way retaliate against them — they were doing work he approved of! Further, by criminalizing “information warfare” (as the Russians admitted they were engaged in, and as we do too, under the same name) we risk our own information warriors being indicted in other countries.

So what purpose did the indictment serve? Here are some thoughts:

Creating a paper trail

Rosenstein and Chris Wray have both said they believe investigators should speak through indictments and other official documents, not through Comeyesque press conferences. Here we have an indictment that serves as a record of what Mueller’s team has found.

We would probably have gotten it in any case, as Jeff Sessions’ DOJ has emphasized bringing more cybersecurity related indictments.

But that we did get it addresses one of the questions we’ve gotten about the Mueller investigation: whether we’ll get to read a report of what he has found.

To the extent that something is indictable, even if that indictment would name Russians or others located overseas, I guess we should expect more of the same.

Establishing bipartisan credibility for the larger investigation

The reason I keep pointing to Gowdy’s statements in support of the investigation in the last several weeks is because his actions seem to reflect one of the most partisan Republicans reacting soberly to an attack on the country, rather than just one party.

And while the details of the indictment — most notably that the trolls affirmatively supported Bernie Sanders as well as Trump — have resurfaced the old primary recriminations, for the most part, the indictment has provided a way for people from both parties to agree to the reality of the attack. Trump said Mueller did a good job with the indictment (admittedly, he may be currying favor). Trump’s National Security Advisor HR McMaster responded to the indictment by declaring the evidence that Russia interfered in the election “incontrovertible.” This indictment offers a way for even self-interested Republicans to start acknowledging the reality of what happened.

The indictment also gave Rod Rosenstein an opportunity to own this investigation with a press conference announcing it. None of the prosecutors tied to the case appeared (since I track these things, know that Jeannie Rhee, Rush Atkinson, and Ryan Dickey are on the docket), just Rosenstein. Hopefully, tying him to this non-offensive indictment will make it harder to fire Rosenstein, and thereby further protect Mueller.

Reiterating the crime of conspiracy to defraud the United States

The most interesting of the three crimes charged in the IRA indictment is the first, the conspiracy to defraud the United States. The indictment describes the conspiracy this way:

U.S. law bans foreign nationals from making certain expenditures or financial disbursements for the purpose of influencing federal elections. U.S. law also bars agents of any foreign entity from engaging in political activities within the United States without first registering with the Attorney General. And U.S. law requires certain foreign nationals seeking entry to the United States to obtain a visa by providing truthful and accurate information to the government.

Effectively, Mueller is saying that it’s not illegal, per se, to engage in political trolling (AKA information warfare), but it is if you don’t but are legally obliged to register before you do so. That’s an important distinction, because much of what these trolls did is accepted behavior in American politics — all sides did this in 2016, including people employed by campaigns and others expressing their own political opinions. Trolling (AKA information warfare) only becomes illegal when you don’t carry out the required transparency or reporting before you do so.

The charge of a conspiracy to defraud the United States has a very important parallel elsewhere in this investigation, in the first charge in the Paul Manafort and Rick Gates indictment. The indictment explains,

It is illegal to act as an agent of a foreign principal engaged in certain United States influence activities without registering the affiliation. Specifically, a person who engages in lobbying or public relations work in the United States (hereafter collectively referred to as lobbying) for a foreign principal such as the Government of Ukraine or the Party of Regions is required to provide a detailed written registration statement to the United States Department of Justice. The filing, made under oath, must disclose the name of the foreign principal, the financial payments to the lobbyist, and the measures undertaken for the foreign principal, among other information. A person required to make such a filing must further make in all lobbying material a “conspicuous statement” that the materials are distributed on behalf of the foreign principal, among other things. The filing thus permits public awareness and evaluation of the activities of a lobbyist who acts as an agent of a foreign power or foreign political party in the United States.

The Manafort indictment then argues that by hiding that the lobbying work they were doing was on behalf of Ukraine’s Party of Regions they, “knowingly and intentionally conspired to defraud the United States by impeding impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful governmental functions of a government agency, namely the Department of Justice and the Department of the Treasury.” I’ll have more to say about this parallel in coming days, but suffice it to say that Mueller is alleging that Manafort is the mirror image of the troll farm, engaging in politics while hiding on whose behalf he’s doing it (he was arguably doing the same in Ukraine). [Update: see this post for more on how this might work.]

In both cases, the indictments substantiate the conspiracy by naming a variety of crimes, like money laundering and identity theft.

I suspect we’ll be seeing more of this structure going forward (and suspect it’s something the numerous appellate specialists on Mueller’s team have been spending a lot of time thinking about).

Laying out how Americans might be involved with or without “colluding”

Much has been made of Rosenstein’s line, “There is no allegation in the indictment that any American was a knowing participant in the alleged unlawful activity.” I don’t read too much into that. Rather, I think Rosenstein included it because the indictment does explicitly and implicitly describe actions many Americans and possible Americans took that were part of this conspiracy. That includes:

Illegal compensated acvitities

  • Richard Pinedo: Selling Russian trolls (and others) bank account numbers they can use to conduct identity fraud
  • Unknown persons: Providing social security numbers and fake US drivers licenses of Americans
  • Unknown persons: Selling stolen credit card information

Presumptively legal compensated activities

  • Unknown Americans: Renting servers in the US to run VPNs to hide their foreign location
  • Yahoo, Gmail, Paypal: Providing email and PayPal accounts the Russians used as the basis for social media accounts
  • Twitter, Instagram, Facebook: Providing those social media accounts
  • Twitter, Instagram, Facebook: Selling advertisements on social media
  • Unknown Trump associates: Paying for IRA rally expenses
  • Paid providers: Building a cage, acquiring a costume, and posing as Hillary in prison stunt at a FL event
  • Unknown US person: Providing posters for a Support Hillary, Save American Muslims rally
  • Unknown American: Holding a sign in front of the White House on May 29, 2016

Uncompensated activities

  • Unknown Americans: Interacting with Aleksandra Krylova and Anna Bogacheva when they traveled to the US sometime between June 4 and June 26, 2014 to conduct reconnaissance and another co-conspirator that November
  • Members of the media: Accepting tips and promoting IRA events
  • A member of a real TX-based Tea Party organization: Advising the conspirators to focus on the purple states “like Colorado, Virginia & Florida”
  • Unwitting members, volunteers, and supporters of the Trump Campaign involved in local community outreach, as well as grassroots groups that supported then-candidate Trump: Distributing IRA materials through existing channels of those groups
  • Administrators of large social media groups focused on U.S. politics: Promoting IRA events
  • Trump volunteer: Providing signs for the March for Trump event and otherwise recruiting for it
  • A Florida-based political activist identified as the “Chair for the Trump Campaign” in a particular Florida county: Advising on more locations and logistics for the Florida Trump event
  • Campaign Officials 1, 2, and 3: discussing the Florida events

Later the indictment describes a database of 100 real US persons whom the trolls treated as recruiting targets, complete with profiling.

On or about August 24, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators updated an internal ORGANIZATION list of over 100 real U.S. persons contacted through ORGANIZATION-controlled false U.S. persona accounts and tracked to monitor recruitment efforts and requests. The list included contact information for the U.S. persons, a summary of their political views, and activities they had been asked to perform by Defendants and their co-conspirators.

Here’s the important thing about all this. While Pinedo pled guilty and faces 12-18 months even with his cooperation agreement (and even there, while the information makes it clear he knew he was dealing with foreigners, his lawyer has made it clear he didn’t know who or what he was dealing with), there are only two other known illegal roles in this conspiracy, and there’s no reason those roles would have had to be carried out by Americans. Perhaps Mueller has others cooperating, perhaps those other criminals are unknown. But as for the rest, they are (as Rosenstein made clear) not guilty of any kind of conspiracy with Russia.

DOJ just rolled out an indictment in which probably 20 Americans can recognize themselves (many of whom were likely interviewed), about as many as all the Trump officials named in one or another plea agreement so far. Yet, as far as Mueller knows, none of these people did anything but conduct business or engage in sincerely held politics. They almost certainly had far less reason to be suspicious of the trolls they were being used by than Facebook and Twitter. Those actions have been tainted now through no fault of their own.

Which is something to remember: I’ve seen Hillary supporters, in the same breath, criticize Bernie or Jill Stein supporters because their preferred candidate was treated favorably by the trolls, yet in the same breath suggesting the black and Muslim activists targeted are innocent victims.

Obviously, Hillary and her supporters are victims. But everyone is, even the Trump volunteers. Because to the extent they had honestly held beliefs, the Russian operation tainted those beliefs, it diminished the weight of their honestly held beliefs. They were used by Russian trolls, most of them without the same profit motive that led Facebook and Twitter to allow themselves to be used. And we should remember that.

Hinting at what the US has

There are, however, a few tactical things this indictment does, starting with hinting at what other evidence the US has. This indictment was relatively easy, in that Adrian Chen (in a June 2015 article that still gets too little attention), Facebook and (to a lesser extent) other social media outlets, the Daily Beast, and SSCI generally have already laid out what IRA did. The indictment slaps some criminal charges on fraudulent behavior that enabled it, and without showing much about any additional evidence Mueller collected, you’ve got a showy indictment.

There are two hints, however, of the additional evidence used (which, given that the named conspirators will never face trial, will never need to be disclosed or explained). First, in a passage about how IRA started to cover their tracks after Mueller started focusing on this activity, there’s the reference to Irina Kaverzina.

On or about September 13, 2017, KAVERZINA wrote in an email to a family member: “We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke). So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with the colleagues.”

Kaverzina was just a low-level troll and this may be nothing more than Section 702 collected email off GMail or Yahoo, or it may be a more formal intercept. But Mueller obtained communications from at least one of the indictees. Emails from more senior people, such as Prigozhin or his more senior managers (or the IT guys buying server space in the US) would be more interesting.

Plus, Mueller likely obtained cooperation from one IRA employee, the unnamed person who traveled to Atlanta in November 2014 for reconnaissance. Had that person not cooperated, he or she would have been named in the indictment.

Nevertheless establishing the political stakes

I said above that none of the hundred-plus Americans who were unknowingly used by trolls should be considered anything but victims. Their chosen political views, loathsome or not, have now been tainted, and not because of anything they’ve done except perhaps show too much trust or credulity.

But there are hints that Mueller is using this indictment to set up a more important point.

For example, the indictment (perhaps because of Mueller’s mandate) focuses on political activities supporting or opposing one or another 2016 candidate. Even where topics (immigration, Muslim religion, race) are not necessarily tied to the election, they’re presented here as such. Unless Facebook’s public reports are wrong, this is a very different emphasis than what Facebook has said the IRA focused on. Which is to say that Mueller’s team are focusing on a subset of the known IRA trolling, the subset that involves the 2016 contest between Trump and Hillary.

And there are several events, in particular, that may one day serve as details in a larger conspiracy. Most interesting, for the timing and location, are the twin anti-Hillary and pro-Trump events in NYC in June and July 2016.

In or around June and July 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the Facebook group “Being Patriotic,” the Twitter account @March_for_Trump, and other ORGANIZATION accounts to organize two political rallies in New York. The first rally was called “March for Trump” and held on June 25, 2016. The second rally was called “Down with Hillary” and held on July 23, 2016.

a. In or around June through July 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators purchased advertisements on Facebook to promote the “March for Trump” and “Down with Hillary” rallies.

b. Defendants and their co-conspirators used false U.S. personas to send individualized messages to real U.S. persons to request that they participate in and help organize the rally. To assist their efforts, Defendants and their co-conspirators, through false U.S. personas, offered money to certain U.S. persons to cover rally expenses.

c. On or about June 5, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators, while posing as a U.S. grassroots activist, used the account @March_for_Trump to contact a volunteer for the Trump Campaign in New York. The volunteer agreed to provide signs for the “March for Trump” rally.

[snip]

On or about July 23, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the email address of a false U.S. persona, [email protected], to send out press releases to over thirty media outlets promoting the “Down With Hillary” rally at Trump Tower in New York City.

The description of a IRA-organized event at Trump Tower the day after WikiLeaks dropped the DNC emails, in particular, suggests the possibility of a great deal of coordination, coordination with people in the US.

Similarly, the extended descriptions of events in Florida may also take on added relevance in the future, particularly coming as they did in tandem with Guccifer 2.0’s release of DCCC data targeting FL. (And this, in turn, should focus even more attention on the FL congressmen like Matt Gaetz and Ron DeSantis who’re leading the pushback on Mueller’s investigation.)

Using the term “co-conspirator” 119 times

Perhaps most interesting, given the tiny nods to what other intelligence Mueller might have, are the 119 uses of the word “co-conspirators.” Almost all of these uses seem to necessarily mean unnamed IRA employees working from the same St. Petersburg location described as trolling. Several times the co-conspirators are clearly described as located in Russia. So it may be that all references to co-conspirators here are just a way to refer to the 70 other people involved in this operation at IRA. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Other uses of “co-conspirator” involve wider knowledge, perhaps an outsider’s knowledge of a go-between role Prigozhin might have had.

But others are things that might have involved a stateside co-conspirator, such as the mention of co-conspirators helping to set up the May 29, 2016 Prigozhin birthday tribute in front of the White House, co-conspirators tracking US social media use, co-conspirators engaged in identity theft, co-conspirators promoting claims of voter fraud, co-conspirators destroying data. Several of those things (such as tracking US social media use or claiming Hillary was going to steal the election) are things we know Trump associates were also doing. Others might be facilitated by someone stateside. So those uses of the term could be people not employed by IRA.

Which is to say, this indictment might be (probably is) intended to address just the activities of those employed by IRA. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Update: added the public indictment part.