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Four Ways Billy Barr Obstructed the Investigation into Rudy Giuliani

Eventually, I want to do a post quantifying all the damage to national security Billy Barr did by thwarting an influence-peddling investigation into Rudy Giuliani in 2019. But first, I want to quantify four ways that Barr is known to have obstructed the investigation into Rudy, effectively stalling the investigation for over 500 days.

The effort is helped by Rudy lawyer Robert Costello’s public claim that DOJ obtained a search warrant on Rudy’s iCloud account sometime in late 2019. That indicates that the investigation into Rudy’s ties to Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman (whether Rudy was the primary target or their business, Fraud Guarantee) already showed probable cause that a crime had been committed before Barr took repeated steps to undermine the investigation.

Fail to recuse from an investigation implicating Barr personally

The MEMCON of Donald Trump’s call with Volodymyr Zelenskyy invoked Barr personally, twice, including in the very same response where the President said that Marie Yovanovich would “go through some things.”

Well, she’s going to go through some things. I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have.Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it.

According to a September 2019 NYT article, National Security Division head John Demers (who remains at DOJ and who oversees the FARA unit that would have a role in this prosecution), Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, and Brian Benczkowski learned about the concerns about the call, including that it named Barr, even before the formal whistleblower complaint came in. Barr learned about it via some unexplained means.

It’s not clear what happened in that first round of review, but ultimately prosecutors reviewed it once the formal whistleblower complaint was referred by Joseph Maguire later in August and “declined to open an investigation.”

Mr. Eisenberg and Ms. Elwood both spoke on Aug. 14 to John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division, according to three people familiar with the discussion. Ms. Elwood did not pass on the name of the C.I.A. officer, which she did not know because his concerns were submitted anonymously.

The next day, Mr. Demers went to the White House to read the transcript of the call and assess whether to alert other senior law enforcement officials. The deputy attorney general, Jeffrey A. Rosen, and Brian A. Benczkowski, the head of the department’s criminal division, were soon looped in, according to two administration officials.

Department officials began to discuss the accusations and whether and how to follow up, and Attorney General William P. Barr learned of the allegations around that time, according to a person familiar with the matter. Although Mr. Barr was briefed, he did not oversee the discussions about how to proceed, the person said.

[snip]

At the end of August, the office of the director of national intelligence referred the allegations to the Justice Department as a possible criminal matter. Law enforcement officials ultimately declined to open an investigation.

While it’s true that Barr outsourced some actions — such as determining what to do with the first report and the White House request that DOJ publicly exonerate him — there’s no indication Barr recused from the investigation and indeed he remained in the loop with the White House about it. His failure to recuse is particularly important because, as the table above notes, he got briefed on the investigation into Parnas and Fruman not long after he was confirmed in February 2019. For most of August and September 2019, Barr and Jeffrey Rosen would have been two of the only people at DOJ who would recognize the danger the whistleblower complaint posed to Rudy and, through him, to Trump himself.

Ensure Public Integrity reviews only the Trump transcript, not the entire whistleblower complaint

Mind you, Barr didn’t conduct the investigation of the whistleblower complaint. Public Integrity prosecutors in the Criminal Division did, overseen by Brian Benczkowski.

According to an October 2019 report, Benczkowski still did not know of the investigation into Parnas and Fruman when he took a meeting with Rudy in the fall to discuss a bribery case implicating the Venezuelan who was paying for some of the Ukraine dirt-digging.

Several weeks ago, Brian A. Benczkowski, the head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, and lawyers from the division’s Fraud Section met with Mr. Giuliani to discuss a bribery case in which he and other attorneys were representing the defendants.

That meeting took place before the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan publicly charged the two Giuliani associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, with breaking campaign finance laws and trying to unlawfully influence politicians, including former Representative Pete Sessions, Republican of Texas. Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman were part of Mr. Giuliani’s effort to push Ukraine for an inquiry into Democrats.

“When Mr. Benczkowski and fraud section lawyers met with Mr. Giuliani, they were not aware of any investigation of Mr. Giuliani’s associates in the Southern District of New York and would not have met with him had they known,” said Peter Carr, a department spokesman.

[snip]

Prosecutors in Manhattan informed Attorney General William P. Barr about the investigation of Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman soon after he was confirmed in February, according to a Justice Department official. They were required to do so under the department’s rule that requires prosecutors to notify the attorney general of any cases that could generate national news media or congressional attention.

When Mr. Giuliani and other lawyers requested the meeting with the Justice Department to discuss a foreign bribery case, Mr. Benczkowski and the lawyers in the Fraud Section had not been informed of the Manhattan case and agreed to meet.

That exonerates him for being stupid enough to take the meeting, but it reveals something about the review of the complaint: it could not have adhered to the most basic rules of “connect-the-dots” investigations put in place after 9/11 to protect national security.

That’s because the first thing you’re supposed to do when you get a tip that implicates national security is to search DOJ’s holdings to see if the tip connects with any known suspects or investigations. Had this tip been treated like DOJ had been drilling for almost 17 years by the time the tip was received, then investigators would have searched on the OCCRP profile of Parnas and Fruman cited repeatedly in the full complaint.

Had that happened, then the implications of it would have been clear, it would have been referred to SDNY, Benczkowski would have learned about it, and DOJ wouldn’t have been making public exonerations of Trump.

Get OLC to overclassify the Barr connection and delay informing Congress

One likely way DOJ managed to avoid connecting Trump’s quid pro quo with the existing investigation of Parnas and Fruman is by treating the call with Zelenskyy, falsely, as the entirety of the whistleblower complaint. There’s no reference to Parnas and Fruman in the call, and so searching on it would not ID the tie to the SDNY investigation.

That’s one of several things that Steve Engel’s OLC did to attempt to avoid — and succeed in delaying — informing Congress about the complaint.

Engel’s OLC memo (a reprise of the memo that Amy Berman Jackson ruled was just a PR stunt to justify lying to Congress) claimed that the whistleblower complaint pertained exclusively to the conduct of the President and as such did not pertain to the Intelligence Community and so didn’t need to be shared with Congress. The only way to reach this decision would be to ignore the parts of the whistleblower complaint that deal with abuse of classification and the withholding of funds.

The other thing OLC did was to — at first– treat mentions of Barr and Rudy, as well as Ukraine and Zelenskyy, as Top Secret, even though the White House had only deemed those references to be Secret.

This effort, both to avoid informing the Intelligence Committees and, once he did, to hide key details from them, ultimately failed. But it did delay the discovery of the call from August to September 2019.

Warn Rupert Murdoch

Bill Barr had a meeting at SDNY the day before Parnas and Fruman were arrested on October 9. He went from there to a meeting with Rupert Murdoch, at Murdoch’s home.

It’s unclear what happened at that meeting, but Sean Hannity didn’t get on his flight to Vienna to meet with Dmitro Firtash, thereby avoiding even closer legal involvement in yet another Trump scandal.

There’s no evidence I know of that Barr similarly warned Rudy — Rudy canceled his trip, too, but it probably only took the arrest of Parnas and Fruman to persuade him of the wisdom of doing that. So I don’t consider this an act of obstruction protecting Rudy — just an act of obstruction protecting Sean Hannity.

Parnas has alleged that he was only arrested as a way to keep him silent about all this. While there’s a lot of reason to believe that’s possible, I’m not aware of proof that it did. It is, notably, one thing he was dangling his cooperation on with SDNY before he got remarkably quiet as the investigation into Rudy kicked into active mode.

Attempt to replace Geoffrey Berman with a Barr flunky

As noted, if we can believe Costello, then at some point SDNY did manage to conduct a search on Rudy’s iCloud. One possibility is that DOJ justified a search on Rudy after learning that Parnas had deleted his own iCloud account.

We may get more details of how that occurred with the Special Master argument.

For a time, the impeachment investigation presumably stalled any investigation into Rudy.

But last summer, at a time between the time when Rudy would have been implicated in the President’s Ukraine-related impeachment but before the time Rudy was attempting to undermine the election in explicit service of the President, Barr fired Geoffrey Berman. As Berman described, Barr attempted to bypass succession rules to temporarily put his own flunky in charge of the office, much as he had put Timothy Shea in at DC USA to kill investigations into Roger Stone, Mike Flynn, and (probably) Erik Prince.

By refusing to go along with Barr’s false claims that he had quit, however, Berman succeeded in ensuring that Audry Strauss, his then-Deputy, would replace him, where she remains today.

In all of Berman’s communications about why he dug in, he emphasized that there were investigations he wanted to see to completion, presumably including but not limited to this Rudy investigation.

Again, this effort failed. But, given what happened in DC, it is almost certain that this was an attempt to protect Rudy (and Steve Bannon).

DOJ used the election to refuse to approve a warrant on Rudy. And (while I’m having difficulty finding it) they imposed a policy requiring higher approvals for obtaining warrants on attorney content.

Effectively, that provided a way to stall the search into Rudy until April 20, 2021, when Lisa Monaco was approved.

Bill Barr tried, repeatedly, to entirely kill the investigation into Rudy, like he killed prosecutions of Stone and Flynn. But ultimately, one after another DOJ professional thwarted his attempts, and his abundant efforts to protect Rudy only managed to delay the investigation from October 2019 to April 2021.

Update: William Ockham notes that the change in policy was imposed on December 30, 2020, after Barr had resigned and at a time when Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen knew that Joe Biden would take over DOJ. The new policy required consultation with a designated attorney in Office of Deputy Attorney General.

Within OEO, the Policy and Statutory Enforcement Unit (PSEU) is the section that provides this consultation. See Office ofthe Deputy Attorney General Guidance on AttorneyClient Privilege andAttorney Work Product Filter Protocols/or Search Warrants (July 2020). In many cases – particularly those involving significant investigations and high-profile matters – proposed searches are separately reported in urgent reports to the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General. To ensure mo!”e uniform notification procedures going forward, PSEU should notify the Office of the Deputy Attorney General (ODAG) of proposed searches involving subject attorneys. ODAG will assign an attorney to handle this responsibility who has the requisite knowledge and experience to provide meaningful input to PSEU. That attorney will provide updates to the Deputy Attorney General as necessary. Absent exigent circumstances, the OEO/PSEU consultation in Section 9-13.420 shall not be concluded until after ODAG has been notified and provided with an opportunity to provide input.

While probably not the sole intent, this may be why the search on Rudy was not approved until Lisa Monaco was confirmed on April 20.

In Request for Special Master, the Lev Parnas Prosecutors Hint at Prior Filter Team Searches on Rudy

The day after the search on Rudy Giuliani and a single Victoria Toensing phone, the prosecutors on the Lev Parnas case wrote a letter to the judge in that case, Paul Oetken, asking that he appoint a Special Master to review the content of their phones before turning that content over to prosecutors. It was unsealed yesterday after Rudy and Toensing’s lawyers got to review the redactions and add any they wanted. Oetken has ordered a briefing schedule about how this should proceed, which will extend through May 17.

The letter suggests certain things:

  • The participation of Oetken and the Parnas prosecution team (Rebekah Donalski, Nicolas Roos, and Aline Flodr) is consistent with this investigation arising out of the Parnas investigation, as has been reported.
  • These searches were approved on April 21, which was the day after Lisa Monaco was confirmed on April 20. That suggests she approved of this search. It’s normal for the Deputy Attorney General to sign off on controversial searches like this, and this suggests they waited to have the confirmed DAG sign off rather than have John Carlin, who had been acting DAG until Monaco was confirmed.
  • A court in Maryland signed off on the seizure of Toensing’s phone before SDNY signed off on the search of it.
  • The letter cites two exceptional circumstances when it might be appropriate to appoint a Special Master: when the attorney-client privilege would involve the President, and so implicate executive privilege, and when the attorney is involved in matters “adverse to the United States Attorney Office.” It’s not clear if prosecutors have something specific in mind with the latter reference, but it’s certainly possible that this concerns matters that one or the other lawyer has clients who are before SDNY.
  • Seemingly to explain why Rudy and Toensing aren’t making this request, the letter notes that defendants normally do but, in this case, “there is no pending criminal case against the subjects of the search.” Make of that what you will.
  • The government is basically asking for the same initial rules to be applied as were applied in the Michael Cohen case. They don’t, however, ask that any legal discussions be submitted to the public docket, which is something that happened in Cohen’s case that seemed to dissuade Trump from making frivolous claims of attorney-client privilege.

The most interesting bit of the letter, however, comes after a redacted passage with two redacted footnotes.

That introduces the following discussion:

The Government believes that its use of a filter team to conduct a review pursuant to established protocols is sufficient to protect applicable privileges and that [one line redacted] given that the searches [redacted] were done in an overt manner. [half line redacted] as well as the unusually sensitive privilege issues that the Warrants may implicate, the Government considers it appropriate for the Court to appoint a special master to make the privilege determinations as to materials seized pursuant to the Warrants. In particular, the overt and public nature of these warrants necessitates, as Judge Wood observed, the appointment of a special master under the “perception of fairness, not fairness itself.”

That is,  the government is explaining — in a letter that preempts any demand from Rudy and Toensing — that they don’t really need to do it this way, but partly because this search was public, it justifies doing so here.

But remember that the search of these devices is not the only one alleged. Rudy and his lawyer, Robert Costello, claim that SDNY also got a “covert” warrant for Rudy’s iCloud account sometime in late 2019.

A lawyer for former New York City mayor and Donald Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani said the Justice Department revealed on a Thursday conference call that the feds had penetrated Giuliani’s iCloud long before Wednesday’s search warrants were executed.

“I was told about it today in a conference call with the [U.S.] Attorney’s office,” attorney Robert Costello, a longtime friend of Giuliani’s, told The Daily Beast on Thursday night. “They told me they obtained a ‘covert warrant’ for Giuliani’s iCloud account in ‘late 2019.’ They have reviewed this information for a year and a half without telling us or [fellow Trump-aligned attorney] Victoria Toensing.”

During an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show on Thursday night, Giuliani himself briefly referenced the warrant to search his iCloud account. “In the middle of the impeachment defense, they invaded, without telling me, my iCloud,” the Trump confidant said. “They took documents that are privileged. And then they unilaterally decided what they could read and not read. So the prosecutors at the Justice Department spied on me.”

A year and a half would put the search in October 2019, quite possibly before impeachment had formally started, and around the time when Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were first charged. It likely put it at a time when Trump had no overt defense needs, and so no acknowledged privilege here (unless you count John Dowd’s October 3 letter to Congress that effectively put Trump in a joint defense agreement with Parnas and Fruman and alleged Russian mobster Dmitro Firtash).

I had thought this earlier reference might have been to a preservation order served to Apple, but the redacted passages are consistent with there having been a real search, one for which SDNY used only a taint team to weed out what was genuinely privileged. And there was clearly probable cause: Rudy was the business partner of two people charged for their business doings.

According to the terms of this letter, in the case of a covert search like the one Rudy claims occurred, there would be less cause for a Special Master.

Which is to say this letter may be more about the searches that have already occurred rather than the forthcoming exploitation that will be done with the oversight of a Special Master.

Government Refuses to Let Steve Bannon Sneak Away from His Federal Fraud Indictment

On February 11, Steve Bannon’s pardon was lodged in his federal docket with no explanation, entered with a date of January 19. As compared to the Mike Flynn pardon, there was no DOJ request to dismiss the prosecution nor an indication that Bannon had accepted it.

Apparently, on February 18, Bannon’s lawyer wrote Judge Analisa Torres an email requesting that she dismiss the indictment against Bannon. In response, yesterday the government submitted a letter agreeing that Bannon can be terminated from the docket and have his bond returned, but opposing that the indictment be dismissed.

As prosecutors explain, a pardon is only meant to forgive punishment, it is not intended to forget the crime. And if the court dismissed the indictment, prosecutors point out, it would have consequences beyond the pardon.

The fact that Bannon was pardoned does not extinguish the fact that a grand jury found probable cause to believe that he committed the offenses set forth in the Indictment, nor does it undercut the evidence of his involvement therein which the Government expects to elicit as part of its presentation at trial. Were the Court to dismiss the Indictment against Bannon, it could have a broader effect than the pardon itself, among other things potentially relieving Bannon of certain consequences not covered by the pardon.

[snip]

Accordingly, because Bannon does not set forth any legal authority for the proposition that a court should dismiss an indictment following a pardon, and the only stated basis for his request is to “clarify” his status, the Court should deny the request.

The government also demands that Bannon file the letter in the docket.

Finally, the Court should direct Bannon to publicly file his February 18th letter on the docket. Bannon’s counsel submitted the letter to the Court by email—and therefore effectively under seal—because, in his view, “Bannon should no longer be a defendant in the case.” However, until the defendant is administratively terminated, he remains a named defendant and more important, Bannon’s status in the case is not a basis to make his submission under seal.

The government submitted the filing on the same day that CNN reported an accelerating state investigation into Bannon for the same crimes.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office has subpoenaed financial records related to Steve Bannon’s crowd-funding border-wall effort, signaling that its criminal investigation into former President Donald Trump’s chief strategist is advancing, according to people familiar with the matter.

Prosecutors sent the subpoenas after Trump pardoned Bannon in late January for federal conspiracy crimes tied to the southern border-wall project, making Bannon among the Trump world figures — including the former president — subjects of criminal investigations by Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance.

The grand jury subpoenas were sent to Wells Fargo, one of the financial institutions that handled some of the accounts used in the fundraising effort, and to GoFundMe, the crowdfunding platform where Bannon’s project, “We Build the Wall,” once operated, the people said.

The state grand jury investigation revives the possibility that Bannon, the conservative and outspoken political strategist, could face state criminal charges after shedding the federal case last month.

In addition to the criminal investigation, the New Jersey attorney general’s office has launched a civil inquiry into We Build the Wall. In September, the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs subpoenaed We Build the Wall for documents seeking a wide range of records, according to court filings.

This all suggests that Bannon may be in a far worse place for having obtained a Trump pardon.

In mentioning its intent to elicit testimony of Bannon’s actions in the letter, the government seems to be alluding to the fact that Bannon is a named co-conspirator. They will want (and need) to introduce his actions and statements as a co-conspirator into evidence to convict the others. Thus, it is important for prosecutors that he remain a named — albeit pardoned — co-conspirator in the Federal crimes.

Forcing Bannon’s attorney to submit the letter in the docket itself will effectively force him to officially accept the pardon, which prosecutors will then argue is admission of guilt, making the co-conspirator evidence from him even more valuable by association.

The public filing may also be necessary before Cy Vance can request the grand jury materials from Judge Torres, as referenced in the CNN piece.

And, of course, rather than facing a sentence at some Club Fed prison, Bannon might now be facing a crappier New York State prison like Rikers.

All that’s before any other federal charges facing Bannon related for foreign influence peddling.

It was never going to be easy for Bannon to pull off a Trump pardon. Thus far, his attorney Robert Costello may be making things worse.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Steve Bannon?

Axios reported that PardonPalooza would accelerate yesterday. But it didn’t happen. Not yet, at least.

I wonder if that’s because Trump got new visibility on his own lingering jeopardy from the Mueller investigation.

There’s a section of the Mueller Report that got declassified in the last batch which may explain why Jerome Corsi wasn’t charged. In advance of three people whose prosecution was declined — which definitely includes KT McFarland, along with two others (Erik Prince or Sam Clovis may be one, George Nader may be the other) — the report explains,

We also considered three other individuals interviews–redacted–but do not address them here because they are involved in aspects of ongoing investigations or active prosecutions to which their statements to this office may be relevant.

Corsi obviously lied to Mueller, but his lies served, in part, to support the head fake the Mueller Report used to address how Roger Stone optimized the Podesta files.

Another of those liars could be Paul Manafort.

But the third may be Steve Bannon, who told a rolling series of lies that over time approached the truth, at least about some issues. Bannon even tried to lie again to back off his grand jury testimony in advance of the Roger Stone trial.

Bannon would be interesting for several reasons. Bannon knew about Stone’s interactions with “WikiLeaks” even before he formally joined the campaign. Bannon was a key player in setting up the fall 2016 meeting with Egypt, which preceded what the government thinks could have been a foreign bribe that kept the campaign afloat (indeed, one thing Bannon seems to have always lied about was his work with George Papadopoulos on that).

But most of all, Bannon was the fourth witness — with the others being Mike Flynn, KT McFarland, and Jared Kushner — to Trump’s interactions with Russia during the Transition four years ago. He was, with Jared, the person who most consistently used his personal email to conduct discussions of back channels with Russia (though all four took measures to keep their actions hidden from the Obama Administration and other Transition team members).

And Bannon was, for testimony before HPSCI the transcript of which got shared with Mueller’s team shortly before they closed up shop, scripted to deny any discussion of sanctions (among other things). You could get a clear understanding of what the White House was trying to deny by the wording of the questions.

Mueller’s team would have had this script in time for Bannon’s grand jury appearance in January 2019. We know one thing that Bannon was asked about, and begrudgingly told the truth about, pertained to the campaign’s enthusiasm about WikiLeaks (something about which he had lied in the past and tried to again). But we don’t know what else he got asked; Stone’s prosecutors got just the part pertaining to the Stone prosecution unsealed.

At the time of his grand jury testimony and until quite recently, Bannon was represented by Bill Burck. At least with Don McGahn, whom Burck also represented, Burck did not share details of his testimony with Trump’s lawyers. We know that because Trump was blind-sided when he learned about the extent of McGahn’s testimony. If that’s true of Bannon as well, then it would mean that grand jury appearance has been a blind spot for Trump and his lawyers.

Until now. After Bannon threatened Chris Wray and Anthony Fauci with execution, Burck fired Bannon as a client. Bannon recently hired Robert Costello to represent him in his Build the Wall fraud case. On top of being the guy who brokered a pardon to Michael Cohen in an attempt to silence him, Costello’s also Rudy’s personal lawyer. So Costello now has privilege with both Bannon and Rudy, and Rudy has privilege (by dint of being Trump’s defense attorney) with Trump.

The old gang’s back together.

Thing is, if Bannon told the truth about sanctions in that grand jury appearance, it’ll make it a lot easier to unwind a bunch of expected pardons, because Bannon’s testimony could be used to push Flynn, McFarland, Jared, and Trump himself to tell the truth about what they tried with Russia four years ago, exposing each to a fresh perjury charge they would no longer be pardoned for. Even if Biden’s Attorney General was disinterested in that, I expect there to be more transparency about these issues going forward.

That makes Bannon one of the most interesting, if not the most interesting, pardon candidates, because he knows where all the bodies are buried, but he also told the truth, once.

Organized Crime

Know what you call a crowd that requires 25 pardons to cover their illegal activities of the last 5 years?

As it happens, Trump is mulling the pardons at a juncture when loyalty appears his principal concern, complaining repeatedly over the past weeks that Republicans are deserting him when he needed them to help overturn the election results.

He has largely frozen out those advisers and associates who do not seem on the same page. One person who used to speak to Trump regularly, but who delicately encouraged him to soften his post-election stance, no longer has his calls returned and hasn’t heard from Trump in weeks.

In all, the President is considering pardons for more than two dozen people in his orbit whom he believes were targeted — or could be targeted in the future — for political ends. That’s in addition to hundreds of requests from others who have approached the White House directly, and tens of thousands more whose petitions are pending at the Justice Department.

Organized crime.

Steve Bannon Hires a Pardon Broker (and Rudy Giuliani Lawyer) to Replace His Competent Lawyer

Steve Bannon just filed notice of what lawyer will defend him in his SDNY prosecution for defrauding Trump chumps. He had been represented by the very competent Bill Burck. But after Bannon started making death threats against Anthony Fauci and Christopher Wray, Burck dropped him.

Instead, Bannon hired Robert Costello.

TO THE CLERK OF COURT AND ALL PARTIES OF RECORD: PLEASE TAKE NOTICE that Robert J. Costello of Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, LLP, with offices located at 605 Third Avenue, New York, New York 10158, hereby appears on behalf of Defendant Stephen Bannon.

Costello represents Rudy Giuliani in his many sordid influence peddling investigations.

He’s also the guy who tried to buy Michael Cohen’s silence with a pardon, an investigation that fairly obviously got referred under Mueller. I guess that makes it clear what Bannon’s defense strategy will be.

The problem is, SDNY is now on notice (if they weren’t already by Trump’s promises that “Bannon will be okay”). So they can simply share their case file with New York State, where fraud is also a crime.

I may be missing something but I don’t think Trump’s evil genius is on his A game.

Trump’s Pardon Jenga, Starting with the Julian Assange Building Block

I was going to wait to address Trump’s likely use of his power of clemency in the days ahead until it was clear he was going to leave without a fight and I will return to it once that’s clear. But there have already been a slew of pieces on the likely upcoming pardons:

None of them mentions Julian Assange (though Graff does consider the possibility of a Snowden pardon, which I consider related, not least for the terms on which Glenn Greenwald is pitching a package deal as a way for Trump to damage the Deep State).

I would argue that unless a piece considers an Assange pardon, it cannot capture the complexity facing Trump as he tries to negotiate a way to use pardons (and other clemency) to eliminate his legal exposure itself.

I’m not saying Trump’s decision on whether to give Assange a pardon is his hardest decision. But it may be one a few that could bring any hope of protecting himself falling down.

Trump has talked about pardons, generally, covering a number of crimes in which he himself (or a family member) is implicated:

  • Asking DHS officials to violate the law in order to build the wall
  • Working with the National Enquirer to capture and kill damaging stories during the 2016 election
  • Dodging impeachment
  • Steve Bannon’s Build the Wall grift (which likely implicates Jr)

There are others whom Trump would give a pardon because they’re loyal criminals, like Ryan Zinke or Commerce Officials and others who’ve lied in court. There are hybrid cases; in addition to Bannon, Erik Prince has legal exposure both for his own lies that protected Trump, but also for his efforts to sell mercenary services to hostile foreign governments. And Rudy Giuliani has committed his own crimes as well as possible crimes to protect the President. With the possible exception of Rudy (who still might claim attorney client privilege to refuse to testify about Trump), those pardons create challenges, but they’re highly likely (unless Trump made some pardons contingent on remaining in power).

Then there’s the Mueller Report. In 2019 testimony to HPSCI, Michael Cohen credibly described Jay Sekulow considering mass “pre-pardons” in the summer of 2017 in an attempt to make the Russian investigation go away. But the Mueller Report itself only obviously talks about five pardons:

  • An extensive discussion of the reasons why pardons for Mike Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone would amount to obstruction (a sentiment with which Billy Barr once agreed)
  • A discussion of Robert Costello’s efforts to broker silence from Cohen in exchange for a pardon and almost certainly a still-redacted referral of Costello for the same; Costello is currently Rudy Giuliani’s attorney
  • A question about discussions of a Julian Assange pardon, even while the report did not mention or obscured the tie with underlying evidence proving such an effort occurred, possibly as a part of a quid pro quo to optimize the WikiLeaks releases

There are difficulties — albeit surmountable ones — for pardons of Flynn and Manafort, not least because Billy Barr has found other ways for Trump to keep them out of jail (so far), even while issuing a DOJ ruling that his prior pardon dangles are not obstruction. Costello is someone who has no privilege directly with Trump and so might implicate him personally in trading pardons for silence if Trump himself is not pardoned.

But Stone (and quite possibly Don Jr) is indelibly tied to an Assange pardon.

It’s possible something might make this easier between now and January 20. If British Judge Vanessa Baraister rules on January 4, 2021 in favor of Julian Assange’s Lauri Love gambit, arguing that American prisons are not humane for those on the autism spectrum, then there’s a decent chance he’ll beat extradition. If not, his chances are slim. And even if he beats extradition the UK could choose to prosecute him on Official Secrets Act charges tied to Vault 7.

That presents Trump limited choices. He could pardon just Stone (and Don Jr, who will undoubtedly get a broad pardon in any case). But then both could be coerced to testify against Assange under threat of contempt or perjury from a Biden DOJ.

He could pardon all three, including a broad pardon (including Vault 7) for Assange. But if he did that, it could complete the conspiracy, a quid pro quo tied to Russian interference in 2016. That would make a Pence pardon of Trump much more politically costly; it would likewise make a Trump self-pardon much more toxic for even a very partisan SCOTUS to rubber stamp.

But if he doesn’t pardon Assange, he risks pissing of those who helped him in 2016, with whatever repercussions that would have for Trump Organization funding going forward. To sum up:

  • Pardoning just Stone and Jr would expose them to coercion to testify against Assange and maybe others
  • Pardoning all three would make Trump’s own pardons much less defensible to those who would have to ensure he himself got immunity
  • Pardoning Assange at all would complete the conspiracy Mueller never charged
  • Not pardoning Assange might risk ire from Russia

I’m not saying he can’t find a way out of this dilemma. But it is one of the reasons why Trump’s pardon gambit is far more complex than others are accounting for.