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About Your Pence Special Counsel Complaint: On the Missing Coverage of Section 600.2(b)

I’m seeing people ask why Merrick Garland hasn’t appointed a Special Counsel yet to investigate Mike Pence when (the claim is) he did for President Biden.

The answer is … that’s not what happened.

DOJ learned about the documents at Pence’s house no earlier than January 18 (probably on January 19), so seven or eight business days ago.

At this stage of the Biden review (seven days after DOJ learned about the documents from the Archives), Garland hadn’t appointed US Attorney for Chicago John Lausch yet. As Attorney General Garland explained when he announced the appointment of Robert Hur, ten days after DOJ learned about the documents at Biden’s office, he asked Lausch to investigate:

  • November 4: DOJ learns of the Biden documents
  • November 9: FBI starts an assessment
  • November 14: Garland appoints John Lausch

More importantly, Lausch wasn’t appointed as a full Special Counsel under 28 CFR 600.4, which is what Jack Smith was appointed under. Rather, Garland appointed Lausch under 600.2(b).

On November 14, pursuant to Section 600.2(b) of the Special Counsel regulations, I assigned U.S. Attorney Lausch to conduct an initial investigation to inform my decision whether to appoint a Special Counsel.

Section 600.2(b) permits the Attorney General to appoint someone to conduct an “initial investigation” to better inform the decision whether to appoint a full-blown Special Counsel.

Importantly, Garland didn’t reveal that he had appointed Lausch until the day he appointed Hur, this time under 600.4.

So Garland could well have appointed someone — could be Lausch, could be Hur, could be someone who wasn’t appointed under the Trump-Pence Administration, as both Lausch and Hur were — to conduct an initial assessment regarding Pence’s documents without telling the public, just as he did with Biden. If he followed the same approach he did with Biden, he might not reveal that step unless and until he appointed a full Special Counsel.

Check back on March 17 to see where DOJ is with a Pence review, which would be the same almost two months out as it took to appoint a Special Counsel with Biden.

Maybe by then someone will have been appointed to review the classified holdings of all former Presidents and Vice Presidents.

To anticipate one more complaint, about why Garland waited nine months after the discovery of classified documents in boxes that had been at Mar-a-Lago before appointing Jack Smith: DOJ started using a grand jury no later than May 11 in Trump’s case, which is when they sent a subpoena for all documents with classification markings (I believe the subpoena reflects a grand jury seated on April 27). The subpoena came just over two months after FBI received the NARA referral on February 9. The timing of the Special Counsel appointment pivoted on the fact that Trump announced his his run for President, not the intensity of the investigation.

In fact, Garland might not appoint a Special Counsel if Pence doesn’t formally announce (if even there’s cause to do so).

It’s not at all clear that these investigations should follow a parallel track. But even if they should, Pence has not yet been treated differently than Biden.

“Several Work and Storage Areas:” Why DOJ Likely Doesn’t Trust Biden’s Personal Attorneys

Charlie Savage has a story that — while he doesn’t say it — likely explains why DOJ doesn’t entirely trust Biden’s attorneys on the classified documents and so appointed a Special Counsel.

The currently operative story, as told by Savage, is the following:

  • Biden’s lawyers found the Penn Biden documents and interviewed the people who packed the documents
  • Based on those interviews, they told DOJ other documents would only be at Penn Biden
  • Without telling DOJ (though after they learned that DOJ had started to investigate), “and not because of any new information,” they decided to check that premise by looking at the boxes in Biden’s garage
  • On December 20, they told DOJ about the documents marked classified in the garage
  • They then decided to search other office areas, this time telling DOJ they were doing so
  • When, on January 11, they found a page with classification marks inside one of those office areas, they stopped their searches; FBI would find 5 more pages when they came to secure that single page

But look at this timeline with other dates added:

  • Biden’s lawyers found the Penn Biden documents and interviewed the people who packed the documents
  • November 4: NARA told DOJ about the classified documents
  • November 9: FBI started its assessment
  • November 14: Garland appointed John Lausch
  • Based on Biden’s lawyers’ interviews of those who packed Biden’s boxes, they told DOJ other documents would only be at Penn Biden
  • Lausch interviewed some of the people who packed the boxes
  • Without telling DOJ, “and not because of any new information,” Biden’s lawyers decided to check that premise by looking at the boxes in the garage
  • On December 20, they told DOJ about the documents marked classified in the garage
  • On January 5, Lausch recommended Garland appoint a Special Counsel
  • At some point not IDed in Savage’s story, Biden’s lawyers decided to search other office areas, this time telling DOJ they were doing so
  • On January 11, they told DOJ about another classified page, possibly inside an office, then stopped their searches
  • On January 21, FBI did a thorough search of Biden’s Wilmington home and found 6 additional documents

Biden’s lawyers probably didn’t decide to do further searches until after Lausch started interviewing people. Already, if I were DOJ, I would want to know whether Biden consulted with the people being interviewed, and based on that, realized they needed to do further searches.

But we still don’t know two other things. Savage describes the second space in Biden’s home, which heretofore had been described as the room adjacent to the garage, as “several work and storage areas inside the living area of the house.” Which is to say, we still don’t know whether the January 11 document was found inside a storage space or an office, where documents would be used rather than just stored. Or rather, John Lausch knows that, Savage’s sources know that, but we don’t.

We also don’t know if Biden found out that Garland was going to appoint a full Special Counsel and only then decided to search the interior of the home.

Something led Biden’s lawyers to take more seriously the possibility that documents weren’t just stored at Biden’s home, but used there. And while this all still could be lawyers stepping on their own toes as they try to be helpful, even just based on what we know, from DOJ’s perspective, that toe-stepping would be indistinguishable from Biden’s lawyers responding to learning things they should have been told from the start, which is different from — but not that different from — Trump moving boxes to prevent Evan Corcoran from finding classified documents.

One more detail that is actually fairly damning. Savage describes that the documents at Penn Biden were copies; the originals are stored at the Archives.

One set was believed to be material that might be useful to Mr. Biden for his post-vice-presidential career in public life or teaching, like his speeches and unclassified policy memos about topics he was interested in. Those materials were initially shipped to two transition offices and then on to his office at the Penn Biden Center when it opened in 2018. (The National Archives and Records Administration would keep original copies of the official records.)

If Biden’s office sent originals of the classified documents found at Penn Biden to NARA, it makes their inclusion in documents sent to the policy office far less attributable to a mistake.

Biden’s lawyers have been feeding the press a story about how cooperative they’ve been. But so did Trump’s lawyers. Trump’s story was far more obviously bullshit — in part for the way they spun a claim that by adding a lock to Trump’s storage room, they had made it secure.

Though this line about the Biden search — offered up as proof of extreme cooperation — gets close to lock-on-door levels of spinning.

[T]he Biden legal team invited the F.B.I. to also search every room in the residence — including bathrooms, bedrooms and the utility room, the people said.

There are still key parts of Biden’s story that aren’t being explained, most importantly whether the documents discovered this month inside Biden’s house were discovered in storage or in an actively-used office. If DOJ knows that the difference between the two would be critical information for the public to know, then this story would only further degrade confidence in Biden’s lawyer on the part of DOJ.

This is not about the reliability of lawyers like Bauer. Rather, it’s about whether Biden’s lawyers got information at the start they needed. But if they did not, it means that DOJ can’t just trust, but must verify, everything Biden’s lawyers tell them.

Why Trump’s Lawyer, Evan Corcoran, Says Joe Biden Couldn’t Violate 18 USC 1924

My Twitter feed continues to be inundated by a bunch of experts on the latest talking point telling me why Joe Biden violated the law.

He may have. We don’t know the circumstances surrounding the documents found at his home. Based on what we know, it’s far less likely that Biden broke the law than Trump. But we don’t know.

Virtually all those parroting the latest talking point are misunderstanding the likely law in question — 18 USC 793e, the same law in question with Trump — and how classification works with a former President or Vice President.

Maybe I’ll get into that at more length in days ahead, but for now, I wanted to lay out what Trump, in the voice of his lawyer Evan Corcoran, says about whether Biden could be charged.

Corcoran addressed many of the questions my Twitter experts have shared in a letter sent to Jay Bratt, DOJ’s head of counterintelligence, last May.

First, Trump — in the voice of Corcoran — says if a former President (a Vice President is also a Constitutional Officer) has voluntarily returned documents to the Archives, there should be no leaks about it.

There have been public reports about an investigation by DOJ into Presidential Records purportedly marked as classified among materials that were once in the White House and unknowingly included among the boxes brought to Mar-a-Lago by the movers. It is important to emphasize that when a request was made for the documents by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), President Trump readily and voluntarily agreed to their transfer to NARA. The communications regarding the transfer of boxes to NARA were friendly, open, and straightforward. President Trump voluntarily ordered that the boxes be provided to NARA. No legal objection was asserted about the transfer. No concerns were raised about the contents of the boxes. It was a voluntary and open process. Unfortunately, the good faith demonstrated by President Trump was not matched once the boxes arrived at NARA. Leaks followed. And, once DOJ got involved, the leaks continued. Leaks about any investigation are concerning. Leaks about an investigation that involve the residence of a former President who is still active on the national political scene are particularly troubling.

So Trump, in the voice of Corcoran, should be outraged that CBS broke this story before the White House or Attorney General revealed it.

Corcoran says that those vested with constitutionally-based authority to classify and declassify documents have unfettered authority to declassify documents, an argument that Trump still pretends he hasn’t waived both before at least three courts, SDFL, the 11th Circuit, and SCOTUS.

(1) A President Has Absolute Authority To Declassify Documents.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the President is vested with the highest level of authority when it comes to the classification and declassification of documents. See U.S. Const., Art. II, § 2 (“The President [is] Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States[.]”). His constitutionally-based authority regarding the classification and declassification of documents is unfettered. See Navy v. Egan, 484 U.S. 518, 527 (1988) (“[The President’s] authority to classify and control access to information bearing on national security … flows primarily from this constitutional investment of power in the President and exists quite apart from any explicit congressional grant.”).

Now, in reality, the authority of the President is not entirely unfettered. As we discussed last fall, nuclear documents require additional people to declassify.

But here’s the thing: There’s good reason to believe that the Vice President has the same authority to declassify documents that the President does.

To the extent that classification is constitutionally tied to Article II authority, it is governed by Executive Order. The Executive Order that governed classification for the entirety of the Trump Administration, and still governs classification, treats the Vice President on par with the President. The EO that governs classified information gives the Vice President the same original classification authority it gives the President, which is where the authority to declassify comes from.

(a) The authority to classify information originally may be exercised only by:

(1) the President and the Vice President;

The language on post-tenure access (which Trump later invoked in arguments before the 11th Circuit) also applies to the Vice President in the same way as the President.

(a) The requirement in section 4.1(a)(3) of this order that access to classified information may be granted only to individuals who have a need-to-know the information may be waived for persons who:

[snip]

(3) served as President or Vice President.

(b) Waivers under this section may be granted only if the agency head or senior agency official of the originating agency:

(1) determines in writing that access is consistent with the interest of the national security;
(2) takes appropriate steps to protect classified information from unauthorized disclosure or compromise, and ensures that the information is safeguarded in a manner consistent with this order; and
(3) limits the access granted to former Presidential appointees or designees and Vice Presidential appointees or designees to items that the person originated, reviewed, signed, or received while serving as a Presidential or Vice Presidential appointee or designee.

Biden could access stuff from when he was Vice President, but he’d have to do so at the Archives and get a waiver first (a waiver that Biden had after his term but Trump, because of a decision by Biden, did not).

Now, to be clear, none of this has been tested. Much of this language is a legacy of changes in a prior EO that Dick Cheney oversaw in March 2003, which were key in the Valerie Plame investigation.

Some of that is covered in this post I did in 2017, in which I asserted that Mike Pence had declassification authority.

But the fact of the matter is that Joe Biden could say, if he were ever charged, that his understanding is that his authority to classify and declassify as Vice President was the same as the President’s, and over the entire four years of the Trump Administration, Trump did nothing with his unfettered authority to change that (nor has Biden since).

In reality, Trump didn’t declassify these documents, nor did Biden. Trump has now waived his opportunity to claim he declassified these documents legally repeatedly. (Biden could have legally declassified them when he found them; instead he returned them to the Archives.)

But there’s good reason to believe that Corcoran’s arguments about Trump — for the little they’re worth — would apply equally to Biden as to Trump, thanks, in part, to Dick Cheney.

How about them apples, huh?

By far the most interesting argument Corcoran makes, though, is that the statute that most Twitter experts think is at issue, 18 USC 1924, cannot apply to the President, because the President — like the Vice President — is not an “officer” appointed by the President.

(2) Presidential Actions Involving Classified Documents Are Not Subject To Criminal Sanction.

Any attempt to impose criminal liability on a President or former President that involves his actions with respect to documents marked classified would implicate grave constitutional separation-of-powers issues. Beyond that, the primary criminal statute that governs the unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or material does not apply to the President. That statute provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

Whoever, being an officer, employee, contractor, or consultant of the United States, and, by virtue of his office, employment, position, or contract, becomes possessed of documents or materials containing classified information of the United States, knowingly removes such documents or materials without authority and with the intent to retain such documents or materials at an unauthorized location shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than five years, or both. 18 U.S.C. § 1924(a).

An element of this offense, which the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt, is that the accused is “an officer, employee, contractor, or consultant of the United States.” The President is none of these. See Free Enter. Fund v. Pub. Co. Acct. Oversight Bd., 561 U.S. 477, 497-98 (2010) (citing U.S. Const., Art. II,§ 2, cl. 2) (“The people do not vote for the ‘Officers of the United States.”‘); see also Melcher v. Fed. Open Mkt. Comm., 644 F. Supp. 510, 518-19 (D.D.C. 1986), aff’d, 836 F.2d 561 (D.C. Cir. 1987) (“[a]n officer of the United States can only be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, or by a court of law, or the head of a department. A person who does not derive his position from one of these sources is not an officer of the United States in the sense of the Constitution.”). Thus, the statute does not apply to acts by a President. [my emphasis]

Corcoran made what could be a grave error with this legal analysis, which I’ll get to, but it’s not necessarily in his read about Constitutional officers.

In fact, DOJ seems to agree with Corcoran that Trump’s actions — taking classified documents home at the end of his term and keeping them — are not covered by this law. It was not among the crimes for which they had demonstrated probable cause on Trump’s search warrant affidavit.

It may be DOJ believes that because they agree with Corcoran, that Constitutional Officers who are elected directly by voters are not subject to this law.

It may also be that they believe that because it is routine for Presidents and Vice Presidents, when leaving office, to remove their papers from their official residences and offices and then sort through the stuff they have to send to the Archives. A CNN report describes that Biden, like Trump, didn’t wrap up his office until the last minute (though for different reasons — Trump didn’t because he was still trying to cling to power, whereas Biden didn’t because he was still working). The result was the same, though: the process was rushed and disorderly.

That is, it is possible that the removal of documents at the end of an Administration is not, per se, considered criminal because of how White Houses transition.

Whatever it is, there is nothing about the known fact set about Biden that would make this law apply to Biden if it did not with Trump. Both are believed to have retained stuff they took with them when they left their offices in a hurry.

If 18 USC 1924 cannot apply to Trump, like Evan Corcoran said, then it cannot apply to Biden.

I said, above, that Corcoran may have made a grave error in his analysis. That’s because he didn’t consider whether 18 USC 793, the law we know is under investigation, could apply to a former President (or Vice President). And that appears to have led him to give Trump really bad advice, allowing him to refuse to give back classified documents when asked.

That is a crime.

Taking classified documents unknowingly is probably not a crime, especially for a President or Vice President. Refusing to give them back may well be. That’s the question before Jack Smith, as well as the obstruction question. That’s probably the question before Robert Hur.

How about them apples, huh?

There’s one more interesting thing Corcoran said in his letter. He demanded that DOJ adhere to the White House contact policies that were routinely violated under the Trump Administration.

(3) DOJ Must Be Insulated From Political Influence. According to the Inspector General of DOJ, one of the top challenges facing the Department is the public perception that DOJ is influenced by politics. The report found that “[o]ne important strategy that can build public trust in the Department is to ensure adherence to policies and procedures designed to protect DOJ from accusations of political influence or partial application of the law.” See https://oig.justice.gov/reports/top-management-and-performance-challengesfacing-depatiment-justice-2021 (last visited May 25, 2022). We request that DOJ adhere to longstanding policies and procedures regarding communications between DOJ and the White House regarding pending investigative matters which are designed to prevent political influence in DOJ decision-making.

He’s not wrong that those contact policies should be upheld. And whatever else you think about Merrick Garland’s decision to appoint for John Lausch and then Robert Hur to investigate this, the necessity to uphold contact policies, to which Garland has (as far as is public) adhered to rigorously, is a really good reason to appoint a Special Counsel (and, for that matter, for the White House to be very reserved about its public comments). Trump’s favorite way of violating the contact policy was to Tweet something that would, fairly routinely, be followed almost immediately by DOJ taking action, including on criminal cases (most notably with Roger Stone’s).

Indeed, Biden’s people have said that one reason they have not issued more public comments was in an attempt to avoid even appearing to influence the process.

They should revert to that stance, in my opinion, and point to Evan Corcoran’s letter as authority to do so.

Evan Corcoran said a lot of things. He’s not a national security expert though, so if I were Biden, I wouldn’t rely on it.

But we should be able to rely on his argument that Trump doesn’t think that Biden should be charged, at least not with 18 USC 1924.

Kash Patel Wants the Insurrection Protection Committee to Investigate Why Robert Hur Tried to Protect Past Ongoing Investigations

Matt Taibbi (aka MattyDickPics) and Kash Patel are whining about the Nunes Memo again.

As you’ll recall, in the first year of the Trump Administration, Patel wrote a misleading memo for Devin Nunes purporting that the entire Russian investigation stemmed from the Steele dossier.  When the Carter Page IG Report and FISA applications were released, it became clear how Patel spun the facts. In this post I cataloged what both Nunes and Adam Schiff, in his counterpart to the Nunes memo, got wrong.

But it’s not the Nunes Memo itself that Taibbi and Patel are whining about. They’re complaining about the circumstances of its release five years ago.

Taibbi made it the subject of his latest Twitter Files propaganda thread and related Substack — the latter of which, astoundingly, says the public has to rely on the attributions of cloud companies, something Taibbi has always refused to do when discussing the GRU attribution of the 2016 hacks targeting Democratic targets. “It’s over, you nitwits. It’s time to stow the Mueller votive candles, cop to the coverage pileup created by years of errors, and start the reconciliation process,” Taibbi says, in appealing to precisely the kind of evidence he himself has refused to credit for more than six years. I dealt with both in this thread, but the important takeaway is that Taibbi doesn’t even manage to get facts that both the Daily Beast and I were able to cover in real time, including the fact that Republicans, too, were making unsupported claims based on the Dashboard’s reporting and Russian trolls were part of — just not the biggest part — of the campaign.

[A] knowledgeable source says that Twitter’s internal analysis has thus far found that authentic American accounts, and not Russian imposters or automated bots, are driving #ReleaseTheMemo. There are no preliminary indications that the Twitter activity either driving the hashtag or engaging with it is either predominantly Russian.

In short, according to this source, who would not speak to The Daily Beast for attribution, the retweets are coming from inside the country.

The source pointed to influential American users on the right, including Donald Trump Jr., with his 2.49 million followers, pushing the hashtag forward. It’s become a favorite of far-right Republican congressmen, including Steve King, who claimed the still-secret memo shows the FBI was behaving “worse than Watergate” in one viral tweet. Mark Meadows called it an “absolutely shocking” display of “FISA abuses,” referring to a counterintelligence process.

Rules of Engagement

There are reasons for skepticism about both the source’s claim and Alliance for Securing Democracy’s contrary findings.

Russian influence accounts did, in fact, send an outsize number of tweets about #ReleaseTheMemo—simply not enough for those accounts to reach the top of Twitter’s internal analysis.

Meanwhile, Kash Patel is outraged that Merrick Garland picked Robert Hur as Special Counsel to investigate Biden’s mishandling of classified documents because, when and after serving as a top aide to Rod Rosenstein in the early days of the Russian investigation, he opposed release of the memo.

This guy Hur needs to be the first one subpoenaed by the new Special Select Committee under Jim Jordan’s authority on the weaponization of government and do you want to know why? Because Hur — we have the receipts, Steve, and we’re going to release them later — was sending communications to the Justice Department and Rod Rosenstein’s crew arguing against the release of the Nunes memo. Saying that it would bastardize and destroy the United States national security apparatus. This guy is a swamp monster of the Tier One level, he’s a government gangster, he’s now in charge of the continued crime scene cover-up, which is why the first congressional subpoena that has to go out for the weaponization of government subcommittee is against Hur.

Remember, this committee was modified during the period when key insurrectionists were refusing to vote for Kevin McCarthy to include language authorizing the committee to investigate why the Executive Branch is permitted to conduct criminal investigations of US citizens.

the expansive role of article II authority vested in the executive branch to collect information on or otherwise investigate citizens of the United States, including ongoing criminal investigations;

It may be the intent to interfere in ongoing investigations into people like Scott Perry and Paul Gosar (who changed their votes on McCarthy later in the week, as these changes were being made) and Jordan (who will have great leeway to direct the direction of this committee). But Jordan may be surprised when he discovers that Merrick Garland will enforce the long-standing DOJ policies about providing Congress access to ongoing investigations that Jeff Sessions and Matt Whitaker and Bill Barr did not. Indeed, some precedents from the Russia investigation legally prohibit the sharing of this information with Congress.

But Kash’s complaint (back atcha with the rap gangsta alliteration, Kash!) is a bellybutton moment in which he attempts to villainize Hur’s past commitment to those long-standing DOJ (and intelligence community, including the NSA that conduct much FISA surveillance) policies. Consider the things the memo revealed, many of which had never before been released publicly.

  • Details about the dates and approvals for four FISA orders
  • Financial details involving private individuals, including US citizens
  • Contents of the FISA memo (but not their true context)
  • A reference to a Mike Isikoff article that appeared in the Carter Page applications; Kash was outraged when his own public article was included in the warrant affidavit targeting Trump
  • Details from a Confidential Human Source file
  • Misrepresentations about both Bruce Ohr and his spouse, the latter of whom was a private citizen whose work was shared with the FBI as part of the effort to vet the dossier
  • Direct communications with the President-elect the likes of which Trump claimed were covered by Executive Privilege in the Mueller investigation
  • False claims about the texts between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page that are currently the subject of two Privacy Act lawsuits; even aside from the privacy implications, at the time it was virtually unprecedented for texts between FBI officials to be released, even in criminal discovery (and many of these released, including some misrepresented in the memo, pertained to work matters unrelated to the Russian investigation)

In other words, Kash Patel wants to investigate Hur’s comments, made either at the time he was the key overseer of the Mueller investigation or during a transition period as he awaited confirmation to be US Attorney, advocating that DOJ protect informants, FISA materials, details about private citizens, and work texts between FBI officials.

The very first thing Kash wants the Insurrection Protection Committee to investigate is why, five years ago, a senior DOJ official advocated following long-standing DOJ policy.

Merrick Garland Appoints a Special Counsel in Biden Documents Case

Given the discovery of two sets of documents at Joe Biden’s house, Merrick Garland has appointed former Maryland US Attorney Robert Hur as Special Counsel to investigate that case.

I don’t think this is a bad thing. It will eliminate any claim of bias and ensure a report can be filed at the end. And it will stave off GOP interference in the case.

Garland described the following timeline.

November 4: NARA informs DOJ of the documents

November 9: FBI conducts an assessment to understand whether classified information was mishandled

November 14: Garland assigned US Attorney Lausch to conduct initial investigation

December 20: Biden’s counsel informed Lausch of additional documents in the Wilmington garage

January 5: Lausch briefed Garland of initial investigation and recommended further investigation

January 11: Biden informed Lausch of an additional document from Biden’s personal residence

Update: Hur’s statement:

I will conduct the assigned investigation with fair, impartial, and dispassionate judgment. I intend to follow the facts swiftly and thoroughly, without fear or favor, and will honor the trust placed in me to perform this service.