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It’s Not Hannity’s Pee Tape that Matters

Late afternoon on Sunday, Margaret Sullivan wrote a column arguing that Donald Trump might survive his own Saturday Night Massacre of firing Rod Rosenstein or Robert Mueller. The reason Trump might survive where Nixon didn’t, she argues, is Sean Hannity.

Nixon didn’t have Fox News in his corner.

President Trump does — and that might make all the difference if he were to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein or even special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

The pro-Trump media, led by Fox, would give cover, and huge swaths of Americans would be encouraged to believe that the action was not only justified but absolutely necessary.

You can see it coming.

Night after night — for many months — Trump’s sycophant-in-chief, Sean Hannity, has been softening the ground. And his message is sinking in.

In a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, three of four Republicans said they believed the Justice Department and the FBI are actively working to undermine Trump.

“Hannity has been poisoning the well for Mueller’s ‘deeply corrupt’ investigation and laying the groundwork to support the president if he seeks an authoritarian recourse,” wrote Matthew Gertz, of the progressive watchdog group Media Matters for America. That was back in October.

Six months, five convictions and more than a dozen indictments later, that poison has done its job.

Less than 24 hours later, Michael Cohen’s lawyer revealed the name of the third client to whom Cohen claimed to have provided legal advice he wanted to protect under attorney-client privilege, a person who — Cohen had claimed in a brief Sunday, hadn’t wanted his name disclosed. “The client’s name that is involved is Sean Hannity.

In response to the ensuing uproar over learning he was the hidden Client 3, Hannity offered a series of contradictory statements, presumably designed to tamp down any speculation that Cohen had negotiated a hush payment for the star, but which only served to make Cohen’s legal claims more specious.

Michael Cohen has never represented me in any matter. I never retained him, received an invoice, or paid legal fees. I have occasionally had brief discussions with him about legal questions about which I wanted his input and perspective.

I assumed those conversations were confidential, but to be absolutely clear they never involved any matter between me and a third-party.

In response to some wild speculation, let me make clear that I did not ask Michael Cohen to bring this proceeding on my behalf, I have no personal interest in this proceeding, and, in fact, asked that my de minimis discussions with Michael Cohen, which dealt almost exclusively about real estate, not be made a part of this proceeding.

As I joked, Hannity said he had eight lawyers. I wonder which three different lawyers wrote these statements, and whether one of them was the other lawyer he shares with Donald Trump, Jay Sekulow.

So Cohen advised Hannity “almost exclusively about real estate,” which in this crowd sometimes means money laundering, and not about buying off Playboy bunnies.

But what are the other conversations about?

Hannity has played even more of a role in protecting Trump than Sullivan makes out. It’s not just that he fed the uproar over Trump’s lawyer being raided. But he did an interview with Julian Assange in January 2017 that helped seed the narrative that Russia didn’t hand the DNC files to Wikileaks. More grotesquely, Hannity fed the conspiracy theories about Seth Rich (I hope the multiple entities that are suing Hannity over that will demand discovery on any claimed privileged conversations about the topic with Trump’s lawyer).

Sure, the matters on which Cohen purportedly gave legal advice to Hannity might be about buying a condo.

But given the effort Cohen made to protect those conversations from the eyes of the FBI, they also might involve coordination on some of the more insidious pushback on the Russian story.

Why Has Putin Changed His Mind about Whether Russians Who Hacked the US Are Patriots Or Others?

Now, with even more performed disdain! As you’ve no doubt heard, Megyn Kelly came out from wherever NBC has been hiding her to do another interview with Vladimir Putin. Over and over, Putin effectively said he doesn’t give a fuck if some Russians interfered in the US election, but that this was not a state effort.

His most noted denial suggested that even if Russians did tamper in the US election, the might not be real Russians: they might be Ukrainians, Tatars, or Jews.

“So what if they’re Russians?” Putin said of the people named in last month’s indictment. “There are 146 million Russians. So what? … I don’t care. I couldn’t care less. … They do not represent the interests of the Russian state.”

Putin even suggested that Jews or other ethnic groups had been involved in the meddling.

“Maybe they’re not even Russians,” he said. “Maybe they’re Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, just with Russian citizenship. Even that needs to be checked. Maybe they have dual citizenship. Or maybe a green card. Maybe it was the Americans who paid them for this work. How do you know? I don’t know.”

Most of the coverage of this exchange is shocked that Putin made such an anti-semitic (and otherwise bigoted) comment.

But I’m more interested why he did so.

When I last commented on what I saw as a shift from outright denial to admission that Russian hackers might have been involved, Putin was describing the offending Russians as patriots.

Putin raised the possibility of attacks on foreign votes by what he portrayed as free-spirited Russian patriots. Hackers, he said, “are like artists” who choose their targets depending how they feel “when they wake up in the morning.” Any such attacks, he added, could not alter the result of elections in Europe, America or elsewhere.

Artists, he said, paint if they wake up feeling in good spirits while hackers respond if “they wake up and read that something is going on in interstate relations” that prompts them to take action. “If they are patriotically minded, they start making their contributions — which are right, from their point of view — to the fight against those who say bad things about Russia,” Mr. Putin added, apparently referring to Hillary Clinton.

Here, he’s suggesting any freelancing Russian offenders are the opposite, the kind of internal others that Putin has increasingly demonized as part of his formula to stay in power (curiously, however, he didn’t suggest they might be gay). He’s responding to the first accusations of Russian tampering, the Internet Research Agency indictment, by suggesting that any Russian that took part must be other than Russian. He does this even while he mocks the possibility Russia might extradite any of the accused, based on Russia’s standard refusal to extradite “Russians.”

So any Russians accused of tampering in the US election are labeled, post hoc and preemptively (assuming Robert Mueller is on his way to indicting Russians for the hack, as well), Russians for legal purposes, but not-Russian for cultural ones, for the political expediency of having natural scapegoats.

Why is he doing this, and who is his audience?

That he suspects he will need to scapegoat any Russian accused in the operation suggests something about it will be unpleasant, will need deniability in a way it might not have last June.

But is he playing to American prejudices in blaming Jews (and Ukrainians and Tatars, which wouldn’t trigger even the most bigoted Americans)? That might make sense given that this (unlike the June comments, which were for St. Petersburg journalists.

Or is he playing to Russian prejudices (which makes more sense, given the targets)? It would mean Putin’s open disdain for Kelly is a performance for his domestic audience, as well.

Most interestingly, if he is prepping scapegoats for his domestic audience, does he think Russian response to any upcoming exposure at the hands of Mueller will be negative in a way he once believed it’d be positive? That would surprise me … but it is the most logical explanation given how he is pre-emptively demonizing what he once claimed would be patriotic.

Under Cover of the Nunes Memo, Russian Spooks Sneak Openly into Meetings with Trump’s Administration

On December 17, Vladimir Putin picked up the phone and called Donald Trump.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the call was to thank Trump for intelligence the US provided Russia that helped them thwart a terrorist attack. Here’s what the White House readout described.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia called President Donald J. Trump today to thank him for the advanced warning the United States intelligence agencies provided to Russia concerning a major terror plot in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Based on the information the United States provided, Russian authorities were able to capture the terrorists just prior to an attack that could have killed large numbers of people. No Russian lives were lost and the terrorist attackers were caught and are now incarcerated. President Trump appreciated the call and told President Putin that he and the entire United States intelligence community were pleased to have helped save so many lives. President Trump stressed the importance of intelligence cooperation to defeat terrorists wherever they may be. Both leaders agreed that this serves as an example of the positive things that can occur when our countries work together. President Putin extended his thanks and congratulations to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo and the CIA. President Trump then called Director Pompeo to congratulate him, his very talented people, and the entire intelligence community on a job well done!

Putin, of course, has a history of trumping up terrorist attacks for political purposes (which is not to say he’s the only one).

In Trump’s Russia, top spooks come to you

That call that Putin initiated serves as important background to an event (or several — the details are still uncertain) that happened earlier this week, as everyone was distracted with Devin Nunes’ theatrics surrounding his memo attacking the Mueller investigation into whether Trump has engaged in a conspiracy with Russia. All three of Russia’s intelligence heads came to DC for a visit.

The visit of the sanctioned head of SVR, Sergey Naryshkin — Russia’s foreign intelligence service — was ostentatiously announced by Russia’s embassy.

SVR is the agency that tried to recruit Carter Page back in 2013, and which has also newly been given credit for the hack of the DNC in some Dutch reporting (and a recent David Sanger article). It’s clear that SVR wanted Americans to know that their sanctioned head had been through town.

As the week went on, WaPo reported that FSB’s Alexander Bortnikov and GRU’s Colonel General Igor Korobov had also been through town (GRU has previously gotten primary credit for the hack and Korobov was also sanctioned in the December 2016 response, and FSB was described as having an assisting role).

Pompeo met with Sergey Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service or SVR, and Alexander Bortnikov, who runs the FSB, which is the main successor to the Soviet-era security service the KGB.

The head of Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU, also came to Washington, though it is not clear he met with Pompeo.

A senior U.S. intelligence official based in Moscow was also called back to Washington for the meeting with the CIA chief, said a person familiar with the events, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive meeting.

Treasury defies Congress on Russian sanctions

These visits have been associated with Trump’s decision not to enforce congressionally mandated sanctions, claiming that the threat of sanctions is already working even as Mike Pompeo insists that Russia remains a threat. In lieu of providing a mandated list of Russians who could be sanctioned, Treasury basically released the Forbes list of richest Russians, meaning that the sanction list includes people who’re squarely opposed to Putin. In my opinion, reporting on the Forbes list underplays the contempt of the move. Then, today, Treasury released a memo saying Russia was too systematically important to sanction.

Schumer’s questions and Pompeo’s non-answers

Indeed, Chuck Schumer emphasized sanctions in a letter he sent to Dan Coats, copied to Mike Pompeo, about the Naryshkin visit (the presence of the others was just becoming public).

As you are well aware, Mr. Naryshkin is a Specially Designated National under U.S. sanctions law, which imposes severe financial penalties and prohibits his entry into the U.S. without a waiver. Moreover, the visit of the SVR chief occurred only days before Congress was informed of the president’s decision not to implement sanctions authorized the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which was passed with near unanimous, bipartisan support. CAATSA was designed to impose a price on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies for well-documented Russian aggression and interference in the 2016 election. However, the administration took little to no action, even as Russia continues its cyberattacks on the U.S.

Certainly, that seems a fair conclusion to draw — that by emphasizing Naryshkin’s presence, Russia was also boasting that it was immune from Congress’ attempts to sanction it.

But Mike Pompeo, who responded to Schumer, conveniently responded only to Schumer’s public comments, not the letter itself.

I am writing to you in response to your press conference Tuesday where you suggested there was something untoward in officials from Russian intelligence services meeting with their U.S. counterparts. Let me assure you there is not. [my emphasis]

This allowed Pompeo to dodge a range Schumer’s questions addressing Russia’s attacks on the US.

What specific policy issues and topics were discussed by Mr. Naryshkin and U.S. officials?

    1. Did the U.S. officials who met with Mr. Naryshkin raise Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections?  If not, why was this not raised? If raised, what was his response?
    2. Did the U.S. officials who met with Mr. Naryshkin raise existing and congressionally-mandated U.S. sanctions against Russia discussed? If not, why was this not raised? If raised, what was his response?
    3. Did the U.S. officials who met with Mr. Naryshkin raise ongoing Russian cyber attacks on the U.S. and its allies, including reported efforts to discredit the Federal Bureau of Investigation and law enforcement investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections? If not, why was this not raised? If raised, what was his response?
    4. Did the U.S. officials who met with Mr. Naryshkin make clear that Putin’s interference in the 2018 and 2020 elections would be a hostile act against the United States? If not, why was this not raised? If raised, what was his response?

Instead of providing responses to questions about Russian tampering, Pompeo instead excused the whole meeting by pointing to counterterrorism, that same purpose, indeed — the same attack — that Putin raised in his December phone call.

We periodically meet with our Russian intelligence counterparts — to keep America safe. While Russia remains an adversary, we would put American lives at greater risk if we ignored opportunities to work with the Russian services in the fight against terrorism. We are proud of that counterterror work, including CIA’s role with its Russian counterparts in the recent disruption of a terrorist plot targeting St. Petersburg, Russia — a plot that could have killed Americans.

[snip]

Security cooperation between our intelligence services has occurred under multiple administrations. I am confident that you would support CIA continuing these engagements that are aimed at protecting the American people.

The contempt on sanctions makes it clear this goes beyond counterterrorism

All this together should allay any doubt you might have that this meeting goes beyond counterterrorism, if, indeed, it even has anything to do with counterterrorism.

Just as one possible other topic, in November, WSJ reported that DOJ was working towards charging Russians involved in the hack after the new year.

The Justice Department has identified more than six members of the Russian government involved in hacking the Democratic National Committee’s computers and swiping sensitive information that became public during the 2016 presidential election, according to people familiar with the investigation.

Prosecutors and agents have assembled evidence to charge the Russian officials and could bring a case next year, these people said. Discussions about the case are in the early stages, they said.

If filed, the case would provide the clearest picture yet of the actors behind the DNC intrusion. U.S. intelligence agencies have attributed the attack to Russian intelligence services, but haven’t provided detailed information about how they concluded those services were responsible, or any details about the individuals allegedly involved.

Today, Russia issued a new warning that America is “hunting” Russians all over the world, citing (among others) hacker Roman Seleznev.

“American special services are continuing their de facto hunt for Russians all over the world,” reads the statement published on the ministry’s website on Friday. The Russian diplomats also gave several examples of such arbitrary detentions of Russian citizens that took place in Spain, Latvia, Canada and Greece.

“Sometimes these were actual abductions of our compatriots. This is what happened with Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was kidnapped in Liberia in 2010 and secretly taken to the United States in violation of Liberian and international laws. This also happened in 2014 with Roman Seleznyov, who was literally abducted in the Maldives and forcefully taken to American territory,” the statement reads.

The ministry also warned that after being handed over to the US justice system, Russian citizens often encounter extremely biased attitudes.

“Through various means, including direct threats, they attempt to coerce Russians into pleading guilty, despite the fact that the charges of them are far-fetched. Those who refuse get sentenced to extraordinarily long prison terms.”

And, as I noted earlier, Trey Gowdy — one of the few members of Congress who has seen where Mueller is going with this investigation — cited the import of the counterintelligence case against Russia in a Sunday appearance.

CHRIS WALLACE: Congressman, we’ll get to your concerns about the FBI and the Department of Justice in a moment. But — but let me begin first with this. Do you still trust, after all you’ve heard, do you still trust Special Counsel Robert Mueller to conduct a fair and unbiased investigation?

REP. TREY GOWDY, R-SC, OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: One hundred percent, particularly if he’s given the time, the resources and the independence to do his job. Chris, he didn’t apply for the job. He’s where he is because we have an attorney general who had to recuse himself. So Mueller didn’t raise his hand and say, hey, pick me. We, as a country, asked him to do this.

And, by the way, he’s got two — there are two components to his jurisdiction. There is a criminal component. But there’s also a counterintelligence component that no one ever talks about because it’s not sexy and interesting. But he’s also going to tell us definitively what Russia tried to do in 2016. So the last time you and I were together, I told my Republican colleagues, leave him the hell alone, and that’s still my advice.

Schumer and other Democrats demanding answers about this visit might think about any ways the Russians might be working to undermine Mueller’s investigation or transparency that might come of it.

Three weeks of oversight free covert action

The timing of this visit is particularly concerning for another reason. In the three week continuing resolution to fund the government passed on January 22, the House Appropriations Chair Rodney Frelinghuysen added language that would allow the Administration to shift money funding intelligence activities around without telling Congress. It allows funds to,

“be obligated and expended notwithstanding section 504(a)(1) of the National Security Act of 1947.”

Section 504(a)(1) is the piece of the law that requires intelligence agencies to spend money on the program the money was appropriated for. “Appropriated funds available to an intelligence agency may be obligated or expended for an intelligence or intelligence-related activity only if those funds were specifically authorized by the Congress for use for such activities; or …”

The “or” refers to the intelligence community’s obligation to inform Congress of any deviation. But without any obligation to spend funds as specifically authorized, there is no obligation to inform Congress if that’s not happening.

Since the only real way to prohibit the Executive is to prohibit them to spend money on certain things, the change allows the Trump Administration to do things they’ve been specifically prohibited from doing for the three week period of the continuing resolution.

Senators Burr and Warner tried to change the language before passage on January 22, to no avail.

This year’s Defense Authorization included a whole slew of limits on Executive Branch activity, including mandating a report if the Executive cooperates with Russia on Syria and prohibiting any military cooperation until such time as Russia leaves Ukraine. It’s possible the Trump Administration would claim those appropriations-tied requirements could be ignored during the time of the continuing resolution.

Which just happened to cover the period of the Russian visit.

Our friends are getting nervous

Meanwhile, both before and after the visit, our allies have found ways to raise concerns about sharing intelligence with the US in light of Trump’s coziness with Russia. A key subtext of the stories revealing that Netherlands’ AIVD saw Russian hackers targeting the Democrats via a hacked security camera was that Rick Ledgett’s disclosure of that operation last year had raised concerns about sharing with the US.

President elect Donald Trump categorically refuses to explicitly acknowledge the Russian interference. It would tarnish the gleam of his electoral victory. He has also frequently praised Russia, and president Putin in particular. This is one of the reasons the American intelligence services eagerly leak information: to prove that the Russians did in fact interfere with the elections. And that is why intelligence services have told American media about the amazing access of a ‘western ally’.

This has led to anger in Zoetermeer and The Hague. Some Dutchmen even feel betrayed. It’s absolutely not done to reveal the methods of a friendly intelligence service, especially if you’re benefiting from their intelligence. But no matter how vehemently the heads of the AIVD and MIVD express their displeasure, they don’t feel understood by the Americans. It’s made the AIVD and MIVD a lot more cautious when it comes to sharing intelligence. They’ve become increasingly suspicious since Trump was elected president.

Then, the author of a book on Israeli’s assassinations has suggested that the intelligence Trump shared with the Russians goes beyond what got publicly reported, goes to the heart of Israeli intelligence operations.

DAVIES: So if I understand it, you know of specific information that the U.S. shared with the Russians that has not been revealed publicly and that you are not revealing publicly?

BERGMAN: The nature of the information that President Trump revealed to Foreign Minister Lavrov is of the most secretive nature.

Finally, a piece on the Nunes memo out today suggests the British will be less likely to share intelligence with Trump’s administration after the release of the memo (though this is admittedly based on US congressional claims, not British sources).

Britain’s spy agencies risk having their intelligence methods revealed if Donald Trump releases a controversial memo about the FBI, congressional figures have warned.

The UK will be less likely to share confidential information if the secret memo about the Russian investigation is made public, according to those opposing its release.

Clearly, this meeting goes beyond counterterrorism cooperation. And given the way that both Treasury and CIA have acted contemptuously in the aftermath of the visit, Schumer and others should be far more aggressive in seeking answers about what this visit really entailed.

Update: I’ve added the section on Section 504.

Dear JD Gordon [and Jared]: Mueller Has 17 Prosecutors; White House Obstruction Accounts for Just One

The WaPo has a piece reporting (with details about John Kelly’s “collusion” with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is supposed to be recused) what I noted here: Trump wants the Devin Nunes memo to come out, even in spite of the warnings about how releasing it will damage national security.

It rather absurdly claims that Mueller is “narrowing” his probe.

As Mueller narrows his probe — homing in on the ways Trump may have tried to impede the Russia investigation — a common thread ties many of the incidents together: a president accustomed to functioning as the executive of a private family business who does not seem to understand that his subordinates have sworn an oath to the Constitution rather than to him.

More amusing is this anonymous quote from JD Gordon.

A person who has spoken with Mueller’s team said investigators’ questions seemed at least partially designed to probe potential obstruction from Trump.

“The questions are about who was where in every meeting, what happened before and after, what the president was saying as he made decisions,” this person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to recount a private session.

This person added that while it seemed unlikely Mueller’s team would yield any evidence of a coordinated effort to aid the Russians — “If you were on the campaign, you know we couldn’t even collude with ourselves,” he said — the investigators might find more details to support obstruction of justice. [my emphasis]

We know it was JD Gordon because he said precisely the same thing in an op-ed just after the George Papadopoulos plea made it clear Gordon and his buddies might be in a heap of trouble.

Trump camp too disorganized to collude

Criminalization of policy differences has descended upon America once again. The viciousness towards a sitting president and his team evokes memories of Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment. In the “witch hunt” Clinton was impeached for something unrelated to the Arkansas real estate deal which sparked the Whitewater investigation years earlier. Like a Soviet secret police chief once said: “Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime.” Indeed.

We’re seeing the same thing today. The Trump-Russia collusion story is a hoax and “witch hunt” of this century.

Like typical conspiracy theories, usually the simplest explanation is correct. The campaign was chaotic, understaffed and underpaid, if paid at all. We couldn’t collude amongst ourselves. [my emphasis]

Since JD Gordon is — by his own account — incompetent, I’m going to repeat the substance of this post I did even as he first rolled out this line, just to help him out.

Update: I’ve been informed that Jared Kushner has also used this “we couldn’t collude because we’re too incompetent” line, so perhaps he’s the one who believes he’s not at risk for engaging in a quid pro quo with Russians and others. 

Robert Mueller has 17 prosecutors. We’ve only seen what 10 of them are doing. And just one of them — Watergate prosecutor James Quarles — is known to be working on the White House obstruction case.

Here’s a census of Mueller’s prosecutors who’ve thus far shown what they’re working on:

Manafort docket:

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

Adam Jed (4), an appellate specialist, has appeared with these lawyers in grand jury appearances.

Papadopoulos docket:

  • Jeannie Rhee (5)
  • Andrew Goldstein (6)
  • Aaron Zelinsky (7)

Flynn docket:

  • Brandon L. Van Grack (8)
  • Zainab Ahmad (9)

Obstruction docket:

Even in these dockets, it’s clear Mueller is nowhere near done.

Flynn may have a status hearing scheduled for Thursday (though it’s not formally noted in the docket). I suspect, instead, we’ll get a joint status report like was submitted in Papadopoulos’ case on January 17, which basically said, “we’re very busy cooperating, don’t bug us until April 23.”

And CNN just reported that Mueller’s team has drafted superseding indictments against Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, and Gates appears to be prepping to flip.

Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates has quietly added a prominent white-collar attorney, Tom Green, to his defense team, signaling that Gates’ approach to his not-guilty plea could be changing behind the scenes.

Green, a well-known Washington defense lawyer, was seen at special counsel Robert Mueller’s office twice last week. CNN is told by a source familiar with the matter that Green has joined Gates’ team.

Green isn’t listed in the court record as a lawyer in the case and works for a large law firm separate from Gates’ primary lawyers.

Green’s involvement suggests that there is an ongoing negotiation between the defendant’s team and the prosecutors.

[snip]

Superseding indictments, which would add or replace charges against both Gates and Manafort, have been prepared, according to a source close to the investigation. No additional charges have been filed so far. When there is a delay in filing charges after they’ve been prepared, it can indicate that negotiations of some nature are ongoing.

So even where we have some visibility, that visibility suggests there is plenty of work trying to see if there was any conspiracy tied to the election.

That leaves the following prosecutors, listed with their specialities:

  • Aaron Zebley (11): probably working on coordination
  • Michael Dreeben (12): appellate wizard
  • Elizabeth Prelogar (13): appellate specialist and Russian speaker
  • Scott Meisler (14): appellate specialist
  • Rush Atkinson (15): fraud prosecutor
  • Ryan Dickey (16): Cybersecurity (just added in November)
  • Mystery prosecutor (17)

I mean, Mueller hasn’t even revealed all his prosecutors yet, much less what they’re all working on.

But JD Gordon would have you believe the prosecutors’ attention to what meetings he and his buddies were in means Mueller is only investigating obstruction.

Why Republicans Launched the GSA Email Attack Now

I think most people are missing the significance of why the Republicans launched their attack on the GSA over the weekend (this post is a summary of what we know, with updates).

That’s true, in part, because people are misunderstanding what the Trump for America team recently learned. It’s not — as many have claimed — that they only recently learned Mueller had emails beyond what TFA had turned over to Congress and through that to Mueller. As Axios reported, “Trump officials discovered Mueller had the emails when his prosecutors used them as the basis for questions to witnesses, the sources said.” That is, Mueller has been asking questions based off these emails for months.

The timing of this complaint — not the complaint itself — is key

What TFA only discovered last week, according to their letter, at least, is how Mueller obtained them — by asking, just like prosecutors reviewing government communications in the course of investigating possible violations of the Espionage Act always do, especially if the subjects of the investigation have access to classified documents.

We discovered the unauthorized disclosures by the GSA on December 12 and 13, 2017. When we learned that the Special Counsel’s Office had received certain laptops and cell phones containing privileged materials, we initially raised our concerns with Brandon Van Grack in the Special Counsel’s Office on December 12, 2017. Mr. Van Grack confirmed that the Special Counsel’s Office had obtained certain laptops, cell phones, and at least one iPad from the GSA – but he assured us that the Special Counsel’s investigation did not recover any emails or other relevant data from that hardware. During this exchange, Mr. Van Grack failed to disclose the critical fact that undercut the importance of his representations, namely, that the Special Counsel’s Office had simultaneously received from the GSA tens of thousands of emails, including a very significant volume of privileged material, and that the Special Counsel’s Office was actively using those materials without any notice to TFA.1 Mr. Van Grack also declined to inform us of the identities of the 13 individuals whose materials were at issue.

The government has great leeway to access government communications, as Peter Strzok, the former counterintelligence FBI Agent who just had his own communications leaked and then released to the world, would probably be all too happy to tell you. All the more so given allegations that files went missing from the Transition SCIF, just as Jared Kushner was talking about back channel communications with the Russians.

So what’s new is not that Mueller had the emails (about which no one has complained before). But that he obtained the email inboxes of 13 people, including Jared, from GSA without letting the Transition do their own review of what to turn over.

Trump’s team may face obstruction charges

As I made clear here, it appears that one reason the Trump people are so angry is that Mueller has probably caught them failing to turn over emails that are absolutely material to the investigation, such as KT McFarland’s “Thrown election” email. Whoever did these document reviews may now be exposed to obstruction charges for withholding such material, which in turn would give Mueller leverage over them for their own further cooperation.

[Update: I should have said, withholding emails will only be a problem if the Transition was otherwise obligated (say, by subpoena) to turn them over. Mueller did subpoena the campaign for a similar set of emails; but since he didn’t need to from GSA, he may not have here.]

Mueller has far more damning information on Jared than Trump’s folks expected

Just as importantly, Axios explicitly said the emails include Jared Kushner’s emails (indeed, given his public claims about how many people he spoke to during the transition, I wouldn’t be surprised if his was the email box that had 7,000 emails).

As I have shown, Jared has been approaching disclosure issues (at least with Congress) very narrowly, ignoring clear requests to turn over his discussions about the topic of the investigation, and not just with the targets of it. If Mueller obtained all his emails, he’d have those “about” emails that Jared purposely and contemptuously has withheld from others.

We know that Jared is a key interim Mueller target here (and Abbe Lowell’s search for a crisis communications firm to help sure suggests Jared’s defense team knows that too). We know he felt the need to explain how he went from responding to a personalized Vladimir Putin congratulatory email on November 9 to asking Dmitri Simes for Sergei Kislyak’s name.

Take, for example, the public statement prepared for testimony to congressional committees by the president’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. There, he revealed that on the day after the election, in response to a congratulatory email from Russian President Vladimir Putin, he asked the publisher of The National Interest, Dimitri Simes, for the name of Russia’s ambassador to the United States. “On November 9, the day after the election, I could not even remember the name of the Russian ambassador,” Kushner claimed. “When the campaign received an email purporting to be an official note of congratulations from President Putin, I was asked how we could verify it was real. To do so, I thought the best way would be to ask the only contact I recalled meeting from the Russian government, which was the ambassador I had met months earlier, so I sent an email asking Mr. Simes, ‘What is the name of the Russian ambassador?’”

We also know that Mueller’s team has expressed some skepticism about Kushner’s previous public claims — and I would bet money this includes that email.

CNN recently reported, however, that in an interview conducted in the weeks before Flynn’s plea deal, “Mueller’s team asked Kushner to clear up some questions he was asked by lawmakers and details that emerged through media reports.” So Mueller’s team may now have doubts about the explanation Kushner offered for his interest in speaking with Kislyak as one of the first things he did after his father-in-law got elected.

If Mueller has all Jared’s emails and those emails disclose far more about the negotiations with all foreign powers conducted during the transition (including with Bibi Netanyahu on settlements, but obviously also with Russia), and Trump’s people recognize those emails expose Jared to serious charges, then of course they’re going to complain now, as the expectation that Mueller might soon indict Kushner grows.

Mueller has an outline of places where Trump was personally involved

Most importantly, consider what those morons laid out: they want to claim that these emails from the transition period — emails they insist were not government emails — are protected by Executive Privilege.

The legal claim is ridiculous; as I and far smarter people have noted, you don’t get Executive Privilege until you become the actual Executive on inauguration day.

But that they made the claim is telling (and really fucking stupid).

Because that tells us which emails Trump officials believe involve communications directly with Trump. The KT McFarland email, which we know was written from Mar-a-Lago, is a case in point. Did they withhold that because they believe it reflects a conversation with Trump? If so, then we know that Trump was personally involved in the orders to Mike Flynn to ask the Russians to hold off on retaliating for Obama’s sanctions. It might even mean that the language attributed to McFarland — about Russia being the key that unlocks doors, efforts to “discredit[] Trump’s victory by saying it was due to Russian interference, “thrown elections,” and Obama boxing Trump in — is actually Trump’s own language. Indeed, it does sound like stuff he says all the time.

And given that the emails include “speculation about vulnerabilities of Trump nominees, strategizing about press statements, and policy planning on everything from war to taxes,” it might even reflect Trump’s own explanations of why — for example — he couldn’t nominate Flynn to be CIA Director because of his ties to Russia and Turkey.

In the wake of his plea agreement, Flynn’s surrogate made it clear that Trump ordered him to carry out certain actions, especially with Russia. That’s likely a big reason why, in the wake of the Flynn plea, Trump’s people are now squawking that Mueller obtained these emails, emails that may lay out those orders.

Heck. These emails might even reflect Trump ordering Flynn to lie about his outreach to Russia.

Maybe that’s why Trump’s aides have promised to demand Mueller return the emails in question.

All of which is to say, there are things about these emails that explain why this attack is coming now, beyond just a generalized effort to discredit Mueller. The attack is designed to discredit specific avenues of investigation Mueller clearly has in hand. And those avenues reveal far more about the seriousness of the investigation than anything Ty Cobb is willing to claim to appease the President.

That said, the attack is probably too little, too late.

Poot and POTUS Plan to Move Beyond the Mueller Investigation

I think people are misunderstanding something that happened the other day when Trump called Vladimir Putin. As the press reports, Trump initiated the call. The remarkably brief readout from the White House makes it clear Trump called to thank Putin for saying nice things about the economy (many have taken that as Trump’s declaration that he values such flattery, which is no doubt true, but Trump didn’t write the readout).

President Donald J. Trump spoke with President Vladimir Putin of Russia today.  President Trump thanked President Putin for acknowledging America’s strong economic performance in his annual press conference.

The two presidents also discussed working together to resolve the very dangerous situation in North Korea.

The even briefer formal readout from the Russian side (and this is unusual for them) said only,

Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with US President Donald Trump at the initiative of the American side.

Though reports state that the Kremlin said the men also discussed US-Russian ties.

The Kremlin said Thursday the two men discussed US-Russia ties and increasing tensions on the Korean peninsula, an issue that Putin chastised the United States for in earlier comments.

Other reports note that HR McMaster did not participate in the call.

The leaders talked for about 10 minutes, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster didn’t participate in the call, a White House official said.

So Trump saw reports that Putin mentioned him in his annual press conference, and called him up to comment about it, without an adult present.

Of course (as Politico notes but doesn’t focus on), Putin’s reference to Trump’s alleged success with the economy isn’t the most pointed thing he said in his press conference. Here’s the full exchange between ABC’s Terry Moran and Putin.

Terry Moran: Thank you, Mr President. Terry Moran with ABC News.

First, in the United States investigations by Congress, the Department of Justice and the media have uncovered a very large number of contacts between Russian citizens associated with your government and high officials of the Trump campaign. And some of those officials are now being prosecuted for lying about those contacts. All this is not normal. And many Americans are saying where there is that much smoke there must be fire. How would you explain to Americans the sheer number of contact between the Trump campaign and your government?

And second, if I may. It has almost been a year since Donald Trump has been elected president. You praised Donald Trump during the campaign. What is your assessment of Donald Trump as president after one year? Spasibo.

Vladimir Putin: Let us begin with the second part of your question. It is not for me to evaluate Donald Trump’s work. This should be done by his electorate, the American people. But we do see some major achievements, even over the short period he has been in office. Look at the markets, which have grown. This is evidence of investors’ trust in the US economy. This means they trust what President Trump is doing in this area. With all due respect to President Trump’s opposition in the United States, these are objective factors.

There are also things he would probably like to do but has not been able to do so far, such as a healthcare reform and several other areas. By the way, he said his intentions in foreign policy included improving relations with Russia. It is clear that he has been unable to do this because of the obvious constraints, even if he wanted to. In fact, I do not know if he still wants to or has exhausted the desire to do this; you should ask him. I hope that he does and that we will eventually normalise our relations to the benefit of the American and Russian people, and that we will continue to develop and will overcome the common and well-known threats, such as terrorism, environmental problems, weapons of mass destruction, crises around the world, including in the Middle East, the North Korean problem, etc. There are many things we can do much more effectively together in the interests of our people than we are doing them now. Actually, we can do everything more effectively together.

Terry Moran: How would you explain the connection between the government, your government, and the Trump campaign? How would you explain it to Americans?

Vladimir Putin(In English.) I see, I see. (In Russian.) You know that all this was invented by the people who stand in opposition to Mr Trump to present his work as illegitimate. It seems strange to me, and I mean it, that the people who are doing this do not seem to realise that they are damaging the internal political climate in the country, that they are decimating the possibilities of the elected head of state. This means that they do not respect the people who voted for him.

How do you see any election process worldwide? Do we need to ban any contacts at all? Our ambassador has been accused of meeting with someone. But this is standard international practice when a diplomatic representative and even Government members meet with all the candidates, their teams, when they discuss various issues and development prospects, when they want to understand what certain people will do after assuming power and how to respond to this. What kind of extraordinary things did anyone see in this? And why should all this take on the nature of spy mania?

You have watched the investigation on social media. The share of Russian corporate advertising makes up less than 0.01 percent, with that of American companies totaling 100, 200 and 300 percent. It is simply incomparable. But, for some reason, even this is seen as excessive. This is some kind of gibberish.

The same can be said about the situation with our media outlets, including RT and Sputnik. But their share in the overall information volume is negligible, as compared to the share of global US media outlets all over the world and in Russia. And this is seen as a threat. Then what about freedom of the media? This is actually a cornerstone, on which American democracy itself is based.

All of us should realise that someone succeeds and someone does not. We need to draw conclusions from this and move on, instead of pouncing on one another like animals. We need to think about this and draw conclusions.

Moran starts by noting that Trump’s people are now being prosecuted for lying about contacts with Russians, and asks why there were so many contacts. He then invites Putin to comment on Trump’s success.

Putin responds by saying it’s not his place to evaluate Trump’s success (elsewhere in the press conference Putin made grand show of respecting Russia’s democracy, too), but then goes ahead and does so, claiming that the economy is an “objective” success of Trump’s.

Moran has to prod him to get a direct answer on the second point. Putin repeats a Republican talking point — that the investigation “was invented by the people who stand in opposition to Mr Trump to present his work as illegitimate” — and complains about this “spy mania.” But then he doesn’t address the allegations that Russian spies were cozying up to Trump’s officials, not just its ambassador; he instead focuses on the social media investigation (and rightly points out that Russian social media had just a fraction of the impact of equally problematic right wing social media manipulation).

It’s the middle bit — what might have been Putin’s first response to Moran’s question about the investigation — that I suspect elicited Trump’s call to Putin.

I do not know if he still wants to or has exhausted the desire to do this; you should ask him. I hope that he does and that we will eventually normalise our relations to the benefit of the American and Russian people.

Having gotten Trump’s attention with a bullshit compliment, Putin then asked, “do you still want to go steady?”

Putin’s question — do you still want to normalize relations — came against the background of increasing Russian challenges in Syria, the theater where, even according to Jared Kushner’s public comments, the Russia-Trump cooperation was supposed to first bear fruit.

“On Dec. 13, two Russian Su-25s flew into coordinated coalition airspace on the east side of the Euphrates River near Abu Kamal, Syria,” the spokesman said, “and were promptly intercepted by two F-22A Raptors providing air cover for partner ground forces conducting operations to defeat ISIS.”

The U.S. jets used chaff, flares, and other maneuvers to “persuade the Su-25s to depart,” said the spokesman, and also made repeated calls on N emergency channel to the Russian pilots. Coalition leaders also contacted Russians on the ground along the deconfliction line. After 40 minutes, the Russians flew back to the west side of the Euphrates.

The U.S. and Russia verbally agreed in early November that Russian aircraft would stay west of the Euphrates and American jets would stay east. According to the spokesman, since the Russians are now crossing the river six to eight times a day, “it’s become increasingly tough for our pilots to discern whether Russian pilots’ actions are deliberate or if these are just honest mistakes.”

“Are you still interested,” Putin asked, while making it clear Russia could make Trump’s life far more difficult that it is currently doing.

And Trump got on the phone and said … we don’t know what he said, but we can sure guess.

In the wake of it, Trump’s team leaked details of their request to meet with Robert Mueller next week to find out whether the probe will, as Ty Cobb has absurdly been claiming for some time, be drawing to a close.

President Donald Trump’s private lawyers are slated to meet with special counsel Robert Mueller and members of his team as soon as next week for what the President’s team considers an opportunity to gain a clearer understanding of the next steps in Mueller’s probe, according to sources familiar with the matter.

While the lawyers have met with Mueller’s team before and might again, the sources believe the upcoming meeting has greater significance because it comes after the completion of interviews of White House personnel requested by the special counsel and after all requested documents have been turned over. Mueller could still request more documents and additional interviews. No request to interview the President or the vice president has been made, sources tell CNN.

But Trump’s team, led by John Dowd and Jay Sekulow, is hoping for signs that Mueller’s investigation is nearing its end, or at least the part having to do with the President. Their goal is to help Trump begin to emerge from the cloud of the ongoing investigation, several of the sources explained. The sources acknowledge that Mueller is under no obligation to provide any information and concede they may walk away with no greater clarity.

If such a meeting does occur, it will come amid the rumors that Trump plans to fire Mueller. Either Mueller finishes up and gives Trump an all clear, and soon, the message seems to be, or Trump will ensure Mueller can’t report the opposite.

Putin wants to get on with things, with making good on his investment in Donald Trump. And in response to that message, Trump made moves towards trying to end the investigation that would show such a plan would be the quid pro quo for Putin’s help getting Trump elected.

How Does the Strzok Text Dump Differ from Jim Comey’s July 5, 2016 Speech?

I’m a bit bemused by the response to DOJ’s release of the texts between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. As Rod Rosenstein testified before HJC yesterday, the release came after notice to Strzok and Page through their lawyers. The release of the texts came with the approval of DOJ IG Michael Horowitz — who says the investigation into the underlying conduct may last through spring. And Rosenstein strongly implied he wanted them released, taking responsibility for it (while claiming not to know whether Jeff Sessions had a role in their release).

As he explained to Trey Gowdy — who, like a number of Republicans, claimed to be at a loss of what to say to constituents who asked “what in the hell is going on with DOJ and the FBI” — the release of the texts proves that any wrongdoing will be met with consequences.

Gowdy: What happens when people who are supposed to cure the conflict of interest have even greater conflicts of interests than those they replace? That’s not a rhetorical question. Neither you nor I nor anyone else would ever sit Peter Strzok on a jury, we wouldn’t have him objectively dispassionately investigate anything, knowing what we now know. Why didn’t we know it ahead of time, and my last question, my final question — and I appreciate the Chairman’s patience — how would you help me answer that question when I go back to South Carolina this weekend?

Rosenstein: Congressman, first of all, with regard to the Special Counsel, Mr. Strzok was already working on the investigation when the Special Counsel was appointed. The appointment I made was of Robert Mueller. So what I’d recommend you tell your constituents is that Robert Mueller and Rod Rosenstein and Chris Wray are accountable and that we will ensure that no bias is reflected in any actions taken by the Special Counsel or any matter within the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice. When we have evidence of any inappropriate conduct, we’re going to take action on it. And that’s what Mr. Mueller did here as soon as he learned about this issue — he took action — and that’s what I anticipate the rest of our prosecutors, the new group of US Attorneys, our Justice Department appointees. They understand the rules and they understand the responsibility to defend the integrity of the Department. If they find evidence of improper conduct, they’re going to take action.

So Congressman, that’s the best assurance I can give you. But actually, there’s one other point, which is you should tell your constituents that we exposed this issue because we’re ensuring that the Inspector General conducts a thorough and effective investigation, and if there is any evidence of impropriety, he’s going to surface it and report about it publicly.

I actually think Rosenstein did a much better job than others apparently do, yesterday, at distinguishing between the Strzok texts (which apparently were on DOJ issued cell phones and, in spite of having Hillary investigation subject lines may not have been logged into Sentinel) and the political views of Andrew Weissmann or the past representation of Jeannie Rhee. Furthermore, he repeatedly said he would only fire Mueller for cause, and made it clear there had been no cause. Several times he talked about how closely he has worked with Mueller, such as on the scope of what gets included in his investigation (even while defending the charges against Manafort as appropriately included).

That said, I wonder how Rosenstein distinguishes, in his own mind, what he did in approving the release of the texts from an ongoing investigation and what Jim Comey did on July 5, 2016, when he gave a press conference about why Hillary Clinton had not been charged. While Rosenstein’s biggest complaint in his letter supporting the firing of Comey was that he substituted his decision for that of prosecutors, he also argued that the Department shouldn’t release derogatory information gratuitously.

Compounding the error, the Director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation. Derogatory information sometimes is disclosed in the course of criminal investigations and prosecutions, but we never release it gratuitously. The Director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial. It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.

In response to skeptical question at a congressional hearing, the Director defended his remarks by saying that his “goal was to say what is true. What did we do, what did we find, what do we think about it.” But the goal of a federal criminal investigation is not to announce our thoughts at a press conference. The goal is to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to justify a federal criminal prosecution, then allow a federal prosecutor who exercises authority delegated by the Attorney General to make a prosecutorial decision, and then – if prosecution is warranted – let the judge and jury determine the facts. We sometimes release information about closed investigations in appropriate ways, but the FBI does not do it sua sponte.

In some ways this is worse because of the off chance that Inspector General Michael Horowitz finds that these texts don’t merit some kind of response; the investigation is not finished yet.

That said, I actually do think there’s a difference: Strzok and Page are department employees, rather than subjects of an external investigation. DOJ exercises awesome power, and usually DOJ is releasing the texts of private citizens in this kind of embarrassing way.

Even former clearance holders seem surprised that these texts were discovered. It is unbelievable to me how few people understand the great liberty that counterintelligence investigators like Strzok can have in obtaining the communications of investigative targets like he has now become, particularly during leak or insider threat investigations. That may not be a good thing, but it is what other targets have been subjected to. So I think it reasonable to have FBI’s own subject to the same scrutiny, for better and worse.

I do think it worthwhile for DOJ to show that it will hold people accountable for improper actions.

Plus, aside from one August comment — which we may obtain more context on when Horowitz does finish this investigation — about an “insurance” policy against Trump, the texts simply aren’t that damning (though they do raise questions about Strzok’s role in the investigation). Strzok agrees with Rex Tillerson, after all, that Trump is an idiot.

So as far as that goes, I’m actually okay with Rosenstein’s release of these texts.

Except I worry about something else.

I actually worry less about Mueller getting fired than just about every other Trump opponent on the planet. Rosenstein seems intent to let him do his work, and (notably at several times during the hearing) seems to agree with the gravity of the investigation. Trump can’t get to Mueller without taking out Rosenstein (and Rachel Brand). And I actually think Rosenstein has thus far balanced the position of a Republican protecting a Republican from Republican ire fairly well. I expect the next shoes Mueller drops — whenever that happens — will change the tone dramatically.

What bothers me most about the release of these texts, however, is that they are a response to the same pressure that Comey was responding to (and which he thought he was smart enough to manage, just as Rosenstein surely thinks he can handle it here).

They are a response — from the same people who ran the Benghazi investigation then ignored DOJ’s prosecution of the Benghazi mastermind — to a willingness to challenge the very core of DOJ functionality, all in a bid to politicize it.

Perhaps Rosenstein is right to bide his time — to create space for Mueller to drop the next few shoes — with the release of the Strzok texts.

But at some point, Republicans need to start calling out Republicans for the damage they’re doing to rule of law with this constant playing of the refs, this demand for proof that Democrats aren’t getting some advantage through the rule of law. If those next shoes don’t have the effect I imagine, it may be too late.

Next Stop: Jared

This morning at 8, I was on Democracy Now talking about how then reported and now completed Flynn plea agreement would focus attention directly on Jared.

Since then, Mike Flynn indeed pled guilty to one charge of false statements to the FBI about various conversations with Sergei Kislyak, promising he’d fully cooperate with Mueller’s inquiry. Reports describe that Flynn spoke with an unnamed senior advisor who was at Mar A Lago at the time about his December 29 conversations with Kislyak, which pertained to Russian sanctions. They also say Flynn will testify against Trump and members, plural, of his family, particularly regarding the orders he had to reach out to Russia.

The other lie charged about conversations with Kislyak involves a request that Russia try to delay or shut down a vote on condemning Israel’s illegal settlements.

That’s a key lie, because we know who was pushing that: Jared Kushner (though the court filing suggests it might be someone even more senior).

Robert Mueller’s investigators are asking questions about Jared Kushner’s interactions with foreign leaders during the presidential transition, including his involvement in a dispute at the United Nations in December, in a sign of the expansive nature of the special counsel’s probe of Russia’s alleged meddling in the election, according to people familiar with the matter.

The investigators have asked witnesses questions about the involvement of Mr. Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, in a controversy over a U.N. resolution passed Dec. 23, before Mr. Trump took office, that condemned Israel’s construction of settlements in disputed territories, these people said.

Israeli officials had asked the incoming Trump administration to intervene to help block it. Mr. Trump posted a Facebook message the day before the U.N. vote—after he had been elected but before he had assumed office—saying the resolution put the Israelis in a difficult position and should be vetoed.

[snip]

Israeli officials said at the time that they began reaching out to senior leaders in Mr. Trump’s transition team. Among those involved were Mr. Kushner and political strategist Stephen Bannon, according to people briefed on the exchanges.

So that second lie — and almost certainly the first — involves Kushner directing Flynn.

I noted yesterday CNN’s report that in the last few weeks — so during the window when Mueller was in close discussions about Flynn flipping — Mueller’s team interviewed Kushner asking if he had any exonerating information on Flynn.

Mueller’s team specifically asked Kushner about former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who is under investigation by the special counsel, two sources said. Flynn was the dominant topic of the conversation, one of the sources said.

[snip]

The conversation lasted less than 90 minutes, one person familiar with the meeting said, adding that Mueller’s team asked Kushner to clear up some questions he was asked by lawmakers and details that emerged through media reports. One source said the nature of this conversation was principally to make sure Kushner doesn’t have information that exonerates Flynn.

The meeting took place around the same time the special counsel asked witnesses about Kushner’s role in the firing of former FBI Director James Comey and his relationship with Flynn, these people said.

Mueller was, effectively, locking in Kushner’s testimony before Flynn flipped. As I said this morning, speaking of that meeting,

The Kushner meeting was reported as kind of one of the last things that Mueller had to put into place before this plea agreement that people have been talking about with Mike Flynn. And that suggests that there is more news about to drop regarding Mike Flynn that I think is going to really dramatically change how Republicans take the Russian investigation.

Flynn had been avoiding discussing plea agreements for months and months and months, and then really in the last two weeks, all of a sudden it seems like it’s about to happen. Mueller has more leverage over Flynn in the last couple of weeks. It may be Turkey, because a key witness in New York has turned state’s evidence and apparently has information on Flynn. I think there’s some other information.

And so, Flynn, we expect, is moving towards a plea agreement. We expect, or I expect, that’s going to add a lot more pressure on Trump. And I have been saying for months that the way to get to Kushner is through Flynn. Because a lot of the events in which Flynn was involved, such as meeting with Sergei Kislyak in December, they connect very closely with activities that Kushner is known to be involved with.

Kushner may now be hoping he’ll be in a he-said he-said with Flynn, except it’s unlikely Mueller would give Flynn this easy plea without a whole lot more to know that Flynn would be telling the truth. Remember, Kushner is one of the few people aside from Flynn himself who has a very appropriate lawyer for this kind of issue.

“I Hate the Word Guilty” Says the Self-Described “Conduit” between the Agalarovs and Trump

As you read Rob Goldstone’s efforts to telegraph what his potential testimony to Robert Mueller will be, keep the lesson of this post in mind: there is evidence that one-time Trump attorney and current Agalarov attorney Scott Balber has, on three occasions, attempted to orchestrate a cover story for the June 9 meeting that Goldstone set up. Those three are:

  1. A meeting between Rinat Akhmetshin and Ike Kaveladze (the latter of whom Balber represents as an employee of Agalarov) in Moscow in June 2017, just as Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort were both belatedly disclosing the meeting to various authorities; this story appears to have been an attempt to pre-empt the damage that would be done when Akhmetshin’s involvement became public
  2. A Balber trip sometime before October to Russia to coordinate a story with and get documents from Natalia Veselnitskaya to back her version of the talking points she reportedly shared with Trump’s people
  3. Another October story, this “revealing” that Veselnitskaya’s research came from (or actually was shared with) Russian prosecutor Yuri Chaika, but insisting (per Balber) that Agalarov had no ties with the prosecutor

In fact, it has been recently confirmed that Veselnitskaya’s research was originally done by Fusion GPS, the same firm that was doing oppo research for Clinton and would almost simultaneously with the June 9 meeting hire Christopher Steele to dig up dirt on Trump.

With that in mind, consider what Goldstone is now saying in advance of a reported trip to the US to voluntarily meet with Mueller.

First, Goldstone conflates interviewing with Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee with making his story public. But of course, this interview is what will make his story public (SSCI has gotten cranky of late when people release their testimony publicly before interviewing with the committee, so I guess this interview will substitute).

Although no date has yet been set, he has accepted invitations — unlike some others involved, he has not received a subpoena — to meet the team investigating the alleged Trump links with Russia, headed by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, as well as Senate investigative committees in Washington.

“I’m keen to talk to them and put my recollection of events in the public record,” Goldstone says. So why is he choosing to do this interview now? “After the story initially broke, it seemed to quieten down for a while. But now it’s back in the news with such force, I feel it’s time for me to explain what happened.”

That’s really not much of an explanation for why he’s talking now, suggesting it has everything to do with this planned testimony.

The dual US-British citizen claims both that he was distracted from the proceedings of the Trump Tower meeting because of a concern he’d get stuck in Lincoln Tunnel traffic on his way home, but also that his months-long absence from the US is just about wandering Asia rather than hiding out from these events.

He had not even planned to attend, but was encouraged to stay by Trump Jr. His biggest concern, he says, was that if the meeting dragged on, he would be caught in the notorious Lincoln Tunnel traffic on his journey home.

[snip]

We meet not in Manhattan, however, but in southeast Asia, where he has been travelling in recent months. One of his conditions of meeting me is that I do not disclose the precise whereabouts, because he does not want to be besieged by media, as he was when the controversy erupted in July.

“There are people saying that I’ve run away or I’m some sort of fugitive,” he tells me. “But the simple thing is that I decided to keep quiet, and the best way to do that was to go off the radar and disappear for a while. But I want to share what I know.”

[snip]

He knows his travels will be met with renewed suspicion that he went on the run to hide what he really knows. But there is no evasion, he insists.

When Goldstone claimed the trip was all coincidental I guess he didn’t yet know that the AP would have already published news of the advance coordination of Rinat Akhmetshin and Ike Kaveladze’s stories, the kind of advanced planning that might also explain this trip.

Goldstone explains that, several months before the scandal broke, he told friends — and The Sunday Times has separately confirmed this with them — that he was putting his business on hold and renting out his US apartment to travel the world, including a lengthy stay in Asia. The purpose, he told them, was to have the “gap year” that he never took after leaving school at 16 to start work as a reporter in Manchester.

And he denies any worry that Russian intelligence will knock him off to keep him silent.

“First of all, if Russian intelligence had used me in some way, as people perceive, but which I don’t believe, then they’ll know I don’t know anything. If Russian intelligence hasn’t used me, but are intelligent, they will equally know I don’t know anything and this is all nonsense.”

In spite of emphasizing how little he knows, Goldstone describes himself as the “conduit” — on matters that include business deals in Russia!!! — between the Agalarovs and Trump, but then pretends to be squeamish about a little politics.

“So when people ask why some music publicist was involved in all this, well, I was always the conduit, the Mr Go-To, between the Agalarovs and the Trumps,” Goldstone says.

[snip]

“I remember specifically saying to Emin, you know, we probably shouldn’t get involved in this. It’s politics, it’s Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Neither of us have any experience in this world. It’s not our forte. I deal with music. You’re a singer and a businessman.”

However, Emin was insistent that Goldstone contact the Trumps. “His mantra was always ‘Rob can do it’. All I had to do was facilitate a meeting, he said, after which I walk away from it and whatever comes of it, thank you very much.

[snip]

“I can apologise in some way for having sent the email in the first place. It went against everything my gut instinct was telling me.”

Yet, he couples that claimed squeamishness about politics and gut instinct — and his claim he warned Emin they should stay out of it — with the claim that had this been offered months later, as the Russian scandal broke out, he’d be … squeamish about the politics involved.

It never crossed his mind, he adds, that there would be any fallout about election rules or foreign influence.

“I didn’t understand anything about that, nothing at all. This meeting happened months before Russia became the hot topic. If this had happened later, sure, I would’ve been aware because it’s all people were talking about — Russia, and Russian interference. Hindsight is great, but it just wasn’t being talked about at the time.”

This makes no sense: either he recognized it was wrong and told Emin they shouldn’t do it or he only recognized it was wrong long after the fact. It can’t be both.

Which brings us to his telegraphed description of his email and the meeting it set up. Goldstone describes being “guilty” only of puffing up the language around the meeting, not of facilitating election tampering that he admits may have otherwise occurred.

“If I’m guilty of anything, and I hate the word guilty, it’s hyping the message and going the extra mile for my clients. Using hot-button language to puff up the information I had been given. I didn’t make up the details, I just made them sound more interesting.”

[snip]

So was he part of a Russian plot to influence the election? Goldstone rolls his eyes. “When people said that, I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. That doesn’t mean that maybe there wasn’t any Russian interference or Trump campaign collusion in other ways. I don’t know. But I’m sure I wasn’t part of it.”

And he claims that he thought Veselnitskaya — not Chaika — was the “crown prosecutor” he mentioned in the email he sent Don Jr.

Much has also been made of how Goldstone said Aras Agalarov had met Russia’s “crown prosecutor”. Given that Russia has not had a crown since the 1917 revolution, there was a widespread presumption that Goldstone was referring to Vladimir Putin’s prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika. It has since been reported that the lawyer Veselnitskaya met Chaika in Moscow in the run-up to her trip to New York, sharing with him the talking points that she delivered at Trump Tower. But Goldstone insists Veselnitskaya was the one described to him by Emin as a “well-connected prosecutor” and that in his haste, he had said “crown prosecutor” as that was a British term he used to use as a young reporter.

Here’s Goldstone’s email, which describes something far more sensitive than he’s now describing.

Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting.

The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.

This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin.

What do you think is the best way to handle this information and would you be able to speak to Emin about it directly?

I can also send this info to your father via Rhona, but it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first.

Best

Rob Goldstone

Hmm. Folks seem awfully anxious about lining up their stories with the known documentation of this meeting. Yet even with Balber flying all over the world (has he perhaps been to Thailand to visit Goldstone, who after all is just another Agalarov employee, of sorts?) the stories don’t seem to be cohering.

Which may be why Goldstone provides an alternative version to Veselnitskaya’s recent claim that Paul Manafort appeared to be asleep in the meeting, claiming that he was distracted by his messages.

Goldstone described Kushner as “furious” and said that Manafort did not seem to look up from checking his messages.

Funny how people on two continents want to claim that Manafort wasn’t playing close attention.

Remember: there are at least four documents these players are trying to account for, even assuming the communications between people in Russia weren’t picked up:

  • Goldstone’s emails with Don Jr
  • The talking points Veselnitskaya claims to have shared at the meeting (but which Akhmetshin claims he only saw the Russian version of)
  • Paul Manafort’s own notes from the meeting
  • Text messages between Rinat Akhmetshin and Ike Kaveladze before their cover-up meeting

And for some reason, Goldstone needs to claim he believed the prosecutor in question was Veselnitskaya and not Chaika, which is what the others claim.

Mueller Has Enough Prosecutors to Continue Walking and Chewing Gum While We’ve Been Watching Manafort

NBC has a clickbait story reporting that Robert Mueller has enough evidence to indict Michael Flynn that — by describing that Mueller is still interviewing witnesses about Flynn’s lobbying — undermines its headline.

Mueller is applying renewed pressure on Flynn following his indictment of Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, three sources familiar with the investigation told NBC News.

The investigators are speaking to multiple witnesses in coming days to gain more information surrounding Flynn’s lobbying work, including whether he laundered money or lied to federal agents about his overseas contacts, according to three sources familiar with the investigation.

Remember: on high profile investigations like this, interested parties sometimes try to force a prosecutor’s hand by leaking stuff like this (we should also expect people to leak to the press to create pressure for pardons), and in this case the leaking is exacerbated because of the multiple congressional investigations.

Moreover, there’s good reason to doubt the notion that Mueller is moving from target to target sequentially, which some have interpreted the description of Mueller “renewing” pressure on Flynn to suggest. Remember: Mueller has 15 prosecutors, every one of whom is capable of leading this kind of investigation themselves. And there’s at least a hint that Mueller has separate teams working on separate parts of the investigation.

Consider this detail from the motion to unseal the Manafort docket. The motion specifically asked for the whole thing to be unsealed except for this redaction at the top of the indictment itself.

[T]he government respectfully moves for an order unsealing the docket, with the exception of the original indictment, which contains, at the top, administrative information relating to the Special Counsel’s Office.

There are a lot of things that the redaction might hide. One of those is some kind of marking that indicates the organization of the investigation, one which would disclose investigative strategy if it were disclosed now, but would be really useful for historians if it were unsealed after whatever happens happens.

Couple that with the fact that there is no overlap between the prosecutors appearing thus far in the Manafort docket, who are:

  • Andrew Weismann
  • Greg Andres
  • Kyle Freeny

Adam Jed, an appellate specialist, has appeared with these lawyers in grand jury appearances.

And the prosecutors appearing in the Papadopoulos docket, who are:

  • Jeannie Rhee
  • Andrew Goldstein
  • Aaron Zelinsky

It would make sense that the teams would be focused on different parts of the investigation. After all, Mueller has drawn on a fair range of expertise, which I laid out here (see this article for Carrie Johnson’s description of where these folks are on loan from); if I were to do this over, I’d add a special category for money laundering:

  1. Mob specialists: Andrew Weissman and [Lisa Page *] are mob prosecutors.
  2. Fraud specialists: Weissman and Rush Atkinson are also fraud prosecutors.
  3. Corporate crime specialists: Weissman also led the Enron Task force. One of Dreeben’s key SCOTUS wins pertained to corporate crime. Jeannie Rhee has also worked on white collar defense. [Kyle Freeny, who was the last attorney to join the team, is a money laundering expert.]
  4. Public corruption specialists: Mueller hired someone with Watergate experience, James Quarles. And Andrew Goldstein got good press in SDNY for prosecuting corrupt politicians (even if Sheldon Silver’s prosecution has since been overturned).
  5. International experts: Zainab Ahmad, who worked terrorism cases in EDNY, which has some of the most expansive precedents for charging foreigners flown into JFK (including Russia’s darling Viktor Bout), knows how to bring foreigners to the US and successfully prosecute them in this country. Aaron Zelinsky has also worked in international law. Elizabeth Prelogar did a Fulbright in Russia and reportedly speaks it fluently. And, as noted, [Greg] Andres has worked on foreign bribery
  6. Cyber and spying lawyers: Brandon Van Grack is the guy who had been leading the investigation into Mike Flynn; he’s got a range of National Security experience. Aaron Zebley, Mueller’s former chief of staff at FBI, also has that kind of NSD experience.
  7. Appellate specialists: With Michael Dreeben, Mueller already has someone on the team who can win any appellate challenges; Adam Jed and Elizabeth Prelogar are also appellate specialists. Mueller’s hires also include former clerks for a number of SCOTUS justices, which always helps out if things get that far.

In other words, the team that has thus far been involved in the Manafort prosecution have experience prosecuting corporate crime and money laundering, as well as flipping people. The team that has thus far handled Papadopoulos includes Goldstein, a top public corruption prosecutor (who curiously would have had visibility into Manafort related prosecutions in SDNY), Zelinsky, who has both mob and international law expertise, and Jeannie Rhee whose relevant experience includes time in Congress, prosecuting national security related conspiracies, and cybersecurity investigations. The experience of the latter team, in particular, suggests where they might be headed, probably including people in or recently in government, but Rhee’s ties to leaks and cybersecurity might suggest the emails are a bigger part of that investigation than most people have noticed.

Notably absent from these two teams is Brandon Van Grack, who started the prosecution of Mike Flynn and presumably has remained focused on that. So there’s no reason to believe Van Grack would have to renew pressure, aside from pointing to the example of Manafort to prove the seriousness of this investigation, because he probably has just kept up the pressure as we’ve been distracted.

Also of note: we’re still not seeing all the mob and international expertise on Mueller’s team.

All of which is to say we’ve only seen the involvement of at most 7 out of the 15 lawyers on Mueller’s team. I’m sure the remaining 8 haven’t been sitting idle while we’ve all been focusing on Manafort and Papadopoulos.

Update: Because it’s related, I’ll remind that in Papadopoulos’ plea deal, Zelinsky said they wanted to sustain the prohibition on FOIA because,

in the process of his ongoing efforts to cooperate, the Government has shared substantial information with the Defendant that has provided a road map of sorts, to information that might be sought on FOIA. And it will chill the Government’s ability to continue to have the Defendant cooperate if the information that’s being provided by the Defendant and the continued efforts to jog his memory are then used to create a road map to the ongoing investigation.

Update: When this post was first posted I accidentally swapped Weissman for Goldstein in one reference. My apologies.

*Update: As Peredonov notes below, Page left the SCO after I wrote the underlying post. I’ve marked it in the quote and adjusted numbers accordingly.