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Rudy Giuliani’s Alleged “Cooperation” Is a Threat to Lay out How Bill Barr and Jeffrey Rosen Protected Russian Disinformation

Now that I’ve waded through Rudy Giulilani’s response to learning that SDNY had conducted a covert search on him in November 2019 before it conducted an overt search in April 2021, I’m certain Rudy engaged in just the kind of bad lawyering SDNY hoped he would — more on that in a week or so.

But a big part of his letter was not an attempt to engage in good lawyering, but instead to send messages to a variety of people. He provided co-conspirators a map they can use to understand which of their communications are in SDNY’s hands, and which are not. But he also laid out what he called his “cooperation,” which aside from minimal claims (which SDNY disputed) to have cooperated with SDNY against Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, really amounts to the corrupt stuff he believed he was protected for because he did it on behalf of Donald Trump. Indeed, he claims that if Judge Paul Oetken only knew he had permission to do all this stuff, then he wouldn’t have approved the warrants against him.

It is unknown if the Government informed the Court of Giuliani’s cooperation with the State Department or his offers to cooperate with the SDNY or his actual cooperation with the Western District of Pennsylvania.

His first claim of “cooperation” revisits claims he made in the wake of the whistleblower complaint in 2019, claiming that he was working closely with State when he was lobbying to fire Marie Yovanovitch.

It was premature and unwarranted for the Government to seize Giuliani’s ESI because Giuliani had already cooperated with the US State Department (“State”) through Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, in March 2019 concerning Ukraine. He also cooperated again in July and August of 2019 at the request of the State Department in assisting them with regard to Ukraine.

This is almost certainly the meat of the SDNY investigation, and whatever else Rudy has done by invoking it, he has put Mike Pompeo on the hotseat.

It may not be a coincidence that in the wake of this letter, Gordon Sondland sued Mike Pompeo for covering up what really happened in State in 2019 and provided several excuses — most importantly, that Pompeo refused to let him access his own backup materials before testifying — for why his two existing sessions of sworn testimony might conflict with what SDNY seized from Rudy.

In his other claim of cooperation, Rudy detailed how he shared disinformation from Russian agent Andrii Derkach with DOJ, which he described as “cooperation” with Main Justice in the guise of its delegate, Pittsburgh US Attorney Scott Brady.

Before I repeat Rudy’s description of how he shared disinformation from Andrii Derkach with a hand-picked and very pro-Trump US Attorney, consider several details: first, immediately in the wake of the raid on Rudy in April, there were leaked explanations for how Rudy managed to meet with a known Russian agent — right in the middle of impeachment!! — even though both National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and FBI’s Counterintelligence folks knew that Russia was feeding Derkach disinformation to feed to Rudy.

The WaPo originally reported that the FBI had warned Rudy, but had to retract that. Rudy never got warned.

Correction: An earlier version of this story, published Thursday, incorrectly reported that One America News was warned by the FBI that it was the target of a Russian influence operation. That version also said the FBI had provided a similar warning to Rudolph W. Giuliani, which he has since disputed. This version has been corrected to remove assertions that OAN and Giuliani received the warnings.

The FBI became aware in late 2019 that Rudolph W. Giuliani was the target of a Russian influence operation aimed at circulating falsehoods intended to damage President Biden politically ahead of last year’s election, according to people familiar with the matter.

Officials planned to warn Giuliani as part of an extensive effort by the bureau to alert members of Congress and at least one conservative media outlet, One America News, that they faced a risk of being used to further Russia’s attempt to influence the election’s outcome, said several current and former U.S. officials. All spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter remains highly sensitive.

The FBI became aware of the Russian information operation at a time when Giuliani was deeply involved with former president Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign and related activities in Ukraine to surface unflattering or incriminating information about the Biden family.

[snip]

In late 2019, before Giuliani’s trip to Kyiv, U.S. intelligence agencies warned the Trump White House that Giuliani was the target of a Russian influence operation, as The Post reported last year. Officials became concerned after obtaining evidence, including communications intercepts, that showed Giuliani was interacting with people tied to Russian intelligence. The warnings led then-national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien to caution Trump that any information Giuliani brought back from Ukraine should be considered contaminated by Russia.

Then, after matching the WaPo’s original story and similarly having to retract it, NBC offered an explanation why Rudy wasn’t given that briefing: because it would “complicate” what NBC called “the criminal investigation” into Rudy.

The FBI prepared a so-called “defensive” briefing for Rudy Giuliani in 2019 in which agents were poised to warn him he was being targeted by a Russian intelligence influence operation as he sought to gather opposition research on the Biden family, according to a source familiar with the matter.

But that briefing was not given, according to a second source familiar with the matter, because of concerns that the briefing could complicate the criminal investigation into the former New York City mayor.

Yet, at the time Rudy would have gotten this warning, SDNY had already shown probable cause Rudy was an agent of one or another pro-corruption Ukrainians, almost certainly Yuri Lutsenko in his efforts to fire Marie Yovanovitch. Without a Derkach angle to the SDNY investigation — an angle Jeffrey Rosen went to great lengths to prevent them from pursuing — it’s not clear how it would have complicated that investigation.

Rudy didn’t get his warning and instead of warning him, Trump said that was Rudy being Rudy. So Rudy first met with Lutsenko, the subject of the first investigation, and headed from that meeting directly to meet with Derkach.

A month later, Rosen issued a memo prohibiting any prosecutors from expanding the scope of their already opened investigations, which would have had the effect of preventing SDNY from investigating Rudy’s ongoing influence peddling for known Russian agent Andrii Derkach, about whom FBI decided not to warn Rudy even though everyone briefed on it knew it was a Russian intelligence operation.

But that wasn’t the only thing that Billy Barr and Rosen’s efforts to divvy up Ukrainian investigations did. After Rosen wrote that memo (ensuring no one could start an investigation into Rudy’s dalliances with Derkach), but still a week before Trump was acquitted for coercing dirt from Ukraine to use against Joe Biden, per Rudy’s timeline, Barr assigned Pittsburgh US Attorney Scott Brady to oversee intake of all Ukrainian dirt and, within a day, Rudy was in the business of sharing Derkach’s dirt directly with Pittsburgh’s US Attorney’s office.

In his letter, Rudy clearly identifies four of the nine people who rushed to accept Rudy’s dirt, which the government had identified as Russia disinformation before he went to collect it in December.

[I]n January 2020, counsel for Giuliani contacted high officials in the Justice Department, to inform them that Giuliani wanted to provide evidence for their consideration about the Ukraine. Within a day, the United States Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Scott W. Brady, contacted Giuliani’s counsel and offered to hold a meeting in Pittsburgh with both the United States Attorney’s office personnel and the FBI. Mayor Giuliani immediately accepted, and a meeting was scheduled for January 29, 2020.

On January 29, 2020, Mayor Giuliani and his counsel, flew to Pittsburgh at their own cost, where they were met by agents of the FBI and transported to FBI headquarters in Pittsburgh. Present at that meeting were the United States Attorney, the First Assistant United States Attorney, the Chief of the Criminal Division, and two additional Assistant United States Attorneys (“AUSA’s”) from the Western District of Pennsylvania. The FBI was represented by the Special Agent in Charge (“SAIC”) of the Pittsburgh FBI, the Assistant Special Agent in Charge (“ASAIC”), and three other special agents of the FBI.

Prior to the meeting, Giuliani’s counsel had provided the Pittsburgh United States Attorney’s office with documents and an extensive outline of the subject matter to be discussed, so that the Government could be fully informed and prepared to ask probing questions. Giuliani began the meeting by making a presentation with handouts. During his presentation, and at the end of it, the Mayor and his counsel answered every question they were asked, to the apparent satisfaction of all of the Government officials in the room. In addition to the presentation, Giuliani provided the Government with the names and addresses of individual witnesses, both in the United States and in Ukraine, that could corroborate and amplify the information that the Mayor was providing. Subsequent to that meeting, and covering a period of months, counsel for Giuliani received a number of inquiries, discussions and requests from the First Assistant United States Attorney. All requests were granted and all inquiries were answered. [my emphasis]

And, as Rudy tells it, that First AUSA kept coming back for more, a claim (like his other claims about the personnel involved) that matches a story published in the NYT after those involved knew that Trump had lost. That story also described that Brady kept pushing for inappropriate investigative steps until, ultimately, Seth DuCharme had to get involved.

Officials said that Mr. Brady almost immediately started pushing to take aggressive steps. He had a list of people he wanted F.B.I. agents to question. It was not clear whether they were the same witnesses that Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Costello had submitted, but a former law enforcement official said that Mr. Brady had wanted the F.B.I. to question people mentioned in Mr. Giuliani’s materials.

The steps were outside “normal investigative procedures,” one former senior law enforcement official with knowledge of the events said, particularly in an election year; Justice Department policy typically forbids investigators from making aggressive moves before elections that could affect the outcome of the vote if they become public.
The Pittsburgh F.B.I. office refused to comply without the approval of David L. Bowdich, the F.B.I.’s deputy director, the former official said.

Mr. Brady’s demands soon prompted a tense confrontation with F.B.I. officials at the bureau’s headquarters in Washington. The meeting was mediated by Seth D. DuCharme, now the acting U.S. attorney in Brooklyn and at the time a trusted aide and ally of Mr. Barr’s at the Justice Department in Washington.

Then, after Barr failed to replace Geoffrey Berman with a hand-picked flunky when he fired him on June 20 of last year, Barr instead installed DuCharme in Brooklyn on July 10, thereby making DuCharme (who had already been personally involved in Pittsburgh) the gatekeeper on any investigations pertaining to Ukraine. And sometime months after that — as Rudy continued to share known Russian disinformation during the election — DuCharme approved not an expansion of the investigation in SDNY that Barr tried to shut down by firing Berman, which would have been the logical thing to do if you were concerned about Russians interfering in our elections, but instead a parallel investigation in EDNY that, per the more recent NYT report, by design would not treat Rudy as a subject. Meanwhile, Rosen created repeated roadblocks — higher and higher levels of approvals for a search of Rudy — in an attempt to prevent SDNY from advancing their investigation into Rudy any further.

There are some involved in this story, like the FBI Agents who got promoted into the jobs formerly held by Andrew McCabe and Bill Priestap and Peter Strzok, who probably let all this happen because they knew the best way to advance their careers was to not make the mistake that their predecessors had made by trying to keep the country safe from Russian interference during an election. Others may rationalize what they did as a means to placate the President, perhaps imagining that it wouldn’t do that much damage to the country — that was the excuse cited by the NYT article on the Pittsburgh investigation. But those people, in recognizing Trump would lash out if they tried to investigate Russian interference in the 2020 election, would have therefore understood that Trump wanted Russian spies to interfere in the election and would be furious if they prevented it. They would have had to have understood that the way to keep Trump happy was to let Russia have its way. They would have been operating on the recognition that all the claims about what Trump did in 2016 were true, at least as far as 2020.

Plus, no one who pushed as hard as Scott Brady did can claim to be trying to placate the President.

Finally, worst of all, there are those who took a vow to “protect and defend against enemies foreign and domestic” who made affirmative attempts to protect not just the disinformation that Rudy was feeding to DOJ and FBI, but also protect Rudy for serving as the willful handmaiden of someone they knew was a Russian spy.

The Russian scandal of 2020 is, in many ways, even more scandalous than the Russian scandal of 2016. At least Paul Manafort and Roger Stone were in a position to claim plausible deniability. Bill Barr and Jeffrey Rosen are not.

Update: This email obtained via American Oversight shows that the decision to use Scott Brady to protect the Russian disinformation intake started earlier, by January 3.

The DOD Flunkies’ Convenient Lapse of Executive Privilege

The first thing you should take away from this long Vanity Fair profile of the Trump loyalists who led DOD during the Transition period is that Kash Patel has a very selective approach to Executive Privilege. Deep in the story, when caught in a lie about a plot to have him replace CIA Director Gina Haspel, Patel invokes Executive Privilege to refuse to answer.

I asked Patel about an Axios story that broke just before we sat down to talk. It asserted that CIA director Gina Haspel threatened to resign after learning that Trump planned to install Patel as her deputy. “I’m not going to comment on what the president wanted to do or didn’t want to do, but there’s no conversations of that now or this week or this year,” he replied. But he seemed to be playing coy. The CIA gambit took place last year. In fact, when I had spoken with Cohen about the matter, he had told me, “The idea was to put Kash in as the deputy, which doesn’t require Senate approval, and then to fire Gina the next day, leaving Kash in charge…. Robert O’Brien, [Trump’s national security adviser], is the one who deep-sixed it.” When I pressed Patel further about these machinations, which had occurred in December, I saw him turn lawyerly: “That stuff is between me and the boss. That’s the only thing I don’t comment on. Ever. It’s executive privilege.”

But in the first lines of the profile, both he and former Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller happily offer up a tale of how Trump not only claimed to know what an appropriate deployment of National Guard troops would be in preparation for January 6, but ordered DOD to have them deployed.

On the evening of January 5—the night before a white supremacist mob stormed Capitol Hill in a siege that would leave five dead—the acting secretary of defense, Christopher Miller, was at the White House with his chief of staff, Kash Patel. They were meeting with President Trump on “an Iran issue,” Miller told me. But then the conversation switched gears. The president, Miller recalled, asked how many troops the Pentagon planned to turn out the following day. “We’re like, ‘We’re going to provide any National Guard support that the District requests,’” Miller responded. “And [Trump] goes, ‘You’re going to need 10,000 people.’ No, I’m not talking bullshit. He said that. And we’re like, ‘Maybe. But you know, someone’s going to have to ask for it.’” At that point Miller remembered the president telling him, “‘You do what you need to do. You do what you need to do.’ He said, ‘You’re going to need 10,000.’ That’s what he said. Swear to God.”

I could not recall the last time a contingent that large had been called up to supplement law enforcement at all, much less at a demonstration—the Women’s March and the Million Man March sprang to mind—and so I asked the acting SECDEF why Trump threw out such a big number. “The president’s sometimes hyperbolic, as you’ve noticed. There were gonna be a million people in the street, I think was his expectation.” Miller maintained that initial reports on the anticipated crowd size were all over the map—anywhere from 5,000 to 40,000. “Park Police—everybody’s so hesitant to give numbers. So I think that was what was driving the president.”

There’s a lot of reason to believe this is bullshit. Trump wouldn’t ask for the Guard if he wanted a show of force, he’d ask for a helicopter flyover or something else inappropriate.  Trump isn’t a detail guy. Miller and Patel offered up a key (and dubious) excuse used elsewhere — that they hadn’t been told the Park Service had expanded the Trump rally to 30,000 attendees.

Most importantly, Patel demonstrated that he believes his actual conversations with Trump should be protected by Executive Privilege. Certainly, he would refuse to say anything bad about Trump.

Ezra Cohen[-Watnick], by contrast, isn’t prompted to. While he is permitted to claim that Trump threw everyone — the entire country — under the bus, he’s not asked about his mentor Mike Flynn’s role in the conspiracy.

Ezra Cohen, another of Miller’s top confidants, believes that his colleagues’ words and deeds may be well and good, but are beside the point: “The president threw us under the bus. And when I say ‘us,’ I don’t mean only us political appointees or only us Republicans. He threw America under the bus. He caused a lot of damage to the fabric of this country. Did he go and storm the Capitol himself? No. But he, I believe, had an opportunity to tamp things down and he chose not to. And that’s really the fatal flaw. I mean, he’s in charge. And when you’re in charge, you’re responsible for what goes wrong.”

[snip]

His promotion was fodder for trolls of every stripe. “To the left I became this horrible person that enabled the president, attacking [Obama officials] and all this other stuff like that,” Cohen contended as we sat in his kitchen and later drove through a Chick-fil-A before tooling around northern Virginia. “And then to the crazy people on the right—that are dangerous people that did the horrible, antidemocratic behavior with the Capitol—these nutjobs are saying that I am QAnon.”

The silence about Flynn’s call for martial law is all the more telling given Cohen’s nod to the way QAnon has worked him into their conspiracies. Flynn played a key role in mobilizing QAnon to serve as Trump’s army.

Also missing from this profile? Any mention of Flynn’s brother, Charles, who participated in a call with local DC officials calling for more help but whose role DOD hid until after Biden was inaugurated.

There are other silences as well, perhaps most notably Miller’s stubborn effort to burrow in a fourth ally, Mike Ellis, at NSA in the last hours of the Trump Administration.

So even before you get into the details, this profile should be regarded as an effort by three very slick dudes to recast their role as Trump flunkies in the wake of an inexcusable event.

With all that said, it appears to differ in key ways from the timeline DOD released days after the coup attempt. The Vanity Fair narrative makes several claims that are probably true: That Miller came to work expecting he might not get home that night (though didn’t stay in DC even as the National Guard did in advance of the inauguratoin), and that DOD was chastened given the gross abuse in response to June protests.

But it also suggests Muriel Bowser called for help 48 minutes after DOD’s timeline shows she did.

On the morning of January 6, as Miller recounted, he was hopeful that the day would prove uneventful. But decades in special operations and intelligence had honed his senses. “It was the first day I brought an overnight bag to work. My wife was like, ‘What are you doing there?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know when I’m going to be home.’” To hear Patel tell it, they were on autopilot for most of the day: “We had talked to [the president] in person the day before, on the phone the day before, and two days before that. We were given clear instructions. We had all our authorizations. We didn’t need to talk to the president. I was talking to [Trump’s chief of staff, Mark] Meadows, nonstop that day.”

The security posture and response on January 6 did not occur in a vacuum. June 1, 2020, had been a perilous precedent. On that day federal police had expelled peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square to facilitate the president’s saunter over to St. John’s Church for a publicity stunt. But the brute force displayed to clear out the area proved a national embarrassment and allegedly influenced Washington mayor Muriel Bowser’s view, come January, about how the capital should be policed—and by whom. On the day before all hell broke loose on the Hill, she made it clear the D.C. police (MPD) would be running the show on the 6th, though 340 unarmed National Guard troops had been requested to help with traffic: “The District of Columbia is not requesting other federal law enforcement personnel and discourages any additional deployment without immediate notification to, and consultation with, MPD.”

Miller told me that when Trump made him head of the Pentagon, in November, “the bar was pretty low.” He had three goals. “No military coup, no major war, and no troops in the street,” before observing dryly, “The ‘no troops in the street’ thing changed dramatically about 14:30…. So that one’s off [the list].”

The day began with a lull. “We had meetings upon meetings. We were monitoring it. And we’re just like, Please, God, please, God. Then the damn TV pops up and everybody converges on my office: [Joint Chiefs of Staff] chairman [Mark Milley], Secretary of the Army [Ryan] McCarthy, the crew just converges.” And as intelligence started cycling in, things went from watch and see to “a current op.” Miller recalled, “We had already decided we’re going to need to activate the National Guard, and that’s where the fog and friction comes in.”

“The D.C. mayor finally said, ‘Okay, I need more,’” Kash Patel would tell me. “Then the Capitol police—a federal agency and the Secret Service made the request. We can support them under Title 10, Title 32 authorities for [the] National Guard. So [they] collectively started making requests, and we did it. And then we just went to work.”

With his use of the word “finally,” Patel insinuates there was a delay before Bowser called and asked for help. Meanwhile, Miller suggests that DOD’s response took place at 2:30PM.

The timeline, however, shows that Bowser requested help 29 minutes after DOD says they got “open source reports” of demonstrators moving on the Capitol.

1305: A/SD receives open source reports of demonstrator movements to U.S. Capitol.

1326: USCP orders evacuation of Capitol complex.

1334: SECARMY phone call with Mayor Bowser in which Mayor Bowser communicates request for unspecified number of additional forces.

1349: Commanding General, DCNG, Walker phone call with USCP Chief Sund. Chief Sund communicates request for immediate assistance.

1422: SECARMY phone call with D.C. Mayor, Deputy Mayor, Dr. Rodriguez, and MPD leadership to discuss the current situation and to request additional DCNG support.

1430: A/SD, CJCS, and SECARMY meet to discuss USCP and Mayor Bowser’s requests. 1500: A/SD determines all available forces of the DCNG are required to reinforce MPD and USCP positions to support efforts to reestablish security of the Capitol complex.

1500: SECARMY directs DCNG to prepare available Guardsmen to move from the armory to the Capitol complex, while seeking formal approval from A/SD for deployment. DCNG prepares to move 150 personnel to support USCP, pending A/SD’s approval.

1504: A/SD, with advice from CJCS, DoD GC, the Chief of the National Guard Bureau (CNGB), SECARMY, and the Chief of Staff of the Army, provides verbal approval of the full activation of DCNG (1100 total) in support of the MPD. Immediately upon A/SD approval, Secretary McCarthy directs DCNG to initiate movement and full mobilization. In response, DCNG redeployed all soldiers from positions at Metro stations and all available non-support and non-C2 personnel to support MPD. DCNG begins full mobilization.

The Vanity Fair profile suggests DOD made the decision based off watching TV — presumably those open source reports — that reinforcements would be needed. But they didn’t even begin to “discuss” doing so until 2:30, and didn’t move to make that deployment until 3:04 (so 34 minutes after Miller describes).

Plus, Patel makes no mention of the call from Capitol Police at 1:49.

Ezra Cohen would like you to believe that he got thrown under the bus along with all the people supporting rule of law. Patel would like you to believe the failures of DOD under his watch were not attributable to the Chief of Staff. And Miller would like you to know his family doesn’t much like Donald Trump.

But the whole story reads like a fairy tale.

“That’s Rudy.” Trump Proves, Yet Again, That He Would Just Ignore a Defensive Briefing

For years, the frothy right has wailed that candidate Donald Trump should have been given a defensive briefing back in July 2016, rather than have the FBI open an investigation to figure out which member(s) of his campaign had gotten advance notice that the Russians were planning on dropping emails to help Trump win. Never mind that his top advisor in the briefing where that would have occurred was secretly working for the Turkish government at the time.

The complaint has always rung hollow given that, after President Obama warned Trump against hiring Mike Flynn (the aforementioned secret agent for Turkey), Trump went ahead and hired him anyway.

Today, however, we have further proof that Trump would have done nothing if he had gotten a defensive briefing rather than have the FBI investigate whether — as turned out to be true, in every single case — Flynn and Paul Manafort and George Papadopoulos and Carter Page were trying to cash in on their ties to Trump with foreign governments.

Yesterday, the WaPo reported that Trump’s national security advisor warned Trump that Russia was feeding Trump bullshit though Rudy.

U.S. intelligence agencies warned the White House last year that President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani was the target of an influence operation by Russian intelligence, according to four former officials familiar with the matter.

The warnings were based on multiple sources, including intercepted communications, that showed Giuliani was interacting with people tied to Russian intelligence during a December 2019 trip to Ukraine, where he was gathering information that he thought would expose corrupt acts by former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

The intelligence raised concerns that Giuliani was being used to feed Russian misinformation to the president, the former officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information and conversations.

The warnings to the White House, which have not previously been reported, led national security adviser Robert O’Brien to caution Trump in a private conversation that any information Giuliani brought back from Ukraine should be considered contaminated by Russia, one of the former officials said.

The message was, “Do what you want to do, but your friend Rudy has been worked by Russian assets in Ukraine,” this person said. Officials wanted “to protect the president from coming out and saying something stupid,” particularly since he was facing impeachment over his own efforts to strong-arm Ukraine’s president into investigating the Bidens.

But O’Brien emerged from the meeting uncertain whether he had gotten through to the president. Trump had “shrugged his shoulders” at O’Brien’s warning, the former official said, and dismissed concern about his lawyer’s activities by saying, “That’s Rudy.”

The WaPo goes on to reveal that Bill Barr and Pat Cipollone — who helped Trump survive impeachment for asking for this help — along with Chris Wray all understood that Rudy was being targeted by Russia.

Several senior administration officials “all had a common understanding” that Giuliani was being targeted by the Russians, said the former official who recounted O’Brien’s intervention. That group included Attorney General William P. Barr, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and White Counsel Pat Cipollone.

Today, the NYT matched the WaPo story, albeit with one of their fewer than WaPo’s sources pushing back somewhat.

The agencies imparted the warning months before disclosing publicly in August that Moscow was trying to interfere in the election by taking aim at Mr. Biden’s campaign, the officials said. Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani have promoted unsubstantiated claims about Mr. Biden that have aligned with Russian disinformation efforts, and Mr. Giuliani has met with a Ukrainian lawmaker whom American officials believe is a Russian agent.

Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, presented the warning about Mr. Giuliani to Mr. Trump in December. Two former officials gave conflicting accounts about its nature. One said the report was presented to Mr. Trump as unverified and vague, but another said the intelligence agencies had developed solid and credible information that Mr. Giuliani was being “worked over” by Russian operatives.

Mr. Trump shrugged it off, officials said, but the first former official cautioned that his reaction could have been colored in part by other information given to him not long before that appeared to back some of Mr. Giuliani’s claims about Ukraine.

Both stories, however, agree that Trump blew off this warning.

So in 2016, the FBI investigated and Trump wailed and cried and said he wished he had gotten a defensive briefing.

Last December, he got a defensive briefing, and he just let his attorney continue to mainline him Russian disinformation.

And along the way, Billy Barr seems to have sidelined a tip (and possibly tried to squelch others) — in the form of the whistleblower complaint that launched impeachment — that might get Rudy investigated for serving as such a willing agent of Russian intelligence.

The Kinds and Significance of Russian Interference — 2016 and 2020

Trump’s meltdown last week — in which he purged top staffers at the Director of National Intelligence after a briefing on Russian interference in the 2020 election, followed by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien making shit up on Meet the Press — has created a firestorm about Russian interference in the 2020 election. That firestorm, however, has spun free of what ways Russia interfered in 2016 and what effect it had.

Five ways Russia interfered in 2016

First, remember that there were at least five ways Russia interfered in 2016:

  • Stealing information then releasing it in a way that treats it as dirt
  • Creating on-going security challenges for Hillary
  • Using trolls to magnify divisions and feed disinformation
  • Tampering with the voting infrastructure
  • Influence peddling and/or attempting to recruit Trump aides for policy benefits

Stealing information then releasing it in a way that treats it as dirt

The most obvious way Russia interfered in 2016 was by hacking the DNC, DCCC, and John Podesta (it also hacked some Republicans it did not like). It released both the DNC and Podesta data in such a way as to exaggerate any derogatory information in the releases, successfully distracting the press for much of the campaign and focusing attention on Hillary rather than Trump. It released DCCC information that was of some use for Republican candidates.

Roger Stone took steps — not all of which are public yet — to optimize this effort. In the wake of Stone’s efforts, he moved to pay off one participant in this effort by trying to get a pardon for Julian Assange.

Creating on-going security challenges for Hillary

In addition to creating a messaging problem, the hack-and-leak campaign created ongoing security challenges for Hillary. Someone who played a key role in InfoSec on the campaign has described the Russian effort as a series of waves of attacks. The GRU indictment describes one of those waves — the efforts to hack Hillary’s personal server — which came in seeming response to Trump’s “Russia are you listening” comment. An attack that is often forgotten, and from a data perspective was likely one of the most dangerous, involved a month-long effort to obtain Hillary’s analytics from the campaign’s AWS server.

Whatever happened with this data, the persistence of these attacks created additional problems for Hillary, as her staff had to spend time playing whack-a-mole with Russian hackers rather than optimizing their campaign efforts.

Using trolls to magnify divisions and feed disinformation

Putin’s “chef,” Yevgeniy Prigozhin, also had staffers from his troll factory in St. Petersburg shift an ongoing campaign that attempted to sow division in the US to adopt a specific campaign focus, pushing Trump and attacking Hillary. Importantly, Prigozhin’s US-based troll effort was part of a larger multinational effort. And it was in no way the only disinformation and trolling entity involved in the election. Both parties did some of this, other countries did some, and mercenaries trying to exploit social media algorithms for profit did some as well.

Tampering with the voting infrastructure

Russia also tampered with US voting infrastructure. In 2016, this consisted of probing most states and accessing voter rolls in at least two, though there’s no evidence that Russian hackers made any changes. In addition, Russian hackers targeted a vendor that provided polling books, with uncertain results. The most substantive evidence of possible success affecting the vote in 2016 involved failures of polling books in Durham County, NC, which created a real slowdown in voting in one of the state’s most Democratic areas.

In recent days, there have been reports of a ransomware attack hitting Palm Beach County in September 2016, but it is unclear whether this was part of the Russian effort.

Because there’s no certainty whether the Russian hack of VR Systems was behind the Durham County problems, there’s no proof that any of these efforts affected the outcome. But they point to the easiest way to use hacking to do so: by making it harder for voters in particular areas to vote and harder for specific localities to count the vote.

Some of what Russia did in 2016 — such as probes of a particularly conservative county in FL — may have been part of Russia’s effort to discredit the outcome. They didn’t fully deploy this effort because Trump won.

Influence peddling and/or attempting to recruit Trump aides for policy benefits

Finally, Russia accompanied its other efforts with various kinds of influence peddling targeting Trump’s aides. It was not the only country that did so: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, UAE, and Israel were some of the others. Foreign countries were similarly trying to target Hillary’s campaign — and the UAE effort, at least, targeted both campaigns at once, through George Nader.

Importantly, however, these efforts intersected with Russia’s other efforts to interfere in the election in ways that tied specific policy outcomes to Russia’s interference:

  • An unrealistically lucrative Trump Tower deal involved a former GRU officer and sanctioned banks
  • At a meeting convened to offer Trump dirt about Hillary, Don Jr agreed in principle to revisit ending Magnitsky sanctions if Trump won
  • George Papadopoulos pitched ending sanctions to Joseph Mifsud, who had alerted him that Russia had emails they intended to drop to help Trump
  • Paul Manafort had a meeting that tied winning the Rust Belt, carving up Ukraine, and getting paid personally together; the meeting took place against the background of sharing internal polling data throughout the campaign

As I’ll note in a follow-up, information coming out in FOIAed 302s makes it clear that Mike Flynn’s effort to undercut Obama’s December 2016 sanctions was more systematic than the Mueller Report concludes. So not only did Russia make it clear it wanted sanctions relief, Trump moved to give it to them even before he got elected (and his Administration found a way to exempt Oleg Deripaska from some of these sanctions).

Manafort continued to pursue efforts to carve up Ukraine until he went to jail. In addition, Trump continues to take actions that undercut Ukraine’s efforts to fight Russia and corruption. Neither of these have been tied to a specific quid pro quo (though the investigation into Manafort’s actions, especially, remained inconclusive at the time of the Mueller Report).

So while none of these was charged as a quid pro quo or a conspiracy (and the reasons why they weren’t vary; Manafort lied about what he was doing, and why, whereas Mueller couldn’t prove Don Jr had the mens rea of entering into a quid pro quo), Russia tied certain policy outcomes to its interference.

Trump’s narcissism and legal exposure exacerbated the effects

The Russian attack was more effective than it otherwise would have been for two reasons. First, because he’s a narcissist and because Russia built in plausible deniability, Trump refused to admit that Russia did try to help him. Indeed, he clings more and more to Russian disinformation about what happened, leading the IC to refuse to brief him on the threat, leading to last week’s meltdown.

In addition, rather than let FBI investigate the people who had entered into discussions of a quid pro quo, Trump obstructed the investigation. Trump has spent years now attacking the rule of law and institutions of government rather than admit what DOJ IG found — there was reason to open the investigation, or admit what DOJ found — there was reason to prosecute six of his aides for lying about what happened.

The Russian effort was just one of the reasons Hillary lost

It’s also important to remember that Russia’s interference was just one of the many things that contributed to Hillary’s loss.

Other aspects were probably more important. For example, Republican voter suppression, particularly in Wisconsin and North Carolina, was far more important than any effect the VR Systems hack may have had in Durham County. Jim Comey’s public statements about the email investigation had at least as much effect as the Russian hack-and-leak campaign did on press focus. Hillary made some boneheaded choices — like barely campaigning in WI and MI; while I had worried that she made those choices because Russia tampered with her analytics (with the AWS hack), that doesn’t seem to have happened. Disinformation sent by the Trump campaign and associates was more significant than Russian disinformation. It didn’t help that the Obama Administration announced a sharp spike in ObamaCare prices right before the election.

The response matters

As noted, Trump’s narcissism dramatically increased the effect of the Russian efforts in 2016, because he has always refused to admit it happened.

Compare that to Bernie’s response to learning that Russia was trying to help his campaign, which accepted that it is happening and rejected the help.

“I don’t care, frankly, who [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants to be president,” Sanders said in a statement. “My message to Putin is clear: Stay out of American elections, and as president I will make sure that you do.

“In 2016, Russia used Internet propaganda to sow division in our country, and my understanding is that they are doing it again in 2020. Some of the ugly stuff on the Internet attributed to our campaign may well not be coming from real supporters.”

This was not perfect — Bernie could have revealed this briefing himself weeks ago, Bernie blamed the WaPo for reporting it when it seems like the story was seeded by O’Brien. But it was very good, in that it highlighted the point of Russian interference — sowing divisions — and it reaffirmed the import of Americans selecting who wins. Plus, contrary to Trump, there’s no reason to believe Bernie would pursue policies that specifically advantaged Russia.

Other factors remain more important than Russian interference

There’s very serious reason to be concerned that Russia will hack the outcome of 2020. After all, it would need only to affect the outcome in a small number of precincts to tip the result, and the prospect of power outages or ransomware doing so in urgent fashion have grown since 2016.

That said, as with 2016, there are far more urgent concerns, and those concerns are entirely American.

Republicans continue to seek out new ways to suppress the vote, including by throwing large swaths of voters off the rolls without adequate vetting. There are real concerns about voting machines, particularly in Georgia (and there are credible concerns about the reliability of GA’s tally in past elections). Republicans have continued to make polling locations less accessible in Democratic precincts than in Republican ones.

Facebook refuses to police the accuracy of political ads, and Trump has flooded Facebook with disinformation.

And Bloomberg’s efforts this year — which include a good deal of trolling and disinformation — are unprecedented in recent memory. His ad spending has undercut the ability to weigh candidates. And his personnel spending is increasing the costs for other candidates.

Russian efforts to sway the vote are real. Denying them — as some of Bernie’s supporters are doing in ways that hurt the candidate — does not help. But, assuming DHS continues to work with localities to ensure the integrity of voting infrastructure, neither does overplaying them. Between now and November there’s far more reason to be concerned about American-funded disinformation and American money distorting our democratic process.