Posts

Concord Consulting Aims to Make Russian Bots Legal

Remember when they used to say, “they hate us for our freedoms” in the wake of 9/11? The company of Putin’s buddy Yevgeniy Prigozhin is doing the opposite — having a field day with the due process rights his company, Concord Consulting, gets under US law after being charged in the Internet Research Agency indictment.

As I noted, Concord unexpectedly decided to contest its indictment for using Prigozhin’s troll factory to interfere in the 2016 election. Last week it pled not guilty.

In that post, I suggested that the risk posed by the Concord not guilty plea could be deferred, for now, by arguing over a protection order and ensuring that sensitive data be shared under CIA.

[N]either will happen immediately — Mueller’s team will push for a protection order and CIPA process before turning over the requested discovery and defendants almost never get a Bill of Particulars — effectively, Concord signaled its intention to impose real costs on the US government’s use of our criminal justice system to embarrass Russia. They made it clear that one of Putin’s closes allies will be demanding the intelligence behind an indictment naming him and two of his companies. Which is going to pose real discomfort for Mueller’s team (which might explain a bit of their delay here).

Let me clear: Concord is entirely within its right to begin demanding such evidence. That’s the risk of using our criminal justice system, affording due process, in charging a Russian corporate person who can challenge any charges without risking their freedom. I imagine Mueller’s team didn’t sufficiently account for this possibility when charging it this way. And if there are any other known Russian corporations involved in this operation (or fronts, such as the one Joseph Mifsud worked behind), I would imagine Mueller’s team is rethinking their approach to including those fronts. This could be problematic to the extent that proving any “collusion” between Trump’s people and Russians would most easily be demonstrated via conspiracy charges involving Russian entities.

If and when Mueller dismisses the indictment against Concord (but not its 13 paid trolls), it would be an embarrassing PR moment. But the contest thus far only posed a legal risk to any further indictments that relied on corporate entities, which the rest of the Internet Research Agency one does not.

Concord’s latest challenge may pose a greater threat. It requests the judge in the case (which here would be Magistrate Michael Harvey, though Trump appointee Dabney Friedrich is the District judge on the case) to review the grand jury instructions to make sure the prosecutors explained the mens rea required behind the conspiracy to defraud the US charge in the case. It is, as the motion argues, a fairly modest request (the government will argue, rightly, that it asks for grand jury information it is not entitled to, but Concord is asking just for the judge to review it). It’s basically asking the judge to make sure prosecutors explained to the grand jury that they had to find that IRA knew that it was violating US law.

As I noted here, ConFraudUs provides Mueller’s team with a way to argue the abuse of weak parts in our electoral system violates the law, and charging a conspiracy sets up a way to drop in American defendants at a later date. And, as Lawfare laid out in this good legal review of ConFraudUs, ConFraudUs has been used in the electoral context in the past.

Notably for present purposes, §371 has been deployed in the context of election law specifically. The Justice Department’s manual on federal prosecution of election offenses explicitly contemplates bringing charges of conspiracy to defraud based on campaign finance offenses. It explains the theory as follows:

To perform [its] duties, the FEC must receive accurate information from the candidates and political committees that are required to file reports under the Act. A scheme to infuse patently illegal funds into a federal campaign, such as by using conduits or other means calculated to conceal the illegal source of the contribution, thus disrupts and impedes the FEC in the performance of its statutory duties.

Several federal circuit courts have heard cases brought under §371 based on this theory and have not found fault with its application to behavior that may also violate the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA).

But Concord is arguing the use of ConFraudUs in this case departs from the approach DOJ has previously used to keep foreign influence out of elections (citing cases of Chinese influence peddling under Clinton).

The Court is well aware that heretofore investigations of alleged improper foreign involvement in American elections have been handled by the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”); specifically the Campaign Finance Task Force created by former Attorney General Reno in 1997, and where the Court worked as a prosecutor from September 1997 to August 1998. Former Attorney General Reno refused to bow to massive political pressure to appoint a special counsel, and instead the Task Force methodically investigated and prosecuted cases through 2000.1 Throughout all of that activity, the DOJ never brought any case like the instant Indictment, that is, an alleged conspiracy by a foreign corporation to “interfere” in a Presidential election by allegedly funding free speech. The obvious reason for this is that no such crime exists in the federal criminal code.

It doesn’t actually prove that use of ConFraudUs in this case would be improper (indeed, after complaining that Janet Reno didn’t appoint a special counsel to investigate funding of Clinton, the motion spends a page complaining about a special counsel in this case). Rather, it argues that the indictment couldn’t charge ConFraudUs because none of the Russians involved knew they had to register with the government before engaging in online trolling (they note they’re going to make similar challenges with respect to other charges in the future).

But violations of the relevant federal campaign laws and foreign agent registration requirements administered by the DOJ and the FEC require the defendant to have acted “willfully,” a word that does not appear anywhere in Count One of the Indictment. See 52 U.S.C. § 30109(d) and 22 U.S.C. § 618(a).

[snip]

Count One of the Indictment appears to be facially invalid because it fails to charge an essential element of the offense of conspiracy to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing and defeating the functions of the FEC and the DOJ, that is, that the Defendant acted willfully, in this case meaning that Defendant was aware of the FEC and FARA requirements, agreed to violate those requirements, and ultimately acted with intent to violate those requirements.

There’s a two-fold risk here, if Concord is successful (and they could be).

First, there’s a risk that such a ruling would in effect provide foreign corporations more ability to engage in improper election speech than domestic ones. Particularly as social media companies move to require more transparency in online advertising, a foreign company could continue to violate those requirements simply by pleading dumb. Certainly Congress could mandate some kind of transparency on foreign companies and with that require private companies to administer such things. but it wouldn’t be a quick fix.

There’s a more immediate risk, however. The filing claims that this indictment is, “a case that has absolutely nothing to do with any links or coordination between any candidate and the Russian Government.” While it is true that Rod Rosenstein emphasized there was no allegation in the current indictment that any American knowingly conspired with these Russians, there are actually three Trump campaign staffers described in a way in the indictment that may reflect they’re still under investigation. And in its last filing, Concord demanded the communications behind one event — an American holding a sign in front of the White House — that leads me to believe Concord knows that the involvement of this US person is more complex than alleged in the indictment.

With respect to ¶ 12b, identify the “real U.S. person,” identify the specific Defendant or conspirator who communicated with the “real U.S. person,” provide the dates and times of any such communications, identify the Defendant or conspirator who stated “is a leader here and our boss . . . our funder,” and clarify whether it is alleged that any such communications were made on behalf of Defendant Concord.

That is, while Rosenstein said that thus far there are no Americans in this indictment, that doesn’t mean Mueller didn’t have plans to add some at a later date.

But if Concord can get this conspiracy charge thrown out before then, it’s going to undercut any effort to claim the conspiracy that will be critical to substantiating the collusion charge even if Mueller presents clear evidence of an agreement to carry out this trolling.

That doesn’t mean he won’t be able to prove a conspiracy involving a more obvious agreement — such as the Agalarovs offering dirt in exchange for sanction relief (though that would invoke the bribery rules that SCOTUS has significantly reined in).

But for now, the IRA indictment is a test case in a legal theory that will make it fairly easy to show that Republicans engaged in a conspiracy to tamper with the election. Because Mueller named a corporate person, he provided a way for the Russians to otherwise undercut a theory that seems central to the effort to hold Trump and the Russians accountable.

Again, Mueller can likely prove ConFraudUs with other players in the larger conspiracy. But this filing poses an immediate threat of undermining the logic of such an approach before he can charge it.

The Sekulow Questions, Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

In this series, it feels like time is marked by big Russian meetings and key firings.

I’m talking, of course, about my efforts to use the Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow to map out what the structure of the investigation (at least as it pertains to Trump personally) might be. Thus far, I’ve shown:

  • Russians, led by the Aras Agalarov and his son, cultivated Trump for years by dangling two things: real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin.
  • During the election, the Russians and Trump appear to have danced towards a quid pro quo agreement, with the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for a commitment to sanctions relief, with some policy considerations thrown in.
  • During the transition period, Trump’s team took a series of actions that moved towards consummating the deal they had made with Russia, both in terms of policy concessions, particularly sanctions relief, and funding from Russian sources that could only be tapped if sanctions were lifted. The Trump team took measures to keep those actions secret.
  • Starting in January 2017, Trump came to learn that FBI was investigating Mike Flynn. His real reasons for firing Flynn remain unreported, but it appears he had some concerns that the investigation into Flynn would expose him personally to investigation.
  • After a failed attempt to quash the investigation into his Administration by firing Flynn, Trump grew increasingly angry that Jim Comey wouldn’t provide a quick exoneration without conducting an investigation first, leading to his firing.

May 10, 2017: What did you mean when you told Russian diplomats on May 10, 2017, that firing Mr. Comey had taken the pressure off?

Trump fired Comey just in time to report to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a meeting the next day that doing took the pressure off he felt because of Russia.

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” Remarkably, he also felt the need to reassure the Russians that, “I’m not under investigation.”

The reports that Trump’s lawyers need to have clearance because of the inclusion of this meeting in the list of questions suggests Mueller wants to learn more about the meeting beyond the public reports. That may include Trump’s sharing of classified information provided by the Israelis.

May 11, 2017: What did you mean in your interview with Lester Holt about Mr. Comey and Russia?

The day after meeting with the Russians, he told Lester Holt he was going to fire Comey regardless of what Rod Rosenstein recommended. [These are excerpts and a little rough; here’s a partial transcript that leaves out a lot of the Russian comments]

He’s a showboat, he’s a grand-stander, the FBI has been in turmoil, you know that. I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil. Less than a year ago. It hasn’t recovered from that.

[in response to a question about Rosenstein’s recommendation] What I did was I was going to fire Comey. My decision. I was going to fire Comey. There’s no good time to do it, by the way. I was going to fire regardless of recommendation. [Rosenstein] made a recommendation, he’s highly respected. Very good guy, very smart guy. The Democrats like him. The Republicans like him. But regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey. Knowing there was no good time to do it.

And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won. And the reason they should have won it is the electoral college is almost impossible for a Republican to win. Very hard. Because you start off at such a disadvantage. So everybody was thinking, they should have won the election. This was an excuse for having lost an election.

I just want somebody that’s competent. I’m a big fan of the FBI. I love the people of the FBI.

As far as I’m concerned, I want that [investigation] to be absolutely done properly. When I did this now, I said I’ll probably, maybe confuse that. Maybe I’ll expand that, you know, lengthen the time because it should be over with, in my opinion, should have been over with a long time ago. ‘Cause all it is, is an excuse but I said to myself, I might even lengthen out the investigation, but I have to do the right thing for the American people.

[in response to question about why he put he was not under investigation in his termination letter] Because he told me that, I mean he told me that. I’ve heard that from others. I had a dinner him, he wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on, we had a very nice dinner at the White House very early on. [He asked to have dinner?] A dinner was arranged. I think he asked for the dinner. And he wanted to stay on as the FBI head. And I said, I’ll consider, we’ll see what happens. We had a very nice dinner. And at that time he told me you’re not under investigation. I knew anyway. First of all, when you’re under investigation, you’re giving all sorts of documents and everything. I knew I wasn’t under — and I heard it was stated at the committee, at some committee level, number one. Then during the phone call he said it, then during another phone call he said it. He said it at dinner, and then he said it twice during phone calls.

In one case I called him, in one case he called me.

I actually asked him, yes. I said, if it’s possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation? He said you are not under investigation. All I can tell you is that I know that I’m not under investigation. Personally. I’m not talking about campaigns, I’m not talking about anything else. I’m not under investigation.

[did you ask him to drop the investigation] No. Never. I want the investigation speeded up. Why would we do that? Iw ant to find out if there was a problem with an election having to do with Russia, or anyone else, any other country, I want it to be so strong and so good.

I want somebody that’s going to do a great job.

I think that looking into me and the campaign, I have nothing to do, his was set up by the Democrats. There’s no collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians. The other things is the Russians did not affect the vote.

If Russia hacked, If Russia had to anything to do with our election, I want to know about it. If Russia or anybody elseis trying to interfere with our elections I want to make sure that will never ever happen

[wiretapping] I was surprised [Comey said no spying] but I wasn’t angry. There’s a big thing going on right now, spying, to me that’s the big story.

I want a great FBI Director. I expect that [they will continue investigation].

[Flynn’s access to secrets] My White House Counsel it did not sound like an emergency. She didn’t make it sound that way either in the hearings the other day. It didn’t sound like it had to be done immediately. This man has served for many years. He’s a general. In my opinion a very good person. It would be very unfair to hear from someone we don’t even know to immediately run out and fire a general. We ultimately fired, but we fired for a different reason. Everything plays into it. We fired him because he said something to the Vice President that wasn’t true. He had clearance from the Obama Administration. I think it’s a very unfair thing that the media doesn’t talk about that.

I just sent a letter from one of the most prestigious law firms in the country that I have nothing to do with Russia, I have no investments in Russia, I don’t have property in Russia. I’m in total compliance in every way.

I had the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow a long time ago. I have a certified letter. I’m not just saying that. I assume he’s gonna give the letter out. No loans, no nothing.

I never thought about it [optics of Lavrov meeting]. What difference does it make.

When I spoke with Putin he asked me whether I’d see Lavrov. I think we had a great discussion having to do with Syria, having to do with the Ukraine. Maybe that discussion will lead to peace.

Ultimately, Trump said several things here (aside from putting into the public record the meetings with Comey, though he got details that can almost certainly be proved wrong wrong). He differentiated between an investigation into himself personally and others, denied asking to halt the investigation into Flynn, provided his bogus self-exoneration claim of not having business ties with Russians. He also reiterated the claim he had been spied on.

May 12, 2017: What was the purpose of your May 12, 2017, tweet?

By this point, Trump and Comey were in a war of credibility. And Trump suggested that he might have tapes of his meetings with Comey.

The White House answers about whether there were tapes have dodged some, so it’s possible.

May 17, 2017: What did you think and what did you do in reaction to the news of the appointment of the special counsel?

In the wake of reporting that Comey had documented a request from Trump to halt the investigation into Flynn, on May 17, Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to investigate any links between the Russian government and individuals associated with Trump’s campaign and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” The latter phrase made it clear that by firing Comey, Trump had put himself under investigation for obstructing the investigation in chief.

In the middle of a meeting with Sessions, Don McGahn, Mike Pence, and several others on replacing Comey, Rosenstein called McGahn and told him he had appointed Mueller. Trump took it out on Sessions, calling him an idiot and telling him he should resign. Sessions left and sent a resignation letter, but Pence, Steve Bannon, and Reince Priebus convinced him to hold off on accepting it. This piece describes Priebus’ side of that story.

May 31, 2017: Why did you hold Mr. Sessions’s resignation until May 31, 2017, and with whom did you discuss it?

Mueller has received testimony from most of the people who counseled Trump not to fire Sessions, including McGahn, Bannon, and Priebus (but not Pence). He has also gotten Sessions’ testimony on this point.

I’m particularly interested in whether Trump consulted with people not listed in the NYT story on this, such as Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller (who had counseled him to fire Comey in the first place). I also suspect that Trump had already reached out Flynn by this point to talk pardons.

June 8, 2017: What did you think about Mr. Comey’s June 8, 2017, testimony regarding Mr. Flynn, and what did you do about it?

On June 8, Comey testified to SSCI. The night before, he released a statement that reviewed much of what appeared in his memos. The hearing consisted of senators from each party trying to spin Comey’s report of being asked to drop the Flynn investigation, with little news  — though Comey did make clear the investigation covered false statements.

BLUNT: On the Flynn issue specifically, I believe you said earlier that you believe the president was suggesting you drop any investigation of Flynn’s account of his conversation with the Russian ambassador. Which was essentially misleading the vice president and others?

COMEY: Correct. I’m not going to go into the details but whether there were false statements made to government investigators, as well.

Comey refuted Trump’s claim that he didn’t ask him to stop the investigation into Flynn.

KING: In his press conference May 18th, the president responded, quote, no, no, when asked about asking you to stop the investigation into general Flynn. Is that a true statement?

COMEY: I don’t believe it is.

Comey said he viewed the Flynn investigation and the Russian one as touching, but separate, though raised the possibility of flipping Flynn.

KING: Back to Mr. Flynn. Would the — would closing out the Flynn investigation have impeded the overall Russian investigation?

COMEY: No. Well, unlikely, except to the extent — there is always a possibility if you have a criminal case against someone and squeeze them, flip them and they give you information about something else. But I saw the two as touching each other but separate.

Comey also revealed that he had shared memos memorializing his conversations with Trump with a friend.

BLUNT: You said something earlier and I don’t want to fail to follow up on, you said after dismissed, you gave information to a friend so that friend could get that information into the public media.

COMEY: Correct.

BLUNT: What kind of information was that? What kind of information did you give to a friend?

COMEY: That the — the Flynn conversation. The president had asked me to let the Flynn — forgetting my exact own words. But the conversation in the Oval Office.

Much of the hearing covered Sessions’ non-involvement. Comey deferred a number of questions to the closed session.

Trump used the Comey hearing — and his confirmation that at the time he left the president wasn’t under investigation — to have Marc Kasowitz make a statement claiming Trump never impeded the investigation and never demanded loyalty.

I am Marc Kasowitz, Predisent Trump’s personal lawyer.

Contrary to numerous false press accounts leading up to today’s hearing, Mr. Comey has now finally confirmed publicly what he repeatedly told the President privately: The President was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference. He also admitted that there is no evidence that a single vote changed as a result of any Russian interference.

Mr Comey’s testimony also makes clear that the President never sought to impede the investigation into attempted Russian interference in the 2016 election, and in fact, according to Mr. Comey, the President told Mr. Comey “it would be good to find out” in that investigation if there were “some ‘satellite’ associates of his who did something wrong.” And he did not exclude anyone from that statement. Consistent with that statement, the President never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone, including suggesting that that Mr. Comey“let Flynn go.” As he publicly stated the next day, he did say to Mr. Comey, “General Flynn is a good guy, he has been through a lot” and also “asked how is General Flynn is doing.”

Admiral Rogers testified that the President never “directed [him] to do anything . . . illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate” and never “pressured [him] to do so.” Director Coates said the same thing. The President likewise never pressured Mr. Comey. .

The President also never told Mr. Comey, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty” in form or substance. Of course, the Office of the President is entitled to expect loyalty from those who are serving in an administration, and, from before this President took office to this day, it is overwhelmingly clear that there have been and continue to be those in government who are actively attempting to undermine this administration with selective and illegal leaks of classified information and privileged communications.

Kasowitz also accused Comey of leaking in order to lead to a special counsel investigation.

Mr. Comey has now admitted that he is one of these leakers. Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the President. The leaks of this privileged information began no later than March 2017 when friends of Mr. Comey have stated he disclosed to them the conversations he had with the President during their January 27, 2017 dinner and February 14, 2017 White House meeting. Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he leaked to friends his purported memos of these privileged conversations, one of which he testified was classified. He also testified that immediately after he was terminated he authorized his friends to leak the contents of these memos to the press in order to “prompt the appointment of a special counsel.” Although Mr. Comey testified he only leaked the memos in response to a tweet, the public record reveals that the New York Times was quoting from these memos the day before the referenced tweet, which belies Mr. Comey’s excuse for this unauthorized disclosure of privileged information and appears to entirely retaliatory. We will leave it the appropriate authorities to determine whether this leaks should be investigated along with all those others being investigated. .

In sum, it is now established that there the President was not being investigated for colluding with the or attempting to obstruct that investigation. As the Committee pointed out today, these important facts for the country to know are virtually the only facts that have not leaked during the long course of these events.

This sort of kicked off the official campaign to discredit Comey and those who would back his story.

June 12, 2017: What did you think and do in reaction to the news that the special counsel was speaking to Mr. Rogers, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Coats?

Public reports date Rogers and Coats’ interviews with Mueller to the week of June 12, 2017, so Pompeo’s must have been around that same time. Rogers and Coats, at least, testified that Trump tried to get them to state publicly that there was no collusion. They said the interaction was odd and uncomfortable, but that he did not order them to interfere.

Clearly, Trump responded to public reports of their being called as witnesses, though we don’t know what the response was. It’s possible that’s when Trump threatened to fire Mueller, only to back off when Don McGahn threatened to quit.

July 7, 2017: What involvement did you have in the communication strategy, including the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails?

I’ve laid out that I believe the evolving June 9 story is a limited hangout orchestrated by Agalarov lawyer Scott Balber. The strategy would have begun when Jared Kushner wrestled with the need to disclose the meeting, both in response to congressional investigations and for his clearance. Manafort, too, turned over emails backing the event about a month before the story came out publicly. This post talks about the response the weekend of the G-20 in Hamburg, including Ivanka sitting in on a meeting so Trump could strategize, and Hope Hicks suggesting the emails would never come out.

As a reminder, on the same day Trump had a second hour long meeting with Putin, he dictated Putin’s propaganda line that the meeting pertained to adoptions. Importantly, he hid what I’ve suggested was the quo in the quid pro quo, sanctions relief. Mueller undoubtedly would like to know if Putin helped him come up with that message, which would be really damning.

Mueller also wants to know about the decision to leak Don Jr’s emails. Bannon suspects that a Jared aide leaked the emails (his then lawyer Jamie Gorelick would cut back her work with him shortly thereafter). But remember: in a DM, Assange proposed that he give Wikileaks the email.

There’s clearly far more back story to the leaked email we don’t know yet.

If Trump’s involvement here involves coordination with Russians (like the Agalrovs, to say nothing of Putin) or Assange, it would provide damning evidence not of obstruction, but of collusion, an effort to coordinate a story about a key meeting. Trump’s lawyers have always suggested questions about Trump’s role in this statement are improper, which is itself a telling indicator that they don’t understand (or want to spin) the risk of the original June 9 meeting.

July 20, 2017: After the resignations, what efforts were made to reach out to Mr. Flynn about seeking immunity or possible pardon?

Mike Flynn tried to get Congressional immunity in March 2017, with Trump’s backing the effort in a tweet.

Mueller’s question seems to suggest even at that earlier period, someone from Trump’s camp reached out and discussed immunity with Flynn. Shortly before April 25, Trump also sent Flynn a message to “stay strong.” (h/t TC)

On July 20, the WaPo reported that Trump’s team was researching pardons. The NYT report first revealing that Trump offered pardons to Mike Flynn (and Manafort, who is curiously not mentioned in this question) describes it happening after John Dowd took over, in the wake of the revelation of the June 9 meeting and the Kasowitz firing. Dowd denied any such thing was happening on July 21, which is probably a good sign such discussions were taking place.

July 25, 2017: What was the purpose of your July 2017 criticism of Mr. Sessions? What discussions did you have with Reince Priebus in July 2017 about obtaining the Sessions resignation? With whom did you discuss it?

In late July, 2017, Trump accused Sessions of several sins: failing to crack down on leaks, failing to prosecute Hillary, and failing to fire Andrew McCabe. That must be the same time when Trump ordered Priebus to get Sessions’ resignation, which he dodged by stalling, which probably answers the “what was the purpose” question: to lay predicate to fire Sessions.

I’m particularly interested in the question about who Trump discussed this with, particularly given the provocative timing — the days before George Papadopoulos’s July 26 arrest and Paul Manafort’s July 27 condo search (using a warrant that, unlike a warrant from a May 27 storage unit search, invoked the June 9 meeting). It’s possible Trump had advance knowledge of this stuff (which would be alarming), but likely it’s a coincidence.

In any case, Mueller clearly has reason to believe Trump learned something about the investigation and discussed it with people that led him to try, again, to stop it by firing someone.

What was the purpose of the September and October 2017 statements, including tweets, regarding an investigation of Mr. Comey?

On September 1, Trump responded to reports that because Comey had a declination written before interviewing Hillary, he rigged the outcome of the investigation. In mid-October, in the wake of the Manafort indictment and George Papadopoulos plea, Trump returned to this attack. Rudy Giuliani has renewed this attack in recent days, which is presumably an attempt to undercut Comey’s credibility.

What discussions did you have regarding terminating the special counsel, and what did you do when that consideration was reported in January 2018?

The NYT report that Trump tried to fire Mueller in June 2017 made it clear that Mueller had received testimony about it (presumably from McGahn and others). Clearly, Mueller has reason to know that Trump did something else in response. Note that this report came out in the wake of the Michael Wolff book, which would give Mueller an excuse to call several of the relevant witnesses (such as Mark Corallo and Steve Bannon) as witnesses. This time period also closely follows the increasingly aggressive response in Congress.

What is the reason for your continued criticism of Mr. Comey and his former deputy, Andrew G. McCabe?

The assumption is that Trump continues to attack Comey and McCabe because doing so might harm their credibility with regards to an obstruction investigation, and that’s surely true (made all the worse by McCabe’s firing and his criminal referral).

But I increasingly believe (particularly given that the other contemporaneous witnesses to Comey’s concerns, like James Baker, are not named) that’s not the only reason Trump is doing this. My guess is it’s an attempt to undermine their decision to investigate Flynn. We now know, for example, that McCabe set up the interview with Flynn on Comey’s direction. So in addition to discrediting key witnesses against him, it seems possible that Trump is also trying to discredit the decision, at a time when  FBI was about to close a counterintelligence investigation into Flynn, to instead interview him, leading to the exposure of Trump’s efforts to undermine US policy during the transition period.

RESOURCES

These are some of the most useful resources in mapping these events.

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

Sally Yates and James Clapper Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, May 8, 2017

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

Part One: The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up

Part Two: The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief

Part Three: The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

With the Upcoming Concord Consulting Not Guilty Plea, Russians Continue to Win the Lawfare Hockey Title

Last year, I observed how effective the mostly-Russian (with some assistance from Republicans) lawfare surrounding the Steele dossier had been. Between the Webzilla and Alfa Bank suits against Steele dossier actors (the latter advised by top Republican lawyers at Kirkland & Ellis), they forced out information that would embarrass Democrats and assist Republican efforts to undermine the Russian investigation. Further, the many suits were far more costly than the initial oppo research had been.

As a number of outlets have observed, one of the firms named in the Internet Research Agency indictment, Concord Management and Consulting, is waging similar lawfare in response to that indictment.

Concord is the firm of Yevgeniy Prigozhin, often called Putin’s chef because he’s gotten rich of catering contracts. The indictment claims Concord provided the bulk of the funding for the IRA. It further alleges Concord funds disinformation campaigns not just targeting America, but targeting other countries and domestic Russian audiences.

Beginning as early as 2014, Defendant ORGANIZATION began operations to interfere with the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Defendant ORGANIZATION received funding for its operations from Defendant YEVGENIY VIKTOROVICH PRIGOZHIN and companies he controlled, including Defendants CONCORD MANAGEMENT AND CONSULTING LLC and CONCORD CATERING (collectively “CONCORD”). Defendants CONCORD and PRIGOZHIN spent significant funds to further the ORGANIZATION’s operations and to pay the remaining Defendants, along with other uncharged ORGANIZATION employees, salaries and bonuses for their work at the ORGANIZATION.

[snip]

Defendants CONCORD MANAGEMENT AND CONSULTING LLC (Конкорд Менеджмент и Консалтинг) and CONCORD CATERING are related Russian entities with various Russian government contracts. CONCORD was the ORGANIZATION’s primary source of funding for its interference operations. CONCORD controlled funding, recommended personnel, and oversaw ORGANIZATION activities through reporting and interaction with ORGANIZATION management.

CONCORD funded the ORGANIZATION as part of a larger CONCORD-funded interference operation that it referred to as “Project Lakhta.” Project Lakhta had multiple components, some involving domestic audiences within the Russian Federation and others targeting foreign audiences in various countries, including the United States.

Among the details in the indictment that would require the most SIGINT (as distinct from cooperation from Facebook and domestic forensics analysis) is a paragraph describing the funding behind the operation.

To conceal its involvement, CONCORD labeled the monies paid to the ORGANIZATION for Project Lakhta as payments related to software support and development. To further conceal the source of funds, CONCORD distributed monies to the ORGANIZATION through approximately fourteen bank accounts held in the names of CONCORD affiliates, including Glavnaya Liniya LLC, Merkuriy LLC, Obshchepit LLC, Potentsial LLC, RSP LLC, ASP LLC, MTTs LLC, Kompleksservis LLC, SPb Kulinariya LLC, Almira LLC, Pishchevik LLC, Galant LLC, Rayteks LLC, and Standart LLC.

Presumably, the Mueller team named Concord and Prigozhin because doing so would support sanctions against him and his companies (indeed, Prigozhin was added to sanctions back in March). But it was also a way to put the operation within the immediate vicinity of Putin and tie it to the patronage that he uses to stay in power.

But then the corporate person of Concord Consulting unexpectedly started to contest the charges. On April 11, two lawyers from Reed Smith filed an attorney appearance for the firm. That same day, the lawyers sent Mueller’s team two letters, one asking for a Bill of Particulars and the other an expansive discovery request. Mueller’s team (having previously tried to serve Concord via the Russian government) then sent a letter to the lawyers, asking for confirmation they can receive summons for their client, which the lawyers returned it 10 days later, saying it violated Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The government, based on the returned summons, asked for a continuance to make sure that summons had been accepted.

Acceptance of service is ordinarily an indispensable precondition providing assurance that a defendant will submit to the jurisdiction of the court, obey its orders, and comply with any judgment. Here, proper service is disputed. It would not be an efficient use of resources to conduct proceedings against Concord clouded by the question whether Concord has been properly served. And as mentioned above, that is particularly true given the sensitive intelligence gathering, national security, and foreign affairs issues presented by defense counsel’s initial requests.

Concord’s lawyers responded by arguing the Special Counsel was ignoring local rules requiring two weeks advance notice to make a scheduling change, and further noting the government had not cited any case law supporting the argument that there might be uncertainty about whether Concord had been served.

The Special Counsel is not entitled to special rules, and is required like the Attorney General to follow the rules of the Court. See United States v. Libby, 498 F.Supp.2d 1, 10-11 (D.C.C. 2007).

The Special Counsel’s motion, filed late on a Friday afternoon, essentially seeks to usurp the scheduling authority of the Court by requesting a continuance of a proceeding scheduled in five days knowing that Defendant is ordinarily entitled to fourteen days to respond.

The Special Counsel’s motion is in violation of Local Criminal Rule 47(b) in that its contains no citation to points of law and authority and instead proclaims without citation to any authority that “A criminal case against an organizational defendant ordinarily requires that the defendant has been properly served with a summons in order for the court to be assured that the defendant has submitted to the jurisdiction of this court and has obligated itself to proceed in accordance with the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and other applicable laws that govern this criminal proceeding,”

Judge Dabney Friedrich denied the government motion, meaning there’ll be an initial appearance Wednesday.

Before looking at what Concord is trying to do with its discovery request, let’s take a step back.

The US has been charging Russian hackers and other criminals (like Viktor Bout) for years. Russia hates it. Even ignoring the number of Russian criminals we’ve imprisoned for long sentences, in cases where we don’t nab defendants while on vacation, the indictments still provide the US a forum to expose Russian intelligence activities with little cost to the US.

Charging a corporate person — one close to Putin — for a crime (information operations) that the US also engages in, the government provided Putin and his ally Prigozhin with an opening to either inflict some damage or force the government to withdraw the indictment (and think twice before indicting any other Russian corporations in other Russian investigation indictments).

Here’s some of what Concord is asking for:

Unnamed co-conspirators. When Rod Rosenstein announced this indictment, he emphasized that no Americans were named as co-conspirators in the indictment. That’s different than saying no Americans did conspire (indeed, I’ve noted that three Trump Campaign Officials described in the indictment may be under ongoing investigation). The motion for a Bill of Particulars asks for the identities of those three Trump Campaign Officials, as well as the identities of at least ten other Americans described specifically, and 100 recruited by IRA (described in ¶81). It also asks for the name of co-conspirators for an act, ¶7 of the indictment, who were required to register even though no co-conspirators are alleged to have to do so. Intriguingly, it asks not just for the identity of the real US person who held a sign in front of the White House (¶12b), but also all details surrounding the communications behind that appearance.

Related crimes the government will introduce at trial. The discovery request makes a very normal Rule 404(b) request for any “other crimes, wrongs, or acts” the government might introduce at trial. If Mueller’s team believes anyone in this indictment was involved in other parts of the operation, they might have to disclose that.

SIGINT. The request for a Bill of Particulars asks the government to identify all VPNs, PayPal accounts, Twitter accounts, and web-based emails used in the operation. It asks for the IDs of the people behind the operation and a definition of what significant funds means which would convey how much money Mueller has tracked. It asks for the specific bank accounts the indictment alleges Concord used to launder its money. It asks for specific evidence showing Prigozhin’s knowledge of the operation. It asks for all the communications behind the named events in the indictment. Showing this would provide Concord, and so Prigozhin, and so Putin, a very detailed picture of how much intelligence the US collected to draw up this indictment, which would also hint a lot about how we got it.

Details they will use to show US double standards. This includes a request for all the times since 1945 an agent of the US “engaged in operations to interfere with elections and political processes in any foreign country,” which is probably a reference to this study that shows CIA has done it more than Russia, along with a parallel request about any times Americans have been charged under the same crime, 18 USC 371, charged in the indictment. It also asks for a definition of a bunch of terms — such as “improper foreign influence,” “computer infrastructure,” “collecting intelligence,” and “began to monitor” that Russia will then use to point out where US spooks do the same. The request asks for a list of all criminal statutes that prohibit interference operations, the specific statutes behind the FECA, FARA, and visa violations alleged, as well as statutes that prohibit “impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful governmental functions of the US … [by] interfer[ing] with US political and electoral processes. Together, those requests are designed to show that much of this stuff is either legal or spying.

The names of informants. Concord asks for this both as a general Brady request and asks for the specific name of the uncharged co-conspirator who traveled to Atlanta in 2014 in the request for a Bill of Particulars. While Prigozhin probably knows which Russians cooperated, Russia will nevertheless love to use that to punish whoever did.

While neither will happen immediately — Mueller’s team will push for a protection order and CIPA process before turning over the requested discovery and defendants almost never get a Bill of Particulars — effectively, Concord signaled its intention to impose real costs on the US government’s use of our criminal justice system to embarrass Russia. They made it clear that one of Putin’s closes allies will be demanding the intelligence behind an indictment naming him and two of his companies. Which is going to pose real discomfort for Mueller’s team (which might explain a bit of their delay here).

Let me clear: Concord is entirely within its right to begin demanding such evidence. That’s the risk of using our criminal justice system, affording due process, in charging a Russian corporate person who can challenge any charges without risking their freedom. I imagine Mueller’s team didn’t sufficiently account for this possibility when charging it this way. And if there are any other known Russian corporations involved in this operation (or fronts, such as the one Joseph Mifsud worked behind), I would imagine Mueller’s team is rethinking their approach to including those fronts. This could be problematic to the extent that proving any “collusion” between Trump’s people and Russians would most easily be demonstrated via conspiracy charges involving Russian entities.

As I said, for years, it has pissed off Russia generally and Putin in particular that the US used its criminal justice system to embarrass Russia, particularly for actions (like nation-state spying or information warfare like that alleged in this indictment) that we also engage in, including against Russia. It seems clear Putin and his buddy Prigozhin are using the incidence of the latter having had his company be named in this indictment as an opportunity to retaliate and make DOJ think twice as it continues to expand such efforts in the future.

And to a large degree, it’s quite likely to work.

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

[snip]

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

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

THE COURT: Where am I wrong in that regard?

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

[snip]

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

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

THE COURT: All right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fire Rosenstein Squad among Trump’s Buddies

WSJ has a fascinating story about the advice that former prosecutor and Trump lawyer Jay Goldberg gave the president last week after the Michael Cohen raid. Rather than keeping the advice confidential or even anonymous, Goldberg instead sat down for two hours to tell the WSJ precisely what he told the president in a 15 minute conversation last week.

The newsy bit is that Goldberg told Trump that Cohen would flip on him if he were charged, and might even agree to wear a wire.

One of President Donald Trump’s longtime legal advisers said he warned the president in a phone call Friday that Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer and close friend, would turn against the president and cooperate with federal prosecutors if faced with criminal charges.

Mr. Trump made the call seeking advicel [sic] from Jay Goldberg, who represented Mr. Trump in the 1990s and early 2000s. Mr. Goldberg said he cautioned the president not to trust Mr. Cohen. On a scale of 100 to 1, where 100 is fully protecting the president, Mr. Cohen “isn’t even a 1,” he said he told Mr. Trump.

[snip]

[H]e stressed to thje [sic] president that Mr. Cohen could even agree to wear a wire and try to record conversations with Mr. Trump. “You have to be alert,” Mr. Goldberg said he told the president. “I don’t care what Michael says.”

The more troubling revelation is that Goldberg told Trump straight out he should fire Rod Rosenstein.

Prompted by the president for his advice, he also said he recommended Mr. Trump fire Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who appointed Mr. Mueller.

But here’s the other detail of interest. Goldberg told the WSJ that the Cohen raid puts him at more risk than the Mueller investigation.

Goldberg said the volume of correspondence taken and the potential pressure the government can bring to bear on Mr. Cohen to testify puts the president in more potential peril from the Cohen matter than from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Mr. Mueller is examining whether members of Mr. Trump’s campaign team colluded with Russians to affect the 2016 election. Russia officials have denied meddling in the election, and Mr. Trump has denied any collusion took place.

And he said that even while asserting that he doesn’t believe Trump broke the law (in context, I presume this means with Russia, though I’m not certain).

Goldberg recalled the conversation in a two-hour interview in his apartment on New York’s Upper East Side Wednesday, emphasizing that he didn’t believe Mr. Trump had broken the law.

Here’s why I find this so fascinating.

First, clearly Goldberg wants this out, even the details (like that he thinks Cohen might wear a wire) designed to make Trump go nuts. This, then, is presumably another example of a Trump associate trying to speak to him through the press (though why Goldberg chose WSJ instead of Fox, I don’t know — maybe this is an attempt to get booked on Fox, where Trump will see it). Perhaps, too, Goldberg is trying to put pressure on Trump’s legal team, especially Ty Cobb, to let the president fire Rosenstein.

That said, the story will make the legal risk of firing Rosenstein still greater, because it will make the context of all this clear: that firing Rosenstein would be an attempt to prevent Cohen from being charged, which would have the effect of exposing Trump to legal risk. (That analysis seems problematic in any case, because — at least according to my understanding of things — while Rosenstein has to approve any charges Mueller makes, that may not be true of any charges Robert Khuzami would make as acting US Attorney for SDNY, though it’s possible DOJ would demand further approvals because of the political significance of this.)

But the entire premise, if Goldberg is to be believed (and if I’m understanding the context of his comment about Trump not having broken the law), is that Trump is not at legal risk from Mueller but he is at risk for … everything else that Cohen might implicate him in.

Of course, that sentiment was reported last Friday by NYT, in the lead of this story, attributed to “Trump’s advisers” and “people close to Trump” (both descriptions could clearly include Goldberg).

President Trump’s advisers have concluded that a wide-ranging corruption investigation into his personal lawyer poses a greater and more imminent threat to the president than even the Special Counsel’s investigation, according to several people close to Mr. Trump.

In other words, it’s highly likely that we’re seeing Goldberg say on the record to the WSJ what he said anonymously to the NYT last week. But in the process, we’re seeing why: Goldberg doesn’t think Trump broke the law in anything he did with regards to Russia. How much does Goldberg really know what Trump did, I wonder? Either he knows all the details, in which case his judgment may be valid, or he has no clue, in which case we shouldn’t necessarily take the opinion as all that reasonable.

Side note: if I’m Mueller, I’ve already drafted the subpoena for Goldberg, who presumably won’t be able to claim the substance of this conversation with Trump, which he shared with WSJ, is privileged.

All of which leads me to the most shocking part of Friday’s story: that Trump called Cohen that day to “check in.”

Trump called Mr. Cohen on Friday to “check in,” according to two people briefed on the call. Depending on what else was discussed, the call could be problematic, as lawyers typically advise their clients against discussing investigations.

WSJ seems to suggest that, in addition to speaking with Trump, Goldberg also spoke to Cohen, which may be where he got the detailed description of the raid he shared with WSJ.

Mr. Cohen was “shocked,” according to Mr. Goldberg, who also spoke with Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Ty Cobb, in recent days.

So what this looks like by reading the two stories together is that, probably before he spoke to Trump on Friday, Goldberg spoke to Cohen. Maybe that’s part of where he derived his opinion that Cohen would flip on Trump. And then Goldberg called Trump to tell him Cohen wouldn’t remain loyal.

Was that before or after Trump called Cohen to “check in”?

Goldberg may be trying to help Trump by pushing him to fire Rosenstein. But I can think of about five ways that this story really fucks Trump, and that’s assuming that Mueller doesn’t give Goldberg a call to invite him in for a chat.

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.

The Libby Pardon: Trump’s Object Lesson in Presidential Firewalls

There are two reports out tonight:

  • Rod Rosenstein will be fired in an attempt to quash any further investigation of Trump’s crimes.
  • Scooter Libby will be pardoned in an obvious attempt to present an object lesson in presidential firewalls.

This post will be an initial attempt to explain the Libby pardon.

Side note: For those who claim Richard Armitage outed Plame, let’s just agree that you have no familiarity with the actual record and leave it there for now. Trust me on this: Bush and Cheney were very concerned that the written record showed Cheney ordering Libby to out Plame (whom, some evidence not introduced at trial suggests, he knew was covert). We can fight about that later, but I’ve got a library of records on this and you don’t. 

First: Libby has already had his right to vote and his bar license restored. This pardon is purely symbolic. I’m sure Libby’s happy to have it, but the audience here is Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, and a slew of other people who can incriminate Trump.

This appears to be a stunt inspired by Joe DiGenova and Victoria Toensing (whom I’ll call DiG & T henceforth), who are great table pounders but not great lawyers. Also, remember that VT is representing Mark Corallo, Erik Prince, and Sam Clovis, all in some legal jeopardy, so this ploy may help them too.

Libby was Bush’s firewall because he was ordered–by either PapaDick Cheney and/or Bush–to out Valerie Plame as an object lesson to CIA people pushing back on their shitty Iraq case. By refusing to flip, he prevented Patrick Fitzgerald from determining whether Bush had really ordered that outing or whether Cheney and Libby freelanced on it.

Libby risked prison, but didn’t flip on Cheney or Bush. He avoided prison time with a commutation, not a pardon. While PapaDick pushed hard for pardon, it didn’t happen, in large part because Bush had far better lawyers than Trump has.

Here’s some of the differences between Libby and Trump’s many firewalls:

  1. Manafort, Kushner, and Cohen are exposed to state charges, in addition to federal (even ignoring how the Russian mob may treat them).
  2. Libby was the bottleneck witness. You needed him to move further, or you got nowhere. Not so with Trump, because so many people know what a crook he is.
  3. Bush commuted but did not pardon Libby, then refused, against PapaDick’s plaints, because (smarter lawyer) his lawyer counseled that’d be obstruction [update, or counseled that Libby could still incriminate Bush]. Trump can’t fully pardon his firewall, for the same reason: bc these witnesses will lose Fifth Amendment privileges against self-incrimination (which, as it happens, Cohen is invoking as we speak in a civil suit, which also can’t be dismissed by pardon).
  4. Di Genova and Toensing (who are not good lawyers but pound tables well) haven’t figured out that this won’t be a one-off: This won’t be one (Manafort) or two (Cohen) people Trump has to pardon. And THEY DON’T KNOW the full scope of who Trump would have to pardon here. There are too many moving parts to pull this off.
  5. And finally, because Trump is in a race. As I noted before, Mueller has already signaled he will label dangling pardons — as Trump has already done — as obstruction of justice. That presents far more risk for Trump, even assuming Mike Pence wants to go do the route of half-term infamy that Gerald Ford did by pardoning his boss.

All that’s before the fact that the crimes that Trump and his are facing are far, far uglier even than deliberately exposing the identity of a CIA officer to warn others off of exposing your war lies.

Maybe this will work? But I doubt it. There are just too many moving parts. And there is too little understanding among Trump’s closest advisors what they’re really facing.

So, congratulations to Scooter Libby at being a free man again. Condolences to Rod Rosenstein at being a free man again, if the firing does happen as predicted tomorrow.

But this is just a gambit, and there’s no reason to believe it will work.

Mueller Will Label Dangling Pardons as Obstruction of Justice Just as He Drops More Conspiracy Charges

NBC has a refreshingly sober and detailed report, explaining that Mueller and the President’s lawyers are giving up, at least for now, on the idea that Trump will be interviewed by the special counsel team.

Far more interesting than that news are the details about Mueller’s plans for his report on obstruction of justice. The report, originally slated for May to July, may come even sooner.

Prior to Monday’s raid, Mueller’s team had been aiming to finalize a report on its findings on whether the president has tried to obstruct justice in the Russia investigation in the coming months, as early as May or as late as July, three sources said. That timeline hinged in part on reaching a decision on a presidential interview, these people said. One person familiar with the investigation described a decision on an interview as one of the last steps Mueller was seeking to take before closing his investigation into obstruction.

Now, according to two sources, Mueller’s team may be able to close the obstruction probe more quickly as they will not need to prepare for the interview or follow up on what the president says.

And it appears that Mueller will accuse the President of obstructing justice in four ways:

Three sources familiar with the investigation said the findings Mueller has collected on Trump’s attempts to obstruct justice include: His intent for firing former FBI Director James Comey; his role in the crafting of a misleading public statement on the nature of a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his son and Russians; Trump’s dangling of pardons before grand jury witnesses who might testify against him; and pressuring Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.

All of these are predictable (though some other details of obstruction, such as the role he asked Rod Rosenstein and Jeff Sessions to play to provide cover for Comey’s firing, are not in there).

But the most interesting is the no-nonsense claim that offering pardons to people who might incriminate him personally amounts to obstruction of justice.

That makes a lot of sense — but it is constitutionally aggressive, because it’s unclear whether there can be any limit to the president’s pardon power. And it will go to Congress in a report inviting impeachment around the same time as Mueller will be rolling out the far more serious charges against Trump’s spawn, probably with Trump himself named as a co-conspirator.

I’m not sure whether that report will affect Trump’s calculation on whether he should pardon people like Don Jr and Jared — or if Congress will act to impeach to limit the political damage of what’s coming to themselves.

But it may change the legal status of any pardons offered after that date.

The Access Hollywood Search Doesn’t Mean Trump Coordinated with Assange

As I noted, yesterday several outlets reported that among the things included in the FBI warrant for Michael Cohen’s premises was communications between Trump, Cohen, and others (whom I suspect to include Steve Bannon and Marc Kasowitz) “regarding the infamous ‘Access Hollywood'” video.

FBI agents who raided the home, office and hotel of Donald Trump’s personal lawyer sought communications that Trump had with attorney Michael Cohen and others regarding the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape that captured Trump making lewd remarks about women a month before the election, according to sources familiar with the matter.

[snip]

The search warrant also sought communications between then-candidate Trump and his associates regarding efforts to prevent disclosure of the tape, according to one of the sources. In addition, investigators wanted records and communications concerning other potential negative information about the candidate that the campaign would have wanted to contain ahead of the election. The source said the warrant was not specific about what this additional information would be.

From that, people on both the right and the left have assumed, without presenting hard evidence, that this means there must be a tie to Russia. Most often, people assume this must mean Trump somehow managed the events of October 7, when the Intelligence Committee report blaming Russia for the DNC hack, the Access Hollywood video, and the first Podesta emails all came out in quick succession.

That’s certainly possible, but thus far there’s no reason to believe that’s the case.

Mueller and Rosenstein referred this

That’s true, first of all, because after consulting with Rod Rosenstein, Robert Mueller referred this to the Southern District of New York for execution and prosecution, rather than dealing with it himself. He did that surely knowing what a sieve for leaks SDNY is, and therefore knowing that doing so would undercut his remarkably silent teamwork thus far.

In spite of a lot of reporting on this raid this week, we don’t yet have a clear understanding of why the two chose to refer it (or, tangentially, why interim SDNY US Attorney Geoffrey Berman recused himself from this matter).

There are two options. The first is that Rosenstein believed hush payments and taxi medallion money laundering sufficiently attenuated to the Russian investigation that it should properly be referred. In which case, the fact that it was referred is itself reason to believe that Mueller — even while he had abundant evidence supporting the search warrant — has no reason to believe those releases were orchestrated with Wikileaks, and therefore have no direct interest to his investigation (though they may cough up one to three witnesses who will be more willing to cooperate when faced with their own fraud indictments). In which case, the Access Hollywood video would be just another example, like the Stormy Daniels and the Karen McDougal payoffs, of Trump’s efforts to bury embarrassing news, using whatever means necessary.

The other option is that Mueller does have evidence that Trump in some way managed the October 7 events, which would be one of the most inflammatory pieces of evidence we would have heard of so far, but that there was some other reason to refer the matter.

Michael Cohen wasn’t serving as an attorney for much of the reported documents

The really good reason to refer the warrant would be so that SDNY would serve as a natural clean team, sorting through seized items for privileged communications, only to hand them back to Mueller’s team in DC once they’ve sorted through them. It’s an idea Preet Bharara and Matt Miller, among others, have floated.

Before we conclude that SDNY is only serving as a clean team for Mueller’s team here, consider that coverage has vastly overstated the degree to which the items being searched will fall under attorney-client privilege.

The search also sought information on Cohen’s taxi medallions, a business in which he has had really corrupt partners, some Russian, with their own legal problems, and one that has reportedly left Cohen with some debt problems that make his purported personal payment to Stormy Daniels all the more sketchy.

In addition, as soon as Trump claimed to know nothing of the hush payment to Daniels last Friday, the government could credibly claim that either Cohen was not representing Trump when paying off Daniels, or involved in fraud.

The NYT has reported that the raid also sought all communications between Cohen and National Enquirer’s top brass, communications that would in no way be privileged.

Even the reported communications about the Access Hollywood video may not be privileged. If they involved four people, then the only way they’d be covered by privilege is if they counted as campaign emails and Marc Kasowitz, not Cohen, was the attorney providing privileged advice in question. In that case, Cohen would have been playing the press contact role he often did during the campaign.

Still, just because Cohen was not playing the role of an attorney during most of the activities the FBI is interested in doesn’t mean the FBI won’t be really careful to make sure they don’t violate privilege, and I’m sure they’ll still use a taint team.

Mueller has already dealt with (at least) two sensitive attorney-client relationships in his investigation

Even on top of the eight members of the White House Counsel’s office who have spoken with the Special Counsel, Mueller’s team has dealt with (at least) two other sensitive attorney-client relationships.

The first was Melissa Laurenza, a lawyer for Paul Manafort whom he had write false declarations for FARA registry. Judge Amy Berman Jackson permitted Mueller’s team to ask her seven of eight proposed question after proving Manafort had used her services to engage in fraud.

More recently, we’ve gotten hints — but only hints — of what must be extensive cooperation from Skadden Arps and its partner Greg Craig, describing how Manafort and Gates laundered money to pay the firm loads of money to write a report they hoped would exonerate Ukraine’s persecution of Yulia Tymoshenko. While the cooperation of Skadden itself was probably effusive in its voluntary nature (the firm seems determined to avoid the taint that Tony Podesta’s firm has acquired in this process), Mueller did subpoena Alex Van der Zwaan and it’s unclear what methods the FBI used to obtain some of the materials he tried to hide from prosecutors.

Neither of those exchanges involves a search warrant. But they do show that Mueller is willing to take on the tricky issue of attorney testimony first-hand. Using SDNY as a clean team still may be the easiest option in the Cohen case, but Mueller clearly isn’t shying away from managing all such issues in-house in other cases.

The other possible explanations for the Access Hollywood search and the October 7 timing

Which brings us finally to the other possibilities behind the Access Hollywood search.

It’s certainly possible that the coincidental release of all these things was coordination, entirely orchestrated by the Trump campaign. But there are a number of reasons — on top of the fact that Mueller isn’t keeping this search far tighter under his own control — I think that’s not the most likely explanation.

Consider this story, arguing that the real story of Access Hollywood isn’t that it leaked on October 7 — the piece notes that David Farenthold had only received it that day — but that it didn’t leak earlier in the process, when it might have led Trump to lose the primary.

t is just impossible to believe that the tape not coming out at the start of Trump’s campaign, when logic dictates that it would have blown Trump instantly out of the water (before he was in a position where Republicans had no choice other than to keep backing him against the evil Hillary Clinton), was anything but a highly unethical political decision by someone at NBC. The fact that no one has ever even gotten an answer from NBC about how this could have happened is equally unfathomable and yet, given the news media’s overall incompetence, kind of expected.

[snip]

It has always struck me as EXTREMELY odd that it was the Washington Post, not NBC, who first released the tape on Friday Oct. 7, 2016, barely beating NBC which, it should be noted, was clearly ready to go with it immediately after the Post did. I presumed that perhaps NBC wanted this to be the case because it might take some of the focus off why they had not released it during the primaries (and thus chose not to prematurely kill off the media’s Golden Goose which was Trump’s ratings-friendly campaign).

However, there is another aspect of the Post being the outlet which got the big scoop that has always struck me as potentially very significant. The Post’s reporter, David Fahrenthold, has said that he was only made aware of the tape, via an unnamed source, THAT day — which is a clear indication that whomever was trying to get the Post to release it had decided to do so in tremendous haste. After all, if the source had planned it sooner they would have made contact with Fahrenthold well before then because he might have been out of pocket that day.

[snip]

For instance, what if it was actually someone from the TRUMP team who leaked the tape. At first glance, this seems ludicrous because no one thought that Trump would be anything but greatly harmed by the tape (though he clearly was not). But what if someone in Trump World got wind that the tape was about to be released and decided that stepping all over the Russia news (which would normally have dominated the narrative for the remainder of the campaign) would at least create the least bad outcome for them?

I don’t agree that the release was released when it was to distract from the Russia announcement that day. As I’ve long noted, in reality, the Access Hollywood distracted from the Podesta emails, effectively burying the most damning release in the bunch, the excerpts of Hillary’s speeches that even Democrats had been demanding she release since the primary. And while the Trump team might claim they didn’t control the release of the Podesta emails directly — and Roger Stone’s predictions that Wikileaks would release Clinton Foundation rather than Podesta emails were dead wrong — the Trump team at least knew something was coming (indeed, Wikileaks had made that clear themselves). So there’s little reason they would stomp on what they had long welcomed with the Access Hollywood tape. As this post alludes, I also think the Trump team and Russians or Wikileaks may have been squabbling over whether Wikileaks would release possibly faked Clinton Foundation emails that week, only to scramble when Wikileaks refused to release whatever the Peter Smith effort had gotten dealt to them.

Like the Mediate piece, I’m interested in the way that Steve Bannon had Clinton accusers all lined up to go that weekend (indeed, I noted how quickly Stone moved to that after having raised expectations for a Clinton Foundation release). But I also think there are some reasons to believe that attack was in the works for other reasons (though I agree it might reflect advance knowledge that the video might come out, or even that Stormy Daniels might come forward).  Finally, I don’t think the release came from Trump because of all the reports of Republicans trying to convince Trump to step down (though it’s possible the GOP dropped the video in one last bid to get him to do so).

One alternative narrative, then, is that the real story about the Access Hollywood suppression goes back months or years earlier, as one of the things Trump managed to suppress throughout the campaign, but something happened internally to breach that agreement. And, separately, that either Assange by himself, with Russian help, or with Trump assistance, timed the Podesta emails to come out as the Russian attribution was coming out. That is, it could be that the real story remains that whoever orchestrated the Wikileaks release did so in an attempt to bury the Russian attribution, but that the coincidental release of the Access Hollywood video in turn buried the Podesta emails.

Finally, it’s possible that Democrats got ahold of the Access Hollywood video and they released it to (successfully) drown out the Podesta emails, which they (and the intelligence community) also would have known were coming, but by doing so, they also drowned out the all-important Russian attribution in the process.

The point is, we don’t know. And nothing we know thus far about the process leading to this warrant or about the suppression and release of either the video or the women’s stories suggest it all took place that week of October. Trump’s usual m.o. is about suppression, not timing.

That said, I’m curious if this raid will reveal details about one other item Trump probably tried to suppress: the nude Melania photos that NYPost released on July 31, 2016, just as campaign season got going in earnest.

Bannon Aims to Best Jared Kushner’s Biggest Mistake in Modern Political History

Back in September, Steve Bannon agreed on 60 Minutes that firing Jim Comey was the stupidest decision in modern political history.

In a “60 Minutes” interview that was posted online Sunday night, Bannon was asked whether he considered Comey’s dismissal — which ignited a political firestorm and directly led to the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election, including potential ties to Trump’s campaign — the biggest mistake in political history.

Bannon responded, “That would be probably — that probably would be too bombastic even for me, but maybe modern political history.

“He went on to acknowledge that if Comey had not been let go, it’s unlikely that the probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller would have been established.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that if James Comey had not been fired, we would not have a special counsel, yes,” he said. “We would not have the Mueller investigation. We would not have the Mueller investigation and the breadth that clearly Mr. Mueller is going for.”

At that time, Bannon insisted that he faced no risk from even the expanded Mueller investigation, and hadn’t even lawyered up.

All that changed, of course, after he ran his mouth to Michael Wolff. Bannon claimed to be offended by the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting. In his apology he would even say the entire meeting offended his life’s work making movies about fighting “the evil empire.”

“My comments about the meeting with Russian nationals came from my life experiences as a Naval officer stationed aboard a destroyer whose main mission was to hunt Soviet submarines to my time at the Pentagon during the Reagan years when our focus was the defeat of ‘the evil empire’ and to making films about Reagan’s war against the Soviets and Hillary Clinton’s involvement in selling uranium to them.”

But what really irked Bannon is that when Don Jr, Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner met with Russians in an effort to obtain dirt on Hillary Clinton, they didn’t use lawyers as cutouts.

“The chance that Don Jr. did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor is zero,” said an astonished and derisive Bannon, not long after the meeting was revealed.

“The three senior guys in the campaign,” an incredulous Bannon went on, “thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the twenty-fifth floor—with no lawyers. They didn’t have any lawyers. Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately. Even if you didn’t think to do that, and you’re totally amoral, and you wanted that information, you do it in a Holiday Inn in Manchester, New Hampshire, with your lawyers who meet with these people and go through everything and then they verbally come and tell another lawyer in a cut-out, and if you’ve got something, then you figure out how to dump it down to Breitbart or something like that, or maybe some other more legitimate publication. You never see it, you never know it, because you don’t need to. . . . But that’s the brain trust that they had.”

On Monday, the home, hotel, and office of the lawyer Trump has long used as such a cutout, Michael Cohen, got raided. Among the things the FBI sought — in addition to information on Cohen’s own corrupt business — were communications Trump and that lawyer and others had about the Access Hollywood video.

FBI agents who raided the home, office and hotel of Donald Trump’s personal lawyer sought communications that Trump had with attorney Michael Cohen and others regarding the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape that captured Trump making lewd remarks about women a month before the election, according to sources familiar with the matter.

[snip]

The search warrant also sought communications between then-candidate Trump and his associates regarding efforts to prevent disclosure of the tape, according to one of the sources. In addition, investigators wanted records and communications concerning other potential negative information about the candidate that the campaign would have wanted to contain ahead of the election. The source said the warrant was not specific about what this additional information would be. [my emphasis]

Bannon — and Marc Kasowitz, who sent a lawyer to meet with Trump in the wake of news of the raid — was probably among those associates. After all, Bannon also told Wolff that he and Kasowitz had to deal with a number of “near-death problems on the campaign” pertaining to women — like Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal — making legal threats against Trump.

Unable to hire prestige talent, Bannon turned to one of the president’s longtime hit-man lawyers, Marc Kasowitz. Bannon had previously bonded with Kasowitz when the attorney had handled a series of near-death problems on the campaign, including dealing with a vast number of allegations and legal threats from an ever growing list of women accusing Trump of molesting and harassing them.

Now, Steve Bannon, the guy who claimed firing Jim Comey was the stupidest recent political decision, the guy who wasn’t so much opposed to political rat-fucking as he was opposed to doing it without using lawyers as a cutout, is shopping a new plan to get Trump out of his legal woes: fire Rod Rosenstein.

Stephen K. Bannon, who was ousted as White House chief strategist last summer but has remained in touch with some members of President Trump’s circle, is pitching a plan to West Wing aides and congressional allies to cripple the federal probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to four people familiar with the discussions.

The first step, these people say, would be for Trump to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who oversees the work of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and in recent days signed off on a search warrant of Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.

Bannon also wants to fire Ty Cobb, one of Trump’s remaining semi-legit lawyers, as part of an effort to invalidate all the testimony from White House officials — including himself!!!! — based on the claim it should have been covered by executive privilege.

And he is telling associates inside and outside the administration that the president should create a new legal battleground to protect himself from the investigation by asserting executive privilege — and arguing that Mueller’s interviews with White House officials over the past year should now be null and void.

“The president wasn’t fully briefed by his lawyers on the implications” of not invoking executive privilege, Bannon told The Washington Post in an interview Wednesday. “It was a strategic mistake to turn over everything without due process, and executive privilege should be exerted immediately and retroactively.”

[snip]

Bannon believes Trump can argue he was given poor counsel by his lawyers on Russia, including Ty Cobb, who has encouraged a cooperative approach to Mueller’s team.

“Ty Cobb should be fired immediately,” Bannon said.

I’m agnostic about whether the Access Hollywood video actually relates to the Russian investigation. If it does, the only conceivable reason to refer it to Southern District of NY would be to establish a clean team — but Mueller’s team has already handled interactions with investigations involving two lawyers and/or legal teams, Melissa Laurenza (who testified that Manafort led her to lie on FARA forms), and Skadden Arps. I do think it possible — highly likely, actually — that Cohen may have been used as a cutout in some hotel room in New England to cover-up other sensitive issues.

But given Bannon’s response, the investigation into Cohen’s cover-up of Trump’s problems with women — including both the Access Hollywood tape and the legal negotiations with Daniels and McDougal — probably implicates Bannon as well as Cohen.

And so Bannon wants to do what Kushner did when he, similarly, realized how much a legal investigation jeopardized him personally: fire the guy running the investigation.

Indeed, Bannon seems so panicked he can’t even remember that such moves rank among the stupidest in modern political history.

Update: One more thing about the Stormy/McDougal/Access investigation. That may come directly out of Bannon’s own testimony, which would explain why he’d want to try to invalidate it.