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On Rosenstein, We Shall See …

For a panicked two hours today, it appeared that Rod Rosenstein had either resigned or been fired. Instead, he was attending a regularly scheduled Principal’s Committee after having talked at some length to Trump and John Kelly about the NYT report he was acting erratically in the wake of Trump firing Jim Comey and boasting that he had done so to end the Russian investigation (though the NYT’s reporting wasn’t even that responsible).

The two men will meet again Thursday, as Trump’s SCOTUS nominee gets grilled about an increasing number of sexual assault accusations, to decide Rosenstein’s future.

It’s not entirely clear who would then oversee Mueller if Rosenstein gets fired, but Marty Lederman argues according to normal succession, Solicitor General Noel Francisco would supervise Mueller, but because he has a conflict, it’d likely fall to OLC head Steve Engel.

Those are ordinarily the AG’s functions, not the DAG’s, and unless there’s been a change, DOJ’s view is that the AG’s functions/duties can’t be performed by an “acting” officer (i.e., no “double-acting”). So the responsibility to oversee those investigations would fall to Solicitor General Noel Francisco. Francisco, however, is probably recused from the Russia investigation (at a minimum), because Jones Day, his former firm, represents the Trump Campaign (unless there’s been a change). NF has recused from all SCOTUS cases where Jones Day represents a party, including in the new Term. If NF recuses from supervising Mueller, and any other investigations involving the Trump campaign, those AG functions presumably would be performed by Assistant AG for OLC Steve Engel.

In either case, Jeff Toobin declares that one way or another, that means Mueller is finished.

This issue of who, technically, would be in charge of Mueller is an important one, but it’s not nearly as significant as the broader issue raised by Rosenstein’s likely departure. The President is in charge of the executive branch, and Mueller, as the special counsel, is a subordinate in that branch of the government. If Trump is determined to fire Mueller, or to constrict his investigation in untoward ways, he and his advisers will figure out a way to do it. There is little doubt that the President could ultimately find a compliant Justice Department official to carry out his order of execution. In other words, the massacre this week may lead to another, like the one on a Saturday night in 1973 when Richard Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor. This modern version would be an abuse of power of the most profound sort. Firing Mueller—who has been investigating Trump and his campaign and Administration for a year and a half—would be the very definition of a high crime and misdemeanor, as impeachable offenses are defined in the Constitution. But would the Republicans who control Congress see it that way?

Put another way, the real question is whether there is any political will among the Republicans who run the legislative branch of government to check Trump’s power.

My guess is what happens between now and Thursday matters a lot. It’s possible, for example, that the Trump Administration could implement some plan to put an even more competent hatchet man in place behind Rosenstein (or get him to resign, which would leave more options). Or it’s possible that Mueller has key indictments sufficiently developed to roll them out in the next day or so (though there’s no grand jury before Thursday at the earliest). I think it even possible that Rosenstein will not only be able to explain the NYT report away (in part by suggesting that it’s just an Andrew McCabe attempt to get back at Trump), but also explain why things will be worse for Mueller if he does fire him.

So we shall see.

The NYT “Scoop” Appears To Be an Effort to Spin Opening an Investigation into Trump as an Erratic Act

I’d like to point out something strongly suggested by the stories based on gossiping about Andrew McCabe memos. These stories portray what people not at a meeting that took place just after Comey’s firing think happened at the meeting based off hearing about memos memorializing them. From the WaPo’s far more responsible version of the story, we know that Lisa Page was also present at the meeting.

Another official at the meeting, then-FBI lawyer Lisa Page, wrote her own memo of the discussion which does not mention any talk of the 25th amendment, according to a second person who was familiar with her account.

And the WaPo’s version of the “wire” comment puts it in context, making it clear that Rosenstein was questioning how they could investigate the President.

That person said the wire comment came in response to McCabe’s own pushing for the Justice Department to open an investigation into the president. To that, Rosenstein responded with what this person described as a sarcastic comment along the lines of, “What do you want to do, Andy, wire the president?”

Now go back to earlier in the week, to the frothy right rehashing some texts Page and Peter Strzok sent, talking about opening an investigation into … someone, while Andrew McCabe was Acting Director. (Apologies for the Fox slurs about Page and Strzok.)

Text messages from disgraced FBI figures Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, discussing whether to open a “case” in a “formal chargeable way” after Director James Comey was fired, are under fresh scrutiny after Page told congressional investigators there was no evidence of Russian collusion at the time, according to three congressional sources.

Two hours after Comey’s termination became public on May 9, 2017, Strzok, a now-former FBI agent, texted Page, his then-colleague and lover: “We need to open the case we’ve been waiting on now while Andy is acting.”

“Andy” is a reference to then-Deputy Director Andrew McCabe who temporarily took over the bureau until Christopher Wray was confirmed as director in August 2017.

Page, a former FBI attorney, replied to Strzok: “We need to lock in (redacted). In a formal chargeable way. Soon.”

Strzok concurred. “I agree. I’ve been pushing and I’ll reemphasize with Bill,” believed to be Bill Priestap, the head of the FBI’s counterintelligence division.

Finally, here’s the WaPo version of Michael Bromwich’s description of the memos.

McCabe’s lawyer, Michael Bromwich, said in a statement that his client “drafted memos to memorialize significant discussions he had with high level officials and preserved them so he would have an accurate, contemporaneous record of those discussions. When he was interviewed by the special counsel more than a year ago, he gave all of his memos — classified and unclassified — to the special counsel’s office. A set of those memos remained at the FBI at the time of his departure in late January 2018. He has no knowledge of how any member of the media obtained those memos.”

These are “significant memos” and went right to Mueller when he was appointed. The kind of memos that might back investigative decisions, such as whether to open an investigation into the President.

So what the NYT spin of the story is about is suggesting that at the moment when DOJ opened an investigation into the President, the guy who opened it was “acting erratically.” Presumably based off the third-hand opinions of people like Jim Jordan, who knows a bit about acting erratically. It’s also about whether a discussion of removing the President took place at the same meeting where a discussion of investigating him did.

Likely, the messages are muddled, because they always are when getting laundered through Jim Jordan’s feverish little mind.

Update: NYT has now updated their story with two details designed to rebut the more responsible reporting of other outlets. First, they cite their sources claiming — without having to explain — that Rosenstein spoke about recording the President on another occasion, with the suggestion that that time it wan’t sarcastic.

Mr. Rosenstein also mentioned the possibility of wearing a wire on at least one other occasion, the people said, though they did not provide details.

More remarkably, they include a paragraph that reveals their original story was inaccurate as to timing. To rebut WaPo’s report that Lisa Page’s version of events don’t include the reference to the 25th Amendment, the NYT has now decided there were “at least two meetings that took place on May 16” (but note the knowledge of their sources all appears to come from memos, not from witnessing the events).

At least two meetings took place on May 16 involving both Mr. McCabe and Mr. Rosenstein, the people familiar with the events of the day said. Mr. Rosenstein brought up the 25th Amendment during the first meeting of Justice Department officials, they said. He did not appear to talk about it at the second, according to a memo by one participant, Lisa Page, a lawyer who worked for Mr. McCabe at the time, that did not mention the topic.

Well, okay, maybe that’s true. But that utterly demolishes some key premises of the story as originally written. The story collapses the timing of all this, emphasizing that it happened just two weeks into the job.

Mr. Rosenstein was just two weeks into his job. He had begun overseeing the Russia investigation and played a key role in the president’s dismissal of Mr. Comey by writing a memo critical of his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. But Mr. Rosenstein was caught off guard when Mr. Trump cited the memo in the firing, and he began telling people that hefeared he had been used.

[snip]

The president informed them of his plan to oust Mr. Comey. To the surprise of White House aides who were trying to talk the president out of it, Mr. Rosenstein embraced the idea, even offering to write the memo about the Clinton email inquiry. He turned it in shortly after.

A day later, Mr. Trump announced the firing, and White House aides released Mr. Rosenstein’s memo, labeling it the basis for Mr. Comey’s dismissal. Democrats sharply criticized Mr. Rosenstein, accusing him of helping to create a cover story for the president to rationalize the termination. [my emphasis]

All this suggests the response was a direct response to the Comey firing.

And while the story does note the meetings take place a week later, the update emphasizes the actual date.

A determined Mr. Rosenstein began telling associates that he would ultimately be “vindicated” for his role in the matter. One week after the firing, Mr. Rosenstein met with Mr. McCabe and at least four other senior Justice Department officials, in part to explain his role in the situation. [my emphasis]

The “wire the president” comment (and the 25th Amendment one, if it did happen as described) took place on May 16, almost a week later.

One week after the firing, Mr. Rosenstein met with Mr. McCabe and at least four other senior Justice Department officials, in part to explain his role in the situation.

In this update, the NYT also took out language about Rosenstein wondering about motive.

wondered whether Mr. Trump had motives beyond Mr. Comey’s treatment of Mrs. Clinton for ousting him, the people said.

By May 16, of course, Rosenstein wouldn’t have to wonder about Trump’s motives, because he had already gone on TV and explained what his motive was — it was to end the Russia investigation.

More troublingly, he had taken a meeting with Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Kislyak — the latter of whom was a key figure in any conspiracy investigation — without American press present at which he shared highly sensitive Israeli secrets. While the public didn’t know it yet, at the meeting Trump also said he fired Comey to ease the pressure on him.

More importantly, if there were two meetings — one on whether Trump was handling the FBI hiring properly, and one on whether to open an investigation into the President — then it means those different topics have a different meaning. One meeting was about whether Trump was capable of doing the job, the other was about whether he had broken the law.

Anyway, what we’re not getting is any real understanding of the real context of these comments.

NYT Gives Trump His Excuse to Fire Rod Rosenstein

The NYT has an inflammatory article claiming that Rod Rosenstein floated recording the President and/or invoking the 25th Amendment in the days after Trump fired Jim Comey. Here’s how they describe their sources for that allegation.

Several people described the episodes, insisting on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The people were briefed either on the events themselves or on memos written by F.B.I. officials, including Andrew G. McCabe, then the acting bureau director, that documented Mr. Rosenstein’s actions and comments.

Not a single one of these people, by this description, was actually a witness to the episodes. Indeed, by description, none of them have even read the memos memorializing the events directly, but have instead simply been briefed secondhand.

Which means the NYT gives far, far greater weight in this story on people who are third-hand from the story than, for example, either Rod Rosenstein himself or a person who was present and issued a statement, who says this whole story takes a sarcastic comment and treats it as truth.

Rosenstein disputed this account.

“The New York Times’s story is inaccurate and factually incorrect,” he said in a statement. “I will not further comment on a story based on anonymous sources who are obviously biased against the department and are advancing their own personal agenda. But let me be clear about this: Based on my personal dealings with the president, there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment.”

A Justice Department spokeswoman also provided a statement from a person who was present when Mr. Rosenstein proposed wearing a wire. The person, who would not be named, acknowledged the remark but said Mr. Rosenstein made it sarcastically.

All that leads the NYT to the paragraph where they let a bunch of third hand sources to the events claim this is proof that Rosenstein was acting erratically when he made the decision to appoint Robert Mueller.

[T]hey called Mr. Rosenstein’s comments an example of how erratically he was behaving while he was taking part in the interviews for a replacement F.B.I. director, considering the appointment of a special counsel and otherwise running the day-to-day operations of the more than 100,000 people at the Justice Department.

Finally, in a week where Trump is desperate to release documents that will discredit the investigation closing in on himself, Andrew McCabe’s attorney, Michael Bromwich raises real questions about how the NYT might get memos McCabe wrote documenting Rosenstein’s behavior.

His memos have been turned over to the special counsel investigating whether Trump associates conspired with Russia’s election interference, Robert S. Mueller III, according to a lawyer for Mr. McCabe. “A set of those memos remained at the F.B.I. at the time of his departure in late January 2018,” the lawyer, Michael R. Bromwich, said of his client. “He has no knowledge of how any member of the media obtained those memos.”

The insinuation is clear: in an attempt to accuse Rosenstein of things known to set off the President (notably, being recorded), someone took memos McCabe wrote and read them to people who would then leak them to the NYT.

I hope the clicks and access are worth giving third hand sources more weight than actual witnesses.

Update: And Jim Jordan pipes up, sounding very much like he could be one of the sources for this story.

The Frothy Right Is Furious that Peter Strzok Pursued the Guy Leaking about Carter Page

Close to midnight on June 3, 2017, Lisa Page texted Peter Strzok to let him know that Reality Winner was in custody. Page used the same shorthand she and Strzok (and presumably, those around them) consistently use to describe leak investigations, ML, media leaks.

They used the term elsewhere, as when Strzok said “media leaks and what I do for a living” when responding to the first reports that Mueller was investigating Trump (and hypothesizing about who the WaPo’s likely sources were).

Significantly, they used the term on April 10, 2017, when trying to figure out how to respond to DOJ’s effort to increasingly politicize leak investigations.

Indeed, Strzok’s lawyer has issued a statement confirming this is how Strzok and Page used the term.

The term ‘media leak strategy’ in Mr. Strzok’s text refers to a Department-wide initiative to detect and stop leaks to the media. The President and his enablers are once again peddling unfounded conspiracy theories to mislead the American People.

In spite of all that context, Mark Meadows has the entire frothy right, from Sara Carter to Fox News to Don Jr to his dad, worked up about two newly produced texts, based on this letter to Rod Rosenstein, which gets just about every thing wrong.

Before I explain how wrong Mark Meadows’ letter is, let me point out two things.

Michael Horowitz has already investigated a media leak text and found no misconduct

First, Michael Horowitz is (with the possible exception of DOD’s Glenn Fine) the best Inspector General in government. His office spent over a year investigating the work of Peter Strzok and Lisa Page; he wrote a 500-page report on it. And when he found evidence that even looked like impropriety, acted on it immediately and then formally, leading to Strzok’s firing. He has also spent a year investigating whatever calls went between FBI lines and reporters covering Hillary or Trump. He even drew pretty pictures showing each one of concern.

As part of both investigations, he examined a text in the series Meadows is concerned about (the April 10 one, above). And in spite of examining Page and Strzok, including a relevant text, at such length, Horowitz found no impropriety with the discussions about how to investigate leaks to the media.

We know the likely culprit for the leak the frothy right is blaming on Page and Strzok

The punchline of Meadows’ letter — as fed via the always-wrong Sara Carter — is a claim that Strzok and Page were the source for the WaPo story revealing that FBI obtained a FISA order on Carter Page.

The review of the documents suggests that the FBI and DOJ coordinated efforts to get information to the press that would potentially be “harmful to President Trump’s administration.” Those leaks pertained to information regarding the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant used to spy on short-term campaign volunteer Carter Page.

Aside from how fucking stupid you’d have to be to believe that Strzok would go to great lengths to get a FISA order on Page and then tell the entire world about it, there’s another reason that the frothy right should know this is wrong: because we know the likely culprit for it.

As I noted in my first post on the James Wolfe indictment, that investigation appears to have started to (and focused on) finding the source for the WaPo story the frothy right now blames on Strzok and Page.

The government lays out clear proof Wolfe lied about conversations with three reporters. With Watkins and another, they point to stories about Carter Page to do so. The Watkins story is this one, confirming he is the person identified in the Evgeny Buryakov indictment. Another must be one of two stories revealing Page was subpoenaed for testimony by the Senate Intelligence Committee — either this one or this one.

I’m most interested, however, in this reference to a story the FBI raised with Wolfe in its interview, a story for which (unlike the others) the indictment never confirms whether Wolfe is the source.

During the interview, FBI agents showed WOLFE a copy of a news article authored by three reporters, including REPORTER #1, about an individual (referred to herein as “MALE-l), that contained classified information that had been provided to the SSCI by the Executive Branch for official purposes

The story suggests they don’t have content for the communications between Wolfe and Reporter #1, and the call records they’re interested in ended last June (meaning the story must precede it).

For example, between in or around December 2015 and in or around June 2017, WOLFE and REPORTER #1 communicated at least five times using his SSCI email account.

For that reason, I suspect this is the story they asked about — whether Wolfe is a source for the original credible story on Carter Page’s FISA order. The focus on Page generally in the indictment suggests this investigation started as an investigation into who leaked the fact that Page had been targeted under FISA, and continued to look at the stories that revealed classified details about the investigative focus on him (stories which he rightly complained to SSCI about).

The government didn’t charge Wolfe for that story — they just (appear to have) included his lies about whether he knew the reporters behind it among the lies they charged him for. But that’s a common strategy for FBI when dealing with a leak investigation the direct prosecution of which would require declassifying information, particularly with someone like Wolfe who could easily graymail the government. Moreover, the docket in his case has the look of one where the defense is considering a plea to avoid more serious charges.

Now consider how they got Wolfe. Not only did the government go after a trusted employee, not only did they very publicly access his Signal and WhatsApp texts, not only did they get Congress to waive speech and debate (which very rarely happens), but they also obtained years of Ali Watkins’ call records, both directly and via Temple University.

In other words, the prosecution of James Wolfe pushed prior protocols on leak investigations on a number of fronts: going after favored insiders, going after encrypted comms, going after employees of Congress, and going far more aggressively after a journalist and a college student than would seem necessary. That’s precisely the kind of thing that FBI and DOJ would debate as part of revising their strategy to more aggressively pursue media leaks.

So the James Wolfe case not only provides a likely culprit for the leak, but probably even evidence that shifts in the media leak strategy did happen, shifts resulting in far more aggressive pursuit of leaks than happened at the end of the Obama Administration.

Mark Meadows dangerously wrong

Which brings us, finally, to the many errors of Mark Meadows’ letter to Rosenstein. Once again, the premise of the letter is that two next texts (one of which obviously relates the one I posted above) create grave new concerns.

As you may know, we recently received a new production of documents from the Department providing greater insight into FBI and DOJ activity during the 2016 election and the early stages of the Trump administration. Our review of these new documents raises grave concerns regarding an apparent systemic culture of media leaking by high-ranking officials at the FBI and DOJ related to ongoing investigations.

Review of these new documents suggests a coordinated effort on the part of the FBI and DOJ to release information in the public domain potentially harmful to President Donald Trump’s administration. For example, the following text exchange should lead a reasonable person to question whether there was a since desire to investigate wrongdoing or to place derogatory information in the media to justify a continued probe.

April 10, 2017: Peter Strozk [sic] contacts Lisa Page to discuss a “media leak strategy.” Specifically, the text says: “I had literally just gone to find this phone to tell you I want to talk to you about media leak strategy with DOJ before you go.”

April 12, 2017: Peter Strozk [sic] congratulates Lisa Page on a job well done while referring to two derogatory articles about Carter Page. In the text, Strzok warns Page two articles are coming out, one which his “worse” than the other about Lisa’s “namesake.” [see update below] Strzok added: “Well done, Page.”

Meadows goes on to cite the WaPo story revealing Page’s FISA order and Andrew Weissman’s meeting with the AP (in which, per court testimony from the Manafort trial, the AP provided information useful to the investigation into Manafort, but which — significantly — led to the warrant on Manafort’s condo which may have led to the discovery of information that implicates Trump).

Meadows is just wrong. Both texts he already has and the Wolfe case “should lead a reasonable person” to understand that the same people who had long pursued leak investigations still were doing so, doing so in an increasingly politicized environment, but doing so with results that would employ more aggressive techniques and would find the likely culprit behind the WaPo story in question (not to mention send Reality Winner to prison for five years).

But all that’s just a premise to claim that because he imagines, fancifully, that Page and Strzok were leaking about ongoing investigations to the press (when in fact they were investigating such leaks), he should be able to get the FBI to talk about ongoing investigations.

During our interviews with Peter Strozk [sic] and Lisa Page, FBI attorneys consistently suggested witnesses could not answer questions due to the US Attorneys’ Manual’s policy for ongoing investigations. However, documents strongly suggest that these same witnesses discussed the ongoing investigations multiple times with individuals outside of the investigative team on a regular basis.

Not only is Meadows almost certainly wrong in his accusations against Strzok and Page, but he’s also ignoring that there are two ongoing investigations being protected here — both the general Russian investigation, but also the prosecution of Wolfe for behavior that likely includes the story he’s bitching about.

Meadows then uses what he even seems to admit are authorized media contacts as a transition paragraph.

Our task force continues to receive troubling evidence that the practice of coordinated media interactions continues to exist within the DOJ and FBI. While this activity may be authorized and not part of the inappropriate behavior highlighted above, it fails to advance the private march to justice, and as such, warrants your attention to end this practice.

The transition paragraph — which I’ll return to — leads to the whole point of the letter, Meadows’ demand that, because he has trumped up a false accusation against Strzok and Page, he should be able to interview FBI agents he believes will undermine the investigation into Donald Trump.

In light of the new information, our task force is requesting to review text messages, emails, and written communication from FBI and DOJ officials Stu Evans, Mike Kortan, and Joe Pientka between June 2016 to June 2017. To be clear, we are not suggesting wrongdoing on the part of Evans, Kortan, and Pientka–and, in fact, previously reviewed documents suggest that some of these individuals may share the committees’ same concerns. However, these additional documents, with an emphasis on communications between the aforementioned individuals and Peter Strozk [sic], Andrew McCabe, Lisa Page, Bruce Ohr and Andrew Weissman, would provide critical insight into the backdrop of the Russian investigation.

Meadows is looking, among other things, testimony that says Pientka didn’t believe Mike Flynn lied when he interviewed Trump’s National Security Advisor with Strzok. But he’s doing so specifically for a time period that ends before the evidence showing that Flynn did lie came into FBI (in part, when Mueller obtained Transition emails showing Trump closely directed Flynn’s conversations with Sergei Kislyak.

Now back to authorized media interactions. I happen to know something about how they work. I had a conversation with the FBI that pertained, in part, to whether there was a tie between Russian criminals and the President, one that also pertained to my perception of possible threats. Apparently Meadows thinks that such a conversation “fails to advance the private march to justice,” though it’s not clear what he means by that.  I mean, thus far, I have been very circumspect about the content of such conversations; is Meadows really asking me to air details before the midterms? I have thus far hesitated to share suspicions I had, believing it would be inappropriate for anyone besides Mueller and the FBI to air such things publicly, until they had corroborated my suspicions. But Meadows apparently believes it important to air investigative details before the election.

The better option — one that would put the rule of law and the security of the nation ahead of partisan obstruction — would be for Meadows to stop inciting hoaxes among the frothy right. Or maybe, at least, the frothy right can recognize that Meadows has serially embarrassed them as they credulously repeat whatever hoax he floats?

Update: After Jerrold Nadler and Elijah Cummings released a response noting some of Meadows’ errors, he fixed just one of the errors in his letter, admitting that the “well done, Page” language was actually from an April 22, 2017 text that reads, “article is out! Well done, Page,” and which obviously refers to this story on Jim Comey.

As I disclosed July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Would Rod Rosenstein Object to a Mueller Action before Brett Kavanaugh Is Confirmed?

There’s a lot of discussion about whether or not DOJ’s traditional prohibition on major prosecutorial actions limits Robert Mueller. As I have explained, I personally think the terms of it don’t apply, with the possible exception of Dana Rohrabacher, because no other conceivable subject of Mueller’s investigation is conceivably on the ballot. Quinta Jurecic has a good piece explaining that it is a general practice, not a rule.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz spelled out exactly why it’s wrong in three short pages of his recent report on the FBI’s conduct in the Clinton email investigation.

Two years ago, Jane Chong dove deep into the supposed 60-day rule in a Lawfare post on FBI Director James Comey’s October 2016 letter on new developments in the Clinton investigation. As she wrote then, there is no formal rule barring Justice Department action in the days immediately before an election. Rather, the “rule” is more of a soft norm based on what former Attorney General Eric Holder himself described as “long-standing Justice Department policies and tradition.” In a guidanceHolder issued in 2012, the attorney general wrote that, “Law enforcement officers and prosecutors may never select the timing of investigative steps or criminal charges for the purpose of affecting any election, or for the purpose of giving an advantage or disadvantage to any candidate or political party”—which, Chong noted, leaves a wide loophole for actions taken near an election without the purpose of affecting that election. In 2016, Attorney General Loretta Lynch issued a similar memorandum with the same language, as the inspector general report lays out.

Chong’s post was, in fact, cited by the inspector general report in the office’s own analysis of whether Comey had violated the supposed 60-day rule. “The 60-Day Rule is not written or described in any Department policy or regulation,” the report says. Investigators canvassed a range of “high-ranking [Justice] Department and FBI officials” on their own understandings of the guideline, which the report describes as “a general practice that informs Department decisions.”

This short section of the 500-plus-page report shows broad agreement among the current and former Justice Department officials interviewed that there is some kind of principle against taking action in such a way as to potentially influence an election, though the interviewees do not precisely agree on the contours of that principle. Former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara stated, investigators write, that “there is generalized, unwritten guidance that prosecutors do not indict political candidates or use overt investigative methods in the weeks before an election.” Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates located the cutoff more precisely at the 90-day instead of the 60-day mark.

The inspector general’s office also interviewed Ray Hulser, the former deputy assistant attorney general for the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department, who was involved in the drafting of Lynch’s 2016 election integrity. Interestingly, Hulser told investigators that the Public Integrity Section had actually considered codifying the 60-day rule in the Lynch memo, but had decided not to because such a policy would be “unworkable.”

Yet, even though I don’t believe the 60-day “rule” does apply, my expectation is that Rod Rosenstein — who after is the one who will make any decisions about major Mueller actions — would nevertheless abide by it.

Still, that leaves three more days of this week, before the actual 60-day cut-off.

Which leaves me with another question: Would Rosenstein balk at a major action this week, before Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the Supreme Court?

After all, Rosenstein is close to Kavanaugh from when both served on a real witch hunt, the Ken Starr investigation into Bill Clinton’s blowjob (indeed, Kavanaugh seemed to have gotten off on the most scandalous details about that blowjob). Rosenstein has gone to great lengths to make DOJ resources available in support of his confirmation. Rosenstein showed up for the start of today’s hearing.

For Rosenstein, Kavanaugh’s confirmation is personal.

Would he do anything this week to stave off new Mueller revelations, to ensure the Kavanaugh bullet train races forward?

Andy McCarthy’s Misconception

I was struck, in reading Andy McCarthy’s review of the Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort guilty outcomes last week (in which he measures Trump via a vastly different standard than he once measured Bill Clinton), by this erroneous claim:

The Trump camp continues to stress that Manafort’s case had nothing to do with the original rationale for Mueller’s investigation, “collusion with Russia.” But as we’ve pointed out any number of times, Mueller took over a counterintelligence investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Possible Trump-campaign collusion with Russia was just one thread in the larger probe.

The claim that the Trump-campaign “collusion” was just one thread of what Mueller originally took over is false, but utterly critical for McCarthy’s sustained belief that Mueller has not found evidence of a conspiracy between Trump and Russia. While it is true that when Comey confirmed the investigation, he did not specify the structure of the investigation,
I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.
When Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller, he described Mueller’s scope to include,
  • any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and
  • any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation; and
  • any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a)

Why McCarthy made this error is clear: he uses the existence of and Mueller’s indictments in a broader counterintelligence investigation to sustain his belief that Mueller doesn’t have a “collusion” case against Trump or his associates.

At this point, it does not appear that Mueller has a collusion case against Trump associates. His indictments involving Russian hacking and troll farms do not suggest complicity by the Trump campaign. I also find it hard to believe Mueller sees Manafort as the key to making a case on Trump when Mueller has had Gates — Manafort’s partner — as a cooperator for six months. You have to figure Gates knows whatever Manafort knows about collusion. Yet, since Gates began cooperating with the special counsel, Mueller has filed the charges against Russians that do not implicate Trump, and has transferred those cases to other Justice Department components.

When it comes to the president, I believe the special counsel’s focus is obstruction, not collusion. When it comes to Manafort, I believe the special counsel’s focus is Russia — specifically, Manafort’s longtime connections to Kremlin-connected operatives. Mueller may well be interested in what Manafort can add to his inquiry into the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting (arranged by Donald Trump Jr. in futile hopes of obtaining campaign dirt from Russia on Hillary Clinton). That, however, is not the more serious “collusion” allegation that triggered the Trump thread of the investigation — cyberespionage conspiracy (i.e., Russian hacking of Democratic party emails).

That is, because Mueller indicted trolls and GRU hackers and then spun those prosecutions off to other teams (in the GRU case, back to one of the teams that originally investigated it), it is proof, in McCarthy’s mind, that Mueller isn’t targeting Trump and his associates for conspiring with Russia.

The actual background of the Mueller investigation suggests precisely the opposite. As I noted when Lawfare made precisely the same error in a post on the GRU indictment,

Friday’s indictment is, rather, the result of investigations conducted primarily in San Francisco and Pittsburgh. At the time Comey confirmed the counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s camp and at the time Comey got fired for not shutting the Trump counterintelligence investigation down, those San Francisco and Pittsburgh investigations were totally separate. Those two investigations almost certainly had little if any involvement from Peter Strzok (indeed, they involved a bunch of FBI cyber agents, a division of FBI that Strzok never tired of mocking in his texts to Lisa Page). The DOJ press release from Friday states that explicitly.

This case was investigated with the help of the FBI’s cyber teams in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and San Francisco and the National Security Division.

Those two investigations (plus the separate one noted in Philadelphia that started later, as I understand it from what a lawyer who represented a witness in that investigation described to me) got moved under the Mueller umbrella sometime in or just before November, and now the GRU officer part of the investigation will be moved back to Pittsburgh where it started, to languish forever like some other nation-state hacker indictments investigated by Western District of Pennsylvania.

Given that both public reporting (starting in February 2017 and extending into November 2017) and Mueller team changes (not to mention my own reporting about the Philadelphia grand jury’s activity in the second half of May 2017 and my own knowledge about where I interviewed and where my interview materials subsequently got moved to) support this narrative, McCarthy (and the Lawfare crowd) might ask why Mueller decided to integrate the cybersecurity parts of the investigation, only to spin the Russian defendants back to other teams once they were indicted?

We can begin to get an answer from the two indictments that — Andy wants to believe — are themselves evidence that Mueller doesn’t have evidence on Trump’s associates but actually are. The Internet Research Agency indictment actually describes three Florida-based Trump campaign officials inconclusively, as if they were either still under investigation or at some legal risk.

On approximately the same day, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the email address of a false U.S. persona, [email protected], to send an email to Campaign Official 1 at that donaldtrump.com email account, which read in part:

Hello [Campaign Official 1], [w]e are organizing a state-wide event in Florida on August, 20 to support Mr. Trump. Let us introduce ourselves first. “Being Patriotic” is a grassroots conservative online movement trying to unite people offline. . . . [W]e gained a huge lot of followers and decided to somehow help Mr. Trump get elected. You know, simple yelling on the Internet is not enough. There should be real action. We organized rallies in New York before. Now we’re focusing on purple states such as Florida.

The email also identified thirteen “confirmed locations” in Florida for the rallies and requested the campaign provide “assistance in each location.”

[snip]

Defendants and their co-conspirators used the false U.S. persona [email protected] account to send an email to Campaign Official 2 at that donaldtrump.com email account.

[snip]

On or about August 20, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the “Matt Skiber” Facebook account to contact Campaign Official 3.

And while the GRU indictment (on top of key clauses being misread by virtually everyone who has read it) doesn’t use the same convention to describe Roger Stone’s communications with Guccifer 2.0…

On or about August 15, 2016, the Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, wrote to a person who wasin regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, “thank u for writing back . . . do u find anyt[h]ing interesting in the docs i posted?” On or about August 17, 2016, the Conspirators added, “please tell me if i can help u anyhow . . . it would be a great pleasure to me.” On or about September 9, 2016, the Conspirators, again posing as Guccifer 2.0, referred to a stolen DCCC document posted online and asked the person, “what do u think of the info on the turnout model for the democrats entire presidential campaign.” The person responded, “[p]retty standard.”

It pointed to Russia’s response to Donald Trump’s request that they hack Hillary without referring to him one way or another.

For example, on or about July 27, 2016, the Conspirators attempted after hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a thirdparty provider and used by Clinton’s personal office. At or around the same time, they also targeted seventy-six email addresses at the domain for the Clinton Campaign.

What Mueller has done with both of the counterintelligence indictments that McCarthy takes solace in is lay out the Russian side of a conspiracy (and both are charged as conspiracies) with very clear spots into which American co-conspirators may be dropped when Mueller is prepared to do so. (I laid this out at more length in this post.)

Importantly, the fact that some of this investigation started out in other parts of DOJ but then got moved under Mueller make it clear that something came up in the investigation that Mueller and Rosenstein believed required they be moved under Special Counsel when they weren’t there, originally.

Let’s put it this way: Mueller didn’t subsume investigations located elsewhere at DOJ because the Special Counsel needed to be the one to indict a bunch of Russians. He did it to set up the conspiracies that would — that will — later be occupied by Russians and Americans.

As I disclosed in July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Cohen May Be Shopping a Cooperation Agreement; It’s Not Clear Anyone Is Buying

In the wake of yesterday’s twin guilty verdicts, the punditocracy has asserted, based on an assumption that Michael Cohen knows everything Trump did, that his guilty plea poses a bigger problem for Trump than Paul Manafort’s guilty verdict right now.

I’m not convinced. Indeed, I have real questions about whether Cohen faces anything other than his own charges in the Russian conspiracy case.

Trump has seen everything Cohen has on him

I’ll have more in a bit about the Cohen-Trump challenge to SDNY’s use of a clean team to sort out privileged materials. It was undoubtedly the right decision on Kimba Wood’s part for the legitimacy of the Cohen prosecution. But what it did for Cohen is make him (or Trump) spend a lot of money to give Trump a view of every piece of dirt he had on him.

The people who believe Cohen is a bigger threat to Trump than Manafort are premising that on four month old statements from Trump’s lawyers who have, in the interim, not only reviewed everything SDNY seized from Cohen, but also proven they underestimate the scope of Trump’s risk in the Russia investigation, and not just from Don McGahn.

Trump may have pre-empted what risk Cohen has

On TV this morning, Lanny Davis claimed that Trump’s lawyers already admitted to Mueller that he directed Cohen to pay off Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels.

There is no dispute that Donald Trump committed a crime. No dispute because his own lawyers said to the Special Counsel in a letter that he directed — that’s the word they used — Michael Cohen to do these payments.

It’s unclear what this letter is. It’s unclear why Trump’s lawyers would address it to Mueller rather than SDNY (aside from the fact that the Trump team never quite understood that under Rod Rosenstein’s supervision, Mueller referred the hush payments to SDNY, or perhaps the fact that suggesting Trump’s second conspiracy to cheat to get elected must be part of the investigation into Trump’s first conspiracy to cheat to get elected).

But if it is true that Trump’s team already admitted this to DOJ, regardless of who at DOJ, then it really undermines any value of having Cohen say so as part of a plea deal with regards to the hush payments. Trump’s a vindictive fuck, and depriving Cohen any value for turning on him would be the kind of thing he would do on “principle.”

Davis’ televised proffers don’t hold up to scrutiny

Since yesterday, Davis has publicly claimed Cohen has the goods on Trump’s charity (probably true) and the Russian hack. [Update: AP reports NYS has subpoenaed Cohen with regards to Trump’s foundation.]

In response to the latter claims, Richard Burr and Mark Warner issued a statement noting that that claim conflicts with Cohen’s past testimony.

We have obviously followed today’s reporting about Michael Cohen with great interest. He appears to be pleading guilty to very serious charges, however, we have no insight into any agreements he and his legal team have allegedly reached with prosecutors in New York.

What we can say is that we recently reengaged with Mr. Cohen and his team following press reports that suggested he had advance knowledge of the June 2016 meeting between campaign officials and Russian lawyers at Trump Tower. Mr. Cohen had testified before the Committee that he was not aware of the meeting prior to its disclosure in the press last summer. As such, the Committee inquired of Mr. Cohen’s legal team as to whether Mr. Cohen stood by his testimony. They responded that he did stand by his testimony.

We hope that today’s developments and Mr. Cohen’s plea agreement will not preclude his appearance before our Committee as needed for our ongoing investigation.

The truth is probably that Cohen had knowledge that Trump knew about some release — like the July release to Wikileaks — before it happened. But Mueller already has testimony to that effect, including from Omarosa, who as far as we know didn’t say it in an attempt to get out of criminal exposure herself.

And Cohen’s definitely not getting a cooperation agreement by working the press

Even SDNY hates when potential cooperating witnesses play the press; Michael Avenatti got in trouble for scheduling a press appearance around testimony. But that’s all the more true of Mueller. Indeed, a central part of Mueller’s argument that Papadopoulos offered no cooperation to prosecutors is that he took part in a NYT story in December.

Following the proffer sessions in August and September 2017, the government arranged to meet again with the defendant to ask further questions in late December 2017. However, upon learning that the defendant had participated in a media interview with a national publication concerning his case, the government canceled that meeting. (PSR ¶ 50). The government is aware that the defendant and his spouse have participated in several additional media interviews concerning his case.

Cohen has been all over the media since before they first proffered testimony (which as I understand it was some time ago). Having done that, there was little chance Mueller was going to buy what Cohen was offering publicly.

Mueller may intend to indict Cohen for his own role in the conspiracy

This part is speculative. But I think Mueller may be at the point where he’s preserving the maximal criminal liability of key conspirators. Already, he has limited the protection offered to cooperating witnesses aside from Rick Gates. Of particular note, Mike Flynn (whose latest sentencing continuation just got extended 24 days, to the date Manafort’s next trial starts) is only protected for the lies he told FBI and a FARA filing; he’s still exposed for his own role in the Russia conspiracy.

So it may well be that Mueller won’t give Cohen a cooperation agreement because he believes he can get to Cohen’s exposure on the Russia conspiracy (via witnesses like Felix Sater, who has been “cooperating’ for some time) with the evidence he has, and so sees no reason to limit that exposure for evidence he also already has from other witnesses.

As I disclosed last month, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Lawfare’s Theory of L’Affaire Russe Misses the Kompromat for the Pee Glee

As I disclosed last month, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Lawfare has updated a piece they did in May 2017, laying out what they believe are the seven theories of “L’Affaire Russe,” of which just five have withstood the test of time. It’s a worthwhile backbone for discussion among people trying to sort through the evidence.

Except I believe they get one thing badly wrong. Close to the end of the long post, they argue we’ve seen no evidence of a kompromat file — which they imagine might be the pee tape described in the probably disinformation-filled Steele dossier.

On the other hand, the hard evidence to support “Theory of the Case #6: Kompromat” has not materially changed in the last 15 months, though no evidence has emerged that undermines the theory either. No direct evidence has emerged that there exists a Russian kompromat file—let alone a pee tape—involving Trump, despite a huge amount of speculation on the subject. What has changed is that Trump’s behavior at the Helsinki summit suddenly moved the possibility of kompromat into the realm of respectable discourse.

Nevertheless, along the way, they point to evidence of direct ties between Trump’s behavior and Russian response.

The candidate, after all, did make numerous positive statements about Russian relations and Vladimir Putin himself—though how much of this has anything to do with these meetings is unclear. At a minimum, it is no small thing for the Russian state to have gotten a Republican nominee for president willing to reverse decades of Republican Russia-skepticism and commitment to NATO.

[snip]

What’s more, two days before the meeting, Trump promised a crowd that he would soon be giving a “major speech” on “all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons”—but after the meeting turned out to be a dud, the speech did not take place. And notably, the hacking indictment shows that the GRU made its first effort to break into Hillary Clinton’s personal email server and the email accounts of Clinton campaign staff on the same day—July 27, 2016—that Trump declared at a campaign stop, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing” from Clinton’s email account.

For some reason, they describe Don Jr’s reported disappointment about the June 9 meeting, but not Ike Kaveladze’s testimony that his initial report to Aras Agalarov (the report made in front of witnesses) was positive. Based on Don Jr’s heavily massaged (and, public evidence makes clear, perjurious) testimony, they claim that the Trump Tower meeting was a dud. Then they go on to note that the Russians at the June 9 meeting asked for Magnitsky sanction relief, rather than offering dirt.

In June 2016, Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort met with a group of Russian visitors in Trump Tower, including attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya. In the now-infamous email exchange that preceded the meeting, Trump, Jr. wrote, “I love it, especially later in the summer” when informed that the meeting would provide him with documents that “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” Trump, Jr. and other representatives of the Trump campaign were reportedly disappointed when Veselnitskaya failed to provide the promised “dirt” on Clinton and discussed the issue of Russian adoptions under the Magnitsky Act instead.

[snip]

While there is evidence—most notably with respect to the Trump Tower meeting—of Trump campaign willingness to work with the Russians, there’s not a lot of evidence that any kind of deal was ever struck.

To sustain their case that “there’s not a lot of evidence that any kind of deal was ever struck,” they neglect a number of other points. They don’t mention, for example, that a week after the Trump Tower meeting, the Russians released the first of the stolen files. They don’t mention that (contrary to Don Jr’s massaged testimony and most public claims since) there was a significant effort in November 2016 to follow-up on that June 9 meeting. They don’t mention that that effort was stalled because of the difficulty of communicating given the scrutiny of being President-elect. They don’t mention that the same day the Agalarov people discussed the difficulty of communicating with the President-elect, Jared Kushner met the Russian Ambassador in Don Jr’s office (not in transition space) and raised the possibility of a back channel, a meeting which led to Jared’s meeting with the head of a sanctioned bank, which in turn led to a back channel meeting in the Seychelles with more sanctioned financiers. And inexplicably, they make no mention of the December 29, 2016 calls, during which — almost certainly on direct orders from Trump relayed by KT McFarland — Mike Flynn got the Russians to stall any response to Obama’s sanctions, a discussion Mike Flynn would later lie about to the FBI, in spite of the fact that at least six transition officials knew what he really said.

Why does Lawfare ignore the basis for the plea deal that turned Trump’s one-time National Security Advisor into state’s evidence, when laying out the evidence in this investigation?

All of which is to say that even with all the things Lawfare ignores in their summary, they nevertheless lay out the evidence that Trump and the Russians were engaged in a call-and-response, a call-and-response that appears in the Papadopoulos plea and (as Lawfare notes) the GRU indictment, one that ultimately did deal dirt and got at least efforts to undermine US sanctions (to say nothing of the Syria effort that Trump was implementing less than 14 hours after polls closed, an effort that has been a key part of both Jared Kushner and Mike Flynn’s claims about the Russian interactions).

At each stage of this romance with Russia, Russia got a Trump flunkie (first, Papadopoulos) or Trump himself to publicly engage in the call-and-response. All of that led up to the point where, on July 16, 2018, after Rod Rosenstein loaded Trump up with a carefully crafted indictment showing Putin that Mueller knew certain things that Trump wouldn’t fully understand, Trump came out of a meeting with Putin looking like he had been thoroughly owned and stood before the entire world and spoke from Putin’s script in defiance of what the US intelligence community has said.

People are looking in the entirely wrong place for the kompromat that Putin has on Trump, and missing all the evidence of it right in front of their faces.

Vladimir Putin obtained receipts at each stage of this romance of Trump’s willing engagement in a conspiracy with Russians for help getting elected. Putin knows what each of those receipts mean. Mueller has provided hints, most obviously in that GRU indictment, that he knows what some of them are.

For example, on or about July 27, 2016, the Conspirators  attempted after hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third-party provider and used by Clinton’s personal office. At or around the same time, they also targeted seventy-six email addresses at the domain for the Clinton Campaign.

But Mueller’s not telling whether he has obtained the actual receipts.

And that’s the kompromat. Trump knows that if Mueller can present those receipts, he’s sunk, unless he so discredits the Mueller investigation before that time as to convince voters not to give Democrats a majority in Congress, and convince Congress not to oust him as the sell-out to the country those receipts show him to be. He also knows that, on the off-chance Mueller hasn’t figured this all out yet, Putin can at any time make those receipts plain. Therein lies Trump’s uncertainty: It’s not that he has any doubt what Putin has on him. It’s that he’s not sure which path before him — placating Putin, even if it provides more evidence he’s paying off his campaign debt, or trying to end the Mueller inquiry before repaying that campaign debt, at the risk of Putin losing patience with him — holds more risk.

Trump knows he’s screwed. He’s just not sure whether Putin or Mueller presents the bigger threat.

The Worm Turns: Neither Devin Nunes Nor Ron DeSantis (Thus Far) Support Jim Jordan’s Impeachment Bid

As I laid out a few weeks ago, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post.

I was in DC when Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan rolled out articles of impeachment against Rod Rosenstein. As a number of people have noted, the articles themselves are batshit crazy, calling over-redaction subsequently corrected a high crime and misdemeanor.

And some of the articles would require a time machine to prove, such as holding Rosenstein responsible for a FISA application submitted when he was merely the US Attorney for MD with no role in the investigation.

But something else is even more interesting to me.

The original press release included the names of 6 congressmen, in addition to Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan, who co-sponsored the articles HR 1028:

  1. Mark Meadows
  2. Jim Jordan
  3. Andy Biggs
  4. Scott Perry
  5. Paul “Dentists Read Body Language” Gosar
  6. Jody Hice
  7. Matt Gaetz
  8. Scott DesJarlais

And while the other three congressmen who joined as co-sponsors seemed a lot more sheepish about signing on, the following me also joined:

  1. John Duncan
  2. Louie Gohmert
  3. Bill Posey

By mid-morning yesterday, in the face of opposition from Paul Ryan and citing some deal with Bob Goodlatte, Meadows and Jordan admitted defeat. Shortly thereafter, Jordan announced a bid to be Speaker, with support from Meadows.

Apparently this morning, the following men signed on:

  1. Tom Massie
  2. Ted Yoho
  3. Ralph Norman
  4. Duncan Hunter

We’re two days into this effort, and thus far, two names are conspicuously absent: Devin Nunes (who has admittedly refrained from officially participating in some of the batshittery to — apparently — limit his legal exposure) and Ron DeSantis, who has spent the last seven months leading efforts to discredit Mueller’s investigation.

While I was in DC, a Republican admitted to me that this was just about ginning up votes and predicted that the House is done meeting until November — meaning Rosenstein should be safe from Congressional tampering until then.

If so, DeSantis’ non-participation in this stunt is telling. He’s running for governor with the vocal support of President Trump.

Indeed, DeSantis currently has a healthy lead against Adam Putnam in the GOP primary, with the primary date a month away, August 28, largely due to Trump’s support.

DeSantis is also one of the people who most obviously benefitted from Russian interference in 2016.

That Ron DeSantis has not (yet) signed onto this stunt suggests he’s not sure that, in a month (or perhaps in three, in the general), having done so will benefit his electoral chances to be governor.

So apparently Jim Jordan (facing sexual assault cover-up charges) and Duncan Hunter (facing even more serious legal troubles) think it’s a smart idea to go all-in on supporting Trump. But Ron DeSantis does not.

How to Charge Americans in Conspiracies with Russian Spies?

As I laid out a few weeks ago, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

In general, Jack Goldsmith and I have long agreed about the problems with charging nation-state spies in the United States. So I read with great interest his post laying out “Uncomfortable Questions in the Wake of Russia Indictment 2.0 and Trump’s Press Conference With Putin.” Among other larger normative points, Goldsmith asks two questions. First, does indicting 12 GRU officers in the US expose our own nation-state hackers to be criminally prosecuted in other countries?

This is not a claim about the relative moral merits of the two countries’ cyber intrusions; it is simply a claim that each side unequivocally breaks the laws of the other in its cyber-espionage activities.

How will the United States respond when Russia and China and Iran start naming and indicting U.S. officials?  Maybe the United States thinks its concealment techniques are so good that the type of detailed attribution it made against the Russians is infeasible.  (The Shadow Brokers revealed the identities of specific NSA operators, so even if the National Security Agency is great at concealment as a matter of tradecraft that is no protection against an insider threat.)  Maybe Russia and China and Iran won’t bother indicting U.S. officials unless and until the indictments actually materialize into a trial, which they likely never will.  But what is the answer in principle?  And what is the U.S. policy (if any) that is being communicated to military and civilian operators who face this threat?  What is the U.S. government response to former NSA official Jake Williams, who worked in Tailored Access Operations and who presumably spoke for many others at NSA when he said that “charging military/gov hackers is dumb and WILL eventually hurt the US”?

And, how would any focus on WikiLeaks expose journalists in the United States to risks of prosecution themselves.

There is a lot of anger against WikiLeaks and a lot of support for indicting Julian Assange and others related to WikiLeaks for their part in publishing the information stolen by the Russians.  If Mueller goes in this direction, he will need to be very careful not to indict Assange for something U.S. journalists do every day.  U.S. newspapers publish information stolen via digital means all the time.  They also openly solicit such information through SecureDrop portals.  Some will say that Assange and others at WikiLeaks can be prosecuted without threatening “real journalists” by charging a conspiracy to steal and share stolen information. I am not at all sure such an indictment wouldn’t apply to many American journalists who actively aid leakers of classified information.

I hope to come back to the second point. As a journalist who had a working relationship with someone she came to believe had a role in the attack, I have thought about and discussed the topic with most, if not all, the lawyers I consulted on my way to sitting down with the FBI.

For the moment, though, I want to focus on Goldsmith’s first point, one I’ve made in the past repeatedly. If we start indicting uniformed military intelligence officers — or even contractors, like the trolls at Internet Research Agency might be deemed — do we put the freedom of movement of people like Jake Williams at risk? Normally, I’d absolutely agree with Goldsmith and Williams.

But as someone who has already written extensively about the ConFraudUs backbone that Robert Mueller has built into his cases, I want to argue this is an exception.

As I’ve noted previously, while Rod Rosenstein emphasized that the Internet Research Agency indictment included no allegations that Americans knowingly conspired with Russians, it nevertheless did describe three Americans whose activities in response to being contacted by Russian trolls remain inconclusive.

Rod Rosenstein was quite clear: “There is no allegation in the indictment that any American was a knowing participant in the alleged unlawful activity.” That said, there are three (presumed) Americans who, both the indictment and subsequent reporting make clear, are treated differently in the indictment than all the other Americans cited as innocent people duped by Russians: Campaign Official 1, Campaign Official 2, and Campaign Official 3. We know, from CNN’s coverage of Harry Miller’s role in building a cage to be used in a fake “jailed Hillary” stunt, that at least some other people described in the indictment were interviewed — in his case, for six hours! — by the FBI. But no one else is named using the convention to indicate those not indicted but perhaps more involved in the operation. Furthermore, the indictment doesn’t actually describe what action (if any) these three Trump campaign officials took after being contacted by trolls emailing under false names.

On approximately the same day, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the email address of a false U.S. persona, [email protected], to send an email to Campaign Official 1 at that donaldtrump.com email account, which read in part:

Hello [Campaign Official 1], [w]e are organizing a state-wide event in Florida on August, 20 to support Mr. Trump. Let us introduce ourselves first. “Being Patriotic” is a grassroots conservative online movement trying to unite people offline. . . . [W]e gained a huge lot of followers and decided to somehow help Mr. Trump get elected. You know, simple yelling on the Internet is not enough. There should be real action. We organized rallies in New York before. Now we’re focusing on purple states such as Florida.

The email also identified thirteen “confirmed locations” in Florida for the rallies and requested the campaign provide “assistance in each location.”

[snip]

Defendants and their co-conspirators used the false U.S. persona [email protected] account to send an email to Campaign Official 2 at that donaldtrump.com email account.

[snip]

On or about August 20, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the “Matt Skiber” Facebook account to contact Campaign Official 3.

Again, the DOJ convention of naming makes it clear these people have not been charged with anything. But we know from other Mueller indictments that those specifically named (which include the slew of Trump campaign officials named in the George Papadopoulos plea, KT McFarland and Jared Kushner in the Flynn plea, Kilimnik in the Van der Zwaan plea, and the various companies and foreign leaders that did Manafort’s bidding, including the Podesta Group and Mercury Public Affairs in his indictment) may be the next step in the investigation.

In the GRU indictment, non US person WikiLeaks is given the equivalent treatment.

On or about June 22, 2016, Organization I sent a private message to Guccifer 2.0 to “[s]end any new material [stolen from the DNC] here for us to review and it will have a much higher impact than what you are doing.” On or about July 6, 2016, Organization 1 added, “if you have anything hillary related we want it in the next tweo [sic] days prefable [sic] because the DNC [DemocraticNationalConvention] is approaching and she Will solidify bernie supporters behind her after.” The Conspirators responded,“0k . . . i see.” Organization I explained,“we think trump has only a 25% chance of winning against hillary . . . so conflict between bernie and hillary is interesting.”

But the activities of other American citizens — most notably Roger Stone and Donald Trump — are discussed obliquely, even if they’re not referred to using the standard of someone still under investigation. Here’s the Roger Stone passage.

On or aboutAugust 15,2016, the Conspirators,posing as Guccifer 2.0,wrote to a person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, “thank u for writing back. . . do u find anyt[h]ing interesting in the docs i posted?” On or about August 17, 2016, the Conspirators added, “please tell me if i can help u anyhow . . . it would be a great pleasureto me.” On or about September 9, 2016,the Conspirators, again posing as Guccifer 2.0, referred to a stolen DCCC document posted online and asked the person, “what do u think of the info on the turnout model for the democrats entire presidential campaign.” The person responded,“[p]retty standard.”

The Trump one, of course, pertains to the response GRU hackers appear to have made when he asked for Russia to find Hillary’s emails on July 27.

For example, on or about July 27, 2016, the Conspirators attempted after hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third‑party provider and used by Clinton’s personal office. At or around the same time, they also targeted seventy‐six email addresses at the domain for the Clinton Campaign.

Finally, there is yesterday’s Mariia Butina complaint, which charges her as an unregistered Russian spy and describes Aleksandr Torshin as her boss, but which also describes the extensive and seemingly willful cooperation with Paul Erickson and another American, as well as with the RNC and NRA. Here’s one of the Americans, for example, telling Butina that her Russian bosses should take the advice he had given her about which Americans she needed to meet.

If you were to sit down with your special friends and make a list of ALL the most important contacts you could find in America for a time when the political situation between the U.S. and Russia will change, you could NOT do better than the list that I just emailed you. NO one — certainly not the “official” Russian Federation public relations representative in New York — could build a better list.

[snip]

All that you friends need to know is that meetings with the names on MY list would not be possible without the unknown names in your “business card” notebook. Keep them focused on who you are NOW able to meet, NOT the people you have ALREADY met.

Particularly as someone whose communications (including, but not limited to, that text) stand a decent chance of being quoted in an indictment in the foreseeable future, let me be very clear: none of these people have been accused of any wrong-doing.

But they do suggest a universe of people who have attracted investigative scrutiny, both by Mueller and by NSD, as willing co-conspirators with Russian spies.

Granted, there are three different kinds of Russian spies included in these three documents:

  • Uniformed military intelligence officers working from Moscow
  • Civilian employees who might be considered intelligence contractors working from St. Petersburg (though with three reconnaissance trips to the US included)
  • Butina and Torshin, both of whom probably committed visa fraud to engage as unregistered spies in the US

We have a specific crime for the latter (and, probably, the reconnaissance trips to the US by IRA employees), and if any of the US persons and entities in Butina’s indictment are deemed to have willingly joined her conspiracy, they might easily be charged as well. Eventually, I’m certain, Mueller will move to start naming Americans (besides Paul Manafort and Rick Gates) in conspiracy indictments, including ones involving Russian spies operating from Russia (like Konstantin Kilimnik). It seems necessary to include the Russians in some charging documents, because otherwise you’ll never be able to lay out the willful participation of everyone, Russian and American, in the charging documents naming the Americans.

So while I generally agree with Goldsmith and Williams, this case, where we’re clearly discussing a conspiracy between Russian spies — operating both from the US and from Russia (and other countries), wearing uniforms and civilian clothing –and Americans, it seems important to include them in charging documents somewhere.