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Manafort’s Lawyers Will Challenge the Legitimacy of Prosecuting the Ukrainian Money Laundering

Over the weekend, I did a Twitter thread on the fun stuff in the latest filing from Paul Manafort’s lawyers asking (among other things) that he be let off his GPS monitor. Now that others are reviewing the filing, I’m seeing lots of people miss a key part of what his lawyers are doing.

As I noted, in a footnote, Manafort’s lawyers point out that the crimes he has been charged with all pre-date the election.

Of note, his work on behalf of the Ukrainian clients ended around two years before Mr. Manafort agreed to work as the campaign manager for then-candidate Donald Trump.

It’s a point they’ve made before. But it has been misunderstood as a bogus point.

It’s not. Here’s how the defense has said they’re going to defend against this indictment.

At this time, the defense anticipates that pretrial motions will be filed concerning the legal basis for and sufficiency of the charges, the suppression of evidence improperly obtained by search warrant, subpoena or otherwise (including the application of exceptions to common law privileges), as well as motions in limine based on discovery to be provided by the Government in preparation for trial.

To some degree, this is part of a challenge the defense will make to the charging of FARA crimes generally. As they rightly point out, that simply hasn’t gotten prosecuted.

The Government’s case also concerns whether Mr. Manafort was required to file a report as a foreign agent with the U.S. Department of Justice. The U.S. Department of Justice has only brought six criminal FARA prosecutions since 1966 and it has secured only one conviction during this period. It is far from clear what activity triggers a requirement to file a report as a foreign agent. In order to conceal this weakness in the Indictment, a façade of money laundering has been put forth using a tenuous legal theory. When the money laundering count is peeled back from the Indictment, the forecasted sentencing guidelines are reduced substantially to a fraction of those claimed by the Office of Special Counsel.

What they’re ignoring is that the FARA charges are tied to both the money laundering they want to dismiss (Weekly Standard quotes people saying “it doesn’t make sense” to have spent $1M on rugs in Alexandria) and to false statements charges that (as DOJ keeps pointing out) have already been validated in the process of getting Manafort’s lawyer to waive privilege to explain how she was lied to.

But it also suggests they’re going to go after not only the no-knock warrant from this summer (which obtained information proving that Manafort and Gates keep records longer than the six months they have claimed to DOJ in the past), but also other subpoenas and the legal basis for the changes. That is, it suggests they’re going to challenge Mueller’s authority for investigating these old crimes which, public reporting made clear, long preceded the authorization of the Special Counsel. The legitimacy of the new evidence collection and charges depends on the legitimacy of the exercise of the Special Counsel authority, which is in turn based on,

(i) any links and/or coordination bet ween the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and

(ii) any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation;

(iii) any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a).

The entire point of noting that the crimes charged here predate the election is to lay the groundwork for legal challenges. Manafort’s lawyers are laying groundwork to claim that these charges 1) don’t pertain to coordination on the election and 2) can’t say to have arisen out of them, because they predated them. Again, that ignores that the 28 CFR §600.4(a) permits Mueller to investigate, “intent to interfere with, the Special Counsel’s investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses,” which Manafort’s false statements about the FARA registration might certainly be construed as.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think such a challenge will succeed (in part because of those false statements charges, which are dated to November 23, 2016 and February 10, 2017; the conspiracy to defraud the US also continues through 2017 and in part because Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein approved the charges). I also think this Politico piece, which talks about such legal threats, overstates the legal danger of such a challenge (in part because it cites all number of Republican lawyers, including Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow, who are being teed up to bitch about the legitimacy publicly).

But I do think it’s a legitimate tactic, one that will serve Manafort’s defense, even outside the world of the Sukulow spin.

First, the charges as laid out are designed to steer clear of the election related stuff so Mueller can get Manafort to flip and testify on those without laying out what he already knows. They’re also designed to parallel similar charges in NY that can be charged if Trump pardons Manafort. By challenging the legitimacy of the tie between the Ukraine consulting and the election, Manafort may force Mueller to show more of his hand, notably to include why he believes the lies Manafort told last November and in February are part of the election cover-up (I can easily imagine how Mueller would explain it, but imagine he doesn’t want to do so, yet). Alternately, to substantiate the ties, Mueller may choose to issue a superseding indictment, tying the Ukraine work more closely to the election stuff, but I suspect he doesn’t want to do that, yet.

Also, to the extent that the challenge gets litigated now rather than on appeal (when it will definitely get litigated, if this goes to trial), Manafort may test the guidelines for something the President very much wants to test: whether Mueller can prosecute old business corruption (that in the case of both men happens to implicate compromise by the Russians). Manafort will be taking logical steps for his own defense, but also doing the work of the man who ultimately holds Manafort’s ticket to freedom.

Finally, there is the entire point of propaganda. So long as Trump can claim that nothing substantial has been charged against his campaign, both by noting (as he has, repeatedly) that Manafort’s charges are unrelated to the election and George Papadopoulos is some random coffee boy, Republicans and Trump supporters will have more space to support him. Once that changes — and the moment that changes will be one of the most fraught legal moments in this case — things may get a lot harder for Trump.

But for now, Manafort is helping the PR case along, and will continue to to the extent that his lawyers continue to argue that the crimes ended well before the campaign.

Update: As Josh Gerstein notes in his story on the government’s latest filing, Manafort and the government are actually disputing how long his work in Ukraine lasted:

The parties do dispute one minor factual point: Manafort claims that his work in the Ukraine ended in 2014, ECF#32 at 3, while the indictment alleges his continued work through 2015 on behalf of the Opposition Bloc, after the flight to Russia of President Victor Yanukovych. Indictment ¶ 1.

I have a feeling that discrepancy could end up less minor than suggested.

The Boente Resignation and the Reported Charge[s]/Indictment[s]

Back in May, I argued (based on the since proven incorrect assumption that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would be unlikely to hire a non-DOJ employee like Robert Mueller as Special Counsel), Dana Boente might be the best solution to investigate the Comey firing.

[T]here’s no reason to believe he isn’t pursuing the investigation (both investigations, into Wikileaks and Trump’s associates) with real vigor. He is a hard ass prosecutor and if that’s what you want that’s what you’d get. His grand jury pool is likely to be full of people with national security backgrounds or at least a predisposition to be hawks.

But — for better and worse — Boente actually has more power than a Special Counsel would have (and more power than Fitz had for the Plame investigation), because he is also in charge of NSD, doing things like approving FISA orders on suspected Russian agents. I think there are problems with that, particularly in the case of a possible Wikileaks prosecution. But if you want concentrated power, Boente is a better option than any AUSA. With the added benefit that he’s The Last USA, which commands some real respect.

Yesterday, at about 6:30, WaPo reported Boente’s resignation. An hour or so later, CNN first reported that Robert Mueller has approved charges against at least one person who might be arrested on Monday. Not long after that, former DOJ spox Matt Miller revealed that Boente told friends this week he was looking forward to returning full time to his US Attorney post after John Demers takes over as the confirmed Assistant Attorney General for National Security.

Miller assumes that means Boente was forced out, rather than chose to announce his departure — he’ll stay until someone is confirmed in his place — after some things he started (such as the investigation into Mike Flynn) are coming to closure.

I don’t believe, contrary to what Rachel Maddow has floated, that Boente is stepping down solely or primarily to be a witness. Mueller already has a list of people who witnessed Trump’s obstruction. He doesn’t need Boente and he’d be better off with Boente at the helm of related investigations than sitting before a grand jury.

So if Boente was forced out, it suggests the charges announced have led to a Trump decision to get rid of Boente, perhaps yet another person he believed would protect him or his close associates.

Or perhaps there’s this. I pointed out two weeks ago that an 2002 OLC memo (one interpreting language that Viet Dinh, who’s a tangential player in this whole affair, wrote) held that the President could order lawyers to share grand jury information with him.

July 22, 2002, memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, written by Jay Bybee, the author of the infamous torture memos, held that, under the statute, the president could get grand jury information without the usual notice to the district court. It also found that the president could delegate such sharing without requiring a written order that would memorialize the delegation.

Bybee’s memo relies on and reaffirms several earlier memos. It specifically approves two rationales for sharing grand jury information with the president that would be applicable to the Russian investigation. A 1997 memo imagined that the president might get grand jury information “in a case where the integrity or loyalty of a presidential appointee holding an important and sensitive post was implicated by the grand jury investigation.” And a 2000 memo imagined that the president might need to “obtain grand jury information relevant to the exercise of his pardon authority.”

If you set aside Trump’s own role in obstructing the investigation—including the firing of former FBI Director James Comey—these rationales are defensible in certain cases. In fact, the Justice Department has already shared information (though not from a grand jury) with the White House for one of these very reasons. In January, acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned White House Counsel Don McGahn that Russians might be able to blackmail then-National Security Advisor Mike Flynn. As Yates explained in her congressional testimony in May, after Flynn’s interview with the FBI, “We felt that it was important to get this information to the White House as quickly as possible.” She shared it so the White House could consider firing Flynn: “I remember that Mr. McGahn asked me whether or not General Flynn should be fired, and I told him that that really wasn’t our call, that was up to them, but that we were giving them this information so that they could take action.”

A similar situation might occur now that the investigation has moved to a grand jury investigation, if someone remaining in the White House—the most likely candidate is the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner—were found to be compromised by Russian intelligence. In Kushner’s case, there are clear hints that he has been compromised, such as when he asked to set up a back channel with the Russians during the transition.

If Trump were to rely on the memo, he might order a Justice Department lawyer to tell him what evidence Mueller had against Kushner, or whether Mike Flynn or former campaign manager Paul Manafort were preparing to cooperate with Mueller’s prosecutors if they didn’t get an immediate pardon. Unlike Yates, Trump would have an incentive to use such information to undercut the investigation into Russia’s meddling.

I argued in that piece that those who currently have visibility onto the investigation — Rod Rosenstein and Boente — would be unlikely to share such information.

But that doesn’t prevent Trump (or Sessions, on his behalf) from asking.

So one possibility is that — as things move towards the next volatile state of affairs — Trump asked Boente to do something he refused.

Update: CNN had the Boente story mid-afternoon, and they say the resignation was long planned. Which may mean the indictment yesterday was something (or things) he had been working on at EDVA for some time.

Update: NBC has yet more conflicting details, reporting that Jeff Sessions’ Chief of Staff told Boente on Wednesday he should submit his resignation so Trump can start the replacement process.

Two Data Points on Jared Kushner

I wanted to pull out two data points in this profile of Jared Kushner, completed in the wake of the WaPo story that Kushner attempted to set up a back channel with Russia.

First, as other stories have, this one blames Kushner for encouraging Trump to fire Jim Comey.

But in recent weeks, the Trump-Kushner relationship, the most stable partnership in an often unstable West Wing, is showing unmistakable signs of strain.

That relationship had already begun to fray a bit after Mr. Trump’s dismissal of the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, which Mr. Kushner had strongly advocated, and because of his repeated attempts to oust Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, as well as the president’s overburdened communications team, especially Sean Spicer, the press secretary.

[snip]

Other times, he serves as a goad, as he did in urging Mr. Comey’s ouster and assuring Mr. Trump that it would be a political “win” that would neutralize protesting Democrats because they had called for Mr. Comey’s ouster over his handling of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, according to six West Wing aides.

I’ve pointed out before how the investigation into Mike Flynn might, with his cooperation, put Kushner at risk. But I’m interested in the new detail that Kushner assured his father that Democrats would love the firing of Comey because of Comey’s handling of the Hillary investigation.

I can see how a dummie might believe that. But I’m at least as interested in how pitching that theory for Comey’s firing implicated Rod Rosenstein, insofar as he wrote a letter providing the fig leaf Hillary-based justification for the firing, and thereby led to the naming of Robert Mueller. Rosenstein is still the Acting Attorney General for the Russia investigation now looking more closely at Kushner, and Kushner has effectively already compromised him.

Amid its larger narrative that Kushner and Trump actually haven’t been that close all that long, the NYT also reminds that Kushner got a lot of credit from his father-in-law for reviving the digital aspect of the campaign.

Mr. Kushner’s reported feeler to the Russians even as President Barack Obama remained in charge of American foreign policy was a trademark move by someone with a deep confidence in his abilities that critics say borders on conceit, people close to him said. And it echoes his history of sailing forth into unknown territory, including buying a newspaper at age 25 and developing a data-analytics program that he has said helped deliver the presidency to his father-in-law.

[snip]

Despite the perception that he is the one untouchable adviser in the president’s inner circle, Mr. Kushner was not especially close to his father-in-law before the 2016 campaign. The two bonded when Mr. Kushner helped to take over the campaign’s faltering digital operation and to sell a reluctant Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of Fox News’s parent company, on the viability of his father-in-law’s candidacy by showing him videos of Mr. Trump’s rally during a lunch at Fox headquarters in mid-2015.

There lots of reasons to look askance at Trump’s data program, even before you consider that it was so central in a year where Trump’s opponent got hacked. So I find it notable (which is where I’ll leave it, for now) that Kushner’s role in the digital side of the campaign was so central to his perceived closeness to Trump.

Ultimately, I keep noting that Kushner hasn’t really been part of the Trump family for that long — just eight years. While I certainly believe Trump looks on the father of his grandchildren as part of the family, I’m not sure how much real vetting they’ve done of him (and with this crowed, everyone is corrupt in any case).

It will be interesting to see, going forward, what bases for mutual loyalty — such as it exists between these two men — there are.

Sheldon Whitehouse and the Russia Investigation Deconfliction

Laura Rozen has me worried.

She pointed to this CNN article — posted sometime this afternoon — describing Sheldon Whitehouse’s worries that the scope of the DOJ inquiry into Trump and Russia might conflict with the Congressional inquiries.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the top Democrat on a Judiciary subcommittee, told CNN Thursday that it’s possible Flynn is cooperating with the Justice Department — and that Capitol Hill has not been kept in the loop. He warned that congressional probes that have subpoenaed Flynn for records could undercut Mueller’s investigation if the former national security adviser is secretly working with the Justice Department as part of its broader investigation into possible collusion between Russian officials and Trump associates during the campaign season.

“There is at least a reasonable hypothesis that Mike Flynn is already cooperating with the DOJ investigation and perhaps even has been for some time,” said Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat.

Whitehouse added he had no direct evidence to suggest that Flynn is cooperating with the Justice Department. But he said there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that it could be the case, saying Mueller must immediately detail the situation to “deconflict” with probes on the Hill to “make sure that congressional investigations aren’t inadvertently competing with DOJ criminal investigations.”

[snip]

The Rhode Island Democrat said there are number of factors that suggest Flynn is working the Justice Department in its probe. He pointed out that “all reporting indicates they’ve got him dead to rights on a false statement felony” in his private interview with the FBI over his conversations last year with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. He also noted that Flynn has gone silent and retroactively signed on as a foreign agent to Turkey. And he noted that a federal grand jury has been summoned and has issued subpoenas to Flynn associates.

“So none of that proves anything but it’s all consistent with the hypothesis that he’s already cooperating,” Whitehouse told CNN.

“But that’s certainly a hypothetical case of a time when we do need need this de-confliction apparatus in place to make sure that congressional investigations aren’t inadvertently competing DOJ criminal investigations.”

Now, in point of fact, that deconfliction has already happened — or at least started. That’s what a May 11 meeting between Rod Rosenstein, Richard Burr, and Mark Warner was described as at the time.

Rosenstein was tight-lipped as he entered and emerged from a secure facility Thursday on Capitol Hill, where he huddled with Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). The senators said the meeting had been scheduled before Comey’s ouster to discuss “deconfliction” — keeping the FBI’s and committee’s investigations of alleged ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government from stepping on each other’s toes.

According to reports, the meeting was scheduled before the Jim Comey ouster, so it should reflect the scope of what he was investigating, and therefore presumably resembles the scope of what Robert Mueller will investigate.

But there are three reasons why Whitehouse might be justified in worrying that Congress might fuck up what DOJ is investigating.

Obviously, the first is Mueller: the Comey firing might have reflected some new investigative approach (including Flynn immunity), or Mueller, because of the firing, might be scoping the investigation differently.

A second is jurisdiction. Whitehouse and Lindsey Graham have assumed jurisdiction over the Russia investigation for their subcommittee — and the Senate Judiciary Committee obviously should oversee the FBI. So it may be that former US Attorney Sheldon Whitehouse wants to have a deconflicting conversation for himself, because he knows how investigations work (and for all we know is getting tips from DOJ).

The other is another announcement from this afternoon: that the Senate Intelligence Committee had voted to give Chair Richard Burr and Vice Chair Mark Warner the ability to issue subpoenas themselves going forward, without consulting the committee.

The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee now have broad authority to issue subpoenas in the Russia investigation without a full committee vote, Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said Thursday.

The panel voted unanimously to give Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) the blanket authority for the duration of the investigation into Russia’s election meddling and possible collusion with President Trump’s campaign.

The two Senate leaders must be in agreement in order to issue an order.

Now, as the article notes, thus far, the committee has asked for documents, not testimony. My suspicion is this might have more to do with ensuring Comey’s testimony — promised after Memorial Day — is “compelled” in such a way that DOJ can’t object.

Nevertheless, the power to subpoena does grant someone (like former Trump National Security Advisor Richard Burr) the ability to fuck with the DOJ investigation by potentially working at cross-purposes. To grant immunity (and therefore to fuck up the investigation as happened in Iran-Contra), I think Burr would still need the support of the committee.

Still, this still gives Burr far more power to thwart the investigation, with only Mark Warner (who unlike Whitehouse has never been a prosecutor) to prevent it.

In theory, I think Whitehouse is just pushing for jurisdiction (and for the ability to demand the same kind of deconfliction conversation Burr and Warner have gotten).

But upon reflection, I don’t think his concerns are entirely unjustified.

In any case, I trust Whitehouse (with whatever leftover ties he has to DOJ) to do this review more than Mark Warner.

Update: Burr told Bloomberg he has had a deconfliction conversation with Mueller.

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, said he has contacted Mueller to discuss their parallel probes of Russian meddling.

The Last USA: Dana Boente Is the Best Short Term Solution

In the wake of the Comey firing, particularly given the way Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein let himself serve as a pawn, many people have renewed their call for “a special prosecutor.” In the short term, however, I believe Dana Boente — that is, the status quo — is a better solution.

As a reminder, Dana Boente is the US Attorney of Eastern District of VA. With Rosenstein’s confirmation as DAG, Boente is the last remaining confirmed US Attorney in the United States. Boente’s office is overseeing at least two parts of the Russian investigation: the generalized investigation into Wikileaks, and the investigation into Trump’s campaign. The latter investigation recently issued subpoenas to Mike Flynn associates. There are reportedly parts of the investigation in three other places: some work being done in Main Justice, as well a a team investigating Guccifer 2.0/Shadow Brokers in San Francisco, and a team investigating the Russian hackers in Pittsburgh.

But the bulk of what people think of as “the Russian investigation” — the investigation into Trump’s cronies — is happening in EDVA, overseen by The Last USA.

In addition to reporting up to Rosenstein as DAG and Rosenstein as Acting AG for the Russian investigation, Boente just took over as Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security Division — the office that reviews things like FISA orders. That means Boente — for better and worse — has more authority, on several levels, than a “Special Counsel” would have.

First, note I use the term “Special Counsel,” not “Special Prosecutor.” Ken Starr was a Special Prosecutor, but in the wake of his fiasco and given persistent questions about the constitutionality of having someone who was totally independent from the structure of DOJ prosecuting people, Congress got rid of the provision supporting Special Prosecutors.

So if Rod Rosenstein wanted to appoint someone “independent” to oversee the Russian investigation, he’d have to use the Special Counsel provision.

While I think it is permissible to hire someone from outside of DOJ to do that job (so it is possible he could call up corporate lawyer Pat Fitzgerald for his third ride on the Special Counsel merry-go-round to, in dramatic fashion, save the investigation undercut by the firing of his good friend Jim Comey), in practice the recent Special Counsel appointments (the UndieBomb 2.0 leak investigation, the StuxNet leak investigation, the John Kiriakou prosecution, the Torture investigation, and the Plame investigation) have all been DOJ prosecutors, either US Attorneys (in all but one case) or an Assistant USA Attorney, in the case of John Durham’s whitewash of torture. Plus, while Fitz is still well-loved at DOJ and FBI as far as I know, if Rosenstein appointed him, I bet Trump would fire him within minutes because he’s sure as hell not going to be “loyal.” And because of Fitz’ past gunning hard for Cheney and Bush, many Republicans might not put up much of a stink there.

If Rosenstein were to adhere to the practice of naming existing DOJ prosecutors, though, it’d mean he’d be choosing between Boente, The Last USA, or an AUSA (perhaps one of the ones who recently reported to him in MD). In both cases, the Special Counsel would report to Rosenstein for AG approvals (as Pat Fitz reported to Jim Comey for the Plame case).

You can see quickly why Boente is the preferable option. First, there’s no reason to believe he isn’t pursuing the investigation (both investigations, into Wikileaks and Trump’s associates) with real vigor. He is a hard ass prosecutor and if that’s what you want that’s what you’d get. His grand jury pool is likely to be full of people with national security backgrounds or at least a predisposition to be hawks.

But — for better and worse — Boente actually has more power than a Special Counsel would have (and more power than Fitz had for the Plame investigation), because he is also in charge of NSD, doing things like approving FISA orders on suspected Russian agents. I think there are problems with that, particularly in the case of a possible Wikileaks prosecution. But if you want concentrated power, Boente is a better option than any AUSA. With the added benefit that he’s The Last USA, which commands some real respect.

Sure. If next week Trump calls Boente to dinner and demands his loyalty on threat of firing, this may change. But the same logic that people are using with a Special Counsel (that if Trump fired that person, maybe then Republicans in Congress would want something more independent) holds for Boente. Firing The Last USA ought to be as incendiary as firing an AUSA, assuming anything will be.

The WikiLeaks Deterrent Theory, AKA the Arbitrary Official Secrets Act

Three outlets yesterday — first the WaPo, then CNN, then NYT — reported that DOJ is considering charges against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. The discussion of what charges, and for what leaks, differs between the reports.

While mentioning the Vault 7 leaks, WaPo also focuses on Chelsea Manning’s leaks and Assange’s discussions about how to gain access.

In March, WikiLeaks published thousands of files revealing secret cyber-tools used by the CIA to convert cellphones, televisions and other ordinary devices into implements of espionage. The FBI has made significant progress in the investigation of the leak, narrowing the list of possible suspects, officials said. The officials did not describe WikiLeaks’ exact role in the case beyond publishing the tools.

Prosecutors are also reexamining the leaks from Chelsea Manning, the Army soldier who was convicted in 2013 of revealing sensitive diplomatic cables. Manning chatted with Assange about a technique to crack a password so Manning could log on to a computer anonymously, and that conversation, which came up during Manning’s court-martial, could be used as evidence that WikiLeaks went beyond the role of publisher or journalist.

Alexa O’Brien tweeted out some thoughts and links to what any further prosecution of the Manning leak might entail.

CNN, which is the most certain charges have already been drawn up, explains that DOJ believes WikiLeaks’ actions changed in nature with Edward Snowden.

The US view of WikiLeaks and Assange began to change after investigators found what they believe was proof that WikiLeaks played an active role in helping Edward Snowden, a former NSA analyst, disclose a massive cache of classified documents.

I think that may be demonstrably true of Sarah Harrison, who helped a fugitive escape. But I’m not sure the US has equally compelling evidence against Assange.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion comes from NYT, which discusses the ongoing debate — with “senior Justice Department officials … pressuring prosecutors” over what is realistic and what authorities actually want, which is an Espionage conviction.

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the details of the discussions remain secret, said senior Justice Department officials had been pressuring prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia to outline an array of possible charges against Mr. Assange.

But the official said prosecutors remained skeptical that they could pursue the most serious charges, of espionage, with regard to the documents Mr. Assange disclosed years ago with the help of an Army intelligence analyst, Chelsea Manning. Ms. Manning was convicted and sent to prison, but President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in January.

Given how few people Trump has confirmed into positions in government, these outlets should be a bit more descriptive. In that passage, for example, and the following from WaPo, what does “senior justice department official” mean when US Attorney Dana Boente is (as I’ve noted but none of these stories do) also acting DAG and acting AG for any Russia-related charges.

Prosecutors in recent weeks have been drafting a memo that contemplates charges against members of the WikiLeaks organization, possibly including conspiracy, theft of government property or violating the Espionage Act, officials said. The memo, though, is not complete, and any charges against members of WikiLeaks, including founder Julian Assange, would need approval from the highest levels of the Justice Department.

Would Boente be approving charges filed under Boente’s name?

Though that may not matter. Rod Rosenstein, who will become DAG shortly, has himself pursued excessive charges in leak cases, both against Thomas Drake and Hal Martin.

Perhaps the most interesting claim is that the FBI thought indicting Assange — who likely won’t be prosecuted in any case unless Ecuador suddenly changes their mind about their house guest — would provide some kind of deterrent effect.

Officials have said that the F.B.I. supports prosecuting Mr. Assange. Several years ago, the agency sent a series of documents to the Justice Department outlining charges that investigators claimed to have evidence to support. At the time, F.B.I. counterintelligence agents believed that charging Mr. Assange would deter him from posting new troves of American documents.

I think you’d have to be daft to think prosecuting Assange would deter him from posting more, assuming this happened while he was in the Ecuadoran Embassy. Prosecuting him would only mean he’d have less to lose — and, frankly, more reason to post things that might please America’s adversaries, like Russia.

But it might serve as deterrence for other publishing outlets that aren’t holing up in an Embassy. Short of some really distinguishing actions (and Harrison’s might amount to that in the Snowden case), indicting Assange would put everyone else with a SecureDrop on notice that they, too, might be prosecuted. Surely, DOJ would pick and choose who gets prosecuted. They might choose other easily easily targeted people — people who are gay, people who no longer live in this country, people who have too many dogs — to similarly make examples of (though pity the fool that challenges Glenn Greenwald’s First Amendment rights.

DOJ wants to start cutting away at the First Amendment. All the better for them, if in the name of prosecutorial discretion, Jeff Sessions’ DOJ could pick and choose which publishers’ speech gets curtailed.

Dana Boente Still Has a Job and Why That’s of Interest for WikiLeaks

WaPo has a weird story reporting, erroneously, that Donald Trump has no US Attorneys.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is making aggressive law enforcement a top priority, directing his federal prosecutors across the country to crack down on illegal immigrants and “use every tool” they have to go after violent criminals and drug traffickers.

But the attorney general does not have a single U.S. attorney in place to lead his tough-on-crime efforts across the country. Last month, Sessions abruptly told the dozens of remaining Obama administration U.S. attorneys to submit their resignations immediately — and none of them, or the 47 who had already left, have been replaced.

“We really need to work hard at that,” Sessions said when asked Tuesday about the vacancies as he opened a meeting with federal law enforcement officials. The 93 unfilled U.S. attorney positions are among the hundreds of critical Trump administration jobs that remain open.

While it is true that Trump had Sessions ask for the remaining 93 US Attorneys’ resignations, he subsequently announced he was keeping Rod Rosenstein (who contrary to WaPo’s claim that he “served as U.S. attorney for Maryland” is still there, and who will become Deputy Attorney General as soon as he’s confirmed in the next few weeks) and Dana Boente (who is US Attorney for EDVA but also acting AG for the Russia investigation).

Both Boente and Rosenstein made press announcements today; the guys whose custody they announced probably would prefer if they weren’t on the job.

I guess the WaPo wanted to suck up to Jeff Sessions and so didn’t consider the possibility that we’re better off with 91 US Attorney vacancies than 91 racist hacks like Sessions, pushing through his regressive policies.

Anyway, since we’ve established that Boente still has a job and in fact oversees the Russia investigation, I thought I’d point out something I was considering during last week’s threats from CIA Director Mike Pompeo against WikiLeaks.

During Pompeo’s comments at CSIS last week, he said,

Julian Assange and his kind are not the slightest bit interested in improving civil liberties or enhancing personal freedom. They have pretended that America’s First Amendment freedoms shield them from justice. They may have believed that, but they are wrong.

[snip]

[W]e have to recognize that we can no longer allow Assange and his colleagues the latitude to use free speech values against us. To give them the space to crush us with misappropriated secrets is a perversion of what our great Constitution stands for. It ends now.

As some people observed, Pompeo’s comments are inconsistent with the practice of Obama’s DOJ, particularly under Holder. While Holder would have happily prosecuted Julian Assange for his role in release of files leaked by Chelsea Manning, he realized that if he did, he’d be criminalizing stuff that the press does.

Pompeo, at least, seems to disagree.

And the reason why Boente’s continued tenure as Eastern District US Attorney — and his role overseeing the Russian investigation — is that he has also been overseeing the ongoing investigation into Wikileaks since 2013.

Consider the fact that Assange’s actions of late may be more incriminating than those involving Manning (even assuming Assange can credibly claim he has no way of knowing whether Russia is responsible for the DNC hack, Assange’s comments about both the DNC and the Vault 7 leak suggest more coordination than in the past). Then add in the fact that Boente, for the next few weeks anyway, might be able to claim to be both US Attorney and Acting AG on any role by WikiLeaks in the publication of the DNC emails. And it raises the possibility that Boente would use this window to indict Assange.

I think that’s unlikely. Moreover, while an indictment would give the US reason to pressure Ecuador even more to boot Assange, it’s not clear they would. But it’s possible.

The Friday Afternoon Massacre: Who Is Overseeing the Trump Investigation?

Update: After refusing to resign, Preet has now officially been fired. It remains to be seen whether there’s some underlying legal reason to force Trump to do this, or whether it’s press grand-standing.

Dana Boente, the US Attorney for Eastern District of VA and Acting Deputy Attorney General since Trump fired Sally Yates, just called the other US Attorneys and told them to submit their resignations effective immediately.

The press seems most interested in whether this order covers media hound Preet Bharara, US Attorney for Southern District of NY. Preet is leading an investigation into NY political scandals affecting key Democrats, and Trump had told him he would be kept on (Preet’s political godfather is Chuck Schumer, which may have had something to do with that).

But I’m far more interested in whether Boente himself is resigning to himself.

In addition to serving as Acting DAG, since Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigation into Trump last week, Boente has been in charge of that investigation. So if Boente resigned to himself this afternoon, it would mean no one was in charge of the investigation. Plus, Boente also oversees several other interesting investigations, notably the long-standing investigation of Wikileaks.

Mind you, Rod Rosenstein, at least until this afternoon US Attorney for MD, is all teed up to be confirmed as DAG. Except Richard Blumenthal has said he would hold up that investigation until a special counsel was appointed to investigate Trump. With no DAG and no one in charge of the Trump investigation (the USAs in WDPA, DC, and NDCA, who also have a piece of the investigation presumably also just resigned), Blumenthal might be pressured to relent on that front.

Update: NBC finally got some clarity on Boente — he (and Rosenstein) will stay on. Which I guess means Preet is out.

Why Isn’t Neil MacBride Investigating the Alleged UndieBomb 2.0 Leak?

I’ll have more general comments about today’s Senate Judiciary Committee oversight scrum and what it says about leak investigations. But I want to note a very small point Eric Holder made.

When trying to explain to the Republicans why it made sense for DC US Attorney Ronald Machen and Maryland US Attorney Rod Rosenstein, he said there parts of the matters under investigation in their districts. In other words, he assigned the US Attorneys according to jurisdiction (or, to be cynical, he just made a big show of having the people who should investigate these matters anyway investigate them).

But consider. The three alleged leaks that might be investigated are:

  • UndieBomb 2.0
  • StuxNet
  • Drone targeting

Now, StuxNet is easy. Rosenstein’s district includes NSA; StuxNet is a NSA project; therefore it’s probably safe to assume he’s investigating that alleged leak.

Then things get confusing. It would make sense to investigate drone targeting in DC, which is where stories portrayed the Terror Tuesday meetings occurring, and therefore to have Machen lead that investigation, and that may well be happening. Though drone targeting is the one alleged leak that public reports haven’t made clear have been included in the scope of the investigations. Let’s just assume that if drone targeting is being investigated, it is being done by Machen.

I’m more confused still about who is investigating the UndieBomb 2.0 alleged leak. There seems to be little doubt that alleged leak is being investigated. But why isn’t being investigated in Eastern District of VA?

CIA thwarted a plot!!! the headlines read, until it became clear that it was really a Saudi investigation and it wasn’t a plot but a sting. Yet the CIA was definitely involved, at least according to all the reporting on the story. And the US Attorney from EDVA–Neil MacBride–would have a jurisdiction over CIA issues that is just as strong as the US Attorney from MD’s jurisdiction over NSA investigations.

These spooky agencies like keeping their investigations close to home.

So why didn’t Holder include MacBride in the dog-and-pony show last week?

There are several possibilities, all curious:

  • FBI has reason to believe the main leak did come from John Brennan’s conference call with Richard Clarke and Fran Fragos Townsend, which he placed from the White House
  • The op wasn’t run out of CIA after all, but was instead liaised with the Saudis through the NSC or State
  • The story never really existed, and the Saudis just fed us the story of an UndieBomb to give an excuse to start bombing insurgents in Yemen

Maybe there’s some entirely different, completely bureaucratically boring explanation. But Holder’s comment about district based selection (he didn’t use the word jurisdiction, though) suggests it should have been logical for MacBride to take the lead on UndieBomb 2.0. But he isn’t.

Why not?