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Mueller Prepares to Reveal the First Cards in the Hack-and-Leak Conspiracy

For weeks, I’ve been having a persistent exchange with people, including editors. They say there’s no evidence of collusion between Trump and Russians. I say it wouldn’t be collusion anyway, but conspiracy. They say there’s no evidence of conspiracy either. Then I point to Rick Gates’ guilty plea on conspiracy to defraud the US. I note that Gates effectively pled guilty to hiding the fact that he and Paul Manafort were working for pro-Russian Ukrainians while pretending to be engaging in politics for independent reasons. My interlocutors always say, in spite of the fact that Mueller has always insisted this went through the election period, that that doesn’t have anything to do with the election.

Yesterday’s news that Rick Gates and Alex Van Der Zwaan believed that Konstantin Kilimnik, the Oleg Deripaska crony with whom they were engaging through the entire period Manafort and Gates were working on the Trump campaign, was a current or former Russian military intelligence agent, should put that canard to rest. As the government sentencing memo in Van Der Zwaan’s plea explains,

That Gates and Person A were directly communicating in September and October 2016 was pertinent to the investigation. Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agents assisting the Special Counsel’s Office assess that Person A has ties to a Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016. During his first interview with the Special Counsel’s Office, van der Zwaan admitted that he knew of that connection, stating that Gates told him Person A was a former Russian Intelligence Officer with the GRU.

Worse still, and less commented on in the coverage of this, at some point, Kilimnik actually worked for Manafort’s company!

Person A worked with Manafort and Gates in connection with their Ukraine lobbying work. Person A is a foreign national and was a close business colleague of Manafort and Gates. He worked in Ukraine at Manafort’s company Davis Manafort International, LLC (DMI).

So Manafort either still was or had employed a person that the FBI believes still works for the intelligence agency behind the hack-and-leak of Hillary Clinton’s emails (the same agency, as I keep pointing out, that Sergei Skripal shared secrets about with the Brits), and that’s one of the things Manafort and Gates were hiding all the way through their election work by not disclosing who they were really working for on the Ukrainian lobbying.

That seems like pretty significant evidence in the hack-and-leak conspiracy.

Still, commentators seem to miss some of what is going on with this disclosure, made to ensure that Van Der Zwaan gets prison time for actions that (as I’ll return to, probably next week) make Van Der Zwaan look far sketchier than even his plea does.

Mueller’s team (effectively, the same prosecutors who are prosecuting Manafort, with one junior prosecutor added) filed this sentencing memo on March 27. Last week, the same folks filed a request for extra time to respond to Manafort’s various challenges to his prosecution so far: a challenge to Mueller’s jurisdiction in this matter (arguing it’s outside the scope of what Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller to do), as well as two challenges to the way he was charged. In their motion (which Manafort did not oppose), they asked for an extension from March 28 — yesterday — to April 2 for their response to Manafort’s challenge to Mueller’s authority, and two more days for the challenge to how he was charged. Significantly, they asked for the extension because 1) they were busy with other matters preparing this case for trial and 2) they needed to sit down with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to work out how they were going to respond to the challenge to Mueller’s authority.

Under that schedule, the government’s response to [the challenge to Mueller’s authority] would be due on April 2 and the government’s response to [the challenge to how he was charged] would be due on April 4, 2018. The additional time is needed because the government is preparing its responses while conducting other matters to prepare this case for trial and because one of the responses—involving the challenge to the Special Counsel’s authority to conduct this prosecution—requires the Special Counsel to coordinate closely with other interested components of the Department of Justice, including the Office of the Deputy Attorney General, who is the Acting Attorney General for this case.

Understand, while these are totally valid challenges in their own right, the special counsel challenge, especially, is unlikely to succeed, not least because of the strong precedent in the Scooter Libby case, so long as Mueller shows how Rosenstein approved his actions and agreed they were related to the hack-and-leak case. That said — and the real reason Manafort’s team challenged Mueller’s authority — by laying out how Manafort’s efforts to hide who he’s actually working for and the overwhelming debt that led Manafort to trade influence with Trump to obtain loans to stave off bankruptcy relate to the hack-and-leak and therefore legitimately arose out of that investigation, Mueller will have to disclose a significant part of his theory of the case.

Effectively, Manafort is doing this in significant part to understood how much Mueller understands about the conspiracy as it pertains to the hack-and-leak.

Manafort made a similar (and equally justifiable) demand yesterday for unredacted versions of the search warrants against him, again, to understand more about the investigation and case against him.

Manafort is likely doing this for two reasons. First, to weigh whether he wants to flip on Trump, while he still can. And relatedly, to reveal to Trump where Mueller is going, and how much it implicates things Trump and his family members have done. This is Manafort’s bid to change the momentum in this case, which is now all working against him. 

It has been clear for some time that Mueller has been trying to line up as many cooperating witnesses as he can and obtain evidence in the case in chief without revealing to Trump details that will make Trump do something rash, like firing Mueller and/or pardoning Manafort and all his spawn. Manafort has, unsurprisingly, employed various tactics to undermine Mueller’s ability to implement his timing strategy unchallenged. This one is a legitimate tactic bolstered by his trial schedule.

So faced with the deadline to lay out how the Ukrainian lobbying relates to Manafort’s involvement in the hack-and-leak, Mueller asked for a slight delay. One thing he did in that slight delay was reveal that he knows that Rick Gates knows that Konstanin Kilimnik — who was working with Gates to try to delay the disclosure of how Gates and Manafort had screwed over Ukraine before the election, and was trying to help Manafort spin his prosecution as recently as November — is or was part of the same intelligence agency behind the hack-and-leak conspiracy.

Surely Mueller’s team knew they were going reveal this detail in the sentencing memo, and the certainty that Mueller would provide such details may be why Manafort agreed to the delay.

Mueller just revealed that at the same time GRU was implementing a hack-and-leak campaign designed to hurt or defeat Ukrainian hawk Hillary Clinton, a current or former GRU official was also conspiring to prevent or delay (until after the election) full disclosure of how GRU and Russia conspired with Trump’s campaign manager and his deputy to tamper in Ukrainian affairs.

At the same time GRU was tampering in our election, GRU was conspiring with Trump’s campaign manager to hide how they had conspired to tamper in Ukrainian democracy as well.  

The other thing Mueller did with the delay is win one more day before the grand jury.

I’m vacationing in an undisclosed location right now, writing this while the spouse sleeps so he doesn’t accuse me of failing vacation, hoping to hell none of this breaks while I’m still supposed to be relaxing. But it seems like a whole lot is going to start breaking on Monday.

Does NSC Consider the Skripal Assassination Attempt to Be Election Related?

There’s something that remains unspoken about the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal.

While most observers do not question that Russia was behind the attack, and while Russia certainly seems to be flouting their role in it, I’ve seen no substantiated explanation for why Russia would carry out the attempt in the way they did. It’s not just that Russia conducted another apparent assassination operation in the UK even as recent press attention has focused on a series of similar attacks. But they did so using a nerve agent, justifying the kind of elevated response we’re seeing from Europe and being contemplated in the US.

There were reports that Skripal was a source for either Christopher Steele or someone close to Steele, suggesting that he might be responsible for some of the dossier or the more recent, related report, that Russia’s Foreign Ministry bragged about getting Mitt Romney eliminated from consideration to be Secretary of State (which might explain the timing of the attack, except that it probably required more planning than that). But Luke Harding, who has made similar denials that other deaths are related to the dossier, denies that’s the case.

It is understood he had nothing to do with the dossier on Russia and Trump written by the former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Before Steele went into private business he led MI6’s response to Litvinenko’s murder. Skripal was not a source and whatever he knew about Russian military intelligence was long out of date.

Given the response — with 10 European countries following the UK’s decision to expel Russian diplomats believed to be spies — I’ve been wondering what the motive is. All the more so given this detail in a story on the likelihood the US will also follow UK’s move.

Trump’s National Security Council reached recommendations for a U.S. response to the U.K. attack at a meeting on Wednesday and presented the proposals to him on Friday. Trump discussed the issue that day with U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, FBI Director Chris Wray, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, outgoing National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and others, two people familiar with the talks said.

It’s interesting enough that Wray was among the NatSec officials Trump has consulted on whether to match the British action. The FBI was key in decisions in the 2016 sanctions, including the focus on San Francisco, but this is about the UK action, not US.

But Trump consulted Rod Rosenstein, not Jeff Sessions, on the decision. Particularly given how half-assedly Sessions has adhered to his own recusal on the Russia investigation, Rosenstein’s inclusion suggests the expulsion decision may be more closely linked to the Mueller investigation than otherwise known.

Perhaps Harding is lying about Skripal’s tie to Steele. Perhaps Skripal has GRU connections to others running the GRU hack-and-leak operation. But the inclusion of Rosenstein makes me wonder if there’s some closer tie to the Mueller investigation than we know.

John Bolton Will Get to Start His Iran War Because Nine Iranians Stole Academic Dissertations

Earlier today, Rod Rosenstein rolled out a dangerously vague indictment of nine Iranians, allegedly tied to the Revolutionary Guard, for hacking hundreds of universities and some private companies and NGOs.

I say it’s dangerously vague because, while it’s clear the Iranians compromised thousands of university professors, it’s not clear precisely what they stole. But it appears that most of data stolen from universities (some privacy companies, government agencies, and NGOs were targeted too) consists of scholarship.

[M]embers of the conspiracy used stolen account credentials and obtained unauthorized access to victim professor accounts, though which they then exfiltrated, or transferred to themselves, academic data and documents from the systems of compromised universities, including, among other things, academic journalist, these, dissertations, and electronic books.

The indictment describes the stolen data benefitting (along with the IRGC) “Iran-based universities.” And it specifies that the hackers sold the information so that Iranians could access US academic online libraries.

Magapaper sold stolen academic resources to customers within Iran, including Iran-based public universities and institutions, and Gigapaper sold a service to customers within Iran whereby purchasing customers could use compromised university professor accounts to directly access the online library systems of particular United States-based and foreign universities.

The indictment claims the Iranians stole “academic data and intellectual property” which cost the affected 144 US universities “$3.4 billion to procure and access.” But that’s reminiscent of the Aaron Swartz case (to which several people have likened this), where the prosecutor justified pursuing Swartz because he had downloaded “intellectual property that cost millions to create,” something like 4.75 million articles and 87 Gigabytes of data (See the extensive discussion about cost and damages in this MIT report.) DOJ accuses the Iranians of stealing 31 terabytes of data.

As I said, this is a dangerously vague indictment. And, from the metadata, it appears that the indictment may be more than a month old. ( h/t z3dster)

There are also not dates on any of the signature lines, so it may be this indictment has just been sitting in a drawer in southern Manhattan, waiting to serve as a casus belli.

Perhaps there was more sensitive data stolen here. Perhaps the professors who got hacked were more selectively targeted than the sheer number of academics targeted — 100,000 got phished, with almost 8,000 responding — suggests.

But absent far more details, this indictment seems to make an international incident out of people in a very closed society trying to access academic information that is readily available here.

I’ve long written about the potential downsides of indicting nation-state hackers, which is effectively what these guys are — particularly the possibility that doing so will invite retaliation against our own official hackers. But in some cases — with the OPM hack, with hacks of national security information, with the Russians who targeted the election — that might make sense.

But indicting nation-state hackers for stealing dissertations?

Update: This confirms what z3dster noted: this thing has been sealed since February 7. Why? And why did it get unsealed the day after Bolton was hired?

“What Did the President Do and What Do His Lawyers Claim He Was Thinking?”

Ever since Richard Nixon, the big question one asks of presidential involvement in scandals is about the cover-up: “what did the president know and when did he know it?” Not so Trump in the investigation into his campaign’s conspiracy with Russia.

Robert Mueller’s prosecutors are already asking about the president’s actions: “What did the president do and what was he thinking when he did it?” WaPo describes the Trump team’s effort to dodge such questions by offering a summary of what his lawyers claim he did and was thinking.

The written materials provided to Mueller’s office include summaries of internal White House memos and contemporaneous correspondence about events Mueller is investigating, including the ousters of national security adviser Michael Flynn and FBI Director James B. Comey. The documents describe the White House players involved and the president’s actions.

Special counsel investigators have told Trump’s lawyers that their main questions about the president fall into two simple categories, the two people said: “What did he do?” and “What was he thinking when he did it?”

Trump’s lawyers expect Mueller’s team to ask whether Trump knew about Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition, for example, and what instructions, if any, the president gave Flynn about the contact, according to two advisers.

Trump said in February that he fired Flynn because he had misled Vice President Pence about his contact with Kislyak. He said he fired Comey because he had mishandled an investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

CNN’s version of the same story seems to suggest such a summary is something they’ve already done, that what was new about last week was a sit-down with Watergate lawyer James Quarles.

As President Donald Trump’s reaction to special counsel Robert Mueller grows more irate by the day, attorneys on both sides sat down last week in a rare face-to-face discussion about the topics investigators could inquire of the President. It was the first in-person meeting after several weeks of informal discussions between the two sides, according to two sources familiar with the talks.

Mueller’s team added granularity to the topics it originally discussed with the defense team months ago, like the firing of FBI Director James Comey, according to one of the sources.

[snip]

The President’s attorneys sent the special counsel a summary of evidence they had turned over to prosecutors already, a practice they’ve followed multiple times throughout the investigation. Mueller himself didn’t attend the meeting. But prosecutors including former Watergate prosecutor James Quarles III gave Trump’s lawyers enough detail that the President’s team wrote a memo with possible questions they expect to be asked of him.

In addition to Trump’s involvement in directing Mike Flynn to ask Sergey Kislyak to defer any response to the new sanctions imposed in December 2016, CNN says that Jeff Sessions’ involvement in firing Comey is also on the list of questions they have for the president.

This time around, for instance, the prosecutors said they would ask about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ involvement in the Comey dismissal and what Trump knew about national security adviser Michael Flynn’s phone calls with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December 2016.

[snip]

CNN reported in January that Mueller’s team had given the President’s lawyers general topics for an interview, such as Trump’s request that Comey drop the investigation into Flynn, his reaction to Comey’s May 2017 testimony on Capitol Hill, and Trump’s contact with intelligence officials about the Russia investigation.

A source familiar with the talks said more recent discussions about Trump’s interview also touched on Sessions and Flynn. Sessions previously spoke to Mueller’s team while investigators looked into possible obstruction of justice. And during the transition, Flynn had spoken to Kisklyak about sanctions and the United Nations, then lied to investigators about the calls before Trump fired him. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to investigators and agreed to cooperate with Mueller in December.

The questions about Sessions and Flynn are both interesting because of recent events.

First, CNN’s story reporting an interest in Sessions’ role in Comey’s firing came out after the report that Sessions and the president traveled separately yesterday to the opioid event they appeared at together. I found that odd at first — Trump should be happy that Sessions fired Andy McCabe for him last Friday. Perhaps Trump is mad that by firing McCabe, Sessions and Rod Rosenstein have taken one excuse he could use to fire both of them off the table. Or perhaps Sessions has realized that he needs to avoid talking to Trump about his own conversations with prosecutors. But if Sessions has become a witness against Trump and the discussions last week made that clear, then it puts the president in a particularly exquisite bind, because the Senate would not take kindly if Trump fired one of their own after he went to such lengths to fire McCabe.

The separate flight is all the more interesting given the news that three witnesses have testified that Sessions was actually more supportive of Trump’s outreach to Russia than he himself (and JD Gordon) has claimed.

And given Mueller’s apparent efforts to confirm what has long been obvious — that KT McFarland was relaying Trump’s orders to Flynn on what to say to Kislyak back in December 2016, consider Mike Flynn’s odd campaign appearance last Friday. Amid stories that he’s beginning to rebuild his life, Flynn started a campaign speech for a right wing nut job attempting to unseat Maxine Waters by alluding to his unfair treatment in an unfair process.

“I’m not here to complain about who has done me wrong or how unfair I’ve been treated or how unfair the entire process has been,” Flynn said to a small audience, which laughed at his remark, though Flynn did not.

Flynn then went on to reflect his role in getting Trump elected.

“All of us are imperfect,” he said. “Heck, I used to introduce … Trump during our various campaign stops as an imperfect candidate. I mean, clearly, he’s not a traditional politician. But his ‘Make America Great Again’ philosophy energized the country enough to get him overwhelmingly elected.”

“Whether we like it or not, that’s what happened,” Flynn added.

Particularly given the others who’ve endorsed Omar Navarro, like Roger Stone and Alex Jones, you’d think this was all a dig at Mueller, and it may well be. Except that Jared Kushner had an opportunity to exonerate Flynn last fall; his failure to do so is what led Flynn to flip, leading to these questions about whether Trump ordered Flynn to ask the Russians to delay their response to sanctions.

Now, any confirmation that the president ordered Flynn to ask Kislyak to delay his response on one level makes Flynn’s effort less damning: it’s one thing for an incoming National Security Advisor to freelance in trying to undermine the incumbent’s policies. It’s another thing for the incoming president to do so.

But contrary to the obstruction narrative that every fool has been repeating, Mueller is not just interested in how and why Jim Comey got fired. He’s also interested in why Trump fired Flynn. That question becomes more pressing if the president ordered Flynn to chat up Kislyak, and if the president ordered Flynn to lie to hide what he had done (leading to his lie to the FBI). Why not just admit that that was incoming policy? Why not just admit to the FBI that Flynn was acting on Trump’s orders? Instead of doing that, Flynn lied and Trump tried instead to thwart the investigation into Flynn, up to and including firing Comey.

Why fire Comey just before the meeting with the Russians and then brag about it to them?

For months, credulous journalists have been distinguishing between the president’s presumed obstruction and the substantive conspiracy others were being accused of, as if no Trump flunkies were involved in the cover-up and Trump was walled off from the conspiracy. But that distinction has never held up, especially not given the interest in why Trump fired Flynn.

“What did the president do and what the fuck was he thinking when he did it?” are questions not about the cover-up, but about the substantive crime.

And that’s the question Mueller’s Watergate prosecutor has now posed to the president’s lawyers.

On McCabe’s Firing

Update: 8/28/19: I just re-read this amid discussion that Andrew McCabe may be fired. Much of this I stand by. I was right about the import of Mike Flynn already pleading guilty, I stand by my comments about Michael Horowitz and think the IG Report is damning, though in his lawsuit, McCabe credibly argues it was no developed in the normal fashion. I was right that McCabe would not be a big witness in any obstruction investigation; I was wrong that Comey wouldn’t be. But I want to admit that obstruction did end up being what Mueller effectively issued an impeachment referral for. That said, there was obstruction in both the Stone and Manafort threads of any interactions with Russia. 

I’m going to refrain from making any conclusions about Andy McCabe’s firing until we have the Inspector General Report that underlies it. For now (update: I’ve now cleaned this up post-Yoga class), keep the following details in mind:

Michael Horowitz is a very good Inspector General

The allegations that McCabe lacked candor in discussions about his communications with Devlin Barrett all arise out of an investigation Democrats demanded in response to FBI’s treatment of the investigation into Hillary Clinton. It is being led by DOJ’s Inspector General, Michael Horowitz. Horowitz was nominated by Barack Obama and confirmed while Democrats still had the majority, in 2012.

I’ve never seen anything in Horowitz’ work that suggests he is influenced by politics, though he has shown an ability to protect his own department’s authority, in part by cultivating Congress. Of significant note, he fought with FBI to get the information his investigators needed to do the job, but was thwarted, extending into Jim Comey’s tenure (as I laid out in a fucking prescient post written on November 3, 2016).

As I’ve long covered, in 2010, the FBI started balking at the Inspector General’s proper investigative demands. Among other things, the FBI refused to provide information on grand jury investigations unless some top official in FBI said that it would help the FBI if the IG obtained it. In addition, the FBI (and DEA) have responded to requests very selectively, pulling investigations they don’t want to be reviewed. In 2014, the IG asked OLC for a memo on whether it should be able to get the information it needs to do its job. Last year, OLC basically responded, Nope, can’t have the stuff you need to exercise proper oversight of the FBI.

DOJ’s Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, has been trying for some time to get Congress to affirmatively authorize his office (and IGs generally, because the problem exists at other agencies) to receive the information he needs to do his job. But thus far — probably because Jim Comey used to be known as the world’s biggest Boy Scout — Congress has failed to do so.

I care about how FBI’s misconduct affects the election (thus far, polling suggests it hasn’t done so, though polls are getting closer as Republican Gary Johnson supporters move back to supporting the GOP nominee, as almost always happens with third party candidates). But I care even more about how fucked up the FBI is. Even if Comey is ousted, I can’t think of a likely candidate that could actually fix the problems at FBI. One of the few entities that I think might be able to do something about the stench at FBI is the IG.

Except the FBI has spent 6 years making sure the IG can’t fully review its conduct.

So while I don’t think he’d be motivated by politics, he has had a running fight with top FBI officials about their willingness to subject FBI to scrutiny for the entirety of the Comey tenure.

McCabe has suggested that the investigation into him was “accelerated” only after he testified to the House Intelligence Committee that he would corroborate Jim Comey’s version of his firing.

I am being singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took, and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey. The release of this report was accelerated only after my testimony to the House Intelligence Committee revealed that I would corroborate former Director Comey’s accounts of his discussions with the President. The OIG’s focus on me and this report became a part of an unprecedented effort by the Administration, driven by the President himself, to remove me from my position, destroy my reputation, and possibly strip me of a pension that I worked 21 years to earn. The accelerated release of the report, and the punitive actions taken in response, make sense only when viewed through this lens.

I’m not sure this timeline bears out (the investigation was supposed to be done last year, but actually got extended into this year). The statement stops short of saying that he was targeted because his testimony — presumably already delivered to Robert Mueller by the time of his HPSCI testimony — corroborated Comey’s.

What we’ve seen of the other personnel moves as a result of this investigation — the reassignment of Peter Strzok and Lisa Page for texts that really did raise conflict issues (to say nothing of operational security problems), and the reassignment of James Baker — seem reasonable. McCabe’s firing was reviewed by a whole bunch of people who have been around DOJ a long time.

So it’s possible the underlying claim has merit. It’s also possible that McCabe is getting the same punishment that a line agent would get if he did not answer the IG honestly.

Trump’s comments matter

Obviously, all that cannot be taken out of context of Trump’s own statements and Jeff Sessions’ efforts to keep his job.

We will get these details in upcoming days, and almost all the details will come from people who’ve got a big stake in the process.

Michael Bromwich — McCabe’s lawyer — says they didn’t get a review of the allegations against McCabe until very recently, and were still trying to contest the firing two days ago (as was publicly reported). I find his claim that this was “cleaved off” from the larger investigation unconvincing: so were Strzok and Page, but that was done to preserve the integrity of the Mueller investigation, and Chris Wray had said publicly that he wanted to act on problems as they found them. Bromwich curiously is not saying that McCabe’s firing violates any agreement McCabe made when he took leave to await retirement.

Undoubtedly, Jeff Sessions did this in the most cowardly way possible. While I think it’s likely, I’m not 100% convinced that the timing was anything other than trying to make a real decision rather than let the retirement make it.

There’s no evidence, yet, that McCabe will lose all his pension

It has been said for over a month that McCabe was just waiting out his birthday so he could “get” his pension. That was so he could start drawing on it immediately. Josh Gerstein laid out the best thing I’ve seen on the implications (as well as what limited legal recourse McCabe has).

The financial stakes for McCabe could be significant. If he had made it to his 50th birthday on Sunday while still in federal service, he would have been eligible to begin drawing a full pension immediately under provisions that apply to federal law enforcement officers, said Kimberly Berry, a lawyer in Arlington, Virginia, who specializes in federal retirement issues.

Berry disputed reports, however, that McCabe would lose his pension altogether.

“He doesn’t lose his retirement,” she said. “It’s not all thrown out in the garbage.“

Even after his dismissal, McCabe will probably be eligible to begin collecting his pension at about age 57, although he would likely lose access to federal health coverage and would probably get a smaller pension than if he stayed on the federal payroll, experts said.

There have been claims McCabe could get hired by a member of Congress for a week so he can start drawing on it. But I’ve heard the finances aren’t even the issue, it’s the principle, which if you want to be a martyr, being fired works better.

This will have a far smaller impact on the Mueller probe than Comey-McCabe loyalists and John Dowd lay out

McCabe and others have suggested that there has been a successful effort to retaliate against Comey’s three corroborating witnesses, though that is least convincing with regards to Jim Rybicki, who was replaced as happens as a matter of course every time a new FBI Director comes in.

But the Comey-McCabe loyalists make far too much of their role in the Mueller probe, making themselves the central actors in the drama. Yes, if their credibility is hurt it does do some damage to any obstruction charges against Trump, which, as I keep repeating, will not be the primary thrust of any charges against Trump. Mueller is investigating Trump for a conspiracy with Russians; the obstruction is just the act that led to his appointment as Special Counsel and with that, a much more thorough investigation. Contrary to what you’re hearing, little we’ve seen thus far is fruit of the decisions Comey and his people made. While all were involved in the decision to charge Mike Flynn, he has already pled guilty and started spilling his guts to Mueller. There’s no reason to believe McCabe or Comey are direct witnesses in the conspiracy charges that will be filed against people close to Trump, if not against Trump himself.

For all those reasons, John Dowd’s claim that McCabe’s firing should end the investigation is equally unavailing.

I pray that Acting Attorney General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe’s boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier.

I mean, if this really is Dowd’s impression of why his client is being investigated, I almost feel sorry for Trump.

But the truth is the dossier has always been a distraction. The obstruction charge was probably used to distract Trump (and his NYT stenographers) while Mueller’s team collected the far more serious evidence on the conspiracy charges, though events of this week may well add to the conspiracy charges. And Comey didn’t manufacture any investigation; if anything, his people were not aggressive enough in the months he oversaw the investigation, particularly as it pertains to George Papadopoulos.

So if Dowd thinks McCabe’s firing will affect the core of the evidence Mueller has already developed (and, I suspect, started hanging on a sealed magnet indictment), he is likely to be very disappointed.

Regardless of the merits of the McCabe firing, it (and the related shit storm) may give Rosenstein and Mueller more time to work. It’s not clear they need that much more time to put together the conspiracy charges that are sitting right beneath the surface.

Finally — and I’m about to do a post on this — the far more important news from yesterday is that Facebook is cutting off Cambridge Analytica for violating its agreements about data use. That may well lead to some far more important changes, changes that Trump has less ability to politicize.

Kushner Floats! Was Trump’s Witch Hunt Outburst about Jared Losing Clearance?

President Trump had one of his regular tweetbursts this morning about the Mueller investigation, culminating in an all caps tweet WITCH HUNT!

These outbursts are admittedly routine. But there was something unusual about this one. As MMFA’s Lis Starr noted, the three tweets leading up to this, citing Judge Napolitano, Johnathan Turley, and Ken Starr, were all reruns of Fox coverage from the last several days.

In other words, Trump resorted to the DVR to be able to justify his rant this morning. Clearly, he’s even more obsessed today than normal.

That, plus one more detail, makes me wonder whether Trump was reacting to new approaches put in place after Jared (and probably Ivanka) had his clearance downgraded to Secret on Friday.

A memo sent Friday downgraded the presidential son-in-law and adviser and other White House aides who had been working on interim clearances.

Presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner has had his security clearance downgraded — a move that will prevent him from viewing many of the sensitive documents to which he once had unfettered access.

Kushner is not alone. All White House aides working on the highest-level interim clearances — at the Top Secret/SCI-level — were informed in a memo sent Friday that their clearances would be downgraded to the Secret level, according to three people with knowledge of the situation.

The SCI acronym stands for sensitive compartmentalized information, a category of information that comes from sensitive intelligence sources and must be walled off.

The memo was not signed by chief of staff John Kelly, but it comes as the retired Marine general and other top White House aides are grappling with the fallout of a scandal involving former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, which revealed that dozens of White House aides had yet to receive permanent clearances but nonetheless had access to some of the country’s deepest secrets.

There are several interesting tidbits about the Politico story reporting that Jared has finally been stripped of his TS/SCI interim clearance. First, John Kelly didn’t sign the memo, even though that’s who Trump put in charge of over-riding typical clearance process to protect his spawn. If Don McGahn signed it, it might mean Friday’s memo came after a follow-up to Robert Mueller’s boss, Rod Rosenstein, informing him, back on February 9, of significant new information that required review before he could be cleared.

Also, Politico cites a statement from Abbe Lowell, Jared’s defense attorney.

Kushner’s attorney Abbe Lowell said in a statement that Kushner “has done more than what is expected of him in this process.”

Lowell added that the changes would “not affect Mr. Kushner’s ability to continue to do the very important work he has been assigned by the president.”

But the statement is just the same one he used back on February 16, when news of Jared’s impending clearance problems first came out. Lowell still has yet to issue any new bravado since he went silent in the face of last week’s more serious reports.

Meanwhile, Jared is not staying out of trouble. The Trump 2020 campaign announced that Brad Parscale — one of the people most suspect for coordinating data analysis with the Russians — would run his 2020 re-election campaign. The announcement included this quote from Kushner.

Jared Kushner, Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President, and President Trump’s son-in-law, said, “Brady was essential in bringing a disciplined technology and data-driven approach to how the 2016 campaign was run. His leadership and expertise will be help [sic] build a best-in-class campaign.”

Even aside from the typo, this is a no-no, as it ties Kushner’s official White House role to a campaign document.

I almost wonder whether all their fundraising is about paying lawyers at this point. On Friday, CNBC reported that when RNC stopped paying the legal defense of people like Don Jr, it started paying rent at Trump Tower. And the legal defense to pay Trump aides’ legal fees also just went active. Increasingly, it seems, the Trump “campaign” is all about staying out of prison.

Meanwhile, the Kushner family’s partner on the underwater 666 Fifth Avenue is negotiating to get out.

Kushner Cos. says it’s negotiating to buy the 49.5 percent of a debt-laden office tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue that it doesn’t already own from partner Vornado Realty Trust.

Christine Taylor, a spokeswoman for Kushner Cos., declined to elaborate on terms for either the purchase or a restructuring of the building’s debt. A Vornado representative didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The talks were first reported Tuesday by the Wall Street Journal.

Earlier this month, Vornado recategorized how it accounts for the property, 666 Fifth Ave., because “we do not intend to hold this asset on a long-term basis,” it said in an annual report. That language typically means the company plans to unload an asset within a year, a person familiar with Vornado’s thinking said at the time.

That’s going to shine a lot more light on Kushner’s finances, and his efforts to abuse his position as his father-in-law’s “peace” negotiator to get bailed out by any number of slimy foreign oligarchs.

Jared’s in real trouble. It’s a wonder he can stay afloat amid this witch hunt.

Update: Bingo.

Officials in at least four countries have privately discussed ways they can manipulate Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter.

Among those nations discussing ways to influence Kushner to their advantage were the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico, the current and former officials said.

It is unclear if any of those countries acted on the discussions, but Kushner’s contacts with certain foreign government officials have raised concerns inside the White House and are a reason he has been unable to obtain a permanent security clearance, the officials said.

[snip]

White House officials said [National Security Advisor HR] McMaster was taken aback by some of Kushner’s foreign contacts.

“When he learned about it, it surprised him,” one official said. “He thought that was weird…It was an unusual thing. I don’t know that any White House has done it this way before.”

Meanwhile, the normally loquacious Abbe Lowell is outsourcing the no-commenting to a spokesperson.

“We will not respond substantively to unnamed sources peddling second-hand hearsay with rank speculation that continue to leak inaccurate information,” said Peter Mirijanian, a spokesman for Kushner’s lawyer.

Update: Let’s look more closely at something loquacious Abbe Lowell had to say the last time he wanted to go on the record about his client, on February 16.

Lowell said Kushner’s job is “to talk with foreign officials, which he has done and continues to do properly.”

He was denying, 11 days ago, something only now being aired: that Kushner wasn’t properly alerting the NSC of his contacts with foreign leaders. But now we know, he wasn’t properly alerting the National Security Advisor — the one that replaced the one who lied to the FBI about his contacts with foreigners, I mean.

No wonder Lowell has gone silent.

Abbe Lowell’s Unusual Silence in the Face of Jared Kushner’s Clearance Woes

Abbe Lowell’s a very good defense attorney. He’s also of the ilk that works the press.

As one example, note Lowell’s false bravado quotes from one of the first stories to contemplate how John Kelly’s new rules about long term clearance problems would (not) affect Jared’s work.

Abbe Lowell, an attorney for Kushner, said Kelly’s directive “will not affect Mr. Kushner’s ability to continue to do the very important work he has been assigned by the president.” White House officials declined to comment on how the new policies would specifically affect Kushner.

[snip]

Lowell, Kushner’s attorney, said Kushner had disclosed more information on his security forms than was required out of an abundance of caution.

“My inquiries to those involved again have confirmed that there are a dozen or more people at Mr. Kushner’s level whose process is delayed, that it is not uncommon for this process to take this long in a new administration, that the current backlogs are being addressed, and no concerns were raised about Mr. Kushner’s application,” he said in a statement.

[snip]

Lowell said Kushner’s job is “to talk with foreign officials, which he has done and continues to do properly.”

Which is, in my opinion, why the following detail, in three different stories about the “important new information” DOJ obtained that would delay Jared’s clearance, is so significant. Lowell declined to comment to the original story in WaPo.

Kushner’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, declined to comment.

Then there was this NYT story which seems to reflect White House officials and Jared’s lawyers realizing (for the first time?!?!?!) that he’s not just a witness in this investigation.

The White House was not told what the issues were involving Mr. Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. But the notification led White House lawyers and aides to believe that they were more problematic than the complexity of his finances and his initial failure to disclose contacts with foreign leaders.

[snip]

The interview led Mr. Kushner’s lawyers to believe that he was considered a witness, not a target, in the special counsel investigation.

For that story, too, Lowell went silent.

[A] lawyer for Mr. Kushner, Abbe D. Lowell, declined to comment.

With Axios, Lowell appears to have just blown off the request for comment.

Kushner’s lawer, Abbe Lowell, did not immediately respond to Axios’ request for comment.

I don’t mean to make light of this. It’s no laughing matter. But Lowell’s silence appears to indicate either that he is sussing out second-hand — or he has since the February 16 story learned directly — that his client is in deeper shit than he realized.

The Silent Cast of Characters in the Very Noisy Recent Mueller Moves

A fuck-ton has happened in the Mueller investigation already this month. Amid the noisy pleas and indictments, we’ve seen indications of hidden cooperation from a range of people, cooperation that may point to where Mueller’s next steps are.

Here, arranged by the date of the development, are hints at who either was or soon is likely to be talking to Mueller’s team.

February 1: In a proffer to Mueller’s team, Rick Gates lied about a March 19, 2013 meeting with Paul Manafort, Vin Weber, and Dana Rohrabacher.

Rohrabacher’s statement in response to the guilty plea is inconsistent with the version laid out in the plea, suggesting he’s not the means by which Mueller’s team learned it was a lie.

After the guilty plea on Friday, a spokesman for Rohrabacher, who has sought better relations with Russia, said: “As the congressman has acknowledged before, the meeting was a dinner with two longtime acquaintances –- Manafort and Weber –- from back in his White House and early congressional days.”

“The three reminisced and talked mostly about politics,” the spokesman said. “The subject of Ukraine came up in passing. It is no secret that Manafort represented Viktor Yanukovych’s interests, but as chairman of the relevant European subcommittee, the congressman has listened to all points of view on Ukraine.”

This suggests someone else provided the version of the meeting the government included in the plea. While it’s possible the other version came from Gates’ former lawyers, it’s more likely the version came from someone else. Vin Weber is the most likely source of that information.

Back in August 2016, as news of the secret ledger was breaking,Weber suggested he may have been misled by Manafort, both as to the purpose of his lobbying and regarding the need to register as a foreign agent for Ukraine. If he felt that way in August 2016, I imagine he came to feel that even more strongly as Manafort’s legal woes intensified.

February 9: Returning a call from John Kelly but speaking to Don McGahn, Rod Rosenstein spoke of “important new information” about Jared Kushner that will delay his clearance.

Given all the evidence that suggests Jared faces very significant exposure in this investigation, this new information could be any number of things. But two possibilities are likely. First, it might reflect Jared’s January 3 disclosure of additional business interests in yet another update to his SF-86, or his family’s increasing debt over the last year.

More likely, it reflects things the government has learned from Mike Flynn (who has an incentive to burn Jared, given that the President’s son-in-law was asked for and didn’t provide exonerating information tied to Flynn’s own lies to the FBI). Indeed, that seems to be one theory of those who reported on this phone call.

Kushner’s actions during the transition have been referenced in the guilty plea of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who admitted he lied to the FBI about contacts with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Prosecutors said Flynn was acting in consultation with a senior Trump transition official, whom people familiar with the matter have identified as Kushner.

All that said, there are two more possibilities. Given that she appears to have lied to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in her confirmation process, KT McFarland would be an obvious follow-up interview after the Mike Flynn plea; she asked Trump to withdraw her nomination to be Ambassador to Singapore on February 3. And February 9 might be (though probably isn’t, quite) late enough to catch the first sessions of Steve Bannon’s 20 hours of interviews with Mueller, and Bannon has long had it in for Jared.

February 14: Alex Van der Zwaan got caught and pled guilty to lying about communications he had with Rick Gates, Konstantin Kilimnik, and Greg Craig in September 2016. On top of whatever he had to say to prosecutors between his second interview on December 1 and his plea on February 14, both Craig and Skadden Arps have surely provided a great deal of cooperation before and since September 2016. (As I was finishing this, NYT posted this story that details some, but not all, of that cooperation.)

February 16: As I noted in my post on the Internet Research Agency indictment, 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. As a reminder: Florida Republicans are those who most tangibly can be shown to have benefitted from Russia’s hack-and-leak, given that Guccifer 2.0 leaked a slew of Democratic targeting data for the state. (In perhaps related news, this week Tom Rooney became the third Florida Republican member of Congress to announce his retirement this cycle, which is all the more interesting given that he’s been involved in the HPSCI investigation into Russian tampering.)

February 23: Manafort’s superseding indictment (a version of which was originally filed February 16) added the description of the Hapsburg Group for former European officials who lobbied at the direction (to some degree via cut-outs) of Manafort.

MANAFORT explained in an “EYES ONLY” memorandum created in or about June 2012 that the purpose of the “SUPER VIP” effort would be to “assemble a small group of high-level European highly influencial [sic] champions and politically credible friends who can act informally and without any visible relationship with the Government of Ukraine.” The group was managed by a former European Chancellor, Foreign Politician A, in coordination with MANAFORT.

It may be that the government only recently obtained this document (meaning it was not among the 590,000 pages of documents obtained and turned over to Manafort in discovery thus far). But it’s likely this also reflects further testimony. Former Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer denied he is Foreign Politician A to BBC, though that may be a non-denial denial tied to his claim he wasn’t directed by Manafort and only met him a few times (this Austrian story suggests only he doesn’t remember what American or English firm paid him). NYT reported that Gusenbauer’s lobbying during the relevant time period was registered under Mercury Public Affairs. This is another piece of evidence suggesting the group — and Vin Weber personally — has been cooperating since the original indictment.

Note, I assume that Mercury/Weber’s cooperation has been mirrored by Tony Podesta’s.

What Did Mueller Achieve with the Internet Research Agency Indictment?

Back during Nunes Week, Trey Gowdy described the importance of Robert Mueller’s investigation by stating that we were only seeing half of what he was doing. The other half of his work, Gowdy said, was the counterintelligence side, the investigation into what Russia did to the US in 2016.

Friday, Rod Rosenstein rolled out the first glimpse of the other half of that investigation, an indictment of 13 Russians tied to the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll factory. The indictment accuses IRA of 8 crimes: criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and five counts of aggravated identity theft.

In the wake of that indictment, the court unsealed a February 7  plea agreement with Californian Richard Pinedo, for identity theft (basically, selling bank account numbers; the information doesn’t identify the users who purchased the bank account numbers as IRA personnel who used them to set up “American” identities, but that is clearly what happened).

The 13 Russians charged in the IRA indictment — which include Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the close Putin associate who owns the company, those in charge of the operation (which was not limited to US targeting), down to a few of the analysts who did the troll work — will never be extradited to the US, though the most senior among them will surely be sanctioned. Nor will Putin in any way retaliate against them — they were doing work he approved of! Further, by criminalizing “information warfare” (as the Russians admitted they were engaged in, and as we do too, under the same name) we risk our own information warriors being indicted in other countries.

So what purpose did the indictment serve? Here are some thoughts:

Creating a paper trail

Rosenstein and Chris Wray have both said they believe investigators should speak through indictments and other official documents, not through Comeyesque press conferences. Here we have an indictment that serves as a record of what Mueller’s team has found.

We would probably have gotten it in any case, as Jeff Sessions’ DOJ has emphasized bringing more cybersecurity related indictments.

But that we did get it addresses one of the questions we’ve gotten about the Mueller investigation: whether we’ll get to read a report of what he has found.

To the extent that something is indictable, even if that indictment would name Russians or others located overseas, I guess we should expect more of the same.

Establishing bipartisan credibility for the larger investigation

The reason I keep pointing to Gowdy’s statements in support of the investigation in the last several weeks is because his actions seem to reflect one of the most partisan Republicans reacting soberly to an attack on the country, rather than just one party.

And while the details of the indictment — most notably that the trolls affirmatively supported Bernie Sanders as well as Trump — have resurfaced the old primary recriminations, for the most part, the indictment has provided a way for people from both parties to agree to the reality of the attack. Trump said Mueller did a good job with the indictment (admittedly, he may be currying favor). Trump’s National Security Advisor HR McMaster responded to the indictment by declaring the evidence that Russia interfered in the election “incontrovertible.” This indictment offers a way for even self-interested Republicans to start acknowledging the reality of what happened.

The indictment also gave Rod Rosenstein an opportunity to own this investigation with a press conference announcing it. None of the prosecutors tied to the case appeared (since I track these things, know that Jeannie Rhee, Rush Atkinson, and Ryan Dickey are on the docket), just Rosenstein. Hopefully, tying him to this non-offensive indictment will make it harder to fire Rosenstein, and thereby further protect Mueller.

Reiterating the crime of conspiracy to defraud the United States

The most interesting of the three crimes charged in the IRA indictment is the first, the conspiracy to defraud the United States. The indictment describes the conspiracy this way:

U.S. law bans foreign nationals from making certain expenditures or financial disbursements for the purpose of influencing federal elections. U.S. law also bars agents of any foreign entity from engaging in political activities within the United States without first registering with the Attorney General. And U.S. law requires certain foreign nationals seeking entry to the United States to obtain a visa by providing truthful and accurate information to the government.

Effectively, Mueller is saying that it’s not illegal, per se, to engage in political trolling (AKA information warfare), but it is if you don’t but are legally obliged to register before you do so. That’s an important distinction, because much of what these trolls did is accepted behavior in American politics — all sides did this in 2016, including people employed by campaigns and others expressing their own political opinions. Trolling (AKA information warfare) only becomes illegal when you don’t carry out the required transparency or reporting before you do so.

The charge of a conspiracy to defraud the United States has a very important parallel elsewhere in this investigation, in the first charge in the Paul Manafort and Rick Gates indictment. The indictment explains,

It is illegal to act as an agent of a foreign principal engaged in certain United States influence activities without registering the affiliation. Specifically, a person who engages in lobbying or public relations work in the United States (hereafter collectively referred to as lobbying) for a foreign principal such as the Government of Ukraine or the Party of Regions is required to provide a detailed written registration statement to the United States Department of Justice. The filing, made under oath, must disclose the name of the foreign principal, the financial payments to the lobbyist, and the measures undertaken for the foreign principal, among other information. A person required to make such a filing must further make in all lobbying material a “conspicuous statement” that the materials are distributed on behalf of the foreign principal, among other things. The filing thus permits public awareness and evaluation of the activities of a lobbyist who acts as an agent of a foreign power or foreign political party in the United States.

The Manafort indictment then argues that by hiding that the lobbying work they were doing was on behalf of Ukraine’s Party of Regions they, “knowingly and intentionally conspired to defraud the United States by impeding impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful governmental functions of a government agency, namely the Department of Justice and the Department of the Treasury.” I’ll have more to say about this parallel in coming days, but suffice it to say that Mueller is alleging that Manafort is the mirror image of the troll farm, engaging in politics while hiding on whose behalf he’s doing it (he was arguably doing the same in Ukraine). [Update: see this post for more on how this might work.]

In both cases, the indictments substantiate the conspiracy by naming a variety of crimes, like money laundering and identity theft.

I suspect we’ll be seeing more of this structure going forward (and suspect it’s something the numerous appellate specialists on Mueller’s team have been spending a lot of time thinking about).

Laying out how Americans might be involved with or without “colluding”

Much has been made of Rosenstein’s line, “There is no allegation in the indictment that any American was a knowing participant in the alleged unlawful activity.” I don’t read too much into that. Rather, I think Rosenstein included it because the indictment does explicitly and implicitly describe actions many Americans and possible Americans took that were part of this conspiracy. That includes:

Illegal compensated acvitities

  • Richard Pinedo: Selling Russian trolls (and others) bank account numbers they can use to conduct identity fraud
  • Unknown persons: Providing social security numbers and fake US drivers licenses of Americans
  • Unknown persons: Selling stolen credit card information

Presumptively legal compensated activities

  • Unknown Americans: Renting servers in the US to run VPNs to hide their foreign location
  • Yahoo, Gmail, Paypal: Providing email and PayPal accounts the Russians used as the basis for social media accounts
  • Twitter, Instagram, Facebook: Providing those social media accounts
  • Twitter, Instagram, Facebook: Selling advertisements on social media
  • Unknown Trump associates: Paying for IRA rally expenses
  • Paid providers: Building a cage, acquiring a costume, and posing as Hillary in prison stunt at a FL event
  • Unknown US person: Providing posters for a Support Hillary, Save American Muslims rally
  • Unknown American: Holding a sign in front of the White House on May 29, 2016

Uncompensated activities

  • Unknown Americans: Interacting with Aleksandra Krylova and Anna Bogacheva when they traveled to the US sometime between June 4 and June 26, 2014 to conduct reconnaissance and another co-conspirator that November
  • Members of the media: Accepting tips and promoting IRA events
  • A member of a real TX-based Tea Party organization: Advising the conspirators to focus on the purple states “like Colorado, Virginia & Florida”
  • Unwitting members, volunteers, and supporters of the Trump Campaign involved in local community outreach, as well as grassroots groups that supported then-candidate Trump: Distributing IRA materials through existing channels of those groups
  • Administrators of large social media groups focused on U.S. politics: Promoting IRA events
  • Trump volunteer: Providing signs for the March for Trump event and otherwise recruiting for it
  • A Florida-based political activist identified as the “Chair for the Trump Campaign” in a particular Florida county: Advising on more locations and logistics for the Florida Trump event
  • Campaign Officials 1, 2, and 3: discussing the Florida events

Later the indictment describes a database of 100 real US persons whom the trolls treated as recruiting targets, complete with profiling.

On or about August 24, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators updated an internal ORGANIZATION list of over 100 real U.S. persons contacted through ORGANIZATION-controlled false U.S. persona accounts and tracked to monitor recruitment efforts and requests. The list included contact information for the U.S. persons, a summary of their political views, and activities they had been asked to perform by Defendants and their co-conspirators.

Here’s the important thing about all this. While Pinedo pled guilty and faces 12-18 months even with his cooperation agreement (and even there, while the information makes it clear he knew he was dealing with foreigners, his lawyer has made it clear he didn’t know who or what he was dealing with), there are only two other known illegal roles in this conspiracy, and there’s no reason those roles would have had to be carried out by Americans. Perhaps Mueller has others cooperating, perhaps those other criminals are unknown. But as for the rest, they are (as Rosenstein made clear) not guilty of any kind of conspiracy with Russia.

DOJ just rolled out an indictment in which probably 20 Americans can recognize themselves (many of whom were likely interviewed), about as many as all the Trump officials named in one or another plea agreement so far. Yet, as far as Mueller knows, none of these people did anything but conduct business or engage in sincerely held politics. They almost certainly had far less reason to be suspicious of the trolls they were being used by than Facebook and Twitter. Those actions have been tainted now through no fault of their own.

Which is something to remember: I’ve seen Hillary supporters, in the same breath, criticize Bernie or Jill Stein supporters because their preferred candidate was treated favorably by the trolls, yet in the same breath suggesting the black and Muslim activists targeted are innocent victims.

Obviously, Hillary and her supporters are victims. But everyone is, even the Trump volunteers. Because to the extent they had honestly held beliefs, the Russian operation tainted those beliefs, it diminished the weight of their honestly held beliefs. They were used by Russian trolls, most of them without the same profit motive that led Facebook and Twitter to allow themselves to be used. And we should remember that.

Hinting at what the US has

There are, however, a few tactical things this indictment does, starting with hinting at what other evidence the US has. This indictment was relatively easy, in that Adrian Chen (in a June 2015 article that still gets too little attention), Facebook and (to a lesser extent) other social media outlets, the Daily Beast, and SSCI generally have already laid out what IRA did. The indictment slaps some criminal charges on fraudulent behavior that enabled it, and without showing much about any additional evidence Mueller collected, you’ve got a showy indictment.

There are two hints, however, of the additional evidence used (which, given that the named conspirators will never face trial, will never need to be disclosed or explained). First, in a passage about how IRA started to cover their tracks after Mueller started focusing on this activity, there’s the reference to Irina Kaverzina.

On or about September 13, 2017, KAVERZINA wrote in an email to a family member: “We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke). So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with the colleagues.”

Kaverzina was just a low-level troll and this may be nothing more than Section 702 collected email off GMail or Yahoo, or it may be a more formal intercept. But Mueller obtained communications from at least one of the indictees. Emails from more senior people, such as Prigozhin or his more senior managers (or the IT guys buying server space in the US) would be more interesting.

Plus, Mueller likely obtained cooperation from one IRA employee, the unnamed person who traveled to Atlanta in November 2014 for reconnaissance. Had that person not cooperated, he or she would have been named in the indictment.

Nevertheless establishing the political stakes

I said above that none of the hundred-plus Americans who were unknowingly used by trolls should be considered anything but victims. Their chosen political views, loathsome or not, have now been tainted, and not because of anything they’ve done except perhaps show too much trust or credulity.

But there are hints that Mueller is using this indictment to set up a more important point.

For example, the indictment (perhaps because of Mueller’s mandate) focuses on political activities supporting or opposing one or another 2016 candidate. Even where topics (immigration, Muslim religion, race) are not necessarily tied to the election, they’re presented here as such. Unless Facebook’s public reports are wrong, this is a very different emphasis than what Facebook has said the IRA focused on. Which is to say that Mueller’s team are focusing on a subset of the known IRA trolling, the subset that involves the 2016 contest between Trump and Hillary.

And there are several events, in particular, that may one day serve as details in a larger conspiracy. Most interesting, for the timing and location, are the twin anti-Hillary and pro-Trump events in NYC in June and July 2016.

In or around June and July 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the Facebook group “Being Patriotic,” the Twitter account @March_for_Trump, and other ORGANIZATION accounts to organize two political rallies in New York. The first rally was called “March for Trump” and held on June 25, 2016. The second rally was called “Down with Hillary” and held on July 23, 2016.

a. In or around June through July 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators purchased advertisements on Facebook to promote the “March for Trump” and “Down with Hillary” rallies.

b. Defendants and their co-conspirators used false U.S. personas to send individualized messages to real U.S. persons to request that they participate in and help organize the rally. To assist their efforts, Defendants and their co-conspirators, through false U.S. personas, offered money to certain U.S. persons to cover rally expenses.

c. On or about June 5, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators, while posing as a U.S. grassroots activist, used the account @March_for_Trump to contact a volunteer for the Trump Campaign in New York. The volunteer agreed to provide signs for the “March for Trump” rally.

[snip]

On or about July 23, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the email address of a false U.S. persona, [email protected], to send out press releases to over thirty media outlets promoting the “Down With Hillary” rally at Trump Tower in New York City.

The description of a IRA-organized event at Trump Tower the day after WikiLeaks dropped the DNC emails, in particular, suggests the possibility of a great deal of coordination, coordination with people in the US.

Similarly, the extended descriptions of events in Florida may also take on added relevance in the future, particularly coming as they did in tandem with Guccifer 2.0’s release of DCCC data targeting FL. (And this, in turn, should focus even more attention on the FL congressmen like Matt Gaetz and Ron DeSantis who’re leading the pushback on Mueller’s investigation.)

Using the term “co-conspirator” 119 times

Perhaps most interesting, given the tiny nods to what other intelligence Mueller might have, are the 119 uses of the word “co-conspirators.” Almost all of these uses seem to necessarily mean unnamed IRA employees working from the same St. Petersburg location described as trolling. Several times the co-conspirators are clearly described as located in Russia. So it may be that all references to co-conspirators here are just a way to refer to the 70 other people involved in this operation at IRA. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Other uses of “co-conspirator” involve wider knowledge, perhaps an outsider’s knowledge of a go-between role Prigozhin might have had.

But others are things that might have involved a stateside co-conspirator, such as the mention of co-conspirators helping to set up the May 29, 2016 Prigozhin birthday tribute in front of the White House, co-conspirators tracking US social media use, co-conspirators engaged in identity theft, co-conspirators promoting claims of voter fraud, co-conspirators destroying data. Several of those things (such as tracking US social media use or claiming Hillary was going to steal the election) are things we know Trump associates were also doing. Others might be facilitated by someone stateside. So those uses of the term could be people not employed by IRA.

Which is to say, this indictment might be (probably is) intended to address just the activities of those employed by IRA. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Update: added the public indictment part.

On the Grassley-Feinstein Dispute

In a podcast with Preet Bharara this week, Sheldon Whitehouse had the following exchange about whether he thought Carter Page should have been surveilled. (after 24:30)

Whitehouse: I’ve got to be a little bit careful because I’m one of the few Senators who have been given access to the underlying material.

Bharara: Meaning the affidavit in support of the FISA application.

Whitehouse And related documents, yes. The package.

Bharara: And you’ve gone to read them?

Whitehouse: I’ve gone to read them.

Bharara: You didn’t send Trey Gowdy?

Whitehouse: [Laughs] I did not send Trey Gowdy. I actually went through them. And, so I’ve got to be careful because some of this is still classified. But the conclusion that I’ve reached is that there was abundant evidence outside of the Steele dossier that would have provoked any responsible FBI with a counterintelligence concern to look at whether Carter Page was an undisclosed foreign agent. And to this day the FBI continues to assert that he was a undisclosed Russian foreign agent.

For the following discussion, then, keep in mind that a very sober former US Attorney has read the case against Carter Page and says that the FBI still — still, after Page is as far as we know no longer under a FISA order — asserts he “was” an undisclosed foreign agent (it’s not clear what that past tense “was” is doing, as it could mean he was a foreign agent until the attention on him got too intense or remains one; also, I believe John Ratcliffe, a Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and also a former US Attorney, has read the application too).

With that background, I’d like to turn to the substance of the dispute between Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein over the dossier, which has played out in the form of a referral of Christopher Steele to FBI for lying. In the wake of the Nunes memo theatrics, Grassley released first a heavily redacted version of the referral he and Lindsey Graham sent the FBI in early January, followed by a less-redacted version this week. The referral, even as a transparent political stunt, is nevertheless more substantive than Devin Nunes’ memo, leading some to take it more seriously.  Which may be why Feinstein released a rebuttal this week.

In case you’re wondering, I’m tracking footnote escalation in these documents. They line up this way:

  • 0: Nunes memo (0 footnotes over 4 pages, or 1 over 6 if you count Don McGahn’s cover letter)
  • 2.6: Grassley referral (26 footnotes over 10 pages)
  • 3.6: Schiff memo (36 footnotes, per HPSCI transcript, over 10 pages)
  • 5.4: Feinstein rebuttal (27 footnotes over 5 pages)

So let me answer a series of questions about the memo as a way of arguing that, while by all means the FBI’s use of consultants might bear more scrutiny, this is still a side-show.

Did Christopher Steele lie?

The Grassely-Graham referral says Steele may have lied, but doesn’t commit to whether classified documents obtained by the Senate Judiciary Committee (presumably including the first two Page applications), a declaration Steele submitted in a British lawsuit, or Steele’s statements to the FBI include lies.

The FBI has since provided the Committee access to classified documents relevant to the FBI’s relationship with Mr. Steele and whether the FBI relied on his dossier work. As explained in greater detail below, when information in those classified documents is evaluated in light of sworn statements by Mr. Steele in British litigation, it appears that either Mr. Steele lied to the FBI or the British court, or that the classified documents reviewed by the Committee contain materially false statements.

On September 3, 2017 — a good three months before the Grassley-Graham referral — I pointed to a number of things in the Steele declaration, specifically pertaining to who got the dossier or heard about it when, that I deemed “improbable.”

That was the genius of the joint (!!) Russian-Republican campaign of lawfare against the dossier. As Steele and BuzzFeed and Fusion tried to avoid liability for false claims against Webzilla and Alfa Bank and their owners, they were backed into corners where they had to admit that Democrats funded the dossier and made claims that might crumble as Congress scrutinized the dossier.

So, yeah, I think it quite possible that Steele told some stretchers.

Did Christopher Steele lie to the FBI?

But that only matters if he lied to the FBI (and not really even there). The UK is not about to extradite one of its former spies because of lies told in the UK — they’re not even going to extradite alleged hacker Lauri Love, because we’re a barbaric country. And I assume the Brits give their spooks even more leeway to fib a little to courts than the US does.

The most critical passage of the referral on this point, which appears to make a claim about whether Steele told the FBI he had shared information with the press before they first used his dossier in a Page application, looks like this.

The footnote in the middle of that redacted passage goes to an unredacted footnote that says,

The FBI has failed to provide the Committee the 1023s documenting all of Mr. Steele’s statements to the FBI, so the Committee is relying on the accuracy of the FBI’s representation to the FISC regarding the statements.

1023s are Confidential Human Source reports.

I say that’s the most important passage because the referral goes on to admit that in subsequent FISA applications the FBI explained that the relationship with Steele had been terminated because of his obvious involvement in the October 31, 2016 David Corn story. Graham and Grassley complain that the FBI didn’t use Steele’s defiance of the FBI request not to share this information with anyone besides the FBI to downgrade his credibility rankings. Apparently FISC was less concerned about that than Graham and Grassley, which may say more about standards for informants in FISA applications than Steele or Carter Page.

The footnote, though, is the biggest tell. That’s because Feinstein’s rebuttal makes it quite clear that after Grassley and Graham made their referral, SJC received documents — which, given what we know has been given to HPSCI, surely include those 1023s — that would alter the claims made in the referral.

The Department of Justice has provided documents regarding its interactions with Mr. Steele to the Judiciary Committee both before and after the criminal referral was made. Despite this, the Majority did not modify the criminal referral and pressed forward with its original claims, which do not take into account the additional information provided after the initial January 4 referral.

Feinstein then goes on to state, several times and underlining almost everything for emphasis, that the referral provides no proof that Steele was ever asked if he had served as the source for Isikoff.

  • Importantly, the criminal referral fails to identify when, if ever, Mr. Steele was asked about and provided a materially false statement about his press contacts.
  • Tellingly, it also fails to explain any circumstances which would have required Mr. Steele to seek the FBI’s permission to speak to the press or to disclose if he had done so.

[snip]

But the criminal referral provides no evidence that Steele was ever asked about the Isikoff article, or if asked that he lied.

In other words, between the redacted claim about what Steele said and Feinstein’s repeated claims that the referral presents no evidence Steele was asked about his prior contacts with the press, the evidence seems to suggest that Steele was probably not asked. And once he was, after the Corn article, he clearly did admit to the FBI he had spoken with the press. So while it appears Steele blew off the FBI’s warnings not to leak to the press, the evidence that he lied to the FBI appears far weaker.

Does it harm the viability of the FISA application?

That should end the analysis, because the ostensible purpose of the referral is a criminal referral, not to make an argument about the FISA process.

But let’s assess the memo’s efforts to discredit the FISA application.

In two places, the referral suggests the dossier played a bigger role in the FISA application than, for example, Whitehouse suggests.

Indeed, the documents we have reviewed show that the FBI took important investigative steps largely based on Mr. Steele’s information–and relying heavily on his credibility.

[snip]

Mr. Steele’s information formed a significant portion of the FBI’s warrant application, and the FISA application relied more heavily on Steele’s credibility than on any independent verification or corroboration for his claims. Thus the basis for the warrant authorizing surveillance on a U.S. citizen rests largely on Mr. Steele’s credibility.

These claims would be more convincing, however, if they acknowledged that FBI had to have obtained valuable foreign intelligence off their Page wiretap over the course of the year they had him wiretapped to get three more applications approved.

Indeed, had Grassley and Graham commented on the addition of new information in each application, their more justifiable complaint that the FBI did not alert FISC to the UK filings in which Steele admitted more contact with the press than (they claim) show up in the applications would be more compelling. If you’re going to bitch about newly learned information not showing up in subsequent applications, then admit that newly acquired information showed up.

Likewise, I’m very sympathetic with the substance of the Grassley-Graham complaint that Steele’s discussions with the press made it more likely that disinformation got inserted into the dossier (see my most recently post on that topic), but I think the Grassley-Graham complaint undermines itself in several ways.

Simply put, the more people who contemporaneously knew that Mr. Steele was compiling his dossier, the more likely it was vulnerable to manipulation. In fact, the British litigation, which involves a post-election dossier memorandum, Mr. Steele admitted that he received and included in it unsolicited–and unverified–allegations. That filing implies that implies that he similar received unsolicited intelligence on these matters prior to the election as well, stating that Mr. Steele “continued to receive unsolicited intelligence on the matters covered by the pre-election memoranda after the US Presidential election.” [my underline]

The passage is followed by an entirely redacted paragraph that likely talks about disinformation.

This is actually an important claim, not just because it raises the possibility that Page might be unfairly surveilled as part of a Russian effort to distract attention from others (though its use in a secret application wouldn’t have sown the discord it has had it not leaked), but also because we can check whether their claims hold up against the Steele declaration. It’s one place we can check the referral to see whether their arguments accurately reflect the underlying evidence.

Importantly, to support a claim the potential for disinformation in the Steele dossier show up in the form of unsolicited information earlier than they otherwise substantiate, they claim a statement in Steele’s earlier declaration pertains to pre-election memos. Here’s what it looks like in that declaration:

That is, Steele didn’t say he was getting unsolicited information prior to the election; this was, in both declarations, a reference to the single December report.

Moreover, while I absolutely agree that the last report is the most likely to be disinformation, the referral is actually not clear whether that December 13 report ever actually got included in a FISA application. There’s no reason it would have been. While the last report mentions Page, the mention is only a referral back to earlier claims that Trump’s camp was trying to clean up after reports of Page’s involvement with the Russians got made public. So the risk that the December memorandum consisted partially or wholly of disinformation is likely utterly irrelevant to the validity of the three later FISA orders targeting Page.

Which is to say that, while I think worries about disinformation are real (particularly given their reference to Rinat Akhmetshin allegedly learning about the dossier during the summer, which I wrote about here), the case Grassley and Graham make on that point both miscites Steele’s own declaration and overstates the impact of their argued case on a Page application.

What about the Michael Isikoff reference?

Perhaps the most interesting detail in the Grassley-Graham referral pertains to their obsession with the applications’ references to the September 23 Michael Isikoff article based off Steele’s early discussions with the press. Grassley-Graham claim there’s no information corroborating the dossier (there’s a redacted Comey quote that likely says something similar). In that context, they point to the reference to Isikoff without explaining what it was doing there.

The application appears to contain no additional information corroborating the dossier allegations against Mr. Page, although it does cite to a news article that appears to be sourced to Mr. Steele’s dossier as well.

Elsewhere, I’ve seen people suggest the reference to Isikoff may have justified the need for secrecy or something, rater than as corroboration. But neither the referral nor Feinstein’s rebuttal explains what the reference is doing.

In this passage, Grassley and Graham not only focus on Isikoff, but they ascribe certain motives to the way FBI referred to it, suggesting the claim that they did not believe Steele was a source for Isikoff was an attempt to “shield Mr. Steele’s credibility.”

There’s absolutely no reason the FBI would have seen the need to shield Steele’s credibility in October. He was credible. More troubling is that the FBI said much the same thing in January.

In the January reapplication, the FBI stated in a footnote that, “it did not believe that Steele gave information to Yahoo News that ‘published the September 23 News Article.”

Let’s do some math.

If I’m doing my math correctly, if the FISA reapplications happened at a regular 90 day interval, they’d look like this.

That’d be consistent with what the Nunes memo said about who signed what, and would fit the firing dates of January 30 for Yates and May 9 for Comey, as well as the start date for Rosenstein of April 26 (Chris Wray started on August 1).

If that’s right, then Isikoff wrote his second article on the Steele dossier, one that made it clear via a link his earlier piece had been based off Steele, before the second application was submitted (though the application would have been finished and submitted in preliminary form a week earlier, meaning FBI would have had to note the Isikoff piece immediately to get it into the application, but the topic of the Isikoff piece — that Steele was an FBI asset — might have attracted their attention).

But that’s probably not right because the Grassley-Graham referral describes a June, not July, reapplication, meaning the application would have been no later than the last week of June. That makes the reauthorization dates look more like this, distributing the extra days roughly proportionately:

That would put the second footnote claiming the FBI had no reason to believe the September Isikoff piece was based on Steele before the time when the second Isikoff piece made it clear.

I’m doing this for a second reason, however. It’s possible (particularly given Whitehouse’s comments) Carter Page remains under surveillance, but for some reason it’s no longer contentious.

That might be the case if the reapplications no longer rely on the dossier.

And I’m interested in that timing because, on September 9, I made what was implicit clear: That pointing to the September Isikoff piece to claim the Steele dossier had been corroborated was self-referential. I’m not positive I was the first, but by that point, the Isikoff thing would have been made explicit.

Does this matter at all to the Mueller inquiry?

Ultimately, though, particularly given the Nunes memo confirmation that the counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s people all stems from the George Papadopoulos tip, and not Page (particularly given the evidence that the FBI was very conservative in their investigation of him) there’s not enough in even the Grassley-Graham referral to raise questions about the Mueller investigation, especially given a point I made out in the Politico last week.

According to a mid-January status report in the case against Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, the government has turned over “more than 590,000 items” to his defense team, “including (but not limited to) financial records, records from vendors identified in the indictment, email communications involving the defendants, and corporate records.” He and Gates have received imaged copies of 87 laptops, phones and thumb drives, and copies off 19 search-warrant applications. He has not received, however, a FISA notice, which the government would be required to provide if they planned to use anything acquired using evidence obtained using the reported FISA warrant against Manafort. That’s evidence of just how much of a distraction Manafort’s strategy [of using the Steele dossier to discredit the Mueller investigation] is, of turning the dossier into a surrogate for the far more substantive case against him and others.

And it’s not just Manafort. Not a single thing in the George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn guilty pleas—for lying to the FBI—stems from any recognizable mention in the dossier, either. Even if the Steele dossier were a poisoned fruit, rather than the kind of routine oppo research that Republicans themselves had pushed to the FBI to support investigations, Mueller has planted an entirely new tree blooming with incriminating details.

Thus the point of my graphic above. The Steele dossier evidence used in the Carter Page FISA application to support an investigation into Cater Page, no matter what else it says about the FISA application process or FBI candor, is just a small corner of the investigation into Trump’s people.