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Did Rod Rosenstein Pressure Mueller to Enter the Plea Deal with Paul Manafort?

Bill Barr’s admission the other day that he and Rod Rosenstein started talking about how to deny that Trump obstructed justice on March 5, long before even getting the Mueller Report, has raised real questions about whether the two men pushed Mueller to finish his investigation (even though the Mystery Appellant and Andrew Miller subpoenas were still pending).

But I’ve started wondering whether Rosenstein — the guy who promised Trump he’d “land the plane” while he was trying to keep his job — hasn’t been pressuring Mueller to finish up even longer than that.

At the beginning of Manafort’s breach hearing, Andrew Weissmann described how this plea deal was different from most normal plea deals.

There were two points that I wanted to make to the Court. There are a number of subparts to them.

But, the first point has to do with sort of the context in which we operated at the time that we entered into the agreement. As the Court will recall, the agreement was entered into just shortly before the trial was to commence before this Court, and it was after three proffer sessions. And then, of course, there were many debriefings after that. And a couple things about that timing that are relevant.

One, at the end of the third proffer session, before entering into the agreement, we had made clear to the defense that we were willing to go forward. But, that given the limited opportunity, and yet the need to make a decision because of the eminent [sic] trial, we wanted to make clear to the defense that, of course, we were going in with good faith.

But we could not say at that point that we either could say the defendant was being truthful or that the defendant was going to be able to meet the substantial assistance prong. In other words, two parts of the agreement.

Of course, I think everyone was hopeful that all of that would be met. But we wanted to make it clear to the defense that they weren’t being misled in any way as to what we were thinking.

And the second component of that is, I think, something unusual — there were two factors that were unusual in this case compared to, I think, the cases that all of us at this table have had in the past. One was, there’s enormous interest in what I will call — for lack of a better term — the intelligence that could be gathered from having a cooperating witness in this particular investigation. And that would account for the Government agreeing to have Mr. Manafort cooperate, even though it was after a trial. Because that’s certainly an — not — not — it’s not that that never happens, but it’s more atypical.

By the same token, there was an unusual factor — the second unusual factor, which was [redacted] the normal motives and incentives that are built into a cooperation agreement.

To sum up, it was unusual because:

  • They didn’t do all the vetting they would normally do before entering into a plea deal,
  • There was a big push to avoid the September 2018 trial
  • They entered a plea deal when they weren’t sure about Manafort’s reliability in part to get intelligence, not prosecutorial information
  • Another factor, which is redacted, which by context is likely to be Trump’s floating of a pardon

In other words, there was great pressure to enter into this plea deal that led them not to do the vetting they would normally have.

We already know from the breach determination that Manafort said some things during his proffers that led prosecutors to give him the plea deal, but about which he promptly changed his story. Those subjects include, at a minimum, the degree to which his business associate Konstantin Kilimnik had formally entered into a conspiracy with him, how his kickback system worked, and the criminality of some Trump associate who tried something in August 2016 to save Trump’s campaign.

But the breach determination also revealed that Manafort was always lying about his ongoing discussions with Kilimnik about a “peace” deal. Over the course of his “cooperation,” he came to admit some parts of it after being shown evidence, but he never offered up those details.

That means that when Mueller entered into that plea deal, they knew Manafort was lying to them, at least about the Ukrainian “peace” deals and his coordination with Kilimnik.

But the Mueller Report also reveals were also two details Manafort told them during his proffers that the prosecutors didn’t believe. Manafort told prosecutors that he could not recall “anyone informing candidate Trump of the [June 9] meeting, including Trump Jr;” prosecutors already had other testimony suggesting this was false, and the day after Manafort told them this on September 11, 2018 (and before they actually finalized the deal), Michael Cohen described Don Jr discussing a meeting secretly with Trump in this time period.  That same day, Manafort also told prosecutors, “that he did not believe Kilimnik was working as a Russian ‘spy,'” even though several other Kilimnik colleagues, including Rick Gates, had told Mueller’s team he was.

So Mueller knew Manafort was lying, and yet still gave him a plea deal, which had the effect of averting a trial that would have been a key focus of press attention during the midterm elections. I laid out how Manafort’s failed plea ended up providing cover during the election season in this post.

Rudy Giuliani, remember, repeatedly said that Mueller would have to wrap up the entire investigation before DOJ’s 90 day election season.

I know there are a lot of DOJ beat reporters trying to chase down whether Barr told Mueller he had to finish up as soon as he got cleared to oversee the investigation in March. But I wonder whether Rosenstein wasn’t already pressuring Mueller to finish, going back to August. If he was, that would change the import of Trump’s tactic to avoid testifying — first stalling through the election, and then refusing any real cooperation — significantly.

It would also change the import of the fact that prosecutors still claim that the investigation into Manafort is ongoing.

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

Why Did Mueller Include the June 9 Meeting Statement in His Obstruction Case?

I’ve got a bunch more posts on the Mueller Report I’m going to eventually write; I’ve still got a slew of theories and observations to share. But there’s one topic I just have guesses on, one I’d love to have more people weigh in on.

Why did Mueller’s team include Donald Trump’s statement on the June 9 meeting — which is described not as a false statement, but an effort to prevent the disclosure of Don Jr’s emails setting up the meeting — in his obstruction analysis?

The obstruction analysis on the June 9 meeting shows it’s not itself obstruction

As a number of reviews of the Mueller Report obstruction analysis show, the June 9 meeting cover-up is the one obstructive act where the report concludes the evidence did not establish it as an act of obstruction for all three factors:

As the obstruction analysis lays out, Trump talked hopefully about ensuring the emails didn’t get out, but there’s no evidence he took action, beyond lying publicly, to suppress them.

Each of these efforts by the President involved his communications team and was directed at the press. They would amount to obstructive acts only if the President, by taking these actions, sought to withhold information from or mislead congressional investigators or the Special Counsel. On May 17, 2017, the President’s campaign received a document request from SSCI that clearly covered the June 9 meeting and underlying emails, and those documents also plainly would have been relevant to the Special Counsel’s investigation.

But the evidence does not establish that the President took steps to prevent the emails or other information about the June 9 meeting from being provided to Congress or the Special Counsel. The series of discussions in which the President sought to limit access to the emails and prevent their public release occurred in the context of developing a press strategy.

It then repeats that analysis by showing that while withholding the emails might amount to obstruction, he did not withhold emails.

As noted above, the evidence does not establish that the President sought to prevent disclosure of the emails in those official proceedings.

Then, in the intent section, it shows Trump’s central role in crafting the adoptions statement, while again concluding that the statement doesn’t amount to withholding the email.

The evidence establishes the President’s substantial involvement in the communications strategy related to information about his campaign’s connections to Russia and his desire to minimize public disclosures about those connections. The President became aware of the emails no later than June 29, 2017, when he discussed them with Hicks and Kushner, and he could have been aware of them as early as June 2, 2017, when lawyers for the Trump Organization began interviewing witnesses who participated in the June 9 meeting. The President thereafter repeatedly rejected the advice of Hicks and other staffers to publicly release information about the June 9 meeting. The President expressed concern that multiple people had access to the emails and instructed Hicks that only one lawyer should deal with the matter. And the President dictated a statement to be released by Trump Jr. in response to the first press accounts of the June 9 meeting that said the meeting was about adoption.

But as described above, the evidence does not establish that the President intended to prevent the Special Counsel’s Office or Congress from obtaining the emails setting up the June 9 meeting or other information about that meeting.

Curiously, this analysis of intent doesn’t talk about why Trump may have wanted to hide the truth about the June 9 meeting, even though elsewhere the report suggests that, overall, one motive for Trump obstructing the investigation might be because he thought the June 9 meeting would be found to be criminal.

So Mueller spent over eight pages laying out whether Trump’s role in crafting a deceitful statement about the June 9 meeting was obstruction of justice when, according to the report’s analysis of obstruction of justice, it was not even a close call.

So why — in a report that might better be understood as an impeachment referral — did they include that?

Trump’s statement on the June 9 meeting as evidence of corrupt intent for other obstructive acts

I’ve commented elsewhere that one of the posts I’ll eventually do is a narratological analysis of the report. I said that, in part, for the way the report intersperses several acts of potential Trump obstruction that all happened during the same time period in summer 2017. While the report only mentions this in passing, Trump’s lies about the June 9 meeting occur during the same time frame as three other potential obstructive acts that the report shows do amount to obstruction: the effort to get Don McGahn to get Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller, the request that Corey Lewandowski (!!) fire Jeff Sessions, and the effort to get Sessions to unrecuse.

And, as noted, the June 9 meeting is one of three things — along with the Trump Tower Moscow deal and Trump’s push to have Roger Stone optimize the release of the stolen emails — that the report posits might be the underlying facts Trump was attempting to hide with his other obstruction (note that the report never focuses on Mike Flynn’s discussion on sanctions, which I’ll return to in a later post).

Which suggests Trump’s involvement in the June 9 statement is there not for those actions themselves, but for the way his actions prove corrupt intent for other obstructive actions.

A story describing Trump’s unique actions that nevertheless leaves out the biggest detail

Still, the specific story the report tells is damning. It includes details that suggest this was a unique event, with Trump trying to retain plausible deniability even though several witnesses say he knew about the meeting, and describing Trump preferring to break his cardinal sin, remaining silent on a story. But note that the story leaves out one of the most important details: Vladimir Putin’s interactions with the President during the day Trump wrote his deceitful statement.

Here’s the story, as told in the obstruction section.

Trump claims he didn’t know about the meeting ahead of time, contrary to what several witnesses said.

According to written answers submitted by the President in response to questions from this Office, the President had no recollection of learning of the meeting or the emails setting it up at the time the meeting occurred or at any other time before the election 668

The Chief of Staff learns about the meeting from Sean Hannity, which is just crazy train.

[Reince] Priebus recalled learning about the June 9 meeting from Fox News host Sean Hannity in late June 2017.672

Trump tells Jared not to share details of the meeting with him, according to Hope Hicks.

According to Hicks, Kushner said that he wanted to fill the President in on something that had been discovered in the documents he was to provide to the congressional committees involving a meeting with him, Manafort, and Trump Jr.678 Kushner brought a folder of documents to the meeting and tried to show them to the President, but the President stopped Kushner and said he did not want to know about it, shutting the conversation down.’

[snip]

On June 28, 2017, Hicks viewed the emails at Kushner’s attorney’s office 68° She recalled being shocked by the emails because they looked “really bad.”68′ The next day, Hicks spoke privately with the President to mention her concern about the emails, which she understood were soon going to be shared with Congress.682 The President seemed upset because too many people knew about the emails and he told Hicks that just one lawyer should deal with the matter.”‘ The President indicated that he did not think the emails would leak, but said they would leak if everyone had access to them.684

Later that day, Hicks, Kushner, and Ivanka Trump went together to talk to the President.685 Hicks recalled that Kushner told the President the June 9 meeting was not a big deal and was about Russian adoption, but that emails existed setting up the meeting.686 Hicks said she wanted to get in front of the story and have Trump Jr. release the emails as part of an interview with “softball questions.”687 The President said he did not want to know about it and they should not go to the press 688 Hicks warned the President that the emails were “really bad” and the story would be “massive” when it broke, but the President was insistent that he did not want to talk about it and said he did not want details!'” Hicks recalled that the President asked Kushner when his document production was due.699 Kushner responded that it would be a couple of weeks and the President said, “then leave it alone.”‘ Hicks also recalled that the President said Kushner’s attorney should give the emails to whomever he needed to give them to, but the President did not think they would be leaked to the press.692 Raffel later heard from Hicks that the President had directed the group not to be proactive in disclosing the emails because the President believed they would not leak.693

But Jared claims that didn’t happen. This narrative is largely sourced to interviews with Hope Hicks. Even in his second interview, Jared said it didn’t happen this way.

Hicks 12/7/17 302, at 7; Hicks 3/13/18 302, at I. Counsel for Ivanka Trump provided an attorney proffer that is consistent with Hicks’s account and with the other events involving Ivanka Trump set forth in this section of the report. Kushner said that he did not recall talking to the President at this time about the June 9 meeting or the underlying emails. Kushner 4/11/18 302, at 30.

Hicks is confused about why Trump wants to commit his ultimate sin.

On July 7, 2017, while the President was overseas, Hicks and Raffel learned that the New York Times was working on a story about the June 9 meeting.695 The next day, Hicks told the President about the story and he directed her not to comment.696 Hicks thought the President’s reaction was odd because he usually considered not responding to the press to be the ultimate sin.697 Later that day, Hicks and the President again spoke about the story.698 Hicks recalled that the President asked her what the meeting had been about, and she said that she had been told the meeting was about Russian adoption.699 The President responded, “then just say that.”706

The Report neglects to mention the Putin meeting where he and Trump talked about the subject of the statement.

[see this post]

Trump edits Jr’s statement because it admits they were offered dirt and discussed sanctions relief, defaulting on Putinesque spin.

On the flight home from the G20 on July 8, 2017, Hicks obtained a draft statement about the meeting to be released by Trump Jr. and brought it to the President.701 The draft statement began with a reference to the information that was offered by the Russians in setting up the meeting: “I was asked to have a meeting by an acquaintance I knew from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant with an individual who I was told might have information helpful to the campaign.”702 Hicks again wanted to disclose the entire story, but the President directed that the statement not be issued because it said too much.703 The President told Hicks to say only that Trump Jr. took a brief meeting and it was about Russian adoption.704 After speaking with the President, Hicks texted Trump Jr. a revised statement on the June 9 meeting that read:

It was a short meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at that time and there was no follow up. 705

Hicks’s text concluded, “Are you ok with this? Attributed to you.”706 Trump Jr. responded by text message that he wanted to add the word “primarily” before “discussed” so that the statement would read, “We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children.”707 Trump Jr. texted that he wanted the change because “[t]hey started with some Hillary thing which was bs and some other nonsense which we shot down fast. “708 Hicks texted back, “I think that’s right too but boss man worried it invites a lot of questions[.) [U]ltimately [d]efer to you and [your attorney] on that word Be I know it’s important and I think the mention of a campaign issue adds something to it in case we have to go further.” 709 Trump Jr. responded, “lfl don’t have it in there it appears as though I’m lying later when they inevitably leak something.” 710

Hope Hicks channels the President hoping the damning emails would never leak.

Corallo told the President the statement had been authorized and further observed that Trump Jr. ‘s statement was inaccurate and that a document existed that would contradict it.722 Corallo said that he purposely used the term “document” to refer to the emails setting up the June 9 meeting because he did not know what the President knew about the emails.723 Corallo recalled that when he referred to the “document” on the call with the President, Hicks responded that only a few people had access to it and said “it will never get out.”724 Corallo took contemporaneous notes of the call that say: “Also mention existence of doc. Hope says ‘ only a few people have it. It will never get out.”‘725 Hicks later told investigators that she had no memory of making that comment and had always believed the emails would eventually be leaked, but she might have been channeling the President on the phone call because it was clear to her throughout her conversations with the President that he did not think the emaiis would leak.726

Trump’s flunkies deny that the guy who met Vladimir Putin twice during the drafting of the statement wrote the statement.

Over the next several days, the President’s personal counsel repeatedly and inaccurately denied that the President played any role in drafting Trump Jr. ‘s statement.729 After consulting with the President on the issue, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told the media that the President “certainly didn’t dictate” the statement, but that “he weighed in, offered suggestions like any father would do.”730

The Report again neglects to mention the Putin meeting where he and Trump spoke about the subject of the statement.

On July 19, 2017, the President had his follow-up meeting with Lewandowski and then met with reporters for the New York Times. In addition to criticizing Sessions in his Times interview, the President addressed the June 9, 2016 meeting and said he “didn’t know anything about the meeting” at the time.734 The President added, “As I’ve said-most other people, you know, when they call up and say, ‘By the way, we have information on your opponent,’ I think most politicians – I was just with a lot of people, they said … , ‘Who wouldn’ t have taken a meeting like that?”‘735

[see this post]

Providing the framework for the Putin involvement

As I’ve said, I think it remarkable — though perhaps explicable on constitutional grounds — that the report does not mention Putin’s role in all of this, and Trump’s bizarre behavior at the G20 (where he had Ivanka sit in on a meeting while he worked on the statement) more generally. Trump’s interactions with Putin — and his efforts to keep them secret even from staffers — is the subject of other congressional investigation. Which is why this passage from the beginning of the obstruction section sticks out.

Given those considerations, the facts known to us, and the strong public interest in safeguarding the integrity of the criminal justice system, we conducted a thorough factual investigation in order to preserve the evidence when memories were fresh and documentary materials were available.

As noted, I think Mueller included the June 9 meeting statement not because it, by itself, amounts to obstruction, but because the evidence laid out — plus evidence available publicly or via separate congressional investigation — provides an important motivational explanation for the rest of it. Trump made three separate attempts to gut the Mueller investigation in this period, all at a time he was acting unusually (for him) in his efforts to bury the June 9 meeting.

This is the lie he was telling while using his office to try to stop the investigation. Or rather, this is the lie he and Vladimir Putin were telling.

EMPTYWHEEL’S MUELLER REPORT COVERAGE

Two Exceptions to Trump’s “Do Not Recall” Responses: A Limited Answer on an Assange Pardon and a Non-Answer on Sanctions Relief

The Significance of Trump’s Obstruction of Investigation of His Family’s Campaign Finance Crimes, Plural

How “Collusion” Appears in the Mueller Report

Putin’s Ghost: The Counterintelligence Calculus Not Included in the Obstruction Analysis

Working Twitter Threads on the Mueller Report

The Trump Men and the Grand Jury Redactions

Mueller’s Language about “Collusion,” Coordination, and Conspiracy

The Many Lies and Prevarications of Bill Barr

Giorgi Rtslchiladze’s Honor Has Been Sullied because He Can’t Decide Whether He Knows the Tapes He Suppressed Exist or Not

Why Did Mueller Include the June 9 Meeting Statement in His Obstruction Case?

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

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Self-Promoting Republican Lawyer Scorned

Yesterday, Jerry Nadler subpoenaed Don McGahn, both to appear and testify on May 21, but also to turn over a slew of documents pertaining to 36 topics, the two most interesting of which are:

23. President Trump’s exposure in the Special Counsel Investigation relating to “other contacts,” calls,” or “ask re Flynn” as mentioned in Volume II, page 82 of the Report.

[snip]

34.  Communications relating to United States imposed sanctions or potential sanctions against the Russian Federation from June 16, 2015 to October 18, 2018, including but not limited to the sanctions imposed pursuant to the Magnitsky Act.

I suspect this is a friendly subpoena — a subpoena giving the witness an excuse for testifying. I say that not just because McGahn is a self-promoter who likes to pretend he’s the hero of saving Trump from prison, but also because McGahn got noticeably more chatty with Mueller’s office as Trump grew more unmanageable and the risk to McGahn’s future increased. Indeed, because he leaked his heroic role to the press, he ended up getting called in for further interviews.

At least as described by its footnotes, the Mueller Report revealed that McGahn testified five times. The first three seem to be largely sequential interviews covering three big events:

  • November 30, 2017: Flynn’s firing
  • December 12, 2017: Sessions’ recusal and Comey’s firing
  • December 14, 2017: Mueller’s appointment and Trump’s efforts to fire him, both directly (through McGahn) and indirectly (by firing Sessions)

Then, after the NYT and WaPo reported two versions of the story, in January of last year, that Trump asked McGahn to fire Mueller, McGahn was interviewed at more length about that.

  • March 8, 2018: Trump’s order to fire Mueller and attempt to force McGahn to correct the NYT story

Then, this year, after he had been fired for cooperating with Mueller, he was interviewed again, apparently to clarify some timing related issues (the interview apparently focused on his private phone records), and to explain why he didn’t tell Anne Donaldson, Reince Priebus, and others about the order to fire Mueller.

  • February 28, 2019

There are signs that, during the first set of interviews, McGahn was shading the truth. As expected, his story about the Flynn firing (and the CYA memo he drafted the day after Flynn’s firing) is dodgy — some of which I’ll return to, For example, his CYA memo claimed that, “Yates was unwilling to confirm or deny that there was an ongoing investigation but did indicate that the Department of Justice would not object to the White House taking action against Flynn,” when in fact she had told him she alerted him to Flynn’s lies precisely so the White House could take action. At times, it was clear McGahn was trying to put a less damning spin on things, especially notes taken by Anne Donaldson or Sessions Chief of Staff Jody Hunt. For example, he claimed a note that said “No comms, / Serious concerns about obstruction” didn’t mean that his office had tried to set a rule not to speak to Sessions about the investigation, reflected instead a concern about the press spin; that spin might reflect his own concern about his efforts to convince Sessions not to recuse.

In those initial interviews, too, McGahn’s story about his effort to get DOJ to issue a statement claiming the President wasn’t being investigated differs significantly from Dana Boente’s, which is useful to his story as it provides an excuse for his orchestration of blaming the Jim Comey firing on Rod Rosenstein. Perhaps the most ridiculous claim, from the initial meetings, is that Trump insisted on emphasizing Comey’s refusal to say he wasn’t under investigation because he didn’t want everyone to know Comey was fired over the Russia investigation. “McGahn said he believed the President wanted the language included so that people would not think that the President had terminated Comey because the President was under investigation” — this, even in spite of the fact that Trump told McGahn that he had told Sergey Lavrov he fired Comey because of the Russian investigation to take the pressure off.

McGahn,  and to a lesser degree Donaldson, both invented a bullshit story for why they were asking Richard Burr which Trump aides were targeted by the investigation, which a footnote dismantles.

The week after Comey’s briefing, the White House Counsel’s Office was in contact with SSCI Chairman Senator Richard Burr about the Russia investigations and appears to have received information about the status of the FBI investigation.309

309 Donaldson 11/6/17 302, at 14-15. On March 16, 2017, the White House Counsel’s Office was briefed by Senator Burr on the existence of “4-5 targets.” Donaldson 11 /6/17 302, at 15. The “targets” were identified in notes taken by Donaldson as “Flynn (FBI was ~ooking for phone records”; “Comey~Manafort (Ukr + Russia, not campaign)”; [redacted] “Carter Page ($ game)”; and “Greek Guy” (potentially referring to George Papadopoulos, later charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 1001 for lying to the FBI). SC_AD_00l98 (Donaldson 3/16/17 Notes). Donaldson and McGahn both said they believed these were targets ofSSCI. Donaldson 11/6/17 302, at 15; McGahn 12/ 12/17 302, at 4. But SSCI does not formally investigate individuals as “targets”; the notes on their face reference the FBI, the Department of Justice, and Corney; and the notes track the background materials prepared by the FBI for Comey’s briefing to the Gang of8 on March 9. See SNS-Classified-0000140-44 (3/8/17 Email, Gauhar to Page et al.); see also Donaldson 11 /6/17 302, at 15 (Donaldson could not rule out that Burr had told McGahn those individuals were the FBI’s targets).

Perhaps most tellingly, the first time McGahn got asked about Trump’s efforts to fire Mueller, he was not all that forthcoming.

When this Office first interviewed McGahn about this topic, he was reluctant to share detailed information about what had occurred and only did so after continued questioning.

From the footnotes, it appears that Mueller’s office went back to Don McGahn in March 2018, after flattering stories about his heroic role showed up in NYT, WaPo, and CNN and got more clarification about how McGahn prevented Trump from firing Mueller (basically, by ignoring him). That interview, too, gathered information about how Trump tried to bully McGahn into correcting the NYT story, which falsely claimed that McGahn had told Trump he would quit. (Truthfully, McGahn’s threats to quit are as pathetic as I expected when the stories first came out, and the NYT story is as misleadingly flattering as I expected.)

It’s at that March 2018 meeting where McGahn admitted his real motivation: he envisioned himself as an esteemed judicial ideologue and not a historic hack.

McGahn also had made clear to the President that the White House Counsel’s Office should not be involved in any effort to press the issue of conflicts.578 McGahn was concerned about having any role in asking the Acting Attorney General to fire the Special Counsel because he had grown up in the Reagan era and wanted to be more like Judge Robert Bork and not ” Saturday Night Massacre Bork.”579

Finally, after being fired himself for cooperating with Mueller (and, probably, for seeding so many self-serving stories with the NYT), Mueller interviewed McGahn once more, this February, one of the very last interviews that appears in the report. It appears they were cleaning up two discrepancies: the dates of the calls (it appears McGahn may have said one happened later than it did to separate it from coverage that Trump was under investigation for obstruction), and to get McGahn to explain why he didn’t tell Donaldson or Priebus and Bannon that he had been ordered to get Rosenstein to fire Mueller.

Incidentally, while self-proclaimed Mueller investigation hero McGahn appears to have been happy to tell Mueller’s team that Trump’s claims that Mueller had a conflict, he never told the press, not even in any of those seeded stories to the NYT.

There’s one detail about the Mueller report of particular interest, however, given the subpoena to testify. That note Donaldson took, recording that “McGahn told the President that his ‘biggest exposure’ was not his act of firing Comey but his ‘other contacts’ and ‘calls,’ and his ‘ask re: Flynn”?

Nowhere is his explanation for that comment cited to an interview report from him.

Which brings us to the subpoena, which (as I said) I suspect is a friendly one.

McGahn is almost certainly one of the people who sourced stories (including with his favorite reporters at the NYT) saying they were worried about all the damning things they said exposed in the Mueller Report. In McGahn’s case, he was right to be worried. The other day, Politico revealed that Trump replaced Jones Day as his 2020 campaign firm, in a move that was attributed to cost-cutting but that Politico’s sources say is retaliation not just for McGahn’s cooperation with Mueller but also a story (written by McGahn’s favorite NYT journos the same day he last interviewed with Mueller) on Jared Kushner’s inappropriate security clearance.

[C]lose Trump advisers say the decision also stems from disappointment with the White House’s former top attorney and current Jones Day partner, Don McGahn, whose behavior has irked the president and some of his family members.

Taking business away from Jones Day is payback, these advisers say, for McGahn’s soured relationship with the Trump family and a handful articles in high-profile newspapers that the family blames, unfairly or not, on the former White House counsel.

“Why in the world would you want to put your enemy on the payroll?” said one adviser close to the White House. “They do not want to reward his firm. Trump arrived at that point long ago, but the security clearance memo stories put a fine point on it.”

One February 2019 story, in particular, caught the White House’s attention, when The New York Times reported that the president ordered John Kelly, his chief of staff at the time, to grant a security clearance to Jared Kushner. Kelly had written an internal memo on it, according to the Times. That fact was closely held inside the White House, and few officials other than Kelly and McGahn knew, say two close White House advisers — and the administration blamed McGahn for the leak.

One other thing HJC is asking for are “communications with the Executive Office of the President regarding your response to the March 4, 2019 document request” by HJC.

Which, I’m sure they have reason to know, reflect White House opposition to his public testimony.

Don McGahn apparently imagined working for a corrupt asshole like Trump would get him named to the Supreme Court.

Instead, his firm has a lost a very lucrative client. He appears to be upping the ante by further distancing himself from Trump’s corruption. That may get ugly, because Don McGahn knows where a whole lot of Donald Trump’s bodies are buried. And given that McGahn, not Trump, is the one who packed the courts, the Republicans may have really divided loyalties over this fight.

Update: The White House is fighting McGahn’s subpoena.

The Carr Correction and the Barr Pseudo Exoneration

Last week, Buzzfeed released part of a package of materials that Michael Cohen’s lawyers provided to Congress in what appears a last minute bid to stay out of prison. While it still represents just Cohen’s self-interested view (and not any of the corroborating information that Mueller’s team surely has), it makes it clear why Buzzfeed felt justified in claiming that Trump “directed” Cohen to lie. The most shocking new detail is that after Cohen testified, Trump’s lawyer (this package doesn’t reveal whether it was Jay Sekulow or someone else) called Cohen to congratulate him.

Trump knew with certainty that Cohen continued to discuss the Moscow Trump Tower project well beyond January 31, 2016. Yet after the testimony, Cohen received a call from Trump’s attorney, who congratulated him on the testimony – and said his “client” was happy with Cohen’s testimony.

Still, a call from one lawyer in a joint defense agreement to someone else in the JDA — a call that by description Cohen didn’t record — is not sufficient evidence to charge someone with suborning perjury.

Nevertheless, this new evidence may explain why Buzzfeed remains confident in its characterization that Trump directed Cohen to lie.

More importantly, it raises even more questions about why Peter Carr corrected the Buzzfeed characterization. As I noted at the time, someone from Rod Rosenstein’s office called Mueller’s office before they did make a correction. And the next day, Rudy Giuliani claimed credit for getting Mueller to correct the story.

And here we are, not three months later, learning new details of how closely involved Trump’s lawyers were in orchestrating Cohen’s testimony while Attorney General Bill Barr (who had been appointed but not confirmed at the time of the story) withholds Mueller’s own view of those documents, and just weeks after Barr and Rosenstein usurped the role of Congress to declare that the President’s behavior — including efforts, however inadequately supported by admissible evidence, to suborn perjury — does not amount to criminal obstruction of justice.

The details behind Rosenstein’s call and Rudy’s victory lap are not yet public; they’re certainly something the House Judiciary Committee should pursue.

But we can see how important that correction, unique in the history of the Mueller investigation, was to what has come since. The Buzzfeed story elicited the kinds of response that the long trajectory of seeing Trump direct lies should have, the recognition that that such actions might amount to impeachable offenses (which is different than Barr’s judgment about obstruction of justice, even assuming many things didn’t make that judgment suspect). By “correcting” a statement that seems utterly reasonable now, DOJ preserved the opportunity for Rosenstein and Barr to weigh in, however inappropriately.

Even at the time, it appeared that Rosenstein’s (office’s) intervention and Rudy’s victory lap (to say nothing of the campaign rolled out against Buzzfeed, including CNN doing a hit piece against Jason Leopold) should have gotten more attention than the hyperparsing of a word that was readily explainable on its face. That’s all the more clear now.

Had Buzzfeed not been corrected for what now seems an even more defensible word choice, Barr would not have had the opportunity to put his thumb on the scale of injustice.

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

Rod Rosenstein Didn’t Even Clear Trump on All the Topics He Hired Mueller to Investigate

As I have noted, the William Barr memo everyone is reading to clear Trump and his flunkies of a conspiracy with Russia actually only clears the Trump campaign and those associated with it of conspiring or coordinating with the Russian government in its efforts to hack into computers and disseminate emails for purposes of influencing the election. The exoneration doesn’t even extend to coordinating with WikiLeaks, as Roger Stone is alleged to have done (though that, by itself, is not a crime).

More significantly, it is silent about whether Trump and his flunkies conspired with Russia in a quid pro quo trading election assistance and a real estate deal for policy considerations, the very same kind of election year shenanigans Barr has covered up once before with Iran-Contra.

And that’s important, because it means Barr and Rod Rosenstein haven’t even cleared Trump of what Rosenstein hired Mueller to investigate.

Jim Comey first described the investigation to include:

  1. The Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election
  2. The nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government
  3. Whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts

When Rosenstein appointed Mueller, he referenced Comey’s statement, but specifically mentioned just bullets 2 and 3 in his mandate, combining those two bullets into one that (unlike Comey’s original statement) was limited to just the Russian government, not Russia’s efforts generally.

  • any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and

In May 2017 when Rosenstein hired Mueller (and, according to public reports, through November 2017), the investigation into the hack-and-leak remained elsewhere at DOJ (significantly, but not entirely, in Pittsburgh and San Francisco).

When the FBI raided Paul Manafort on July 27, 2017 — a raid Rosenstein almost certainly approved personally —  they were looking for evidence (among other things) on the June 9, 2016 meeting in support of an investigation into accepting campaign contributions from a foreigners or a conspiracy to do so; there was no mention whatsoever of probable cause that Manafort had helped Russia hack Hillary Clinton. Six months after that raid, Mueller would learn that two months after the June 9 meeting, on August 2, 2016, Manafort shared Trump’s polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik at a meeting where he also discussed a Ukrainian peace deal that would amount to sanctions relief. Manafort lied about what happened at that meeting. In Andrew Weissmann’s opinion, he lied in hopes of getting a Trump pardon.

When the Mueller Report states, “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” it does so after Manafort refused to explain why he shared that polling data, or whether he knew whom Konstantin Kilimnik was sharing it with, and significantly, whether he had reason to believe that either Kilimnik himself or Oleg Deripaska — neither themselves part of the Russian government but Deripaska unquestioningly with close ties to it — would share the data with the GRU hackers who were still hacking Hillary Clinton.

And yet the only “links and/or coordination” that Barr and Rosenstein addressed involved  an, “agreement–tacit or express–between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference.”

Because of Trump’s obstruction, we don’t know whether Manafort entered into an agreement with Kilimnik to trade sanctions relief for election assistance, but even if he did, it would not qualify as “coordination with the Russian government.” It would qualify as coordination with a cut-out for the Russian government.

Likewise, we know if Don Jr agreed to revisit sanctions relief after Natalia Veselnitskaya and the Agalarov family offered dirt on Hillary. But Don Jr wasn’t even officially part of the campaign, and while Veselnitskaya and Agalarov both have almost inseparable from the Russian government, they are not the Russian government and therefore would not qualify under this standard.

The nature of Manafort’s links to the Russian government via Kilimnik and Don Jr’s links to the Russian government via Veselnitskaya and Agalarov are squarely within Mueller’s mandate as laid out by Rosenstein. And those links are pretty fucking sketchy and possibly criminal, but quite possibly for reasons distant from the hack-and-leak. But by limiting the evaluation of the memo to whether the campaign coordinated directly with Russia on the hack-and-leak and not whether the links to Russia that Mueller discovered were criminally suspect, Rosenstein, with Barr, is not addressing one part of the job he hired Mueller to do.

That’s all the more true given the way that Barr, in consultation with Rosenstein, determined that Trump did not obstruct justice. An explicit part of Mueller’s mandate was to investigate the links between his campaign and Russia, including the link through Kilimnik to Deripaska and through him the Russian government. According to Weissmann, Trump’s actions led Manafort to refuse to explain those links.

In “conspiring” with Barr to give Trump the all-clear, Rosenstein didn’t address a significant part of the job he gave Mueller.

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

How William Barr Did Old Man Back-Flips to Avoid Arresting Donald Trump

Attorney General William Barr just engaged in utterly cowardly dereliction of duty.

During his confirmation hearing, Barr confirmed that things Trump has done are obstruction

When we were awaiting the Mueller report yesterday, I wondered whether William Barr was thinking about two things he had said as part of his confirmation process. First, in his column that has always been interpreted to say that a President can’t obstruct justice, at the bottom of the first page, he instead acknowledged that a President actually could obstruct justice.

Obviously, the President and any other official can commit obstruction in this classic sense of sabotaging a proceeding’s truth-finding function. Thus, for example, if a President knowingly destroys or alters evidence, suborns perjury, or induces a witness to change testimony, or commits any act deliberately impairing the integrity or availability of evidence, then he, like anyone else, commits the crime of obstruction.

Barr — who at the time had no understanding of the evidence — made three comments in his confirmation hearing about obstruction. Among others, he point blank said that a person could not lawfully issue a pardon in exchange for someone’s promise not to incriminate him.

“Do you believe a president could lawfully issue a pardon in exchange for the recipient’s promise not incriminate him?” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Barr during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“No, that would be a crime,” Barr said.

We know Trump has repeatedly floated pardons to witnesses who have, in hopes of obtaining a pardon, not incriminated him.

That’s true of Paul Manafort most of all.

So on the basis of what he said to get this job, Barr is already on the record saying that Trump obstructed justice.

Barr ignores the crimes in front of him to avoid considering whether Trump obstructed those crimes

Now consider how Barr — having been given the job by Mueller of deciding whether Trump obstructed justice — avoided holding himself to sworn views he expressed during confirmation.

In the letter sent to Jerry Nadler (who surely just kicked off an impeachment inquiry in earnest) and others, his analysis consists of the following.

The guts of the letter describe the two parts of Mueller’s report. The first part reviews the results of Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. It describes the conclusions this way:

  • [T]he Special Counsel did not find that any U.S. person or Trump campaign official or associate conspired or knowingly coordinated with the IRA in its efforts
  • [T]he Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in [its] efforts … to gather and disseminate information to influence the election

Note that the second bullet does not even exonerate Roger Stone, as it pertains only to the Russian government, not Russians generally or WikiLeaks or anyone else. This is important given that we know the Trump campaign knew of and encouraged Roger Stone’s coordination with WikiLeaks.

Then Barr moves along to the second section, in which Mueller considered whether Trump obstructed justice. In it, Barr doesn’t mention the scope of the activities that Mueller considered evidence of obstruction of justice. He notes that, after laying out a case for and against accusing the President of a crime, Mueller’s report,

states that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

Barr and Rod Rosenstein have spent less than 48 whole hours considering that evidence to come up with this judgment:

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.

[snip]

In making this determination, we noted that the Special Counsel recognized that “the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference,” and that, while not determinative, the absence of such evidence bears upon the President’s intent with respect to obstruction. Generally speaking, to obtain and sustain an obstruction conviction, the government would need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person, acting with corrupt intent, engaged in obstructive conduct with a sufficient nexus to a pending or contemplated proceeding.

Here’s the thing, though: at least given what they lay out here, they only considered whether Trump was covering up his involvement in the hack-and-leak operation. It doesn’t consider whether Trump was covering up a quid pro quo, which is what there is abundant evidence of.

They didn’t consider whether Trump obstructed the crime that he appears to have obstructed. They considered whether he obstructed a different crime. And having considered whether Trump obstructed the crime he didn’t commit, rather than considering whether he obstructed the crime he did commit, they decided not to charge him with a crime.

Update: Corrected that these fuckers didn’t even spend two days reviewing the report.

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

 

The Mueller Report, the Short Version

Here’s William Barr’s letter to the Judiciary Committees on the Mueller report. It seems to suggest that Trump may have done impeachment-worthy things, but not prosecution related things.

I say that because:

  • Mueller found that no Trump flunkie took part in either of the two main Russian interference attempts
  • Mueller laid out the case for and against prosecution of Trump for obstruction
  • Barr and Rod Rosenstein, together, decided because Trump did not take part in those two interference attempts, he could be not charged with obstruction

What Barr appears not to have done is review whether Trump was trying to cover up some other crime, like a quid pro quo, which would still merit prosecution.

And that’s precisely what HJC should consider.

Barr has promised to give what’s not covered by grand jury rules to Congress. My guess is that’s not sufficient to get to the underlying potentially criminal intent. In any case, it’s clear that Mueller, Barr, and Rosenstein all at least considered whether Trump should be prosecuted, irrespective of DOJ rules prohibiting prosecuting a sitting president.

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

Rod Rosenstein’s Unfortunate Vocabulary: Defining a Criminal Investigation by “Links” and “Collusion”

Rod Rosenstein is the very unlikely hero of the Mueller investigation. “Rod is a survivor,” Jim Comey said after getting fired. “And you don’t get to survive that long across administrations without making compromises.”

Yet here we are, 22 months after he appointed Robert Mueller to investigate an investigation Trump tried to kill by firing Comey, awaiting the results of that investigation.

At times, I think Rosenstein didn’t imagine (and doesn’t now acknowledge) the damage his bend-don’t-break has done along the way. While based off the very sound precedent that existed until Comey’s declination speech about Hillary, it seems ridiculous for him to claim that the full results of the Mueller investigation can’t be shared with Congress, as he’s now claiming, given how he has provided unprecedented disclosure to Congress about the investigation already, including the first ever unsealed probable cause FISA application.

It will take some years to measure whether Rosenstein chose the best or perhaps only the least worst approach to the last several years.

But there’s one thing he did that really makes me uncomfortable, today, as we all await the results of the Mueller report: his mandate to Mueller.

As has been noted countless times in the last 22 months, Rosenstein asked Mueller to investigate:

    • any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and
    • any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation;
    • any other matters with the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a).
  • if the Special Counsel believes it is necessary and appropriate, the Special Counsel is authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters.

We actually know the answer to the first bullet, in part: As I laid out here, during five key interactions pertaining to the question of a possible conspiracy between Trump’s associates and Russia, there was direct contact between someone the government has deemed an agent of Russia and the Trump campaign:

  1. January 20, 2016, when Michael Cohen told Dmitry Peskov’s personal assistant that Trump would be willing to work with a GRU-tied broker and (soft and hard) sanctioned banks in pursuit of a $300 million Trump Tower deal in Russia.
  2. June 9, 2016, when Don Jr, knowing that currying favor with Russia could mean $300 million to the family, took a meeting offering dirt on Hillary Clinton as “part of  Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” At the end of the meeting, per the testimony of at least four attendees, Don Jr said they’d revisit Magnitsky sanctions if his dad won.
  3. August 2, 2016, when Paul Manafort and Rick Gates had a clandestine meeting with Konstantin Kilimnik at which Trump’s campaign manager walked Kilimnik through highly detailed poll data and the two discussed a “peace” plan for Ukraine understood to amount to sanctions relief.
  4. December 29, 2016, when (working on instructions relayed by KT McFarland, who was at Mar-a-Lago with Trump) Mike Flynn said something to Sergey Kislyak that led Putin not to respond to Obama’s election-related sanctions.
  5. January 11, 2017, when Erik Prince, acting as a back channel for Trump, met with sanctioned sovereign wealth fund Russian Direct Investment Fund CEO Kirill Dmitriev.

That Peskov’s assistant (and whatever representative from Putin’s office that called Felix Sater the next day), Sergey Kislyak, and Kirill Dmitriev are agents of Russia is clear. With the indictment of Natalia Veselnitskaya in December, the government deemed her to be working as an agent of Russia during the same time period she pitched sanctions relief to Trump’s campaign. And while the government hasn’t proven it beyond quoting Rick Gates acknowledging he knew of Konstantin Kilimnik’s past with the GRU and FBI’s belief that he continues to have ties, the government certainly maintains that Kilimnik does have ties to Russian intelligence.

Those are links. It’d be useful to have an official report on them. But since Mueller hasn’t charged them as a conspiracy, we may only learn what we’ve seen in plea agreements or official testimony to Congress.

Likewise Rosenstein’s invocation of “collusion” in the unredacted parts of his memo describing the scope of the investigation as it existed in August 2017 (it expanded and contracted after that point, so there are like different memos).

Allegations that Paul Manafort:

  • committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election for President of the United States, in violation of United States law;

Here, unlike in the initial mandate, Rosenstein at least noted that Mueller was assessing whether crimes were committed in using that squishy language. But he used the word “collusion,” which started to be politicized by March 2017, when Comey tried to correct it once and for all.

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.

[snip]

Collusion is not a legal term. It is not one I have used today. I said we are investigating to see if there is any coordination between people associated with the campaign– [my emphasis]

Sure, “collusion” might be understood to incorporate a bunch of possible crimes, and so appropriately didn’t limit Mueller to one specific crime as he investigated Manafort (but then, so did the term, “coordination”). But I nevertheless think that using the word has confused the issue of what Rosenstein intended Mueller to be able to reveal, which would instead be conspiracy and a bunch of other crimes covering up evidence of coordination that Mueller has found necessary and appropriate to charge, and not whether there was “collusion.”

All the while, people on both sides of this debate have taken “collusion” to mean whatever minimalist or maximalist interpretation of wrong-doing that best serves their side.

There are two things at issue: whether Trump and his aides coordinated in a way that is criminal, which would be a conspiracy, and whether Trump has coordinated with Russia in a way that would be an abuse of power and/or puts the nation at risk.

Both are legitimate questions. And while Rosenstein says only crimes that are indicted are appropriate to reveal (and he may well be right about that, as a principle), he did ask Mueller to conduct an investigation of that other stuff, and Congress has deferred to Mueller even while that other stuff is squarely within their mandate.

Ideally, this weeks focus on Mueller’s discoveries would be on what the actual evidence showed, which we know to include, at a minimum, the following:

  • Trump pursued a ridiculously lucrative $300 million real estate deal even though the deal would use sanctioned banks, involve a former GRU officer as a broker, and require Putin’s personal involvement at least through July 2016.
  • The Russians chose to alert the campaign that they planned to dump Hillary emails, again packaging it with the promise of a meeting with Putin.
  • After the Russians had offered those emails and at a time when the family was pursuing that $300 million real estate deal, Don Jr took a meeting offering dirt on Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” At the end (per the sworn testimony of four people at the meeting) he said his father would revisit Magnitsky sanctions relief if he won. Contrary to the claim made in a statement authored by Trump, there was some effort to follow up on Jr’s assurances after the election.
  • The campaign asked rat-fucker Roger Stone to optimize the WikiLeaks releases and according to Jerome Corsi he had some success doing so.
  • In what Andrew Weissmann called a win-win (presumably meaning it could help Trump’s campaign or lead to a future business gig for him), Manafort provided Konstantin Kilimnik with polling data that got shared with Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs. At the same meeting, he discussed a “peace” plan for Ukraine that would amount to sanctions relief.
  • Trump undercut Obama’s response to the Russian hacks in December 2016, in part because he believed retaliation for the hacks devalued his victory. Either for that reason, to pay off Russia, and/or to pursue his preferred policy, Trump tried to mitigate any sanctions, an attempt that has (with the notable exception of those targeting Oleg Deripaska) been thwarted by Congress.

Instead, however, we’re still arguing about a word — collusion — that was stripped of all meaning years ago, with the result that Mueller’s presumably very measured assessment of what happened cannot serve as the arbiter of truth we need.

Rosenstein may well be the unlikely hero of preserving some semblance of rule of law in this country. But along the way, his choice of language has unfortunately twice fostered the confusion about where the line between crime and misconduct is.

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

The Mueller Report Has Been Delivered

The Senate and House Judiciary Committees have officially been notified that the William Barr received the Mueller report. He notified them that neither the Acting Attorney General nor he vetoed any prosecutorial decision.

He told the Chairs and Ranking Members he may be able to inform them of the main jist of the report this weekend. And he will work with Mueller and Rod Rosenstein on how much else can be released.

Update: DOJ is now saying that there are no outstanding indictments, and no more expected.

The Predictable Result of Asymmetry in Terrorism Policing: Andrew McCabe’s Demise

I recently finished Andrew McCabe’s book.

It is very effective at what I imagine its intended purposes are. It provides some fascinating new details about the genesis of the Russian investigation. It offers a great introduction in how the FBI (at its best) can work. It gives a self-congratulatory version of McCabe’s career, including key events like the Najibullah Zazi and Boston Marathon investigations; even if McCabe had wanted to tell fully honest stories about those investigations, I’m sure the less flattering details wouldn’t have passed FBI’s publication review.

The book also says satisfyingly mean things about Trump, Jeff Sessions, and (more obliquely) Rod Rosenstein. (I think McCabe’s book release significantly explains the rumors reported as fact that Mueller’s report was imminent some weeks ago; that claim served, in part, to once again eliminate any pressure to fire Rosenstein immediately).

The latter of two, of course, implemented McCabe’s firing. McCabe’s excuse for lying to the Inspector General, which led to his firing, is one of the least convincing parts of the book (he admits he can’t say more because of his continued legal jeopardy, but he does raise it). That’s true, in part, because McCabe only deals with one of the conversations in question; there were a number of them. But he also excuses his chief lie because he was frazzled about learning of the Strzok-Page texts in the same conversation. I can understand that, but elsewhere, one of his digs against Rosenstein is how overwhelmed the Deputy Attorney General was in the wake of the Jim Comey firing. McCabe suggests, in that context, that because he had dealt with big stressful issues (like the Boston Marathon attack), he wasn’t similarly rattled. Which is why I find it disingenuous to use being frazzled for not being fully truthful to the Inspector General. Plus, virtually all defendants prosecuted for lying to the FBI (including George Papadopoulos, but not Mike Flynn, who is a very accomplished liar) are frazzled when they tell those lies; it’s a tactic the FBI uses to catch people unguarded.

I was most frustrated, however, by something that has become increasingly important in recent days: McCabe’s utter lack of awareness (at least in the book) of the import of the asymmetric focus on Islamic terrorism across his career.

After moving to counterterrorism in the mid-00s from working organized crime, McCabe became an utterly central player in the war on Islamic terror, founding the High Value Interrogation Group, and then leading the CT and National Security Divisions of FBI. He was a key player in investigations — like Zazi — that the FBI is rightly proud of.

But McCabe normalizes the choices made after 9/11 to pursue Islamic terrorism as a distinct danger. He (of course) whitewashes Jim Comey’s decision to retain the Internet dragnet in 2004 under an indefensible use of the PATRIOT Act. He argues that it is politically impossible to survive a failure to prevent an attack even though he managed the Boston Marathon attack, where FBI and NSA had some warning of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s danger, but nevertheless got very little criticism as a result. Most remarkably, McCabe talks about Kevin Harpham’s attempted attack on the Martin Luther King Day parade, mentions as an aside that this was (obviously) not an Islamic terror attack, but offers no reflection on how Harpham’s attack undermines much of what he presents, unquestioningly, as a greater risk from Islamic terrorism (here’s a story on how Barack Obama did not get briefed on Harpham, a decision that may well have involved McCabe).

Granted, McCabe’s blind spots (at least in the book) are typical of people who have spent their lives reinforcing this asymmetry. You see it, too, in this utterly nonsensical paragraph in a largely ridiculous piece from Joshua Geltzer, Mary McCord, and Nick Rasmussen — all likewise accomplished players in the War on Just One Kind of Terrorism — at Lawfare.

The phrases “international terrorism” (think of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda) and “domestic terrorism” (think of the Oklahoma City bombing and the October 2018 shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue) have often been a source of confusion to those not steeped in counterterrorism. The Islamic State has its roots internationally, but what makes it such a threat to Americans is, in part, its ability to influence domestic actors like Omar Mateen to kill Americans in domestic locations like Orlando, Florida. The group may be “international,” but its attackers and attacks can be, and have been, domestic—to tragic effect.

This paragraph, in a piece that admits the focus of their career has been wrong (and neglects to mention that Christchurch terrorist Brenton Tarrant named Donald Trump, along with Anders Behring Breivik, as an inspiration), suggests that the reason international terrorism is “such a threat” is because it can inspire domestic actors. The logic inherent to that paragraph is that terrorism carried out by “domestic terrorists,” inspired by a domestic white supremacist ideology is any less dangerous than terrorism carried out by people inspired by what is treated as an international ideology. International terrorism is worse than domestic terrorism, these experts argue, because it can lead to domestic terrorism.

Dead is dead. And given the significant number of white supremacists who have had experience in the military and greater tolerance for their training, white supremacists have the potential of being far more effective, as individuals, at killing than US-based Islamic terrorists.

One thing the Lawfare piece studiously avoids acknowledging is that what it calls “domestic” terrorism (the racist ideology of which they never describe) is an ideology significantly exported by the United States. Even in a piece that rightly calls for an equal focus on both white supremacist terrorism and Islamic terrorism, it ducks labeling the ideology in question. And while this WaPo piece does label the ideology in question, it bizarrely calls an attack in New Zealand carried out by an Australian a “domestic” attack.

The WaPo piece describes one problem with the asymmetric treatment of different kinds of terrorism: that governments don’t share intelligence about international violent racist ideology. In fact, in the US, such intelligence gets treated differently, if the FBI’s failure to track the networks around Frazier Glenn Miller and Eric Rudolph is any indication.

Ironically, that’s one reason that McCabe’s failure to track white supremacist terrorism in the same way he tracked Islamic terrorism led to his demise. While the network behind the election year operation that helped elect Trump involves a lot of Russians, it also clearly involves a lot of white supremacists like Nigel Farage (and David Duke), a network Russia exploited. Additionally, as I have argued (and at least one study backs) white supremacist networks provided the real fire behind the attacks on Clinton; Russia’s information operations had the effect of throwing more fuel on a blazing bonfire.

The other problem with the US government’s asymmetric treatment of terrorism is legitimacy. Labeling Islamic terrorism “foreign” and pursuing material support cases based partly on speech has had the effect of criminalizing some speech that criticizes US foreign policy, even well-deserved criticism about the effect of US killing of Muslims. By contrast, white supremacist speech, even that which  more aggressively advocates violence is treated as speech. Yes, deplatforming has begun to change that.

But we’re still not at a place where those who incite white supremacist violence are held accountable for it.

That’s how it was possible for a man to kick off a campaign by inventing lies about Mexican immigrants and how the entire Republican party, up to and including the new supposedly sane Attorney General, are permitted to pursue counterproductive policies solely so they can appear to demonize brown people.

Irrespective of the merit or not in the finding that Andrew McCabe lacked candor with the IG, he got treated the way he did because a man whose entire political career is based off feeding white resentment needed to appear to be a victim of Andrew McCabe. That act, by itself, was not about Trump’s white supremacist ideology. But it is a structure of power that is white supremacist (exacerbated by Trump’s narcissism).

We have a President Trump in significant part because this country has tolerated and even rewarded white supremacist ideology, institutionally ignoring that it poses as much of a risk as violent Islamic ideology. It would be really useful if people like Andrew McCabe spend some time publicly accounting for that fact.

The white supremacy that brought us the Trump presidency would not be possible if we had treated violent white supremacist terror as terror for the last twenty years.