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Trump’s Blame the Governors Strategy and Rural Roulette

The other day, I laid out how, even if Trump wants to open the country back up by Easter, at least fifteen governors may prevent him, including OH’s Republican governor Mike DeWine, who in the wake of Trump’s comments tweeted out defending his approach again. The WaPo did a similar piece this morning, confirming that the governors aren’t on board with Trump’s hopes.

That said, it’s clear that Trump plans to pressure governors, not just to do his bidding, but also to demand fealty before he heeds their pleas for help. Ultimately, it may be a bid to blame the upcoming crisis on the governors — disproportionately Democrats — struggling most directly with the crisis.

And that could work.

Though I doubt it, for a number of reasons. As US numbers continue to spike, it’s likely the governors who’ve taken more aggressive stances (with the possible but very notable exception of Andrew Cuomo, largely because of NYC’s density) will be able to show significantly better outcomes than those states that have adopted a hybrid approach, shutting down affected cities but not the entire state, to say nothing of those who were doing nothing (this Politico piece shows what each state has done or, in the case of OK and MS, not done at all).

Right now, almost all the identifiable clusters are in big cities, with both the international travel and density that would lead to early exposure. But some (not all — Detroit is an exception) of those cities actually have relatively low levels of the preexisting conditions that make the population more susceptible to the virus and more likely to have an extreme case if they get it. By contrast, much of America’s more rural areas have a higher instance of those pre-existing conditions. And those rural areas don’t have the hospital beds, much less ICU rooms, to treat seriously ill patients. This map, from an MIT project, shows where current outbreaks are and where particularly vulnerable populations are for the country as a whole.

That means in states where governors have not imposed state-wide stay at home orders, there’s a significant risk that clusters will arise in areas that are less prepared to deal with an outbreak. Effectively, the governors who’ve adopted such an approach are playing “rural roulette,” assuming that a focus on the cities will mitigate the biggest risks, even though the rural areas would be easily overwhelmed even with a smaller number of infections.

And that may have an important dynamic given the election. A number of the key swing states — MN, WI, MI, OH — have instituted full state stay-at-home orders. But many of the rest — PA, FL, NC, CO, GA, TX — have not. And in some of the states where that decision is riskiest — GA, FL, and AZ — there’s a Republican governor adopting those strategies in part to adhere to Trump’s views.

Take Georgia. It has had an outbreak in the more rural southwest part of the state, and municipalities are trying to force Governor Brian Kemp to impose a state-wide shutdown.

But the rest of the state has high incidences of some of the preconditions that make the population particularly susceptible to infection. In other words, while Atlanta has the medical resources (including CDC) to respond to the medical crisis, Georgia is already exhibiting an atypical pattern of rural spread in ways that might make Kemp’s refusal to do a state-wide order particularly costly. (As I was writing this, Kemp announced that schools will remain closed through April 24, which suggests he may be budging on a state-wide approach.)

Then there’s Florida.

Jim here.

As the New York Times notes, the municipalities of Miami and Miami Beach have stay home or shelter in place orders that went into effect this week. Also, Alachua, Leon, Orange and Pinellas Counties have stay home orders. Note that while Orange County holds most of the Orlando metro area, Pinellas is only the St. Petersburg portion of the Tampa Bay region. Tampa is in Hillsborough and the population stays fairly high going north into Pasco and south into Manatee and Sarasota Counties.

A very interesting aspect of the Alachua County stay home order, which went into effect here at 12:01 am Tuesday, is that, as noted in the Gainesville Sun, “Non-medical businesses may only allow one customer inside per 1,000 covered square feet, per an Alachua County emergency order.” Here is the line outside a grocery store Tuesday morning in the Sun’s photo accompanying the article:

As the Tampa Bay Times notes, despite multiple public health authorities pleading for a statewide shutdown, DeSantis has instead been listening almost exclusively to business interests, and their message to him has been exactly the one Fox News and Trump have been flogging:

The Florida Chamber of Commerce have spoken frequently with the governor and his staff, urging him not to take drastic measures that might shut down the state’s economy. The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association has been asking for ways to help their industries stay afloat.

Their message: don’t let the cure be worse than the disease.

But this is ignored:

Public health experts say that a three-week limit on public movement is required to stop the spread of the virus, and they point to a statistical model that shows that Florida may have only one week to act before hospitals become overwhelmed.

Instead, he hears a Republican telling him just how responsible he is to ignore the public health requests:

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said DeSantis was under “a tremendous amount of pressure,” but the idea he’s making decisions based on politics — and not public health — was “irresponsible.”

“He’s hearing from a lot of self-interested actors right now who are acting out of self-preservation,” Lee said. “With every executive order, there’s another industry being impacted. Those people are pretty aggressive and pretty vocal, and I think he’s done a pretty good job of ignoring all that.”

What could go wrong?

/Jim

In Florida, on top of the vacation traffic that DeSantis only belatedly shut down, it has significant numbers of seniors and its rural, more vulnerable communities do not have the beds to treat patients in if an outbreak happens (the gray circles here are senior facilities).

To make things worse, DeSantis is not sharing information about which senior facilities have had positive cases, which is likely to lead to clusters outside of locked down areas that lead to community infection. So on top of the rural/urban mix, DeSantis has the likelihood of a breakout at senior facilities.

It’s not just Republican governors who’ve adopted a hybrid strategy though: Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf  locked down PA’s major counties without imposing stay at home in their more rural areas. PA is going to experience the community spread of the Eastern Seaboard; it’s a real question what happens as the virus spreads west from the Philadelphia metro area. Plus, it also has a concentration of senior facilities (the family member I’m most worried about now is stuck in one until April 1 fighting several other preexisting conditions).

In bmaz’s Arizona, something that has the possibility of being worse is happening: Republican Governor Doug Ducey is using his authority to prevent cities from imposing more stringent stay at home orders. Thus far, this order strives only to impose a state-wide standard for what amounts to essential businesses (something that has led to confusion even in states with full state-wide orders). Most of his businesses match those adopted by state-wide orders. His order specifically includes golf courses (but not their restaurant facilities) as essential businesses, which I this is reasonable, in AZ, in the name of exercise; bmaz says that the crowds on urban hiking trails, which are also exempted, are far worse. Ducey’s order could override school closures.

Or, the order as a whole could suggest he’s being pushed closer to where other states are, full stay at home orders.

Arizona faces a particular rural challenge, but one Ducey can’t manage: the Native American reservations, which already have cases and which have a real dearth of health resources. But they’re sovereign.

North Carolina’s Democratic Governor Roy Cooper is another person who is having to be pressured to impose a more stringent state-wide stay at home order.

If states can access adequate testing, it’s still unproven whether state-wide or city-by-city orders will be most effective (though the testing is clearly not there yet).

What is clear, however, is that there will be at least as much political pressure on the states that have incomplete stay at home orders as those with statewide orders. And that just happens to include many of the states where November’s election will be decided.

Update: Trump has just sent a letter to governors suggesting the Feds are going to roll out new standards for identifying high and low risk counties, suggesting he wants to adopt the piecemeal shutdowns of the states discussed here. Such a regime will make orders like Doug Ducey and Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves’ orders standardizing shut-downs at the state level dangerous in a way they aren’t now, because both cite Trump’s guidelines for protective measures.

Lev Parnas Wouldn’t Reveal Whether He Has Receipts on Bill Barr

I suggested in this post that Lev Parnas appears to believe that how and when he was arrested was an attempt to silence him and force him to take the fall for Trump.

With that in mind, I want to reexamine why he might believe that coming forward now might help his defense.

Obviously, one thing he is trying to do — thus far unsuccessfully — is make it clear that in his actions regarding Ukraine, he is a co-conspirator with the President, Victoria Toensing, Joe DiGenova, and, of course, Rudy Giuliani. That doesn’t mean he didn’t insert himself into that role — by all appearances he did; that’s what his existing indictment is about, how he spent big money to insinuate himself into Trump’s immediate circle.

But since that time, Rudy, Toensing, and DiGenova took actions that might be deemed an overt act of a conspiracy. So did Trump, not least on July 25, 2019, on a call with President Zelensky. Implicating powerful Americans in his influence-peddling is particularly important because, if he can’t do that, he may be exposed to further charges. WSJ reports that, late last year, Parnas’ lawyer Joseph Bondy tried to convince prosecutors that Parnas did not “push[] for the removal of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine at the behest of a Ukrainian official—one of the charges in the campaign finance indictment.” If Parnas can claim that anything he did after some point in 2018 — which otherwise might be deemed to be FARA violations, suborning perjury, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations, bribery, and more — he did with the approval of the President of the United States, he might be able to claim that those actions were the official foreign policy of the United States, which would basically be the same claim Trump is using to defend against impeachment.

None of that may matter, however, depending on what SDNY plans or is allowed to do.

After all, Barr had been briefed on this investigation since shortly after he was confirmed, probably indicating that SDNY deemed it a significant matter reflecting the sensitivities of an investigation into political figures including Pete Sessions, some Las Vegas politicians, Ron DeSantis, and the President’s SuperPAC. As such, Barr would receive advance notice before SDNY took steps against any of these political figures (and it would have to happen before pre-election blackouts kick in in August). The Criminal Division would need to approve any search or prosecution of an attorney, covering Rudy, Toensing, and DiGenova. Barr would have to approve any legal process targeting media figures like John Solomon or Sean Hannity, as he would have to approve their treatment as subjects of the investigation. And, just on Monday, Barr stated he will require Attorney General approval before DOJ or FBI can open a counterintelligence investigation into a presidential campaign (and Trump started his reelection campaign almost immediately upon inauguration).

In short, for SDNY to go after any of Parnas’ other known potential co-conspirators, aside from Fruman, Bill Barr or Criminal Division head Brian Benczkowski would have to approve.

That gives Barr veto power over including most of Parnas’ potential co-conspirators in an indictment with him. And he has made no secret that he was brought in to protect Trump from facing any legal consequences for his crimes.

For a time, it looked like Barr believed he couldn’t protect Rudy. But then Rudy loudly announced he had insurance.

“I’ve seen things written like he’s going to throw me under the bus,” Giuliani said in an interview with Fox News’ Ed Henry about the characterizations and comments made in the media about him and his relationship with the president. “When they say that, I say he isn’t, but I have insurance.”

And if Rudy’s actions are beyond legal sanction, then Parnas is left holding the bag, just like Michael Cohen appears to have been for hush payments he made on the orders of Trump. Indeed, while Parnas expressed some interest in cooperating with prosecutors, if prosecutors are barred from pursuing anyone more senior than Parnas, then there’s little for Parnas to offer.

Which brings us to Parnas’ expressed fear of Barr.

In the second installment of his Maddow interview, Parnas claimed he was doing all of this because he fears Barr — or deems Trump too powerful when he is protected by Barr.

PARNAS: The only reason – if you’ll take a look, and you know very well because you have been following, the difference between why Trump is so powerful now, and he wasn’t as powerful in ’16 and ’17 –

MADDOW: Uh-huh.

PARNAS: – he became that powerful when he got William Barr.

MADDOW: Yes.

PARNAS: People are scared. Am I scared? Yes, and because I think I`m more scared of our own Justice Department than of these criminals right now, because, you know, the scariest part is getting locked in some room and being treated as an animal when you did nothing wrong and – or when you’re not, you know, and that’s the tool they’re using.

I mean, just – because they’re trying (ph) to scare me into not talking and with God’s help, and with my lawyer next to me that I know will go bat for me no matter what, with the truth –

MADDOW: Yes.

PARNAS: – and I’m taking a chance.

That comment makes sense whether he believes Barr had him arrested to silence him or even just worries that Barr will protect everyone else. It would even make sense if — as is quite possible — Parnas is working for powerful Russians or Ukrainians who’ve been trying to control Trump by making him vulnerable.

There’s no doubt that abundant evidence can be shown that Barr is not just covering up, but actively obstructing any investigation into Trump’s actions. As I’ve noted repeatedly, Barr or one of his subordinates:

  • Scoped the assessment of the whistleblower complaint to ensure it wasn’t tied to the ongoing investigation of Parnas and Fruman in SDNY
  • Failed to share the whistleblower complaint with the FEC, which (if it were functional) could have imposed civil penalties for the illegal solicitation of campaign help
  • Had OLC invent a bullshit reason to withhold the complaint from Congress
  • Had Kerri Kupec exonerate Trump publicly, reportedly in response to a demand from Trump

Mind you, I’m the only one harping on this obstruction, but they’re still details that deserve more attention.

But that’s not how Parnas is focusing on Barr.

In his interview with Maddow, Parnas twice alleged that he had seen Barr receiving calls from Rudy and others on this stuff. First, he said that Rudy and Toensing and DiGenova had told him they were engaging Barr on this project.

MADDOW:  Did Rudy Giuliani tell you he had spoken to the attorney general specifically about Ukraine?

PARNAS:  Not only Rudy Giuliani. I mean, Victoria and Joe, they were all best friends. I mean, Barr was – Attorney General Barr was basically on the team.

He then expanded on that to say, first, that he witnessed conversations between the lawyers and Barr, and then, less convincingly, claimed that “Barr had to have known everything. I mean, it’s impossible.”

PARNAS:  I personally did not speak to him, but I was involved in lots of conversations that Joe diGenova had with him in front of me, Rudy had with him in front of me, and setting up meetings with Dmytro Firtash’s team. I was involved in that.

MADDOW:  Do you know if Rudy Giuliani was ever in contact with Mr. Barr, specifically about the fact that he was trying to get Ukraine to announce these investigations into Joe Biden?

PARNAS:  Oh, absolutely.

MADDOW:  Mr. Barr knew about it?

PARNAS:  Mr. Barr had to have known everything. I mean, it’s impossible.

MADDOW:  Did Rudy Giuliani tell you he had spoken to the attorney general specifically about Ukraine?

PARNAS:  Not only Rudy Giuliani. I mean, Victoria and Joe, they were all best friends. I mean, Barr – Barr was – Attorney General Barr was basically on the team.

Claiming “Barr had to have known everything,” while seemingly consistent with the public actions of Barr’s DOJ, is not going to be strong enough to get Barr, personally, in trouble.

Though it is worth noting that (in the same way that Devin Nunes unforgot speaking to Parnas as Parnas started rolling out receipts), CNN reported that Barr had attended a meeting where Rudy pitched the case of the Venezuelan paying for the grift long after he had to have known Rudy was under criminal investigation.

The Giuliani meeting at the Justice Department in September became public months ago in the wake of the arrest of two Giuliani associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were working on Giuliani’s Ukraine mission for the President.

Brian Benczkowski, assistant attorney general for the criminal division, issued a public statement at the time expressing regret for holding the meeting and saying he wouldn’t have met with Trump’s personal lawyer had he known about Giuliani’s role in the ongoing investigation.

But department officials didn’t mention then that Barr was also in the meeting. Barr was at the meeting for about 10 minutes and had dropped in to greet other lawyers who worked alongside Giuliani to represent the Venezuelan businessman, according to a Justice Department official. His presence is also notable because Justice officials have said he was briefed after taking office in February on the investigation by Manhattan federal prosecutors into Parnas and Fruman, and the connections with Giuliani.

There’s almost certain to be more, though. When Maddow asked Parnas whether he knew whether Barr ever spoke with any of the Ukrainians that Parnas was grifting (the question I’ve been asking for some time), he claimed not to recall, even though the entire point of his interview was to talk about how he had come forward out of fear of Bill Barr.

MADDOW:  Do you know if Attorney General William Barr every [sic] spoke with any Ukrainian officials?

PARNAS:  I don’t recall at this moment. I’d have to look at my text messages and see.

There is absolutely no way that Parnas did not know, when he gave this answer, whether he has proof that Barr was personally involved with the three Ukrainians who have spoken to John Durham. None.

Which likely means Parnas does have proof that, contrary to every denial DOJ has issued since they started issuing very carefully crafted denials since September 25, Barr did interact with the corrupt Ukrainians Rudy was teeing up.

Parnas kept receipts, for just the moment when his grifting on behalf of Trump and his associates can do damage. Those receipts might, conservatively, make additional charges from SDNY more difficult. They might even make a cooperation deal possible.

But it sure sounds like something even crazier. Parnas apparently believes Barr makes Trump something he hadn’t been before, protecting Trump in a way he hadn’t been. But that’s only true if Parnas can’t produce proof that Barr is part of this conspiracy.

In other words, whatever the reality, Parnas appears to be dribbling out the receipts implicating the people that SDNY prosecutors work for in an attempt to either increase the chances of cooperating out of his indictment or at least raising the costs of any further charges.

Perhaps a more interesting question is why SDNY prosecutors permitted Parnas to launch this media campaign. They didn’t have to: Parnas got permission to modify the protective order on this stuff so he could release it, and they may have had to question Robert Hyde earlier than they otherwise intended to because of the publicity surrounding Parnas’ texts with Hyde. SDNY might be doing it to encourage a criminal target to run his mouth and say something incriminating. They might have done it for counterintelligence reasons, to see who responded to this media campaign. But it’s also possible that SDNY is happy for Parnas to expand the possible scope of their own investigation by making it harder for Barr to protect Rudy and others.

The suspense, though, has to do with that non-committal answer Parnas gave about whether he has any texts directly implicating the Attorney General of the United States. A defendant being prosecuted by the Department of Justice was asked whether he had proof that the top law enforcement officer in the country was personally implicated in his corrupt influence peddling.

And Parnas is not telling. Yet.

The Government’s Coy Dance on FISA and Rudy’s Grifters

As I noted last month, one of the guys indicted along with Rudy’s grifters, Andrey Kukushkin, asked the government for notice of any of several kinds of surveillance, including FISA. The government responded today with the kind of non-denial that all-but confirms that one of the grifters, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, their co-conspirators, or their funders were implicated in a FISA order.

It starts by stating, “the Government has repeatedly informed the defendants, it does not intend to use any information that was obtained or derived from FISA or other forms of surveillance identified by Kukushkin,” meaning under FISA they have no obligation to notify defendants of its use. It then reviews the requirements of statute, which state that the government only has to provide notice if it plans to use evidence obtained via FISA. It asserts it has met the requirements of FISA.

The Government has complied with its discovery and disclosure obligations, and Kukushkin’s motion fails to set forth any legal basis to require anything more.

With respect to FISA, the Government has complied with its obligations under Section 1806 in this case. On December 1, 2019, the Government notified defense counsel that it did not intend to use any FISA-obtained or FISA-derived information against the defendants at trial.

It’s basically a legalistic way of saying, “yes, yes, yes, but no.” All the more so given that the government corrects a Kukushkin claim that the government had stated they had not obtained FISA collection.

Kukushkin incorrectly states that the Government has “denied procuring evidence pursuant to Title III or FISA warrants.” Dkt. 45 at n.1. The Government has told the defense that it did not obtain or use Title III intercepts in this investigation. The Government has not made any representations about the use of FISA warrants.

And the government  provided Judge Oetken an ex parte filing, which is the kind of thing you’d do to be very transparent to the judge when asked about FISA.

The Government is separately submitting a supplemental letter to the Court ex parte and under seal.

Again, all this is legally uninteresting but factually intriguing given how open the government is about the likelihood they did use FISA in this case.

Especially given how they note that the representations the government makes in this letter apply to all the defendants, including Fruman and Parnas.

The Government writes in response to defendant Andrey Kukushkin’s December 12, 2019 letter motion, which is made “on behalf of all defendants,” seeking the Court to direct the Government to affirm or deny, under 18 U.S.C. § 3504, whether the defendants were the subject of any Government surveillance, including under Executive Order 12333 or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”). [my emphasis]

If Kukushkin were targeted with a FISA order, it would mostly implicate some Nevada Republicans — that’s the side of the grift Kukushkin got charged under.

But if Parnas or Fruman were targeted, it might implicate Pete Sessions, Ron DeSantis, Devin Nunes, the other members of Congress Adam Schiff intimated were also included in the Parnas call records obtained by HPSCI, the President’s lawyer, and possibly even the President himself.

And if any of the grifters were personally targeted, it would probably mean that Bill Barr (who has been personally involved in the case since early last year) had agreed that someone in direct communication with all these Republicans was or is probably an Agent of a Foreign power.

Yesterday, Roger Stone Answered, then Backtracked, on a Question Mueller Has Already Posed to Trump

As I laid out last week, 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. 

Contrary to Trump’s squeals about the hack indictment yesterday, it’s utterly damning for him. It shows:

  • Russian hackers responded to his plea for more Hillary emails by targeting her office that same day
  • Trump’s lifelong political advisor, Roger Stone, was described directly communicating with a GRU-run persona
  • Stone’s own advisor on these matters, then Breitbart and current Sputnik journalist Lee Stranahan, asked for and obtained files from the same GRU-run persona
  • GRU stole Hillary’s analytics in September, the heart of the general election, and did … the indictment doesn’t say what GRU did with the data
  • The same GRU persona made available information helping some of Trump’s most vocal defenders in Congress, ones he has discussed pushback strategies with on Air Force One

Like my own testimony, because this investigation started in Pittsburgh, and only later got moved under Mueller sometime last fall (I know one key witness who was about to speak to prosecutors when I saw him in October), it minimally overlaps with Peter Strzok’s involvement in the case, if at all.

In this post, I want to look at the second bullet: Roger Stone.

Since Stone got described in an indictment of those who helped Trump win the election, he has  (as is his habit) provided conflicting explanations, first suggesting it wasn’t him, then suggesting it couldn’t be him because he wasn’t “a person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump,” as the indictment described.

My contact with the campaign in 2016 was Donald Trump. I was not in regular contact with campaign officials.

Only, this morning (as Ryan Goodman noted), Stone has changed his tune, admitting that he did talk to Trump campaign officials and probably is the person described in the indictment who said all the things he said in his DMs to Guccifer 2.0.

I certainly acknowledge that I was in touch with Trump campaign officials.

Here’s why Stone’s changing story about whether he only spoke with Trump or in fact spoke with other campaign officials. Among the questions (as interpreted by Jay Sekulow) that Mueller has already posed to Trump is this one:

What did you know about communication between Roger Stone, his associates, Julian Assange or Wikileaks?

Mueller wants to know how much of Stone’s discussions with election operation participants Trump knew about. And Stone’s first instinct when seeing himself mentioned in an indictment of those participants was to say he only spoke to Trump.

I guess it’s clear why he’s backtracking from that.

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.

Steve King Just Voted to Subject Americans to “Worse than Watergate”

Devin Nunes has launched the next installment of his effort to undercut the Mueller investigation, a “Top Secret” four page report based on his staffers’ review of all the investigative files they got to see back on January 5. He then showed it to a bunch of hack Republicans, who ran to the right wing press to give alarmist quotes about the report (few, if any, have seen the underlying FBI materials).

Mark Meadows (who recently called for Jeff Sessions’ firing as part of this obstruction effort) said, “Part of me wishes that I didn’t read it because I don’t want to believe that those kinds of things could be happening in this country that I call home and love so much.”

Matt Gaetz (who strategized with Trump on how to undercut the Mueller investigation on a recent flight on Air Force One) said, “The facts contained in this memo are jaw-dropping and demand full transparency. There is no higher priority than the release of this information to preserve our democracy.”

Ron DeSantis (who joined Gaetz in that Air Force One strategy session with Trump and also benefitted directly from documents stolen by the Russians) said it was “deeply troubling and raises serious questions about the [the people in the] upper echelon of the Obama DOJ and Comey FBI,” who of course largely remain in place in the Sessions DOJ and Wray FBI.

Steve King claimed what he saw was, “worse than Watergate.” “Is this happening in America or is this the KGB?” Scott Perry said. Jim Jordan (who joined in Meadows’ effort to fire Sessions) said, “It is so alarming.” Lee Zeldin said the FBI, in using FISA orders against Russians and facilities used by suspected agents of Russia was relying “on bad sources & methods.”

It all makes for very good theater. But not a single one of these alarmists voted the way you’d expect on last week’s 702 reauthorization votes if they were really gravely concerned about the power of the FBI to spy on Americans.

Indeed, Gaetz, DeSantis, and King — three of those squawking the loudest — voted to give the same FBI they’re claiming is rife with abuse more power to spy on Americans, including political dissidents. Nunes, who wrote this alarming report, also wrote the bill to expand the power of the FBI he’s now pretending is badly abusive.

Even those who voted in favor of the Amash-Lofgren amendment and against final reauthorization — Meadows, Jordan, and Perry, among some of those engaging in this political stunt — voted against the Democratic motion to recommit, which would have at least bought more time and minimally improved the underlying bill (Justin Amash and Tom Massie, both real libertarians, voted with Democrats on the motion to recommit). Zeldin was among those who flipped his vote, backing the bill that will give the FBI more power after making a show of supporting Amash’s far better bill.

In short, not a single one of these men screaming about abuse at the FBI did everything they could do to prevent the FBI from getting more power.

Which — if you didn’t already need proof — shows what a hack stunt this is.

Ron DeSantis Attempting to Stop Criminal Investigation into Theft that Benefitted Him

Florida Congressman Ron DeSantis has presented a bill that would defund the Robert Mueller investigation six months after the bill passed.

DeSantis has put forward a provision that would halt funding for Mueller’s probe six months after the amendment’s passage. It also would prohibit Mueller from investigating matters that occurred before June 2015, when Trump launched his presidential campaign.

The amendment is one of hundreds filed to a government spending package the House is expected to consider when it returns next week from the August recess. The provision is not guaranteed a vote on the House floor; the House Rules Committee has wide leeway to discard amendments it considers out of order.

It’s interesting that DeSantis, of all people, would push this bill.

After all, he’s one of a small list of members of Congress who directly benefitted from Guccifer 2.0’s leaking. Florida political journalist Aaron Nevins obtained a huge chunk of documents from Guccifer 2.0.

Last year, a Republican political operative and part-time blogger from Florida asked for and received an extensive list of stolen data from Guccifer 2.0, the infamous hacker known for leaking documents from the DNC computer network.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Aaron Nevins, a former aide to Republican state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, had reached out to Guccifer through Twitter, asking to “feel free to send any Florida-based information.”

About 10 days later, Nevins received about 2.5 gigabytes of polling information, election strategy and other data, which he then posted on his political gossip blog HelloFLA.com.

“I just threw an arrow in the dark,” Nevins told the Journal.

After setting up a Dropbox account for Guccifer 2.0 to share the data, Nevins was able to sift through the data as someone who “actually knows what some of these documents mean.”

Among the documents stolen from the DCCC that Nevins published are five documents on the DCCC’s recruitment of DeSantis’ opponent, George Pappas. So effectively, DeSantis is trying to cut short the investigation into a crime from which he directly benefitted.

Call me crazy, but this seems like an ethical violation, and possibly a good reason to submit a bar complaint against DeSantis. And his constituents might want to ask why he’s trying to help Russia and its domestic enablers undermine democracy.

The White House’s Imminent Benghazi Coup de Grace

As I was watching the Eric Holder hearing and news came out that the White House had released 94 pages of Benghazi emails, I thought at first it was a strategy of whack-a-scandal. The Benghazi scandal is not one; the AP and IRS stories are genuinely damning (though not of the White House per se).

But I predict — and this is just a wildarseguess — that the White House is about to deliver the coup de grace to the Benghazi scandal.

Eric Holder was asked several times (always by Republicans, of course) whether the FBI had let the trail run cold in the Benghazi attack. In response to Jason Chaffetz (one of the chief Bengazhi truthers), Holder suggested that DOJ would imminently announce major progress on the investigation. There were a few more questions, and then Ron DeSantis, who is a very smart but very crazy former JAG who worked with the SEALs asked again.

And Holder — perhaps getting a bit cocky and/or impatient answering one of the last questioners in an interminable hearing — suggested again (this is from memory; I was just getting off the phone) there would be an imminent announcement showing significant progress. DeSantis, who missed that hint but at least knows the boundary between military and civilian law, asked whether it would be military progress or DOJ. Holder announced that something involving their portfolio would show progress.

Again, I’m guessing, but I would bet a fair amount of money one of the main conspirators in the Benghazi attack is sitting somewhere being interrogated by FBI’s High Value Interrogation Group as we speak.

So the way this will roll out is there will be about 2 days of manic scrutiny of the emails, and then just as people begin to get into the nitty gritty that might go further than refuting what the GOP has already leaked, the White House will announce the arrest of the guy that, Holder knows, is already in custody.

Just a prediction, but …