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Did the FBI Have a Chance to Fix Their Lies about Encryption in 2016?

The WaPo reports that the FBI has been presenting grossly inflated numbers describing how many devices it can’t open because of encryption. The error stems, the FBI claims, to a “programming” error that actually sounds like an analytical error: the double or triple counting of the same encrypted phones.

Over a period of seven months, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray cited the inflated figure as the most compelling evidence for the need to address what the FBI calls “Going Dark” — the spread of encrypted software that can block investigators’ access to digital data even with a court order.

The FBI first became aware of the miscount about a month ago and still does not have an accurate count of how many encrypted phones they received as part of criminal investigationslast year, officials said. Last week, one internal estimate put the correct number of locked phones at 1,200, though officials expect that number to change as they launch a new audit, which could take weeks to complete, according to people familiar with the work.

“The FBI’s initial assessment is that programming errors resulted in significant over-counting of mobile devices reported,’’ the FBI said in a statement Tuesday. The bureau said the problem stemmed from the use of three distinct databases that led to repeated counting of phones. Tests of the methodology conducted in April 2016 failed to detect the flaw, according to people familiar with the work.

I find the April 2016 failed test suspicious.

To know why, consider this bit of history. Back in 2015, in the wake of Apple making encryption standard, Jim Comey and Sally Yates made a big pitch for back doors. But when Al Franken asked them, they admitted the FBI didn’t actually know how big the problem is.

Over an hour and a quarter into the SJC hearing, Al Franken asked for actual data demonstrating how big of a problem encryption really is. Yates replied that the government doesn’t track this data because once an agency discovers they’re targeting a device with unbreakable encryption, they use other means of targeting. (Which seems to suggest the agencies have other means to pursue the targets, but Yates didn’t acknowledge that.) So the agencies simply don’t count how many times they run into encryption problems. “I don’t have good enough numbers yet,” Comey admitted when asked again at the later hearing about why FBI can’t demonstrate this need with real data.

Nevertheless, in spite of Congress’ request for real numbers in July 2015, in January 2016 — just as some at FBI were trying to create an excuse to force Apple to open Syen Rizwan Farook’s phone — Comey and Yates admitted they still hadn’t started tracking numbers.

Around January 26, 2016 (that’s the date shown for document creation in the PDF) — significantly, right as FBI was prepping to go after Syed Rizwan Farook’s phone, but before it had done so — Comey and Yates finally answered the Questions for the Record submitted after the hearing. After claiming, in a response to a Grassley question on smart phones, “the data on the majority of the devices seized in the United States may no longer be accessible to law enforcement even with a court order or search warrant,” Comey then explained that they do not have the kind of statistical information Cy Vance claims to keep on phones they can’t access, explaining (over five months after promising to track such things),

As with the “data-in-motion” problem, the FBI is working on improving enterprise-wide quantitative data collection to better explain the “data-at-rest” problem.”

[snip]

As noted above, the FBI is currently working on improving enterprise-wide quantitative data collection to better understand and explain the “data at rest” problem. This process includes adopting new business processes to help track when devices are encountered that cannot be decrypted, and when we believe leads have been lost or investigations impeded because of our inability to obtain data.

[snip]

We agree that the FBI must institute better methods to measure these challenges when they occur.

[snip]

The FBI is working to identify new mechanisms to better capture and convey the challenges encountered with lawful access to both data-in-motion and data-at =-rest.

Grassley specifically asked Yates about the Wiretap report. She admitted that DOJ was still not collecting the information it promised to back in July.

The Wiretap Report only reflects the number of criminal applications that are sought, and not the many instances in which an investigator is dissuaded from pursuing a court order by the knowledge that the information obtained will be encrypted and unreadable. That is, the Wiretap Report does not include statistics on cases in which the investigator does not pursue an interception order because the provider has asserted that an intercept solution does not exist. Obtaining a wiretap order in criminal investigations is extremely resource-intensive as it requires a huge investment in agent and attorney time, and the review process is extensive. It is not prudent for agents and prosecutors to devote resources to this task if they know in advance the targeted communications cannot be intercepted. The Wiretap Report, which applies solely to approved wiretaps, records only those extremely rare instances where agents and prosecutors obtain a wiretap order and are surprised when encryption prevents the court-ordered interception. It is also important to note that the Wiretap Report does not include data for wiretaps authorized as part of national security investigations.

These two answers lay out why the numbers in the Wiretap Report are of limited value in assessing how big a problem encryption is.

Significantly, Comey and Yates offered these answers in response to a Chuck Grassley question about whether they believed, as the corrupt Cy Vance had claimed in Senate testimony, that “71% of all mobile devices examined…may be outside the reach of a warrant.”

The number FBI is now trying to correct was “more than half,” inching right up towards that 71% Vance floated years ago. In other words, this faulty methodology got them to where they needed to go.

I find that all the more suspicious given something that happened later in 2016. As soon as Jim Comey started providing numbers in August 2016, back when they showed 13% of phones could not be accessed, I asked how FBI came up with the number. At the time, a spox admitted that the number included more than encrypted phones — it also included deleted or destroyed phones.

It is a reflection of data on the number of times over the course of each quarter this year that the FBI or one of our law enforcement partners (federal, state, local, or tribal) has sought assistance from FBI digital forensic examiners with respect to accessing data on various mobile devices where the device is locked, data was deleted or encrypted, the hardware was damaged, or there were other challenges with accessing the data. I am not able to break that down by crime type.

That is, in September 2016, five months after FBI failed to find their flawed methodology, an FBI spox told me the number used was not an accurate count of how many phones couldn’t be accessed because of encryption.

When then FBI General Counsel James Baker used the same 13% a few months later, claiming all were encrypted, I checked back. The same spox said the number at that point was just encrypted phones.

It is true that damaged devices are provided to CART and RCFL for FBI assistance, but the 886 devices in FY16 that the FBI was not able to access (which is the number that GC Baker provided last week), does not include those damaged devices. It includes only those devices for which we encountered a password we were not able to bypass.

Now, it’s possible that the methodological problem I identified in 2016 — that their “Going Dark” number actually included phones they couldn’t access for entirely different reasons — was a different problem than the one just identified a month ago (just before Baker retired). Certainly, it doesn’t sound like the same problem (though as I reminded someone from DOJ’s IG some time ago, the forensics labs sending in these numbers have a history of unreliable numbers). That said, given the proliferation of chat apps with disappearing messages that amount to “destroyed” evidence — which under the flawed methodology used in 2016 would be counted as an encryption problem — it could be.

Still, what I identified in September 2016 was a methodological problem. It should have triggered a closer look at the time.

Instead, the FBI has been lying about how bad the Going Dark problem is for another year and a half.

The Sekulow Questions, Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

In this series, I have been showing a framework for the investigation that the Mueller questions, as imagined by Jay Sekulow, maps out. Thus far I have shown:

  • Russians, led by the Aras Agalarov and his son, cultivated Trump for years by dangling two things: real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin.
  • During the election, the Russians and Trump appear to have danced towards a quid pro quo agreement, with the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for a commitment to sanctions relief, with some policy considerations thrown in.
  • During the transition period, Trump’s team took a series of actions that moved towards consummating the deal they had made with Russia, both in terms of policy concessions, particularly sanctions relief, and funding from Russian sources that could only be tapped if sanctions were lifted. The Trump team took measures to keep those actions secret.
  • Starting in January 2017, Trump came to learn that FBI was investigating Mike Flynn. His real reasons for firing Flynn remain unreported, but it appears he had some concerns that the investigation into Flynn would expose him.

This post lays out the questions on obstruction that lead up to Comey’s firing on May 9, 2017.

February 14, 2017: What was the purpose of your Feb. 14, 2017, meeting with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

On February 13, Trump fired Mike Flynn. The explanation he gave was one of the concerns Sally Yates had given to Don McGahn when she told him about the interview, that Flynn had lied to Mike Pence about having discussed sanctions relief with Sergey Kislyak on December 29, 2016. Except, coming from Trump, that excuse makes no sense, both because he had already shown he didn’t care about the counterintelligence implications of that lie by including Flynn in the January 28 phone call with Putin and other sensitive meetings. But also because at least seven people in the White House knew what occurred in Flynn’s calls, and Pence probably did too.

Against that backdrop, the next day, Trump had Jim Comey stay late after an oval office meeting so he could ask him to drop the investigation into Flynn. Leading up to this meeting, Trump had already:

  • Asked Comey to investigate the pee tape allegations so he could exonerate the President
  • Asked if FBI leaks
  • Asked if Comey was loyal shortly after asking him, for the third time, if he wanted to keep his job
  • Claimed he distrusted Flynn’s judgment because he had delayed telling Trump about a congratulatory call from Putin

After Trump asked everyone in the meeting to leave him and Comey alone, both Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner lingered.

While the description of this meeting usually focuses on the Flynn discussion, according to Comey’s discussion, it also focused closely on leaks, which shows how Trump linked the two in his mind.

Here’s what Comey claims Trump said about Flynn:

He began by saying he wanted to “talk about Mike Flynn.” He then said that, although Flynn “hadn’t done anything wrong” in his call with the Russians (a point he made at least two more times in the conversation), he had to let him go because he misled the Vice President, whom he described as “a good guy.” He explained that he just couldn’t have Flynn misleading the vice President and, in any event, he had other concerns about Flynn, and had a great guy coming in, so he had to let Flynn go.

[a discussion of Sean Spicer’s presser explaining the firing and another about the leaks of his calls to Mexican and Australian leaders]

He then referred at length to the leaks relating to Mike Flynn’s call with the Russians, which he stressed was not wrong in any way (“he made lots of calls”), but that the leaks were terrible.

[Comey’s agreement with Trump about the problem with leaks, but also his explanation that the leaks may not have been FBI; Reince Priebus tries to interrupt but Trump sends him away for a minute or two]

He then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying that Flynn is a good guy, and has been through a lot. He misled the Vice President but he didn’t do anything wrong on the call. He said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” I replied by saying, “I agree he is a good guy,” but said no more.

In addition to providing Trump an opportunity to rebut Comey, asking this question might aim to understand the real reason Trump fired Flynn.

March 2, 2017: What did you think and do regarding the recusal of Mr. Sessions?  What efforts did you make to try to get him to change his mind? Did you discuss whether Mr. Sessions would protect you, and reference past attorneys general?

On March 2, citing consultations with senior department officials, Sessions recused himself “from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States,” while noting that, “This announcement should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation or suggestive of the scope of any such investigation.” At that point, Dana Boente became Acting Attorney General for the investigation.

Note that this question isn’t just about Trump’s response to Sessions’ recusal — it’s also about what he did in advance of it. That’s likely because even before Sessions recused, Trump got Don McGahn to try to pressure the Attorney General not to do so. He also called Comey the night before and “talked about Sessions a bit.” When Sessions ultimately did recuse, Trump had a blow-up in which he expressed a belief that Attorneys General should protect their president.

[T]he president erupted in anger in front of numerous White House officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him. Mr. Trump said he had expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him the way he believed Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general, had done for his brother John F. Kennedy and Eric H. Holder Jr. had for Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump then asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

In the days after the Sessions recusal, Trump also kicked off the year-long panic about being wiretapped.

On Thursday, Jeff Sessions recused from the election-related parts of this investigation. In response, Trump went on a rant (inside the White House) reported to be as angry as any since he became President. The next morning, Trump responded to a Breitbart article alleging a coup by making accusations that suggest any wiretaps involved in this investigation would be improper. Having reframed wiretaps that would be targeted at Russian spies as illegitimate, Trump then invited Nunes to explore any surveillance of campaign officials, even that not directly tied to Trump himself.

And Nunes obliged.

Don McGahn and Jeff Sessions, among others, have already provided their side of this story to Mueller’s team.

March 2 to March 20, 2017: What did you know about the F.B.I.’s investigation into Mr. Flynn and Russia in the days leading up to Mr. Comey’s testimony on March 20, 2017?

As Sekulow has recorded Mueller’s question, the special counsel wants to know what Trump already knew of the investigation into Mike Flynn before Comey publicly confirmed it in Congressional testimony. This may be a baseline question, to measure how much of Trump’s response was a reaction to the investigation becoming public.

But there are other things that went down in the weeks leading up to Comey’s testimony. Devin Nunes had already made considerable efforts to undermine the investigation; he would have been briefed on the investigation on March 2 (see footnote 75), the same day as Sessions recused.Trump went into a panic on March 4, just days after Sessions recusal, about being wiretapped; I’m wondering if there’s any evidence that Trump or Steven Bannon seeded the Breitbart story that kicked off the claim of a coup against Trump. Also of note is Don McGahn’s delay in conveying the records retention request about the investigation to the White House, even as Sean Spicer conducted a device search to learn who was using encrypted messengers.

March 20, 2017: What did you do in reaction to the March 20 testimony? Describe your contacts with intelligence officials.

On March 20, in testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, Comey publicly confirmed the counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s campaign.

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.

In addition to questions about the investigation (including the revelation that FBI had not briefed the Gang of Eight on it until recently; we now know the briefing took place the day Jeff Sessions recused which suggests FBI avoided letting both Flynn and Sessions know details of it), Republicans used the hearing to delegitimize unmasking and the IC conclusion that Putin had affirmatively supported Trump.

Sekulow’s questions (or NYT’s rendition of them) lump the hearing, at which Admiral Mike Rogers also testified, in with Trump’s pressure on his spooks to issue a statement that he wasn’t under investigation. Two days after the hearing, Trump pressured Mike Pompeo and Dan Coats to intervene with Comey to stop the investigation.

It’s possible that the term “intelligence officials” includes HPSCI Chair Devin Nunes. On March 21, Nunes made his nighttime trip to the White House to accelerate the unmasking panic. Significantly, the panic didn’t just pertain to Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak; it also focused on the revelation of Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan’s secret trip to New York and probably other conversations with the Middle Eastern partners that have become part of this scandal.

The day after Nunes’ nighttime trip, Trump called Coats and Rogers (and probably Pompeo) and asked them to publicly deny any evidence of a conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia; NSA documented the call to Rogers.

It’s now clear that the calls Nunes complained about being unmasked actually are evidence of a conspiracy (and as such, they probably provided an easy roadmap for Mueller to find the non-Russian conversations).

March 30, 2017: What was the purpose of your call to Mr. Comey on March 30?

On March 30, Trump called Comey on official phone lines and asked him to exonerate him on the Russia investigation. According to Comey, the conversation included the following:

He then said he was trying to run the country and the cloud of this Russia business was making that difficult. He said he thinks he would have won the health care vote but for the cloud. He then went on at great length, explaining that he has nothing to do with Russia (has a letter from the largest law firm in DC saying he has gotten no income from Russia). was not involved with hookers in Russia (can you imagine me, hookers? I have a beautiful wife, and it has been very painful). is bringing a personal lawsuit against Christopher Steele, always advised people to assume they were being recorded in Russia. has accounts now from those who travelled with him to Miss Universe pageant that he didn’t do anything, etc.

He asked what he could do to lift the cloud. I explained that we were running it down as quickly as possible and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our Good Housekeeping seal of approval, but we had to do our work. He agreed, but then returned to the problems this was causing him, went on at great length about how bad he was for Russia because of his commitment to more oil and more nukes (ours are 40 years old).

He said something about the hearing last week. I responded by telling him I wasn’t there as a volunteer and he asked who was driving that, was it Nunes who wanted it? I said all the leadership wanted to know what was going on and mentioned that Grassley had even held up the DAG nominee to demand information. I said we had briefed the leadership on exactly what we were doing and who we were investigating.

I reminded him that I had told him we weren’t investigating him and that I had told the Congressional leadership the same thing. He said it would be great if that could get out and several times asked me to find a way to get that out.

He talked about the guy he read about in the Washington Post today (NOTE: I think he meant Sergei Millian) and said he didn’t know him at all. He said that if there was “some satellite” (NOTE: I took this to mean some associate of his or his campaign) that did something, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything and hoped I would find a way to get out that we weren’t investigating him.

Trump also raised “McCabe thing,” yet another apparent attempt to tie the retention of McCabe to public exoneration from Comey.

Given the news that Sergei Millian had been pitching George Papadopoulos on a Trump Tower deal in the post-election period, I wonder whether Trump’s invocation of him in conjunction with “some satellite” is a reference to Papadopoulos, who had already been interviewed twice by this time. Nunes would have learned of his inclusion in the investigation in the March 2 CI briefing.

On top of the clear evidence that this call represented a (well-documented, including a contemporaneous call to Dana Boente) effort to quash the investigation and get public exoneration, the conversation as presented by Comey also includes several bogus statements designed to exonerate him. For example, Millian had actually worked with Trump in past years selling condos to rich Russians. Trump never did sue Steele (Michael Cohen sued BuzzFeed and Fusion early this year, but he dropped it in the wake of the FBI raid on him). And the March 8 letter from Morgan Lewis certifying he didn’t get income from Russia is unrelated to whether he has been utterly reliant on investment from Russia (to say nothing of the huge sums raised from Russian oligarchs for his inauguration). In other words, like the earlier false claim that Trump hadn’t stayed overnight in Moscow during the Miss Universe pageant and therefore couldn’t have been compromised, even at this point, Trump’s attempts to persuade the FBI he was innocent were based off false claims.

March 30, 2017: Flynn asks for immunity

Mike Flynn first asked Congress for immunity on March 30, 2017, with Trump backing the effort in a tweet.

A later question deals with this topic — and suggests Trump may have contacted Flynn directly about immunity at this time, but that contact is not public, if it occurred.

April 11, 2017: What was the purpose of your call to Mr. Comey on April 11, 2017?

At 8:26AM on April 11, Comey returned a call to Trump. Trump asked again for Comey to lift the cloud on him.

He said he was following up to see if I did what he had asked last time–getting out that he personally is not under investigation. I relied that I had passed the request to the Acting AG and had not heard back from him. He spoke for a bit about why it was so important. He is trying to do work for the country, visit with foreign leaders, and any cloud, even a little cloud gets in the way of that. They keep bringing up the Russia thing as an excuse for losing the election.

[snip]

He then added, “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal, we had that thing, you know.”

[snip]

He then said that I was doing a great job and wished me well.

April 11, 2017: What was the purpose of your April 11, 2017, statement to Maria Bartiromo?

On April 12, Fox Business News broadcast an interview with Maria Bartiromo (Mueller must know it was recorded on April 11, so presumably after the call with Comey). There are three key aspects of the interview. First, in the context of Trump’s failures to staff his agencies, Bartiromo asks why Comey is still around [note, I bet in Hope Hicks’ several days of interviews, they asked her if these questions were planted]. Given public reports, Trump may have already been thinking about firing Comey, though Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, and Don McGahn staved off the firing for weeks.

TRUMP:  I wish it would be explained better, the obstructionist nature, though, because a lot of times I’ll say why doesn’t so and so have people under him or her?

The reason is because we can’t get them approved.

BARTIROMO:  Well, people are still wondering, though, they’re scratching their heads, right, so many Obama-era staffers are still here.

For example, was it a mistake not to ask Jim Comey to step down from the FBI at the outset of your presidency?

Is it too late now to ask him to step down?

TRUMP:  No, it’s not too late, but, you know, I have confidence in him.  We’ll see what happens.  You know, it’s going to be interesting.

On the same day he had asked Comey to publicly state he wasn’t being interviewed, Trump said he still had confidence in Comey, even while suggesting a lot of other people were angling for the job (something he had also said in an earlier exchange with Comey).  Trump immediately pivoted to claiming Comey had kept Hillary from being charged.

TRUMP: But, you know, we have to just — look, I have so many people that want to come into this administration.  They’re so excited about this administration and what’s happening — bankers, law enforcement — everybody wants to come into this administration.  Don’t forget, when Jim Comey came out, he saved Hillary Clinton.  People don’t realize that.  He saved her life, because — I call it Comey [one].  And I joke about it a little bit.

When he was reading those charges, she was guilty on every charge.  And then he said, she was essentially OK.  But he — she wasn’t OK, because she was guilty on every charge.

And then you had two and then you had three.

But Hillary Clinton won — or Comey won.  She was guilty on every charge.

BARTIROMO:  Yes.

TRUMP:  So Director Comey…

BARTIROMO:  Well, that’s (INAUDIBLE)…

TRUMP:  No, I’m just saying…

BARTIROMO:  (INAUDIBLE)?

TRUMP:  Well, because I want to give everybody a good, fair chance.  Director Comey was very, very good to Hillary Clinton, that I can tell you.  If he weren’t, she would be, right now, going to trial.

From there, Bartiromo asks Trump why President Obama had changed the rules on sharing EO 12333 data. Trump suggests it is so his administration could be spied on, using the Susan Rice unmasking pseudo scandal as shorthand for spying on his team.

BARTIROMO:  Mr. President, just a final question for you.

In the last weeks of the Obama presidency, he changed all the rules in terms of the intelligence agencies, allowing them to share raw data.

TRUMP:  Terrible.

BARTIROMO:  Why do you think he did this?

TRUMP:  Well, I’m going to let you figure that one out.  But it’s so obvious.  When you look at Susan Rice and what’s going on, and so many people are coming up to me and apologizing now.  They’re saying you know, you were right when you said that.

Perhaps I didn’t know how right I was, because nobody knew the extent of it.

Undoubtedly, Mueller wants to know whether these comments relate to his comments to Comey (and, as I suggested, Hope Hicks may have helped elucidate that). The invocation of Hillary sets up one rationale for firing Comey, but one that contradicts with the official reason.

But the conversation also reflects Trump’s consistent panic that his actions (and those of his aides) will be captured by wiretaps.

May 3, 2017: What did you think and do about Mr. Comey’s May 3, 2017, testimony?

On May 3, Comey testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee. It covered leaks (including whether he had ever authorized any, a question implicated in the Andrew McCabe firing), and the hacked email raising questions about whether Lynch could investigate Hillary. Comey described his actions in the Hillary investigation at length. This testimony would be cited by Rod Rosenstein in his letter supporting the firing of Comey. In addition, there were a number of questions about the Russia investigation, including questions focused on Trump, that would have driven Trump nuts.

Along with getting a reaction to the differences between what Comey said in testimony and Trump’s own version (which by this point he had shared several times), Mueller likely wants to know what Trump thinks of Comey’s claim that FBI treated the Russian investigation just like the Hillary one.

With respect to the Russian investigation, we treated it like we did with the Clinton investigation. We didn’t say a word about it until months into it and then the only thing we’ve confirmed so far about this is the same thing with the Clinton investigation. That we are investigating. And I would expect, we’re not going to say another peep about it until we’re done. And I don’t know what will be said when we’re done, but that’s the way we handled the Clinton investigation as well.

In a series of questions that were likely developed in conjunction with Trump, Lindsey Graham asked whether Comey stood by his earlier claim that there was an active investigation.

GRAHAM: Did you ever talk to Sally Yates about her concerns about General Flynn being compromised?

COMEY: I did, I don’t whether I can talk about it in this forum. But the answer is yes.

GRAHAM: That she had concerns about General Flynn and she expressed those concerns to you?

COMEY: Correct.

GRAHAM: We’ll talk about that later. Do you stand by your house testimony of March 20 that there was no surveillance of the Trump campaign that you’re aware of?

COMEY: Correct.

GRAHAM: You would know about it if they were, is that correct?

COMEY: I think so, yes.

GRAHAM: OK, Carter Page; was there a FISA warrant issued regarding Carter Page’s activity with the Russians.

COMEY: I can’t answer that here.

GRAHAM: Did you consider Carter page a agent of the campaign?

COMEY: Same answer, I can’t answer that here.

GRAHAM: OK. Do you stand by your testimony that there is an active investigation counterintelligence investigation regarding Trump campaign individuals in the Russian government as to whether not to collaborate? You said that in March…

COMEY: To see if there was any coordination between the Russian effort and peoples…

GRAHAM: Is that still going on?

COMEY: Yes.

GRAHAM: OK. So nothing’s changed. You stand by those two statements?

Curiously (not least because of certain investigative dates), Sheldon Whitehouse asked some pointed questions about whether Comey could reveal if an investigation was being starved by inaction.

WHITEHOUSE: Let’s say you’ve got a hypothetically, a RICO investigation and it has to go through procedures within the department necessary to allow a RICO investigation proceed if none of those have ever been invoked or implicated that would send a signal that maybe not much effort has been dedicated to it.

Would that be a legitimate question to ask? Have these — again, you’d have to know that it was a RICO investigation. But assuming that we knew that that was the case with those staging elements as an investigation moves forward and the internal department approvals be appropriate for us to ask about and you to answer about?

COMEY: Yes, that’s a harder question. I’m not sure it would be appropriate to answer it because it would give away what we were looking at potentially.

WHITEHOUSE: Would it be appropriate to ask if — whether any — any witnesses have been interviewed or whether any documents have been obtained pursuant to the investigation?

Richard Blumenthal asked Comey whether he could rule Trump in or out as a target of the investigation and specifically within that context, suggested appointing a special counsel (Patrick Leahy had already made the suggestion for a special counsel).

BLUMENTHAL: Have you — have you ruled out the president of the United States?

COMEY: I don’t — I don’t want people to over interpret this answer, I’m not going to comment on anyone in particular, because that puts me down a slope of — because if I say no to that then I have to answer succeeding questions. So what we’ve done is brief the chair and ranking on who the U.S. persons are that we’ve opened investigations on. And that’s — that’s as far as we’re going to go, at this point.

BLUMENTHAL: But as a former prosecutor, you know that when there’s an investigation into several potentially culpable individuals, the evidence from those individuals and the investigation can lead to others, correct?

COMEY: Correct. We’re always open-minded about — and we follow the evidence wherever it takes us.

BLUMENTHAL: So potentially, the president of the United States could be a target of your ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russian interference in our election, correct?

COMEY: I just worry — I don’t want to answer that — that — that seems to be unfair speculation. We will follow the evidence, we’ll try and find as much as we can and we’ll follow the evidence wherever it leads.

BLUMENTHAL: Wouldn’t this situation be ideal for the appointment of a special prosecutor, an independent counsel, in light of the fact that the attorney general has recused himself and, so far as your answers indicate today, no one has been ruled out publicly in your ongoing investigation. I understand the reasons that you want to avoid ruling out anyone publicly. But for exactly that reason, because of the appearance of a potential conflict of interest, isn’t this situation absolutely crying out for a special prosecutor?

Chuck Grassley asked Comey the first questions about what would become the year-long focus on Christopher Steele’s involvement in the FISA application on Carter Page.

GRASSLEY: On — on March 6, I wrote to you asking about the FBI’s relationship with the author of the trip — Trump-Russia dossier Christopher Steele. Most of these questions have not been answered, so I’m going to ask them now. Prior to the bureau launching the investigation of alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, did anyone from the FBI have interactions with Mr. Steele regarding the issue?

COMEY: That’s not a question that I can answer in this forum. As you know, I — I briefed you privately on this and if there’s more that’s necessary then I’d be happy to do it privately.

GRASSLEY: Have you ever represented to a judge that the FBI had interaction with Mr. Steele whether by name or not regarding alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia prior to the Bureau launching its investigation of the matter?

COMEY: I have to give you the same answer Mr. Chairman.

In a second round, Whitehouse asked about a Trump tweet suggesting Comey had given Hillary a free pass.

WHITEHOUSE: Thank you.

A couple of quick matters, for starters. Did you give Hillary Clinton quote, “a free pass for many bad deeds?” There was a tweet to that effect from the president.

COMEY: Oh, no, not — that was not my intention, certainly.

WHITEHOUSE: Well, did you give her a free pass for many bad deeds, whatever your intention may have been?

COMEY: We conducted a competent, honest and independent investigation, closed it while offering transparency to the American people. I believed what I said, there was not a prosecutable case, there.

Al Franken asked Comey whether the investigation might access Trump’s tax returns.

FRANKEN: I just want to clarify something — some of the answers that you gave me for example in response to director — I asked you would President Trump’s tax returns be material to the — such an investigation — the Russian investigation and does the investigation have access to President Trump’s tax returns and some other questions you answered I can’t say. And I’d like to get a clarification on that. Is it that you cant say or that you can’t say in this setting?

COMEY: That I won’t answer questions about the contours of the investigation. As I sit here I don’t know whether I would do it in a closed setting either. But for sure — I don’t want to begin answering questions about what we’re looking at and how.

Update: Contemporaneous reporting makes it clear that Trump was particularly irked by Comey’s admission that “It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election,” as that diminished Trump’s win. (h/t TC)

May 9, 2017: Regarding the decision to fire Mr. Comey: When was it made? Why? Who played a role?

The May 3 hearing is reportedly the precipitating event for Trump heading to Bedminster with Ivanka, Jared, and Stephen Miller on May 4 and deciding to fire Comey. Trump had Miller draft a letter explaining the firing, which Don McGahn would significantly edit when he saw it on May 8. McGahn also got Sessions and Rosenstein, who were peeved about different aspects of the hearing (those focused on Comey’s actions with regards to Hillary), to write letters supporting Comey’s firing.

Given that Mueller has the original draft of the firing letter and testimony from McGahn, Rosenstein, and Sessions, this question will largely allow Trump to refute evidence Mueller has already confirmed.

RESOURCES

These are some of the most useful resources in mapping these events.

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

Sally Yates and James Clapper Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, May 8, 2017

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

Part One: The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up

Part Two: The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief

Part Three: The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation (Part Four)

In this series, I’m analyzing the Mueller questions as understood by Jay Sekulow and leaked to the NYT to show how they set up a more damning investigative framework than commentary has reflected.

This post laid out how the Agalarovs had been cultivating Trump for years, in part by dangling real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin. This post shows how during the election, the Russians and Trump danced towards a quid pro quo agreement, with the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for a commitment to sanctions relief, with some policy considerations thrown in. This post laid out how, during the transition period, Trump’s team took a series of actions they attempted to keep secret that moved towards consummating the deal they had made with Russia, both in terms of policy concessions, particularly sanctions relief, and funding from Russian sources that could only be tapped if sanctions were lifted.

This post will look at Mueller’s reported investigative interest in Trump’s reaction to discovering the “Deep State” was investigating the election year operation, including the actions his team had tried to keep secret. Note, I have put all of the events leading up to Flynn’s firing here (not least because I think the firing itself often gets treated improperly as obstruction), though just some of the Jim Comey events. I will repeat the timeline of events in the next post, which overlaps temporally, for clarity.

January 6, 2017: What was your opinion of Mr. Comey during the transition?

This is a baseline question for Trump’s firing of Jim Comey. At a minimum, Trump would need to explain his decision to keep Comey. It also provides Trump an opportunity to rebut Comey’s claim that, in the January 6 meeting, Trump told Comey he:

had conducted myself honorably and had a great reputation. He said I was repeatedly put in impossible positions. He said you saved her and then they hated you for what you did later, but what coice did you have? He said he thought very highly of me and looked forward to working with me, saying he hoped I planned to stay on. I assured him I intended to stay. He said good.

January 6, 2017: What did you think about Mr. Comey’s intelligence briefing on Jan. 6, 2017, about Russian election interference?

One key detail Comey (and the other representatives of the intelligence community) would have detailed for Trump that day is not just that Russia interfered in the election, but their basis for concluding that “We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances,” a conclusion Republicans have objected to repeatedly.

In his book, but not his memos, Comey describes that immediately after the briefing, Trump first asked for assurances Russian interference hadn’t affected the outcome and then, with his team, started strategizing how to spin the conclusions so as to dismiss any outcome on the election.

‘I recall Trump listening without interrupting, and asking only one question, which was really more of a statement: “But you found there was no impact on the result, right?” The intelligence team said they had done no such analysis.

‘What I found telling was what Trump and his team didn’t ask. They were about to lead a country that had been attacked by a foreign adversary, yet they had no questions about what the future Russian threat might be.’

Instead, Trump and his team immediately started discussing how they would “spin” the information on Russia as if the intelligence officers were not in the room. ‘They were keen to emphasize that there was no impact on the vote, meaning that the Russians hadn’t elected Trump.’

This reflects the same concern expressed in the KT McFarland email from just days earlier (which probably reflected detailed Trump involvement) that acknowledging Russian involvement would “discredit[] Trump’s victory by saying it was due to Russian interference.”

January 6, 2017: What was your reaction to Mr. Comey’s briefing that day about other intelligence matters?

In its analysis of the questions, NYT takes this question to be exclusively about Comey’s briefing on the Steele dossier, and it may be. But in Obama’s January 5 briefing covering the same issues, according to Susan Rice, Comey and others discussed concerns about sharing classified information with the Trump team, especially Mike Flynn.

The memorandum to file drafted by Ambassador Rice memorialized an important national security discussion between President Obama and the FBI Director and the Deputy Attorney General. President Obama and his national security team were justifiably concerned about potential risks to the Nation’s security from sharing highly classified information about Russia with certain members of the Trump transition team, particularly Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

Even though concerns about Flynn came up in that Obama briefing, the FBI counterintelligence investigation did not. It’s possible that this passage from Comey’s memo, which describes the main part of the briefing and not that part dedicated to the Steele dossier, pertained to the counterintelligence concerns about Flynn,which Obama had already shared with Trump the previous fall; such a warning may or may not have included Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak.

If Comey briefed anything to do with Flynn, it would significantly change the importance of subsequent events.

As for the Steele dossier conversation, which surely is included with this question, Comey has claimed that Trump first tried to convince Comey is wasn’t true that he would need to “go there” to sleeping with prostitutes, “there were never prostitutes,” even though Trump’s reference to “the women who had falsely accused him of grabbing or touching them” actually undermined his defense.

Comey has also claimed that Trump seemed relieved when he said (in the context of the Steele briefing), that the FBI was not investigating him. Importantly, this took place after Comey had said he didn’t want people to claim the information came from the FBI.

I said media like CNN had them and were looking for a news hook. I said it was important that we not give them an excuse to write that the FBI has the material or [redacted] and that we were keeping it very close-hold.

[snip]

I responded that we were not investigating him and the stuff might be totally made up but that it was being said out of Russia and our job was to protect the President from efforts to coerce him. I said we try to understand what the Russians are doing and what they might do. I added that I also wanted him to know this in case it came out in the media.

He said he was grateful for the conversation, said more nice things about me and how he looks forward to working with me and we departed the room.

January 12, 2017: What was your reaction to news reports on Jan. 12, 2017?

On January 12, in the context of a discussion of Trump aiming for better relationships with Putin, David Ignatius reported revealed that Flynn had called Sergey Kislyak “several times,” asking whether but not asserting that it might be an attempt to undercut sanctions.

Trump said Wednesday that his relationship with President Vladimir Putin is “an asset, not a liability.” Fair enough, but until he’s president, Trump needs to let Obama manage U.S.-Russia policy.

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s choice for national security adviser, cultivates close Russian contacts. He has appeared on Russia Today and received a speaking fee from the cable network, which was described in last week’s unclassified intelligence briefing on Russian hacking as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.”

According to a senior U.S. government official, Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking. What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions? The Logan Act(though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about “disputes” with the United States. Was its spirit violated? The Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The report neither revealed the FBI had intercepts of the conversation nor confirmed an investigation. But it may have alerted Trump that the actions he was probably a party to weeks earlier might have legal consequences.

January 24: FBI interviews Mike Flynn and he lies about talking about sanctions

January 26 and 27, 2017: What did you know about Sally Yates’s meetings about Mr. Flynn?

According to Sally Yates’ public testimony, she met with Don McGahn to discuss Mike Flynn’s interview with the FBI on January 26, 2017. She framed it by describing that DOJ knew Mike Pence’s January 15 comments about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak were not correct.

YATES: So I told them again that there were a number of press accounts of statements that had been made by the vice president and other high-ranking White House officials about General Flynn’s conduct that we knew to be untrue. And we told them how we knew that this – how we had this information, how we had acquired it, and how we knew that it was untrue.

And we walked the White House Counsel who also had an associate there with him through General Flynn’s underlying conduct, the contents of which I obviously cannot go through with you today because it’s classified. But we took him through in a fair amount of detail of the underlying conduct, what General Flynn had done, and then we walked through the various press accounts and how it had been falsely reported.

We also told the White House Counsel that General Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI on February [sic] 24. Mr. McGahn asked me how he did and I declined to give him an answer to that. And we then walked through with Mr. McGahn essentially why we were telling them about this and the first thing we did was to explain to Mr. McGahn that the underlying conduct that General Flynn had engaged in was problematic in and of itself.

Secondly, we told him we felt like the vice president and others were entitled to know that the information that they were conveying to the American people wasn’t true. And we wanted to make it really clear right out of the gate that we were not accusing Vice President Pence of knowingly providing false information to the American people.

And, in fact, Mr. McGahn responded back to me to let me know that anything that General Flynn would’ve said would have been based — excuse me — anything that Vice President Pence would have said would have been based on what General Flynn had told him.

We told him the third reason was — is because we were concerned that the American people had been misled about the underlying conduct and what General Flynn had done, and additionally, that we weren’t the only ones that knew all of this, that the Russians also knew about what General Flynn had done.

And the Russians also knew that General Flynn had misled the vice president and others, because in the media accounts, it was clear from the vice president and others that they were repeating what General Flynn had told them, and that this was a problem because not only did we believe that the Russians knew this, but that they likely had proof of this information.

And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians. Finally, we told them that we were giving them all of this information so that they could take action, the action that they deemed appropriate.

I remember that Mr. McGahn asked me whether or not General Flynn should be fired, and I told him that that really wasn’t our call, that was up to them, but that we were giving them this information so that they could take action, and that was the first meeting.

Then there was a follow-up meeting on January 27. Among the five topics discussed, McGahn asked if Flynn was in legal jeopardy, and if “they” (presumably meaning he and the Associate WHCO in the meeting) could see the underlying intelligence.

WHITEHOUSE: Did you discuss criminal prosecution of Mr. Flynn — General Flynn?

YATES: My recollection is that did not really come up much in the first meeting. It did come up in the second meeting, when Mr. McGahn called me back the next morning and asked the — the morning after — this is the morning of the 27th, now — and asked me if I could come back to his office.

And so I went back with the NSD official, and there were essentially four topics that he wanted to discuss there, and one of those topics was precisely that. He asked about the applicability of certain statutes, certain criminal statutes and, more specifically,

[snip]

And there was a request made by Mr. McGahn, in the second meeting as to whether or not they would be able to look at the underlying evidence that we had that we had described for him of General Flynn’s conduct. And we told him that we were inclined to allow them to look at that underlying evidence, that we wanted to go back to DOJ and be able to make the logistical arrangements for that. This second meeting on the 27th occurred late in the afternoon, this is Friday the 27th. So we told him that we would work with the FBI over the weekend on this issue and get back with him on Monday morning. And I called him first thing Monday morning to let him know that we would allow them to come over and to review the underlying evidence.

By the time the materials for review became available on January 30, Yates had been fired, nominally because she refused to defend Trump’s Muslim ban.

The HPSCI report (particularly content newly unredacted on May 4; see PDF 63 ff) reveals there were several concerns about Flynn’s contradictory comments (which Republicans bizarrely present as conflict). First, there had been a counterintelligence investigation into Flynn still active in December 2016, though FBI may have been moving to shut it down. The interview may have been sparked by Logan Act concerns, or it may have been Flynn’s public comments to Pence (the Republican report ignores that this would pose a blackmail problem). Comey told HPSCI that the agents found Flynn — a lifetime intelligence officer — exhibited no physical signs of deceit, but made it clear the Agents did find his statements plainly conflicted with known facts.

When Mueller asks the President what he knew about the meetings, he likely wants to know (and already has answers from McGahn and likely the Associate) whether they told him about the Flynn interview, if so when, and in how much detail. If they did tell Trump, Mueller may also want to know about whether McGahn’s questions on the 27th (including whether Flynn was in legal jeopardy) reflect Trump’s own questions.

Obviously, one other subtext of this question pertains to whether Yates’ pursuit of Flynn contributed to her firing.

The other critical point about whether and what Trump knew of Yates’ meetings with McGahn: on January 27, he had his first creepy meeting with Jim Comey. Then, on January 28, he had his first phone call with Vladimir Putin, a call Flynn attended.

January 27, 2017: What was the purpose of your Jan. 27, 2017, dinner with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

At lunchtime on January 27 — so after McGahn had called Yates to set up a follow-up meeting and indicated concerns about Flynn’s legal jeopardy, but before that meeting happened — Trump called Comey and set up dinner that day. According to Comey, several minor things that would recur later came up, including questions about Andrew McCabe and Trump’s exposition of the Hillary email investigation.

In addition, five other key things happened at the meeting.

He invited the FBI to investigate “the Golden Showers” thing to prove it was a lie:

At this point, he turned to what he called “the golden showers thing”

[snip]

He said he had spoken to people who had been on the Miss Universe trip with him and they had reminded him that he didn’t stay over night in Russia for that. [this is not true]

[snip]

He said he thought maybe he should ask me to investigate the whole thing to prove it was a lie. I did not ask any questions. I replied that it was up to him, but I wouldn’t want to create a narrative that we were investigating him, because we were not and I worried such a thing would be misconstrued. Ii also said that is very difficult to disprove a lie. He said ‘maybe you’re right,’ but several times asked me to think about it and said he would also think about it.

He asked if the FBI leaks:

He asked whether the FBI leaks and I answered that of course in an organization of 36,000 we were going to have some of that, but I said I think the FBI leaks far less than people often say.

He asked if Comey wanted to keep his job, even though they had discussed it twice before:

He touched on my future at various points. The first time he asked “so what do you want to do,” explaining that lots of people wanted my job (“about 20 people”), that he thought very highly of me, but he would understand if I wanted to walk away given all I had been through, although he thought that would be bad for me personally because it would look like I had done something wrong, that he of course can make a change at FBI if he wants, but he wants to know what I think. There was no acknowledgement by him (or me) that we had already talked about this twice.

I responded by saying that he could fire me any time he wished, but that I wanted to stay and do a job I love to and think I am doing well.

He asked for loyalty:

He replied that he needed loyalty and expected loyalty.

[snip — this comes after the request for an investigation]

He then returned to loyalty, saying “I need loyalty.” I replied that he would always get honesty from me. He paused and said that’s what he wants, “honest loyalty.” I replied, “you will get that from me.”

He claimed to suspect Mike Flynn’s judgment because he had delayed in telling Trump about Putin’s congratulatory phone call:

He then went on to explain that he has serious reservations about Mike Flynn’s judgment and illustrated with a story from that day in which the President apparently discovered during his toast to Teresa May that [Vladimir Putin] had called four days ago. Apparently, as the President was toasting PM May, he was explaining that she had been the first to call him after his inauguration and Flynn interrupted to say that [Putin] had called (first, apparently). It was then that the President learned of [Putin’s] call and he confronted Flynn about it (not clear whether that was in the moment or after the lunch with PM May). Flynn said the return call was scheduled for Saturday, which prompted a heated reply from the President that six days was not an appropriate period of time to return a call from the [President] of a country like [Russia]. (“This isn’t [redacted] we are talking about.”) He said that if he called [redacted] and didn’t get a return call for six days he would be very upset. In telling the story, the President pointed his fingers at his head and said “the guy has serious judgment issues.” I did not comment at any point during this topic and there was no mention or acknowledgement of any FBI interest in or contact with General Flynn.

Trump would be hard pressed to argue the meeting was unrelated to the Yates meeting and the FBI investigation. Which would mean one thing Trump did — in a meeting where he also lied to claim he hadn’t had sex in Moscow — was to disclaim prior knowledge of the Putin meeting the next day (even while emphasizing the import of it).

Of course, the claim he thought Flynn had poor judgment didn’t lead him to keep Flynn out of the phone call with Putin the next day.

January 28: Trump, Pence, Flynn, Priebus, Bannon, and Spicer phone Vladimir Putin

February 9, 2017: What was your reaction to news reports on Feb. 8-9, 2017?

According to Jim Comey, he went for a meet and greet with Reince Priebus on February 8. While he was waiting, Mike Flynn sat down to chat with him though didn’t mention the FBI interview. Then, after clarifying that the conversation with Comey was a “private conversation,” he asked if there was a FISA order on Flynn. Comey appears to have answered in the negative. Priebus then took Comey in to meet with Trump, who defended his answer in an interview with Bill O’Reilly released on February 6) that “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” After Comey criticized that part of the answer, Trump, “clearly noticed I had directly criticized him.” (h/t TC for reminding me to add this.) Since Yates had told McGahn how they knew Flynn had lied, Priebus’ question about a FISA order suggests the White House was trying to find out whether the collection was just incidental, or whether both sides of all Flynn’s conversations would have been picked up.

On February 9, the WaPo reported that Flynn had discussed sanctions, in spite of public denials from the White House that he had.

National security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials, current and former U.S. officials said.

Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election.

Flynn on Wednesday [February 8] denied that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak. Asked in an interview whether he had ever done so, he twice said, “No.”

On Thursday [February 9], Flynn, through his spokesman, backed away from the denial. The spokesman said Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

Officials said this week that the FBI is continuing to examine Flynn’s communications with Kislyak. Several officials emphasized that while sanctions were discussed, they did not see evidence that Flynn had an intent to convey an explicit promise to take action after the inauguration.

In addition to tracking Flynn’s changing claims, it also noted that on January 15, Mike Pence had denied both any discussion of sanctions in the December call and discussions with Russia during the campaign.

On February 10, Trump was asked by reporters about Flynn’s answer. Trump played dumb: “I don’t know about that. I haven’t seen it. What report is that? I haven’t seen that. I’ll look into that.” (h/t TC)

Presumably, Mueller wants to know how surprised Trump was about this story (which actually builds on whether McGahn told him about the Yates conversation). But given Trump’s earlier question about FBI leaks, I also wonder whether Mueller knows that Trump knew this was coming. That is, some of the leaks may have come from closer to the White House, as an excuse to fire Flynn, using the same emphasis that the story (and Yates) had: the claim that Flynn had lied to Pence.

Except Mueller probably knows that the effort to soothe Russia’s concerns about sanctions made in December were a surprise to few top aides in the White House, least of all Trump.

February 13, 2017: How was the decision made to fire Mr. Flynn on Feb. 13, 2017?

We have remarkably little reporting on how and why Flynn was actually fired — mostly just the cover story that it was because Flynn lied to Pence — though after Flynn flipped last year, Trump newly claimed he had to fire Flynn because he lied to the FBI (something that, if the claims about the original 302 are correct, FBI hadn’t concluded at the time Trump fired him).

The thing is, neither story makes sense. It’s virtually certain that many people in the White House knew what Flynn had said to Sergey Kislyak back in December 2016; Tom Bossert was included in KT McFarland’s emails to Mike Flynn, and he sent it to Reince Priebus, Stephen Bannon, Sean Spicer, and at least two other people. All of those people, save Bossert, are known to have provided testimony to Mueller’s team.

But it also makes little sense to argue that Trump had to fire Flynn because he lied. If so, he would have done so either immediately, before the Putin meeting, or much later, after FBI actually came to the conclusion he had lied.

One logical explanation is that Flynn lied because he was told to lie, in an effort to continue to hide what the Trump Administration was doing in the transition period to pay off its debts to Russia. But faced with the prospect that the FBI would continue to investigate Flynn, Trump cut him out in an effort to end the investigation. Which explains why things with Comey proceeded the way they did.

Update: This post has been updated with new details surrounding February 8-10 and newly unredacted details from the HPSCI report.

RESOURCES

These are some of the most useful resources in mapping these events.

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

Sally Yates and James Clapper Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, May 8, 2017

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

Part One: The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up

Part Two: The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief

Part Three: The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

The Significance of the January 12 Reauthorization of Carter Page’s FISA Order

I’d like to riff on a small but significant detail revealed in the Schiff memo. This paragraph adds detail to the same general timeframe for the orders obtained against Page laid out in the Nunes memo: the first application approved on October 21, with reauthorizations in early January, early April, and late June.

Republican judges approved the Carter Page FISA orders

The passage also narrows down the judges who approved the orders, necessarily including FISC’s sole Reagan appointee Raymond Dearie and FISC’s sole Poppy appointee Anne Conway, plus two of the following W appointees:

 

  • Rosemary Collyer (worst FISC judge ever)
  • Claire Eagan (OK, she may be worse than Collyer)
  • Robert Kugler
  • Michael Mosman (a good one)
  • Dennis Saylor (also good)

I won’t dwell on this here, but it means the conspiracy theory that Obama appointee Rudolph Contreras approved the order, and because of that recused in the Flynn case, is false.

The first reapplication came days after the dossier and a second Isikoff article came out

Back to the timing. The footnotes provide the dates for two of the other applications: June 29 (in footnotes 12, 14, 15, 16) and January 12 (footnote 31), meaning the third must date between April 1 and 12 (the latter date being 90 days after the second application).

As I laid out here, the timing of that second application is critical to the dispute about whether FBI handled Michael Isikoff’s September 23 article appropriately, because it places the reapplication either before or after two key events: the publication of the Steele dossier on January 10 and Isikoff’s publication of this story on January 11. Isikoff’s January article included a link back to his earlier piece, making it fairly clear that Steele had been his source for the earlier article. The publication of that second Isikoff piece should have tipped off the FBI that the earlier article had been based on Steele (not least because the second Isikoff piece IDs Steele as an “FBI asset,” which surely got the Bureau’s attention).

FBI didn’t respond to Isikoff in time for the second application

Now, you could say that FBI should have immediately reacted to the Isikoff piece by alerting the FISC, but that’s suggesting bureaucracies work far faster than they do. Moreover, the application would not have been drafted on January 12. Except in emergency, the FISC requires a week notice on applications. That says the original application would have been submitted on or before January 5, before the dossier and second Isikoff piece.

FBI appears to have dealt with the Isikoff article interestingly. The body of the Schiff memo explains that Isikoff’s article, along with another that might be either Josh Rogin’s or Julia Ioffe’s articles from the time period, both of which cite Isikoff (Rogin’s is the only one of the three that gets denials from Page directly), were mentioned to show that Page was denying his Moscow meetings were significant.

That redacted sentence must refer to the January 12 application, because that footnote is the only footnote citing that application and nothing else in the paragraph discusses it.

An earlier passage describes the first notice to FISC, in that same January 12 application, “that Steele told the FBI that he made his unauthorized media disclosure because of his frustration at Director Comey’s public announcement shortly before the election that the FBI reopened its investigation into candidate Clinton’s email use.”

It’s possible that redacted sentence distinguishes what Grassley and Graham did in their referral of Steele. The first application stated that, “The FBI does not believe that [Steele] directly provided this information to the press.” Whereas the January reapplication stated in a footnote that the FBI, “did not believe that Steele gave information to Yahoo News that ‘published the September 23 News Article.” Within a day or so, the FBI should have realized that was not the case.

So it’s true FBI was denying that the September Isikoff article was based off Steele reporting after the time they should have known it was, but that can probably best be explained by the application timelines and the lassitude of bureaucracy.

The submission of the preliminary second application likely coincides with the Obama briefing on the Russian threat

As noted above, the second application would have been submitted a full week earlier than it otherwise would have had to have been given the 90-day term on FISA orders targeting Americans. That means the preliminary application was probably submitted by January 5. Not only would that have been too early to incorporate the response to the dossier, most notably the second Isikoff piece, but it even preceded Trump’s briefing on the Russian tampering, which took place January 6.

It’s also interesting timing for another reason: it means FBI may have submitted its reapplication targeting Page on the same day that Jim Comey and Sally Yates briefed Obama, Susan Rice, and Joe Biden, in part, on the fact that Putin’s mild response to the election hack sanctions rolled out in late December arose in response to requests from Mike Flynn to Sergey Kislyak. As I addressed here, that briefing has become a subject of controversy again, as Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham tried to suggest that the Steele dossier may have contributed to the investigation of Flynn.

But contrary to what the Republican Senators claimed in their letter to Rice on the subject, Rice claims the Steele dossier and the counterintelligence investigation never came up.

The memorandum to file drafted by Ambassador Rice memorialized an important national security discussion between President Obama and the FBI Director and the Deputy Attorney General. President Obama and his national security team were justifiably concerned about potential risks to the Nation’s security from sharing highly classified information about Russia with certain members of the Trump transition team, particularly Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. In light of concerning communications between members of the Trump team and Russian officials, before and after the election, President Obama, on behalf of his national security team, appropriately sought the FBI and the Department of Justice’s guidance on this subject. In the conversation Ambassador Rice documented, there was no discussion of Christopher Steele or the Steele dossier, contrary to the suggestion in your letter.

Given the importance and sensitivity of the subject matter, and upon the advice of the White House Counsel’s Office, Ambassador Rice created a permanent record of the discussion. Ambassador Rice memorialized the discussion on January 20, because that was the first opportunity she had to do so, given the particularly intense responsibilities of the National Security Advisor during the remaining days of the Administration and transition. Ambassador Rice memorialized the discussion in an email sent to herself during the morning of January 20, 2017. The time stamp reflected on the email is not accurate, as Ambassador Rice departed the White House shortly before noon on January 20. While serving as National Security Advisor, Ambassador Rice was not briefed on the existence of any FBI investigation into allegations of collusion between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia, and she later learned of the fact of this investigation from Director Comey’s subsequent public testimony. Ambassador Rice was not informed of any FISA applications sought by the FBI in its investigation, and she only learned of them from press reports after leaving office.

Grassley and Graham appear to have confused the IC investigation with the counterintelligence investigation, only the latter of which incorporated the Steele dossier.

In any case, one reason the apparent coincidence between the January 5 briefing and the reapplication process is important is it suggests it was also pushed through a week early to provide room for error with the inauguration. If a FISA order on January 19 goes awry, it might not get approved under President Trump. But if anything happened to that application submitted around January 5, it’d be approved with plenty of time before the new Administration took over.

Intelligence from Page’s FISA collection helped support the government’s high confidence that Russia attempted to influence the election

Here’s one of the most interesting details in the Schiff memo, however. This passage describes that the wiretap on Page obtained important intelligence, though it won’t tell us what it is.

That redacted footnote, number 14, describes that the redacted intelligence is part of what gave the Intelligence Community “high confidence”

Admittedly, this footnote, with its citation to the October and June applications, is uncertain on this point. But for the wiretap on Page to have supported the December ICA assessment of the Russian tampering, then it would have had to have involved collection from that first period.

If that’s right, then it suggests the reason the Obama Administration may have applied for the order renewal early, the same day Comey and Yates briefed Obama on the ICA and Flynn, is because something from that order (possibly targeting Page’s December trip to Moscow) added to the IC’s certainty that the Russians had pulled off an election operation.

New Right Hook: Mike Flynn Lied When He Admitted to a Judge He Lied to the FBI

Apparently, the latest Grassley-Graham effort to spin a very understandable reaction to the discovery that the incoming National Security Advisor might be compromised by Russia — to have a meeting about whether that requires a change in the government’s investigative approach and then memorialize the meeting — as a Christopher Steele plots is not an isolated event. To accompany the Grassley-Graham effort to obscure, the right wing is now seeing a conspiracy, best captured in this Byron York piece with follow-ups elsewhere, in Mike Flynn’s guilty plea.

At issue is leaked March 2017 testimony from Jim Comey (in a piece complaining about the leak of Flynn’s FISA intercepts) that the FBI agents who interviewed Flynn on January 24, 2017 believed any inaccuracies in Flynn’s interview with the FBI were unintentional.

In March 2017, then-FBI Director James Comey briefed a number of Capitol Hill lawmakers on the Trump-Russia investigation.

[snip]

According to two sources familiar with the meetings, Comey told lawmakers that the FBI agents who interviewed Flynn did not believe that Flynn had lied to them, or that any inaccuracies in his answers were intentional. As a result, some of those in attendance came away with the impression that Flynn would not be charged with a crime pertaining to the Jan. 24 interview.

From that, York spins out a slew of laughable claims: Mike Flynn would have no reason to address the FBI amid swirling coverage of lies about Russian ties! The Deputy Attorney General “sends” FBI agents to conduct interviews! DOJ “effectively gave” Jim Comey authority to decide Hillary’s fate but then fired him for usurping that authority! They lead up to York’s theory that DOJ may have overridden the FBI agents in forcing Flynn to sign a plea admitting he made false statements.

It could be that the FBI agents who did the questioning were overruled by Justice Department officials who came up with theories like Flynn’s alleged violation of the Logan Act or his alleged vulnerability to blackmail.

[snip]

To some Republicans, it appears the Justice Department used a never-enforced law and a convoluted theory as a pretext to question Flynn — and then, when FBI questioners came away believing Flynn had not lied to them, forged ahead with a false-statements prosecution anyway. The Flynn matter is at the very heart of the Trump-Russia affair, and there is still a lot to learn about it.

Along the way, York feigns apparent ignorance of everything he knows about how criminal investigations work.

For example, York pretends to be unaware of all the pieces of evidence that have surfaced since that time that have changed the context of Flynn’s January 24 interview. There’s the weird dinner Trump invited Comey to on January 27, a day after Sally Yates first raised concerns about the interview with White House Counsel Don McGahn, where Trump told Comey “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” There’s the more troubling meeting on February 14, where (after asserting that Flynn had indeed lied to Mike Pence) Trump asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation.

He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President. He then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

There’s the March 30 phone call in which the President complained about the “cloud” of the Russian investigation. There’s the April 11 phone call where the President complained about that “cloud” again, and asked for public exoneration. There’s the newly reported Don McGahn call following that conversation, to Dana Boente asking for public exoneration. There’s Comey’s May 9 firing, just in time for Trump to tell Russians on May 10 that firing that “nut job” relieved pressure on him. There’s the letter Trump drafted with Stephen Miller’s help that made it clear Comey was being fired because of the Russian investigation.

Already by the time of Comey’s firing, the White House claim that Mike Flynn got fired because he lied about his conversations to Sergey Kislyak to Mike Pence, was falling apart.

Then, in August, the Mueller team obtained the transition emails that transition lawyers had withheld from congressional requests (and therefore from Mueller), including those of Flynn himself, Jared Kushner, and KT McFarland. The transition would go on to squawk that these emails, which didn’t include Trump and dated to before Trump became President, were subject to executive privilege, alerting Mueller that the emails would have been withheld because the emails (some sent from Mar-A-Lago) reflected the involvement of Trump. Not to mention that the emails tied conversations about Russia to the “thrown election.”

Then there’s Jared Kushner’s interview with Mueller’s team in the weeks before Mike Flynn decided to plead guilty. At it, prosecutors asked Jared if he had any information that might exculpate Flynn.

One source said the nature of this conversation was principally to make sure Kushner doesn’t have information that exonerates Flynn.

There were reports that Flynn felt like he had been sold out just before he flipped, and I would bet this is part of the reason why. In addition to instructions regarding the sanction calls with Kislyak, which were directed by KT McFarland, Flynn’s statement of offense describes someone we know to be Kushner directing Flynn to call countries, including Russia, to try to persuade them to avoid a vote on Israeli West Bank settlements.

On or about December 22, 2016, a very senior member of the Presidential Transition Team directed FLYNN to contact officials from foreign governments, including Russia, to learn where each government stood on the resolution and to influence those governments to delay the vote or defeat the resolution.

Granted, Mueller’s team didn’t make the point of the lies as obvious as they did with the George Papadopoulos plea, where they made clear Papadopoulos lied to hide that he learned of the “dirt” on Hillary in the form of emails after he started on the campaign and whether he told the campaign about those emails (not to mention that he had contacts with Ivan Timofeev).

Mueller’s not telling us why Flynn’s lies came to have more significance as Mueller collected more and more evidence.

But what they make clear is that the significance of Flynn’s lies was not, as it first appeared, that he was trying to hide the subject of the calls from Mike Pence. I mean, maybe he did lie to Pence about those calls. But discussions about how to work with the Russians were not secret; they included at least Kushner, McFarland, Tom Bossert, Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, and Sean Spicer. Some of those conversations happened with McFarland emailing while at Mar-A-Lago with the President-Elect.

So given the weight of the evidence collected since, Flynn’s lies now appear neither an effort to avoid incriminating himself on Logan Act charges, nor an effort to cover up a lie he told others in the White House, but the opposite. His lies appear to have hidden how broadly held the Russian discussions were within the transition team, not to mention that he was ordered to make the requests he did, possibly by people relaying orders from Trump, rather than doing them on his own.

That, by itself, doesn’t make the Flynn conversations (as distinct from the lies) illegal. But it means Trump went to great lengths to try to prevent Flynn from suffering any consequences for lying to hide the degree to which negotiations with Russia during the transition period were the official policy of the Trump team. And when Trump (or rather, his son-in-law) stopped protecting Flynn on that point, Flynn decided to admit to a judge that he had been knowingly lying.

It doesn’t take a conspiracy to realize that the FBI Agents who interviewed Flynn in January had none of the evidence since made available largely because Trump tried so hard to protect Flynn that he fired his FBI Director over it. It takes looking at the evidence, which makes it clear why those false statements looked very different as it became clear Flynn, after acting on Trump transition team instructions, got sold out as other senior Trump officials started trying to protect themselves.

Graham and Grassley Are Seeing Christopher Steele’s Ghost Where Mike Flynn Lurks

I get it. Trump is making us all crazy. But Chuck “Ethanol flipflop” Grassley and Lindsey “Trump’s best golfing buddy” Graham are going nuts not because of Trump but because of Christopher Steele. They’ve just written a letter to Susan Rice asking her why she emailed herself a letter, memorializing a January 5, 2017 meeting about the Russian hack, just before she left the White House.

In this email to yourself, you purport to document a meeting that had taken place more than two weeks before, on January 5, 2017. You wrote:

On January 5, following a briefing by IC leadership on Russian hacking during the 2016 Presidential election, President Obama had a brief follow-on conversation with FBI Director Jim Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in the Oval Office. Vice President Biden and I were also present.

That meeting reportedly included a discussion of the Steele dossier and the FBI’ s investigation of its claims. 1 Your email continued:

President Obama began the conversation by stressing his continued commitment to ensuring that every aspect of this issue is handled by the Intelligence and law enforcement communities “by the book”. The President stressed that he is not asking about, initiating or instructing anything from a law enforcement perspective. He reiterated that our law enforcement team needs to proceed as it normally would by the book. From a national security perspective, however, President Obama said he wants to be sure that, as we engage with the incoming team, we are mindful to ascertain if there is any reason that we cannot share information fully as it relates to Russia.

The next part of your email remains classified. After that, you wrote:

The President asked Comey to inform him if anything changes in the next few weeks that should affect how we share classified information with the incoming team. Comey said he would.

It strikes us as odd that, among your activities in the final moments on the final day of the Obama administration, you would feel the need to send yourself such an unusual email purporting to document a conversation involving President Obama and his interactions with the FBI regarding the Trump/Russia investigation. In addition, despite your claim that President Obama repeatedly told Mr. Comey to proceed “by the book,” substantial questions have arisen about whether officials at the FBI, as well as at the Justice Department and the State Department, actually did proceed “by the book.”

It pains me that two top Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee are too fucking stupid to see that, in fact, the FBI proceeded quite cautiously with the Russia investigation, not inappropriately, as they suggest. It pains me still more that they think this is all about the dossier.

7. During the meeting, did Mr. Comey or Ms. Yates mention potential press coverage of the Steele dossier? If so, what did they say?

8. During the meeting, did Mr. Comey describe the status of the FBI’s relationship with Mr. Steele, or the basis for that status?

9. When and how did you first become-aware of the allegations made by Christopher Steele?

10. When and how did you first become aware that the Clinton Campaign and the Democratic National Committee funded Mr. Steele’s efforts?

It’s certainly possible, given what I laid out here, that DOJ was prepping the second FISA application for Carter Page (though if the reauthorization were dated January 9, the application would have had to have been submitted by January 2).

But there are other reasons why you’d expect to have this meeting on January 5 and why Rice would want a record of it for posterity (the meeting generally probably relates to this story about the way Obama protected information on the investigation in the last days of the Administration).

As reporting on the discovery of Mike Flynn’s conversations about Russian sanctions with Sergey Kislyak make clear, the conversation wasn’t discovered in real time. Rather, after Putin didn’t respond to the December sanctions against Russia, analysts sought to figure out why. Only after that did they discover the conversation and Flynn’s role in it.

For Yates and other officials, concerns about the communications peaked in the days after the Obama administration on Dec. 29 announced measures to punish Russia for what it said was the Kremlin’s interference in the election in an attempt to help Trump.

After the sanctions were rolled out, the Obama administration braced itself for the Russian retaliation. To the surprise of many U.S. officials, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Dec. 30 that there would be no response. Trump praised the decision on Twitter.

Intelligence analysts began to search for clues that could help explain Putin’s move. The search turned up Kislyak’s communications, which the FBI routinely monitors, and the phone call in question with Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general with years of intelligence experience.

So it would be right around this time when law enforcement concerns about the incoming National Security Advisor would have arisen.

Update: This story confirms that the January 5 meeting was partly about the Flynn phone call.

On Jan. 5, FBI Director James B. Comey, CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. briefed Obama and a small group of his top White House advisers on the contents of a classified intelligence report showing that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump. That’s when White House officials learned that the FBI was investigating the Flynn-Kislyak calls. “The Flynn-Kislyak relationship was highlighted,” a former senior U.S. official said, adding that the bureau made clear “that there was an actual investigation” underway.

And, in a very significant way, the investigation did not proceed by the book, almost certainly because of Mike Flynn’s (and possibly even Jeff Sessions’) potential compromise. Back in March, Jim Comey admitted to Elise Stefanik that the FBI had delayed briefing Congress about the counterintelligence investigation into Trump because it had, in turn, delayed telling the Executive Branch until February.

Stefanik returned to her original point, when Congress gets briefed on CI investigations. Comey’s response was remarkable.

Stefanik: It seems to me, in my first line of questioning, the more serious a counterintelligence investigation is, that would seem to trigger the need to update not just the White House, the DNI, but also senior congressional leadership. And you stated it was due to the severity. I think moving forward, it seems the most severe and serious investigations should be notified to senior congressional leadership. And with that thanks for your lenience, Mr. Chairman, I yield back.

Comey could have been done with Stefanik yielding back. But instead, he interrupted, and suggested part of the delay had to do with the practice of briefing within the Executive Branch NSC before briefing Congress.

Comey: That’s good feedback, Ms. Stefanik, the challenge for is, sometimes we want to keep it tight within the executive branch, and if we’re going to go brief congressional leaders, the practice has been then we brief inside the executive branch, and so we have to try to figure out how to navigate that in a good way.

Which seems to suggest one reason why the FBI delayed briefing the Gang of Four (presumably, this is the Gang of Eight) is because they couldn’t brief all Executive Branch people the White House, and so couldn’t brief Congress without first having briefed the White House.

Which would suggest Mike Flynn may be a very central figure in this investigation.

Because the National Security Advisor was suspected of being compromised (and because the Attorney General had at least a conflict), the FBI couldn’t and didn’t proceed normally.

Plus, there’s one other issue about which Obama should have discussed normal procedure with Yates and Comey on January 5. Two days earlier, Loretta Lynch signed an order permitting, for the first time, the sharing of EO 12333 data in bulk. Among the first things I’m sure FBI would have asked for would have been EO 12333 data to support their Russian investigation. Yet doing so would expose Trump’s people. That’s all the more true given that the rules permit the retention of entirely domestic communications if they have significant counterintelligence value.

So one of the first things that would have happened, after signing data sharing rules the government had been working to implement since Stellar Wind, would have been the prospect that the very first Americans directly affected weren’t going to be some powerless Muslims or relatively powerless Chinese-Americans, but instead the President’s closest associates. Given what we’ve seen from the George Papadopoulos case, the FBI likely bent over backwards to insulate Trump aides (indeed, it’s hard to understand how they wouldn’t have known of Ivan Timofeev’s outreach to Papadopoulos before his interviews if they hadn’t).

Just before this meeting, FBI and DOJ had discovered that Trump’s most important national security aide had had surprising conversations with Russia. That clearly raised the prospect of necessary deviations from normal practices with regards to intelligence sharing.

Yet Grassley and Graham are seeing Christopher Steele’s ghost behind every single solitary action. Rather than the real challenges posed when top officials pose real counterintelligence concerns.

Update: Kathryn Ruemmler, representing Rice, pretty much confirms Grassley and Graham have gone on a wild Steele chase.

“There is nothing ‘unusual’ about the National Security Advisor memorializing an important discussion for the record,” Kathryn Ruemmler, a counsel for Rice, said in a statement. “The Obama White House was justifiably concerned about how comprehensive they should be in their briefings regarding Russia to members of the Trump transition team, particularly Lt. General Michael Flynn, given the concerning communications between him and Russian officials.”
Ruemmler added: “The discussion that Ambassador Rice documented did not involve the so-called Steele dossier. Any insinuation that Ambassador Rice’s actions in this matter were inappropriate is yet another attempt to distract and deflect from the importance of the ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in America’s democracy.”

On the Grassley-Feinstein Dispute

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

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

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

Whitehouse And related documents, yes. The package.

Bharara: And you’ve gone to read them?

Whitehouse: I’ve gone to read them.

Bharara: You didn’t send Trey Gowdy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Christopher Steele lie?

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

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

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

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

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

Did Christopher Steele lie to the FBI?

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

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

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

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

1023s are Confidential Human Source reports.

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

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

Does it harm the viability of the FISA application?

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the Michael Isikoff reference?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s do some math.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does this matter at all to the Mueller inquiry?

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

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

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

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

 

On the Sessions and Trump Interviews: It’s Not Just Obstruction of Justice

There are two stories out (in addition to this piece I did for TNR) renewing the frenzy around the Mueller investigation.

First, NYT reveals that Mueller interviewed Jeff Sessions for a few hours last week.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was questioned for several hours last week by the special counsel’s office as part of the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the election and whether the president obstructed justice since taking office, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman.

Then, WaPo reports that Mueller wants to interview Trump about the Mike Flynn and Jim Comey firings.

Within the past two weeks, the special counsel’s office has indicated to the White House that the two central subjects that investigators wish to discuss with the president are the departures of Flynn and Comey and the events surrounding their firings.

Commenters and the WaPo piece (which cites information that should only be available from a member of Trump’s legal team) suggest these developments mean Trump is looking at obstruction.

Mueller’s interest in the events that led Trump to push out Flynn and Comey indicates that his investigation is intensifying its focus on possible efforts by the president or others to obstruct or blunt the special counsel’s probe.

I’m sure obstruction absolutely is one of the things Mueller is assessing when interviewing Sessions and Trump.

But neither of these interviews, particularly not the Sessions one, is necessarily focused exclusively on obstruction.

Sessions, for example, was in a key early meeting where setting up a meeting between Putin and Trump was discussed (though Sessions claims he opposed the idea). I have noted, for example, how Sessions played dumb when asked whether he had any discussions about emails and that key Sessions aide Stephen Miller is a top candidate to have heard about emails from George Papadopoulos.

[I]t seems highly likely that on April 27 (or whenever Papadopoulos was next in DC), Miller learned that Russia had some kind of emails from Hillary.

[Stephen] Miller, recall, is Jeff Sessions’ close aide, his installment in the Administration. The NYT makes clear that Miller was interviewed by Mueller’s team recently, which means he was one of the people the government planned to interview just after locking in Papadopoulos’ plea.

Which makes this exchange from Jeff Sessions’ most recent congressional appearance, on October 18, all the more interesting. First, Patrick Leahy got the Attorney General to admit that there was a difference between not recalling something and affirmatively denying something. Leahy then pointed out that, once the meetings he had denied were disclosed, Sessions started not recalling certain things about the meetings that he had previous affirmatively denied.

Leahy: Later in March, when you did disclose such meetings, you said you could not recall what was said at the meetings. Your answer to my question was an emphatic no. It wasn’t, “I don’t recall.” You are a lawyer, I am a lawyer. You are, in fact, our nation’s top lawyer. Is there a difference between responding “no” and “I do not recall”?

Sessions: Yes.

Leahy: Thank you.

Sessions: Certainly it is, Senator Leahy.

Leahy: So if you could not recall, then you could not answer have answered my first question, yes or no, if later you said that you don’t recall what was discussed. The reason I ask is that, US intelligence intercepts reported in July that it would appear you did in fact discuss campaign issues with the Russian Ambassador.

Leahy then asked Sessions whether he had, since the election, had conversations with Russian officials about a slew of things, starting with emails. Sessions got even squirrelier than he normally is, and first attempted to answer a question Leahy didn’t ask.

Sessions: I have never had a meeting with any Russian officials to discuss any kind of coordinating campaign efforts.

So then Leahy asked about each item in turn.

Leahy: Let’s take this piece by piece. Did you discuss any of the following: Emails?

Sessions: Repeat the question again about emails.

Leahy: Since the 2016 campaign, have you discussed with any Russian connected official anything about emails?

Sessions: Discuss with them. I don’t recall having done any such thing.

Right after this exchange, Sessions totally balks when Leahy asks him if he has been interviewed or asked for an interview by Mueller, saying he should clear it with the Special Counsel.

Now, there was some imprecision in this questioning. It’s clear that Sessions believed he was answering the question about during the campaign, not since it.

But of the things Leahy asked about — emails, Russian interference, sanctions, or any policies or positions of the Trump campaign or presidency — Sessions ultimately not-recalled in response to just one question: the emails.

Based on the past practice Leahy had just laid out, Sessions claimed to not recall issues that he had actually done. Which would suggest Sessions is worried that there’s evidence he has discussed emails — with someone. It’s just not clear how he interpreted that question.

And while Trump’s firing of Comey after attempting him to drop the Flynn investigation is a key prong in any obstruction case, his role in Flynn’s non-firing is far more interesting, especially given the likelihood, given Republican efforts to claim privilege, that he was on the Mar-a-Lago side of orders directing Flynn to ask Sergey Kislyak to hold off on a response to Obama’s sanctions. While it’s certainly possible that Mueller may hold off on any examination of Trump’s personal role in any hypothetical quid pro quo with the Russians, there’s plenty of reason to believe Trump was in the loop.

And in early discussions about Sally Yates’ testimony, Adam Schiff had said she might explain why Trump waited so long to fire Mike Flynn after she warned Don McGahn he had been compromised. One obvious reason is that it allowed Flynn, who had helped set up a meeting days later, attend it. That might change the connotation of the timing of the Comey firing, just in time to report back to Russia that the firing had “taken off” the pressure created by the investigation.

President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, had relieved “great pressure” on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting.

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Mr. Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.”

It’s crystal clear that Trump fired Comey in an attempt to stave off investigation of Mike Flynn.

But the why behind that obstruction led to the rest of the guts of the Russia investigation. And the why may implicate both Trump (as unindicted co-conspirator) and Sessions (most likely as witness) more directly in any quid pro quo pertaining to the election.

One Thing Not Mentioned in Mueller Requests from the White House: The Putin Phone Call

Yesterday, three different outlets published versions of the list of stuff Robert Mueller has requested of the White House. The NYT describes Mueller asking for details of the in-person meeting with Russians after Comey’s firing, as well as details of Comey and Flynn’s firing,

Mueller’s office sent a document to the White House that detailed 13 different areas that investigators want more information about. Since then, administration lawyers have been scouring White House emails and asking officials whether they have other documents or notes that may pertain to Mr. Mueller’s requests.

One of the requests is about a meeting Mr. Trump had in May with Russian officials in the Oval Office the day after James B. Comey, the F.B. I director, was fired. That day, Mr. Trump met with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak, along with other Russian officials. The New York Times reported that in the meeting Mr. Trump said that firing Mr. Comey relieved “great pressure” on him.

Mr. Mueller has also requested documents about the circumstances of the firing of Michael T. Flynn, who was Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser. Additionally, the special counsel has asked for documents about how the White House responded to questions from The Times about a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. That meeting was set up by Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, to get derogatory information from Russians about Hillary Clinton.

WaPo adds communications with Paul Manafort to the list and fleshes out the nature of the requests on Flynn and Comey.

Mueller has requested that the White House turn over all internal communications and documents related to the FBI interview of Flynn in January, days after he took office, as well as any document that discusses Flynn’s conversations with then­-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December. Mueller has also asked for records about meetings then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates held with White House counsel Don McGahn in late January to alert him to Justice Department concerns about Flynn, as well as all documents related to Flynn’s subsequent ouster by the White House.

Regarding Comey, Mueller has asked for all documents related to meetings between Trump and Comey while Comey served at the FBI, records of any discussions regarding Comey’s firing and any documents related to a statement by then-press secretary Sean Spicer made on the night Comey was fired.

Here’s CNN’s mostly derivative version.

There’s one thing that’s not explicitly on this list (though it might be included in the larger request for details on Flynn’s firing): details surrounding the January 28th phone conversation between Trump and Putin, which included a bunch of people who happen to no longer be at the White House.

As a number of Democrats noted in the Sally Yates hearing before Senate Judiciary Committee, the call took place in the immediate wake of Yates’ two conversations with Don McGahn about Flynn’s potential for compromise by the Russians because of his lies about his conversation with Sergey Kislyak.

HIRONO: Others of my colleagues have mentioned, and you yourself, Mr. Clapper, said that RT is a Russian mouthpiece to spread propaganda. And, of course, we know that General Flynn attended a gala hosted by — or a 10th anniversary gala for RT in December, 2015, where he sat next President Putin and got paid over $33,000 for that.

Mr. Clapper, given the conversation that Ms. Yates provided to the White House regarding — and this is during the January 26th and 27th timeframe — regarding General Flynn, should he have sat in on the following discussions?

On January 28th, he participated in an hour-long call, along with President Trump, to President Putin. And on February 11th, he participated in a discussion with Prime Minister Abe and the president at Mar-a-Lago to discuss North Korea’s missile tests.

Should he — given the — the information that had already been provided by Ms. Yates, should he have participated in these two very specific instances?

In comments on Yates’ testimony when it got canceled on March 28, Adam Schiff focused on the possible explanation for why Flynn was kept on, through that meeting and for 18 days total after Yates’ warning to the White House.

In other words, the big question surrounding Flynn’s firing seems to have as much to do with why he wasn’t fired as why he was, eventually, 18 days after getting notice he was in trouble with DOJ. And the import of including him in that phone call with Putin seems to be a part of that.

Again, that may well be included in the universe of documents on Flynn’s firing (I’d love to see Yates’ firing in there as well, as the Muslim ban was used as an excuse to fire her just as she was raising concerns about Flynn). But it seems important to learn why Trump felt the need to keep Flynn on even after his communications with the Russians had gotten him in legal trouble.

Meditations: What Is this Thing? Examining Trump-Russia

“This thing, what is it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its substance and material? And what its causal nature (or form)? And what is it doing in the world? And how long does it subsist?”

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book VIII, sect. X

When writing about the Trump-Russia investigations, there’s invariably push back questioning the legitimacy of inquiry or the sanity of those who seek answers.

One of the most persistent demands is for unassailable proof the Russians were responsible for hacking the US, whether the DNC or other systems, and any inability to provide such unquestionable evidence invalidates investigations for those who insist on proof.

But such demands may never be met in a way satisfying these demands. Some of these demands are made knowing with certainty that full disclosure of evidence would reveal sources and methods and therefore cannot be made in public.

It’s the specificity of these demands which redirects the attention away from what the investigations may find. Rather than allow ourselves to be derailed by what we aren’t able to answer, we should rely on first principles and examine what is directly in front of us.

What is this thing?

Pull together what are known facts and look at them. Here are a few; what are they, at face value?

• Then-president Obama warned Trump against Michael Flynn as national security adviser. (10-NOV-2017)

• Trump hired Flynn anyhow, against his predecessor’s recommendation. (18-NOV-2017)

• Flynn had a history of breaking rules, including the secret installation of an internet connection in his Pentagon office.

• Flynn had dialogue with foreign agents without disclosing truthfully the nature of his discussions. (29-DEC-2016; possibly more and other contacts earlier)

• Trump kept Flynn on as national security adviser after deputy attorney general Sally Yates warned White House counsel Don McGahn that Flynn could be blackmailed. (26/27-JAN-2017)

• Yates was fired the same day she was to provide White House counsel with more information about Flynn, after she announced the DOJ would not enforce the executive order signed 27-JAN-2017 banning Muslim travelers; the president wrote she was “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.” (30-JAN-2017)

• Flynn denied talking with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak in December 2016 about U.S. sanctions on Russia. (08-FEB-2017)

• The Washington Post reported Flynn had spoken with Kislyak about the sanctions according to officials from both Obama and Trump administration with access to reports about Flynn’s communications. (09-FEB-2017)

• Flynn resigned as national security adviser.

• Trump nominated Jeff Sessions as attorney general.

• During his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, Sessions said, “I didn’t have—did not have communications with the Russians” when asked if there was any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of the campaign. (10-JAN-2017)

• In responses to written questions from Senate Judiciary Committee member Pat Leahy, Sessions denied he had been “in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election”. (17-JAN-2017)

• Reports emerged that Sessions had spoken twice with Kislyak during the campaign season. (01-MAR-2017)

• In a statement later the same evening, Sessions said, “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”

• After calls by Democratic members of Congress for Sessions to resign, Sessions recused himself from any investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. (02-MAR-2017)

What is this, on the face of it, with regard to Flynn, Sessions and Trump-Russia? What was the nature of Flynn’s and Sessions’ contacts with Russian officials? What were these multiple undisclosed meetings and denials supposed to do, if left unquestioned and uninterrupted? Why would two key figures in the Trump campaign and administration both have contact with Russian officials either during the campaign season or after the election before inauguration, and then lie about the nature contacts?

Similarly, we can look at Donald Trump Jr.’s and Jared Kushner’s actions through the campaign and post-election and -inauguration. We see more undisclosed interactions, more denials and lies, more forced disclosure.

We can also look at Trump’s words and deeds: long sympathetic to Russia, he more than hints that Russia should hack his opponent’s emails during the campaign season. He is not forthcoming about his finances. He does not resolve conflicts of interest. He leans on FBI director to drop the investigation into Flynn’s Russia-related activities, ultimately firing him. His attendance at the G20 meeting yielded private, unrecorded meetings with Russian president Putin. He’s harassed Sessions for having recused himself from the Russia investigations. He vacillated on whether he will or will not sign the latest sanctions on Russia which Congress passed last week.

And in the last 24 hours, after Russia demanded an end to specific sanctions on former U.S.-based Russian compounds, after Russia retaliated by ejecting U.S. diplomatic personnel, Trump does not offer any response, leaving VP Mike Pence to offer tepid supportive comments for NATO allies.

What is this thing?