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The Sekulow Questions, Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

In this series, it feels like time is marked by big Russian meetings and key firings.

I’m talking, of course, about my efforts to use the Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow to map out what the structure of the investigation (at least as it pertains to Trump personally) might be. Thus far, I’ve 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 personally to investigation.
  • After a failed attempt to quash the investigation into his Administration by firing Flynn, Trump grew increasingly angry that Jim Comey wouldn’t provide a quick exoneration without conducting an investigation first, leading to his firing.

May 10, 2017: What did you mean when you told Russian diplomats on May 10, 2017, that firing Mr. Comey had taken the pressure off?

Trump fired Comey just in time to report to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a meeting the next day that doing took the pressure off he felt because of Russia.

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” Remarkably, he also felt the need to reassure the Russians that, “I’m not under investigation.”

The reports that Trump’s lawyers need to have clearance because of the inclusion of this meeting in the list of questions suggests Mueller wants to learn more about the meeting beyond the public reports. That may include Trump’s sharing of classified information provided by the Israelis.

May 11, 2017: What did you mean in your interview with Lester Holt about Mr. Comey and Russia?

The day after meeting with the Russians, he told Lester Holt he was going to fire Comey regardless of what Rod Rosenstein recommended. [These are excerpts and a little rough; here’s a partial transcript that leaves out a lot of the Russian comments]

He’s a showboat, he’s a grand-stander, the FBI has been in turmoil, you know that. I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil. Less than a year ago. It hasn’t recovered from that.

[in response to a question about Rosenstein’s recommendation] What I did was I was going to fire Comey. My decision. I was going to fire Comey. There’s no good time to do it, by the way. I was going to fire regardless of recommendation. [Rosenstein] made a recommendation, he’s highly respected. Very good guy, very smart guy. The Democrats like him. The Republicans like him. But regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey. Knowing there was no good time to do it.

And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won. And the reason they should have won it is the electoral college is almost impossible for a Republican to win. Very hard. Because you start off at such a disadvantage. So everybody was thinking, they should have won the election. This was an excuse for having lost an election.

I just want somebody that’s competent. I’m a big fan of the FBI. I love the people of the FBI.

As far as I’m concerned, I want that [investigation] to be absolutely done properly. When I did this now, I said I’ll probably, maybe confuse that. Maybe I’ll expand that, you know, lengthen the time because it should be over with, in my opinion, should have been over with a long time ago. ‘Cause all it is, is an excuse but I said to myself, I might even lengthen out the investigation, but I have to do the right thing for the American people.

[in response to question about why he put he was not under investigation in his termination letter] Because he told me that, I mean he told me that. I’ve heard that from others. I had a dinner him, he wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on, we had a very nice dinner at the White House very early on. [He asked to have dinner?] A dinner was arranged. I think he asked for the dinner. And he wanted to stay on as the FBI head. And I said, I’ll consider, we’ll see what happens. We had a very nice dinner. And at that time he told me you’re not under investigation. I knew anyway. First of all, when you’re under investigation, you’re giving all sorts of documents and everything. I knew I wasn’t under — and I heard it was stated at the committee, at some committee level, number one. Then during the phone call he said it, then during another phone call he said it. He said it at dinner, and then he said it twice during phone calls.

In one case I called him, in one case he called me.

I actually asked him, yes. I said, if it’s possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation? He said you are not under investigation. All I can tell you is that I know that I’m not under investigation. Personally. I’m not talking about campaigns, I’m not talking about anything else. I’m not under investigation.

[did you ask him to drop the investigation] No. Never. I want the investigation speeded up. Why would we do that? Iw ant to find out if there was a problem with an election having to do with Russia, or anyone else, any other country, I want it to be so strong and so good.

I want somebody that’s going to do a great job.

I think that looking into me and the campaign, I have nothing to do, his was set up by the Democrats. There’s no collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians. The other things is the Russians did not affect the vote.

If Russia hacked, If Russia had to anything to do with our election, I want to know about it. If Russia or anybody elseis trying to interfere with our elections I want to make sure that will never ever happen

[wiretapping] I was surprised [Comey said no spying] but I wasn’t angry. There’s a big thing going on right now, spying, to me that’s the big story.

I want a great FBI Director. I expect that [they will continue investigation].

[Flynn’s access to secrets] My White House Counsel it did not sound like an emergency. She didn’t make it sound that way either in the hearings the other day. It didn’t sound like it had to be done immediately. This man has served for many years. He’s a general. In my opinion a very good person. It would be very unfair to hear from someone we don’t even know to immediately run out and fire a general. We ultimately fired, but we fired for a different reason. Everything plays into it. We fired him because he said something to the Vice President that wasn’t true. He had clearance from the Obama Administration. I think it’s a very unfair thing that the media doesn’t talk about that.

I just sent a letter from one of the most prestigious law firms in the country that I have nothing to do with Russia, I have no investments in Russia, I don’t have property in Russia. I’m in total compliance in every way.

I had the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow a long time ago. I have a certified letter. I’m not just saying that. I assume he’s gonna give the letter out. No loans, no nothing.

I never thought about it [optics of Lavrov meeting]. What difference does it make.

When I spoke with Putin he asked me whether I’d see Lavrov. I think we had a great discussion having to do with Syria, having to do with the Ukraine. Maybe that discussion will lead to peace.

Ultimately, Trump said several things here (aside from putting into the public record the meetings with Comey, though he got details that can almost certainly be proved wrong wrong). He differentiated between an investigation into himself personally and others, denied asking to halt the investigation into Flynn, provided his bogus self-exoneration claim of not having business ties with Russians. He also reiterated the claim he had been spied on.

May 12, 2017: What was the purpose of your May 12, 2017, tweet?

By this point, Trump and Comey were in a war of credibility. And Trump suggested that he might have tapes of his meetings with Comey.

The White House answers about whether there were tapes have dodged some, so it’s possible.

May 17, 2017: What did you think and what did you do in reaction to the news of the appointment of the special counsel?

In the wake of reporting that Comey had documented a request from Trump to halt the investigation into Flynn, on May 17, Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to investigate any links between the Russian government and individuals associated with Trump’s campaign and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” The latter phrase made it clear that by firing Comey, Trump had put himself under investigation for obstructing the investigation in chief.

In the middle of a meeting with Sessions, Don McGahn, Mike Pence, and several others on replacing Comey, Rosenstein called McGahn and told him he had appointed Mueller. Trump took it out on Sessions, calling him an idiot and telling him he should resign. Sessions left and sent a resignation letter, but Pence, Steve Bannon, and Reince Priebus convinced him to hold off on accepting it. This piece describes Priebus’ side of that story.

May 31, 2017: Why did you hold Mr. Sessions’s resignation until May 31, 2017, and with whom did you discuss it?

Mueller has received testimony from most of the people who counseled Trump not to fire Sessions, including McGahn, Bannon, and Priebus (but not Pence). He has also gotten Sessions’ testimony on this point.

I’m particularly interested in whether Trump consulted with people not listed in the NYT story on this, such as Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller (who had counseled him to fire Comey in the first place). I also suspect that Trump had already reached out Flynn by this point to talk pardons.

June 8, 2017: What did you think about Mr. Comey’s June 8, 2017, testimony regarding Mr. Flynn, and what did you do about it?

On June 8, Comey testified to SSCI. The night before, he released a statement that reviewed much of what appeared in his memos. The hearing consisted of senators from each party trying to spin Comey’s report of being asked to drop the Flynn investigation, with little news  — though Comey did make clear the investigation covered false statements.

BLUNT: On the Flynn issue specifically, I believe you said earlier that you believe the president was suggesting you drop any investigation of Flynn’s account of his conversation with the Russian ambassador. Which was essentially misleading the vice president and others?

COMEY: Correct. I’m not going to go into the details but whether there were false statements made to government investigators, as well.

Comey refuted Trump’s claim that he didn’t ask him to stop the investigation into Flynn.

KING: In his press conference May 18th, the president responded, quote, no, no, when asked about asking you to stop the investigation into general Flynn. Is that a true statement?

COMEY: I don’t believe it is.

Comey said he viewed the Flynn investigation and the Russian one as touching, but separate, though raised the possibility of flipping Flynn.

KING: Back to Mr. Flynn. Would the — would closing out the Flynn investigation have impeded the overall Russian investigation?

COMEY: No. Well, unlikely, except to the extent — there is always a possibility if you have a criminal case against someone and squeeze them, flip them and they give you information about something else. But I saw the two as touching each other but separate.

Comey also revealed that he had shared memos memorializing his conversations with Trump with a friend.

BLUNT: You said something earlier and I don’t want to fail to follow up on, you said after dismissed, you gave information to a friend so that friend could get that information into the public media.

COMEY: Correct.

BLUNT: What kind of information was that? What kind of information did you give to a friend?

COMEY: That the — the Flynn conversation. The president had asked me to let the Flynn — forgetting my exact own words. But the conversation in the Oval Office.

Much of the hearing covered Sessions’ non-involvement. Comey deferred a number of questions to the closed session.

Trump used the Comey hearing — and his confirmation that at the time he left the president wasn’t under investigation — to have Marc Kasowitz make a statement claiming Trump never impeded the investigation and never demanded loyalty.

I am Marc Kasowitz, Predisent Trump’s personal lawyer.

Contrary to numerous false press accounts leading up to today’s hearing, Mr. Comey has now finally confirmed publicly what he repeatedly told the President privately: The President was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference. He also admitted that there is no evidence that a single vote changed as a result of any Russian interference.

Mr Comey’s testimony also makes clear that the President never sought to impede the investigation into attempted Russian interference in the 2016 election, and in fact, according to Mr. Comey, the President told Mr. Comey “it would be good to find out” in that investigation if there were “some ‘satellite’ associates of his who did something wrong.” And he did not exclude anyone from that statement. Consistent with that statement, the President never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone, including suggesting that that Mr. Comey“let Flynn go.” As he publicly stated the next day, he did say to Mr. Comey, “General Flynn is a good guy, he has been through a lot” and also “asked how is General Flynn is doing.”

Admiral Rogers testified that the President never “directed [him] to do anything . . . illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate” and never “pressured [him] to do so.” Director Coates said the same thing. The President likewise never pressured Mr. Comey. .

The President also never told Mr. Comey, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty” in form or substance. Of course, the Office of the President is entitled to expect loyalty from those who are serving in an administration, and, from before this President took office to this day, it is overwhelmingly clear that there have been and continue to be those in government who are actively attempting to undermine this administration with selective and illegal leaks of classified information and privileged communications.

Kasowitz also accused Comey of leaking in order to lead to a special counsel investigation.

Mr. Comey has now admitted that he is one of these leakers. Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the President. The leaks of this privileged information began no later than March 2017 when friends of Mr. Comey have stated he disclosed to them the conversations he had with the President during their January 27, 2017 dinner and February 14, 2017 White House meeting. Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he leaked to friends his purported memos of these privileged conversations, one of which he testified was classified. He also testified that immediately after he was terminated he authorized his friends to leak the contents of these memos to the press in order to “prompt the appointment of a special counsel.” Although Mr. Comey testified he only leaked the memos in response to a tweet, the public record reveals that the New York Times was quoting from these memos the day before the referenced tweet, which belies Mr. Comey’s excuse for this unauthorized disclosure of privileged information and appears to entirely retaliatory. We will leave it the appropriate authorities to determine whether this leaks should be investigated along with all those others being investigated. .

In sum, it is now established that there the President was not being investigated for colluding with the or attempting to obstruct that investigation. As the Committee pointed out today, these important facts for the country to know are virtually the only facts that have not leaked during the long course of these events.

This sort of kicked off the official campaign to discredit Comey and those who would back his story.

June 12, 2017: What did you think and do in reaction to the news that the special counsel was speaking to Mr. Rogers, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Coats?

Public reports date Rogers and Coats’ interviews with Mueller to the week of June 12, 2017, so Pompeo’s must have been around that same time. Rogers and Coats, at least, testified that Trump tried to get them to state publicly that there was no collusion. They said the interaction was odd and uncomfortable, but that he did not order them to interfere.

Clearly, Trump responded to public reports of their being called as witnesses, though we don’t know what the response was. It’s possible that’s when Trump threatened to fire Mueller, only to back off when Don McGahn threatened to quit.

July 7, 2017: What involvement did you have in the communication strategy, including the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails?

I’ve laid out that I believe the evolving June 9 story is a limited hangout orchestrated by Agalarov lawyer Scott Balber. The strategy would have begun when Jared Kushner wrestled with the need to disclose the meeting, both in response to congressional investigations and for his clearance. Manafort, too, turned over emails backing the event about a month before the story came out publicly. This post talks about the response the weekend of the G-20 in Hamburg, including Ivanka sitting in on a meeting so Trump could strategize, and Hope Hicks suggesting the emails would never come out.

As a reminder, on the same day Trump had a second hour long meeting with Putin, he dictated Putin’s propaganda line that the meeting pertained to adoptions. Importantly, he hid what I’ve suggested was the quo in the quid pro quo, sanctions relief. Mueller undoubtedly would like to know if Putin helped him come up with that message, which would be really damning.

Mueller also wants to know about the decision to leak Don Jr’s emails. Bannon suspects that a Jared aide leaked the emails (his then lawyer Jamie Gorelick would cut back her work with him shortly thereafter). But remember: in a DM, Assange proposed that he give Wikileaks the email.

There’s clearly far more back story to the leaked email we don’t know yet.

If Trump’s involvement here involves coordination with Russians (like the Agalrovs, to say nothing of Putin) or Assange, it would provide damning evidence not of obstruction, but of collusion, an effort to coordinate a story about a key meeting. Trump’s lawyers have always suggested questions about Trump’s role in this statement are improper, which is itself a telling indicator that they don’t understand (or want to spin) the risk of the original June 9 meeting.

July 20, 2017: After the resignations, what efforts were made to reach out to Mr. Flynn about seeking immunity or possible pardon?

Mike Flynn tried to get Congressional immunity in March 2017, with Trump’s backing the effort in a tweet.

Mueller’s question seems to suggest even at that earlier period, someone from Trump’s camp reached out and discussed immunity with Flynn. Shortly before April 25, Trump also sent Flynn a message to “stay strong.” (h/t TC)

On July 20, the WaPo reported that Trump’s team was researching pardons. The NYT report first revealing that Trump offered pardons to Mike Flynn (and Manafort, who is curiously not mentioned in this question) describes it happening after John Dowd took over, in the wake of the revelation of the June 9 meeting and the Kasowitz firing. Dowd denied any such thing was happening on July 21, which is probably a good sign such discussions were taking place.

July 25, 2017: What was the purpose of your July 2017 criticism of Mr. Sessions? What discussions did you have with Reince Priebus in July 2017 about obtaining the Sessions resignation? With whom did you discuss it?

In late July, 2017, Trump accused Sessions of several sins: failing to crack down on leaks, failing to prosecute Hillary, and failing to fire Andrew McCabe. That must be the same time when Trump ordered Priebus to get Sessions’ resignation, which he dodged by stalling, which probably answers the “what was the purpose” question: to lay predicate to fire Sessions.

I’m particularly interested in the question about who Trump discussed this with, particularly given the provocative timing — the days before George Papadopoulos’s July 26 arrest and Paul Manafort’s July 27 condo search (using a warrant that, unlike a warrant from a May 27 storage unit search, invoked the June 9 meeting). It’s possible Trump had advance knowledge of this stuff (which would be alarming), but likely it’s a coincidence.

In any case, Mueller clearly has reason to believe Trump learned something about the investigation and discussed it with people that led him to try, again, to stop it by firing someone.

What was the purpose of the September and October 2017 statements, including tweets, regarding an investigation of Mr. Comey?

On September 1, Trump responded to reports that because Comey had a declination written before interviewing Hillary, he rigged the outcome of the investigation. In mid-October, in the wake of the Manafort indictment and George Papadopoulos plea, Trump returned to this attack. Rudy Giuliani has renewed this attack in recent days, which is presumably an attempt to undercut Comey’s credibility.

What discussions did you have regarding terminating the special counsel, and what did you do when that consideration was reported in January 2018?

The NYT report that Trump tried to fire Mueller in June 2017 made it clear that Mueller had received testimony about it (presumably from McGahn and others). Clearly, Mueller has reason to know that Trump did something else in response. Note that this report came out in the wake of the Michael Wolff book, which would give Mueller an excuse to call several of the relevant witnesses (such as Mark Corallo and Steve Bannon) as witnesses. This time period also closely follows the increasingly aggressive response in Congress.

What is the reason for your continued criticism of Mr. Comey and his former deputy, Andrew G. McCabe?

The assumption is that Trump continues to attack Comey and McCabe because doing so might harm their credibility with regards to an obstruction investigation, and that’s surely true (made all the worse by McCabe’s firing and his criminal referral).

But I increasingly believe (particularly given that the other contemporaneous witnesses to Comey’s concerns, like James Baker, are not named) that’s not the only reason Trump is doing this. My guess is it’s an attempt to undermine their decision to investigate Flynn. We now know, for example, that McCabe set up the interview with Flynn on Comey’s direction. So in addition to discrediting key witnesses against him, it seems possible that Trump is also trying to discredit the decision, at a time when  FBI was about to close a counterintelligence investigation into Flynn, to instead interview him, leading to the exposure of Trump’s efforts to undermine US policy during the transition period.

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

Meanwhile, Over In Turkey . . .

Well isn’t this interesting? From Diplopundit last Friday comes a post with this title: Tillerson Meets Erdoğan in Ankara With Turkish Foreign Minister as InterpreterThe post is a series of tweets from all kinds of media folks, which include some of these gems:

Nicholas Wadhams of Bloomberg News:

Secretary of State Tillerson is currently meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He is the lone US representative and Turkey’s foreign minister is translating.

Rajib Soylu, Washington correspondent for Daily Sabah:

This is the second Erdoğan – Tillerson meeting where all Turkish, American officials, and even the translators excluded.

Turkish FM functions as a translator.

Ihlan Tanir of Washington Hatti US:

Im trying to understand — I never expected Pres Erdogan and Sec Tillerson to have a press conference but they did not even read statements following 200 minutes of a meeting?

Let’s pause here for a moment to let that last one sink in.

It’s one thing if the Turkish Foreign Minister brings Erdogan over to Tillerson at a meet-and-greet and translates some friendly “let me show you pictures of my grandkids” chit-chat between the two. But that’s not what this was. This was a lengthy, official, and private meeting that lasted over three hours between some very high level folks at a time of rather significant tension between the two countries.

You don’t have meetings like this without your own translator. You just don’t. The typical process is that both sides have interpreters. Official A speaks, the interpreter for Official B tells Official B what was said, and the interpreter for Official A says some version of “Yes, that’s correct” to verify the interpretation. Then it all works in reverse when Official B replies. With difficult issues under discussion, the last thing either side wants is confusion about what each side is saying.

Excluding your own interpreter is so far outside of normal protocols it is unreal, and begs the ever-green question about most everything since 1/20/2017: idiot or crook?

As Diplopundit noted in his/her own tweet, someone else was missing from this meeting — an official note taker:

Saving money on translators*, too? And the foreign FM will just share his notes of the T-E discussion with the State Dept. Or EUR can use their Magic 8 ball. 😭 It knows everything and always willing to share.

(* Diplopundit later corrected this to “interpreters”, as a slip of the fingers since “translators” are more precisely those who deal with written documents while “interpreters” handle verbal communications.)

“EUR” in that last tweet is the State Department’s Office of European Affairs, where long ago I was an intern. I can only imagine the reaction in Foggy Bottom was when word of Tillerson’s meeting with Erdogan reached them. It likely involved multiple variations on “He did WHAT?!?!?” with various . . . ahem . . . flavoring words for emphasis added. As former State Department spokesperson and retired Rear Admiral John Kirby told CNN:

“If the meeting is not conducted in English, it is foolhardy in the extreme not to have at his side a State Department translator, who can ensure that Mr. Tillerson’s points are delivered accurately and with the proper emphasis,” said former State Department spokesman and CNN diplomatic and military analyst John Kirby.

“That Mr. Tillerson eschewed this sort of support in what he knew would be a tense and critical meeting with President Erdogan smacks of either poor staff work or dangerous naïveté on his part,” Kirby added.

And that’s what Kirby said about this in public. I’ll leave it to your imagination what he and other current and former State and Defense Department folks said to each other about it in private. Hold onto this for a moment, because we’ll come back to it in a bit.

Eventually, Tillerson and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu did in fact have a press availability, which the State Department has up on their website. In the statements issued by both, as well as their answers to questions from the reporters, they talked about all manner of increasingly tense topics, from the Kurds to what’s happening in Syria to the failed coup and the Turkish demands for Fethullah Gulen to be extradited back to Turkey, and more.

Two items stood out here. First, there’s this from Tillerson about midway through:

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, with respect to how we’re going forward – and that’s what all of the discussion here was about, recognizing where we find ourselves. And I think as the foreign minister indicated, we find ourselves at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship. And we could go back and revisit how we got here, but we don’t think that’s useful. We’ve decided and President Erdogan decided last night we needed to talk about how do we go forward. The relationship is too important, it’s too valuable to NATO and our NATO allies, it’s too valuable to the American people, it’s too valuable to the Turkish people for us to not do anything other than concentrate on how are we going forward.

And out of the meetings last night – and much of our staff was up through the night to memorialize how we’re going to go about this, and we’ll share a little bit of that in the joint statement. We’re going to reserve a lot of the details because there’s a lot of work yet to be done, and we – and our working teams need to be allowed to do that work in a very open, frank, honest way with one another so that we can chart the way forward together.

I’ll bet the staff was up through the night. If no staff were allowed in the three hour meeting, then the only one who can tell them what was said, what kind of emphasis it was given, what threats were made, what promises were made, and what kind of nuance there was to each of the exchanges was Tillerson. No offense to the Secretary, but that makes the work of the staff very very difficult. To begin with, they had to interview Tillerson just to get all the information about the meeting (and pray he didn’t leave anything out), before they could even think about “how we’re going forward.”

But the larger item that stood out to me came in the very last pair of question asked, reprinted in full below but with emphasis added:

QUESTION:[ed: to Tillerson] Did you warn Turkey that they could be subject to sanctions under CAATSA legislation if they go ahead with the purchase of the S-400 system? [ed: CAATSA is the Russian sanctions legislation that Congress passed but Trump refuses to implement with any teeth.]

And for you, Mr. Foreign Minister, would the threat of U.S. sanctions stop you from going ahead with the purchase of the S-400 system? And if you do buy the system, do you still want to remain in NATO if you’re obtaining the weapons from Russia?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: We did discuss the impact of the CAATSA law that was passed by the Congress last summer that deals with purchases of Russian military equipment. I discussed it last night with President Erdogan; we had further discussions this morning about it. And indeed, it’s in the first group of issues that the foreign minister is referring to. We need to put a group of experts together, and we’ll look at the circumstances around that, as we’ve done with governments all over the world, not just Turkey, because the intent of that legislation was not to harm our friends and allies. But it is directed at Russia for its interference in our elections. So we’ve been advising countries around the world as to what the impact on their relationship and purchases that they might be considering with Russia, and many have reconsidered those and have decided to not proceed with those discussions.

Every case is individual on its own. We want to consult with Turkey and at least ensure they understand what might be at risk in this particular transaction. We don’t have all the details yet, so I can’t give you any kind of a conclusion, but it’ll be given very careful scrutiny, obviously, and we’ll fully comply with the law. And we are – we are now implementing CAATSA and fully applying it around the world.

FOREIGN MINISTER CAVUSOGLU: Thank you very much. First and foremost, I need to underline that I am against the terminology that you use. You used the threat terminology. That is not a correct terminology to be used because it is true for all countries and states. We never use the language of threat and we deny if it is used against us, because this is not correct.

But as Rex has also indicated, this was not something that we talked just yesterday and today. When we met in Vancouver, we talked about this, and from time to time when we have phone conversations, we talk about such issues. This was again brought to the agenda in one of those talks. Of course, there is a law that was enacted by the United States Congress, and they explained this legislation to us. But on the other hand, this is our national security, and it’s important for our national security. I have emergency need of an air defense system. We want to purchase this from our allies, but this does not exist. So even when we are purchasing small-scale arms, the Congress or some other European parliaments, we have – we have and we had difficulty in purchasing these because of these excuses, and I have an emergency need. And the Russian Federation came up with attractive proposals for us. We also talked to other countries, not just with Russia, but we talked about this issue of emergency need with many countries and we had bilateral talks.

Also, in the mid-term, we talked about joint production and technology transfer. We focused on this because this is important for Turkey. And lastly, during the Paris visit of our president – with Eurosam – this is a French-Italian partnership – there was a pre-agreement signed, a memorandum of understanding signed with these groups. So we do not have any problems with our allies. Why should we not meet this requirement with NATO? But, of course, when it is not met within this platform, we need to look for alternative resources. Otherwise, some batteries – some Patriot were withdrawn from our frontier. Some European allies withdrew them. We have (inaudible) of the Italians and Patriots of Spain, and we do not have any other air defense. And we need to meet this requirement as soon as possible. And when we talked to Russia, this was actually an agreement that we reached before the legislation in Congress was enacted. And the remaining part was about the details of loans, et cetera.

Of course, we talked about all of these, and we will take into consideration this – within this working group the commission, but all of us need to understand each other and respect each other. Thank you very much.

In Cavusoglu’s answer, he is pushing back hard on attempts to isolate Turkey. He’s being polite about it, but the very public message is clear: “You know, the Russians seem very interested in making a deal with us, and if you persist in trying to pressure us and don’t back us with the Kurds and cause problems in Syria and don’t return that coup-instigating terrorist you are harboring, the Russians seem pretty clearly ready to help us out where you will not.”

Which makes Tillerson’s earlier comment above sound like he got that message loud and clear. To repeat: “The relationship is too important, it’s too valuable to NATO and our NATO allies, it’s too valuable to the American people, it’s too valuable to the Turkish people for us to not do anything other than concentrate on how are we going forward.”

But there were also some private messages being sent here, too.

Let’s go back to that no-staff-allowed element of the meeting once more. In general, it is in the interests of both parties to a conversation like that to have interpreters and notetakers present, so that in the public discussions that follow (like the one above), everyone agrees on the basic facts of what was said and you don’t getting into a “but you said . . .” and “no I didn’t” back-and-forth. For the meeting to exclude such staffers means that there is something else that overrides this interest.

In this case, the Turks had to have demanded that Tillerson not bring anyone with him to this meeting. There’s no way he would have told his staff “I got this – you take a break while I talk with Erdogan” on his own. The question is why, and all the possible answers I can come up after reading the Turkish Foreign Minister’s reply to that last question involve Vladimir Putin wanting Erdogan to pass on some kind of message to Trump — a message that he did not wish to be delivered within earshot of interpreters and notetakers.

It reminds me very much of that May 2017 Oval Office meeting that Trump had with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and outgoing Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. That was the meeting where we later learned that Trump revealed Israeli intelligence to the Russians about their source inside ISIS and told them that he just fired “that nut job” James Comey which took the pressure off of him because of Russia.

Oh, and the US press were kept out of that meeting as well, with the only reports of it coming after the Russians told us about it. As Politico’s Susan Glasser noted about that Oval Office meeting, it came at the specific request of Putin:

The chummy White House visit—photos of the president yukking it up with Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak were released by the Russian Foreign Ministry since no U.S. press was allowed to cover the visit—had been one of Putin’s asks in his recent phone call with Trump, and indeed the White House acknowledged this to me later Wednesday. “He chose to receive him because Putin asked him to,” a White House spokesman said of Trump’s Lavrov meeting. “Putin did specifically ask on the call when they last talked.”

Kind of makes me wonder if the reason Tillerson left the interpreter back at the embassy is because Putin asked him to in a phone call last Monday. From CNN:

Washington (CNN) President Donald Trump spoke Monday with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to express condolences for a weekend plane crash outside Moscow, according to a US official.

The phone call came amid ongoing Washington-Moscow tensions over policy in the Middle East and Russia’s attempts to meddling in US elections.

Russian news agencies reported the phone call also included discussion of the situation in Israel. . . .

Again we’re hearing about this via Russian news agencies? I’m sensing a pattern here . . .

On Trump’s Impenetrable Cyber Security Unit to Guard Election Hacking

Man oh man did Vladimir Putin hand Trump his ass in their meeting the other day. While most the focus has been on Trump’s apparent refusal to confront Putin on the election hack (which Trump is now trying to spin — pity for him he excluded his credible aides who could tell us how it really went down or maybe that was precisely the point).

But I was more interested in Putin and Sergei Lavrov’s neat trick to get Trump to agree to a “joint working group on cybersecurity.”

Lavrov says Trump brought up accusations of Russian hacking; Moscow and DC will set up joint working group on cybersecurity.

Here’s how Trump has been talking about this in an [unthreaded] rant this morning.

People who’re just discovering this from Trump’s tweets are suitably outraged.

But I think even there they’re missing what a master stroke this was from Putin and Lavrov.

First, as I noted at the time, this comes at the moment Congress is trying to exclude Kaspersky Lab products from federal networks, accompanied by a more general witch hunt against the security firm. As I have said, I think the latter especially is problematic (and probably would have been designed at least partly to restore some asymmetry on US spying on the world, as Kaspersky is one of the few firms that will consistently ID US spying), even if there are reasons to want to keep Kaspersky out of sensitive networks. Kaspersky would be at the center of any joint cyber security effort, meaning Congress will have a harder time blackballing them.

Then there’s the fact that cooperation has been tried. Notably, the FBI has tried to share information with the part of FSB that does cyber investigations. Often, that ends up serving to tip off the FSB to which hackers the FBI is most interested in, leading to them being induced to spy for the FSB itself. More troubling, information sharing with US authorities is believed to partly explain treason charges against some FSB officers.

Finally, there’s the fact that the Russians asked for proof that they hacked our election.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: The Russians have asked for proof and evidence. I’ll leave that to the intelligence community to address the answer to that question. And again, I think the President, at this point, he pressed him and then felt like at this point let’s talk about how do we go forward. And I think that was the right place to spend our time, rather than spending a lot of time having a disagreement that everybody knows we have a disagreement.

If the US hadn’t been represented by idiots at this meeting, the obvious follow-up would be to point to Russia’s efforts to undermine US extradition of Russians against whom the US has offered proof, at least enough to get a grand jury to indict, most notably of the three Russians involved in the Yahoo hack, as well as Yevgeniy Nikulin. The US would be all too happy to offer proof in those cases, but Russia is resisting the process that will end up in that proof.

But instead, Trump and his oil-soaked sidekick instead agreed to make future hacking of the US easier.

Hot and Cold Running Sources and Methods Outrage

Let’s stipulate that Donald Trump is an incompetent president. Let’s stipulate that his fondness for the Russians exhibits at least naiveté about their intentions, if not out and out compromise. Let’s agree that when he fucks up, it is fair game to scream about it as a way to limit his power. Let’s acknowledge ruefully, again, that the man who got elected heckling “Lock her up!” continues to engage in far more egregious mistreatment of classified information than an email server.

But it’s worth looking at one paragraph in the WaPo story on how Donald Trump shared code word intelligence with the two Russian Sergeys, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the omnipresent Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak last week.

First, some background.

The whole point of the story, which is sourced to “current and former U.S. officials,” just one of whom is described as a former intelligence official (meaning the others could be members of Congress), is that Trump’s actions are particularly egregious because he revealed the city from which ISIS was allegedly plotting a laptop attack on US planes that has led US Homeland Security to consider ineffective bans on laptops in passenger areas of planes.

Trump went on to discuss aspects of the threat that the United States learned only through the espionage capabilities of a key partner. He did not reveal the specific intelligence-gathering method, but he described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances. Most alarmingly, officials said, Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat. [my emphasis]

Revealing the city, these US officials sharing the information anonymously because of “the sensitivity of the subject” explain, might help ID the US ally or capability involved in revealing this laptop threat.

The identification of the location was seen as particularly problematic, officials said, because Russia could use that detail to help identify the U.S. ally or intelligence capability involved. Officials said the capability could be useful for other purposes, possibly providing intelligence on Russia’s presence in Syria. Moscow would be keenly interested in identifying that source and perhaps disrupting it.

Hmmm. How many cities does ISIS still hold…?

The other problem with sharing this information is that it is not ours to share. This ally gets very frustrated when it discovers we shared information that it hasn’t permitted us to share.

At a more fundamental level, the information wasn’t the United States’ to provide to others. Under the rules of espionage, governments — and even individual agencies — are given significant control over whether and how the information they gather is disseminated, even after it has been shared. Violating that practice undercuts trust considered essential to sharing secrets.

[snip]

At a more fundamental level, the information wasn’t the United States’ to provide to others. Under the rules of espionage, governments — and even individual agencies — are given significant control over whether and how the information they gather is disseminated, even after it has been shared. Violating that practice undercuts trust considered essential to sharing secrets.

The officials declined to identify the ally but said it has previously voiced frustration with Washington’s inability to safeguard sensitive information related to Iraq and Syria.

“If that partner learned we’d given this to Russia without their knowledge or asking first, that is a blow to that relationship,” the U.S. official said.

So: bad to share because this ally gets to veto any sharing of this information, and “if that partner learned we’d given this to Russia without their knowledge or asking first, that is a blow to that relationship.” And especially bad to share the city (even though there can’t be many possibilities) because that would make it easier to figure out the underlying sources and methods.

This stuff is so sensitive, the WaPo explains, that if anyone else were to share it (with an adversary, they caveat), it’d be illegal.

For almost anyone in government, discussing such matters with an adversary would be illegal.

You with me so far? Sharing bad without okay of frustrated ally, sharing location especially bad, illegal if you’re not the President.

Okay. Now read this paragraph:

The Post is withholding most plot details, including the name of the city, at the urging of officials who warned that revealing them would jeopardize important intelligence capabilities.

So multiple people learned of this event, and went out and leaked it (which is illegal to do for most anyone besides the President, the WaPo helpfully notes), not just with the WaPo’s two reporters, but with reporters from Buzzfeed, NYT, WSJ, and more. They leaked it to reporters who they presumably knew would then report it, alerting the frustrated ally that Trump had shared the information, which is a blow to that relationship, and also alerting the frustrated ally that they then proceeded to go leak it more.

I’m confused, is that a blow to that relationship too, leaking the sharing so it can be revealed? Or did, say, the Saudis call up a bunch of members of Congress and former spooks and permit them to leak this to the press so Donald and his close relationship with the Russians can be undermined?

And these sources who are outraged that Trump shared the city where our frustrated ally that shouldn’t learn we’re leaking it without its permission learned of the plot? These sources shared plot details, including the name of the city, with journalists whose job it is to publish stuff like this, though the journalists didn’t share it with us or the Russians.

Now, I’ll grant you, WaPo’s reporters aren’t an adversary (depending on who you ask), though neither are they tasked with keeping a nation that has already lost a plane to ISIS safe. WaPo’s reporters aren’t fighting for power in Syria like Russia (and our frustrated ally), so they can’t personally use this information for advantage there.

So, yeah, it’s different. But these very outraged sources are still sharing the information that it is so outrageous to share.

Me? I’m hoping all this sharing and leaking about sharing will reveal what the underlying threat really is supposed to be. Because some of our frustrated allies have a habit of exaggerating threats so we implement stupid transportation policies and grow ever more reliant on their intelligence that they seem to keep sharing even though it seems to keep getting leaked.

Journalists Grope Blindly Around Syria CW Destruction Without Discovering Need for Ceasefire

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In my post yesterday morning on the French move to submit a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons to an international group for their safe destruction, I noted that this process naturally would require an immediate ceasefire. My underlying assumption was that the need for a ceasefire would be obvious to anyone giving the situation any thought.  Personnel will need to move freely about the country to find and log the materials that will need to be destroyed. These materials will need to be moved to central locations for incineration or chemical processing to render them safe. If the personnel and the dangerous materials they will be transporting are attacked indiscriminately, the risk of releasing huge quantities of very dangerous agents looms large and the very process of trying to prevent civilian deaths could instead to lead to widespread lethal exposure.

Sadly, as I noted in the post, the French proposal does not appear to include a call for a ceasefire. Now that Russia is opposing the proposed language (because it calls for Syria to admit it carried out the August 21 attack and it includes a mandate for military action if Syria does not comply with the resolution), the opportunity exists for a new proposal to add the concept of a ceasefire.

Even more sad, though, is how our two leading bastions of foreign policy journalism, the New York Times and Washington Post, addressed the issue of how the chemical stockpiles can be destroyed. Both noted how “difficult” the process will be during the ongoing hostilities, but neither managed to point out the necessity of a ceasefire.

Here is how the Times addressed the issue:

As difficult as it may be to reach a diplomatic solution to head off a United States strike on Syria, the details of enforcement are themselves complex and uncertain, people with experience monitoring weapons facilities said.

Syria would first have to provide specifics about all aspects of its chemical weapons program. But even that step would require negotiation to determine exactly what should be declared and whether certain systems would be covered, because many delivery systems for chemical weapons — including artillery, mortars and multiple-rocket launchers — can also fire conventional weapons.

Then, experts said, large numbers of foreign troops would almost certainly be needed to safeguard inspectors working in the midst of the civil war.

“We’re talking boots on the ground,” said one former United Nations weapons inspector from Iraq, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still works in the field on contracts and did not want to hurt his chances of future employment. “We’re not talking about just putting someone at the gate. You have to have layers of security.”

Of course, many more “boots on the ground” are needed to protect the inspectors if there has not been a ceasefire negotiated and agreed to by both the Syrian government and the many factions of rebels fighting them. The Times even trots out the Pentagon estimate of how many troops would be required to secure the weapons in an invasion scenario:

A Pentagon study concluded that doing so would take more than 75,000 troops. That rough estimate has been questioned, but the official said it gave “a sense of the magnitude of the task.”

The Post does no better in its quest for just how the weapons could be secured and destroyed:

As diplomats wrangled over competing plans for securing Syria’s chemical weapons, arms-control experts warned Tuesday of the formidable challenges involved in carrying out such a complex and risky operation in the midst of a raging civil war.

U.N. teams dispatched to Syria for the mission would be attempting something new: finding and safeguarding a long-
hidden arsenal in a country that has long stood outside key international arms-control agreements — all while exposed to crossfire from Syria’s warring factions.

Poor Joby Warrick and his associates just can’t conceive of how the “crossfire” could end, even though the process of sending in the inspectors begins through UN negotiations.

Yes, there are many different factions on the “rebel” side in this conflict, but even brief investigation shows that many of them are actually proxies for several of the foreign powers that claim to have “interests” in Syria. A UN resolution that has at its heart a ceasefire would be a huge step toward showing that all of the various countries supporting militias in Syria intend to provide the opportunity for safe destruction of what could be the third largest repository of chemical weapons in the world. Although a truly international force of armed peacekeepers likely will be needed, sending them in without a ceasefire already negotiated would make the whole process of rounding up and destroying the chemical weapons a recipe for a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions.

Of course, a true optimist would note that a ceasefire would open the door to discussions to defuse political tensions within Syria while the process of destroying the chemical weapons is carried out. That would of course thwart those whose real objective is regime change in Syria through violent means but would perhaps create the opportunity for peaceful regime change. Is the world finally ready to give peace a chance after twelve years of unfocused rage?

France to Take Kerry’s Accidental Diplomacy to UN

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The Russian gambit to take accidental diplomat John Kerry up on his offer of an “impossible” scenario under which Syria could avoid US military action continues to gather steam. This morning, both the Washington Post and New York Times fill us in on French plans to take the Russian proposal to the UN, where there seems to be a chance that there will not be a veto at the Security Council.

The Times gives us some information on the sequence of events leading to the proposal:

Mr. Lavrov said he had discussed the proposal with the Americans before announcing it at a hastily arranged briefing on Monday evening. Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin discussed the idea privately on the sidelines of last week’s summit of the Group of 20 nations, and Mr. Lavrov discussed it with Secretary of State John Kerry.

They spoke as Mr. Kerry flew home to Washington after first raising the idea in a dismissive way in London on Monday, making clear that the idea of Mr. Assad giving up Syria’s weapons seemed improbable.

In their conversation, Mr. Kerry told his Russian counterpart, “We’re not going to play games,” according to a senior State Department official.

That’s a good idea from Kerry not to play games, since he had been so badly outplayed to that point. So the official position appears to be that Obama and Putin had discussed the idea but Kerry stumbled onto the same concept, but only as an impossibility? Okay, then.

The Post has similar language on the sequence of most of the events between Kerry and Lavrov, but is a bit more nuanced as to the Obama and Putin discussion:

Obama said in an interview on “PBS NewsHour” on Monday that he had discussed the possibility of international monitoring with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin at last week’s Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg.

The senior State Department official said Lavrov had previously discussed the idea in conversations with Kerry, including a telephone call as recently as Thursday, but never in the context of the proposed U.S. military action.

Clearly, the plan being discussed now, where Syria turns its chemical weapons over to international groups for eventual destruction goes well beyond “monitoring”. Is Obama claiming that discussions on monitoring are the equivalent of discussing this plan? Or is it just a desperate attempt to save face? I’m okay with face-saving if the lives of Syrian civilians are also spared.

Putting those considerations aside, though, I have one major concern about the French plan as described. Here is the Times description: Read more