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Stone v NYT: The Treachery of Dueling Incomplete Stories

Both Roger Stone and the NYT have dueling stories out, both falling far short of what they need to tell us about a set of emails sent the first week of October 2016 between Breitbart editor Matthew Boyle, his former boss turned Trump campaign chair Steve Bannon, and Roger Stone.

Neither outlet shows the email addresses or tells us what domains Bannon and Stone were using (Boyle seems to have sent at least one of these emails from his Breitbart account). That’s a huge part of the story given that, earlier this week, Stone denied to the WaPo discussing WikiLeaks with Trump campaign officials.

Stone denied discussing WikiLeaks with Trump campaign officials.

“There are no such communications, and if Bannon says there are he would be dissembling,” he said.

Plus, if Bannon used a non-campaign address to communicate with Boyle and/or Stone, it would suggest an effort to distance his ties to the two from the official campaign business (and might suggest Mueller had to have gone through extra effort to obtain these emails).

The NYT doesn’t provide times for the emails it presents (which is especially problematic because it bolloxes the timing of Stone’s tweets, most notably by using the UTC time for them and therefore showing a tweet he sent late the night of October 1 as being sent on October 2).

And while Stone at least provided the times of the emails he published, he somehow put London’s time zone behind the US (which I’ll treat as an editing error and note he was surely rushing to beat the NYT to press, which he did).

Assange held a press event Oct. 2 (Oct. 3 U.S. time) and did not release any documents that day as had been widely expected, Bannon e-mailed me asking why.

Plus, both ignore a key part of events of early October, the first reports that Mueller witness Jerome Corsi and Roger Stone wrote up from the Podesta emails leaked that week, which was based off a story that Bannon himself had originated. NYT’s accompanying story which details that Mueller has raised questions about Stone’s dark money funds, doesn’t address Stone’s Stop the Steal fund, which engaged in voter suppression, meaning Stone may be deliberately misdirecting again.

Mueller’s investigators have also delved into the operations of Mr. Stone’s political organizations. Mr. Stone has said investigators are examining a nonprofit educational fund called the Committee for American Sovereignty Education Fund, which he said produced a film alleging that former President Bill Clinton fathered an illegitimate child, a favorite theme of Mr. Stone’s.

The organization bills itself as a nonprofit social welfare organization that has been designated by the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)(4) group. But there is no indication in I.R.S. records that it has that status.

Mr. Stone’s Oct. 4, 2016, email to Mr. Bannon suggested another reason prosecutors might be interested in the fund. Asking the campaign to promote his theory of an illegitimate son of Mr. Clinton, he wrote: “I’ve raised $150K for the targeted black digital campaign through a C-4,” he wrote.

“Tell Rebecca to send us some $$$,” Mr. Stone added, apparently referring to Rebekah Mercer, a wealthy Republican donor close to Mr. Bannon. There is no indication that Mr. Bannon replied to him or sought out Ms. Mercer, and it is unclear whether Mr. Stone’s solicitation, alone, violated federal election laws. Mr. Stone said he was referring to a campaign targeting African-American voters.

In short, the stories, sourced to Bannon and maybe Sam Nunberg on one side and Stone on the other, really don’t tell us what Mueller’s after here. But they do provide a bunch of shitholes an opportunity to explain away a suspicious exchange without addressing known issues with them.

What these stories do show is that on October 3 (it appears to be after Stone’s tweet claiming “total confidence” that Julian Assange would educate the American people soon) Boyle asked Stone what Assange had coming. “Hope it’s good.”

Stone used that opportunity to try to get to Bannon, by promising that Assange had something good while noting that Bannon “doesn’t call me back” (it’s unclear whether that was in that immediate time period or more generally). “I’ve got important stuff to worry about,” Bannon replied. But Boyle persisted, suggesting it was important for Bannon to know what Assange had coming.

That day, Bannon wrote Stone, “What was that this morning???” Stone explained it as a “Serious security concern,” which reflects what WikiLeaks was playing up in real time, partly exploiting a Hillary comment claimed by True Pundit about droning Assange.

And Stone said WikiLeaks would release something each week, which also parrots what Assange had said.

These competing stories may in fact be an attempt to explain away this email, which includes at least a reference to whether or not Assange had been bribed to stop by Clinton’s people, and a reference to Stone’s efforts to slur Clinton with an accusation of an illegitimate child. (Remember, in this period Michael Cohen was busy paying off a bunch of women to prevent them from going public with stories of their affairs with Trump.)

But that last bit — the “targeted black digital campaign” — is only explained by the NYT as either Stone’s Committee for American Sovereignty Education Fund (he also worked on a RAPE PAC with one of his dark money people, which had a similar goal), which is what Stone claimed it was, or to his PAC, Committee to Restore America’s Greatness.

The other big outlay Stone was making at the time was for his Stop the Steal voter suppression effort (largely via money raised through CRAG and not kept separate from the dark money group). When Stone got in trouble for those voter suppression efforts, Don McGahn helped bail him out, so whether or not the campaign planned to, they did ultimately associate with Stone’s efforts.

In other words, the most damning connotation of that request would pertain to voter suppression, not WikiLeaks.

And, as mentioned, none of this discussion examines the way that Jerome Corsi (before the Podesta emails started coming out) and Stone (relying on the newly released emails but perhaps having had an advance peek at them) recycled Bannon and Rebekah Mercer’s own August attack on Hillary using the newly released emails.

I don’t know what to make of these emails, except to say that a bunch of shitholes are trying to tell stories about them that leave key holes in the story.

Why Did Rebekah Mercer and Steve Bannon Start Preparing an Accusation that Hillary Had Corrupt Ties with Russia Starting on March 14, 2016?

Amid a lot of noise regarding the eight month investigation into Roger Stone (including that his assistant Jason Sullivan has been asked for the complete recordings of some conference calls he gave in 2016 and that he has passed two polygraphs that may not be asking the right questions), the WaPo has a detail of real interest. Mueller brought Steve Bannon back in for questioning Friday.

On Friday, Mueller’s team questioned Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief campaign strategist, about alleged claims Stone made privately about WikiLeaks before the group released emails allegedly hacked by Russian operatives, according to people familiar with the session.

I say that’s particularly interesting because of Bannon’s role in a series of events that come as close as anything to hint that Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi not only had advance knowledge that Wikileaks would release John Podesta’s emails, but may have known and planned for what those emails included.

Stone and Corsi seemed to expect that there would be Podesta emails relating to Joule

As I noted in these two posts, Stone’s evolving public stories explaining his knowledge of the stolen documents seem to attempt to do three things:

  • Provide non-incriminating explanations for any foreknowledge of WikiLeaks — first pointing to Randy Credico and now to James Rosen
  • Offer explanations for discussions about Podesta that he may presume Mueller has that took place around August 14
  • Shift the focus away from Joule and the remarkable prescience with which the right wing anticipated that WikiLeaks would be able to advance an attack first rolled out on August 1

Basically, over the course of August, several key events happened: Stone first started publicly claiming foreknowledge of what WikiLeaks would drop, tried to launch a counterattack against public reporting on Paul Manafort’s sleazy ties to Russian and Russian-backed Ukrainian oligarchs, and then warned that it would soon be John Podesta’s time on the barrel. Those events came amidst two separate oppo research efforts: An early one initiated by Bannon and (Clinton Cash author) Peter Schweizer that accused Hillary of corrupt ties to Russia, largely through John Podesta’s role a company called Joule Unlimited. And then a later one (starting at 39), written by Corsi, trying to impugn Hillary because her campaign manager’s brother was so corrupt he had worked with Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and at Manafort’s instructions not properly declared the work. Stone seems to have wanted to conflate those two efforts, in part to suggest his August 21 tweet (and an August 15 one that may end up being just as interesting) referred to both brothers, not just John, and therefore not the earlier oppo effort.

What’s interesting, however, is that while Corsi claims Stone was quite interested in the Bannon/Schweizer effort and that his own report arose out of it, Stone was virtually silent about it up until the Podesta emails started dropping in October. In fact, the day before the Podesta emails dropped, Corsi renewed the focus on Joule, which in turn teed up a Stone report and then a Corsi one integrating but not linking emails released by WikiLeaks, followed four days later by a Corsi report actually showing how those WikiLeaks emails supported claims he and especially Stone had already made. While it is true that Stone doesn’t integrate evidence from the WikiLeaks emails until they were released, the analysis of those emails (Corsi’s) took place days after his first report on them.

One possible scenario to explain all that (and this is all speculative) is that Roger Stone, back when he was trying to find a way to respond to stories about Manafort, asked someone with access to the files Russia either already had or planned to share with WikiLeaks, and learned there were files in the dump pertaining to the attack already launched, focused on Joule. That is, Stone may have figured out that those emails were coming in August, and therefore held his focus on Joule until they were eventually released. In this scenario, then, when Stone predicted it would soon be Podesta’s time on the barrel, he may have been anticipating that the upcoming WikiLeaks dump would substantiate an attack his cronies had already made.

We know, for example, that in September 2016 he asked Randy Credico for help learning what Clinton emails on Libya — which Stone appears to have known or believed were in Assange’s hands but that had yet to be released — said. So it is consistent to assume that Stone tried to learn and plan for what was coming at other times. And his October 13 Joule attack is, as far as I’m aware, the one for which there is the most public evidence that he did plan the later attack.

That Joule attack was part of a report that remarkably anticipated the need to accuse Hillary of Russian ties

But all that raises another question I’ve been pondering: Why did Bannon and Schweizer already have an attack claiming Hillary had corrupt ties to Russia, ready to release on August 1? The timing was key: the report came out just over a week after the WikiLeaks DNC dump made the question of Russia’s tampering to defeat Hillary really pressing, and just days after Trump asked Russia to go find more Hillary emails. It also came as Manafort would have had the first rumors that stories of his own Russian ties would break.

The question is all the more important given that this was not a last minute report.

Indeed, according to the footnotes, the report was started in March 2016, even before John Podesta was hacked. The Obama White House fact sheet on that Administration’s attempted reset with Russia was accessed March 14, days before Podesta was hacked, and again on March 18, the day before Podesta was spearphished.

“U.S.-Russia Relations: “Reset” Fact Sheet.” The White House. June 24, 2010. Accessed March 14, 2016. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/us-russia-relations-reset-fact-sheet.

[snip]

“U.S.-Russia Relations: ‘Reset’ Fact Sheet.” The White House. June 24, 2010. Accessed March 18, 2016. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/us-russia-relations-reset-factsheet.

Some of the Hillary emails released by the State Department were accessed on March 28.

“Search Hillary Clinton’s Emails.” WSJ. March 1, 2016. Accessed March 28, 2016. http://graphics.wsj.com/hillary-clinton-email-documents/.

Reports on Viktor Vekselberg Silicon Valley’s initiative were accessed in March, too.

24 “Skolkovo Innovation Center.” Skolkovo Innovation Center. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://in.rbth.com/skolkovo.

25 “Cisco Commits $1 Billion for Multi-year Investment in Skolkovo.” ThinkRUSSIA. June 27, 2010. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.thinkrussia.com/business-economy/cisco-commits1-billion-multi-year-investment-skolkovo.

WikiLeaks Cablegate files on the Vekselberg effort going back to 2009 were accessed on April 27 (the day after George Papadopoulos learned the Russians had emails on Hillary they wanted to dump in an effort to help Trump).

“Russia Moving Into High Gear on Nanotechnology; Actively Seeking Cooperation with U.S.,” U.S. State Department Cable. February 11, 2009. Wikileaks. Accessed April 27, 2016. https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09MOSCOW333_a.html.

Some of the Podesta Joule work was done in April.

Podesta, John. “Public Financial Disclosure Report.” Accessed April 20, 2016. https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.documentcloud.org/documents/1227013/john-podesta-whitehouse-financial-disclosure-form.pdf. ”

Joule Unlimited, Inc.” Portfolio Companies. Accessed April 06, 2016

There were also a string of emails that would have come from officially released State emails (but which don’t include access dates; remember that most of those emails came in response to a Jason Leopold FOIA but WikiLeaks hosted them to great fanfare).

88 Mills, Cheryl D. “My List.” E-mail. July 27, 2009.

89 Podesta, John. “Calling.” E-mail. June 2, 2009.

90 Talbott, Strobe. “RE: Speech for Tomorrow’s Meeting.” E-mail. July 9, 2009.

91 Abedin, Huma. “Podesta.” E-mail. August 21, 2009.

92 Podesta, John. “[redacted].” E-mail. July 25, 2009;

One of the last access dates was May 10, 2016.

Nowak, David. “Key Skolkovo Partners Microsoft, Siemens, Reiterate Commitment to Project.” Skolkovo Foundation. November 13, 2014. Accessed May 10, 2016.

Unless I missed something, there are just three finishing touches added after that date, in mid-July.

“Fact Sheet-U.S.-Russia Business Summit.” Department of Commerce. June 25, 2010. Accessed July 18, 2016. http://2010-2014.commerce.gov/news/fact-sheets/2010/06/24/fact-sheet-us-russiabusiness-summit.html.

[snip]

“State in €70m Aids Partnership in Africa.” The Irish Times. October 25, 2006. Accessed July 15, 2016. http://www.irishtimes.com/news/state-in-70m-aids-partnership-in-africa-1.798426. “Press Release: President Clinton to Visit Pediatric AIDS Clinic in Mozambique, Beginning Trip to Africa to Focus on AIDS Care.” Clinton Foundation. June 17, 2005. Accessed July 15, 2016. https://www.clintonfoundation.org/main/news-and-media/press-releases-and-statements/pressrelease-president-clinton-to-visit-pediatric-aids-clinic-in-mozambique-beg.html.

All of this suggests that, by May 10, 2016, the report was just sitting there at Rebekah Mercer funded Government Accountability Institute, waiting for the right opportunity to accuse Hillary of ties to Russia; virtually the entire report was done before Democrats confirmed they had been hacked by Russia, and all the research was done before WikiLeaks dumped the DNC emails.

Ms. Mercer and a person close to her had a brief conversation regarding Mrs. Clinton’s deleted emails in June 2016, a month after Mr. Cruz had dropped out of the race, the person said. The person said they discussed whether it would make sense to try to access and release those emails, but ultimately decided that looking for them would create “major legal liabilities” and would be a “terrible idea.”

Rebekah Mercer kept trying to work with WikiLeaks on optimizing emails

That Rebekah Mercer was funding this attack (one that started long before the Mercers started backing Trump) is all the more interesting given several different efforts she or her employee made to reach out to WikiLeaks. There’s Alexander Nix’s offer to help WikiLeaks organize emails we weren’t supposed to know about yet in June 2016.

Mr. Nix responded that he had reached out to Mr. Assange two months earlier—in June 2016, before Cambridge Analytica had started working for the Trump campaign—to ask him to share Clinton-related emails so the company could aid in disseminating them, the person familiar with the email exchange said. He said Mr. Assange had turned him down. That outreach and subsequent rejection was confirmed by Mr. Assange earlier this week on Twitter.

Also in June, Ms. Mercer had a discussion about accessing Hillary’s deleted emails.

Ms. Mercer and a person close to her had a brief conversation regarding Mrs. Clinton’s deleted emails in June 2016, a month after Mr. Cruz had dropped out of the race, the person said. The person said they discussed whether it would make sense to try to access and release those emails, but ultimately decided that looking for them would create “major legal liabilities” and would be a “terrible idea.”

Then, again in August, Mercer asked Nix — or the GAI, the same outlet that did the Hillary Russia attack — about helping WikiLeaks with emails.

On Aug. 26, 2016, roughly a month after Mr. Trump formally became the Republican nominee, Ms. Mercer passed along to Mr. Nix an email she had received from a person she met at an event supporting Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), whose presidential campaign she had initially supported during the GOP primaries, the person familiar with the exchange said. The email’s author suggested to Ms. Mercer that the Trump campaign or an allied super PAC ought to better index the WikiLeaks emails to make them more searchable, the person said.

Ms. Mercer forwarded the email to Mr. Nix, whose firm had started working for the Trump campaign in July 2016 after previously working for the Cruz campaign, according to the person. In the email, Ms. Mercer asked Mr. Nix whether the suggested organization of the emails was something Cambridge Analytica or the Government Accountability Institute—a conservative nonprofit that focuses on investigative research—could do, the person said. Ms. Mercer has sat on the board of the institute, which has received funding from her family.

Clearly, Mercer was thinking a lot about how to optimize the emails Russia had stolen.

Steve Bannon would know, at a minimum, about how he and Schweizer anticipated the need to project Russian corruption onto Hillary and her campaign manager way back in March 2016. But he also might know whether, in the wake of the GAI report, Stone or someone else got a preview of coming attractions, other emails they might later use to return to the Joule attack.

The Universe of Hacked and Leaked Emails from 2016: Podesta Emails

When Mueller’s team released George Papadopoulos’ plea deal last year, I noted that the initial denials that Papadopoulos had advance warning of the emails the Russians were preparing to hack and leak did not account for the entire universe of emails known to have been stolen. A year and several Mueller indictments later, we still don’t have a complete understanding of what emails were being dealt when. Because that lack of understanding hinders understanding what Mueller might be doing with Roger Stone, I wanted to lay out what we know about four sets of emails. This series will include posts on the following:

  • DNC emails
  • Podesta emails
  • DCCC emails
  • Emails Hillary deleted from her server

The series won’t, however, account for two more sets of emails, anything APT 29 stole when hacking the White House and State Department starting in 2015, or anything released via the several FOIAs of the Hillary emails turned over to the State Department from her home server. It also won’t deal with the following:

  • Emails from two Hillary staffers who had their emails released via dcleaks
  • The emails of other people released by dcleaks, which includes Colin Powell, some local Republican parties (including some 2015 emails Peter Smith sent to the IL Republican party), and others with interests in Ukraine
  • A copy of the Democrats’ analytics program copied on AWS
  • The NGP/VAN file, which was not directly released by Guccifer 2.0, but is central to one of the skeptics’ theories about an alternative source other than Russia

Meuller remains coy about how the Podesta emails were released by WikiLeaks

My post on the DNC emails noted some timing curiosities about when and how the DNC emails got shared with WikiLeaks.

The curiosities about the Podesta emails, however, are far more important for questions about Roger Stone’s knowledge of the process.

As a number of people have observed, while Mueller’s GRU indictment provides extensive details describing how Podesta was hacked and showing that the infrastructure to hack him was used for other parts of the operation, the indictment is far more coy about how the Podesta emails got to WikiLeaks.

In or around 2016, LUKASHEV sent spearphishing emails to members of the Clinton Campaign and affiliated individuals, including the chairman of the Clinton Campaign.

[snip]

For example, on or about March 19, 2016, LUKASHEV and his co-conspirators created and sent a spearphishing email to the chairman of the Clinton Campaign. LUKASHEV used the account “john356gh” at an online service that abbreviated lengthy website addresses (referred to as a “URL-shortening service”). LUKASHEV used the account to mask a link contained in the spearphishing email, which directed the recipient to a GRU-created website. LUKASHEV altered the appearance of the sender email address in order to make it look like the email was a security notification from Google (a technique known as “spoofing”), instructing the user to change his password by clicking the embedded link. Those instructions were followed. On or about March 21, 2016, LUKASHEV, YERMAKOV, and their co-conspirators stole the contents of the chairman’s email account, which consisted of over 50,000 emails.

[snip]

The funds used to pay for the dcleaks.com domain originated from an account at an online cryptocurrency service that the Conspirators also used to fund the lease of a virtual private server registered with the operational email account [email protected] The dirbinsaabol email account was also used to register the john356gh URL-shortening account used by LUKASHEV to spearphish the Clinton Campaign chairman and other campaign-related individuals.

[snip]

On or about October 7, 2016, Organization 1 released the first set of emails from the chairman of the Clinton Campaign that had been stolen by LUKASHEV and his co-conspirators. Between on or about October 7, 2016 and November 7, 2016, Organization 1 released approximately thirty-three tranches of documents that had been stolen from the chairman of the Clinton Campaign. In total, over 50,000 stolen documents were released.

Mueller’s silence, thus far, about how the Podesta emails got shared with WikiLeaks is intriguing for several reasons, even aside from the fact that (as noted in the last post) the first documents Guccifer 2.0 shared were billed as DNC emails but (as far as have been identified) are actually Podesta ones. Perhaps Mueller doesn’t know how those emails were passed on. Perhaps the sources and methods by which the FBI learned about how they were shared are too sensitive to put in an indictment. Perhaps Mueller has reserved that story for a later indictment.

The August to September timing on receipt of the emails

The publicly known timing is no more clear.

The Roger Stone tweet on which suspicions of advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’ releases rest — warning “Trust me, it will soon [sic] the Podesta’s time in the barrel” — is dated August 21, 2016.

That date is significant, because it’s not at all clear WikiLeaks had the Podesta emails by that point (and if so, may have just obtained them).

Raffi Khatchadourian cites a WikiLeaks staffer saying they received the emails in “late summer” but also points to an August 24 Fox News interview where Assange described processing “a variety of documents, from different types of institutions that are associated with the election campaign,” which doesn’t necessarily narrow down those emails to Podesta’s.

A pattern that was set in June appeared to recur: just before DCLeaks became active with election publications, WikiLeaks began to prepare another tranche of e-mails, this time culled from John Podesta’s Gmail account. “We are working around the clock,” Assange told Fox News in late August. “We have received quite a lot of material.” It is unclear how long Assange had been in possession of the e-mails, but a staffer assigned to the project suggested that he had received them in the late summer: “As soon as we got them, we started working on them, and then we started publishing them. From when we received them to when we published them, it was a real crunch. My only wish is that we had the equivalent from the Republicans.”

As we’ll see later in this series, there was more certainty that by August 24 WikiLeaks had other hacked emails than that they had Podesta’s.

Khatchadourian also notes that the raw files are all dated September 19 and describes Assange “weaponizing” the release of the data a week or two before the files were released starting on October 7.

All of the raw e-mail files that WikiLeaks published from Podesta’s account are dated September 19th, which appears to indicate the day that they were copied or modified for some purpose. Assange told me that in mid-September, a week or two before he began publishing the e-mails, he devised a way to weaponize the information. If his releases followed a predictable pattern, he reasoned, Clinton’s campaign would be able to prepare. So he worked out an algorithm, which he called the Stochastic Terminator, to help staff members select e-mails for each day’s release. He told me that the algorithm was built on a random-number generator, modified by mathematical weights that reflected the pattern of the news cycle in a typical week. By introducing randomness into the process, he hoped to make it impossible for the Clinton war room “to adjust to the problem, to spin, to create antidote news beforehand.”

That timing lines up in interesting ways with the date when retired British diplomat Craig Murray claims he got a handoff of something (he’s never explained precisely what it was, though it sounded like it could be an encryption key) relating to the Podesta emails when he was in DC to attend the Sam Adams Award ceremony on September 25.

All of which suggests significant events relating to the transfer to WikiLeaks and preparation of the Podesta emails happened after the Stone tweet.

Still later, according to a recent WSJ report, Peter Smith indicated that he knew Podesta emails were coming ahead of time (the reporting is not clear whether this was before or after the fact).

The person familiar with Mr. Smith recalled him repeatedly implying that he knew ahead of time about leaks of Mr. Podesta’s emails.

That claim is all the more interesting when you tie it to the email shared with Smith via foldering on October 11, seemingly reflecting happiness about emails already released, which would seem to point to the Podesta emails that started to drop four days earlier.

“[A]n email in the ‘Robert Tyler’ [foldering] account [showing] Mr. Smith obtained $100,000 from at least four financiers as well as a $50,000 contribution from Mr. Smith himself.” The email was dated October 11, 2016 and has the subject line, “Wire Instructions—Clinton Email Reconnaissance Initiative.” It came from someone calling himself “ROB,” describing the funding as supporting “the Washington Scholarship Fund for the Russian students.” The email also notes, “The students are very pleased with the email releases they have seen, and are thrilled with their educational advancement opportunities.”

The email apparently linking the contemporaneous release of the Podesta emails to a future hoped for release of deleted Hillary ones is significant for several reasons. First, it shows that other geriatric rat-fuckers, in addition to Stone, linked the two. The reflection of pleasure with emails on October 11 is significant given that that was the day WikiLeaks released two Podesta emails Smith associate Jerome Corsi and Stone would use to advance an attack on Podesta pertaining to his ties with Joule Unlimited, an attack that the right wing had been pushing since August (and working on since March). The WSJ notes that both Corsi and Charles Ortel (to the latter of whom Stone now ties some of his WikiLeaks claims) were tied to both Smith and Stone, though Stone claims to have been unaware of the Smith effort.

Stone’s three different explanations for his tweet and the import of Joule emails

In this post, I looked in detail at how epically shitty Stone’s current excuse for his August 21 Podesta tweet is. Over time, Stone has basically offered at least three excuses for it.

First he adopted an explanation offered in March 2017 by Jerome Corsi. In that explanation, Corsi basically conflated two efforts: an attack on John Podesta based on his service on the board of Joule Unlimited from 2010 to 2014, and an effort to respond to mid-August reports on Paul Manafort’s corrupt ties to Russia by focusing instead on Tony Podesta.

The Joule attack research was started (per web access dates recorded in this report) two days before Podesta was spearphished, on March 17, and first rolled out publicly in a Steve Bannon-affiliated Government Accountability Insitute report on August 1.  Corsi and Stone resuscitated the attack starting on October 6 (the day before the Podesta emails started coming out), seemingly correctly anticipating the WikiLeaks email releases that Stone and Corsi would use to advance the attack.

The Corsi explanation that Stone once adopted conflated that attack with a report that Corsi did for Stone (starting at PDF 39), which largely projected onto Tony Podesta the corrupt ties to Ukraine and Russia that Paul Manafort had; the report only tangentially focused on John. The date on the Corsi report is August 31, ten days after Stone’s tweet, but Corsi claims he and Stone started it on August 14.

Stone offered a slightly different explanation when he testified under oath to the House Intelligence Committee. There, he generalized the attack on “the Podesta brothers” and attributed his tweet to “early August” discussions about the August 31 Corsi report. In his prepared statement, he made no mention of Joule.

In the wake of Corsi’s interview on September 6 and grand jury appearance on September 21 (in conjunction with which he reportedly shared a bunch of documents that would substantiate when he and Stone were talking about Joule and when about Tony Podesta), Stone changed his tune again, now only admitting publicly for the first time that Charles Ortel forwarded him an email showing James Rosen promising “a massive dump of HRC emails relating to the CF in September,” but also attributing any August 14 interest to something besides Corsi, a Breitbart post that may be this one.

Stone, however, says that the tweet was based on “an August 14th article in Breitbart News by Peter Schweitzer that reported that Tony Podesta was working for the same Ukrainian Political Party that Paul Manafort was being excoriated for,” and that “the Podesta brothers extensive business dealings with the Oligarchs around Putin pertaining to gas, banking and uranium had been detailed in the Panama Papers in April of 2016.”

Stone’s explanations seem to attempt to do three things:

  • Provide non-incriminating explanations for any foreknowledge of WikiLeaks — first pointing to Randy Credico and now to James Rosen
  • Offer explanations for discussions about Podesta that he may presume Mueller has that took place around August 14
  • Shift the focus away from Joule and the remarkable prescience with which the right wing anticipated that WikiLeaks would be able to advance an attack first rolled out on August 1

With that in mind, I find the timeline of Stone’s tweets mentioning either Podesta instructive. It shows Stone never mentioned either brother until August 15 — the day after the first of the stories on Manafort’s Ukraine corruption and after that August 14 date he seems so worried about. That tweet, “@JohnPodesta makes @PaulManafort look like St. Thomas Aquinas Where is the @NewYorkTimes?” may prove as interesting as the August 21 one.

Stone mentioned John Podesta again in that August 21 tweet.

Then he remained silent on Twitter about Clinton’s campaign chairman until the day after the Podesta emails started coming out, whereupon Stone started claiming that Podesta had been money laundering for Russia.

Stone’s first tweet as the Podesta emails dropped pointed back to an earlier Corsi post reporting that the Podesta Group was also under investigation. That same day, he pointed to the Corsi post that seemed to anticipate the Joule attack would be returning. Yet, in an interview done after the release on October 11 of the Podesta emails that both he and Corsi would later rely on to extend the Joule attack, Stone made no mention of those emails or the Joule attack. By the next day, however, Stone was relying on (but not linking) those emails.

In other words, at least as measured by his Twitter feed, Stone was uninterested in the Joule attack when it came out in August. He didn’t mention it at all in his two Podesta tweets that month (nor does he in his currently operative explanation). But he did become interested in the story in advance of the release of emails by WikiLeaks pertaining to the attack.

This is probably a good time to recall that many of the Stone associates Mueller has interviewed did research for Stone, and others had access to his social media accounts. Note that even this selection of his tweets show the use of multiple clients — Twitter Web Client, Tweetdeck, and Twitter for iPhone — that may reflect different people posting from his account.

Stone’s claims about WikiLeaks — and his outreach to Guccifer 2.0 — took place as Manafort started to panic about his own Russian ties

Given some of Stone’s explanations (and his apparent concern with offering some explanation for discussions about Podesta on August 14), I also find it notable the way this timeline overlaps with Manafort’s increasingly desperate efforts to stave off bankruptcy even while working for Trump for “free.” Part of those efforts, of course, involved criminal efforts to hide his ties to Russia in the wake of reporting on those ties in mid-August.

It’s unclear when Manafort knew for sure his ties with Russia would blow up. In the wake of the first WikiLeaks dump on July 27, he got asked about his and Trump’s ties to Russia, a question he struggled with before responding by pointing to Hillary’s deleted emails. In spite of the risk of his own Russian ties, Manafort met on August 2 with Konstantin Kilimnik, talking (among other things) about unpaid bills and the presidential election. Sometime in early August, in advance of the first NYT story substantiating his Russian ties, he was reportedly blackmailed over the secret ledgers of his work with Ukrainian oligarchs.

Remarkably, just as attention to Trump and Manafort’s ties to Russia started becoming an issue, Republicans had that GAI report insinuating a tie between Hillary and Russia all ready to go on August 1. That insinuation went through John Podesta and his ties to Joule. Before laying out that relationship, however, the GAI report suggested there must be more dirt on the topic in the emails Hillary deleted.

More recently, in January, 2015, Podesta became the campaign chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the 2016 presidential bid.85

During Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, he was in regular contact with her and played an important role in shaping U.S. policy. For one thing, he sat on the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board, appointed by Hillary. (The board was established in December 2011.)86

The full extent of Podesta’s email communication cannot ultimately be known because Hillary Clinton deleted approximately half of her emails after she left the State Department.

So along with everything else the report did, it built expectations that Hillary’s deleted emails would reveal secret dirt about Russia she was suppressing to win the campaign.

By the time the report came out, we know that Stone was already interested in what WikiLeaks might have, as Charles Ortel BCCed him on an email suggesting that WikiLeaks had Clinton Foundation emails to dump in September in late July.

Then, precisely as the Russian attack on Podesta was rolling out, Stone flip-flopped on his claimed belief about who hacked Hillary Clinton. Between August 1 and August 5, on the same days he was claiming to have dined with Julian Assange when he was instead in Southern California meeting his dark money associates, he started claiming that Guccifer 2.0 was just a hacktivist, not Russians. That stated belief has always been central to his claims not to have conspired with Russia.

In significant part because he flip-flopped publicly, he and Guccifer 2.0 started communicating, first about Stone’s claim that Guccifer 2.0 had nothing to do with Russia, then about Guccifer 2.0 being shut down on Twitter:

August 12: Guccifer 2.0:   thanks that u believe in the real

August 13: Stone: @WL @G2 Outrageous! Clintonistas now nned to censor their critics to rig the upcoming election.

Stone: @DailyCaller Censorship ! Gruciffer2 is a HERO.

August 14: Guccifer 2.0 Here I am! They’ll have to try much harder to block me!

Stone: First #Milo, now Guccifer 2.0 – why are those exposing the truth banned? @RealAlexJones @infowars #FreeMilo

Stone: @poppalinos @RealAlexJones @infowars @GUCCIFER_2 Thank You, SweetJesus. I’ve prayed for it.

That’s when Stone moved their conversations to DM.

That conversation, including Guccifer 2.0’s question whether Stone found “anything interesting in the docs I posted?” (which, in public context at least, would refer to some DCCC documents Guccifer had posted on WordPress on August 12) took place even as Stone was continuing to speak about knowing what was in the next WikiLeaks dump and as he responded badly to his childhood friend becoming the target of NYT’s attention on August 14.

As noted, Stone seems to be struggling to answer why he was discussing John Podesta on August 14.

To be sure, Stone was talking to Corsi on August 14 or 15. On August 15, Corsi published an interview with Stone, in which he claimed to have been badly hacked and described what he expected would come next from WikiLeaks.

But nothing in the interview mentions Podesta.

Stone’s descriptions of what WikiLeaks might dump next in that interview could reflect the BCCed James Rosen email reporting that WikiLeaks would dump Clinton Foundation documents in September, but the information he laid out went far beyond that email (and promised an October surprise, not a September dump).

“In the next series of emails Assange plans to release, I have reason to believe the Clinton Foundation scandals will surface to keep Bill and Hillary from returning to the White House,” he said.

[snip]

In a speech Southwest Broward Republican Organization in Florida, published Aug. 9 by David Brock’s left-wing website Media Matters, Stone said he had “communicated with Assange.”

“I believe the next tranche of his documents pertain to the Clinton Foundation, but there is no telling what the October surprise may be,” he said.

Stone told WND that Assange “plans to drop at various strategic points in the presidential campaigns Hillary Clinton emails involving the Clinton Foundation that have yet to surface publically.”

“Assange claims the emails contain enough damaging information to put Hillary Clinton in jail for selling State Department ‘official acts’ in exchange for contributions to the Clinton Foundation and as a reward for Clinton Foundation donors becoming clients of Teneo, the consulting firm established by Bill Clinton’s White House ‘body man’ Doug Band,” he said.

That same day, August 15, is the first time Stone ever mentioned Podesta on Twitter.

Stone claims (and claimed, in sworn testimony) that his focus on John Podesta was a response to the allegations against Manafort. That makes the confluence of all these events all the more interesting.

Corsi’s lawyer claims he avoided criminal liability

As noted above, Jerome Corsi has explained what he knows of all this in a September 21 grand jury appearance, a grand jury appearance that Mueller seems to have been working towards since having Ted Malloch questioned way back in March.

In advance of that testimony, Corsi’s attorney David Grey seemed to suggest that Corsi declined to participate in certain activities involving Stone that might have exposed him to criminal liability.

Gray said he was confident that Corsi has done nothing wrong. “Jerry Corsi made decisions that he would not take actions that would give him criminal liability,” he added, declining to elaborate.

Asked if Corsi had opportunities to take such actions, Gray said, “I wouldn’t say he was offered those opportunities. I would say he had communications with Roger Stone. We’ll supply those communications and be cooperative. My client didn’t act further that would give rise to any criminal liability.”

But Mueller is apparently now chasing down Corsi’s associates.

FBI agents have recently been seeking to interview Corsi’s associates, according to the person.

One other key player in the Podesta hand-off conflated the Podesta brothers

The close ties between how Stone focused on both Podesta brothers in response to the public allegations against Manafort is interesting for another reason.

Former Ambassador Craig Murray, the only one not denying some role in the handoff of the Podesta emails (again, he has said he didn’t get the emails themselves, which he believed were already with WikiLeaks, but something associated with them).

Murray told Scott Horton that his source had obtained whatever he received from a figure in American national security with legal access to the information.

[H]e says “The material was already, I think, safely with WikiLeaks before I got there in September,” though other outlets have suggested (with maps included!) that’s when the hand-off happened. In that account, Murray admits he did not meet with the person with legal access; he instead met with an intermediary.

But the explanation of his source’s legal access and motivation not only doesn’t make sense, but seems to parrot what Stone was saying at the time.

I also want you to consider that John Podesta was a paid lobbyist for the Saudi government — that’s open and declared, it’s not secret or a leak in a sense. John Podesta was paid a very substantial sum every month by the Saudi government to lobby for their interests in Washington. And if the American security services were not watching the communications of the Saudi government paid lobbyist then the American intelligence services would not be doing their job. Of course it’s also true that the Saudis’ man, the Saudis’ lobbyist in Washington, his communications are going to be of interest to a great many other intelligence services as well.

As Stone did, this conflates John and Tony. It wrongly suggests that US national security officials would be collecting all of Tony Podesta’s emails, or that collecting on Tony would obtain all of John’s emails. All the more interesting, this conflation would have come in a period when Manafort’s lifelong buddy, Stone, was trying to distract attention from Manafort’s own corruption — which included telling Tony not to disclose the influence-peddling he had done for Manafort in the legally required manner — by projecting Manafort’s corruption onto Tony.

One more point about Murray. Murray has ties (including through the Sam Adams Association the awards ceremony for which he was in DC attending) to NSA whistleblowers Bill Binney (Murray received the award in 2005 and Binney received it in 2015) and Kirk Wiebe. This claim that US law enforcement would collect everything (including Hillary’s deleted emails) is the kind of line that Binney was pushing at the time, including to Andrew Napolitano, who was CCed on the email Stone received about WikiLeaks’ plans in July. Napolitano is one of the people who has championed that Binney line about the hack.

In other words, it’s not just that Murray was telling a similar story as Stone, even though they’re politically very different people. It’s that he was not that distant from the network of Republicans talking about what WikiLeaks might have had.

Update: Emma Best just wrote up something she’s been tracking for some time: there are four different numbers on how many Podesta mails there are.

WikiLeaks’ own data gives us five different totals for the number of Podesta emails:

  1. 50,866
  2. 57,153
  3. 58,660
  4. 59,258
  5. 59,188

The two most authoritative answers to the question come from WikiLeaks and the Special Counsel’s office, and both indicate that the total exceeded 50,000. While WikiLeaks’ stated there were “well over 50,000” emails, the Special Counsel’s indictment simply said that “over 50,000 stolen documents were released.” Since “documents” can be construed to include both the emails and their various attachments, the SC’s total is even more vague and less definitive than WikiLeaks’.

Ultimately, he best answer to the question of how many Podesta emails there are appears to be 59,188.

This raises the possibility that Stone or Corsi saw copies that WikiLeaks didn’t publish. Mueller’s distinction between how many emails were stolen and how many released suggests FBI may know what WikiLeaks chose not to public, if in fact they did.

Timeline

July 18-21: Stone meets Nigel Farage while at RNC

July 25: Stone gets BCCed on an email from Charles Ortel that shows James Rosen reporting “a massive dump of HRC emails relating to the CF in September;” Stone now claims this explains his reference to a journalist go-between

July 27: Paul Manafort struggles while denying ties to Russia, instead pointing to Hillary’s home server

July 31: GAI report on From Russia with Money claiming Viktor Vekselberg’s Skolkovo reflects untoward ties; it hints that a greater John Podesta role would be revealed in her deleted emails and claims he did  not properly disclose role on Joule board when joining Obama Administration

August 1: Steve Bannon and Peter Schweitzer publish a Breitbart version of the GAI report

August 1: Stone NYC > LA

August 2: Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik meet in the Grand Havana Room in Jared’s 666 Park Avenue and “talked about bills unpaid by our clients, about [the] overall situation in Ukraine . . . and about the current news,” including the presidential campaign

August 2, 2016: Stone dines with dark money funder, John Powers Middleton in West Hollywood

August 3 and 4: Manafort obtains the bio of Steve Calk, from whom he was getting a $16 million mortgage in tacit exchange for a role in the Trump administration

August 3: Stone claims to Sam Nunberg to have dined with Assange

August 3-4: Stone takes a red-eye from LAX to Miami

August 4: Stone flip-flops on whether the Russians or a 400 pound hacker are behind the DNC hack and also tells Sam Nunberg he dined with Julian Assange; first tweet in the fall StopTheSteal campaign

August 5: Trump names Calk to his advisory committee

August 5: Stone column in Breitbart claiming Guccifer 2.0 is individual hacker

August 7: Stone starts complaining about a “rigged” election, claims that Nigel Farage had told him Brexit had been similarly rigged

August 8: Stone tells Broward Republicans he has communicated with Assange, expects next tranche to pertain to Clinton Foundation

August 10: Manafort tells his tax preparer that he would get $2.4 million in earned income collectable from work in Ukraine in November

August 10: Stone asserts that Hillary’s deleted emails will be coming out

Early August: Manafort gets blackmail threat pertaining to secret ledgers

August 12: Guccifer 2.0 publicly tweets Stone

August 13: Stone claims to have been hacked

August 14: NYT publishes story on secret ledgers

August 14: Stone DMs Guccifer 2.0

August 14: Corsi claims to have started research on response to NYT story

August 14: Breitbart piece suggesting NYT was ignoring Hillary’s own ties to Russia; this may be Stone’s latest explanation for interest in Podesta on that date

August 15: Manafort and Gates lie to the AP about their undisclosed lobbying, locking in claims they would make under oath later that fall

August 15: In first tweet mentioning John Podesta, Stone claims John Podesta “makes Paul Manafort look like St. Thomas Aquinas”

August 15: Corsi reports Stone’s prediction that WikiLeaks will release deleted Hillary emails (also reports on claimed hack)

August 17: AP publishes story on Manafort’s unreported Ukraine lobbying, describing Podesta Group’s role at length

August 17: Trump adds Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conaway to campaign leadership team (Manafort’s daughter claims he hired them)

August 19: Manafort resigns from campaign

August 21: Stone tweets it will soon be Podesta’s time on the barrel

August 26: Rebekka Mercer asks Alexander Nix whether Cambridge Analytica or GAI could better organize the leaked Hillary emails

September 12: Following further reporting in the Kyiv Post, Konstantin Kilimnik contacts Alex Van der Zwaan in attempt to hide money laundering to Skadden Arps

September 28: Corsi post (later linked on Twitter by Stone) noting that Podesta Group also under investigation

October 6: Corsi repeats the Joule/GAI claims

October 11: Release of Podesta email allegedly backing Joule story (December 31, 2013 resignation letter, January 7, 2014 severance letters)

October 11: Foldering email among Peter Smith operatives that may included coded satisfaction with emails released thus far

October 12: Roger Stone interview with the Daily Caller responding to Podesta’s allegations he knew of release in advance, which makes no mention of Joule attack

October 13: In response to accusations he knew of Podesta emails in advance, Stone repeats Joule story falsely claiming this WikiLeaks email, released October 11, substantiates it; Corsi also posts a story on Joule, like Stone not linking to the underlying WikiLeaks emails

October 17: Corsi post that actually links the WikiLeaks releases relied on in his and Stone’s October 13 posts

October 30: Additional Joule letter (including actual transfer signatures) released

October 31: Additional Joule letter released

November 1: Additional Joule letter released

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

Trump’s Open Book Test Still Poses a Big Perjury Risk

In spite of a great deal of encouragement to do so on Twitter, I can’t muster a victory lap from the news that the Mueller team has agreed that Trump’s first round of open book test will focus only on conspiracy with Russia.

President Donald Trump’s legal team is preparing answers to written questions provided by special counsel Robert Mueller, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The move represents a major development after months of negotiations and signals that the Mueller investigation could be entering a final phase with regard to the President.

The questions are focused on matters related to the investigation of possible collusion between Trump associates and Russians seeking to meddle in the 2016 election, the sources said. Trump’s lawyers are preparing written responses, in part relying on documents previously provided to the special counsel, the sources said.

[snip]

Negotiations for Trump’s testimony lasted for the better part of a year. The two sides nearly reached a deal in January for Trump to be questioned at the presidential retreat in rural Maryland, Camp David, only for talks to break down at the last minute. What followed was a series of letters and meetings — some hostile — in which Trump’s lawyers raised objections and sought to limit any potential testimony.

For months, Mueller told Trump’s lawyers that he needed to hear from the President to determine his intent on key events in the obstruction inquiry.

While I find it significant that this report came first from Evan Perez and (?!?!) Dana Bash, not Maggie and Mike (suggesting it may come from different sources than the people who fed the NYT the line that Mueller was primarily interested in obstruction), this report seems to suggest that after letting Trump stall for almost a year, Mueller has decided to finally get him on the record on the key crimes.

While CNN has not said anything about timing — that is, how long Trump’s lawyers will stall over an open book test that they claim they’ve already written many of the answers to — this agreement may have as much to do with preparation for the post-election period in which Mueller can roll out any indictments he has been working on and Trump can start firing people. That is, before he makes any big moves in the case in chief, he has to get Trump on the record in some form or other. Better to get him on the record in sworn written statements than launch a subpoena fight that will last past that post-election period.

So I don’t think this says much about the relative legal exposure Mueller thinks Trump has for obstruction versus conspiracy (though, again, if you’ve got the conspiracy charges, the obstruction charges will be minor by comparison). It says that Mueller has decided it’s time to get Trump committed to one story, under penalty of perjury.

That said, consider two details about obstruction.

First, Mueller has gotten both of the men Trump reportedly dangled pardons to, Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort, to enter cooperation agreements. That means he’s got both men — possibly along with the non-felon lawyers who passed on the offer — describing that they were offered pardons if they protected the President. That, to my mind, is the most slam dunk instance of obstruction even considered. So by obtaining Manafort’s cooperation, Mueller may have already obtained the most compelling evidence of obstruction possible.

Also, it’s not at all clear that Trump can avoid perjury exposure even on an open book test. We’ve already seen that some of the written responses the Trump team has provided Mueller — such as the two versions of their explanation for the Flynn firing — obscure key details (including Trump’s own role in ordering Flynn to tell Russia not to worry about sanctions). Plus, Trump’s lawyers have recently come to realize they not only don’t know as much as they thought they did about what other “friendly” witnesses had to say (Bill Burck seems to have reconfirmed last week that his clients — which include, at a minimum, Don McGahn, Steve Bannon, and Reince Priebus — don’t have Joint Defense Agreements with Trump), but that they don’t actually know everything they need to know from Trump. Trump is unmanageable as a client, so it’s likely he continues to lie to his own lawyers.

Most importantly, on all of the key conspiracy questions Mueller posed to Trump last March (the first two were also in his first set of questions in January), Mueller has at least one and sometimes several cooperating witnesses.

  • What did you know about phone calls that Mr. Flynn made with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, in late December 2016? [Flynn]
  • When did you become aware of the Trump Tower meeting? [Manafort]
  • During a 2013 trip to Russia, what communication and relationships did you have with the Agalarovs and Russian government officials? [Cohen, Goldstone, Kaveladze]
  • What communication did you have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign? [Cohen, Sater]
  • What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding any meeting with Mr. Putin? Did you discuss it with others? [Manafort, Gates, Cohen]
  • What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding Russian sanctions? [Manafort, Flynn]
  • What involvement did you have concerning platform changes regarding arming Ukraine? [Manafort, Gates]
  • During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign? [Stone’s associates, Gates, Manafort]
  • What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign? [Manafort]
  • What did you know about communication between Roger Stone, his associates, Julian Assange or WikiLeaks? [Stone’s associates, Manafort]
  • What did you know during the transition about an attempt to establish back-channel communication to Russia, and Jared Kushner’s efforts? [Flynn]
  • What do you know about a 2017 meeting in Seychelles involving Erik Prince? [Flynn]
  • What do you know about a Ukrainian peace proposal provided to Mr. Cohen in 2017? [Cohen]

The one area where that’s not true is with Roger Stone (though Rick Gates, at least, seems to have been in the loop on some of that), but then Mueller has spent the last 10 months collecting every imaginable piece of evidence pertaining to Stone.

Between Trump’s lawyers’ incomplete grasp of what their client did and the witnesses and other evidence regarding these activities, Mueller has a much better idea of what happened than Trump’s lawyers do. Which means they may not be able to help their client avoid lying.

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

The Christie Ouster and the Flynn Hiring

The Guardian has an excerpt from Michael Lewis’ new book, The Fifth Risk, which happens to be the chapter focusing on Trump’s transition team. On top of describing how Trump believed spending money, as required by law, to pay a transition team amounted to stealing his own money, the excerpt includes this account of Chris Christie’s firing.

Not long after the people on TV announced that Trump had won Pennsylvania, Jared Kushner grabbed Christie anxiously and said: “We have to have a transition meeting tomorrow morning!” Even before that meeting, Christie had made sure that Trump knew the protocol for his discussions with foreign leaders. The transition team had prepared a document to let him know how these were meant to go. The first few calls were easy – the very first was always with the prime minister of Great Britain – but two dozen calls in you were talking to some kleptocrat and tiptoeing around sensitive security issues. Before any of the calls could be made, however, the president of Egypt called in to the switchboard at Trump Tower and somehow got the operator to put him straight through to Trump. “Trump was like … I love the Bangles! You know that song Walk Like an Egyptian?” recalled one of his advisers on the scene.

That had been the first hint Christie had of trouble. He had asked Kushner what that was about, and Kushner had simply said, Trump ran a very unconventional campaign, and he’s not going to follow any of the protocols.

[snip]

Christie was scheduled to brief the Trump children, Kushner and the other members of Trump’s inner circle. He was surprised to find, suddenly included in this group, retired army lieutenant general Michael Flynn. Flynn was a jobseeker the transition team had found reasons to be extremely wary of. Now he wanted to be named Trump’s national security adviser, which was maybe the most important job in the entire national security apparatus. The national security team inside the Trump transition – staffed with senior former military and intelligence officials – had thought that was an especially bad idea. Flynn’s name was not on the list. But here he was, in the meeting to decide who would do what in the Trump administration, and Ivanka was asking him which job he would like to have.

Before Christie could intercede, Bannon grabbed him and asked to see him privately. Christie followed Bannon to his office impatiently. Hey, this is going to have to be quick, said Christie.

It’s really quick, said Bannon. You’re out.

Why? asked Christie, stunned.

We’re making a change.

“OkayOK, what are we changing?

You.

Why?

It’s really not important.

A week after Christie, along with former HPSCI Chair Mike Rogers, got purged from the Transition Team, I wrote a post that concluded this way.

One of the first things Trump has done has been to ensure agreement in its national security team on this point: that by letting our Middle Eastern allies arm al Qaeda-allied fighters, the Obama Administration created the mess that is in Syria.

And unanimity on that point — accompanied by what is sure to be a very ugly campaign of recriminations against the Obama Administration for cooking intelligence (even aside from the merit of this claim, Flynn has been bitter about his firing for what he sees as objecting to this cooked intelligence) — will provide the basis for Trump to work with Putin on ending the civil war in Syria to Bashar al-Assad’s advantage.

When I wrote that post, this text I received less than 15 hours after the polls closed, from someone I later came to conclude was involved in the election attack, was in my mind.

The text continued, in part, “clearly this confirms key role for Trump admin.”

As I surmised two years ago, there was a close tie between the moment Christie and other Republican realists got fired and when Flynn got picked.

According to this Michael Lewis account, though, the tie is far more direct than I imagined. The moment that Flynn got hired is the moment that Chris Christie got fired.

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

Paul Manafort Is One of 37 People in an Omertà with the President

Apparently, Bob Woodward committed some journalism along with canonizing racist John Kelly and wife-beater Rob Porter in his book: he got a number for how many people are included the Joint Defense Agreement that gives Rudy Giuliani such confidence the President is not at risk: 37.

And Politico committed still more journalism and answered the question we’ve all been asking: yes, Paul Manafort is among those 37.

Giuliani also confirmed that Trump’s lawyers and Manafort’s have been in regular contact and that they are part of a joint defense agreement that allows confidential information sharing.

“All during the investigation we have an open communication with them,” he said. “Defense lawyers talk to each other all the time where as long as our clients authorize it therefore we have a better idea of what’s going to happen. That’s very common.”

Giuliani confirmed he spoke with Manafort’s lead defense lawyer Kevin Downing shortly before and after the verdicts were returned in the Virginia trial, but the former mayor wouldn’t say what he discusses with the Manafort team. “It’d all be attorney-client privilege not just from our point of view but from theirs,” he said.

That means when John Dowd complained that the raid of Manafort’s condo (where his eight iPods were seized), that was based on privileged conversations between lawyers. And when, in January, Trump confidently said he was sure Manafort would protect him, that was based on privileged conversations between lawyers.  And when, just before the EDVA trial, Kevin Downing was ostentatiously saying there was no way Manafort was flipping, and when he was balking on a plea with Mueller immediately after the trial, he was also talking to Rudy Giuliani.

Mind you, Rudy G will learn right away if Manafort starts considering cooperating, rather than just pleading, because Manafort will have to (finally!) drop out of the JDA before those discussions start.

And while I suspect Mueller has slowly been peeling away people like Sam Patten, that the JDA is so big likely means some or most of the following people are part of the omertà (and Michael Cohen, Rick Gates, and Mike Flynn were part of it):

  • Paul Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik
  • Jared Kushner
  • The Trump Org defendants: Don Jr, Rhonna Graff
  • Bill Burck’s clients: Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Don McGahn (and up to three more)
  • Victoria Toensing’s clients: Mark Corallo, Erik Prince, Sam Clovis
  • The hush payment recipients: Hope Hicks, Brad Parscale, Keith Schiller
  • Roger Stone and his buddies: Stone, Michael Caputo, Sam Nunberg, Andrew Miller, plus some (probably)

That’s 20. Some other likely (and enticing) JDA members are: Devin Nunes, Jeff Sessions, Tom Barrack, Keith Kellogg, John Mashburn, KT McFarland, JD Gordon, Walid Phares, Stephen Miller, Sean Spicer, Rob Porter, Corey Lewandowski, John Kelly. Heck, it’s not even clear that George Papadopoulos is not part of the JDA.

But that still leaves space in the JDA for people who were already comparing notes with known members of the JDA, including Rinat Akhmetshin, Rob Goldstone, and Ike Kaveladze (along with Emin and Aras Agalarov, who are all represented by Scott Balber).

No wonder Rudy thinks he knows everything that Mueller has.

That’s why the collective panic on the discovery that Stone’s phone was likely among the ~10 or so that Mueller got warrants for in the wake of Rick Gates’ cooperation agreement is so interesting, and also why Manafort, playing his part as point, tried so hard to find out who the other four AT&T users whose phones were obtained with his own.

These guys may be good at omertà. But every single one we’ve seen so far has shitty OpSec; they’ve been saying their co-conspiracy communications on their phones and on iCloud. Plus there are people like Omarosa wandering among them, dismissed as irrelevant even while they record everything they hear. And meanwhile, Mueller is chipping away at the edges, people they haven’t considered (like Patten). And all the while he’s been building his case against Stone and Don Jr.

Don McGahn’s Bullshit Report Covering Up the Flynn Firing

Murray Waas, who writes about one and only one subject on the Russian investigation, has for the second time written a story claiming that a report Don McGahn wrote on February 15, 2017 — and not Trump’s serial offers to pardon people who are serving as his firewall —  is “the strongest evidence to date implicating the president of the United States in an obstruction of justice” and “the most compelling evidence we yet know of that Donald Trump may have obstructed justice.” Murray then goes on to parrot Rudy Giuliani’s preferred narrative about what would happen next.

Several people who have reviewed a portion of this evidence say that, based on what they know, they believe it is now all but inevitable that the special counsel will complete a confidential report presenting evidence that President Trump violated the law. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the special counsel’s work, would then decide on turning over that report to Congress for the House of Representatives to consider whether to instigate impeachment proceedings.

Because even people covering the story closely mistake the Flynn firing for an obstruction crime instead evidence of the conspiracy, I’d like to lay out why this story is silly. This will lay out things implicit in this post, which shows that in fact the White House narrative about Flynn is all an effort to treat his firing as obstruction and not “collusion.”

Neither story about Don McGahn’s exoneration of Trump should be credited

Murray claims that because Trump knew that Mike Flynn was under investigation when he asked Jim Comey to let the investigation into Flynn go, it will undercut an explanation offered in January that Trump thought Flynn had been cleared by the FBI.

In arguing in their January 29 letter that Trump did not obstruct justice, the president’s attorneys Dowd and Sekulow quoted selectively from this same memo, relying only on a few small portions of it. They also asserted that even if Trump knew there had been an FBI investigation of Flynn, Trump believed that Flynn had been cleared. Full review of the memo flatly contradicts this story.

The memo’s own statement that Trump was indeed told that Flynn was under FBI investigation was, in turn, based in part on contemporaneous notes written by Reince Priebus after discussing the matter with the president, as well as McGahn’s recollections to his staff about what he personally had told Trump, according to other records I was able to review. Moreover, people familiar with the matter have told me that both Priebus and McGahn have confirmed in separate interviews with the special counsel that they had told Trump that Flynn was under investigation by the FBI before he met with Comey.

Murray repeats a suspect McGahn timeline describing himself, along with Reince Priebus and White House lawyer John Eisenberg, “confronting” Flynn about intercepts showing that he had raised sanctions with Kislyak, contrary to what (they were claiming) he had told them.

On February 8, 2017, The Washington Post contacted the White House to say that it was about to publish a story citing no less than nine sources that Flynn had indeed spoken to Kislyak about sanctions. In attempting to formulate a response, Priebus, McGahn, and Eisenberg questioned Flynn. Confronted with the information that there were intercepts showing exactly what was said between him and Kislyak, Flynn’s story broke down. Instead of denying that he had spoken to Kislyak about sanctions, the timeline said, Flynn’s “recollection was inconclusive.” Flynn “either was not sure whether he discussed sanctions, or did not remember doing so,” the McGahn timeline says.

Priebus then “specifically asked Flynn whether he was interviewed by the FBI,” the timeline says. In response, “Flynn stated that FBI agents met with him to inform him that their investigation was over.” That claim, of course, was a lie. The FBI never told Flynn their investigation of him was over. Shortly thereafter, Vice President Pence, Priebus, and McGahn recommended that Flynn be fired.

According to the story Murray got snookered into repeating, because those three never informed Trump about this confrontation, his understanding of the investigation would remain what Priebus and McGahn had already briefed him — that Flynn was under investigation — and so by asking Comey to back off, he was obstructing justice.

In arguing that the president did nothing wrong, Trump defense attorneys John Dowd and Jay Sekulow, in both informal conversations and later in formal correspondence with the special counsel, relied on the false statements of Flynn to Priebus, McGahn, and Eisenberg that the FBI had closed out their investigation of him. In the attorneys’ reasoning, if Trump had no reason to think that Flynn was under criminal investigation when he allegedly pressured Comey to go easy on Flynn, the president did not obstruct justice. More broadly, Sekulow and Dowd argued in correspondence with the special counsel that the “White House’s understanding” was that “there was no FBI investigation that could conceivably have been impeded” at the time of Trump’s White House meeting with Comey.

But Sekulow and Dowd’s account of these conversations is partial and misleading. In fact, there is no information or evidence that Flynn’s false assertions were ever relayed to the president.

Murray doesn’t ask an obvious question: why, if Priebus and McGahn had already briefed Trump that Flynn was under investigation, they would have to confront Flynn about it. Nor does he mention a lot of other relevant details.

Two narratives

Before I get into the most relevant details, consider what we’re looking at: what Murray claims is his scoop, which provides more details on the original McGahn report, written the day after Trump tried to get Comey to end an investigation into why Mike Flynn lied about his conversation about sanctions on December 29, 2016. As always seemed the case and still appears to be true based on Murray’s claims about the report, the McGahn report misrepresented what Sally Yates said and a bunch of other things, but  in so doing laid out a narrative whereby the firing of Mike Flynn would serve as punishment for something Flynn did wrong.

Murray contrasts that with the letter Trump’s lawyers sent at the end of January but leaked in June in part to feed a narrative — one that had already been debunked — that Mueller was primarily investigating Trump for obstruction. The letter was Jay Sekulow and John Dowd’s attempt, in the wake of Mike Flynn’s cooperation agreement, to use the McGahn narrative to spin the firing of Flynn. In the January 29, 2018 telling, Flynn is not at fault, he’s just confused. And so, in the January letter, is the president. It portrays a story where no one really knew what Flynn said to Kislyak and everything that followed was just a big game of confused telephone for which the participants can’t be held legally liable. If Flynn were confused, of course, then his purported lies to Mike Pence would need to be excused, which is probably why Sekulow and Dowd didn’t address that part of the story.

When this whole process started — before Trump fired Jim Comey and in the process extended the investigation and got Robert Mueller looking into the stories being told — McGahn and Priebus and everyone else probably presumed that firing Flynn would shut everything down. That was the intent, anyway. Fire Flynn, end of investigation about why he lied to the FBI about discussing sanctions with Sergei Kislyak. And if you end the investigation, there would be no further scrutiny into what everyone else knew at the time, nor would anyone ask Comey and Yates their side of the story.

Of course, Trump fucked that all up, and fired Comey, which led to Mueller’s appointment, which led to his convening of a grand jury, which led to all that falling apart.

Bill Burck’s other clients already knew that Flynn had discussed sanctions

Which brings us to the most important of the missing details.

As noted, Trump couldn’t leave well enough alone and so fired Comey which led to Mueller which led to an actual investigation which led, in August, to Mueller obtaining the transition communications of 13 key members of the transition team, unmediated by Trump lawyers, who at the time were just responding to wholly inadequate document requests from Congress and sharing with Mueller.

Specifically, on August 23, 2017, the FBI sent a letter (i.e., not a subpoena) to career GSA staff requesting copies of the emails, laptops, cell phones, and other materials associated with nine PTT members responsible for national security and policy matters. On August 30, 2017, the FBI sent a letter (again, not a subpoena) to career GSA staff requesting such materials for four additional senior PTT members.

Among others, Mueller would have obtained emails that would have revealed that contrary to the story the White House had told in early January 2017 (which Murray repeats in his story), numerous Transition officials were aware of the emails regarding sanctions. Indeed, Reince Priebus, along with Flynn, Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, and two other people (Kushner’s inclusion is implied elsewhere in the story), got forwarded an email KT McFarland sent Tom Bossert the day that Mike Flynn made his calls with Kislyak, talking about Flynn’s upcoming call with Kislyak and the need to avoid public comment defending Russia. McFarland also relayed what Obama’s Homeland Security Czar, Lisa Monaco, expected from the call, and the expectation Kislyak would respond with threats.

On Dec. 29, a transition adviser to Mr. Trump, K. T. McFarland, wrote in an email to a colleague that sanctions announced hours before by the Obama administration in retaliation for Russian election meddling were aimed at discrediting Mr. Trump’s victory. The sanctions could also make it much harder for Mr. Trump to ease tensions with Russia, “which has just thrown the U.S.A. election to him,” she wrote in the emails obtained by The Times.

[snip]

McFarland wrote, Mr. Flynn would be speaking with the Russian ambassador, Mr. Kislyak, hours after Mr. Obama’s sanctions were announced.

“Key will be Russia’s response over the next few days,” Ms. McFarland wrote in an email to another transition official, Thomas P. Bossert, now the president’s homeland security adviser.

[snip]

Bossert forwarded Ms. McFarland’s Dec. 29 email exchange about the sanctions to six other Trump advisers, including Mr. Flynn; Reince Priebus, who had been named as chief of staff; Stephen K. Bannon, the senior strategist; and Sean Spicer, who would become the press secretary.

[snip]

“If there is a tit-for-tat escalation Trump will have difficulty improving relations with Russia, which has just thrown U.S.A. election to him,” she wrote.

Mr. Bossert replied by urging all the top advisers to “defend election legitimacy now.”

[snip]

Obama administration officials were expecting a “bellicose” response to the expulsions and sanctions, according to the email exchange between Ms. McFarland and Mr. Bossert. Lisa Monaco, Mr. Obama’s homeland security adviser, had told Mr. Bossert that “the Russians have already responded with strong threats, promising to retaliate,” according to the emails.

Flynn took orders on and relayed his results to McFarland, who was in Mar-a-Lago with Trump. And the transition team, when it complained that Mueller obtained these emails, suggested that they would have — perhaps did, in their compliance with congressional requests — treat this one as privileged. The day after Flynn’s calls, Trump hailed the outcome his National Security Advisor appointee had accomplished on the calls the day before.

In other words, a great deal of evidence suggests that Trump not only knew what went on in those calls, but directed Flynn through McFarland to placate the Russians.

Within days after the call, Flynn briefed other members of the transition team on the call. It is highly unlikely that he lied to people who had been informed in advance of his call that he would be discussing sanctions.

FBI may have believed, in January 2017 and even February 2017, when McGahn wrote his memo, that Flynn lied on his own, to hide the contents of his calls from others in the Administration. But by November 2017, they knew that the most important people in the transition — including Bill Burck’s other clients, Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus — knew well what had transpired in the calls with Kislyak.

None of this, of course, shows up in the tale White House sources are telling Murray. As a result, he tells a story that presents the McGahn narrative as more closely matching the “truth” than the later Sekulow and Dowd letter.

The problems with the McGahn narrative

But neither are true, and so while it’s nifty for Murray to claim this is the biggest yet proof of obstruction (it’s not, compared to the pardons promised), that’s not actually what happened, and Mueller would know that.

For example, the entire story about Flynn lying to Pence — which is something Sekulow and Dowd simply ignored in their January letter — is probably not true; and if it is, key White House staffers, including at least two of Burck’s clients, were lying to the nominal Transition head and were parties to Flynn’s lie.

On January 12, 2017, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius disclosed that US intelligence agencies had intercepted the phone calls, although Ignatius’s sources did not disclose the specifics of what either Flynn or Kislyak said. Vice President Mike Pence was immediately enlisted to defend Flynn. Flynn assured Pence that he never spoke to Kislyak about sanctions, whereupon Pence repeated those denials on Fox News and CBS’s Face the Nation. Flynn was then also questioned by the FBI about the phone calls, but once again denied that he had ever spoken to Kislyak about sanctions.

Similarly, the notion that Priebus would have to ask Flynn what he said to Kislyak on February 8 (when he had known it would include sanctions before Flynn made the call) is nonsense.

 On February 8, 2017, The Washington Post contacted the White House to say that it was about to publish a story citing no less than nine sources that Flynn had indeed spoken to Kislyak about sanctions. In attempting to formulate a response, Priebus, McGahn, and Eisenberg questioned Flynn. Confronted with the information that there were intercepts showing exactly what was said between him and Kislyak, Flynn’s story broke down. Instead of denying that he had spoken to Kislyak about sanctions, the timeline said, Flynn’s “recollection was inconclusive.” Flynn “either was not sure whether he discussed sanctions, or did not remember doing so,” the McGahn timeline says.

Both Priebus and Flynn would know better. It’s possible Flynn and Priebus were putting on a show for the lawyers (but if so, that show would likely be just for John Eisenberg, because otherwise Burck would have a major conflict). It’s more likely the McGahn narrative was an attempt to make the internal story consistent with the public claims that only Flynn knew of the content of the calls.

One of the other key pieces of bullshit in the McGahn narrative is the claim that there was any doubt whether Flynn could be fired when Yates first presented her concerns to McGahn.

The McGahn timeline recounts: “Part of [our] concern was a recognition by McGahn that it was unclear from the meeting with Yates whether or not an action could be taken without jeopardizing an ongoing investigation.”

She clearly suggested (and would be backed by Mary McCord) that’s what they should do.

Finally, there’s something else missing from this narrative: that Flynn had spent the weekend between this alleged grilling from Priebus and McGahn in Mar-a-Lago with the President, sitting in on yet more sensitive meetings (in that case, with Shinzo Abe).

McGahn’s narrative may offer an explanation for why Trump fired Flynn, even if it doesn’t accord with known facts. But the entire narrative fails to explain why, if all the players knew and did what they said, Trump didn’t fire Flynn as soon as Yates suggested he should, or after they reviewed the intercepts (showing what they knew the conversation entailed), or after Priebus and McGahn grilled Flynn.

Which is not to say that McGahn’s letter isn’t proof of obstruction (albeit far less damning than Trump’s offers of pardons). It’s just an entirely different model of obstruction, and Murray’s story may be yet more PR from Don McGahn to make sure he’s on the right side of any obstruction charges.

It Is False to Claim There Was No Follow-Up to the June 9 Meeting

On July 15, 2017 — a week after the June 9 meeting was reported in a NYT story publishing the first of numerous White House statements attempting to explain the meeting — Rhona Graff sent Rob Goldstone an email (PDF 44). With only a garbled (perhaps autocorrected) explanation, she forwarded back to Goldstone an email Goldstone himself had sent her the previous November, attaching some talking points from Natalia Veselnitskaya about Bill Browder and the Magnitsky sanctions (for a copy of the talking points, see PDF 37 ff).

A week after the White House had first issued a statement saying, in part, “there was no follow up” on the June 9 meeting, Trump’s Executive Assistant was sharing with Goldstone a paper trail showing that there had been.

Rudy gets all the facts about the June 9 meeting wrong, again

That’s an important detail that gets missed every single time the punditocracy deals with attempts by Rudy Giuliani or his client to spin the June 9 meeting, as has happened in the wake of this TV appearance by Rudy on Meet the Press.

RUDY GIULIANI:

Well, because the meeting was originally for the purpose of getting information about, about Clinton. The meeting turned into a meeting —

CHUCK TODD:

Which in itself it’s attempted collusion. I understand —

RUDY GIULIANI:

No it’s not.

CHUCK TODD:

You just said it. The meeting was intended to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from a criminal lawyer.

(OVERTALK)

RUDY GIULIANI:

No, it wasn’t. No, no.

CHUCK TODD:

That was the intention of the meeting, you just said it.

RUDY GIULIANI:

That was the original intention of the meeting. It turned out to be a meeting about another subject and it was not pursued at all. And, of course, any meeting with regard to getting information on your opponent is something any candidate’s staff would take. If someone said, I have information about your opponent, you would take that meeting. If it happens to be a person with a Russian —

CHUCK TODD:

From the Russian government?

RUDY GIULIANI:

She didn’t represent the Russian government, she’s a private citizen. I don’t even know if they knew she was Russian at the time. All they had was her name.

CHUCK TODD:

They didn’t know she was Russian, I think they knew she was Russian, but ok.

RUDY GIULIANI:

Well, they knew it when they met with her, not when they set up the meeting. You, you told me, you, you asked me, you know, did they show an intention to do anything with Russians? Well, all they knew is that a woman with a Russian name wanted to meet with them. They didn’t know she was a representative of the Russian government and indeed, she’s not a representative of the Russian government. So, this is much ado about nothing. Plus, the President of the United States wasn’t at that meeting. He didn’t know about that meeting. He found out about it after and by the time he found out about it, it was nothing. So, I mean —

Don Jr. took a meeting expecting and accepting dirt from the Russian government

Numerous people have noted that Rudy was totally wrong about the terms on which Don Jr took the meeting in the first place. Rob Goldstone told Don Jr his boss, Aras Agalarov, would,

provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.

This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.

Whether or not that’s what Don Jr got at the meeting (or a week later, when Guccifer 2.0 started releasing stolen documents and information), it is nevertheless the case that Don Jr accepted a meeting at which he expected to be offered dirt on Hillary that was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Indeed, Don Jr specifically said he’d be willing to wait to receive that dirt until later in the summer.

If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer

The email exchange, by itself, goes a long way towards meeting the terms of a conspiracy, willfully engaging in an agreement to break the law (which includes both accepting things of value from a foreign government and, given events later in the summer, possibly conspiracy to hack a computer).

Remember: to be charged with conspiracy, the conspiracy doesn’t have to be successful. So even ignoring the “documents and information” the Russians started releasing a week later, that “it turned out to be a meeting about another subject,” as Rudy excuses, doesn’t help Jr. He took a meeting to obtain dirt.

Rudy is wrong about follow-up to the meeting as well

So the rest of that that sentence — “and it was not pursued at all” — actually isn’t necessary to an analysis of a conspiracy, because overt acts had already taken place. Still, on that point, too, Rudy is wrong.

The record shows that those behind the meeting did pursue the “it” in question — sanctions relief — fairly aggressively after the election, with some inconclusive cooperation from the Trump Administration. And even after the record on that pursuit goes dark, Russia as a state continued to pursue sanctions relief — indeed, continues even today, most recently by buttering up a series of Republican Senators visiting Moscow to lobby for it.

As I lay out below, Aras Agalarov’s US Vice President, Ike Kaveladze, pushed Goldstone to set up a second meeting, even if with lower level people. As far as we know, that meeting never got scheduled.

But even as the Agalorov effort to obtain sanctions relief fizzled, a more formal Russian effort started, then moved to a back channel.

The most important moment in any follow-up on the June 9 meeting request for sanctions relief came in the December 29, 2016 phones calls between Mike Flynn and Sergei Kislyak about sanctions, a discussion in which Flynn took close directions from KT McFarland, who was with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Those are the phone calls Flynn lied to the FBI about, in spite of broad knowledge of the calls among transition aides. Those are the phone calls about which he got a plea deal to cooperate with the Mueller team.

Don Jr probably promised the Trumps would revisit sanctions after the election

According to most participants in the meeting who offered testimony to SJC, the Russians were right to expect a follow up discussion on Magnitsky sanctions. In fact, all the participants representing the Russian side save Goldstone (including Anatoli Samochornov, who is the only witness on either side not to have compared notes with at least some of the others before testifying) remembered Don Jr ending the June 9 meeting by saying they’d revisit the issue if or when his father won.

Natalia Veselnitskaya said Don Jr said they’d revisit the topic.

Mr. Trump, Jr. politely wound up the meeting with meaningless phrases about somewhat as follows: can do nothing about it, “if’ or “when” we come to power, we may return to this strange and confusing story.

Ike Kaveladze said that Don Jr said they might revisit the issue if his father won.

There was no request, but as I said, it was a suggestion that if Trump campaign wins, they might get back to the Magnitsky Act topic in the future.

Rinat Akhmetshin said that Don Jr said they would revisit Magnitsky when they won.

A. I don’t remember exact words which were said, but I remember at the end, Donald, Jr., said, you know, “Come back see us again when we win.” Not “if we win,” but “when we win.” And I kind of thought to myself like, “Yeah, right.” But it happened, so — but that’s something, see, he’s very kind of positive about, “When we win, come back and see us again.” Something to that effect, I guess.

Anatoli Samochornov, Veselnitskaya’s translator, who is the most independent witness and the only one who didn’t compare his story with others, said that Don Jr said they would revisit the issue if Trump won.

A. Like I described, I remember, not verbatim, the closing that Mr. Donald Trump, Jr., provided, but that’s all that I recall being said from the other side.

MR. PRIVOR: That closing being that Donald Trump, Jr., suggested —

MR. SAMOCHORNOV: If or when yes, and I do not remember if or when, but if or when my father becomes President, we will revisit this issue.

Just two people remember it differently. In an answer that, in some respects, exactly tracks statements that were massaged elsewhere by Trump’s lawyers, Rob Goldstone said Don Jr told Veselnitskaya to raise it with Obama.

And he stopped this in its tracks and said, with respect, I suggest that you address your — what seemed very valid concerns but to the Obama administration because they actually are in power. My father is a private citizen and, as such, it has no validity, of what you’re saying. Thank you very much for coming. I appreciate all your time. You know, we have a very busy schedule, and thank you.

And Don Jr himself remembers he ended the meeting by saying his father, a private citizen, couldn’t do anything about this.

I proceeded to quickly and politely end the meeting by telling Ms. Veselnitskaya that because my father was a private citizen there did not seem to be any point for having this discussion.

Paul Manafort would have provided testimony on this point to the Senate Intelligence Committee, but stood up SJC after the raid on his condo the morning after he testified. And Jared left the room before any of this transpired.

In any case, given their impression that Don Jr, in a meeting offering dirt on Hillary, had committed to revisiting Magnitsky sanctions if his pop won the election, the Russian side of the meeting did follow-up after Trump won. And so they did.

Agalarov’s team spent ten days in November trying to get Veselnitskaya a follow-up meeting

Ten days after the election, November 18, Ike Kaveladze reported to his boss, Aras, that Rob Goldstone had already reached out to the Trump people (Kaveladze doesn’t say to whom) to follow up.

Q. Could you please take a look at the entry for November 18, 2016, at 17:45. This appears to  be a message from you to Aras Agalarov. Mr. Kaveladze, could you please translate the content of that message?

A. “Hello. Rob spoke with Trump people. They asked a short synopsis of what is she going to be discussing. Last time she produced a lot of emotions and less facts. Most of the people who took part in that meeting are moving to Washington, D. C. Some of them already fired. When they receive synopsis, they will decide who to send to that meeting.”

Goldstone apparently asked for a short synopsis of the topic presented at the meeting — what would turn out to be the Magnitsky Act — so the Trump team could figure out who should attend a follow-up meeting.

On November 23, Kaveladze sent Goldstone that synopsis.

Less than an hour later, Goldstone wrote back and noted that the synopsis was largely what Veselnitskaya had presented in June.

When Kaveladze pressed for a meeting, Goldstone got squirrelly, even while saying he’d speak to both Don [Jr] and Rhona after sending a synopsis.

When Kaveladze followed up on November 27, Goldstone claimed he had sent materials the week before. Kaveladze suggested that this meeting could happen on the assistant or lawyer level — something both Kaveladze and Goldstone had expressed regret hadn’t happened during the summer.

The next time Kaveladze followed up, Goldstone said that Emin might have to call directly (which Kaveladze took to mean making a call to Don Jr).

It appears only after that did Goldstone forward the synopsis to Rhona Graff, above. After which he told Kaveladze that he had “again” asked about a low level meeting.

After that follow-up call, Graff forwarded Goldstone’s email to Steve Bannon (who early this year argued the June 9 meeting should have been held with lawyers, not the top campaign officials, thought without objecting to the exchange in principle), explaining that Trump knew Aras well, but that she wasn’t “sure how to proceed, if at all.”

During this whole exchange, Kaveladze was juggling messages with Veselnitskaya who was in New York on Prevezon business and beginning to panic based on news reports that Trump would keep Preet Bharara on (Kaveladze would continue handling her throughout December, until handing her off to Agalarov attorney Scott Balber in January).

On November 29, he explained to Vesenitskaya that,

Robert says that logistics of organizations [sic] of meetings with Team Trump now would be difficult and lengthy. I’ve landed in Moscow. I will discuss this situation … with my boss.

Kaveladze did not explain from whom Goldstone learned that, or if it included another phone call. He had also told Goldstone he was in Moscow if he wanted to speak directly. As Kaveladze told SJC, he discusses important things with his boss face-to-face because,

Agalarov is based in Russia, and I’m pretty sure, you know, his phone is being, you know, monitored.

And that’s where, as far as we know, the Agalarov effort to follow up on the June 9 meeting, ended, with Kaveladze explaining things face-to-face to his boss. Which would make it follow-up, just unsuccessful follow-up.

At least two communications are unaccounted for

One key question about this follow-up is the role that Don Jr had in it.

None of these texts suggesting Goldstone had phone conversations with someone, probably Don Jr, as early as November 18 were turned over to SJC before Don Jr testified. Probably as a result, he was asked only about the November 28 email from Goldstone to Graff. He claims he was not aware of any part of the follow-up.

Q. It appears Mr. Goldstone continued his anti-Magnitsky effort beyond your June 9, 2016 meeting. Other than this e-mail, were you aware of any other effort he made on this issue after your meeting?

A. Not that I recall, no.

For his part, Goldstone claims he didn’t send anything before that November 28 email, in spite of telling Kaveladze, back in November 2016, that he had.

Q. So in your November 27th message to Mr. Kaveladze, you said you forwarded the information last week. The last email was an email sent on November 28th, the day after this message with Kaveladze, forwarding the document to Ms. Graff. Had you, in fact, forwarded the document the week before your November 27th message with Kaveladze?

A. I don’t recall, but because I know myself, and I know how I write , I would imagine that the minute he reminded me of it in here, I forwarded it to Rhona, probably the next day. So I don’t recall one before then, no.

Q. All right. Prior to sending that email to Ms. Graff on November 28th, 2016, did you speak with Ms. Graff or any other Trump associates about a second meeting with Veselnitskaya?

A. I don’t believe so.

Nevertheless, there are several known or reported communications unaccounted for: the one Goldstone had before November 18, any email he had the week before November 28 with the synopsis, and any follow-up call via which Goldstone would conclude that the logistics of organizing a meeting with Trump people would be difficult during the transition.

Mueller, of course, will know whether Goldstone and Don Jr communicated directly, and if so when. So he will have a sense of whether Don Jr and Goldstone’s claims, which seem to contradict contemporaneous records, are true or not.

The Russian side concludes there is no communication channel

The problem, at least as the Russian side saw it (possibly based off what Goldstone had reported back), was those logistics: a channel of communications. The next day, December 1 at 11:49AM, Kaveladze texted again (Veselnitskaya was by this point frantic because Trump had met with Preet Bharara, with her even discussing who Trump might, “Wet and not to wet” with respect to the US Attorney, which Kaveladze translated as “crush”), explaining that Aras planned on meeting with Trump to restore communications.

Unfortunately, we don’t have communication. My boss planned to meet with him. We will send a formal request. Hopefully after the meeting we will keep communication.

As far as we know, that meeting never happened. Though the Agalarov camp and the Trump camp would resume intense conversations in June 2017, as the Trump Organization began to try to understand the legal liability posed by the meeting. Trump’s lawyers would speak directly with both Kaveladze and Goldstone before Agalarov’s lawyer, Scott Balber, took over the discussions (indeed, he remained the key architect of the narrative from that point forward, probably for all sides). Those are the conversations that would lead, on July 15, Graff to remind Goldstone that he had emailed her to follow up on the June 9 meeting.

So while there was clearly follow-up, there was not a clear resolution to the June 9 meeting in which Veselnitskaya got Trump to adopt her preferred policy.

Other Russians pursue a communication channel

Unless the resolution moved to a different path.

As it happens (this may be a coincidence, or may be a sign of greater coordination that the Trump people claim they’re capable of), later on the same day after Kaveladze said his boss would seek to restore a channel of communication with Trump, Jared hosted a meeting in Don Jr’s office with Sergei Kislyak, attended by Mike Flynn. Even according to Jared’s prepared statement, that meeting was about establishing communication channels to Russia.

The meeting occurred in Trump Tower where we had our transition office, and lasted twenty-thirty minutes. Lt. General Michael Flynn (Ret.), who became the President’s National Security Advisor, also attended. During the meeting, after pleasantries were exchanged, as I had done in many of the meetings I had and would have with foreign officials, I stated our desire for a fresh start in relations. Also, as I had done in other meetings with foreign officials, I asked Ambassador Kislyak if he would identify the best person (whether the Ambassador or someone else) with whom to have direct discussions and who had contact with his President. The fact that I was asking about ways to start a dialogue after Election Day should of course be viewed as strong evidence that I was not aware of one that existed before Election Day.

The Ambassador expressed similar sentiments about relations, and then said he especially wanted to address US. policy in Syria, and that he wanted to convey information from what he called his “generals.” He said he wanted to provide information that would help inform the new administration. He said the generals could not easily come to the U.S. to convey this information and he asked if there was a secure line in the transition office to conduct a conversation. General Flynn or I explained that there were no such lines. I believed developing a thoughtful approach on Syria was a very high priority given the ongoing humanitarian crisis, and I asked if they had an existing communications channel at his embassy we could use where they would be comfortable transmitting the information they wanted to relay to General Flynn. The Ambassador said that would not be possible and so we all agreed that we would receive this information after the Inauguration. [emphasis original]

Don Jr, in his SJC testimony, is the one who revealed that this meeting took place in his own office (and therefore outside of transition space that might be more closely monitored). But he claims he didn’t attend because he was sweaty from a workout; he also claims he didn’t know about it beforehand.

Q. You mentioned during the conversation with my colleagues that you had become aware of a meeting or meetings with Ambassador Kislyak. Can you just explain like what meetings did you become aware of? When did they take place?

A. I don’t remember the exact timing of when they took place. I believe it was after we had already secured — meaning after the election, but I could be mistaken. The only reason I’m aware of it is because it occurred in my office. I came back from the gym and they were in there.

Q. So when you say after the election, you mean after November 8, 2016?

A. I believe so.

Q. Was it a meeting in December of 2016?

A. That would fit the description, yes, I believe so.

Q. So it was a meeting in Trump Tower?

A. Yes.

Q. In your office but you hadn’t known about it beforehand?

A. Correct.

Q. Do you know why they used your office?

A. It was open, I was at the gym.

Q. And who was in that meeting?

A. I believe it was Jared Kushner, the Ambassador, maybe Flynn, but I don’t remember.

Q. Anyone else, to the best of your recollection?

A. No, not that I recall.

Q. Was the meeting still ongoing when you returned?

A. I believe it was, yes.

Q. Did you go in and join the meeting?

A. No, I did not.

Q. Why not?

A. Because I didn’t know what it was about and I was sweaty from the gym.

Q. Did you ask Mr. Kushner or Lieutenant General Flynn about the meeting after?

A. No, I don’t think I did.

So Don Jr doesn’t remember any calls with Goldstone about following up on the June 9 meeting (though they likely occurred), and he says a meeting with the Russian Ambassador just happened to get scheduled into his workout window on the same day his liaison was seeking a new channel of communications.

Mind you, the subject of this attempt to set up a back channel, per Jared, would be cooperating on Syria, something I learned — from someone who played a significant role in the Russian election attack — that Trump was working on within 15 hours of the close of polls in Hawaii the day after the election.

But within short order, these very same players would shift focus of back channel communications to sanctions relief. Within weeks, Kislyak had set up a meeting with the head of a sanctioned bank, Sergey Gorkov, to meet with Jared. And shortly after that, Flynn would make a series of calls to Kislyak about delaying any response to Obama’s December 28 sanctions. This, in turn, would lead to a meeting involving Erik Prince and another sanctioned bank in Seychelles leading up to the inauguration.

Natalia Veselnitskaya never got her second meeting to pitch the end to Magnitsky sanctions, but Sergey Gorkov got a meeting.

The stakes of dissociating the June 9 meeting from any sanctions relief

By this point, Rudy’s credibility is so shot that when he makes a claim, we should assume that it (like any claim his client makes) is suspect, if not an outright lie.

As I noted above, whether or not there was follow-up on the June 9 meeting doesn’t really change whether Don Jr gleefully accepted a meeting expecting dirt from the Russian government on Hillary Clinton. He did. But in Rudy’s dodgy explanations for why the June 9 meeting isn’t criminal, he relies heavily on his claim — a claim that the Trump side has maintained since a week before Rhona Graff found the email that proved it wasn’t true — that there was no follow-up on the meeting.

But there was.

At a minimum, there were several weeks of follow-up on the Russian side, understandably trying to hold Don Jr to (what they remember as) his offer to revisit the issue of sanctions after the election. As part of that follow-up, there are hints that Don Jr was in the loop, even if both he and Goldstone can’t remember that happening.

The follow-up led by the Agalarovs was, as far as the public record indicates, inconclusive. The Agalarovs lost their communication channel (perhaps as Don Jr got sidelined), and so never did get their follow-up meeting.

But on the same day Trump’s long-time handler, Aras Agalarov, said he’d seek out a new channel of communications, Jared Kushner and Mike Flynn were sitting in Don Jr’s office, attempting to establish a back channel of communication, and solidifying a relationship that would, less than a month later, involve yet another overt act regarding sanctions relief. And that overt act — persuading Sergey Kislyak to defer any response to Obama’s new sanctions — was closely directed from Mar-a-Lago.

Update: Looks like Rudy keeps issuing bogus exonerations for Jr because Mueller is closing in on him.

Mueller may be closing in on his son Don Jr. “A lot of what Trump is doing is based on the fact [that] Mueller is going after Don Jr.,” a person close to the Trump family told me. “They’re squeezing Don Jr. right now.”

Don Jr.’s lawyer said, “I’m not going to comment.” Another person briefed on the investigation disputed the term “squeeze,” but said the Mueller team continues to ask for documents.

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

Why Would Don McGahn (and His Lawyer) Cooperate in a Piece Claiming He Cooperated with Mueller (on Obstruction)?

As I laid out here, the latest NYT obstruct-a-palooza on Don McGahn “cooperating” with Robert Mueller spins what is probably a lawyer covering his own legal jeopardy with a claim of full cooperation.

But why did he (and his lawyer, William Burck) cooperate in it? Why spin a fanciful tale of being disloyal to your boss, even if it’s just to blame him for it before he blames you?

The most obvious answer is he’s trying to convince Mueller he’s not responsible for the legal shenanigans of (as the NYT continues to spin it) the obstruction of the investigation, or of the legal shenanigans of Trump generally.

There may well be an aspect of that, though I wouldn’t want to be (and hope I’m not) in a position where my legal jeopardy relied on how successfully I could spin Maggie and Mike, even if I were as expert at doing so as Don McGahn is.

A better answer may lie in this observation from my last post:

By far the most telling passage in this 2,225+ word story laying out Don McGahn’s “cooperation” with the Mueller inquiry is this passage:

Though he was a senior campaign aide, it is not clear whether Mr. Mueller’s investigators have questioned Mr. McGahn about whether Trump associates coordinated with Russia’s effort to influence the election.

Over two thousand words and over a dozen sources, and Maggie and Mike never get around to explaining whether Don McGahn has any exposure in or provided testimony for the investigation in chief, the conspiracy with Russia to win the election.

Consider: the story Maggie and Mike (and Don McGahn’s lawyer) spin is that Don McGahn let Trump bully him around on some issues in early 2017, which led to some things that might look like obstruction of justice. An unfortunate occurrence, surely. But McGahn might be forgiven for fucking things up in early January 2017. After all, he was new to the whole White House Counseling thing; he had never worked in a White House before. Beginner’s mistake(s), you might call the long list of things he fucked up at the beginning of his tenure, which Maggie and Mike nod to but don’t describe in full resplendent glory.

His relationship with the president had soured as Mr. Trump blamed him for a number of fraught moments in his first months in office, including the chaotic, failed early attempts at a ban on travelers from some majority-Muslim countries and, in particular, the existence of Mr. Mueller’s investigation.

Don McGahn’s skills, it turns out, lie elsewhere.

While he has bolloxed most of the things White House Counsels are supposed to do (like keeping the White House out of legal and ethical trouble), he has had unsurpassed success at stacking the courts. I doubt there’s an ideological Republican in the country who isn’t thrilled with McGahn’s success at stacking the courts.

Update: Case in point.

Indeed (this becomes important in just a bit), McGahn’s success at stacking the courts is one of the biggest reasons why Republicans in Congress put up with the rest of Trump’s shit. Being President, for many Republicans, isn’t about governing; it’s about stacking the courts.

It turns out, though, that McGahn had another job before he became an expert court-stacker. For decades, Don McGahn has been one of the Republican party’s key campaign finance lawyers.

That’s how he grew to be close to Trump when, as Maggie and Mike describe,

McGahn joined the Trump team as an early hire said to like the candidate’s outsider position.

Don McGahn had come to prominence in the party at the NRCC and was rewarded for it with a seat on the FEC, where he made campaign finance more slushy.

But probably not slushy enough.

Here’s where Maggie and Mike’s failure to get an answer for whether longtime Republican campaign finance expert Don McGahn has been questioned about his role in the conspiracy with Russians to win the election (not to mention their failure to pin down when his third interview with Mueller’s team took place, after he happily revealed when the first two did) becomes important.

Don McGahn might be forgiven for bolloxing up the White House Counsel job. He was new at that (and he was busy, anyway, stacking the courts).

But at least three of the areas where Mueller’s team might find a conspiracy with Russia (or other foreigners) to win the election involve campaign finance issues — Don McGahn’s expertise. Those are:

  • Whether knowingly employing British Cambridge Analytica employees without getting them proper visas constitutes illegal foreign influence?
  • Whether accepting a Trump Tower meeting with Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton constitutes accepting a thing of value?
  • Whether the campaign was sufficiently firewalled from the  dodgy shit Roger Stone was doing (which has been a focus of the last six months of Mueller’s time)?

My wildarse guess is that campaign finance expert Don McGahn might find a way to finesse hiring foreign Cambridge Analytica employees. My wildarse guess is that campaign finance expert Don McGahn could claim ignorance about the illegal details of the Trump Tower and other foreign influence peddling meetings.

My wildarse guess is that campaign finance expert Don McGahn did not sufficiently firewall Stone off from the campaign. Especially given that he was involved in both incarnations of Stop the Steal — the effort to stamp down a convention rebellion, and the effort (which worked in parallel to a Russian one) to use claims of a “rigged” election to suppress Democratic voters. Especially given that he was loved in the Republican party for leaning towards slush over legal compliance.

Given how central campaign finance violations are in any question of a conspiracy with Russia, it is malpractice for Maggie and Mike to publish a story without determining whether — after being grilled by Mueller’s team for two days last fall about whether he fucked up White House Counseling — McGahn has more recently been grilled extensively about whether he fucked up campaign finance, the thing he got hired for in the first place. The thing he’s supposed to be an expert in.

But Maggie and Mike believe Trump is only being investigated for obstruction, so seeding a big puff piece with them is a sure bet you won’t get asked about your obviously central role (or not) in any conspiracy involving campaign finance.

That’s just part of a potential explanation for why Don McGahn (and his lawyer) would seed a big puff piece with Maggie and Mike, making it look like McGahn had cooperated a lot on something he was never an expert in — White House Counseling — but remaining utterly silent on whether he cooperated on something he is undoubtedly an expert in (even if he tends to prefer slush to law). Better to get in trouble for cooperating on the stuff Trump and his lawyers have been successfully distracting with for the last six months rather than cooperating with prosecutors on a case about conspiring with Russian spies to win an election, the stuff that will elicit cries of Treason and with it badly tarnish the Republican party.

Then there’s this, the last great court-stack. Numerous people have noted, but Maggie and Mike did not, even while noting that McGahn is in the middle of a SCOTUS fight:

Mr. McGahn is still the White House counsel, shepherding the president’s second Supreme Court nominee, Brett M. Kavanaugh, through the confirmation process.

William Burck, McGahn’s lawyer, is his partner-in-crime in his last great court-stack.

When Trump (presumably based on the advice of his chief court-stacker, Don McGahn) nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, people (including Mitch McConnell) warned him of the danger of nominating someone with such an extensive paper record. Nevertheless, Republicans started with an assumption that that record would be made public. Until July 24, when Republicans had a private meeting and realized they had to suppress Kavanaugh’s record as White House Staff Secretary.

It is not surprising then, that on July 19, 2018, while discussing preparations for Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, Senator Cornyn — the Majority Whip and a senior member of the Judiciary Committee — said that the production of documents Judge Kavanaugh had “generated . . . authored…or contributed to” during his tenure as White House Staff Secretary should be produced to the Committee.  He stated that it “just seems to be common sense.”

However, less than a week later, following a White House meeting with you on the records production on July 24, the Republican position abruptly and inexplicably shifted.  Since that meeting, Senate Republicans refused to request any and all documents from Judge Kavanaugh’s three years as White House Staff Secretary, regardless of authorship.  Immediately after the meeting, Senator Cornyn described requesting any Staff Secretary records as “a bridge too far.”  Days later, Chairman Chuck Grassley submitted a records request to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and omitted any of Judge Kavanaugh’s records as Staff Secretary.

Since then, William Burck has taken time away from representing Don McGahn and Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon to personally suppress lots of Kavanaugh’s records as White House Staff Secretary. And Chuck Grassley has moved up Kavanaugh’s confirmation process to make sure that some of production being slow-rolled by Don McGahn’s lawyer will not be release before Kavanaugh gets a vote on a lifetime appointment.

There’s clearly something in Kavanaugh’s record as White House Staff Secretary that might lead Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski to vote against Kavanaugh — or make the entire nomination toxic in time for the mid-terms.

Mind you, whether Don McGahn’s failures on the topic he is supposed to be an expert on, campaign finance, contribute to getting the President’s lackeys indicted for a conspiracy may not directly relate to his last great hurrah in stacking the courts, solidifying a regressive majority on SCOTUS for a generation and with it adding someone who will suppress this investigation.

Then again it might.

Most Republicans, I suspect, will one day become willing to jettison Trump so long as they can continue stacking the courts. Trump, one day, may be expendable so long as McGahn’s expertise at stacking the court holds sway. At that level, McGahn’s political fortunes may actually conflict with Trump’s.

But not if he (and his lawyer) fuck up the last great court-stack. Not if they get blamed for failing on McGahn’s area of expertise — campaign finance — and in so doing lead to a delay in and with it the demise of the Kavanaugh confirmation.

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

 

The NYT’s Latest McGahnObstructAPalooza: Sometimes “Cooperation” Is Just Cover Your Ass

By far the most telling passage in this 2,225+ word story laying out Don McGahn’s “cooperation” with the Mueller inquiry is this passage:

Though he was a senior campaign aide, it is not clear whether Mr. Mueller’s investigators have questioned Mr. McGahn about whether Trump associates coordinated with Russia’s effort to influence the election.

Over two thousand words and over a dozen sources, and Maggie and Mike never get around to explaining whether Don McGahn has any exposure in or provided testimony for the investigation in chief, the conspiracy with Russia to win the election.

Instead, along the way, Maggie and Mike repeat some version of “obstruction” fourteen times –obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct obstruct — perpetuating the grossly misleading myth, once again, that Trump and his cronies are only at risk for obstruction charges. They do so even while describing a lawyer who represents three high placed witnesses in the case (along with McGahn, William Burck represents Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon) opining that the President’s legal exposure makes cooperation “insane.”

Mr. Burck has explained to others that he told White House advisers that they did not appreciate the president’s legal exposure and that it was “insane” that Mr. Trump did not fight a McGahn interview in court.

Along the way, the story engages in other kinds of spin, all of which happens to make Don McGahn look far better than he should.

White House Counsels have limited attorney-client privilege

A big part of this tale is premised on the notion that McGahn cooperated when he otherwise might not have had to, based on claims like this:

For a lawyer to share so much with investigators scrutinizing his client is unusual. Lawyers are rarely so open with investigators, not only because they are advocating on behalf of their clients but also because their conversations with clients are potentially shielded by attorney-client privilege, and in the case of presidents, executive privilege.

For a story that discusses John Dean explicitly, this claim is sheer malpractice. White House Counsels work for us, not for the President as private citizen, and as such, have limited attorney-client privilege, something that has now been litigated.

The story admits McGahn might have legal exposure, but doesn’t explain what that is

Much of the rest of the story is spun around an admittedly interesting tension, John Dowd’s decision to “cooperate” with the Mueller probe, including to make no executive privilege claims over McGahn’s testimony (which he could have done). As the story makes out, that led McGahn and the lawyer he hired because he thought he might have some criminal exposure, Burck, to worry about his criminal exposure.

Mr. McGahn and his lawyer, William A. Burck, could not understand why Mr. Trump was so willing to allow Mr. McGahn to speak freely to the special counsel and feared Mr. Trump was setting up Mr. McGahn to take the blame for any possible illegal acts of obstruction, according to people close to him. So he and Mr. Burck devised their own strategy to do as much as possible to cooperate with Mr. Mueller to demonstrate that Mr. McGahn did nothing wrong.

And in a piece claiming McGahn worried Trump would blame him for any legally sketchy behavior, this paragraph shows McGahn instead blaming Trump.

In fact, Mr. McGahn laid out how Mr. Trump tried to ensure control of the investigation, giving investigators a mix of information both potentially damaging and favorable to the president. Mr. McGahn cautioned to investigators that he never saw Mr. Trump go beyond his legal authorities, though the limits of executive power are murky.

Yet the NYT doesn’t seem to think about why McGahn and the three-witness lawyer alarmed at the President’s legal exposure might also think he, McGahn, had legal exposure.

The problems with Don McGahn’s Flynn story

One bit of legal exposure that the NYT has provided evidence for — but confused as yet more actual legal discussion — is in McGahn’s role in the Mike Flynn firing (which the NYT inexplicably always treats as obstruction of justice).

Mr. McGahn gave to Mr. Mueller’s investigators, the people said, a sense of the president’s mind-set in the days leading to the firing of Mr. Comey; how the White House handled the firing of the former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn; and how Mr. Trump repeatedly berated Mr. Sessions, tried to get him to assert control over the investigation and threatened to fire him.

As I have noted, the White House materials published by the NYT actually show that McGahn wrote an obviously misleading explanation for the Flynn firing, one that suppressed transition period emails that would undermine all the claims about Flynn deciding to lie about his discussion with Sergi Kislyak, and one which would conflict in material ways with the contemporaneous reports of Jim Comey, Sally Yates, and a number of other DOJ witnesses.

  • Don McGahn wrote a memo on the lead-up to Flynn’s firing two days after the firing, and one day after Trump’s “let it go” conversation with Jim Comey. It appears to be inconsistent with Transition materials, particularly an email showing (among other things) that Reince Priebus knew in real time what Flynn told Kislyak on December 29. Firing Comey would have been an effort to prevent FBI from discovering those transition period communications.

[snip]

Yates’ public testimony (to which Mary McCord would also be a witness) adds several elements to McGahn’s: she said the sanction discussion itself was wrong (elsewhere HPSCI has claimed she raised Logan Act violations). She talked about concerns about Pence’s credibility (remember–the White House doesn’t address getting Pence’s side of this story at all). And she claims she specifically suggested the White House should take action — that is, fire Flynn.

Finally, note that this passage cites an email chain dated January 12 — what was treated as campaign production with the Bates stamp “DJTJFP.” This is the only time the letter cites that production; they don’t, for example, cite the email chains referenced in Flynn’s plea that make it clear how hard it would have been to forget the Kislyak call because he was basically acting on orders from the President.

[snip]

After Yates spoke to McGahn, he had a meeting with Trump and Priebus and others.

On January 26, 2017, Mr. McGahn briefed the President concerning the information conveyed by Ms. Yates. Additional advisors were brought in, including White House Chief of Staff Mr. Priebus. It was agreed that additional information would be needed before any action was taken. As recorded by Mr. McGahn, “Part of this concern was a recognition by McGahn that it was unclear from the meeting with Yates whether an action could be taken without jeopardizing an ongoing investigation.” At that time “President Trump asked McGahn to further look into the issue as well as finding out more about the calls.”

Note how important it is that the letter ignore Yates’ public statements? She claims she suggested the White House should take action, meaning they should fire Flynn. The White House claimed (in a piece written after the “let it go” conversation) that they didn’t know whether they could fire Flynn because there might be an ongoing investigation. And Trump used that as an excuse to get more information on the investigation.

McGahn may have spent 30 hours blaming Trump for writing this obvious retrospective CYA piece (one piece of news in this piece is that McGahn has been called by for a third appearance by Mueller’s team, but the story doesn’t reveal when that was). But he wrote it. And he likely has some legal risk for having done so.

Sometimes cooperation is just a failure to obstruct

Which is one of my gripes with this story overall. In spite of describing how McGahn and his lawyer worried about the former’s legal exposure, exposure that led them to embrace the ability to appear before Mueller directly, the whole theme of this story is that McGahn “cooperated” with Mueller’s inquiry. The word, in some legal contexts, may mean “responded to legal requests in a way that limited a person’s own criminal exposure” and in others may mean “helped convict co-conspirators.”

In this story, the former connotation is used though the latter connotation is sold. Because the story doesn’t explain the difference in connotations, it makes McGahn look far more cooperative than he has necessarily been.

I mean, maybe he has been. But to make that case, you’d need to ask that basic question: is he also answering questions about the election conspiracy, questions that likely go beyond his own legal exposure?

Mueller can lay out Trump’s actions in an indictment listing him as a non-indicted witness or an Unindicted Co-Conspirator

There are two other details, regular features of Maggie and Mike’s stories on what White House lawyers tell them to say, that are pure PR.  First (because people on Twitter never understand this point), Maggie and Mike repeat something that Rudy Giuliani appears to have them chanting in their sleep, that the end product of this investigation is going to be a report to Congress.

Mr. Mueller has told the president’s lawyers that he will follow Justice Department guidance that sitting presidents cannot be indicted. Rather than charge Mr. Trump if he finds evidence of wrongdoing, he is more likely to write a report that can be sent to Congress for lawmakers to consider impeachment proceedings.

Thus far, Mueller has obtained four indictments and five guilty pleas, each laying out some potentially criminal conduct of associates. Indeed, the most recent indictment included this language, making it clear that Russian hackers responded to Trump’s request that Russia hack Hillary by … attempting to hack Hillary.

For example, on or about July 27, 2016, the Conspirators attempted after hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a thirdparty provider and used by Clinton’s personal office. At or around the same time, they also targeted seventy-six email addresses at the domain for the Clinton Campaign.

That is, we’ve already seen nods towards Trump’s involvement in a conspiracy, without any report to Congress. Laying out Trump’s criminal actions as unindicted conduct in indictments has several legal advantages over just reporting it to Congress, including it would raise the stakes on pardoning any co-conspirators and potentially force Trump to sit for an interview. Moreover, indictments are how Mueller has communicated thus far, and how Rod Rosenstein has said they intend to communicate. So perhaps the NYT should stop simply repeating Rudy’s spin on this point?

Trump has demonstrably not provided unparalleled cooperation

Finally, Maggie and Mike include these three paragraphs uncritically in their piece.

Mr. Dowd said that cooperation was the right approach but that Mr. Mueller had “snookered” Mr. Trump’s legal team. The White House has handed over more than one million documents and allowed more than two dozen administration officials to meet with Mr. Mueller in the belief that he would be forced to conclude there was no obstruction case.

“It was an extraordinary cooperation — more cooperation than in any major case — no president has ever been more cooperative than this,” Mr. Dowd said, adding that Mr. Mueller knew as far back as October, when he received many White House documents, that the president did not break the law.

As the months passed on, the misinterpretation by Mr. McGahn and Mr. Burck that the president would let Mr. McGahn be blamed for any obstruction case has become apparent. Rather than placing the blame on Mr. McGahn for possible acts of obstruction, Mr. Trump has yet to even meet with the special counsel, his lawyers resisting an invitation for an interview.

As I have laid out, it is simply not the case that Trump has “more cooperation than in any major case.” George Bush’s White House provided similar cooperation in the (less major) CIA leak case, even before you fluff the numbers by counting texts as pages of documents. But that’s assuming something that this passage makes clear you can’t assume: that Trump will ever sit for an interview. Both Dick Cheney and George Bush were willing to sit for interviews; the former even did so under oath.

Compare that to the Plame affair leak investigation, when Bush sat for an interview in June 2004, and Cheney — who himself made some grossly false statements in his tenure — sat for one in May 2004 and a little-known follow-up that August. According to Cheney’s autobiography, “[T]he second session was conducted under oath so that [his] testimony could be submitted to the grand jury.” Zeidenberg, for his part, doesn’t remember any of those interviews requiring a subpoena.

Samborn, the Fitzgerald spokesperson who was famously reticent during the whole CIA leak investigation, offered an expansive rebuttal to Dowd’s claim that this White House has offered unprecedented cooperation. “Trump’s team can claim all the cooperation it wants, and whether justifiably so or not, it seems to me that it all gets negated, if at the end, he personally refuses to be questioned when so much substance depends on what he knew and did, as well as his state of mind.”

Any refusal to sit for an interview, Samborn said, was central evaluating the level of cooperation.

At some point, the NYT might stop repeating breathless stories premised on the notion that Trump will ever sit for an interview and instead report the fact — that Trump has refused the kind of cooperation with a legal investigation his predecessors have offered.