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The Sekulow Questions, Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

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

I’m talking, of course, about my efforts to use the Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow to map out what the structure of the investigation (at least as it pertains to Trump personally) might be. Thus far, I’ve shown:

  • Russians, led by the Aras Agalarov and his son, cultivated Trump for years by dangling two things: real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin.
  • During the election, the Russians and Trump appear to have danced towards a quid pro quo agreement, with the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for a commitment to sanctions relief, with some policy considerations thrown in.
  • During the transition period, Trump’s team took a series of actions that moved towards consummating the deal they had made with Russia, both in terms of policy concessions, particularly sanctions relief, and funding from Russian sources that could only be tapped if sanctions were lifted. The Trump team took measures to keep those actions secret.
  • Starting in January 2017, Trump came to learn that FBI was investigating Mike Flynn. His real reasons for firing Flynn remain unreported, but it appears he had some concerns that the investigation into Flynn would expose him personally to investigation.
  • After a failed attempt to quash the investigation into his Administration by firing Flynn, Trump grew increasingly angry that Jim Comey wouldn’t provide a quick exoneration without conducting an investigation first, leading to his firing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COMEY: I don’t believe it is.

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

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

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

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

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

COMEY: Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RESOURCES

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

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

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

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

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

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

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

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

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

As I explained in Part One of this series, I think the Mueller questions leaked by the Trump people actually give a far better understanding of a damning structure to the Mueller investigation — one mapping out cultivation, a quid pro quo, and a cover-up — than the coverage has laid out. This post will lay out how, over the course of the election, the Russians and Trump appear to have danced towards a quid pro quo, involving a Putin meeting and election assistance in exchange for sanctions relief if Trump won (as noted, the Russians dangled real estate deals to entice Trump based on the assumption he wouldn’t win).

April 27, 2016: During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media, or other acts aimed at the campaign?

Given the structure of George Papadopoulos’ plea, it’s highly likely Mueller knows that Papadopoulos passed on news that the Russians had thousands of Hillary emails they planned to release to help Trump to people in the campaign. Papadopoulos could have passed on that news to Stephen Miller and Corey Lewandowski as early as April 27. On the same day, Papadopoulos helped draft Trump’s first foreign policy speech, which Papadopoulos reportedly told Ivan Timofeev signaled a willingness to meet.

Between the time the GRU first exfiltrated DNC emails in April and the election, Trump invoked “emails” 21 times on Twitter (usually to refer to emails from Hillary’s server). The first of those times came on June 9, less than an hour after the Trump Tower meeting. The most famous of those came on July 27, when Trump addressed Russia directly.

Earlier in the day, Trump had called on Russia to release the emails not to the FBI, but to the press.

Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.

The timing may reflect awareness among some in the campaign that the call to Russia was a step too far legally. (h/t TC for the addition)

That Trump’s email comments pertain mostly to Hillary’s home-based server doesn’t actually exonerate him. Right after the DNC release (and therefore the July 27 Trump tweet), GOP rat-fucker Peter Smith started reaching out to Russian hackers in hopes of finding hacked versions of those emails. His support documents named Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sam Clovis, and Mike Flynn. If those people actually learned of the effort (there’s reason to believe Smith was just overselling the ties to the campaign), it’s possible that Trump learned about it as well.

As to social media, while it has gotten virtually no attention, the reference to three Florida-based Trump campaign officials in the Internet Research Agency indictment suggests further investigative interest in them.

[T]here are three (presumed) Americans who, both the indictment and subsequent reporting make clear, are treated differently in the indictment than all the other Americans cited as innocent people duped by Russians: Campaign Official 1, Campaign Official 2, and Campaign Official 3. We know, from CNN’s coverage of Harry Miller’s role in building a cage to be used in a fake “jailed Hillary” stunt, that at least some other people described in the indictment were interviewed — in his case, for six hours! — by the FBI. But no one else is named using the convention to indicate those not indicted but perhaps more involved in the operation. Furthermore, the indictment doesn’t actually describe what action (if any) these three Trump campaign officials took after being contacted by trolls emailing under false names.

So Mueller may be pursuing whether there was state-level coordination going on, and if so, how far up the campaign chain of command knowledge of that coordination extended.

May 31, 2016: What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding any meeting with Mr. Putin? Did you discuss it with others?

On June 16, 2015, the day Trump announced his campaign, the Agalarovs offered to serve as an intermediary between him and Putin.

Then, starting at least as early as March 31, 2016 (with Trump’s first foreign policy meeting), his aides started floating pitches for meetings with increasingly senior campaign officials that would hypothetically lead up to one between Trump and Putin.

Those include at least:

  • The George Papadopoulos thread, spanning from March 21 through August 15
  • The Carter Page thread, including his Moscow trip in July, and possibly continuing through his December Moscow trip
  • The NRA thread, focusing on the NRA meeting in Kentucky in May; NRA’s longer outreach includes Trump associates John Bolton and David Clarke

We know Trump was present and did not object when Papadopoulos pitched this in the May 31 meeting. Several of the other entrees went through Don Jr. Many of the offers got briefed at least as far as Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort. We don’t know how many of the other offers he learned about. We just know that years earlier he had joked about becoming Putin’s best friend, and over the course of the campaign, Russian intermediaries made repeated, persistent efforts to work towards a meeting between Trump and Putin, with a meeting between Agalarov representatives (who, again, had offered to serve as intermediaries with Putin when Trump kicked off the campaign) and the most senior people on the campaign happening just as Trump sealed up the nomination.

May 31, 2016: What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding Russian sanctions?

This is an open-ended question that might pose particular problems for Trump given the misleading statement claiming the June 9 meeting was about adoptions and not the Magnitsky sanctions. More interesting still are hints that Mueller sees a signaling going back and forth involving Papadopoulos; some of this may have involved signaling a willingness to provide sanctions relief.

Both Aras Agalarov and Natalia Veselnitskaya followed up after the election pushing for sanctions relief.

June 9, 2016: When did you become aware of the Trump Tower meeting?

Sam Nunberg has suggested Trump probably learned of the Trump Tower meeting before it happened. While he is unreliable on that point, the original June 3, 2016 email Rob Goldstone sent to Don Jr suggests reaching out to Trump’s assistant Rhona Graff.

I can also send this info to your father via Rhona, but it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first.

Democrats suspect that between two calls Don Jr had with Emin Agalarov about the meeting on June 6, 2016, he called his dad.

Trump Jr.’s phone records show two calls to and from the same Russian number on June 6, 2016.62 The first call occurred at 4:04 pm on June 6, 2916 – just 21 minutes after Goldstone emailed Trump Jr. to say that Emin Agalarov was “on stage in Moscow but should be off within 20 minutes so I am sure can call. [emphasis added]” 63 At 4:38 pm, Trump Jr emailed Goldstone, “Rob, thanks for the help.”64

This documentary evidence indicates that a call likely took place between Trump Jr. and Emin Agalarov. During his interview, Trump Jr. confirmed that the Russian phone number belonged to Agalarov, though he claimed to not recall whether he actually spoke with him. Rather, despite one of the two calls reflecting a two-minute connection, Trump Jr. suggested that Agalarov may have left voice messages.65

The phone records also show a “blocked” number at 4:27 pm, between the two calls to and from Emin Agalarov. Trump Jr. claimed he did not know who was associated with the blocked number.66 While the Committee has not pursued leads to determine who called Trump Jr. at this crucial time from a blocked number, Corey Lewandowski told the Committee that Mr. Trump’s “primary residence has a blocked [phone] line.” 67

Mueller, of course, almost certainly has the phone records the Democrats weren’t able to obtain.

Finally, Steve Bannon has stated that he’s certain Don Jr “walk[ed] these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor” on the day of the meeting. There’s reason to believe Ike Kaveladze and Goldstone could have done so, including the new piece of evidence that “Kaveladze left [a meeting with Rinat Akhmetshin and Natalia Veselnitskaya] after a few minutes to take a call from Agalarov to discuss the meeting.”

The day after the meeting — and four days before Trump’s birthday — Agalarov sent Trump an expensive painting as a present.

The June 9 meeting is, as far as is public, the most important cornerstone in a presumed quid pro quo. Russians offered unnamed dirt that Don Jr seemed to know what it entailed even before speaking to Emin Agalarov personally. Having offered dirt, four Russians — including two representatives of Trump’s long-time handler Aras Agalarov — laid out a pitch to end the Magnitsky sanctions. And less than a week later, a presumed Russian agent released the first dirt stolen from Hillary Clinton.

July 7, 2016: What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?

We don’t have many details on what Mueller knows about Manafort’s requests for help on the campaign. We do know he remained in close touch with Russians via someone the FBI believed was a Russian intelligence agent, Konstantin Kilimnik, through whom he remained in communications with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Deripaska is named in some court documents in a way that suggests his relationship with Manafort may be the still hidden third prong of investigation into Manafort approved by August 2, 2017.

Starting in April, Manafort and Kilimnik (whom Rick Gates and therefore presumably Manafort knew was a former GRU officer), exchanged a series of cryptic emails, suggesting that Manafort might be able to pay off the $20 million he owed Deripaska with certain actions on the campaign. In an email sent on July 7, Manafort offered to provide briefings on the campaign to Deripaska. On or around August 2, Manafort and Kilimnik met in person at the Grand Havana Club, in Kushner’s building at 666 5th Avenue. Both deny that anything about the campaign came up. Shortly after this meeting, one of Deripaska’s jets came to Newark, and Russian opposition figure Viktor Navalny has claimed to have proof the jet went from there to a meeting between Deripaska and Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Prikhodko.

An August 2017 report describes intercepts picking up “Russian operatives discussing their efforts to work with Manafort, … relay[ing] what they claimed were conversations with Manafort, encouraging help from the Russians.”

There’s one more area of potential assistance I find of interest. Since January, we’ve been getting hints that Oleg Deripaska has some tie to the Steele dossier, possibly through a lawyer he and Steele share. I’ve raised repeated concerns that the Russians learned about the dossier and found ways to feed Steele disinformation. If they did, the disinformation would have led Democrats to be complacent about the hacks that targeted them. And whether or not the dossier is disinformation (and whether or not Deripaska had a role in that, if true), Paul Manafort coached Reince Priebus on how to attack the dossier as a way to discredit the investigation into the campaign’s ties with Russia.

With regards to this Manafort question: remember that Rick Gates flipped on February 23, and the questions date to early March. So Gates may have proffered confirmation about these details. In any case, Mueller likely has learned far more about them two months after Gates flipped.

July 10-12, 2016: What involvement did you have concerning platform changes regarding arming Ukraine?

The Majority HPSCI Russia Report explains that the RNC platform was changed by staffers at the convention based off Trump’s public statements on sanctions.

[Rick] Dearborn generated a memorandum, dated August 1, 2016, outlining a detailed sequence of events that occurred between July 10 and 12, 2016. As part of that memo, J.D. Gordon created a timeline that noted candidate Trump’s policy statements–including at a March 31, 2016, national security meeting–served as the basis for the modification of [Diana] Denman’s amendments. Gordon’s timeline made it clear that the change was initiated by campaign staffers at the convention–not by Manafort or senior officials.

J.D. Gordon has not confirmed that he was asked about this, but he surely was. I would expect Mueller to have tested the timeline Gordon laid out in summer 2016 (when the platform change was a big political issue) against the testimony and communications records of everyone else involved.

Of course, by asking the question in this fashion, Mueller doesn’t reveal what he has already confirmed about the platform changes.

August 5, 2016: What did you know about communication between Roger Stone, his associates, Julian Assange or WikiLeaks?

After multiple public statements that the Russians were behind the hack-and-leak, on August 5, 2016 (after traveling from NY to LA to his home in FL), Roger Stone wrote a column claiming to believe that Guccifer 2.0 was a hacktivist with no ties to Russia. Stone’s purportedly changed beliefs about Guccifer 2.0 coincide with an August 4 claim he made in an email to Sam Nunberg that he had met with Julian Assange the night before. Stone’s claimed belief that Guccifer 2.0 is not Russian is key to his denials of any involvement or pre-knowledge of hack-and-leak events. It also kicked off an alternative story that others, up to and including Trump, have adopted to excuse their own embrace of the stolen emails. In other words, a key prong in the plausible deniability the Russians built into the hack-and-leak campaign came from long-time Trump associate Roger Stone, after a dramatic and unexplained change in beliefs (Lee Stranahan, who used to work for Breitbart and now works for Sputnik, has claimed some credit for the change, and given how lucid the August 5 column is, someone had to have helped Stone write it).

Ten days later, after Stone had called on Twitter to let him out of Twitter jail, Guccifer 2.0 and Stone started exchanging (fairly innocuous) DMs.

There are events both before and after that which suggest Stone — probably through more interesting go-betweens than Randy Credico — sought information on what dirt Assange and Wikileaks had, and what and when planned to do with it.

Much has been made, especially in the DNC lawsuit, about Stone’s seeming prediction that “it would soon be Podesta’s time in the barrel.” Perhaps that’s true (and Stone’s explanation for the tweet is garbage), but any explanation of Stone’s supposed prediction needs to acknowledge that he more often predicted Wikileaks would release Clinton Foundation emails, not Podesta ones, that he got the timing somewhat wrong, and that he didn’t dwell on the Podesta emails at all once Wikileaks started releasing them (preferring, instead, to talk about Bill Clinton’s lady problems). Still, that may reflect Stone involvement in the Peter Smith operation, and efforts to get WikiLeaks to release purported Clinton Foundation emails passed on via hackers.

That Mueller is even asking this suggests (if the several grand jury witnesses in recent months dedicated to it don’t already) that Mueller has a pretty good idea that Stone’s communications were more extensive than his denials let on. That he thinks Stone may have shared that information with Trump is all the more interesting.

All of which is to say that the known answers to Mueller’s questions map out a quid pro quo set up during the election, in which Russians offered a Putin meeting and dirt on Hillary, with the expectation that Trump would lift the Magnitsky sanctions if he won (and would get a Trump Tower in Moscow if he lost). I suspect there are other pieces to the quid pro quo, dealing with Ukraine and Syria. But certainly the June 9 meeting set up an understanding: dirt in exchange for Magnitsky relief. The release of the Guccifer 2.0 emails may indicate the Trump camp provided some signal they had formally accepted the offer.

Update: Fixed syntax in last paragraph, h/t LT.

RESOURCES

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

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

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

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

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

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

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

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

The Access Hollywood Search Doesn’t Mean Trump Coordinated with Assange

As I noted, yesterday several outlets reported that among the things included in the FBI warrant for Michael Cohen’s premises was communications between Trump, Cohen, and others (whom I suspect to include Steve Bannon and Marc Kasowitz) “regarding the infamous ‘Access Hollywood'” video.

FBI agents who raided the home, office and hotel of Donald Trump’s personal lawyer sought communications that Trump had with attorney Michael Cohen and others regarding the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape that captured Trump making lewd remarks about women a month before the election, according to sources familiar with the matter.

[snip]

The search warrant also sought communications between then-candidate Trump and his associates regarding efforts to prevent disclosure of the tape, according to one of the sources. In addition, investigators wanted records and communications concerning other potential negative information about the candidate that the campaign would have wanted to contain ahead of the election. The source said the warrant was not specific about what this additional information would be.

From that, people on both the right and the left have assumed, without presenting hard evidence, that this means there must be a tie to Russia. Most often, people assume this must mean Trump somehow managed the events of October 7, when the Intelligence Committee report blaming Russia for the DNC hack, the Access Hollywood video, and the first Podesta emails all came out in quick succession.

That’s certainly possible, but thus far there’s no reason to believe that’s the case.

Mueller and Rosenstein referred this

That’s true, first of all, because after consulting with Rod Rosenstein, Robert Mueller referred this to the Southern District of New York for execution and prosecution, rather than dealing with it himself. He did that surely knowing what a sieve for leaks SDNY is, and therefore knowing that doing so would undercut his remarkably silent teamwork thus far.

In spite of a lot of reporting on this raid this week, we don’t yet have a clear understanding of why the two chose to refer it (or, tangentially, why interim SDNY US Attorney Geoffrey Berman recused himself from this matter).

There are two options. The first is that Rosenstein believed hush payments and taxi medallion money laundering sufficiently attenuated to the Russian investigation that it should properly be referred. In which case, the fact that it was referred is itself reason to believe that Mueller — even while he had abundant evidence supporting the search warrant — has no reason to believe those releases were orchestrated with Wikileaks, and therefore have no direct interest to his investigation (though they may cough up one to three witnesses who will be more willing to cooperate when faced with their own fraud indictments). In which case, the Access Hollywood video would be just another example, like the Stormy Daniels and the Karen McDougal payoffs, of Trump’s efforts to bury embarrassing news, using whatever means necessary.

The other option is that Mueller does have evidence that Trump in some way managed the October 7 events, which would be one of the most inflammatory pieces of evidence we would have heard of so far, but that there was some other reason to refer the matter.

Michael Cohen wasn’t serving as an attorney for much of the reported documents

The really good reason to refer the warrant would be so that SDNY would serve as a natural clean team, sorting through seized items for privileged communications, only to hand them back to Mueller’s team in DC once they’ve sorted through them. It’s an idea Preet Bharara and Matt Miller, among others, have floated.

Before we conclude that SDNY is only serving as a clean team for Mueller’s team here, consider that coverage has vastly overstated the degree to which the items being searched will fall under attorney-client privilege.

The search also sought information on Cohen’s taxi medallions, a business in which he has had really corrupt partners, some Russian, with their own legal problems, and one that has reportedly left Cohen with some debt problems that make his purported personal payment to Stormy Daniels all the more sketchy.

In addition, as soon as Trump claimed to know nothing of the hush payment to Daniels last Friday, the government could credibly claim that either Cohen was not representing Trump when paying off Daniels, or involved in fraud.

The NYT has reported that the raid also sought all communications between Cohen and National Enquirer’s top brass, communications that would in no way be privileged.

Even the reported communications about the Access Hollywood video may not be privileged. If they involved four people, then the only way they’d be covered by privilege is if they counted as campaign emails and Marc Kasowitz, not Cohen, was the attorney providing privileged advice in question. In that case, Cohen would have been playing the press contact role he often did during the campaign.

Still, just because Cohen was not playing the role of an attorney during most of the activities the FBI is interested in doesn’t mean the FBI won’t be really careful to make sure they don’t violate privilege, and I’m sure they’ll still use a taint team.

Mueller has already dealt with (at least) two sensitive attorney-client relationships in his investigation

Even on top of the eight members of the White House Counsel’s office who have spoken with the Special Counsel, Mueller’s team has dealt with (at least) two other sensitive attorney-client relationships.

The first was Melissa Laurenza, a lawyer for Paul Manafort whom he had write false declarations for FARA registry. Judge Amy Berman Jackson permitted Mueller’s team to ask her seven of eight proposed question after proving Manafort had used her services to engage in fraud.

More recently, we’ve gotten hints — but only hints — of what must be extensive cooperation from Skadden Arps and its partner Greg Craig, describing how Manafort and Gates laundered money to pay the firm loads of money to write a report they hoped would exonerate Ukraine’s persecution of Yulia Tymoshenko. While the cooperation of Skadden itself was probably effusive in its voluntary nature (the firm seems determined to avoid the taint that Tony Podesta’s firm has acquired in this process), Mueller did subpoena Alex Van der Zwaan and it’s unclear what methods the FBI used to obtain some of the materials he tried to hide from prosecutors.

Neither of those exchanges involves a search warrant. But they do show that Mueller is willing to take on the tricky issue of attorney testimony first-hand. Using SDNY as a clean team still may be the easiest option in the Cohen case, but Mueller clearly isn’t shying away from managing all such issues in-house in other cases.

The other possible explanations for the Access Hollywood search and the October 7 timing

Which brings us finally to the other possibilities behind the Access Hollywood search.

It’s certainly possible that the coincidental release of all these things was coordination, entirely orchestrated by the Trump campaign. But there are a number of reasons — on top of the fact that Mueller isn’t keeping this search far tighter under his own control — I think that’s not the most likely explanation.

Consider this story, arguing that the real story of Access Hollywood isn’t that it leaked on October 7 — the piece notes that David Farenthold had only received it that day — but that it didn’t leak earlier in the process, when it might have led Trump to lose the primary.

t is just impossible to believe that the tape not coming out at the start of Trump’s campaign, when logic dictates that it would have blown Trump instantly out of the water (before he was in a position where Republicans had no choice other than to keep backing him against the evil Hillary Clinton), was anything but a highly unethical political decision by someone at NBC. The fact that no one has ever even gotten an answer from NBC about how this could have happened is equally unfathomable and yet, given the news media’s overall incompetence, kind of expected.

[snip]

It has always struck me as EXTREMELY odd that it was the Washington Post, not NBC, who first released the tape on Friday Oct. 7, 2016, barely beating NBC which, it should be noted, was clearly ready to go with it immediately after the Post did. I presumed that perhaps NBC wanted this to be the case because it might take some of the focus off why they had not released it during the primaries (and thus chose not to prematurely kill off the media’s Golden Goose which was Trump’s ratings-friendly campaign).

However, there is another aspect of the Post being the outlet which got the big scoop that has always struck me as potentially very significant. The Post’s reporter, David Fahrenthold, has said that he was only made aware of the tape, via an unnamed source, THAT day — which is a clear indication that whomever was trying to get the Post to release it had decided to do so in tremendous haste. After all, if the source had planned it sooner they would have made contact with Fahrenthold well before then because he might have been out of pocket that day.

[snip]

For instance, what if it was actually someone from the TRUMP team who leaked the tape. At first glance, this seems ludicrous because no one thought that Trump would be anything but greatly harmed by the tape (though he clearly was not). But what if someone in Trump World got wind that the tape was about to be released and decided that stepping all over the Russia news (which would normally have dominated the narrative for the remainder of the campaign) would at least create the least bad outcome for them?

I don’t agree that the release was released when it was to distract from the Russia announcement that day. As I’ve long noted, in reality, the Access Hollywood distracted from the Podesta emails, effectively burying the most damning release in the bunch, the excerpts of Hillary’s speeches that even Democrats had been demanding she release since the primary. And while the Trump team might claim they didn’t control the release of the Podesta emails directly — and Roger Stone’s predictions that Wikileaks would release Clinton Foundation rather than Podesta emails were dead wrong — the Trump team at least knew something was coming (indeed, Wikileaks had made that clear themselves). So there’s little reason they would stomp on what they had long welcomed with the Access Hollywood tape. As this post alludes, I also think the Trump team and Russians or Wikileaks may have been squabbling over whether Wikileaks would release possibly faked Clinton Foundation emails that week, only to scramble when Wikileaks refused to release whatever the Peter Smith effort had gotten dealt to them.

Like the Mediate piece, I’m interested in the way that Steve Bannon had Clinton accusers all lined up to go that weekend (indeed, I noted how quickly Stone moved to that after having raised expectations for a Clinton Foundation release). But I also think there are some reasons to believe that attack was in the works for other reasons (though I agree it might reflect advance knowledge that the video might come out, or even that Stormy Daniels might come forward).  Finally, I don’t think the release came from Trump because of all the reports of Republicans trying to convince Trump to step down (though it’s possible the GOP dropped the video in one last bid to get him to do so).

One alternative narrative, then, is that the real story about the Access Hollywood suppression goes back months or years earlier, as one of the things Trump managed to suppress throughout the campaign, but something happened internally to breach that agreement. And, separately, that either Assange by himself, with Russian help, or with Trump assistance, timed the Podesta emails to come out as the Russian attribution was coming out. That is, it could be that the real story remains that whoever orchestrated the Wikileaks release did so in an attempt to bury the Russian attribution, but that the coincidental release of the Access Hollywood video in turn buried the Podesta emails.

Finally, it’s possible that Democrats got ahold of the Access Hollywood video and they released it to (successfully) drown out the Podesta emails, which they (and the intelligence community) also would have known were coming, but by doing so, they also drowned out the all-important Russian attribution in the process.

The point is, we don’t know. And nothing we know thus far about the process leading to this warrant or about the suppression and release of either the video or the women’s stories suggest it all took place that week of October. Trump’s usual m.o. is about suppression, not timing.

That said, I’m curious if this raid will reveal details about one other item Trump probably tried to suppress: the nude Melania photos that NYPost released on July 31, 2016, just as campaign season got going in earnest.

Bannon Aims to Best Jared Kushner’s Biggest Mistake in Modern Political History

Back in September, Steve Bannon agreed on 60 Minutes that firing Jim Comey was the stupidest decision in modern political history.

In a “60 Minutes” interview that was posted online Sunday night, Bannon was asked whether he considered Comey’s dismissal — which ignited a political firestorm and directly led to the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election, including potential ties to Trump’s campaign — the biggest mistake in political history.

Bannon responded, “That would be probably — that probably would be too bombastic even for me, but maybe modern political history.

“He went on to acknowledge that if Comey had not been let go, it’s unlikely that the probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller would have been established.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that if James Comey had not been fired, we would not have a special counsel, yes,” he said. “We would not have the Mueller investigation. We would not have the Mueller investigation and the breadth that clearly Mr. Mueller is going for.”

At that time, Bannon insisted that he faced no risk from even the expanded Mueller investigation, and hadn’t even lawyered up.

All that changed, of course, after he ran his mouth to Michael Wolff. Bannon claimed to be offended by the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting. In his apology he would even say the entire meeting offended his life’s work making movies about fighting “the evil empire.”

“My comments about the meeting with Russian nationals came from my life experiences as a Naval officer stationed aboard a destroyer whose main mission was to hunt Soviet submarines to my time at the Pentagon during the Reagan years when our focus was the defeat of ‘the evil empire’ and to making films about Reagan’s war against the Soviets and Hillary Clinton’s involvement in selling uranium to them.”

But what really irked Bannon is that when Don Jr, Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner met with Russians in an effort to obtain dirt on Hillary Clinton, they didn’t use lawyers as cutouts.

“The chance that Don Jr. did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor is zero,” said an astonished and derisive Bannon, not long after the meeting was revealed.

“The three senior guys in the campaign,” an incredulous Bannon went on, “thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the twenty-fifth floor—with no lawyers. They didn’t have any lawyers. Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately. Even if you didn’t think to do that, and you’re totally amoral, and you wanted that information, you do it in a Holiday Inn in Manchester, New Hampshire, with your lawyers who meet with these people and go through everything and then they verbally come and tell another lawyer in a cut-out, and if you’ve got something, then you figure out how to dump it down to Breitbart or something like that, or maybe some other more legitimate publication. You never see it, you never know it, because you don’t need to. . . . But that’s the brain trust that they had.”

On Monday, the home, hotel, and office of the lawyer Trump has long used as such a cutout, Michael Cohen, got raided. Among the things the FBI sought — in addition to information on Cohen’s own corrupt business — were communications Trump and that lawyer and others had about the Access Hollywood video.

FBI agents who raided the home, office and hotel of Donald Trump’s personal lawyer sought communications that Trump had with attorney Michael Cohen and others regarding the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape that captured Trump making lewd remarks about women a month before the election, according to sources familiar with the matter.

[snip]

The search warrant also sought communications between then-candidate Trump and his associates regarding efforts to prevent disclosure of the tape, according to one of the sources. In addition, investigators wanted records and communications concerning other potential negative information about the candidate that the campaign would have wanted to contain ahead of the election. The source said the warrant was not specific about what this additional information would be. [my emphasis]

Bannon — and Marc Kasowitz, who sent a lawyer to meet with Trump in the wake of news of the raid — was probably among those associates. After all, Bannon also told Wolff that he and Kasowitz had to deal with a number of “near-death problems on the campaign” pertaining to women — like Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal — making legal threats against Trump.

Unable to hire prestige talent, Bannon turned to one of the president’s longtime hit-man lawyers, Marc Kasowitz. Bannon had previously bonded with Kasowitz when the attorney had handled a series of near-death problems on the campaign, including dealing with a vast number of allegations and legal threats from an ever growing list of women accusing Trump of molesting and harassing them.

Now, Steve Bannon, the guy who claimed firing Jim Comey was the stupidest recent political decision, the guy who wasn’t so much opposed to political rat-fucking as he was opposed to doing it without using lawyers as a cutout, is shopping a new plan to get Trump out of his legal woes: fire Rod Rosenstein.

Stephen K. Bannon, who was ousted as White House chief strategist last summer but has remained in touch with some members of President Trump’s circle, is pitching a plan to West Wing aides and congressional allies to cripple the federal probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to four people familiar with the discussions.

The first step, these people say, would be for Trump to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who oversees the work of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and in recent days signed off on a search warrant of Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.

Bannon also wants to fire Ty Cobb, one of Trump’s remaining semi-legit lawyers, as part of an effort to invalidate all the testimony from White House officials — including himself!!!! — based on the claim it should have been covered by executive privilege.

And he is telling associates inside and outside the administration that the president should create a new legal battleground to protect himself from the investigation by asserting executive privilege — and arguing that Mueller’s interviews with White House officials over the past year should now be null and void.

“The president wasn’t fully briefed by his lawyers on the implications” of not invoking executive privilege, Bannon told The Washington Post in an interview Wednesday. “It was a strategic mistake to turn over everything without due process, and executive privilege should be exerted immediately and retroactively.”

[snip]

Bannon believes Trump can argue he was given poor counsel by his lawyers on Russia, including Ty Cobb, who has encouraged a cooperative approach to Mueller’s team.

“Ty Cobb should be fired immediately,” Bannon said.

I’m agnostic about whether the Access Hollywood video actually relates to the Russian investigation. If it does, the only conceivable reason to refer it to Southern District of NY would be to establish a clean team — but Mueller’s team has already handled interactions with investigations involving two lawyers and/or legal teams, Melissa Laurenza (who testified that Manafort led her to lie on FARA forms), and Skadden Arps. I do think it possible — highly likely, actually — that Cohen may have been used as a cutout in some hotel room in New England to cover-up other sensitive issues.

But given Bannon’s response, the investigation into Cohen’s cover-up of Trump’s problems with women — including both the Access Hollywood tape and the legal negotiations with Daniels and McDougal — probably implicates Bannon as well as Cohen.

And so Bannon wants to do what Kushner did when he, similarly, realized how much a legal investigation jeopardized him personally: fire the guy running the investigation.

Indeed, Bannon seems so panicked he can’t even remember that such moves rank among the stupidest in modern political history.

Update: One more thing about the Stormy/McDougal/Access investigation. That may come directly out of Bannon’s own testimony, which would explain why he’d want to try to invalidate it.

The Trump Toadies Who Are Worried about Being Unmasked

Last week, Zoe Tillman noted this FOIA lawsuit from attorney Gene Schaerr, working on behalf of someone who wants to remain anonymous “at present,” suing to obtain records on the unmasking of Trump campaign and transition officials. The thing is, Shaerr isn’t just asking for unmasking records generally.

The odd collection of people being FOIAed

He’s asking for unmasking records pertaining to a really curious group of people:

  1. Steve Bannon
  2. Rep. Lou Barletta
  3. Rep. Marsha Blackburn
  4. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi
  5. Rep. Chris Collins
  6. Rep. Tom Marino
  7. Rebekah Mercer
  8. Steven Mnuchin
  9. Rep. Devin Nunes
  10. Reince Priebus
  11. Anthony Scaramucci
  12. Peter Thiel
  13. Donald Trump Jr.
  14. Eric Trump
  15. Ivanka Trump
  16. Jared Kushner
  17. Rep. Sean Duffy
  18. Rep. Trey Gowdy
  19. Rep. Dennis Ross
  20. Pastor Darrell C. Scott
  21. Kiron Skinner

Some of these would be obvious, of course: Trump’s spawn, Bannon, Priebus, and Mnuchin. I’m really interested to see Rebekah Mercer (especially given the more we learn on Cambridge Analytica). Mooch is there. The litigious Peter Thiel is there (making him at least a reasonable candidate to be paying for this lawsuit, except for reasons I lay out below).

Mike Flynn, the one person we know to have been unmasked, is not in there (which is particularly odd given all the efforts to find some way to unring Flynn’s guilty plea, though that came after this FOIA was filed).

Then there are the eight members of Congress (in addition to the corrupt FL AG, Pam Bondi, who helped Trump out of a legal pinch in FL after Trump gave her a donation).

Lou Barletta, who’s a loud opponent of “illegal immigration,” a member of the Homeland Security Committee, and who, not long after this FOIA was first filed, prepared a challenge to PA’s Bob Casey in the Senate last year.

Marsha Blackburn, who works on a number of data issues in Congress, and is running to replace Bob Corker as TN Senator. Blackburn worked closely with Tom Marino to shield pharma and pill mills from DEA reach.

Chris Collins from upstate NY. His most interesting committee assignment is on Energy and Commerce, though he has worked on broadband issues.

Tom Marino, former US Attorney for Pennsyltucky who is on the Judiciary Committee. Trump tried to make him the Drug Czar, until it became clear he had pushed through a bill that hurt DEA’s ability to combat the opioid epidemic.

Devin Nunes, whose efforts to undermine the Mueller investigation have been epic, and who first manufactured the unmasking scandal. He’d be a great candidate to be Schaerr’s client, except he would probably just leak this information, which he has already seen.

Sean Duffy, a WI congressman who is chair of the investigations subcommittee of the Financial Services committee, and has been an opponent of CFPB.

Trey Gowdy took over as Chair of the Oversight Committee last year and also serves on the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees. Because of those appointments, even without being designated by Devin Nunes to take the lead on the Mueller pushback, he would have already had the most visibility on the Mueller investigation. But because Nunes put him in charge of actually looking at the intelligence, he is the single Republican who has seen the bulk of the Mueller investigative materials. During Nunes week, he announces his retirement suddenly, and has warned about the seriousness of the Mueller investigation, and he just gave a crazy interview to Fox News (which I’ll return to).

Dennis Ross, from FL, serves on the Financial Services committee.

On top of the Republicans, the list includes two of the few African Americans (with David Clarke, Omarosa, and Tim Scott) who supported Trump.  Darrell Scott was head of a Michael Cohen invented diversity group hastily put together in April 2016. Kiron Skinner is a legit scholar of Reagan who teaches at Carnegie Mellon and has a bunch of other appointments.

As I said, aside from the big obvious players, this list is a curious collection. Of note, however, four people on it should have a sound understanding of how NSA spying and FISA work: Thiel, Nunes, Gowdy, and Marino. But (again aside from the big players), the international ties of most of these people (Thiel and Skinner are big exceptions) are not readily apparent.

The whack understanding of FISA laid out on the complaint

I’m interested in the FISA knowledge of some people named in this list because of the crazy depiction of FISA that the complaint lays out.

The complaint highlights two departments of NSA, claiming they’re the ones that deal with improper use of intelligence (but does not include the Inspector General).

On information and belief, at least two departments within the NSA handle complaints regarding the improper use of intelligence. These departments are known publicly by the codes “S12,” a code name apparently referring to the agency’s Information Sharing Services authority, and “SV,” a code name apparently referring to the agency’s Oversight and Compliance authority.

As part of the FOIA to NSA, Schaerr asked for anything submitted to these departments.

All reports made to S12 and SV regarding improper dissemination of any individual listed in Question 2, above. See National Security Agency, United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18, § 7.5 (January 25, 2011).

That’s an oddly specific request, unless whoever is behind this request knows there are reports there.

That might suggest Nunes, Gowdy, or Marino is behind the request. But then consider how unbelievably wrong the complaint gets FISA.

After introducing FISA, it turns exclusively to Section 702, which is odd because the unmasking pseudo-scandal has thus far been based off the unmasking of individual orders.

Plaintiff’s requests in this case concern the Defendants’ use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA).1 Section 702 of FISA (“Section 702”) empowers the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence to jointly authorize “the targeting of persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States to acquire foreign intelligence information.” 50 U.S.C. § 1881a(a) (emphasis added). Section 702 expressly forbids use of this surveillance process to target persons who are either “United States persons” or located “inside the United States.” Id. at 1881a(b).

The complaint then makes three utterly false statements about how labor is divided between the FBI, NSA, and CIA.

14. The FBI collects data on outgoing communications, i.e., from persons in the United States to persons outside the United States.

15. The NSA collects data on incoming communications, i.e., from persons outside the United States to persons inside the United States.

16. The CIA, like the FBI and NSA, analyzes the information that comes from the FBI’s and NSA’s data collection. Unlike the other agencies, the CIA uses the information to engage in international intelligence operations.

The FBI collects on domestic targets, which can include incoming and outgoing comms, plus anything domestic (such as Sergey Kislyak’s calls across town to Mike Flynn; update — the December 29 calls would have been from DC to Dominican Republic, where Flynn was vacationing). The NSA likewise collects incoming and outgoing comms, as well as stuff that takes place entirely overseas (though very little of the latter is done under 702). Both the other agencies, in addition to CIA, use FISA information to engage in international intelligence operations.

The complaint then claims, in contradiction to a bunch of public information, that minimization equates to completely anonymizing US person data.

Section 702 also requires that foreign intelligence surveillance be conducted consistently with “minimization procedures.” Id. § 1881a(e)(1). These procedures are designed to “minimize the acquisition and retention, and prohibit the dissemination, of nonpublicly available information concerning unconsenting United States persons,” but in a manner still “consistent with the need of the United States to obtain, produce, and disseminate foreign intelligence information.” Id. § 1801(h)(1). As relevant here, minimization procedures must be designed to ensure the anonymity of United States persons who may be incidentally surveilled. Id. § 1801(h)(1), (2).

This comment comes immediately after a paragraph on finished intelligence reports, so this may be an incorrect statement of what masking is.

It then makes a claim about how data gets circulated that entirely ignores the sharing of raw data under 702, and further makes claims relying on this article that aren’t actually supported by the article (admittedly, the article doesn’t describe the sharing of raw data, but its focus in primarily on traditional FISA).

Generally, original raw intelligence is not circulated to other agencies; instead, intelligence reports are created and circulated internally. See, e.g., Gregory Korte, What is ‘unmasking?’ How intelligence agencies treat U.S. citizens, USA Today, (Apr. 4, 2017; 2:14 p.m.), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/ 2017/04/04/ what-unmasking-how-intelligence-agencies-treat-us-citizens/100026368. In the process of summarizing the intelligence, agencies exclude the names of U.S. citizens from the reports, referring to them instead with identifiers like “U.S. Person 1.” Id.

The complaint then describes what sounds like a muddle of upstream collection and back door searches, but gets both wrong.

The NSA also has the ability to search the internet data it collects by entering the name of an individual into a database search tool. This process is known as “upstreaming” and has the effect of creating additional raw intelligence that may contain the names of American persons. Such intelligence is also subject to the usual masking requirements and procedures.

This is wrong because upstream collection uses selectors, not names, whereas back door searches, which can use a name, are done by all three agencies. Such intelligence would not necessarily be masked at FBI if it made it into an investigative report.

The complaint then points to that godawful Circa report that itself muddles the difference between 702 and 704/705b to claim that they were upstream violations during the campaign cycle.

News reports—as well as a declassified Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinion—also note that some Americans had their names upstreamed, in violation of internal policies, during the 2016 election cycle, which the opinion described as a “serious Fourth Amendment issue.” See Declassified FISC Court opinion at 19-20, available at http://bit.ly/FISCopApril2017; Circa News, Obama intel agency secretly conducted illegal searches on Americans for years, May 23, 2017), https://www.circa.com/story/2017/05/23/politics/obama-intel-agencysecretly-conducted-illegal-searches-on-americans-for-years.

The violations in question, while serious, actually involve back door searches on upstream collection, and to the extent the searches were done on 704/705b targets, would only have happened were there an individualized FISA order against one of the named people (in fact, NSA’s back door searches on US persons are generally limited to people with individualized orders, those who may be targets of a foreign power, or urgent searches following a terrorist attack or similar situation).

In short, it’s a remarkable garble of how FISA really works. That doesn’t exclude Nunes’ involvement (I would hope both Marino and Gowdy have a better understanding of FISA than this, but don’t guarantee it). But it seems to be an attempt to declassify stuff it knows about, even while it exhibits a remarkable misunderstanding of what it’s talking about.

So why are all these Trump toadies worried about being unmasked

All of which brings me to the puzzle: what the hell is his anonymous client up to? Why is the client concerned about this specific selection of transition officials, but not (say) Mike Flynn?

Update: Laura Rozen notes that this list is the list provided here, except with this chunk taken out, and with some weird alpha order going on.

 

The Nunberg Subpoena: Is He Protecting Bannon, Rather than Trump?

This WaPo article reporting that Sam Nunberg will refuse to appear before the Grand Jury on Friday confirms that the subpoena everyone reported on was his.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Nunberg said he was asked to come to Washington to appear before the grand jury on Friday. He also provided The Washington Post a copy of his two-page grand jury subpoena seeking documents related to President Trump and nine other people, including emails, correspondence, invoices, telephone logs, calendars and “records of any kind.”

Nunberg, who was reportedly already interviewed by Mueller’s team, says he’s not going to show up.

“Let him arrest me,” Nunberg said. “Mr. Mueller should understand I am not going in on Friday.”

You’d think he was doing this in hopes that Trump might protect him, except this kind of stuff is not the way to elicit favors from Trump.

“The Russians and Trump did not collude,” Nunberg said. “Putin is too smart to collude with Donald Trump.”

[snip]

“Donald Trump won this election on his own. He campaigned his ass off. And there is nobody who hates him more than me.”

Which is why I wonder whether Nunberg’s refusal to testify has more to do with protecting Bannon, with whom he’s still quite chummy, than the President.

“I’m not spending 80 hours going over my emails with Roger Stone and Stephen K. Bannon and producing them,” Nunberg said.

Among those listed in Nunberg’s subpoena, Bannon almost the only one who was a mild surprise.

  1. Carter Page
  2. Corey Lewandowski
  3. Donald J. Trump
  4. Hope Hicks
  5. Keith Schiller
  6. Michael Cohen
  7. Paul Manafort
  8. Rick Gates
  9. Roger Stone
  10. Steve Bannon

Most people on the list are known to be subjects of the investigation. Hicks (who probably is the subject of the obstruction investigation anyway) and Schiller are the two people closest to Trump at key times during the campaign. And Lewandowski was involved in managing the outreach to Europe for key periods of the campaign (and is really squirrelly about what he did after the campaign).

Which leaves Bannon, who was involved in some key meetings during the transition, and whose opposition to the Trump meeting was always about Don Jr and Manafort not involving lawyers than opposition to obtaining stolen emails generally.

The Mueller Subpoena Starts at the Moment a Real Estate Deal in Moscow Might Get Trump Elected

Axios got a copy of a subpoena someone got from Robert Mueller last month. It asks for all communications (including handwritten notes) “this witness sent and received regarding the following people.” The list of people includes a lot of people you’d expect, but it’s missing a few:

  1. Carter Page
  2. Corey Lewandowski
  3. Donald J. Trump
  4. Hope Hicks
  5. Keith Schiller
  6. Michael Cohen
  7. Paul Manafort
  8. Rick Gates
  9. Roger Stone
  10. Steve Bannon

Cooperating witnesses George Papadopoulos and Mike Flynn aren’t on this list, but cooperating witness Rick Gates is (which may date the subpoena to before Gates flipped on February 23). The order is of particular interest (or, maybe they’re just alpha order by first name): Page, the long term suspected Russian asset, followed immediately by Lewandowski, who was in the loop on the stolen email offer, followed by the President and those closest to him, followed by Manafort and his closest aide. Then Stone and then — in the same month he gave 20 hours of testimony — Bannon.

Neither Don Jr nor Kushner is on this list. Given the emphasis on communications “regarding” the listed people, and given the way that Abbe Lowell purposely avoided giving “about”communications to Congress (and possibly to Mueller), and also given that Jonathan Swan is Axios’ key White House scoopster, I actually don’t rule out the witness being Jared. Or, as I joked on Twitter, like Flynn and Papadopoulos, maybe he has already flipped and so isn’t on this list.

Whoever it is, the absences on the list are probably a function of who is legitimately in this person’s circle.

Perhaps most telling, however, is the timing: November 1, 2015, to the present. Recall that on November 3, sometime FBI informant Felix Sater sent Michael Cohen (on the list) an email promising that a real estate deal in Moscow might lead to Trump becoming President. (Here’s the original WaPo scoop on the story.)

On November 3, 2015, two months before the GOP primary started in earnest and barely over a year before the presidential election, mobbed up real estate broker and sometime FBI informant Felix Sater emailed Trump Organization Executive Vice President and Special Counsel to Trump, Michael Cohen. According to the fragment we read, Sater boasts of his access to Putin going back to 2006 (when the Ivanka incident reportedly happened), and said “we can engineer” “our boy” becoming “President of the USA.”

[snip]

Mr. Sater, a Russian immigrant, said he had lined up financing for the Trump Tower deal with VTB Bank, a Russian bank that was under American sanctions for involvement in Moscow’s efforts to undermine democracy in Ukraine. In another email, Mr. Sater envisioned a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Moscow.

“I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected,” Mr. Sater wrote.

That’s the start date Mueller uses for potential communications among people including Trump’s closest aides, including Cohen (but not including Sater) in the Russian investigation.

Update: Adding, we know that on October 21, 2016, the FBI had investigations into Manafort, Page, Stone, and possibly Gates. Is it possible this list is the sum of all those against whom sub-investigations have been opened (or were at the time this subpoena was issued)?

The Silent Cast of Characters in the Very Noisy Recent Mueller Moves

A fuck-ton has happened in the Mueller investigation already this month. Amid the noisy pleas and indictments, we’ve seen indications of hidden cooperation from a range of people, cooperation that may point to where Mueller’s next steps are.

Here, arranged by the date of the development, are hints at who either was or soon is likely to be talking to Mueller’s team.

February 1: In a proffer to Mueller’s team, Rick Gates lied about a March 19, 2013 meeting with Paul Manafort, Vin Weber, and Dana Rohrabacher.

Rohrabacher’s statement in response to the guilty plea is inconsistent with the version laid out in the plea, suggesting he’s not the means by which Mueller’s team learned it was a lie.

After the guilty plea on Friday, a spokesman for Rohrabacher, who has sought better relations with Russia, said: “As the congressman has acknowledged before, the meeting was a dinner with two longtime acquaintances –- Manafort and Weber –- from back in his White House and early congressional days.”

“The three reminisced and talked mostly about politics,” the spokesman said. “The subject of Ukraine came up in passing. It is no secret that Manafort represented Viktor Yanukovych’s interests, but as chairman of the relevant European subcommittee, the congressman has listened to all points of view on Ukraine.”

This suggests someone else provided the version of the meeting the government included in the plea. While it’s possible the other version came from Gates’ former lawyers, it’s more likely the version came from someone else. Vin Weber is the most likely source of that information.

Back in August 2016, as news of the secret ledger was breaking,Weber suggested he may have been misled by Manafort, both as to the purpose of his lobbying and regarding the need to register as a foreign agent for Ukraine. If he felt that way in August 2016, I imagine he came to feel that even more strongly as Manafort’s legal woes intensified.

February 9: Returning a call from John Kelly but speaking to Don McGahn, Rod Rosenstein spoke of “important new information” about Jared Kushner that will delay his clearance.

Given all the evidence that suggests Jared faces very significant exposure in this investigation, this new information could be any number of things. But two possibilities are likely. First, it might reflect Jared’s January 3 disclosure of additional business interests in yet another update to his SF-86, or his family’s increasing debt over the last year.

More likely, it reflects things the government has learned from Mike Flynn (who has an incentive to burn Jared, given that the President’s son-in-law was asked for and didn’t provide exonerating information tied to Flynn’s own lies to the FBI). Indeed, that seems to be one theory of those who reported on this phone call.

Kushner’s actions during the transition have been referenced in the guilty plea of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who admitted he lied to the FBI about contacts with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Prosecutors said Flynn was acting in consultation with a senior Trump transition official, whom people familiar with the matter have identified as Kushner.

All that said, there are two more possibilities. Given that she appears to have lied to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in her confirmation process, KT McFarland would be an obvious follow-up interview after the Mike Flynn plea; she asked Trump to withdraw her nomination to be Ambassador to Singapore on February 3. And February 9 might be (though probably isn’t, quite) late enough to catch the first sessions of Steve Bannon’s 20 hours of interviews with Mueller, and Bannon has long had it in for Jared.

February 14: Alex Van der Zwaan got caught and pled guilty to lying about communications he had with Rick Gates, Konstantin Kilimnik, and Greg Craig in September 2016. On top of whatever he had to say to prosecutors between his second interview on December 1 and his plea on February 14, both Craig and Skadden Arps have surely provided a great deal of cooperation before and since September 2016. (As I was finishing this, NYT posted this story that details some, but not all, of that cooperation.)

February 16: As I noted in my post on the Internet Research Agency indictment, Rod Rosenstein was quite clear: “There is no allegation in the indictment that any American was a knowing participant in the alleged unlawful activity.” That said, there are three (presumed) Americans who, both the indictment and subsequent reporting make clear, are treated differently in the indictment than all the other Americans cited as innocent people duped by Russians: Campaign Official 1, Campaign Official 2, and Campaign Official 3. We know, from CNN’s coverage of Harry Miller’s role in building a cage to be used in a fake “jailed Hillary” stunt, that at least some other people described in the indictment were interviewed — in his case, for six hours! — by the FBI. But no one else is named using the convention to indicate those not indicted but perhaps more involved in the operation. Furthermore, the indictment doesn’t actually describe what action (if any) these three Trump campaign officials took after being contacted by trolls emailing under false names.

On approximately the same day, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the email address of a false U.S. persona, [email protected], to send an email to Campaign Official 1 at that donaldtrump.com email account, which read in part:

Hello [Campaign Official 1], [w]e are organizing a state-wide event in Florida on August, 20 to support Mr. Trump. Let us introduce ourselves first. “Being Patriotic” is a grassroots conservative online movement trying to unite people offline. . . . [W]e gained a huge lot of followers and decided to somehow help Mr. Trump get elected. You know, simple yelling on the Internet is not enough. There should be real action. We organized rallies in New York before. Now we’re focusing on purple states such as Florida.

The email also identified thirteen “confirmed locations” in Florida for the rallies and requested the campaign provide “assistance in each location.”

[snip]

Defendants and their co-conspirators used the false U.S. persona [email protected] account to send an email to Campaign Official 2 at that donaldtrump.com email account.

[snip]

On or about August 20, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the “Matt Skiber” Facebook account to contact Campaign Official 3.

Again, the DOJ convention of naming makes it clear these people have not been charged with anything. But we know from other Mueller indictments that those specifically named (which include the slew of Trump campaign officials named in the George Papadopoulos plea, KT McFarland and Jared Kushner in the Flynn plea, Kilimnik in the Van der Zwaan plea, and the various companies and foreign leaders that did Manafort’s bidding, including the Podesta Group and Mercury Public Affairs in his indictment) may be the next step in the investigation. As a reminder: Florida Republicans are those who most tangibly can be shown to have benefitted from Russia’s hack-and-leak, given that Guccifer 2.0 leaked a slew of Democratic targeting data for the state. (In perhaps related news, this week Tom Rooney became the third Florida Republican member of Congress to announce his retirement this cycle, which is all the more interesting given that he’s been involved in the HPSCI investigation into Russian tampering.)

February 23: Manafort’s superseding indictment (a version of which was originally filed February 16) added the description of the Hapsburg Group for former European officials who lobbied at the direction (to some degree via cut-outs) of Manafort.

MANAFORT explained in an “EYES ONLY” memorandum created in or about June 2012 that the purpose of the “SUPER VIP” effort would be to “assemble a small group of high-level European highly influencial [sic] champions and politically credible friends who can act informally and without any visible relationship with the Government of Ukraine.” The group was managed by a former European Chancellor, Foreign Politician A, in coordination with MANAFORT.

It may be that the government only recently obtained this document (meaning it was not among the 590,000 pages of documents obtained and turned over to Manafort in discovery thus far). But it’s likely this also reflects further testimony. Former Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer denied he is Foreign Politician A to BBC, though that may be a non-denial denial tied to his claim he wasn’t directed by Manafort and only met him a few times (this Austrian story suggests only he doesn’t remember what American or English firm paid him). NYT reported that Gusenbauer’s lobbying during the relevant time period was registered under Mercury Public Affairs. This is another piece of evidence suggesting the group — and Vin Weber personally — has been cooperating since the original indictment.

Note, I assume that Mercury/Weber’s cooperation has been mirrored by Tony Podesta’s.

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are There Other Emails about the June 9 Meeting?

Something has been bugging me about this NYT story from last week reporting that, in a conference call with Mark Corallo on July 9, 2017 (see the timeline of events below), Hope Hicks told him emails on the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Don Jr, Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner and Natalia Veselnitskaya, Rinat Akhmetshin, Ike Kaveladze, and Rob Goldstone would never come out.

Corallo is planning to tell Mr. Mueller about a previously undisclosed conference call with Mr. Trump and Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, according to the three people. Mr. Corallo planned to tell investigators that Ms. Hicks said during the call that emails written by Donald Trump Jr. before the Trump Tower meeting — in which the younger Mr. Trump said he was eager to receive political dirt about Mrs. Clinton from the Russians — “will never get out.” That left Mr. Corallo with concerns that Ms. Hicks could be contemplating obstructing justice, the people said.

[snip]

In Mr. Corallo’s account — which he provided contemporaneously to three colleagues who later gave it to The Times — he told both Mr. Trump and Ms. Hicks that the statement drafted aboard Air Force One would backfire because documents would eventually surface showing that the meeting had been set up for the Trump campaign to get political dirt about Mrs. Clinton from the Russians.

According to his account, Ms. Hicks responded that the emails “will never get out” because only a few people had access to them.

As the story describes, the emails in question were already prepped (by the lawyers with whom Corallo worked on a day to day basis) to send to Congress, which would have made it really hard for anyone to withhold the emails.

Congress had requested records from Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman; Mr. Kushner; and other Trump campaign officials about meetings with Russians. And lawyers had already copied and stamped the emails for delivery to Capitol Hill.

But elsewhere in the story, the NYT admits that even as (or shortly after) that meeting transpired it already had the emails Don Jr released that day and was going to publish them itself.

The younger Mr. Trump ultimately released the emails after being told The Times was about to publish them.

The original story (as well as the second one) described that the meeting was discovered when Kushner disclosed it on one of his many revisions to his security clearance application and in a response from Paul Manafort to congressional inquiries.

The Trump Tower meeting was not disclosed to government officials until recently, when Mr. Kushner, who is also a senior White House aide, filed a revised version of a form required to obtain a security clearance.

[snip]

Manafort, the former campaign chairman, also recently disclosed the meeting, and Donald Trump Jr.’s role in organizing it, to congressional investigators who had questions about his foreign contacts, according to people familiar with the events.

But nothing in that description would mean Congress would have gotten the emails yet, which is where investigative materials normally get leaked to the press (though it’s possible Manafort had already turned them over).

Michael Wolff’s book reports the Bannon suspicion that a Jared aide (presumably Josh Raffel), who was in the initial meeting where Trump forced everyone else to say the June 9 meeting dealt primarily with adoptions, leaked the emails to the NYT.

Indeed, the best guess by many in the West Wing was that the details of the meeting had been leaked by the Kushner side, thus sacrificing Don Jr. in an attempt to deflect responsibility away from themselves.

[snip]

The lawyers, and spokesperson Mark Corallo, had been working to manage this news. But while in Hamburg, the president’s staff learned that the Times was developing a story that had far more details about the meeting—quite possibly supplied by the Kushner side—which it would publish on Saturday, July 8.

But it describes the Jared team as leaking details, not the emails themselves. Plus, it’s hard to see how the emails don’t also implicate Jared, unless he’s going to bank on having left the meeting as his means to defend himself even in light of all the other damning evidence he was willing to chat up Russians later in the year.

Furthermore, given that Jared was an active player in that first meeting, it’s hard to understand how Hicks wouldn’t have known that Jared would have to disclose any emails that involved him personally.

There’s one other detail of note. The NYT makes it clear that the lawyers (and Corallo) in DC were kept out of the loop on the panic on Air Force One and that they didn’t know the NYT was working on a story. Though it’s unclear where the Circa story that those lawyers (and Corallo) did contribute to came from, then, as it feels like an effort to pre-empt the NYT with a friendly outlet.

Significantly, the Circa story is the source of the claim that Trump didn’t know about the meeting that I noted here (which the lawyers are said to have believed, which is why the Trump and his family weren’t consulting with the lawyers).

President Trump was not aware of the meeting and did not attend it, according to the lawyers.

It’s also significant, though, because it adopts the line Paul Manafort seems to have convinced Reince Priebus to adopt, pointing to problems with the dossier and Fusion GPS as a way to discredit the entire investigation.

“We have learned from both our own investigation and public reports that the participants in the meeting misrepresented who they were and who they worked for,” said Mark Corallo, a spokesman for President Trump’s legal team. “Specifically, we have learned that the person who sought the meeting is associated with Fusion GPS, a firm which according to public reports, was retained by Democratic operatives to develop opposition research on the President and which commissioned the phony Steele dossier. ”

“These developments raise serious issues as to exactly who authorized and participated in any effort by Russian nationals to influence our election in any manner,” Corallo said.

I raise all this to highlight two possibilities: that the emails are all that exist, but that they were leaked by someone — Manafort? Bannon? Corallo? — to punish the White House for its first misleading lies about the meeting. Perhaps Gorelick leaked them, which might explain why she stopped representing Jared days later?

But there’s another possibility: that more emails exist, between Don Jr and Rob Goldstone (indeed, we know Goldstone sent follow-up emails involving Vkontakte). Or that there are communications between other players. In which case the release of the current emails might serve to distract from a fuller set that Hicks did succeed in burying.

In any case, not only is Corallo prepping his meeting with Mueller’s team, but Steve Bannon seems intent on meeting with Mueller before HPSCI has an opportunity to run interference with him.

A source familiar with the matter added that Bannon would instead answer all of special counsel Robert Mueller’s questions as part of his investigation.

So whatever particular complaints the Corallo/Kasowitz/Bannon/Priebus crowd has about the way things went down may soon be shared with Mueller.


Early July 7: NYT approaches WH officials and lawyers; WH schedules a conference call w/NYT for next morning.

July 7: Trump chats up Putin at dinner. (Note, whenever Melania decides it’s time to get revenge on Trump for treating her like shit, she can go tell Mueller what she overheard of this conversation.)

July 8, morning: Conference call doesn’t happen. NYT submits 14 questions about the meeting to the WH and lawyers of Trump campaign aides who attended the meeting (do these aides include all of Don Jr, Kushner, and Manafort?); Trump and his aides develop a response on Air Force One, with Hicks coordinating with Don Jr and his lawyer Alan Garten, who were both in NY, via text message.

July 8, afternoon: Jamie Gorelick provides a statement describing his revisions to his security clearance forms.

He has since submitted this information, including that during the campaign and transition, he had over 100 calls or meetings with representatives of more than 20 countries, most of which were during transition. Mr. Kushner has submitted additional updates and included, out of an abundance of caution, this meeting with a Russian person, which he briefly attended at the request of his brother-in-law Donald Trump Jr. As Mr. Kushner has consistently stated, he is eager to cooperate and share what he knows.

July 8, evening: Garten issues a statement in Don Jr’s name stating,

It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at that time and there was no follow up. I was asked to attend the meeting by an acquaintance, but was not told the name of the person I would be meeting with beforehand.

July 8, 5PM: NYT publishes story.

July 8, slightly later: Circa publishes different story based on Mark Corallo’s statement, admitting Magnitsky Act discussion.

July 9, morning: Hope Hicks calls Corallo, with Trump in the room, accusing him of trafficking in conspiracy theories. It is this call, according to the NYT, where Hicks said the emails would never come out.

July 9: Don Jr issues a new statement.

After pleasantries were exchanged, the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Mrs. Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.

July 14: Jamie Gorelick quits representing Kushner on Russian issues.

July 20: Mark Corallo quits.

July 21: Marc Kasowitz quits.

 

Some lawyers and witnesses who have sat in or been briefed on the interviews have puzzled over Mr. Mueller’s interest in the episode. Lying to federal investigators is a crime; lying to the news media is not. For that reason, some of Mr. Trump’s advisers argue that Mr. Mueller has no grounds to ask the president about the statement and say he should refuse to discuss it.