Posts

Bill Barr Issued Prosecution Declinations for Three Crimes in Progress

On March 24, 2019, by judging that there was not evidence in Volume II of the Mueller Report that Trump had obstructed justice, Billy Barr pre-authorized the obstruction of justice that would be completed with future pardons of Mike Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone. He did so before the sentencing of Flynn and before even the trial of Stone.

This is why Amy Berman Jackson should not stay her decision to release the Barr Memo. It’s why the question before her goes well beyond the question of whether the Barr memo presents privileged advice. What Barr did on March 24, 2019 was pre-authorize the commission of crimes that ended up being committed. No Attorney General has the authority to do that.

As the partially unsealed memo makes clear, Steve Engel (who, even per DOJ’s own filing asking for a stay, was not permitted to make prosecutorial decisions) and Ed O’Callaghan (who under the OLC memo prohibiting the indictment of the President, could not make prosecutorial decisions about the President) advised Bill Barr that he should, “examine the Report to determine whether prosecution would be appropriate given the evidence recounted in the Special Counsel’s Report, the underlying law, and traditional principles of federal prosecution.”

In her now-unsealed memo ordering the government to release the memo, ABJ argues, “the analysis set forth in the memo was expressly understood to be entirely hypothetical.”

It was worse than that.

It was, necessarily, an instance of “Heads Trump wins, Tails rule of law loses.” As the memo itself notes, the entire exercise was designed to avoid, “the unfairness of levying an accusation against the President without bringing criminal charges.” It did not envision the possibility that their analysis would determine that Trump might have committed obstruction of justice. So predictably, the result of the analysis was that Trump didn’t commit a crime. “[W]ere there no constitutional barrier, we would recommend, under Principles of Federal Prosecution, that you decline to commence such a prosecution.”

The government is now appealing ABJ’s decision to release the memo to hide the logic of how Engel and O’Callaghan got to that decision. And it’s possible they want to hide their analysis simply because they believe that, liberated from the entire “Heads Trump wins, Tails rule of law loses” premise of the memo, it becomes true deliberative advice (never mind that both Engel and O’Callaghan were playing roles that OLC prohibits them to play).

But somehow, in eight pages of secret analysis, Engel and O’Callaghan decide — invoking the entire Special Counsel’s Report by reference — that there’s not evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Trump obstructed justice.

We can assume what some of these eight pages say. In the newly unsealed parts, Engel and O’Callaghan opine, “that certain of the conduct examined by the Special Counsel could not, as a matter of law, support an obstruction charge under the circumstances.”

As Quinta Jurecic’s epic chart lays out, the potential instances of obstruction of justice before Engel and O’Callaghan included a number of things involving Presidential hiring and firing decisions — the stuff which the memo Bill Barr wrote as an audition for the job of Attorney General said could not be obstruction.

To address those instances of suspected obstruction, then, Engel and O’Callaghan might just say, “What you said, Boss, in the memo you used to audition to get this job.” That would be scandalous for a whole bunch of reasons — partly because Barr admitted he didn’t know anything about the investigation when he wrote the memo (even after the release of the report, Barr’s public statements made it clear he was grossly unfamiliar with the content of it) and partly because it would raise questions about whether by hiring Barr Trump obstructed justice.

But that’s not actually the most scandalous bit about what must lie behind the remaining redactions. As Jurecic’s chart notes, beyond the hiring and firing obstruction, the Mueller Report laid out several instances of possible pardon dangles: to Mike Flynn, to Paul Manafort, to Roger Stone, and to Michael Cohen. These are all actions that, in his confirmation hearing, Barr admitted might be crimes.

Leahy: Do you believe a president could lawfully issue a pardon in exchange for the recipient’s promise to not incriminate him?

Barr: No, that would be a crime.

Even Barr admits the question of pardon dangles requires specific analysis.

Klobuchar: You wrote on page one that a President persuading a person to commit perjury would be obstruction. Is that right?

Barr: [Pause] Yes. Any person who persuades another —

Klobuchar: Okay. You also said that a President or any person convincing a witness to change testimony would be obstruction. Is that right?

Barr: Yes.

Klobuchar: And on page two, you said that a President deliberately impairing the integrity or availability of evidence would be an obstruction. Is that correct?

Barr: Yes.

Klobuchar: OK. And so what if a President told a witness not to cooperate with an investigation or hinted at a pardon?

Barr: I’d have to now the specifics facts, I’d have to know the specific facts.

Yet somehow, in eight pages of analysis, Engel and O’Callaghan laid out “the specific facts” that undermined any case against Trump for those pardon dangles. I’d be surprised if they managed to do that convincingly in fewer than eight pages, particularly since they make clear that they simply assume you’ve read the Mueller Report (meaning, that analysis almost certainly doesn’t engage in the specific factual analysis that Bill Barr says you’d need to engage in).

The far, far more problematic aspect of this analysis, though, is that, of the four potential instances of pardon dangles included in the Mueller Report, three remained crimes-in-progress on March 24, 2019 when Barr issued a statement declining prosecution for them.

By then, Michael Cohen had already pled guilty and testified against Trump. But Paul Manafort had only just been sentenced after having reneged on a cooperation agreement by telling lies to hide what the government has now confirmed involved providing assistance (either knowing or unknowing) to the Russia election operation. Mike Flynn had not yet been sentenced — and in fact would go on to renege on his plea agreement and tell new lies about his conduct, including that when he testified to the FBI that he knew he discussed sanctions, he didn’t deliberately lie. And Roger Stone hadn’t even been tried yet when Barr said Stone’s lies to protect Trump weren’t a response to Trump’s pardon dangles. In fact, if you believe Roger Stone (and I don’t, in part because his dates don’t line up), after the date when Barr issued a declination statement covering Trump’s efforts to buy Stone’s silence, prosecutors told him,

that if I would really remember certain phone conversations I had with candidate trump, if I would come clean, if I would confess, that they might be willing to, you know, recommend leniency to the judge perhaps I wouldn’t even serve any jail time

If that’s remotely true, Barr’s decision to decline prosecution for the pardon dangles that led Stone to sustain an obviously false cover story through his trial itself contributed to the obstruction.

Barr’s decision to decline prosecution for obstruction crimes that were still in progress may explain his even more outrageous behavior after that. For each of these remaining crimes in progress, Barr took steps to make it less likely that Trump would issue a pardon. He used COVID as an excuse to spring Paul Manafort from prison to home confinement, even though there were no cases of COVID in Manafort’s prison at the time. He engaged in unprecedented interference in the sentencing process for Roger Stone, even going so far as claiming that threats of violence against (as it happens) Amy Berman Jackson were just a technicality not worthy of a sentencing enhancement. And Bill Barr’s DOJ literally altered documents in their effort to invent some reason to blow up the prosecution of Mike Flynn.

And Barr may have realized all this would be a problem.

On June 4, a status report explained that DOJ was in the process of releasing the initially heavily redacted version of this memo to CREW and expected that it would be able to do so by June 17, 2020, but that “unanticipated events outside of OIP’s control” might delay that.

However, OIP notes that processing of the referred record requires consultation with several offices within DOJ, and that unanticipated events outside of OIP’s control may occur in these offices that could delay OIP’s response. Accordingly, OIP respectfully submits that it cannot definitively guarantee that production will be completed by June 17, 2020. However, OIP will make its best efforts to provide CREW with a response regarding the referred record on or before June 17, 2020

This consultation would have occurred after Judge Emmet Sullivan balked at DOJ’s demand that he dismiss the Flynn prosecution, while the DC Circuit was reviewing the issue. And it occurred in the period when Stone was using increasingly explicit threats against Donald Trump to successfully win a commutation of his sentence from Trump (the commutation occurred weeks after DOJ gave CREW a version of the memo that hid the scheme Barr had engaged in). That is, DOJ was making decisions about this FOIA lawsuit even as Barr was taking more and more outrageous steps to try to minimize prison time — and therefore the likelihood of a Trump pardon — for these three. And Trump was completing the act of obstruction of justice that Barr long ago gave him immunity for by commuting Stone’s sentence.

Indeed, Trump would go on to complete the quid pro quo, a pardon in exchange for lies about Russia, for all three men. Trump would go on to commit a crime that Barr already declined prosecution for years earlier.

While Barr might believe that Trump’s pardon for Mike Flynn was righteous (even while it undermined any possibility of holding Flynn accountable for being a secret agent of Turkey), there is no rational argument you can make that Trump’s pardon of Manafort after he reneged on his plea deal and Trump’s pardon of Stone after explicit threats to cooperate with prosecutors weren’t obstruction of justice.

This may influence DOJ’s decision not to release this memo, and in ways that we can’t fathom. There are multiple possibilities. First, this may be an attempt to prevent DOJ’s Inspector General from seeing this memo. At least the Manafort prison assignment and the Stone prosecution were investigated and may still be under investigation by DOJ. If Michael Horowitz discovered that Barr took these actions after approving of a broad pre-declination for pardon-related obstruction, it could change the outcome of any ongoing investigation.

It may be an effort to stave off pressure to open a criminal investigation by DOJ into Barr’s own actions, a precedent no Attorney General wants to set.

Or, it may just be an effort to hide how many of DOJ’s own rules DOJ broke in this process.

But one thing is clear, and should be clearer to ABJ than it would be to any other judge: Bill Barr issued a prosecution declination for three crimes that were still in process. And that’s what DOJ is hiding.

Amy Berman Jackson Accuses Bill Barr of a Preemptive Strike on the Mueller Report

I was down so many rabbit holes today I forgot to link to Amy Berman Jackson’s unsealed opinion, which she released today (here’s the redacted version).

Much of what had previously been redacted pertained to the first section, which got released last night. Otherwise, there’s ABJ’s accusation that DOJ was hiding that Bill Barr launched a pre-emptive strike on the Mueller Report.

But given ABJ’s notice that she’s still considering whether to grant the government a stay, I think this footnote (the bold was formerly redacted) is of interest.

18 There is no need for the Court to determine what its ruling would have been had the agency candidly informed it that the purpose of the document was to provide legal analysis to help shape the assessment of the Special Counsel’s report that the Attorney General was planning to announce for the reasons set forth in Section I of the memorandum. It is the government’s burden to support its withholdings.

This is the question before her now, whether the advice in the redacted section is so tainted by its purpose that she’ll release the full memo.

My guess is she won’t — unless there’s something about the analysis itself, such as that it obviously replicates Barr’s opinion about the investigation that he used to get hired, or if it misrepresents the results of the investigation (remember, ABJ presided over Paul Manafort’s DC proceedings and Roger Stone’s trial, so she knows what Mueller found as well as anyone). And the pardons Trump has since offered the people whose lies he guaranteed by dangling those pardons may alter this calculus, particularly if the analysis contradicts Barr’s agreement, offered three times in his confirmation hearing, that dangling pardons for false testimony would be obstruction.

Until then, DOJ has already launched its appeal.

Frankenstein’s OLC: DOJ Says DOJ Can’t Do What DOJ Did in the Barr Memo

DOJ’s memo asking Amy Berman Jackson to stay her opinion releasing the OLC memo admits that DOJ is not permitted to do what DOJ did with the Barr memo it is trying to withhold from FOIA. And part of the memo itself, which DOJ unsealed last night, also shows DOJ is not permitted to do what DOJ did.

The memo itself admits, for example, that the OLC is not permitted to do what only other parts of DOJ — here, FBI — have the authority to do.

One relevant factor in determining whether a document is predecisional is whether the author possesses the legal authority to decide the matter at issue. See, e.g., Electronic Frontier Found. v. DOJ, 739 F.3d 1, 9 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (“OLC is not authorized to make decisions about the FBI’s investigative policy, so the OLC Opinion cannot be an authoritative statement of the agency’s policy.”).

That undoubtedly extends to prosecutorial decisions. And yet OLC did make a prosecutorial decision.

Rather, the declarations and briefs on the whole made clear that the decision in question was whether the facts articulated by Volume II of the Special Counsel’s Report were sufficient to establish that the President had committed obstruction of justice, i.e., whether the facts constituted prosecutable conduct under the Principles of Federal Prosecution.

DOJ found a way around that, of course, in Julie Straus Harris’ flourish: the inclusion of Ed O’Callaghan in the deliberation. Except that’s a problem, because every declaration in this litigation treats this as an OLC memo, not a prosecutorial memo.

Moreover, it means O’Callaghan made a decision he was not permitted to do by the OLC: make a decision about whether or not the President committed a crime.

In fact, the memo itself states that DOJ is limited in what it can do: either bring charges or not.

Although the Special Counsel has declined to reach a conclusion, we think that the Department should reach a judgement on this matter. Under traditional principles of prosecution, the Department either brings charges or it does not.

Except in this instance, Barr did something else (indeed, ABJ’s memo makes it clear that was the entire point): he announced a decision on prosecution that was more than a declination. He chose to make a decision that OLC says he can’t make.

OLC does not, as it would be required to, state that DOJ can make a prosecutorial decision that involves something other than bringing charges or not.

This is, ultimately, a Frankenstein monster, both a prosecutorial decision that, absent more analysis than appears here, OLC says neither O’Callaghan nor Barr were permitted to make, and an OLC memo engaged in a prosecutorial role that OLC says OLC can’t do. Effectively, then, this memo engages in activities that defies the claim that OLC guidance governs the entirety of the Executive Branch, including OLC.

Will Amy Berman Jackson Finally Break the Spell of OLC Feeding Bullshit FOIA Claims to DC District Judges?

Yesterday, Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled that the government must turn over a memo written — ostensibly by Office of Legal Counsel head Steve Engel — to justify Billy Barr’s decision not to file charges against Donald Trump for obstructing the Mueller Investigation. The Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington FOIAed the memo and sued for its release. The memo itself is worth reading. But I want to consider whether, by making a nested set of false claims to hide what OLC was really up to, this opinion may pierce past efforts to use OLC to rubber stamp problematic Executive Branch decisions.

A key part of ABJ’s decision pivoted on the claims made by Paul Colburn, who’s the lawyer from OLC whose job it is (in part) to tell courts that DOJ can’t release pre-decisional OLC memos because that would breach both deliberative and attorney-client process, Vanessa Brinkmann, whose job it is (in part) to tell courts that DOJ has appropriately applied one or another of the exemptions permitted under FOIA, and Senior Trial Attorney Julie Straus Harris, who was stuck arguing against release of this document relying on those declarations. ABJ ruled that all three had made misrepresentations (and in the case of Straus Harris, outright invention) to falsely claim the memo was predecisional and therefore appropriate to withhold under FOIA’s b5 exemption.

Colburn submitted two declarations. ABJ cited this one to show that Colburn had claimed the OLC memo was designed to help Billy Barr make a decision.

Document no. 15 is a predecisional deliberative memorandum to the Attorney General, through the Deputy Attorney General, authored by OLC AAG Engel and Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General (“PADAG”) Edward O’Callaghan . . . . As indicated in the portions of the memorandum that were released, it was submitted to the Attorney General to assist him in determining whether the facts set forth in Volume II of Special Counsel Mueller’s report “would support initiating or declining the prosecution of the President for obstruction of justice under the Principles of Federal Prosecution.” The released portions also indicate that the memorandum contains the authors’ recommendation in favor of a conclusion that “the evidence developed by the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.” The withheld portions of the memorandum contain legal advice and prosecutorial deliberations in support of that recommendation. Following receipt of the memorandum, the Attorney General announced his decision publicly in a letter to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees . . . .

* * *

[T]he withheld portions of document no. 15 – the only final document at issue – are . . . covered by the deliberative process privilege. The document is a predecisional memorandum, submitted by senior officials of the Department to the Attorney General, and containing advice and analysis supporting a recommendation regarding the decision he was considering . . . . [T]he withheld material is protected by the privilege because it consists of candid advice and analysis by the authors, OLC AAG Engel and the senior deputy to the Deputy Attorney General. That advice and analysis is predecisional because it was provided prior to the Attorney General’s decision in the matter, and it is deliberative because it consists of advice and analysis to assist the Attorney General in making that decision . . . . The limited factual material contained in the withheld portion of the document is closely intertwined with that advice and analysis. [emphasis original]

Brinkmann submitted this declaration. ABJ cited it to show how Brinkmann had regurgitated the claims Colburn made.

While the March 2019 Memorandum is a “final” document (as opposed to a “draft” document), the memorandum as a whole contains pre-decisional recommendations and advice solicited by the Attorney General and provided by OLC and PADAG O’Callaghan. The material that has been withheld within this memorandum consists of OLC’s and the PADAG’s candid analysis and legal advice to the Attorney General, which was provided to the Attorney General prior to his final decision on the matter. It is therefore pre-decisional. The same material is also deliberative, as it was provided to aid in the Attorney General’s decision-making process as it relates to the findings of the SCO investigation, and specifically as it relates to whether the evidence developed by SCO’s investigation is sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of justice offense. This legal question is one that the Special Counsel’s “Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election” . . . did not resolve. As such, any determination as to whether the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense was left to the purview of the Attorney General. [emphasis original]

Key to this is timing: Colburn twice claimed the memo was provided to Barr before he made any decision, and based on that, Brinkmann not only reiterated that, but claimed that Mueller’s Report “did not resolve” whether Trump could be charged, which left the decision to Barr. Both were pretending a decision had not been made before this memo was written (much less completed).

In an almost entirely redacted section, ABJ explained how the first part of the memo is actually a strategy discussion (which, a redacted section seems to suggest, might have been withheld under some other FOIA exemption that DOJ chose not to claim because that would have required admitting this wasn’t legal advice), written in tandem by everyone involved, about how to best spin the already-made decision not to charge Trump.

The existence of that section contradicts the claims made by Colburn and Brinkmann, ABJ ruled.

All of this contradicts the declarant’s ipse dixit that since the Special Counsel did not resolve the question of whether the evidence would support a prosecution, “[a]s such, any determination as to whether the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense was left to the purview of the Attorney General.” Brinkmann Decl. ¶ 11.

Then, after ABJ decided she needed to review the document over DOJ’s vigorous protests, she discovered something else (again, she redacted the discussion for now) that made her believe claims made in a filing written by Straus Harris not just to be false, but pure invention with respect to the role of Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Edward O’Callaghan, who was privy to what Mueller was doing and the import Mueller accorded to the other OLC memo dictating that Presidents can’t be prosecuted.

And the in camera review of the document, which DOJ strongly resisted, see Def.’s Opp. to Pl.’s Cross Mot. [Dkt. # 19] (“Def.’s Opp.”) at 20–22 (“In Camera Review is Unwarranted and Unnecessary”), raises serious questions about how the Department of Justice could make this series of representations to a court in support of its 2020 motion for summary judgment:

[T]he March 2019 Memorandum (Document no. 15), which was released in part to Plaintiff is a pre-decisional, deliberative memorandum to the Attorney General from OLC AAG Engel and PADAG Edward O’Callaghan . . . . The document contains their candid analysis and advice provided to the Attorney General prior to his final decision on the issue addressed in the memorandum – whether the facts recited in Volume II of the Special Counsel’s Report would support initiating or declining the prosecution of the President . . . . It was provided to aid in the Attorney General’s decision-making processes as it relates to the findings of the Special Counsel’s investigation . . . . Moreover, because any determination as to whether the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense was left to the purview of the Attorney General, the memorandum is clearly pre-decisional.

Def.’s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. [Dkt. # 15-2] (“Def.’s Mem.”) at 14–15 (internal quotations, brackets, and citations omitted).13

13 The flourish added in the government’s pleading that did not come from either declaration – “PADAG O’Callaghan had been directly involved in supervising the Special Counsel’s investigation and related prosecutorial decisions; as a result, in that capacity, his candid prosecutorial recommendations to the Attorney General were especially valuable.” Id. at 14 – seems especially unhelpful since there was no prosecutorial decision on the table.

I noted the problem with O’Callaghan’s role here, and argued there are probably similar problems with an OLC opinion protect Trump in the wake of Michael Cohen’s guilty plea.

In her analysis judging that an attorney-client privilege also doesn’t apply, ABJ returns to this point and expands on it, showing that in addition to Steve Engel (the head of OLC), O’Callaghan, who was not part of OLC and whom the memo never claims was involved in giving advice to Billy Barr, was also involved in generating the memo; the record also shows that the people supposedly receiving the advice, such as Rod Rosenstein, actually were involved in providing the advice, too.

While the memorandum was crafted to be “from” Steven Engel in OLC, whom the declarant has sufficiently explained was acting as a legal advisor to the Department at the time, it also is transmitted “from” Edward O’Callaghan, identified as the Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General. The declarants do not assert that his job description included providing legal advice to the Attorney General or to anyone else; Colborn does not mention him at all, and Brinkmann simply posits, without reference to any source for this information, that the memo “contains OLC’s and the PADAG’s legal analysis and advice solicited by the Attorney General and shared in the course of providing confidential legal advice to the Attorney General.” Brinkmann Decl. ¶ 16.19

The declarations are also silent about the roles played by the others who were equally involved in the creation and revision of the memo that would support the assessment they had already decided would be announced in the letter to Congress. They include the Attorney General’s own Chief of Staff and the Deputy Attorney General himself, see Attachment 1, and there has been no effort made to apply the unique set of requirements that pertain when asserting the attorney-client privilege over communications by government lawyers to them. Therefore, even though Engel was operating in a legal capacity, and Section II of the memorandum includes legal analysis in its assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the purely hypothetical case, the agency has not met its burden to establish that the second portion of the memo is covered by the attorney-client privilege

19 The government’s memorandum adds that “PADAG O’Callaghan had been directly involved in supervising the Special Counsel’s investigation and related prosecutorial decisions,” Def.’s Mem. at 14, but that does not supply the information needed to enable the Court to differentiate among the many people with law degrees working on the matter.

ABJ notes (and includes a nifty table in an appendix showing her work) that in fact the letter to Congress that was supposed to be based off the decision the OLC memo was purportedly providing advice about was finished first, meaning it couldn’t have informed the decision conveyed in the letter to Congress.

A close review of the communications reveals that the March 24 letter to Congress describing the Special Counsel’s report, which assesses the strength of an obstruction-of-justice case, and the “predecisional” March 24 memorandum advising the Attorney General that [redacted] the evidence does not support a prosecution, are being written by the very same people at the very same time. The emails show not only that the authors and the recipients of the memorandum are working hand in hand to craft the advice that is supposedly being delivered by OLC, but that the letter to Congress is the priority, and it is getting completed first. At 2:16 pm on Sunday, March 24, the Attorney General’s Chief of Staff advises the others: “We need to go final at 2:25 pm,” and Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, summons everyone to a meeting at 2:17 pm. Attachment 1 at 4. At 2:18 pm, Steven Engel in the OLC replies to this email chain related to the draft letter, and he attaches the latest version of the memo to the Attorney General, saying: “here’s the latest memo, btw, although we presumably don’t need to finalize that as soon.”

As a result, ABJ rules that this was neither pre-decisional nor candid advice from someone acting in the role of attorney given to another, and so the document must be released.

Ultimately, this is a finding that the claims made by DOJ — by Colburn, Brinkmann, and Straus Harris — have no credibility on this topic. She cites Reggie Walton’s concerns (in the BuzzFeed FOIA for the Mueller Report itself) about Billy Barr’s lies about the Mueller Report and notes that DOJ has been “disingenuous” to hide Barr’s own “disingenuous[ness].”

And of even greater importance to this decision, the affidavits are so inconsistent with evidence in the record, they are not worthy of credence. The review of the unredacted document in camera reveals that the suspicions voiced by the judge in EPIC and the plaintiff here were well-founded, and that not only was the Attorney General being disingenuous then, but DOJ has been disingenuous to this Court with respect to the existence of a decision-making process that should be shielded by the deliberative process privilege. The agency’s redactions and incomplete explanations obfuscate the true purpose of the memorandum, and the excised portions belie the notion that it fell to the Attorney General to make a prosecution decision or that any such decision was on the table at any time. [redacted]

ABJ is careful to note (in part to disincent Merrick Garland’s team from appealing this, which she has given DOJ two weeks to consider doing) that this decision is limited solely to application of the claims made before her. The often-abused b5 exemption is not dead.

The Court emphasizes that its decision turns upon the application of well-settled legal principles to a unique set of circumstances that include the misleading and incomplete explanations offered by the agency, the contemporaneous materials in the record, and the variance between the Special Counsel’s report and the Attorney General’s summary. This opinion does not purport to question or weaken the protections provided by Exemption 5 or the deliberative process and attorney-client privileges; both remain available to be asserted by government agencies – based on forthright and accurate factual showings – in the future.

But this leaves the question about what to do about all this lying — Colburn and Brinkmann and Straus Harris’ misrepresentations to protect the lies of Billy Barr and his team. Billy Barr is gone, along with Rosenstein and Engel and O’Callaghan and Brian Rabbitt (Barr’s Chief of Staff), who “colluded” (heh) to make it appear that this process wasn’t all gamed for PR value from the start.

There’s little (immediate) recourse for their lies.

But as far as I know, Colburn and Brinkmann and Straus Harris remain at DOJ, now having been caught offering misrepresentations to protect former superiors’ lies after their past equivalent representations have — for decades — been accepted unquestioningly by DC District Judges. I’ve raised concerns in the past, for example, about claims that Colburn made in 2011 (to hide drone killing opinions) and in 2016 (to hide a long-hidden John Yoo opinion on which surveillance has been based).

The reason ABJ and Reggie Walton caught DOJ in lies about the Mueller Report is not that DOJ hasn’t long been making obviously questionable claims to hide rubber stamp opinions from OLC behind the b5 exemption and obviously questionable claims to withhold documents in FOIA lawsuits. Rather, they caught DOJ in lies in this case because Billy Barr was a less accomplished (or at least more hubristic) liar than Dick Cheney (and because DOJ cannot, in this case, also make expansive claims about secrecy in the service of National Security). It is also the case that when John Yoo and David Barron rubber stamped Executive Branch excesses, they were more disciplined about creating the illusion of information being tossed over a wall to a lawyer and a decision being tossed back over the wall to the decision-maker. That was merely an illusion at least in Yoo’s case — he was both in the room where decisions were made and massaging the analysis after the fact to authorize decisions that were already made.

It would be nice to use this decision to go back and review all the dubious claims Colburn and Brinkmann have made over the years. Rudy Giuliani’s potential prosecution may offer good reason to do so in the case of Steve Engel’s equally dubious opinion withholding the Ukraine whistleblower complaint from Congress.

But at the very least, what this opinion does is show that career DOJ employees have, at least in the Bill Barr era, made less than credible claims to cover up DOJ lies, and in this case, lies about how OLC functions as a rubber stamp for Executive Branch abuse.

We may have no (immediate) recourse about the people whose abuse necessitated such misrepresentations for their protection — Barr and Rosenstein and O’Callaghan and Engel and Rabbitt — though their future legal opponents may want to keep this instance in mind.

But it is becoming a habit that when DC judges check DOJ claims in FOIA suits, those claims don’t hold up. At the very least, more scrutiny about the claims made in these nested set of declarations may finally pierce the bullshit claims made to protect OLC’s role in rubber stamping Executive Branch abuse.

Now We Know Why Jeffrey Rosen Has Been Silent, How About Chris Wray?

Since the attempted coup, both Jeffrey Rosen and Chris Wray (and Wray’s then-Deputy David Bowdich) were almost silent about the attack. A week after the attack, Rosen  a video in the middle of the night, explaining what he had done during the coup.

The day after, Wray released a short statement. More than a week later, he spoke at a closed-press meeting on inauguration security. Neither provided the kind of daily updates one would expect after such an attack.

Last night (as Rayne laid out here), NYT reported on why Rosen was so silent: because he’s a witness in what should be a criminal investigation into how the attack relates to the effort to overturn the election.

As the NYT lays out, in the days leading up to the coup attempt, Trump already tried to replace Rosen with someone, Jeffrey Bossert Clark, who would be willing to take steps to overturn the vote.

The effort to force Rosen to use DOJ resources to undermine a democratic election started on December 15, the day after Bill Barr resigned.

When Mr. Trump said on Dec. 14 that Attorney General William P. Barr was leaving the department, some officials thought that he might allow Mr. Rosen a short reprieve before pressing him about voter fraud. After all, Mr. Barr would be around for another week.

Instead, Mr. Trump summoned Mr. Rosen to the Oval Office the next day. He wanted the Justice Department to file legal briefs supporting his allies’ lawsuits seeking to overturn his election loss. And he urged Mr. Rosen to appoint special counsels to investigate not only unfounded accusations of widespread voter fraud, but also Dominion, the voting machines firm.

Then, over the weekend in advance of the certification, Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark told Rosen Trump was going to make him Attorney General so he could chase Rudy Giuliani’s conspiracy theories.

On New Year’s Eve, the trio met to discuss Mr. Clark’s refusal to hew to the department’s conclusion that the election results were valid. Mr. Donoghue flatly told Mr. Clark that what he was doing was wrong. The next day, Mr. Clark told Mr. Rosen — who had mentored him while they worked together at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis — that he was going to discuss his strategy to the president early the next week, just before Congress was set to certify Mr. Biden’s electoral victory.

Unbeknown to the acting attorney general, Mr. Clark’s timeline moved up. He met with Mr. Trump over the weekend, then informed Mr. Rosen midday on Sunday that the president intended to replace him with Mr. Clark, who could then try to stop Congress from certifying the Electoral College results. He said that Mr. Rosen could stay on as his deputy attorney general, leaving Mr. Rosen speechless.

In a replay of the 2004 Hospital Hero moment, the others involved (including White House Counsel Pat Cipollone) agreed they’d resign en masse if Trump replaced Rosen, which led him to back off the plan.

NYT had four sources for this story, all of whom fear — even after Trump has been relegated to Florida — retaliation.

This account of the department’s final days under Mr. Trump’s leadership is based on interviews with four former Trump administration officials who asked not to be named because of fear of retaliation.

Clark claimed there were errors in this story, but ultimately he claimed Executive Privilege (his statement to WaPo on the topic, which I’ve used here, is more expansive).

In a statement that seemed to draw on language in the New York Times account, Clark said, “I categorically deny that I ‘devised a plan . . . to oust’ Jeff Rosen. . . . Nor did I formulate recommendations for action based on factual inaccuracies gleaned from the Internet.”

“My practice is to rely on sworn testimony to assess disputed factual claims,” Clark said. “There were no ‘maneuver[s].’ There was a candid discussion of options and pros and cons with the President. It is unfortunate that those who were part of a privileged legal conversation would comment in public about such internal deliberations, while also distorting any discussions. . . . Observing legal privileges, which I will adhere to even if others will not, prevent me from divulging specifics regarding the conversation.”

The WaPo version of this story names all who were involved in the confrontation with Trump (though the sources for the story are likely, in part, their aides).

At the meeting were Trump, Clark and Rosen, along with Richard Donoghue, the acting deputy attorney general; Steven A. Engel, the head of the department’s Office of Legal Counsel; and Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, the people familiar with the matter said. The people said Rosen, Donoghue, Engel and Cipollone pushed against the idea of replacing Rosen, and warned of a mass resignation.

Clark says he will only respond to a sworn statement. By all means, the impeachment managers should demand sworn testimony, from all involved.

Of course, that would mean Pat Cipollone, who led the former President’s defense in his first impeachment trial, would be asked about the second time Trump tried to use government resources to cheat. Steve Engel, who authorized the withholding of a whistleblower complaint describing Trump’s earlier attempt, would also testify. Rosen, who participated in having DOJ chase Sidney Powell’s conspiracy theories about Mike Flynn, would be asked to testify about why the conspiracy theories about Dominion machines were any less credible than the Flynn ones. And Donoghue, who served as a filter for some of the conspiracy theories Rudy Giuliani had been fed by men who have since been named Russian agents, would be asked to testify about why Rudy wasn’t a credible source.

Rosen was silent in his final two weeks, presumably, for fear he might get fired and replaced by someone who would be more pliant to a coup attempt. But he — and the three others — are also witnesses to a larger plot that ended up in violence and death.

I wonder if Chris Wray has similar evidence he’ll be asked to share.

Billy Barr’s OLC Declinations

The NYT reported yesterday that, in a bid to retroactively exonerate the President, Billy Barr pursued ways to overturn the campaign finance conviction of Michael Cohen.

But Mr. Barr spent weeks in the spring of 2019 questioning the prosecutors over their decision to charge Mr. Cohen with violating campaign finance laws, according to people briefed on the matter.

As part of that effort, Barr got the Office of Legal Counsel to write a memo (though not a formal opinion) about the applicability of criminal campaign finance law to efforts to squelch public information.

At one point during the discussions, Mr. Barr instructed Justice Department officials in Washington to draft a memo outlining legal arguments that could have raised questions about Mr. Cohen’s conviction and undercut similar prosecutions in the future, according to the people briefed on the matter.

[snip]

The New York Times reported previously that Mr. Barr had questioned the legal theory of the campaign finance charges against Mr. Cohen, but it was not known that the attorney general went so far as to ask for the draft memo or had raised his concerns more than once.

The memo, written by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, addressed the Southern District’s somewhat novel use of campaign finance laws to charge Mr. Cohen. Before Mr. Cohen’s guilty plea, the only person known to face criminal charges for payments meant to keep negative information buried during a political campaign was the former senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, who was not convicted.

Mr. Barr argued, among other things, that such cases might be better suited to civil resolutions by the Federal Election Commission than to criminal prosecutions, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.

Mr. Cohen, who reported to prison in May 2019, was recently released on furlough and is currently serving his sentence at his Manhattan home, after citing health concerns related to the coronavirus.

There is no indication that the Justice Department planned to issue a formal opinion on the campaign finances charges. Such a step, if taken, might have raised questions about the validity of the case against Mr. Cohen and affected any future effort to investigate Mr. Trump or others in his circle for similar conduct.

The news that Barr got OLC involved in criminal charging matters has repercussions on several other levels.

First, it means that potentially before Mueller finished his report, OLC would have established new ground on campaign finance crimes. That’s important because two of the declinations in the Mueller Report involve Trump’s acceptance of campaign dirt from foreigners — both the people at the June 9 meeting, and Roger Stone’s apparent optimization of the WikiLeaks releases. While that’s a different application of campaign finance (and not one that’s a clear cut case), OLC’s involvement on one application before the Mueller Report release opens the possibility that Steve Engel similarly weighed in on another, with direction from Barr about what they should decide.

Add in the fact that Engel, along with PDAG Ed O’Callaghan, did the analysis behind Barr’s decision to decline to prosecute Trump for obstruction of justice. It would be inappropriate for OLC to make a prosecutorial decision in any case, all the more so given that OLC has an opinion saying that no one DOJ should be making such decisions at all. Now add in the fact that Engel must have weighed in during the weeks leading up to this decision about campaign finance issues.

It’s now widely agreed (though was always clear from the public record) that Trump lied in his responses to Mueller about his conversations with Roger Stone about WikiLeaks. And his hints that Stone would be pardoned are one of his most obstructive acts. Effectively, then, Engel would be playing both sides of the prosecutorial decision, setting the rules and then applying them, which isn’t how justice is supposed to work.

Finally, consider that the Stone prosecutors were prepared to introduce Stone’s lies to HPSCI about coordinating with Trump on his campaign efforts as 404(b) evidence (effectively to show that his lies were systematic). That Stone was coordinating (he kept asking Rick Gates for lists, which should have been purchased from the campaign, and he asked Steve Bannon to get him funding from Rebekah Mercer during the period when Bannon was running the campaign) would seem to be a campaign finance issue. This is another matter that OLC’s review of campaign finance may have implicated.

It’s not just that Barr went out of his way to make it legal for outsides to pay to suppress bad news, but it’s that he’s secretly rewriting campaign finance law in ways that may have wider implications. And by doing so, Barr may have limited other prosecutorial decisions implicating Trump.

After Engaging in Multiple Overt Acts Benefitting a Conspiracy, Bill Barr Had Kerri Kupec Commit the Most Overt Act

Before I get into how gullible DOJ reporters continue to be in this WaPo story relaying how Bill Barr refused to publicly announce that the President broke no law in his July 25 phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, let me review a series of overt acts that might fairly be deemed part of what DOJ has already charged as a conspiracy.

DOJ fails to do the most basic “connect-the-dots” assessment implemented after 9/11

First, after John Demers went to the White House and discovered that his boss was implicated in a phone call that a whistleblower had complained about, when the Intelligence Community Inspector General sent a more formalized complaint to DOJ, DOJ limited the scope of their review of the complaint to one small part of it, just the TELCON, not the full complaint. This had the effect of preventing anyone from doing what the entire surveillance apparatus of FBI has been designed to do since 9/11, which is to search in their databases for all the people mentioned in a lead to find out if that lead connects to other known criminals. Here’s some of what DOJ knew when on the Ukraine investigation.

Had anyone followed the standard connect-the-dot rules in reviewing the whistleblower complaint, they would have searched on all the names in the references in the complaint, including those in this OCCRP piece, which was mentioned multiple times in the complaint.

That piece is a profile of Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas.

So if any person reviewing the whistleblower complaint had followed the approach put into place to protect the nation after 9/11, that person would have discovered:

  • Fruman and Parnas were making big donations to Republicans tied to certain policy outcomes and paying for those donations through a shell company
  • Parnas was also involved in propaganda sent, on White House stationery, to State in support of the same policy outcomes
  • The money for the shell company came from a lawyer who specializes in laundering money through real estate for foreigners
  • One policy issue Fruman and Parnas were pushing with their donations was one of the policy outcomes described in the Trump-Zelensky call, the withdrawal of Marie Yovanovitch

In short, there is no way a competent investigator would have done a connect-the-dots assessment on the whistleblower complaint and not realized it was closely related to a Full Investigation bearing down on an indictment in SDNY.

Instead of doing that marginally competent assessment, DOJ instead gave the whistleblower complaint the all-clear, in part by severing the transcript (which was damning enough) from the backup (which described OMB withholding funds, which is a separate crime, but also included the reference to the profile on suspects against whom SDNY had a fully predicated investigation into related actions). The decision to consider only the transcript affirmatively prevented DOJ from doing the kind of dot-connecting everything since 9/11 has claimed to support.

Whoever made that decision — whether willfully or unknowingly — prevented DOJ from formally realizing that the President’s call was closely tied to behavior that DOJ would indict less than two months later.

DOJ fails to share the whistleblower complaint with the FEC

At that point in late August, having decided that no crimes were committed, DOJ should have shared the whistleblower complaint — which even DOJ acknowledged raised possible election related crimes — with the Federal Election Commission under the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding they have. As of October 18, according to a letter from Ellen Weintraub responding to questions from Amy Klobuchar, DOJ had not done so.

This is the second time that you, as Ranking Member of the Senate Rules Committee with jurisdiction over federal elections, have written to commissioners of the Federal Election Commission to get a simple Yes or No answer to the question: Did the Department of Justice (DOJ) notify the FEC about or refer to the FEC a campaign finance complaint regarding potential violations of the foreign national political-spending ban by the President? Your October 2 letter specifically referenced a New York Times op-ed referring to a complaint reportedly originating with the Office of the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community.1 As noted in the Commission’s October 8 response, the FEC does not generally confirm or deny the agency’s receipt of notice or a referral from DOJ.2 However, you have asked me an important question in the exercise of your oversight authority, and commissioners should be responsive if it is legal for us to do so. It is.

For these reasons, I am answering your question: No. The FEC has not received a notification or referral from DOJ regarding the complaint you reference.

While DOJ is empowered to make any decisions about whether the call involved a crime, FEC is empowered to make decisions about whether it merits a civil penalty. And FEC might have connected the dots DOJ failed to. They would have seen that the phone call related to a campaign finance complaint plus follow-up it had already received on Parnas and Fruman, so it would have known almost as much as DOJ, had DOJ tried to connect the dots.

It turns out, it is a crime to prevent the FEC from learning information it needs to do its job. It’s not only the crime DOJ is about to charge the Russian Internet Research Agency trolls with a superseding indictment for, but it’s the crime that SDNY charged Parnas and Fruman with even before Weintraub sent her letter.

DOJ might have decided that they didn’t need to forward the complaint because Republican Matthew Petersen resigned from the FEC on the suspiciously timed August 26 and so ensured FEC couldn’t conduct any official business. But as the timing of the Parnas and Fruman indictment — which Bill Barr knew about — makes clear, DOJ still believes it can charge people for withholding information from FEC.

DOJ delays notifying Congress and hides Bill Barr’s involvement by overclassifying their OLC memo

Then, having prevented FEC from receiving information that would alert them that the President had a dodgy call that related to an existing campaign finance complaint, OLC tried to prevent Congress from learning of this — as required by whistleblower laws — by writing an OLC memo saying that this complaint did not amount to an official action.

OLC head Steve Engel wrote that memo on September 3, by which day DOJ should have alerted the Intelligence Committees of the complaint. That memo was used as an excuse to delay informing Congress. That delay included over a week during which the Administration continued to illegally withhold duly authorized security funding from Ukraine without explaining to Congress why it was doing so, a delay that Bill Taylor said (in his testimony to Congress) did real harm to Ukraine. All told, the OLC memo succeeded in delaying sharing the complaint with Congress for 23 days, something that DOJ’s own Inspector General noted (in a letter written on behalf of 70 Inspectors General) was a clear violation of the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act.

As Congress has done in every other whistleblower law passed since 1978, it entrusted IGs to play a central role in the evaluation of the information provided. Specifically, the ICWPA requires an IG to make within 14 days a factual determination as to whether an alleged urgent concern provided to the IG “appears credible.” If the IG determines that the allegation appears credible, which necessarily includes a determination by the IG that it involves an “urgent concern,” the IG is required to forward the allegation to the head of the agency and the agency head “shall” forward it to Congress within 7 days “with any comments.” The ICWPA’s use of the word “shall” makes it clear that the statute does not authorize the agency head, or any other party for that matter, to review or second-guess an IG’s good faith determination that a complaint meets the ICWPA’s statutory language.

Worse still, DOJ tried to delay informing Congress that Bill Barr was personally implicated by this call by overclassifying the OLC memo — in part by treating Barr’s implication in it, which the White House had deemed Secret, as Top Secret — and having done so, sharing a water-downed version of its own OLC memo with Congress on September 24 that hid Barr’s role and other key details.

Bill Barr continues to engage in overt acts in a conspiracy to provide John Durham propaganda to support an investigation into those who investigated Trump

And all this while — in the period while DOJ was scoping its own investigation to avoid connecting the dots and while DOJ was preventing FEC from learning of the whistleblower complaint and while DOJ was preventing Congress from receiving the complaint (the latter two acts in contravention of the law) — Bill Barr continued to engage in overt acts in the broader conspiracy to collect and provide to John Durham corroboration (no matter how sketchy or obviously coerced) that the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia was ginned up by the Deep State.

Mind you, Barr may have already committed an overt act in the Ukrainian side of this conspiracy. By September 25, according to a DOJ statement, individual Ukrainians had already “volunteered” information to Durham.

A Department of Justice team led by U.S. Attorney John Durham is separately exploring the extent to which a number of countries, including Ukraine, played a role in the counterintelligence investigation directed at the Trump campaign during the 2016 election,” DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said Wednesday. “While the Attorney General has yet to contact Ukraine in connection with this investigation, certain Ukrainians who are not members of the government have volunteered information to Mr. Durham, which he is evaluating.”

Barr is micromanaging Durham’s investigation, so there’s little chance that these “volunteers” got from Rudy Giuliani to Durham without Barr’s own involvement.

In addition, Barr took a meeting with Victoria Toensing and Joe DiGenova to talk about their client, the mobbed up Dmitry Firtash, which was something valuable the lawyers could offer to the Firtash in exchange for him funding the Parnas and Fruman influence operation. To be sure, the Supreme Court has determined that taking a meeting does not amount to a thing of value amounting to bribery. But their ability to get such a meeting was nevertheless one of the reasons Firtash replaced Lanny Davis with Toensing and DiGenova and, in exchange, helped them feed propaganda to the Durham investigation.

The head of the Criminal Division, Brian Benczkowski, also took a meeting with Rudy in this time period (it’s unclear which client Rudy was pitching), but he claims to be unaware of the investigation into Rudy that was ongoing at SDNY, which may well be true but if so is tantamount to a confession that Benczkowski did not attempt to connect any dots on the whistleblower complaint.

But as to Barr, even as this story was breaking, Barr was in Italy pretending to be a Line FBI Agent, watching movies created by the Russian linked lawyer for Joseph Mifsud, in hopes of getting Italy to tell him and Durham that Mifsud was actually a Western intelligence asset and not the Russian one that Mueller (and abundant public evidence) suggested him to be.

In other words, by September 25, someone had already shared “evidence” with the Barr-micromanaged Durham investigation from the Ukrainian side of this information operation, and Barr was in Italy looking for more propaganda, to say nothing of how his meeting with Dmitry Firtash’s lawyers helped fund the information operation.

Barr did not publicly exonerate Trump personally — he had Kerri Kupec do it for him

I apologize for being long-winded. But all that is the necessary context that DOJ beat reporters should bring to a story on what Barr did in response to a request from Trump to make a public statement exonerating the President. Here’s the news in the WaPo piece, amid a bunch of Barr’s past PR and absent most of the details I’ve laid out above.

President Trump wanted Attorney General William P. Barr to hold a news conference declaring that the commander in chief had broken no laws during a phone call in which he pressed his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate a political rival, though Barr ultimately declined to do so, people familiar with the matter said.

The request from Trump traveled from the president to other White House officials and eventually to the Justice Department. The president has mentioned Barr’s declination to associates in recent weeks, saying he wished Barr would have held the news conference, Trump advisers say.

[snip]

The request for the news conference came sometime around Sept. 25, when the administration released a rough transcript of the president’s July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

[snip]

As the rough transcript was released, a Justice Department spokeswoman said officials had evaluated it and the whistleblower complaint to see whether campaign finance laws had been broken, determined that none had been and decided “no further action was warranted.”

It was not immediately clear why Barr would not go beyond that statement with a televised assertion that the president broke no laws, nor was it clear how forcefully the president’s desire was communicated. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment. A senior administration official said, “The DOJ did in fact release a statement about the call, and the claim that it resulted in tension because it wasn’t a news conference is completely false.”

So, at a time after someone had already shared Ukrainian information with the Barr-micromanaged Durham investigation, after Barr had met with lawyers who were trading that access for propaganda to feed Durham, after Barr’s DOJ had scoped the whistleblower complaint to ensure it would not tie the complaint to the fully predicated criminal investigation in SDNY, after DOJ failed to turn over the complaint to FEC as required by a memorandum of understanding, after DOJ created an excuse to delay sharing the whistleblower complaint with Congress as mandated by law, after DOJ tried to hide Barr’s own involvement from Congress by overclassifying that fact … after all those overt acts that, depending on Barr’s understanding of what he got briefed way back in February and learned in multiple different ways since then, might amount to overt acts in the conspiracy SDNY has already charged Parnas and Fruman in, Barr declined to go out before cameras and comment on an ongoing investigation (which is, remember, what Jim Comey was ostensibly fired for) by publicly exonerating the President.

Instead, he had DOJ’s spox Kerri Kupec do so, in a statement that offered up excuses for why DOJ failed to connect the dots on a complaint that tied to a fully predicated investigation being conducted by SDNY.

Had Barr made that public comment, with his knowledge that the subject of the complaint connected to an ongoing investigation in SDNY into the underlying information operation that led up to the President’s call, his involvement in the Durham investigation that had already been fed by that information operation, and his meeting with lawyers that helped to provide a payoff for some of that information operation, it would have been an overt act that even Barr, with his abundant flair for PR (as witnessed by this WaPo article), could not deny was an overt act in a conspiracy being investigated by his subordinates.

So instead, he had a different subordinate (there is no evidence Kupec had any knowledge of these other acts) do that.

But that is not — as portrayed by the WaPo — evidence of distance between Barr and the White House. Rather, it’s evidence that Barr recognizes his own risk of becoming an active member of the conspiracy his DOJ went to great lengths to avoid investigating.

And all that’s before Barr slinked into a meeting with Rupert Murdoch as Sean Hannity was about to become part of the conspiracy.

Horowitz

DOJ’s Inspector General (and 70 Colleagues) Says DOJ’s Lawyers Fucked Up

On Tuesday, the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency just sent OLC head Steve Engel a scathing letter criticizing his opinion that Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire could not share the whistleblower complaint about President Trump’s July 25 phone call with Volodymyr with Congress. Generally, its content says about what you’d think:

  • ICIG was right to complain about OLC’s decision in a September 17 letter
  • ICIG was about DNI’s jurisdiction over federal elections and classification of information
  • OLC’s opinion could impair whistleblowing
  • OLC’s opinion deviates from Congressional intent on IC statutes, as backed by both Chuck Grassley and Mark Warner
  • OLC did not raise any valid constitutional concern, but instead simply substituted its judgment for the ICIG’s

But I’m more interested in what it means that CIGIE’s Chair, Michael Horowitz, wrote it. Horowitz also happens to be DOJ’s Inspector General, the same guy Bill Barr has loaded up with investigations designed to take down Trump’s critics, someone whom the frothy right has invested a lot of their respect.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure Horowitz would have written the letter in any case, even if he weren’t DOJ IG. He’s a fierce protector of IG prerogatives, which is one reason why he’s the Chair.

Horowitz is also a brilliant tactician who has used his positions–both as DOJ IG and as CIGIE head–to assert his authority. Just as one very key example, after a several year fight with FBI, he managed to get broad access to FBI’s files for IG investigations. In another example, he managed to investigate lawyer Jim Comey (in his administrative role) even though generally such investigations get done by DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility.

And I view this letter, in addition to being a very public and powerful stand on an important principle, as a tactic. One thing the letter does, for example, is lay out that a top DOJ lawyer violated Congress’ intent on how Inspectors General are supposed to work. That’s the kind of thing that — if my years of watching Horowitz are any indication — we may hear the next time Horowitz testifies about his work and the scope of DOJ’s IG, which is limited in ways that other IGs aren’t.

More interesting, given the abundant proof that DOJ worked hard to avoid connecting the dots on this complaint, is Horowitz’s footnote noting that DOJ and FBI have responsibilities to investigation interference in our elections seems

The fact that other parts of the government, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice, also have responsibilities in this area does not divest the DNI of such duties as a matter of law or practice.

Horowitz may not have the authority to investigate Steve Engel, but he does have the authority to investigate the people who found ways not to investigate this complaint competently, and his concern on OLC may reflect a concern on what else happened at DOJ.

Horowitz also maps out broad authority for ICIG to continue to investigating both the allegation itself and (importantly), the misuse of the Top Secret server to hide other problematic call transcripts.

These responsibilities support the ICIG’s conclusion that the protection of federal elections from foreign interference is squarely within the DNI’s “operations”. The legal authorities cited in his letter also support the ICIG’s determination that the whistleblower raised a claim of a serious or flagrant problem that relates to an intelligence activity within the DNI’s jurisdiction. It surely cannot be the case that the DNI has responsibilities related to foreign election interference but is prohibited from reviewing the cause of any such alleged interference.

We further note that the DNI has jurisdiction over the handling of classified and other sensitive information. As a result, the whistleblower’s allegation that certain officials may have misused an intelligence system also raises an additional claim of a serious or flagrant problem that relates to the operations of the DNI and therefore may properly be considered an urgent concern under the statute.

We actually don’t know whether ICIG has continued to investigate this issue. But Horowitz lays out the case that he has the authority to.

Finally, Horowitz focuses on the delay that OLC’s opinion had, preventing Congress from learning about the complaint by September 2 (when, by law, they should have received the whistleblower complaint).

As Congress has done in every other whistleblower law passed since 1978, it entrusted IGs to play a central role in the evaluation of the information provided. Specifically, the ICWPA requires an IG to make within 14 days a factual determination as to whether an alleged urgent concern provided to the IG “appears credible.” If the IG determines that the allegation appears credible, which necessarily includes a determination by the IG that it involves an “urgent concern,” the IG is required to forward the allegation to the head of the agency and the agency head “shall” forward it to Congress within 7 days “with any comments.” The ICWPA’s use of the word “shall” makes it clear that the statute does not authorize the agency head, or any other party for that matter, to review or second-guess an IG’s good faith determination that a complaint meets the ICWPA’s statutory language.

Congress only received the complaint on September 25, an illegal delay of 23 days, during which time Trump released the withheld funds and had a meeting with a much-weakened Zelensky, to say nothing of whatever meetings Rudy and Bill Barr had in the interim. While it’s unlikely to happen, Horowitz’s language at least lays out the clear impact of Engel’s opinion in obstructing Congress’ ability to be able to deal with this issue in timely fashion.

Thus far, the American public has had little success at disciplining OLC lawyers for the bullshit they cause (though even courts are inching closer to doing so). This letter seems, to me, like the first step in an attempt by Horowitz to be able to do so.

Bill Barr’s OLC Treated His Implication in the Whistleblower Complaint as Top Secret

Because I was on my epic road trip with June Bug the Terrorist Foster Dog, I’m just now reading some of the documents underlying the whistleblower complaint closely. Doing so makes it clear that Bill Barr’s DOJ (specifically, the Office of Legal Counsel) treated his implication by the whistleblower as Top Secret, even though the White House considered the fact only Secret.

This post relies on these documents:

  • The TELCON of the Trump-Zelensky call, treated throughout as Secret/NoForn
  • The unclassified whistleblower complaint with classified appendix, the latter of which has one paragraph marked Top Secret, one redacted, and other paragraphs marked Secret
  • ICIG Michael Atkinson’s letter to Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire; the letter itself, four paragraphs, and one footnote are marked Top Secret and something redacted (probably NOFORN), with a longer classification mark as a whole
  • The first version of the OLC memo dated September 3 deeming this not urgent; the memo itself, eight paragraphs of it, and three footnotes are marked Top Secret and something redacted (probably NOFORN), with a longer classification mark as a whole
  • The official version of the OLC memo dated September 3 currently available on DOJ’s website; it explains that after the underlying documents were declassified, it was released as an unclassified memo
  • A September 24 version of the OLC memo, described in the currently official September 3 one as an “unclassified version”

Here’s the editor’s note that describes why there are three versions of the OLC memo:

Editor’s Note: This memorandum was originally issued in classified form on September 3, 2019. An unclassified version was signed on September 24, 2019, and publicly released in slip-opinion form on September 25, 2019. That unclassified version avoided references to certain details that remained classified at the time it was signed. After the underlying documents were themselves declassified, the September 3 memorandum was declassified in its entirety and publicly released on September 26, 2019.

That suggests we can compare either September 3 version of the OLC memo with the September 24 one to identify what OLC itself (the name of the person who classified the memo is classified) claimed to be classified on September 3.

The ICIG letter makes clear that Atkinson had not yet read the TELCON when he wrote his letter. The whistleblower letter doesn’t say whether or not he read the TELCON (I’m using “he” to refer to the whistleblower because that’s the pronoun the NYT used). He explains that he believes all classified information in the letter is in his enclosure. He also reiterates that marking the information included in his unclassified letter with classification marks would,

violate EO 13526, Part I, Section 1.7, which states: “In no case shall information be classified, continue to be maintained as classified, or fail to be declassified in order to: (1) conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error; [or] (2) prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency.”

Among the information the whistleblower included in his unclassified letter is that Trump:

[S]ought to pressure the Ukrainian leader to take actions to help the President’s 2020 reelection bid. According to the White House officials who had direct knowledge of the call, the President pressured Mr. Zelenskyy to, inter alia:

  • initiate or continue an investigation into the activities of former Vice President Joseph Biden and his son, Hunter Biden;
  • assist in purportedly uncovering that allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election originated in Ukraine, with a specific request that the Ukrainian leader locate and turn over servers used by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and examined by the U.S. cyber security firm Crowdstrike, which initially reported that Russian hackers had penetrated the DNC’s networks in 2016; and
  • meet or speak with two people the President named explicitly as his personal envoys on these matters, Mr. Giuliani and Attorney General Barr, to whom the President referred multiple times in tandem.

The ICIG letter marks the paragraph describing that part of the complaint as Top Secret, though it doesn’t include the specific allegations naming Rudy and Barr, It describes the gist of the complaint this way:

Here, the Complainant’s Letter alleged, among other things, that the President of the United States, in a telephone call with Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelenskyy on July 25, 2019, “sought to pressure the Ukrainian leader to take actions to help the President’s 2020 reelection bid.”

But DOJ did see the TELCON of the call. Therefore, they would have known that the White House — the original classification authority for the content of the call — had deemed the entire thing Secret/NOFORN. Nothing in it was deemed Top Secret.

Among the things removed from paragraphs marked Top Secret in the September 24 memo are:

  • The date of the call
  • Zelenskyy’s identity and country
  • Approximately a dozen officials had listened in
  • A description of Trump pressuring Zelenskyy
  • The reference to election assistance
  • The citations to the ICIG letter
  • The references to Rudy and Barr
  • The ICIG deemed the complaint credible but did not conduct legal analysis on whether this was solicitation of a campaign contribution
  • OMB had cut off security assistance to Ukraine*
  • White House officials had moved the TELCON to the covert server*

The whistleblower treated the placement of the TELCON onto the covert server as Top Secret and the OMB detail as Secret, since neither of those appear in the TELCON marked Secret those are both properly treated by OLC as classified (though OLC bumped up the OMB detail to Top Secret).

But given that OLC took this language out of a paragraph that it marked Top Secret for its unclassified version, it must be treating this information as Top Secret.

The complainant alleged that he or she had heard reports from White House officials that in the course of a routine diplomatic communication between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President Trump had “sought to pressure the Ukrainian leader to take actions to help the President’s 2020 reelection bid.” ICIG Letter at 3 (quoting the complainant’s letter). Specifically, the complainant allegedly heard that the President had requested that the Ukrainian government investigate the activities of one of the President’s potential political rivals, former Vice President Joseph Biden, and his son, Hunter Biden. The complainant also allegedly heard that the President had requested Ukrainian assistance in investigating whether Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election originated in Ukraine, and that Ukrainian investigators meet with the President’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, as well as Attorney General William Barr regarding these matters.

In other words, DOJ, after having reviewed a White House document that treated this information as Secret, instead bumped up the classification of it to Top Secret, including the detail that the Attorney General himself was implicated in the attempt to frame the President’s opponents.

It’s not just the White House that was abusing the classification system in an attempt to cover up what really happened here. It was also DOJ.

The CIA Affiliation of the Whistleblower Isn’t the Key, It’s CIA General Counsel’s Role in a Cover-Up

The second paragraph of the NYT story that identified that the Ukraine whistleblower as a CIA employee describes the CIA’s General Counsel, Courtney Simmons Elwood, telling first the White House and then DOJ about the complaint.

The officer first shared information about potential abuse of power and a White House cover-up with the C.I.A.’s top lawyer through an anonymous process, some of the people said. The lawyer shared the officer’s concerns with White House and Justice Department officials, following policy.

Starting on paragraph 15, the NYT provides more details about how and why Elwood responded to a whistleblower complaint by running to the people who were implicated by it (and note, it says this was proper, as it may well have been — I’m not saying Elwood has legal exposure here).

The week after the call, the officer delivered a somewhat broad accusation anonymously to the C.I.A.’s general counsel, Courtney Simmons Elwood, according to multiple people familiar with the events. The initial allegations reported only that serious questions existed about a phone call between Mr. Trump and a foreign leader.

As required by government policy, Ms. Elwood had to assess whether a “reasonable basis” for the accusation existed. During the preliminary inquiry, Ms. Elwood and a career C.I.A. lawyer learned that multiple people had raised concerns about Mr. Trump’s call.

Ms. Elwood also called John A. Eisenberg, a deputy White House counsel and her counterpart at the National Security Council, according to three people familiar with the matter. He was already aware of vague concerns about the call.

Ms. Elwood, Mr. Eisenberg and their deputies spoke multiple times the following week. They decided that the accusations had a reasonable basis.

Mr. Eisenberg and Ms. Elwood both spoke on Aug. 14 to John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division, according to three people familiar with the discussion. Ms. Elwood did not pass on the name of the C.I.A. officer, which she did not know because his concerns were submitted anonymously.

The next day, Mr. Demers went to the White House to read the transcript of the call and assess whether to alert other senior law enforcement officials. The deputy attorney general, Jeffrey A. Rosen, and Brian A. Benczkowski, the head of the department’s criminal division, were soon looped in, according to two administration officials.

Department officials began to discuss the accusations and whether and how to follow up, and Attorney General William P. Barr learned of the allegations around that time, according to a person familiar with the matter.

A CNN story provided the detail that NYT (and AP) missed: when and how Barr learned he was implicated personally.

Demers went to the White House to review the transcript of the call on August 15. His office then alerted other senior Justice officials that Barr was mentioned on the call.

Since they NYT story came out, a lot of people have attacked it for revealing where the whistleblower worked. Dean Baquet claimed they did so to lend credibility to the story, a thoroughly ridiculous explanation (especially in the wake of the transcript release, which made it clear the complaint was corroborated by the White House’s own record of the call).

What is, instead, the important detail is that everything Elwood did in the wake of receiving the report, whether intentionally or not, not only served a cover-up, but also put the whistleblower at heightened risk. We may not know the ID of the whistleblower, but the White House, which now includes all the former Devin Nunes aides who were so critical to blowing up the Russian investigation in 2017, would have been able to identify who was seconded to the White House as soon as Elwood brought the complaint to the White House. And Elwood is, in significant part, responsible for that. So it’s not the whistleblower’s affiliation, but Elwood’s, that’s important, and Elwood’s alone identifies where the whistleblower works (and did, for the White House, over a month ago).

The really important part of this story — which is clarified when adding the CNN detail that Demers and Brian Benczkowski and Jeffrey Rosen knew their boss was directly implicated when they decided to scope the prosecutorial analysis very narrowly, completely ignoring the kind of quid pro quo that the Constitution explicitly names as a reason to impeach the President — is that those implicated had the opportunity to cover-up the investigation even before the whistleblower filed his formal complaint. And once he did that, DOJ did things (may have felt forced to) that tried to further suppress their earlier decisions, most notably by getting an OLC opinion that ruled the proper resolution of the complaint — which OLC deemed not to be urgent because it ignored that Bill Barr, the State Department, and those who hid the communications on the covert server were also implicated, and by association Barr’s efforts to feed intelligence into John Durham’s investigation — was to have people at FBI reporting to Bill Barr investigate. Whether the implication of those others makes this an IC complaint (the most obvious way it does is in the abuse of classification authority to hide the transcript) is a matter requiring analysis, analysis that Bill Barr’s direct report, Steven Engel, did not do.

And that’s the point (or should have been): The NYT named a number the people who may be involved in this cover-up: John Eisenberg, John Demers, Brian Benczkowski, Jeffrey Rosen, and CIA General Counsel Courtney Simmons Elwood. Elwood is the one who first approached the problem in such a way that a cover-up would be possible.

Yes, by relaying that detail, the NYT told all of us that the whistleblower is a CIA employee. But the people involved in the cover-up, and the firebreathers at NSC, already knew that.