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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what Comey claims Trump said about Flynn:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Nunes obliged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 30, 2017: Flynn asks for immunity

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

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then you had two and then you had three.

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

BARTIROMO:  Yes.

TRUMP:  So Director Comey…

BARTIROMO:  Well, that’s (INAUDIBLE)…

TRUMP:  No, I’m just saying…

BARTIROMO:  (INAUDIBLE)?

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

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

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

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

TRUMP:  Terrible.

BARTIROMO:  Why do you think he did this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COMEY: Correct.

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

COMEY: Correct.

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

COMEY: I think so, yes.

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

COMEY: I can’t answer that here.

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

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

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

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

GRAHAM: Is that still going on?

COMEY: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHITEHOUSE: Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RESOURCES

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

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

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

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

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

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

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

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

[snip]

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

He asked if the FBI leaks:

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

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

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

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

He asked for loyalty:

He replied that he needed loyalty and expected loyalty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RESOURCES

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

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

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

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

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

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

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

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

[Photo: National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, MD via Wikimedia]

The Preferred Anti-Obama Russian Hack Story Remains Silent on Shadow Brokers

Michael Isikoff and David Corn are fluffing their upcoming book on the Russian tampering with the 2016 election. This installment covers the same ground, and the same arguments, and has the same weaknesses that this WaPo article did: It describes how urgent but closely held the CIA tips were (without considering whether the close hold on the intelligence led the IC to make incorrect conclusions about the attack). It describes efforts to make a public statement that got drowned out by the Pussy Grabber and Podesta releases. It airs the disappointment of those who thought Obama should have launched a more aggressive response.

Perhaps the biggest addition to the WaPo version is that this one includes more discussion of Obama’s thoughts on cyber proliferation, with the acknowledgement that the US would be more vulnerable than Russia in an escalating cyber confrontation.

Michael Daniel and Celeste Wallander, the National Security Council’s top Russia analyst, were convinced the United States needed to strike back hard against the Russians and make it clear that Moscow had crossed a red line. Words alone wouldn’t do the trick; there had to be consequences. “I wanted to send a signal that we would not tolerate disruptions to our electoral process,” Daniel recalled. His basic argument: “The Russians are going to push as hard as they can until we start pushing back.”

Daniel and Wallander began drafting options for more aggressive responses beyond anything the Obama administration or the US government had ever before contemplated in response to a cyberattack. One proposal was to unleash the NSA to mount a series of far-reaching cyberattacks: to dismantle the Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks websites that had been leaking the emails and memos stolen from Democratic targets, to bombard Russian news sites with a wave of automated traffic in a denial-of-service attack that would shut the news sites down, and to launch an attack on the Russian intelligence agencies themselves, seeking to disrupt their command and control modes.

[snip]

One idea Daniel proposed was unusual: The United States and NATO should publicly announce a giant “cyber exercise” against a mythical Eurasian country, demonstrating that Western nations had it within their power to shut down Russia’s entire civil infrastructure and cripple its economy.

[snip]

The principals did discuss cyber responses. The prospect of hitting back with cyber caused trepidation within the deputies and principals meetings. The United States was telling Russia this sort of meddling was unacceptable. If Washington engaged in the same type of covert combat, some of the principals believed, Washington’s demand would mean nothing, and there could be an escalation in cyber warfare. There were concerns that the United States would have more to lose in all-out cyberwar.

“If we got into a tit-for-tat on cyber with the Russians, it would not be to our advantage,” a participant later remarked. “They could do more to damage us in a cyber war or have a greater impact.” In one of the meetings, Clapper said he was worried that Russia might respond with cyberattacks against America’s critical infrastructure—and possibly shut down the electrical grid.

[snip]

Asked at a post-summit news conference about Russia’s hacking of the election, the president spoke in generalities—and insisted the United States did not want a blowup over the issue. “We’ve had problems with cyber intrusions from Russia in the past, from other counties in the past,” he said. “Our goal is not to suddenly in the cyber arena duplicate a cycle escalation that we saw when it comes to other arms races in the past, but rather to start instituting some norms so that everybody’s acting responsibly.”

The most dramatic part of the piece quotes an angry Susan Rice telling her top Russian expert to stand down some time after August 21.

One day in late August, national security adviser Susan Rice called Daniel into her office and demanded he cease and desist from working on the cyber options he was developing. “Don’t get ahead of us,” she warned him. The White House was not prepared to endorse any of these ideas. Daniel and his team in the White House cyber response group were given strict orders: “Stand down.” She told Daniel to “knock it off,” he recalled.

Daniel walked back to his office. “That was one pissed-off national security adviser,” he told one of his aides.

But like the WaPo article before it, and in spite of the greater attentiveness to the specific dates involved, the Isikoff/Corn piece makes not one mention of the Shadow Brokers part of the operation, which first launched just as NSC’s Russian experts were dreaming up huge cyber-assaults on Russia.

On August 13, Shadow Brokers released its first post, releasing files that had compromised US firewall providers and including a message that — while appearing to be an attack on American Elites and tacitly invoking Hillary — emphasizes how vulnerable the US would be if its own cybertools were deployed against it.

We want make sure Wealthy Elite recognizes the danger cyber weapons, this message, our auction, poses to their wealth and control. Let us spell out for Elites. Your wealth and control depends on electronic data. You see what “Equation Group” can do. You see what cryptolockers and stuxnet can do. You see free files we give for free. You see attacks on banks and SWIFT in news. Maybe there is Equation Group version of cryptolocker+stuxnet for banks and financial systems? If Equation Group lose control of cyber weapons, who else lose or find cyber weapons? If electronic data go bye bye where leave Wealthy Elites?

Sure, it’s possible the IC didn’t know right away that this was a Russian op (though Isikoff and Corn claim, dubiously and in contradiction to James Clapper’s November 17, 2016 testimony, that the IC had already IDed all the cut-outs Russia was using on the Guccifer 2.0 and DC Leaks operations). Though certainly the possibility was publicly discussed right away. By December, I was able to map out how it seemed the perpetrators were holding the NSA hostage to any retaliation attempts. Nice little NSA you’ve got here; it’d be a shame if anything happened to it. After the inauguration, Shadow Brokers took a break, until responding to Trump’s Syria strike by complaining that he was abandoning those who had gotten him elected.

Respectfully, what the fuck are you doing? TheShadowBrokers voted for you. TheShadowBrokers supports you. TheShadowBrokers is losing faith in you. Mr. Trump helping theshadowbrokers, helping you. Is appearing you are abandoning “your base”, “the movement”, and the peoples who getting you elected.

That was followed by a release of tools that would soon lead to billion dollar attacks using repurposed NSA tools.

As recently as February, the NSA and CIA were still trying to figure out what Russia (and the stories do appear to confirm the IC believed this was Russia) had obtained.

I mean, it’s all well and good to complain that Obama asked the NSC to stand down from its plans to launch massive cyberattacks as a warning to Putin. But you might, first, consider whether that decision happened at a time when the US was facing far greater uncertainty about our own vulnerabilities on that front.

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

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

Republican judges approved the Carter Page FISA orders

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Long-Delayed Jeff Sessions Reveal

Today (or yesterday — I’ve lost track of time) the WaPo reported what has long been implied: there’s evidence that Jeff Sessions spoke to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about campaign-related stuff, contrary to his repeated sworn comments.

At first, I thought this revelation might relate to Richard Burr’s assertion that Devin Nunes made up the scandal about which Obama officials had unmasked the identity of Trump officials who got sucked up in intercepts of Russians.

“The unmasking thing was all created by Devin Nunes, and I’ll wait to go through our full evaluation to see if there was anything improper that happened,” Burr said. “But clearly there were individuals unmasked. Some of that became public which it’s not supposed to, and our business is to understand that, and explain it.”

After all, one of the things the Senate Intelligence Committee would do to clear Rice is figure out who unmasked the identities of Trump people. And there’s at least circumstantial evidence to suggest that James Clapper unmasked Jeff Sessions’ identity, potentially on the last day of his tenure.

But Adam Entous, one of the three journalists on the story (and all the stories based on leaks of intercepts) reportedly said on the telly they’ve had the story since June.

Which instead suggests the WaPo published a story they’ve been sitting on since Sessions’ testimony.

The WaPo story cites the NYT interview in which Trump attacked Sessions for his poor answers about his interactions with Kislyak.

Trump, in an interview this week, expressed frustration with Sessions’s recusing himself from the Russia probe and indicated that he regretted his decision to make the lawmaker from Alabama the nation’s top law enforcement officer. Trump also faulted Sessions as giving “bad answers” during his confirmation hearing about his Russian contacts during the campaign.

Officials emphasized that the information contradicting Sessions comes from U.S. intelligence on Kislyak’s communications with the Kremlin, and acknowledged that the Russian ambassador could have mischaracterized or exaggerated the nature of his interactions.

Many people took this interview as an effort on Trump’s part to get Sessions to resign.

And the WaPo goes on to note that the disclosure — by these same journalists — of Mike Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak led to his resignation.

Kislyak was also a key figure in the departure of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to leave that job after The Post revealed that he had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with Kislyak even while telling others in the Trump administration that he had not done so.

And all of a sudden, we get this confirmation that Sessions has been lying all along.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d be happy to see Jeff Sessions forced to resign. But if he does, Trump will appoint someone more willing to help the cover up, someone who (because he wouldn’t have these prevarications about conversations with the Russian Ambassador and therefore won’t have to recuse) will assume supervision of Robert Mueller.

So while I’m happy for the confirmation that Sessions lied, I have real questions about why this is being published now.

The Compartments in WaPo’s Russian Hack Magnum Opus

The WaPo has an 8300 word opus on the Obama Administration’s response to Russian tampering in the election. The article definitely covers new ground on the Obama effort to respond while avoiding making things worse, particularly with regards to imposing sanctions in December. It also largely lays out much of the coverage the three bylined journalists (Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous) have broken before, with new details. The overall message of the article, which has a number of particular viewpoints and silences, is this: Moscow is getting away with their attack.

“[B]ecause of the divergent ways Obama and Trump have handled the matter, Moscow appears unlikely to face proportionate consequences.”

The Immaculate Interception: CIA’s scoop

WaPo starts its story about how Russia got away with its election op with an exchange designed to make the non-response to the attack seem all the more senseless. It provides a dramatic description of a detail these very same reporters broke on December 9: Putin, who was personally directing this effort, was trying to elect Trump.

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

[snip]

The material was so sensitive that CIA Director John Brennan kept it out of the President’s Daily Brief, concerned that even that restricted report’s distribution was too broad. The CIA package came with instructions that it be returned immediately after it was read.

[snip]

In early August, Brennan alerted senior White House officials to the Putin intelligence, making a call to deputy national security adviser Avril Haines and pulling national security adviser Susan Rice side after a meeting before briefing Obama along with Rice, Haines and McDonough in the Oval Office.

While the sharing of this information with just three aides adds to the drama, WaPo doesn’t consider something else about it. The inclusion of Rice and McDonough totally makes sense. But by including Avril Haines, Brennan was basically including his former Deputy Director who had moved onto the DNSA position, effectively putting two CIA people in a room with two White House people and the President. Significantly, Lisa Monaco — who had Brennan’s old job as White House Homeland Security Czar and who came from DOJ and FBI before that — was reportedly excluded from this initial briefing.

There are a number of other interesting details about all this. First, for thousands of wordspace, the WaPo presents this intelligence as irreproachable, even while providing this unconvincing explanation of why, if it is so secret and solid, the CIA was willing to let WaPo put it on its front page.

For spy agencies, gaining insights into the intentions of foreign leaders is among the highest priorities. But Putin is a remarkably elusive target. A former KGB officer, he takes extreme precautions to guard against surveillance, rarely communicating by phone or computer, always running sensitive state business from deep within the confines of the Kremlin.

The Washington Post is withholding some details of the intelligence at the request of the U.S. government.

If this intelligence is so sensitive, why is even the timing of its collection being revealed here, much less its access to Putin?

That seemingly contradictory action is all the more curious given that not all agencies were as impressed with this intelligence as CIA was. It’s not until much, much later in its report until WaPo explains what remains true as recently as Admiral Rogers’ latest Congressional testimony: the NSA wasn’t and isn’t as convinced by CIA’s super secret intelligence as CIA was.

Despite the intelligence the CIA had produced, other agencies were slower to endorse a conclusion that Putin was personally directing the operation and wanted to help Trump. “It was definitely compelling, but it was not definitive,” said one senior administration official. “We needed more.”

Some of the most critical technical intelligence on Russia came from another country, officials said. Because of the source of the material, the NSA was reluctant to view it with high confidence.

By the time this detail is presented, the narrative is in place: Obama failed to respond adequately to the attack that CIA warned about back in August.

The depiction of this top-level compartment of just Brennan, Rice, McDonough, and Haines is interesting background, as well, for the depiction of the way McDonough undermined a State Department plan to institute a Special Commission before Donald Trump got started.

Supporters’ confidence was buoyed when McDonough signaled that he planned to “tabledrop” the proposal at the next NSC meeting, one that would be chaired by Obama. Kerry was overseas and participated by videoconference.

To some, the “tabledrop” term has a tactical connotation beyond the obvious. It is sometimes used as a means of securing approval of an idea by introducing it before opponents have a chance to form counterarguments.

“We thought this was a good sign,” a former State Department official said.

But as soon as McDonough introduced the proposal for a commission, he began criticizing it, arguing that it would be perceived as partisan and almost certainly blocked by Congress.

Obama then echoed McDonough’s critique, effectively killing any chance that a Russia commission would be formed.

Effectively, McDonough upended the table on those (which presumably includes the CIA) who wanted to preempt regular process.

Finally, even after  these three WaPo journalists foreground their entire narrative with CIA’s super duper scoop (that NSA is still not 100% convinced is one), they don’t describe their own role in changing the tenor of the response on December 9 by reporting the first iteration of this story.

“By December, those of us working on this for a long time were demoralized,” said an administration official involved in the developing punitive options.

Then the tenor began to shift.

On Dec. 9, Obama ordered a comprehensive review by U.S. intelligence agencies of Russian interference in U.S. elections going back to 2008, with a plan to make some of the findings public.

The WaPo’s report of the CIA’s intelligence changed the tenor back in December, and this story about the absence of a response might change the tenor here.

Presenting the politics ahead of the intelligence

The WaPo’s foregrounding of Brennan’s August scoop is also important for the way they portray the parallel streams of the intelligence and political response. It portrays the Democrats’ political complaints about Republicans in this story, most notably the suggestion that Mitch McConnell refused to back a more public statement about the Russian operation when Democrats were pushing for one in September. That story, in part because of McConnell’s silence, has become accepted as true.

Except the WaPo’s own story provides ample evidence that the Democrats were trying to get ahead of the formal intelligence community with respect to attribution, both in the summer, when Clapper only alluded to Russian involvement.

Even after the late-July WikiLeaks dump, which came on the eve of the Democratic convention and led to the resignation of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) as the DNC’s chairwoman, U.S. intelligence officials continued to express uncertainty about who was behind the hacks or why they were carried out.

At a public security conference in Aspen, Colo., in late July, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. noted that Russia had a long history of meddling in American elections but that U.S. spy agencies were not ready to “make the call on attribution” for what was happening in 2016.

And, more importantly, in the fall, when the public IC attribution came only after McConnell refused to join a more aggressive statement because the intelligence did not yet support it (WaPo makes no mention of it, but DHS’s public reporting from late September still attributed the the threat to election infrastructure to “cybercriminals and criminal hackers”).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.

Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.

On Sept. 22, two California Democrats — Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam B. Schiff — did what they couldn’t get the White House to do. They issued a statement making clear that they had learned from intelligence briefings that Russia was directing a campaign to undermine the election, but they stopped short of saying to what end.

A week later, McConnell and other congressional leaders issued a cautious statement that encouraged state election officials to ensure their networks were “secure from attack.” The release made no mention of Russia and emphasized that the lawmakers “would oppose any effort by the federal government” to encroach on the states’ authorities.

When U.S. spy agencies reached unanimous agreement in late September that the interference was a Russian operation directed by Putin, Obama directed spy chiefs to prepare a public statement summarizing the intelligence in broad strokes.

I’m all in favor of beating up McConnell, but there is no reason to demand members of Congress precede the IC with formal attribution for something like this. So until October 7, McConnell had cover (if not justification) for refusing to back a stronger statement.

And while the report describes Brennan’s efforts to brief members of Congress (and the reported reluctance of Republicans to meet with him), it doesn’t answer what remains a critical and open question: whether Brennan’s briefing for Harry Reid was different — and more inflammatory — than his briefing for Republicans, and whether that was partly designed to get Reid to serve as a proxy attacker on Jim Comey and the FBI.

Brennan moved swiftly to schedule private briefings with congressional leaders. But getting appointments with certain Republicans proved difficult, officials said, and it was not until after Labor Day that Brennan had reached all members of the “Gang of Eight” — the majority and minority leaders of both houses and the chairmen and ranking Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence committees.

Nor does this account explain another thing: why Brennan serially briefed the Gang of Eight, when past experience is to brief them in groups, if not all together.

In short, while the WaPo provides new details on the parallel intelligence and political tracks, it reinforces its own narrative while remaining silent on some details that are critical to that narrative.

The compartments

The foregrounding of CIA in all this also raises questions about a new and important detail about (what I assume to be the subsequently publicly revealed, though this is not made clear) Task Force investigating this operation: it lives at CIA, not FBI.

Brennan convened a secret task force at CIA headquarters composed of several dozen analysts and officers from the CIA, the NSA and the FBI.

The unit functioned as a sealed compartment, its work hidden from the rest of the intelligence community. Those brought in signed new non-disclosure agreements to be granted access to intelligence from all three participating agencies.

They worked exclusively for two groups of “customers,” officials said. The first was Obama and fewer than 14 senior officials in government. The second was a team of operations specialists at the CIA, NSA and FBI who took direction from the task force on where to aim their subsequent efforts to collect more intelligence on Russia.

Much later in the story, WaPo reveals how, in the wake of Obama calling for a report, analysts started looking back at their collected intelligence and learning new details.

Obama’s decision to order a comprehensive report on Moscow’s interference from U.S. spy agencies had prompted analysts to go back through their agencies’ files, scouring for previously overlooked clues.

The effort led to a flurry of new, disturbing reports — many of them presented in the President’s Daily Brief — about Russia’s subversion of the 2016 race. The emerging picture enabled policymakers to begin seeing the Russian campaign in broader terms, as a comprehensive plot sweeping in its scope.

It’s worth asking: did the close hold of the original Task Force, a hold that appears to have been set by Brennan, contribute to the belated discovery of these details revealing a broader campaign?

The surveillance driven sanctions

I’m most interested in the description of how the Obama Admin chose whom to impose sanctions on, though it includes this bizarre claim.

But the package of measures approved by Obama, and the process by which they were selected and implemented, were more complex than initially understood.

The expulsions and compound seizures were originally devised as ways to retaliate against Moscow not for election interference but for an escalating campaign of harassment of American diplomats and intelligence operatives. U.S. officials often endured hostile treatment, but the episodes had become increasingly menacing and violent.

Several of the details WaPo presents as misunderstood (including that the sanctions were retaliation for treatment of diplomats) were either explicit in the sanction package or easily gleaned at the time.

One of those easily gleaned details is that the sanctions on GRU and FSB were mostly symbolic. WaPo uses the symbolic nature of the attack on those who perpetrated the attack as a way to air complaints that these sanctions were not as onerous as those in response to Ukraine.

“I don’t think any of us thought of sanctions as being a primary way of expressing our disapproval” for the election interference, said a senior administration official involved in the decision. “Going after their intelligence services was not about economic impact. It was symbolic.”

More than any other measure, that decision has become a source of regret to senior administration officials directly involved in the Russia debate. The outcome has left the impression that Obama saw Russia’s military meddling in Ukraine as more deserving of severe punishment than its subversion of a U.S. presidential race.

“What is the greater threat to our system of government?” said a former high-ranking administration official, noting that Obama and his advisers knew from projections formulated by the Treasury Department that the impact of the election-related economic sanctions would be “minimal.”

Three things that might play into the mostly symbolic targeting of FSB, especially, are not mentioned. First, WaPo makes no mention of the suspected intelligence sources who’ve been killed since the election, most credibly Oleg Erovinkin, as well as a slew of other suspect and less obviously connected deaths. It doesn’t mention the four men Russia charged with treason in early December. And it doesn’t mention DOJ’s indictment of the Yahoo hackers, including one of the FSB officers, Dmitry Dokuchaev, that Russia charged with treason (not to mention the inclusion within the indictment of intercepts between FSB officers). There’s a lot more spy vs. spy activity going on here that likely relates far more to retaliation or limits on US ability to retaliate, all of which may be more important in the medium term than financial sanctions.

Given the Yahoo and other indictments working through San Francisco (including that of Yevgeniey Nikulin, who claims FBI offered him a plea deal involving admitting he hacked the DNC), I’m particularly interested in the shift in sanctions from NY to San Francisco, where Nikulin and Dokuchaev’s victims are located.

The FBI was also responsible for generating the list of Russian operatives working under diplomatic cover to expel, drawn from a roster the bureau maintains of suspected Russian intelligence agents in the United States.

[snip]

The roster of expelled spies included several operatives who were suspected of playing a role in Russia’s election interference from within the United States, officials said. They declined to elaborate.

More broadly, the list of 35 names focused heavily on Russians known to have technical skills. Their names and bios were laid out on a dossier delivered to senior White House officials and Cabinet secretaries, although the list was modified at the last minute to reduce the number of expulsions from Russia’s U.N. mission in New York and add more names from its facilities in Washington and San Francisco.

And the WaPo’s reports confirm what was also obvious: the two compounds got shut down (and were a priority) because of all the spying they were doing.

The FBI had long lobbied to close two Russian compounds in the United States — one in Maryland and another in New York — on the grounds that both were used for espionage and placed an enormous surveillance burden on the bureau.

[snip]

Rice pointed to the FBI’s McCabe and said: “You guys have been begging to do this for years. Now is your chance.”

The administration gave Russia 24 hours to evacuate the sites, and FBI agents watched as fleets of trucks loaded with cargo passed through the compounds’ gates.

Finally, given Congress’ bipartisan fearmongering about Kaspersky Lab, I’m most interested that at one point Treasury wanted to include them in sanctions.

Treasury Department officials devised plans that would hit entire sectors of Russia’s economy. One preliminary suggestion called for targeting technology companies including Kaspersky Lab, the Moscow-based cybersecurity firm. But skeptics worried that the harm could spill into Europe and pointed out that U.S. companies used Kaspersky systems and software.

In spite of all the fearmongering, no one has presented proof that Kaspersky is working for Russia (there are even things, which I won’t go in to for the moment, that suggest the opposite). But we’re moving close to de facto sanctions against Kaspersky anyway, even in spite of the fact (or perhaps because) they’re providing better intelligence on WannaCry than half the witnesses called as witnesses to Congress. But discrediting Kaspersky undercuts one of the only security firms in the world who, in addition to commenting on Russian hacking, will unpack America’s own hacking. You sanction Kaspersky, and you expand the asymmetry with which security firms selectively scrutinize just Russian hacking, rather than all nation-state hacking.

The looming cyberattack and the silence about Shadow Brokers

Which brings me to the last section of the article, where, over 8000 words in, the WaPo issues a threat against Russia in the form of a looming cyberattack Obama approved before he left.

WaPo’s early description of this suggests the attack was and is still in planning stages and relies on Donald Trump to execute.

Obama also approved a previously undisclosed covert measure that authorized planting cyber weapons in Russia’s infrastructure, the digital equivalent of bombs that could be detonated if the United States found itself in an escalating exchange with Moscow. The project, which Obama approved in a covert-action finding, was still in its planning stages when Obama left office. It would be up to President Trump to decide whether to use the capability.

But if readers make it all the way through the very long article, they’ll learn that’s not the case. The finding has already been signed, the implants are already being placed (implants which would most likely be discovered by Kaspersky), and for Trump to stop it, he would have to countermand Obama’s finding.

The implants were developed by the NSA and designed so that they could be triggered remotely as part of retaliatory cyber-strike in the face of Russian aggression, whether an attack on a power grid or interference in a future presidential race.

Officials familiar with the measures said that there was concern among some in the administration that the damage caused by the implants could be difficult to contain.

As a result, the administration requested a legal review, which concluded that the devices could be controlled well enough that their deployment would be considered “proportional” in varying scenarios of Russian provocation, a requirement under international law.

The operation was described as long-term, taking months to position the implants and requiring maintenance thereafter. Under the rules of covert action, Obama’s signature was all that was necessary to set the operation in motion.

U.S. intelligence agencies do not need further approval from Trump, and officials said that he would have to issue a countermanding order to stop it. The officials said that they have seen no indication that Trump has done so.

Whatever else this article is designed to do, I think, it is designed to be a threat to Putin, from long gone Obama officials.

Given the discussion of a looming cyberattack on Russia, it’s all the more remarkable WaPo breathed not one word about Shadow Brokers, which is most likely to be a drawn out cyberattack by Russian affiliates on NSA. Even ignoring the Shadow Brokers’ derived global ransomware attack in WannaCry, Shadow Brokers has ratcheted up the severity of its releases, including doxing NSA’s spies and hacks of the global finance system, It has very explicitly fostered tensions between the NSA and private sector partners (as well as the reputational costs on those private sector partners). And it has threatened to leak still worse, including NSA exploits against current Microsoft products and details of NSA’s spying on hostile nuclear programs.

The WaPo is talking about a big cyberattack, but an entity that most likely has close ties to Russia has been conducting one, all in plain sight. I suggested back in December that Shadow Brokers was essentially holding NSA hostage in part as a way to constrain US intelligence retaliation against Russia. Given ensuing events, I’m more convinced that is, at least partly, true.

But in this grand narrative of CIA’s early warning and Obama’s inadequate response, details like that remain unsaid.

Why Susan Rice May Be a Shiny Object

A bunch of Republican propagandists are outraged that the press isn’t showing more interest in PizzaGate Mike Cernovich’s “scoop” that the woman in charge of ensuring our national security under President Obama, then National Security Advisor Susan Rice, sought to fully understand the national security intercepts she was being shown.

There are two bases for their poutrage, which might have merit — but coming from such hacks, may not.

The first is the suggestion, based off Devin Nunes’ claim (and refuted by Adam Schiff) that Rice unmasked things she shouldn’t have. Thus far, the (probably illegally) leaked details — such as that family members, perhaps like Jared Kushner (who met with an FSB officer turned head of a sanctioned Russian bank used as cover for other spying operations), Sean Hannity (who met with an already-targeted Julian Assange at a time he was suspected of coordinating with Russians), and Erik Prince (who has literally built armies for foreign powers) got spied on — do nothing but undermine Nunes’ claims. All the claimed outrageous unmaskings actually seem quite justifiable, given the accepted purpose for FISA intercepts.

The other suggestion — and thus far, it is a suggestion, probably because (as I’ll show) it’s thus far logically devoid of evidence — is that because Rice asked to have the names of people unmasked, she must be the person who leaked the contents of the intercepts of Sergey Kislyak discussing sanctions with Mike Flynn. (Somehow, the propagandists always throw Ben Rhodes’ name in, though it’s not clear on what basis.)

Let me start by saying this. Let’s assume those intercepts remained classified when they were leaked. That’s almost certain, but Obama certainly did have the authority to declassify them, just as either George Bush or Dick Cheney allegedly used that authority to declassify Valerie Plame’s ID (as some of these same propagandists applauded back in the day). But assuming the intercepts did remain classified, I agree that it is a problem that they were leaked by nine different sources to the WaPo.

But just because Rice asked to unmask the identities of various Trump (and right wing media) figures doesn’t mean she and Ben Rhodes are the nine sources for the WaPo.

That’s because the information on Flynn may have existed in a number of other places.

Obviously, Rice could not have been the first person to read the Flynn-Kislyak intercepts. That’s because some analyst(s) would have had to read them and put them into a finished report (most, but not all, of Nunes’ blathering comments about these reports suggest they were finished intelligence). Assuming those analysts were at NSA (which is not at all certain) someone would have had to have approved the unmasking of Flynn’s name before Rice saw it.

In addition, it is possible — likely even, at least by January 2017, when we know people were asking why Russia didn’t respond more strongly to Obama’s hacking sanctions — that there were two other sets of people who had access to the raw intelligence on Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak: the CIA and, especially, the FBI, which would have been involved in any FISA-related collection. Both CIA and FBI can get raw data on topics they’re working on. Likely, in this case, the multi-agency task force was getting raw collection related to their Russian investigation.

And as I’ve explained, as soon as FBI developed a suspicion that either Kislyak was at the center of discussions on sanctions or that Flynn was an unregistered agent of multiple foreign powers, the Special Agents doing that investigation would routinely pull up everything in their databases on those people by name, which would result in raw Title I and 702 FISA collection (post January 3, it probably began to include raw EO 12333 data as well).

So already you’re up to about 15 to 20 people who would have access to the raw intercepts, and that’s before they brief their bosses, Congress (though the Devin Nunes and Adam Schiff briefing, at least, was delayed a bit), and DOJ, all the way up to Sally Yates, who wanted to warn the White House. Jim Comey has suggested it is likely that the nine sources behind the WaPo story were among these people briefed secondarily on the intercepts. And it’s worth noting that David Ignatius, who first broke the story of Flynn’s chats with Kislyak but was not credited on the nine source story, has known source relationships in other parts of the government than the National Security Advisor, though he also has ties to Rice.

All of which is to say that the question of who leaked the contents of Mike Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak is a very different question from whether Susan Rice’s requests to unmask Trump associates’ names were proper or not. It is possible that Rice leaked the intercepts without declassifying them first. But it’s also possible that any of tens of other people did, most of whom would have a completely independent channel for that information.

And the big vulnerability is not — no matter what Eli Lake wants to pretend — the unmasking of individual names by the National Security Advisor. Rather, it’s that groups of investigators can access the same intelligence in raw form without a warrant tied to the American person in question.

Devin Nunes’ So-Called Bibi Netanyahu Precedent

Throughout his ongoing information operation to claim the Obama White House spied on the Trump transition team, Devin Nunes has pointed to what he claimed was a precedent: when, in December 2015, members of Congress suddenly copped on that their conversations with Bibi Netanyahu would get picked up incidentally. In his March 22 press conference, he explained,

We went through this about a year and a half ago as it related to members of Congress, if you may remember there was a report I think it was in the Wall Street Journal and but then we had to have we had a whole series of hearings and then we had to have changes made to how Congress is informed if members of Congress are picked up in surveillance and this looks it’s like very similar to that.

Eli Lake dutifully repeated it in the second of his three-post series pitching Nunes’ information operation.

A precedent to what may have happened with the Trump transition involved the monitoring of Israel’s prime minister and other senior Israeli officials. The Wall Street Journal reported at the end of 2015 that members of Congress and American Jewish groups were caught up in this surveillance and that the reports were sent to the White House. This occurred during a bitter political fight over the Iran nuclear deal. In essence the Obama White House was learning about the strategy of its domestic political opposition through legal wiretaps of a foreign head of state and his aides.

But Lake didn’t apparently think through what the implications of Nunes’ analogy — or the differences between the two cases.

Here’s the WSJ report and CBS and WaPo versions that aren’t paywalled. All make it very clear that Devin Nunes took the lead in worrying about his conversations with Bibi Netanyahu being sucked up (I don’t remember Republicans being as sympathetic when Jane Harman got sucked up in a conversation with AIPAC). They also describe that Obama’s WH, faced with the potential that their surveillance would be seen as spying on another branch of Congress, had the NSA take charge of the unmasking.

The administration believed that Israel had leaked information gleaned from spying on the negotiations to sympathetic lawmakers and Jewish American groups seeking to undermine the talks.

According to the Journal, when the White House learned that the NSA eavesdropping had collected communications with U.S. lawmakers, it feared being accused of spying on Congress and left it to the NSA to determine what information to share with the administration. The Journal said the NSA did not pass along the names of lawmakers or any of their personal attacks on White House officials.

That’s not to say they’d take the same approach here — indeed, Lake now claims, at  least, that Susan Rice requested some Trump officials’ names to be unmasked, distinguishing it from the Bibi case in that White House did not leave it up to NSA to decide what to unmask (though the underlying reporting makes the silly claim that Rice, Loretta Lynch, and John Brennan were among a very limited number of people who could request a name be unmasked).

The larger point is, even assuming the collection of conversations between your political opponents and a foreign government designed to undermine your executive branch authority was scandalous, it’d still fall under the very legitimate concern of separation of powers.

Yes, Trump’s aides are from a different party. But they are nevertheless part of the executive branch. And the entire basis of counterintelligence spying — the entire point of FISA — is to ensure that executive branch officials are not targeted by foreign countries to be spies, which is part of the reason Mike Flynn attracted attention (which is not to justify the leaking of that intercept). Add in the legitimate necessity to implement executive branch policy and this is a very different case than the Bibi case, even if you want to defend (as I do, to a point) Republican members of Congress collaborating with foreign governments to undermine Article II authorities.

Nunes’ imagined solution — from his March 22 White House press conference — is ever nuttier.

Q: You’ve said legal and incidental. That doesn’t sound like a proactive effort to spy.

Nunes: I would refer you to, we had a similar issue with members of Congress that were being picked up in incidental collection a little over a year ago, we had to spend a full year working with the DNI on the proper notification for members of Congress to be notified which comes through the Gang of Eight. I would refer you to that because it looks very similar to that, would be the best way I can describe it.

The ODNI current informs the Gang of Eight when members of Congress get spied on (which means claims that a lot of GOP candidates got spied on is likely hot air, but which also means that if Nunes were collected as a member of the transition team, he’d have been the first to learn of it). Which is an important protection for separation of powers, but which also enables corrupt members of Congress to not just learn they’re being surveilled but, potentially, to alert the foreign targets what channels we’re using.

Maybe Trump wants that standard applied to the executive branch, but if he adopts it, we’re going to have a leaking free for all. Not to mention, it would make it absolutely impossible for the government to protect against espionage related to elections.

Or perhaps Nunes is just saying something more simple. Perhaps Nunes is saying the “dozens” of intercepts where Trump officials had been unmasked (to the extent that’s true) disclosed Trump’s transition-period attempts to drum up a war with Iran at the behest of Israel. Perhaps the real stink here is that, in the very same days Mike Flynn was telling Russia sanctions would be loosened, Trump was publicly undermining US efforts to take a stand against Israeli illegal settlements.

Perhaps, ultimately, this is still about a belief that the Israelis should never be wiretapped.

Who Violated Their Designated Role: Ezra Cohen-Watnick or Susan Rice?

In the original version of the latest right wing claim — that Susan Rice requested that multiple incoming Trump figures’ names be unmasked in intercepts — Mike Cernovich describes the genesis of Devin Nunes’ concern this way:

The White House Counsel’s office identified Rice as the person responsible for the unmasking after examining Rice’s document log requests. The reports Rice requested to see are kept under tightly-controlled conditions. Each person must log her name before being granted access to them.

Upon learning of Rice’s actions, H. R. McMaster dispatched his close aide Derek Harvey to Capitol Hill to brief Chairman Nunes.

But as Eli Lake — fresh off having apologized for letting Devin Nunes use him — tells the story, close Mike Flynn associate Ezra Cohen-Watnick discovered it and brought the discovery to the White House Counsel’s office, whereupon he was told to “end his own research” on unmasking.

The pattern of Rice’s requests was discovered in a National Security Council review of the government’s policy on “unmasking” the identities of individuals in the U.S. who are not targets of electronic eavesdropping, but whose communications are collected incidentally. Normally those names are redacted from summaries of monitored conversations and appear in reports as something like “U.S. Person One.”

The National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, was conducting the review, according to two U.S. officials who spoke with Bloomberg View on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly. In February Cohen-Watnick discovered Rice’s multiple requests to unmask U.S. persons in intelligence reports that related to Trump transition activities. He brought this to the attention of the White House General Counsel’s office, who reviewed more of Rice’s requests and instructed him to end his own research into the unmasking policy.

This repeats a claim Lake had made in his earlier apology post, which he presented as one detail in the NYT version of this story that was not accurate.

Another U.S. official familiar with the affair told me that one of the sources named in the article, former Defense Intelligence officer Ezra Cohen-Watnick, did not play a role in getting information to Nunes. This official said Cohen-Watnick had come upon the reports while working on a review of recent Justice Department rules that made it easier for intelligence officials to share the identities of U.S. persons swept up in surveillance. He turned them over to White House lawyers.

But it adds the detail that Cohen-Watnick had been told to stand down. That would explain why Lake and others would want to claim that Cohen-Watnick wasn’t involved in dealing all this to Nunes: because he had already been told not to pursue it further. If the multiple accounts saying he was involved in the hand-off to Nunes, it appears he did.

The WaPo’s version of this included a detail not included by the right wingers: that Cohen-Watnick went to John Eisenberg, not Don McGahn, with his “discovery.” Eisenberg is significantly responsible, dating back to when he was at DOJ, for ensuring that ordinary Americans would be sucked up in surveillance under PRISM. For him to be concerned about the legal unmasking of Americans’ identities (to the extent that did exist — and the record is still unclear whether it did) is laughable.

The timing of Cohen-Watnick’s research — dating back to February — intersects in interesting ways with the timeline in this March 14 Politico story of H.R. McMaster’s attempt to sideline him, which was overruled by Steven Bannon.

On Friday [March 10], McMaster told the National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence programs, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, that he would be moved to another position in the organization.

The conversation followed weeks of pressure from career officials at the CIA who had expressed reservations about the 30-year-old intelligence operative and pushed for his ouster.

But Cohen-Watnick appealed McMaster’s decision to two influential allies with whom he had forged a relationship while working on Trump’s transition team — White House advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. They brought the matter to Trump on Sunday [March 12], and the president agreed that Cohen-Watnick should remain as the NSC’s intelligence director, according to two people with knowledge of the episode.

The House Intelligence Committee first asked NSA, CIA, and FBI for details on unmasking on March 15, the day after this story broke, at which point Nunes already knew of the White House effort. When Nunes first blew this up on March 22, he falsely claimed that that March 15 request had been submitted two weeks earlier.

It’s clear the right wing wants to shift this into Benghazi 2.0, attacking Susan Rice for activities that are, at least on the face of it, part of her job. But the only way the White House could be sure that she (or Ben Rhodes, who they’re also naming) were the ones to leak this would be to investigate not just those two, but also all the FBI (which would have access to this information without unmasking these names, which not a single one of these right wing scribes admit or even seem to understand). That is, the only way they could make credible, as opposed to regurgitated right wing propaganda accusations about leakers is to have spied even more inappropriately than they are accusing the Obama White House of doing.