Posts

When Secret Servers Bump Up against Prosecutorial Independence and Following the Evidence

CNN has a story reporting that President-Elect Biden will be granted access to the secret server where Trump has stashed the transcripts of his sensitive discussions with world leaders. It frames the story around the question of whether or not Biden will release those records, reporting that he probably will respect their sensitivity.

A person close to the Biden transition team told CNN that no decisions have been made about how these sensitive materials will be handled when the President-elect takes office on January 20, and that it’s likely they will maintain the Trump administration’s close hold on such information, at least at first, until they are settled in and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s pick for national security adviser, can assess their information security needs.

A senior US official said that the Biden team will be given access to a secret server containing sensitive information related to President Donald Trump’s more controversial conversations with foreign leaders on a need-to-know basis and the Trump administration is prepared to share any information that they deem to be relevant to their future decision-making process.

The story seems to be sourced to one Biden transition official, serving as a source for what the Biden administration will do, and a Trump official, serving as a source for how Trump White House will deal with this information during the Transition. In context, describing what to do about known conversations that got buried on Trump’s secret server, this comment is from the latter.

There are fast moving issues where policies or military technologies have changed in the four years since Biden’s political team left government, in particular, in relation to China and Turkey, something the current US official said will be a priority in discussions with the Biden landing teams.

The official said that basic details pertaining to Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, will only be shared if they are relevant to a pending policy or national security matter.

“There’s a lot to cover,” the senior US official said. “We are going to share anything that’s relevant for them to come to grips with reality when the keys are theirs. If there was something like that that’s actually of note… things on the covert side, for example, we will highlight them very quickly.”

That is, Biden will get news of Trump’s current plans involving Turkey and China, but will not get the details of what Trump promised away to Putin or whether he shared information on Jamal Khashoggi with MbS.

This particular frame comes from the sources, and while useful to know, doesn’t answer the question for the Biden administration. After all, Biden has answered questions about whether he would prosecute Trump or those close to him appropriately, by saying he plans to pick a good Attorney General and stay the fuck out of DOJ investigations. That means he might face difficult questions about what to do with these transcripts if a Congressional committee (they’ve already demanded the Putin transcripts) or prosecutors asked for known and/or relevant transcripts.

Just as an example, when the whistleblower revealed that President Trump had extorted the President of Ukraine to provide him election help, any normally functioning DOJ would have immediately identified the related case involving Rudy Giuliani’s associates Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas. That would have given SDNY jurisdiction over the fate of Trump’s extortionist call.

As of now, though, the Fruman and Parnas case remains ongoing (it will present one of the more difficult pardon decisions for Trump), and SDNY got David Correia to plead just before the election, while obscuring whether he will cooperate with prosecutors. If the case is not in some way entirely killed, then Trump’s call transcript, along with a lot of other evidence from the White House would become material to that prosecution. If Biden truly were taking a hands-off approach to prosecutions of Trump, he would not make the decision of whether to turn over this transcript (other stuff would not be covered by privilege and presumably would be handed over, including from State).

These will be the truly difficult decisions, not whether Biden gets notice now or in three months of what promises Trump made to Putin.

“Looking Forward” Will Be Harder for President Biden than It Was for President Obama

NBC has a story that has caused a bit of panic, reporting that “Biden hopes to avoid divisive Trump investigations, preferring unity.”

The panic is overblown, given that the main point of the story is that Biden is hoping that DOJ will resume a more independent stance than that taken, especially, by Billy Barr.

Biden wants his Justice Department to function independently from the White House, aides said, and Biden isn’t going to tell federal law enforcement officials whom or what to investigate or not to investigate.

“His overarching view is that we need to move the country forward,” an adviser said. “But the most important thing on this is that he will not interfere with his Justice Department and not politicize his Justice Department.”

If there were to be investigations of Trump, everyone should want them to be completely insulated from the White House.

The story raises two more specific types of investigations which are both likely moot.

They said he has specifically told advisers that he is wary of federal tax investigations of Trump or of challenging any orders Trump may issue granting immunity to members of his staff before he leaves office. One adviser said Biden has made it clear that he “just wants to move on.”

Another Biden adviser said, “He’s going to be more oriented toward fixing the problems and moving forward than prosecuting them.”

New York state already has a tax investigation into Trump, so a federal one would be duplicative. And the pardon power is absolute; there’s little likelihood DOJ could investigate the pardons that Trump grants, because doing so would be constitutionally suspect.

All that said, attempting to move forward may not be as easy for President Biden as it was for President Obama.

That’s because there are a number of investigations that implicate Trump that are either pending (as of right now, but I don’t rule out Trump trying to kill them in the interim) or were shut down corruptly, to say nothing of the obstruction charges Mueller effectively recommended (which aforementioned pardons would renew, even in spite of DOJ’s declination prior to pardons). At a minimum, those include:

  • The Build the Wall fraud case against Steve Bannon and others that might, eventually, implicate the failson or his close buddies
  • The Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas graft which clearly implicates Rudy Giuliani and by all rights should always have included Trump’s extortion of Volodymyr Zelensky; given the timing of David Correia’s plea, it’s likely there will be grand jury testimony from him banked
  • Other foreign agent charges against Rudy
  • The investigation into Erik Prince for selling his private mercenary services to China
  • False statements charges against Ryan Zinke that Jeffrey Rosen attempted to kill
  • Various campaign finance and grift charges implicating Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, and Brad Parscale, to say nothing of the hush payments involving Trump personally
  • Possible hack-and-leak charges against Roger Stone from 2016, as well as the related pardon quid pro quo for Julian Assange implicating Trump himself
  • The possible aftermath of Judge Sullivan’s decisions in the Mike Flynn case, which could include perjury referrals or an invitation for DOJ to prosecute Flynn on the foreign agent charges he pled out of

All of these investigations still do or were known to exist, and if they no longer exist when Biden’s Attorney General arrives at DOJ, it will be because of improper interference from Barr.

The last of these might get particularly awkward given that multiple people at Billy Barr’s DOJ, possibly in conjunction with Sidney Powell and Trump campaign lawyer Jenna Ellis, altered documents to concoct a smear targeting Joe Biden in a false claim that he invented a rationale to investigate Flynn for undermining sanctions on Russia. You cannot have an independent DOJ if the people who weaponized it in such a way go unpunished. Except investigating such actions would immediately devolve into a partisan fight, particularly if Republicans retain control of the Senate. (This particular issue will most easily be addressed, and I suspect already is being addressed, via a DOJ IG investigation.)

Still, in the other cases, DOJ may need to decide what to do with investigations improperly closed by Barr, or what to do with investigations where just some of the defendants (such as Fruman and Bannon) get pardons.

And all this will undoubtedly play against the background of the confirmation battle for whomever Biden nominates. I would be shocked if Mitch McConnell (especially if he remains Majority Leader) didn’t demand certain promises before an Attorney General nominee got approved.

So none of this will be easy.

A far more interesting question will pertain to what President Biden does about the ICC investigation into US war crimes in Afghanistan, crimes that occurred during both the Bush and Obama Administrations. Mike Pompeo launched an indefensible assault against the ICC in an attempt to block this investigation, sanctioning ICC officials leading the investigation. Biden’s Secretary of State will have to decide whether to reverse those sanctions, effectively making a decision about whether to look forward to ignore crimes committed (in part) under Barack Obama.

Convergence: Mueller Obstruction, Ukrainian Favors, and DOJ’s Altered Documents

Amid uncorrected false claims about election results and tweets inciting violence in DC, Donald Trump tweeted this last night.

After respectable law firms withdrew in AZ and PA, Trump’s legal team is now down to Rudy, DiGenova and Toensing, Sidney Powell, and Jenna Ellis, along with “other wonderful lawyers” whom he did not name.

Finally, the grand convergence: Trump’s obstruction of the Mueller investigation into Trump’s “collusion” with Russia, his demand that Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky “do him a favor” by inventing an investigation of Joe Biden, and the Billy Barr-led effort to blow up Mike Flynn’s prosecution for covering up Trump’s efforts to undermine sanctions imposed for helping Trump to win. All one grand effort led by lawyers barely clinging to reality.

That’s not a unique observation. Many people are making it (along with laughing at the sorry state of affairs for Trump, a glee that may be premature).

But it’s worth focusing on the relationship between Jenna Ellis and Powell. As I have noted repeatedly, when Judge Emmet Sullivan asked Powell whether she had been in direct contact with Trump about Mike Flynn’s case, she not only confessed to that, but also admitted multiple contacts with Trump’s campaign lawyer, Ellis. That means Ellis is directly implicated in whatever effort there was to alter documents to launch a false attack on Joe Biden, one intimately tied to DOJ’s false excuses (that the investigation was primarily about the Logan Act) for wanting to blow up the Flynn prosecution.

That is, the effort to throw out the Mike Flynn prosecution (about which the lawyers have mostly gone silent, post-election) was all part of an effort to obtain power via illegitimate means. And still is.

NSA Is Probably Withholding Details of the Alleged Burisma Hack from Congress

Over the weekend, Adam Schiff and other impeachment managers started alleging that the NSA is withholding information about Ukraine from the Intelligence Committees and impeachment team.

“And I’ll say something even more concerning to me, and that is the intelligence community is beginning to withhold documents from Congress on the issue of Ukraine,” Schiff said. “The NSA, in particular, is withholding what are potentially relevant documents to our oversight responsibilities on Ukraine, but also withholding documents potentially relevant that the senators might want to see during the trial.”

Schiff added: “There are signs that the CIA may be on the same tragic course. We are counting on the intelligence community not only to speak truth to power, but to resist pressure from the administration to withhold information from Congress because the administration fears that they incriminate them.”

An Intelligence Committee official later said, “Both the NSA and CIA initially pledged cooperation, and it appears now that the White House has interceded before production of documents could begin.”

Schiff had dropped the claim, at times, in his presentation to the Senate and to the press.

But in his stem-winding close last night, he mentioned the alleged Burisma hack in a way that strongly suggests that’s what NSA is withholding.

Now we just saw last week a report that Russia tried to hack, or maybe did hack, Burisma. Okay. I don’t know if they got in. I’m trying to find out. My colleagues on the Intel Committee, House and Senate, we’re trying to find out, did the Russians get in? What are the Russian plans and intentions? Well, let’s say they got in. And let’s say they start dumping documents to interfere in the next election. Let’s say they start dumping some real things they hacked from Burisma, let’s say they start dumping some fake things they didn’t hack from Burisma, but they want you to believe they did. Let’s say they start blatantly interfering in our election again, to help Donald Trump. Can you have the least bit of confidence that Donald Trump will stand up to them and protect the national interest over his own personal interest? You know you can’t.

Schiff’s speech was a planned show-stopper, climax, thus far, of the impeachment trial. It is highly unlikely Schiff included this mention, with the detail that he and both the Intelligence Committees are trying to figure out whether Burisma really got hacked, without very good reason.

But it also goes to the power of information war.

When NYT first reported that GRU had hacked Burisma, I had two thoughts.

The hackers fooled some of them into handing over their login credentials, and managed to get inside one of Burisma’s servers, Area 1 said.

“The attacks were successful,” said Oren Falkowitz, a co-founder of Area 1, who previously served at the National Security Agency. Mr. Falkowitz’s firm maintains a network of sensors on web servers around the globe — many known to be used by state-sponsored hackers — which gives the firm a front-row seat to phishing attacks, and allows them to block attacks on their customers.

“The timing of the Russian campaign mirrors the G.R.U. hacks we saw in 2016 against the D.N.C. and John Podesta,” the Clinton campaign chairman, Mr. Falkowitz said. “Once again, they are stealing email credentials, in what we can only assume is a repeat of Russian interference in the last election.”

[snip]

To steal employees’ credentials, the G.R.U. hackers directed Burisma to their fake login pages. Area 1 was able to trace the look-alike sites through a combination of internet service providers frequently used by G.R.U.’s hackers, rare web traffic patterns, and techniques that have been used in previous attacks against a slew of other victims, including the 2016 hack of the D.N.C. and a more recent Russian hack of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“The Burisma hack is a cookie-cutter G.R.U. campaign,” Mr. Falkowitz said. “Russian hackers, as sophisticated as they are, also tend to be lazy. They use what works. And in this, they were successful.”

First, this attribution is not (yet) as strong as even the first attribution that GRU had hacked the DNC, to say nothing of the 30 non-government sources for that attribution since laid out in the GRU indictment and the Mueller Report. There’s good reason to remain cautious about this attribution until we get more than one not very well established contractor attributing the hack.

But to some degree, it doesn’t matter whether GRU hacked Burisma and whether they took documents with plans to leak them during the election. Indeed, disinformation may explain why this was an easily identifiable hack, whether done by GRU or someone else. Because the news that someone appearing to be GRU targeted Burisma in early November — when it was clear Trump would be impeached for extorting Volodymyr Zelensky to get dirt on Burisma — serves a clear purpose. It adds evidence that Trump is owned by Russia and, after the Senate doesn’t vote to remove him, will demonstration that Republicans don’t much give a damn that he is owned by Russia.

To be clear: There’s abundant evidence that Russia does have leverage over Trump, and more is likely to be forthcoming.

But that’s far more valuable, for Russia, if that’s public and if the Republicans in the Senate sanction it.

And that may explain why NSA is withholding the information, if indeed that’s what they’re withholding. In the same way that the FBI went to great lengths to withhold a letter they believed to be disinformation suggesting that Loretta Lynch would fix the Hillary investigation, information that appears to add to the already abundant case that Russia is in the tank for Trump. Given the stakes, that doesn’t justify it. But at this point, GRU wouldn’t need to hack Burisma for any point — the hack itself, in the middle of the impeachment investigation, is enough to lay a marker on Donald J. Trump.

He belongs to the GRU, the hack says, whether or not he does anything affirmatively to confirm that claim. But if the NSA is withholding that detail, it would seem to confirm the point.

The Parnas Files Raise the Import of DOJ’s Failure to Connect-the-Dots on the Whistleblower Complaint

Last night, HPSCI released some of Lev Parnas’ files that were seized as part of the investigation into Rudy Giuliani and his grifters.

The most important document, for the legal impeachment case against Donald Trump, is a letter Rudy sent to Volodymyr Zelensky stating clearly that he was contacting the Ukrainian president as Trump’s personal lawyer, not a government lawyer.

Just to be precise, I represent him as a private citizen, not as President of the United States.

It makes it clear that — contrary to the Republican cover story — Rudy and Zelensky both knew they were negotiating a personal benefit for Trump, not a benefit to the US.

But the most important files showing Trump’s abuse of power are texts between Parnas and a thoroughly American grifter, Robert F. Hyde, who appears to have had people on the ground in Kyiv surveilling Marie Yovanovitch in the days before she was recalled. He not only appears to have known precisely where she was, but he seemed to suggest to Parnas that he could have her assassinated for a price. “Guess you can do anything in the Ukraine with money,” he quipped.

Viewed in isolation, these comments are (at least) a chilling indication of the lengths to which Trump supporters will go to push his conspiracies.

But viewed in light of Trump’s comment to Zelensky about Yovanovitch — “Well, she’s going to go through some things” — it suggests a direct tie between Trump and the more sordid things that Parnas was doing.

Which makes DOJ’s remarkable failure to connect the dots on the whistleblower complaint all the more damning.

As I have laid out, by August 15, top people at DOJ knew of the complaint and knew that Trump had invoked the Attorney General in his comments to Zelensky. Perhaps ten days later, DOJ got the full complaint from the whistleblower, discussing the call itself but also the larger context. Based on a claim that there was no first hand reporting in the complaint, DOJ evaluated just the MEMCON in their review of whether or not a crime was committed, not the complaint as a whole. (Not only was the claim that the whistleblower offered no first hand information false — he was in the loop on the July 18 call and July 23 and 26 meetings about withholding aid — but the complaint included concerns about withholding funding not mentioned on the call.) They quickly publicly declared that the call did not constitute a campaign finance violation, and then did not share the complaint with the FEC (which could have imposed civil penalties) and tried to prevent Congress from obtaining the complaint.

By reviewing the MEMCON instead of the full complaint, DOJ avoided doing what would be normal connect-the-dots database searches on all the names included in it, which — because the whistleblower included multiple references to and a link to this article, would have included searches on Parnas and Igor Fruman. As this table makes clear, if DOJ had done that basic connect-the-dots work they do when assessing tips, they would have found the investigation at SDNY — which Bill Barr had been briefed on when he was confirmed as AG and Jeffrey Rosen probably knew about as well.

And had DOJ tied the call to Zelensky — with its reference to potential violence targeting Yovanovitch — it would have immediately implicated Trump far more deeply in some really corrupt shit.

As if by magic, DOJ failed to do those searches, and therefore failed to obtain official notice that the President was personally involved with a grift that SDNY was close to indicting.

Impeachable Acts: What GOP Spin Can’t Change

[NB: note the byline, thanks. /~Rayne]

I wrote this in comments but in hindsight it should be shared as a post.

Nothing the GOP has said about the impeachment hearing witnesses, their testimony, the rules and circumstances, can change these facts.

Though this isn’t the word-for-word transcription of the July 25 call between Trump and Ukraine’s President Zelensky, the content not omitted or redacted in the published telephone conference memo is damning enough:

The GOP wants the public to forget that Trump asked for a favor.

The GOP wants people to forget that 18 USC 201 Bribery says no public official may demand or ask for anything of value for personal use, and Trump specifically mentions Biden during the call, making this about his personal re-election campaign.

The GOP wants people to forget that 52 USC 30121 Contributions (campaign finance) says no candidate may solicit anything of value from a foreign national.

The GOP wants people to forget Trump used his office for the purposes of campaign work — while not a Hatch Act violation, certainly an abuse of office.

The GOP wants people to forget that Trump removed former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch after assassinating her character — not merely removing her at his discretion as executive, but an unlawful retaliatory firing — also implying during the July 25 call that she would be harassed or persecuted in some way even though she had already been recalled from her position as Ambassador to Ukraine.

And the GOP wants want you to forget that Trump intimidated witnesses even as they testified before Congress, a violation of 18 USC 1512.

But facts are stubborn things and in this case, the facts before us are simple, straightforward, inescapable as presented during the hearings to date and in published government documents. Trump bribed Ukraine’s Zelensky, violated campaign finance law, tampered with witnesses, and abused his office.

We don’t even need to look at his extortion (18 USC 872) or weigh whether he committed Honest Services Fraud (18 USC 1346), or his role in obstruction of proceedings (18 USC 1505) and contempt of Congress (2 USC 192 – preventing witnesses from testifying or withholding evidence), or conspiracy to defraud the United States by agreeing to commit any of the above acts with Rudy Giuliani and/or others (18 USC 371).

Republican lawmakers, aides and strategists surveyed by CNBC’s John Harwood have uniformly treated Trump’s bribery — asking for foreign interference in our presidential elections again — as an inconvenience, some annoyance which will blow over.

None of the elected Republicans so far have been willing to live up their oath of office to defend and protect the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic. The only elected Republican to do so had to leave the GOP because he believed impeachment hearings were warranted.

Voters can’t forget this at the polls: our democracy and the Constitution are inconveniences to the Republican Party.

Volker

Kurt Volker Makes the Case that Ukraine Tampered in 2016 Election — for Trump

Kurt Volker has spent the last two hours trying to back himself out of the corner he previously put himself in by pretending that Trump didn’t demand improper investigations before he’d meet with Volodymyr Zelensky at the White House or release security assistance.

Effectively, he said that his concern was that Ukrainians would spend money to try to influence US politics.

In fact, we know that occurred.

On August 2, 2016, Trump’s campaign manager had a clandestine meeting with Konstantin Kilimnik where they discussed how Trump planned to win Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, they discussed how Manafort might help Russia carve up Ukraine to his liking, and how he might get back in the employ of two of his former Ukrainian clients — Serhiy Lyovochkin and Rinat Akhmetov — a well as Oleg Deripaska.

Eight days after that meeting, he told his bookkeeper that he expected a $2.4 million payment, from those Ukrainians, after November.

This is precisely the kind of thing Volker said might justifiably be investigated. Only, it happened on the Trump campaign, not the Hillary campaign.

Effectively, Kurt Volker just made the case that the Mueller investigation was legitimate and justified.

Trump Team’s Extortion Demands To Ukraine Started Before The April 21 Call To Zelensky

Jim here.

As we prepare for the release of the “transcript” of Donald Trump’s first phone call to Volodymyr Zelensky, it is important to put the call into perspective with events surrounding it in the overall timeline of the Ukraine events at the center of the impeachment inquiry.

Pressure on Poroshenko Administration: January-February 2019

First, it is extremely important to note that Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman began their campaign to force Ukraine to re-open their investigation into Burisma and to expand it into an investigation of Joe and Hunter Biden, along with an “investigation” of Ukraine meddling in the 2016 US election, before Zelensky was elected. On Friday, the Washington Post filled us in on more details of that effort:

Two associates of Rudolph W. Giuliani pressed the then-president of Ukraine in February to announce investigations into former vice president Joe Biden’s son and purported Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election in exchange for a state visit, and a lawyer for one of the associates said Friday that they were doing so because Giuliani — acting on President Trump’s behalf — asked them to.

The Giuliani associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, met with then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv, said Edward B. MacMahon Jr., a lawyer for Parnas. He said they were working on behalf of Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, who was operating on orders from Trump.

“There isn’t anything that Parnas did in the Ukraine relative to the Bidens or the 2016 election that he wasn’t asked to do by Giuliani, who was acting on the direction of the president,” MacMahon said.

The article goes on to note that Ukrainian prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko was also at this meeting, and that there had even been a meeting of Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman with Lutsenko in January.

As a result of this pressure, Lutsenko announced in March that he would investigate the Bidens. This opened the door for the infamous Ken Vogel hatchet job on the Bidens, published in the New York Times on May 1. Buried deep into the article, Vogel did at least grudgingly admit the previous investigation by Ukraine found nothing and that re-opening the investigation was in response to “pressure”:

The decision to reopen the investigation into Burisma was made in March by the current Ukrainian prosecutor general, who had cleared Hunter Biden’s employer more than two years ago. The announcement came in the midst of Ukraine’s contentious presidential election, and was seen in some quarters as an effort by the prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, to curry favor from the Trump administration for his boss and ally, the incumbent president, Petro O. Poroshenko.

We now know, as described above, that the pressure was applied primarily through Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman rather that through official channels. Returning to the Post article, here is how those efforts worked out:

At the time of the February meeting, Poroshenko was seeking reelection and wanting an official visit to Washington. He ultimately lost and never announced the investigations that Parnas and Fruman asked about, nor did he get the Washington visit he wanted.

The February meeting was also attended by Ukrainian general prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko, MacMahon said. Lutsenko said in March he was investigating the Bidens, only to reverse course months later.

So, although Lutsenko announced an investigation, Poroshenko never did. Clearly, to the Trump team, the announcement had to come from the top in order to win the prize of the state visit that, at least in the opinion of the Trump team, would have tipped the election to Poroshenko. However, the Lutsenko announcement apparently was sufficient for Vogel and the Times.

Zelensky Elected April 21, 2019

The election in Ukraine took place on April 21 (although there was a preliminary round with no clear winner on March 31), with Zelensky winning in a landslide, 74% to 24% for Poroshenko. Trump’s call to Zelensky took place on April 21, shortly after Zelensky was declared the winner. Kurt Volker noted the call:


So, on the surface, one would expect a transcript of the call only to reflect congratulations on being elected. Volker didn’t specifically state anything else was covered in the call, but did note the US supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity and “counter [Russian] aggression”, sentiments Trump certainly would not have put into the call or Volker’s statement about it.

Of course, since it’s Donald Trump we’re talking about here, all bets are off on what will be in whatever Trump releases, if he does release something. Recall that Trump has called for Republicans to release their own “transcripts” of committee depositions in a very thinly veiled request for doctored transcripts:


Since Trump often operates via projection, we can’t help wondering whether he plans to do some editing on this “transcript” if it is released.

Pressure on Zelensky Administration Begins in May 2019, Before Inauguration

We must also keep in mind that the pressure on Zelensky’s Administration to investigate the Bidens began well before the July 25 phone call and that the first enticement offered in this extortion was Mike Pence attending the inauguration. From the New York Times:

Not long before the Ukrainian president was inaugurated in May, an associate of Rudolph W. Giuliani’s journeyed to Kiev to deliver a warning to the country’s new leadership, a lawyer for the associate said.

The associate, Lev Parnas, told a representative of the incoming government that it had to announce an investigation into Mr. Trump’s political rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr., and his son, or else Vice President Mike Pence would not attend the swearing-in of the new president, and the United States would freeze aid, the lawyer said.

/snip/

The meeting in Kiev in May occurred after Mr. Giuliani, with Mr. Parnas’s help, had planned a trip there to urge Mr. Zelensky to pursue the investigations. Mr. Giuliani canceled his trip at the last minute, claiming he was being “set up.”

Only three people were present at the meeting: Mr. Parnas, Mr. Fruman and Serhiy Shefir, a member of the inner circle of Mr. Zelensky, then the Ukrainian president-elect. The sit-down took place at an outdoor cafe in the days before Mr. Zelensky’s May 20 inauguration, according to a person familiar with the events. The men sipped coffee and spoke in Russian, which is widely spoken in Ukraine, the person said.

Mr. Parnas’s lawyer, Joseph A. Bondy, said the message to the Ukrainians was given at the direction of Mr. Giuliani, whom Mr. Parnas believed was acting under Mr. Trump’s instruction. Mr. Giuliani said he “never authorized such a conversation.”

Note Rudy’s non-denial: he says he never authorized such a conversation, but doesn’t dispute that it took place. Also note that Zelensky did not announce an investigation and Pence did not attend the inauguration.

Although it isn’t mentioned in this article, Rudy’s sudden decision not to attend the May meeting most likely was because he suddenly feared Igor Kolomoisky. From Buzzfeed:

The 56-year-old billionaire was not just a major supporter of Zelensky’s. He owned the television channel that had broadcast the comedy shows in which the newcomer had once played the part of the president of Ukraine, which had made him a household name.

Parnas and Fruman jetted to Israel in late April to meet Kolomoisky, who was living in self-exile after the previous administration took over a bank he founded amid accusations of fraudulent loans and money laundering. (Kolomoisky has vehemently denied the allegations.)

The meeting went badly.

In an interview, Kolomoisky said he was led to believe Parnas and Fruman wanted to talk about their new export business. Instead, he said, they pushed to meet with Zelensky. “I told them I am not going to be a middleman in anybody’s meetings with Zelensky,” he said to reporters for BuzzFeed News and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. “I am not going to organize any meetings. Not for them, not for anybody else. They tried to say something like, ‘Hey, we are serious people here. Giuliani. Trump.’ They started throwing names at me.”

Kolomoisky called Parnas and Fruman “fraudsters” in an interview shortly after the meeting. Soon after, a lawyer for the two men filed a claim for damages and told police in Kiev that the oligarch had threatened their lives.

“It was a threat that we took seriously,” said Parnas.

Giuliani jumped into the dispute, denouncing Kolomoisky in tweets as a “notorious oligarch” who “must be held accountable for threats.”

So Rudy stayed behind on the May trip, sending Parnas and Fruman on their own.

Bottom Line

Even if a “transcript” from the April 21 call from Trump to Zelensky is released and contains no extortion demand from Trump for Zelensky to investigate the Bidens, such a demand was indeed delivered to a Zelensky associate less that a month later by Parnas and Fruman. The threat was then carried out when Pence did not attend Zelensky’s inauguration since no investigation was announced.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOJ fails to share the whistleblower complaint with the FEC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ellipses and the Recordings, Plural, of Joe Biden

Before I get into the NYT report on Alexander Vindman’s testimony that the White House removed damning things from the transcript of the July 25 call, I want to note something from his opening statement. At the end of his description of who he is and what he does, Vindman warned that the impeachment inquiry should carefully balance the need for disclosure against national security concerns.

Most of my interactions relate to national security issues and are therefore especially sensitive. I would urge the Committees to carefully balance the need for information against the impact that disclosure would have on our foreign policy and national security.

Then, when discussing the July 25 call, Vindman emphasized that, because the transcript is in the public record, “we are all aware of what was said.”

On July 25, 2019, the call occurred. I listened in on the call in the Situation Room with colleagues from the NSC and the office of the Vice President. As the transcript is in the public record, we are all aware of what was said.

I was concerned by the call. I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine. I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained.

Yet immediately following his statement that “we are all aware of what was said,” Vindman asserts that the call was about investigating the Bidens and Burisma. But Burisma doesn’t appear in the TELCON. It is one of the things that, according to the NYT, the White House removed — where it says “the company” in this passage — and he recommended it be put back in.

I understand and I’m knowledgeable .about the situation. Since we have won the absolute majority in our Parliament; the next prosecutor general will be 100% my person, my candidate, who will be approved, by the parliament and will start as a new prosecutor in September. He or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue. [my emphasis]

NYCSouthpaw had said once this had to be a reference to Burisma — he was absolutely correct.

According to NYT, the ellipsis in this passage of the TELCON,

Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it …

… Took out a reference to Joe Biden talking about getting Viktor Shokin fired.

The omissions, Colonel Vindman said, included Mr. Trump’s assertion that there were recordings of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. discussing Ukraine corruption,

[snip]

The rough transcript also contains ellipses at three points where Mr. Trump is speaking. Colonel Vindman told investigators that at the point of the transcript where the third set of ellipses appear, Mr. Trump said there were tapes of Mr. Biden.

Mr. Trump’s mention of tapes is an apparent reference to Mr. Biden’s comments at a January 2018 event about his effort to get Ukraine to force out its prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin. [my emphasis]

The NYT and other outlets have asserted that this is a reference to a video that Rudy Giuliani has been publicly shopping for some time, and it undoubtedly is that, at least.

But I want to suggest the possibility that it’s a reference to more.

The NYT goes to absurd lengths to make this appear as innocuous as possible, seemingly offering up the possibility that the words “the company” appeared because of a failure of the voice recognition software (though the TELCON itself notes that such a possibility would be marked by “inaudible” in the transcript).

It is not clear why some of Colonel Vindman’s changes were not made, while others he recommended were, but the decision by a White House lawyer to quickly lock down the reconstructed transcript subverted the normal process of handling such documents.

The note-takers and voice recognition software used during the July 25 call had missed Mr. Zelensky saying the word “Burisma,” but the reconstructed transcript does reference “the company,” and suggests that the Ukrainian president is aware that it is of great interest to Mr. Trump.

Which is one reason I find it notable that the NYT suggests the reference to recordings refers solely to a single publicly known recording of Biden even though both times they refer to Vindman’s testimony, they refer to tapes or recordings, plural.

The thing is, there are undoubtedly are tapes, plural, of Biden talking about firing Shokin. Indeed, in the recording in question, Biden even says that he had already gotten a commitment from Petro Poroshenko to fire Shokin.

I had gotten a commitment from Poroshenko and from Yatsenyuk that they would take action against the state prosecutor. And they didn’t.

So at the very least, there are the US versions of prior communications in which Biden would have emphasized the importance of firing Shokin. And there may well be other recordings reflecting that the ask happened, for example of Poroshenko talking to Arseniy Yatsenyuk about it. Given that getting Poroshenko to act on corruption was a key focus of Obama’s policy, it would have been a key focus of SIGINT collection. So if we had the ability to collect such conversations, we would have done so. And if we did, those recordings would still be sitting at NSA available to anyone with the need to know.

Trump would have legal access to all of that and, given his focus on Ukraine and “corruption,” an excuse to pull it up. Given that this purported concern about “corruption” is part of the official, stated policy of the US, it is not at all crazy to assume that his aides have pulled existing intercepts pertaining to past discussions of corruption and if they did, they would have, by definition, involved Joe Biden, because he was the one Obama tasked to take care of such issues.

And if there were — and if Trump’s comment reflected knowledge of that — it would explain two other details.

First, Vindman clearly doesn’t think all of the details about this call should be aired publicly. It’s certainly possible that he just didn’t want it to become public that Zelensky had parroted Trump’s demand to investigate Burisma. As I noted, by releasing the transcript, Trump has already made it clear that he succeeded in corrupting Zelensky, who ran on a platform of ending corruption. Revealing that Zelensky was literally repeating the script that Gordon Sondland had dictated for him would make that worse.

It’s also possible that whatever the other two ellipses in the TELCON hide are things he believes should remain secret. Vindman certainly would know what those ellipses hide, even if he didn’t recommend adding those details back in, and surely got asked about it yesterday.

But a national security professional like Vindman would also want to keep any details about intercepts classified. Even just the fact — not at all controversial but not something spoken of in polite company — that the US was sitting on records of Poroshenko’s resistance to dealing with corruption would be the kind of thing Vindman might want to keep secret.

Again, it may be that Vindman’s concerns about airing this dirty laundry involve nothing more than an effort to minimize the damage already done to Zelensky. But it may reflect more specific concerns about sources and methods.

And if the original transcript did reflect sources and methods, it might provide an excuse for John Eisenberg to insist it be stored on the Top Secret server. Again, his decision to do so may extend no further than a desire to cover up the President’s crime. But if the call reflected more sensitive collection, then it would need to be stored on a more secure server. That also might explain why everyone else — except the whistleblower, who wasn’t on the call — treated these details as Top Secret.

The existing TELCON does not hide that Trump was discussing right wing propaganda with Zelensky. So there would be no reason to remove Trump’s reference to another piece of right wing propaganda. But the treatment of it suggests that the TELCON as released removed classified information (the document is titled “Unclassified,” suggesting that if the TELCON included the statements reflected in the ellipses, it’d be Classified). In which case, there may be other recordings, recordings that are classified and aren’t known to every frothy right winger spouting propaganda.

For some reason, the NYT thinks Trump referred to more than one recording of Biden talking corruption. It is not at all unreasonable to imagine he knows of classified recordings.