Friday, June 5, 2020

And in Trump Nemesis News

Drawing by Baulking Trams/DeviantArt.

Before he stepped down on 15 May as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee as a result of the Covid insider trading scandal, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) made an official request, side by side with the ranking member Mark Warner (D-VA), to the Trump administration, asking it to move quickly to declassify the fifth and final volume of the committee's report on Russian active measures in the 2016 presidential election—the one that finally gets down to examining the interactions and relationships between the Russian activities and the Donald Trump campaign. It's said to be over a thousand pages long.

I should say straight out that you shouldn't count on the report providing the "smoking gun" evidence for an indictment of Trump—this is a counterintelligence investigation, not a criminal investigation, so it's not what they were looking for. Though you shouldn't be sure it won't, either: it's going to have a lot of detail on Trump's personal business relations in Russia going back from who knows how long before 2013 and continuing up to after the election, when his lieutenants were still working on the Trump Tower Moscow deal; and on the not necessarily illegal collusion between Trump's agents like Manafort and Stone with Putin's agents like Deripaska, which may or may not go over the line into definitely illegal conspiracy. (I think it does, of course; as with a huge theme I've been catching up with from Emptywheel, laying out evidence that Deripaska engineered the disinformation in the Steele dossier to benefit the Trump campaign and Manafort was aware of it.)

A fascinating Twitter thread from @BlakesMustache yesterday (it's under protection right now, and you may not be able to access it—I can't access it myself—but there's the link, for the record) set forth the possibility that it's got enough damaging information to have Trump, and Barr, really freaked out, explaining a whole bunch of strange things that have been going on lately. I want to walk through some of this material (as best I can without the tweets) to see where it gets us.

First thing to understand is that the Senate hasn't been alone on this, but working in some kind of coordination at some kind of time period with the FBI, which began its own counterintelligence investigation in July 2016, and didn't stop it after the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel in May 2017, as former FBI counsel James Baker explained to Rachel Maddow at the time Mueller's report was issued two years later:

BAKER:  Well, I think the Mueller report makes clear that what they focused on were the criminal aspects of the counterintelligence investigation that was being conducted.  So when the FBI investigates something, it comes to it with all of its authority, which include counterintelligence authorities and criminal authorities and foreign intelligence collection authorities. All the authorities under law and under attorney general guidelines that the bureau has, it brings to the problem.  And certain aspects of a situation could be criminal and some might be counterintelligence. 

And so, what I think is missing in large part from the report is an analysis of the counter intelligence aspects of what it is that they found. I think it`s either in the report or in some collateral documents where they make quite clear that we`re not talking about that here.  We had embedded FBI agents with us to deal with the counterintelligence investigation and that`s some other file, some other thing that may or may not be under the report. 

MADDOW:  And in fact, in that part of the Mueller report where they describe having other FBI agents who were basically sitting in and gleaning anything that had intelligence consequences and passing them into other parts of the FBI, they explicitly say those agents weren`t part of Mueller`s investigation.  So, does that mean that Mueller didn`t do a counterintelligence investigation? 

I mean, on this question, for example, of Trump Tower Moscow, was there an FBI assessment as to whether or not that was an effort to gain leverage over that presidential campaign? 

BAKER:  I don`t think I can confirm or deny that particular thing.  But the FBI is the entity that would be empowered to deal with counterintelligence aspects of this.  Mueller is like, and he says in the report, he`s like – he was like a U.S. attorney.  So, he`s a prosecutor.  The FBI is – can investigate crimes, but it`s also part of the intelligence community and it has different authorities as a result of that under a different supervisory structure.  

And confirmed that July in the House Intelligence Committee when Rep. Raj Krishnamoorthy was interviewing Mueller:

KRISHNAMOORTHI: For example, you successfully charged former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn of lying to federal agents about this conversations with Russian officials, correct?

MUELLER: Correct.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Since it was outside the purview of your investigation your report did not address how Flynn’s false statements could pose a national security risk because the Russians knew the falsity of those statements, right?

MUELLER: I cannot get in to that, mainly because there are many elements of the FBI that are looking at different aspects of that issue.


MUELLER: Currently.

You have to watch the video: Mueller's extraordinarily alertness, head tilted, like a musician picking up his cues. I remember being impressed by it at the time, with the sense that he was saying something only Krishnamoorthi, perhaps, was able to absorb, and somehow anxious about the timing. Now we have a better idea of what it might have been.

As Mueller headed the criminal investigation on behalf of the FBI, the counterintelligence in the FBI was presumably headed by Andrew McCabe, acting director of the bureau at the time Mueller was appointed and still deputy director under Christopher Wray until his illegally rushed firing in March 2018, and Blake's Mustache supposes that Wray protected it afterwards. The Burr-Warner committee reviewed all the intelligence community reporting, obviously including the FBI's, in 2017 through 2019, and interviewed a lot of key figures, and began issuing its own reports in July 2019; I've spent some time with volumes I and II, and I can tell you that they contain a lot of very granular information that the Mueller report lacks, but they're just 67 and 85 pages respectively; I can hardly imagine the wealth of the reputed thousand pages of volume V!

McCabe's firing, and that of DNI Dan Coats in August 2019 (shortly after the appearance of Burr-Warner's volume I, look a little more sinister in this context than they originally did, when they seemed like crude retaliation for ways the two had offended Trump in the past. So is the investigation of Sen. Burr, who had some knowledge of how bad the Covid crisis was going to be while he was publicly dismissing it and sold a bunch of relevant stock shortly before its value was going to plummet; three other senators, Loeffler, Inhofe, and Feinstein made similar trades at the same time and their investigations have already been closed (Feinstein's assets are in a genuinely blind trust, but that's not true for the other two), and Barr has done something very funky with the Burr investigation—instead of putting it in charge of the office that normally handles such cases, the New York Southern District, he's assigned it to the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, or as Ankush Khardori called it at Slate,
the office that has failed virtually every high-profile assignment that it has taken over the last 15 years. That list includes the failed prosecutions of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, and current New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez. The Stevens prosecution was such a disaster that the fallout from the case played a part in the tragic suicide of a young line attorney, while the McDonnell case resulted in the Supreme Court ordering the most significant curtailing of public corruption law in decades. 
And the US attorney for the District of Columbia, Timothy Shea, who in recent months (since the early departure of his predecessor Jessie K. Liu, who got in hot water with Barr for declining to prosecute McCabe) has unexpectedly lightened its sentencing request in the Roger Stone case and made
the unprecedented and stunning decision... to file a motion to withdraw the criminal information to which Flynn already had pled guilty. The motion advanced a narrow, defense-friendly view of whether Flynn’s lies were “material” — an argument DOJ would never accept in an ordinary criminal case.
Then there was the testimony in the Senate Judiciary Committee (Lindsey Graham, chair) in which former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who in May 2017 had been unglued by the Comey firing, proposing to wear a wire in the Oval Office and speculating on invoking the 25th Amendment (he denies both but he's clearly lying), spent his time taking pot shots at Mueller
“I do not consider the investigation to be corrupt, but I certainly understand the president's frustration given the outcome,” Rosenstein told senators, referencing Mueller’s conclusions as part of his nearly two-year investigation.
and McCabe
He said Comey’s immediate replacement atop the FBI, Andrew McCabe, was “not the right person to lead” that probe.
in spite of the fact that he was personally responsible for putting them in their positions in the investigation and supervised them throughout.

Which didn't go unnoticed by Republicans, either:

As Rosenstein responded to Cruz’s questions about Horowitz and Robert Mueller’s special counsel appointment, the senator continued to blast him because “all of this was allowed to go forward under your leadership.”

“That unfortunately leads to only two possible conclusions,” Cruz said. “Either you were complicit in the wrongdoing — which I don’t believe is the case — or that your performance of your duties was grossly negligent.”

This latest in a long series of efforts to discredit Mueller and McCabe suggests a real plan, to my way of thinking, and so does the treatment of Burr—as if Barr hadn't meant to prosecute him as much as to take him away from his chairmanship—he's replaced by born-again Trump loyalist Marco Rubio, and DNI Coats, after a long crazy interregnum, by one of Devin Nunes's clowns on House Judiciary, John Ratcliffe (Republican senators rejected him as unqualified in July 2019, but changed their minds last month).

Can these maneuvers stop the report from coming out, or delay it until after the election? It's just possible that Burr and Warner had a plan of their own, hinted at in the statement they released two weeks ago:
In addition to submitting the full, classified report, and in order to help facilitate the Intelligence Community’s review, we have also submitted what we assess to be a properly redacted, unclassified version of the report, totaling nearly 1,000 pages. It is our hope that ODNI can expeditiously review these documents so that the Committee can consider, vote on, and release the report as soon as possible.
Sadly, this is where @BlakesMustache drives his argument off the rails, if I remember right, suggesting that Warner might release that redacted report without permission from the intelligence community by reading it into the Congressional Record. I'm afraid he may have taken the "unclassified" too literally—it's intended by the senators to be unclassified, but only Ratcliffe can decide whether it is or not, officially. Ratcliffe, at his confirmation hearing, "affirmed his commitment as DNI to an expeditious review of the committee's report", so at best that premonitorily unclassified report will help him get it done faster, but Warner isn't going to go rogue and do it himself.

It could be, though, that the Barr plan is a little more subtle than that—he may feel he can't escape letting it go sooner or later, and prefer to produce it relatively sooner, as he did with the Mueller report itself, or the Zelenskyy transcript, and be mostly hoping to delay it just for a month or so while he poisons the atmosphere (with which Rubio as well as Graham can no doubt help). And the Republicans in general may be underestimating how damaging the new stuff is, as they've done repeatedly of late, as in the recent unmasking kerfuffle. I'm going to hope to see them soon.

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