Tag Archives: Rosenstein

“Lawless White House” – the Mueller Report – “Oh! What A Tangled Web We Weave …”

The rest of line, you likely know, is “when first we practice to deceive.” Originally published in 1808 but completely relevant to the politics of today. The quote of a “lawless White House” is in the extraordinary book I’m about to describe.

We’ll never know the whole truth about Russian interference in the 2016 election or, most likely, many of the other crimes committed by Donald Trump and his White House/Congressional enablers. Most of the relevant documents have likely been destroyed or hidden away from the prying eyes of investigators armed with subpoenas and, one may wish, indictments. Trump and his enablers have shown they have no regard for law and will do anything to avoid being held accountable.

A bitter pill to swallow. There is, however, still much we don’t know that can be discovered despite the fact that the relevant rules favor the criminals and traitors – see, e.g., the accused is innocent until proven guilty, proceedings of the grand jury are secret, non-disclosure agreements are enforceable, attorney-client privilege and executive privilege, to name just a few.

In 2019 I read every word of and wrote extensively about the Mueller Report, with emphasis on what seemed to me the glaring shortcomings of the investigation and the conclusions reached. The links to those posts are set out at the end of this post for those who care to look back. Little did I know what was really going on. I had only the report itself and various news reports as sources.

But now we have Andrew Weissmann’s remarkable book, Where Law Ends—Inside the Mueller Investigation, published in Sept. 2020, but which I have just discovered and read compulsively. It is a barn burner in the truest sense and should be read by everyone who is genuinely interested in saving our democracy. When you are done, you will understand much better the frailties of our constitutional system and the means by which a putative dictator can undermine the separation of powers and subvert the rights we have taken for granted.

You know you’re in for a wild ride in the Introduction, where Weissmann describes AG William Barr’s 4-page letter purporting to explain and elaborate on the Mueller Report as “so many deceptions,” “deliberately worded obfuscations,” and “unbridled lies.” Weissman, after a long career in the FBI under Mueller, was put in charge of the “M Team” for the Special Counsel Investigation. The M Team was the group of lawyers, FBI agents and others who would determine what crimes had been committed, if any (obligatory qualification there) by Paul Manafort, who for a time was Donald Trump’s campaign manager, among many other roles. The other teams were the “R” (to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion by the Trump campaign with Russian bad actors) and the “600” team (to determine whether Trump had obstructed justice in violation of federal law).

Weissmann thus was in the center of the investigation, privy to most of the challenges and involved in most of the discussion of strategy and tactics as Trump’s determination to undermine the investigation at all costs became apparent.

I am only going to touch on some highlights, that I hope will induce everyone reading this to acquire and digest Weissmann’s book. A full summary would far exceed the bounds of a reasonable blog post and give away too much of the astonishing revelations.

With books like this one, there are often questions about the content and timing of publication. The Twitterverse and other commenters reacted as expected, with some questioning “why wait so long?” “why not reveal everything, including the secret grand jury evidence?” and so on. My response to those critics is (1) pre-publication review was essential to the book’s publication at any time, (2) the book is meticulously fact-oriented and replete with legal analysis (presented mainly in laymen’s’ terms) – something of this nature could not be rushed, and (3) Weissmann gained nothing personally or professionally from delay – he was and is committed to the preservation of law and would have been foolish to violate the confidentiality of grand jury proceedings.

It is also telling that, atypically of exposé books, Weissmann does not make himself the unsung hero of the tale. Quite the contrary, he admits to more than one serious error of judgment in dealing with Mueller and Mueller’s uptight top deputy (Aaron Zebley, Mueller’s former Chief of Staff at the FBI) who was brought in from Mueller’s law firm even before Weissmann was hired. Weissmann takes great pains to explain the competing considerations and why he made particular decisions, while also, appropriately in my view, assigning serious errors to people who deserved the rebukes in light of everything known at the time. Anyone who has been involved in any kind of serious investigation (I have) can surely appreciate the difficult choices confronting the leadership of the investigative teams. Nevertheless, rigid thinking and timidity in the face of threats from the subjects of the investigation led to catastrophic errors.

More important, this is a true inside account of the investigation. Weissmann, while in thrall of Mueller before, during and after the investigation/report, is unrelenting in exposing the investigation’s problems and mistakes, laying out the consequences in stark terms. Examples abound throughout the 346 pages. It reads like a good murder mystery, but you know from page one that it is real, not fiction, and all the more chilling for that.

Weissmann flatly accuses the Trump administration of unlawfully interfering with the DOJ Criminal Division in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases. Trump had always railed against the FCPA because it interfered with his ability to bribe foreign officials to get development rights he was after overseas.

James Comey comes in for particularly harsh assessment regarding his decision, shortly before the 2016 election, to disclose the discovery of additional emails on the computer of Anthony Weiner who was (inexplicably, to me) the husband of Huma Abedin, a senior aide to Hillary Clinton. Weissmann sets out the multiple options Comey had in addition to the two he claimed were the only ones open to him. Weissmann at 54.

Weissmann also endorses the critique of Comey by Deputy AG Rosenstein while noting that Rosenstein was effectively covering for Trump’s desire to remove Comey because Comey refused to drop the investigation of General Michael Flynn. Weissmann notes that Trump’s statement on the Comey firing was drafted by Trump with Stephen Miller before Rosenstein became aware of Trump’s plan to fire Comey. Thus, “The White House’s effort to pass off the Comey firing as Rosenstein’s idea was a fabrication.” Weissmann at 60. Only one of many, it would turn out.

The White House also withheld from the Special Counsel an important document pertinent to the Russian interference in 2016. Trump’s lack of concern or interest about it made for Obstruction of Justice No. 11 in the pantheon of obstruction uncovered by Mueller, or would have been uncovered. If Mueller had insisted that Trump testify under oath.  Weissmann at 61. In any case, the firing of Comey is explained and shown to be a clear case of obstruction of justice by Trump. Weissman at 64.

An entire chapter of the book is devoted to the infamous Trump Tower meeting, that was the subject of withheld information (Jared Kushner) and lies (Papadopoulos). Weismann at 86. Among the conclusions: “it was clear that the highest levels of the Russian government were trying to help Trump and damage his opponent” and “the Trump campaign was extremely receptive to this help.” Weissmann at 88.

In a second chapter entitled “The Trump Tower Cover-Up,” Weissmann notes that neither Donald Trump nor Don Jr. ever agreed to meet with the investigators voluntarily and neither was brought before the grand jury. And the parties coordinated their versions of events to, among other things, support Don Jr’s claim that he had never meet any Russian officials. Weissmann at 103. Weissmann concluded that Trump himself lied about the Trump Tower meeting, that lying was in effect a basic Trump strategy for solving problems and that he seemed to believe there were never any consequences to his doing so. Weissmann at 107. History, so far, shows that Trump’s belief in his invulnerability is justified.

That episode reveals one of the serious points of disagreement within the investigative team. Team 600 concluded that it had found no evidence, through a witness or documents, that proved the president’s motive in lying was to deceive Congress and thus he could not be found to have engaged in criminal obstruction of justice. Weissmann calls this conclusion “timorous,” which in retrospect seems an understatement at best. Weismann at 108. At 110, Weissman concludes, more precisely, that the Trump Tower meeting was “damning.”

This episode, however, was prescient for the future of the investigation as Mueller and Zebley adopted a narrow and rigid view of the mission of the Special Counsel, what the evidence showed and what was risked by being too aggressive in the investigation. See, e.g., Weissmann at 128-129. Eventually, for a time at least, Mueller realized how impactful Russian interference could be and authorized a more full-throated investigation into all aspects of Russian interference, Weissmann at 132, but the ongoing reality was that Mueller was influenced far too much by Trump’s shenanigans throughout the investigation and creation of the final report.

That observation brings me to the most important points about this book. I may have more to say about the details in a future post, but it is vital to understand the overall process and how Mueller’s and Zebley’s conservatism led to a flawed process and failed report.

The harsh and ugly truth is that the presidency, in the wrong hands, gave the subject of the investigation an unequaled power to influence the behavior of witnesses, principally in this case Paul Manafort, but others as well. One such influence is the pardon power that Trump unsubtly dangled to assure witnesses that if they remained loyal to him, even to the extent of repeatedly lying to the investigators, they would be spared any consequences. And we know that this was a situation where loyalty to Trump was indeed rewarded with pardons or commuted sentences– for Manafort, for Flynn, for Stone, for Bannon, for Papadopoulos and others. https://bit.ly/3hfx7O3

The other major influence was Trump’s ability to fire the Special Counsel and thus end the investigation. If Mueller’s fears about this were based on the idea that the Republican Party (his party) would not hold Trump to account, he would have been right to be concerned. Nevertheless, Weissmann argues, persuasively, that the impact of this concern unduly colored many of the most important judgments made in the ultimate report.

Whether or not our skepticism is warranted, the book makes very clear that these two elements: Trump’s ability to pardon wrongdoers and his power to fire the Special Counsel, when used to serve Trump’s personal interest, are matters of the most profound concern for the future of our governance.

One of the most remarkable effects of this, when combined with the relentless attacks from the right-wing “media,” was that while Ivanka Trump, for example, almost certainly had relevant information about, for example, the Trump Tower meeting, the decision was that Ivanka was not to be interviewed. Weissmann at 117-118. Don Jr similarly could have been subpoenaed after refusing to be interviewed, but this was not done either. Weissman at 118. Astonishing. Fear of being fired also impacted decisions regarding how broadly to look into Trump’s finances in search of indirect Russian contributions (the Deutsche Bank subpoenas, for example, still not fully fleshed out). Weissmann at 147-148.

It is clear that Trump’s willingness to, directly and indirectly, threaten the Special Counsel with termination had major effects on the scope and aggression of the investigation. That reality explains many of the obvious and serious defects in Mueller’s final report discussed in detail in my earlier blog posts and exposed by Weissmann’s inside knowledge.

Weissmann demonstrates a clear-eyed understanding of the extent of Donald Trump’s corruption: “One cannot plausibly deny that Trump was seeking foreign assistance from Russia and was open to accepting it if offered.” Weissmann at 126, 135, 140. He labels Trump a continuing “counterintelligence threat.” As long as he remains free and unindicted for his multiple crimes in office, Trump remains such a threat despite his lazy indifference to national security briefings that have been a daily staple in the lives of presidents for a very long time. He knows a lot that would be valuable to our adversaries. Continuing through to the end of his presidency, Trump never acted against the Russian interference that was proven to continue into the 2020 campaigns. Weissmann at 218-219, 222. The book lays out a stark and disturbing list of failures to confront the Russian interference threat. Weissmann at 224.

Similarly, Weissmann describes how Rick Gates was aggressively pressured by Paul Manafort and unnamed others to refuse cooperation to the investigation. Weissmann at 206-208. The prospect of a pardon from Trump was part of the “package” of sweeteners to keep Gates quiet. Ultimately, the pressure failed to silence Gates, but just barely.

One particularly interesting story involved Manafort ginning up attacks from Fox’s Sean Hannity against the Special Counsel investigation in violation of the trial judge’s bail orders that had permitted Manafort to remain free pending trial. The investigators correlated Manafort’s texts to Hannity with on-air smears of Mueller and staff. Aaron Zebley, however, prevented the submission of the texts to the court, saying, “they are too explosive.” Weissmann at 209.

Much of the story of the Mueller investigation reads like the script of a television drama series. Typically, parts of such plots are so over the top, so corrupt and malign that they strain credulity. Trump, however, must have studied those shows because his conduct with people like White House counsel McGahn showed a willingness to flout the law at will. Trump never believed, and likely still does not believe, that he can be held accountable. He genuinely believes he is above the law and able, as he said, “to do whatever I want.”

Skipping much material that I may cover in a future post, Weissmann’s narrative ends full circle, reviewing then-Attorney General Barr’s letter purporting to summarize the Mueller Report, but which in fact was a green light to unleash Trump’s corruption in full and unrestrained flower. It led directly to the Ukraine extortion attempt that led to Trump’s first impeachment. Weissmann at 331. And to Giuliani, Nunes, and the political forgiveness of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, that Weissmann refers to as the “gaggle of presidential defenders and conspirators.” At 332.

Weissmann surgically dissects Barr’s falsities, noting, for example, that Barr’s claim that the president had “full cooperated” with the investigation “”is not just untrue, it’s astonishingly far from the truth.” Weissmann at 333. The same for Barr’s claim that Trump had not asserted presidential privilege to withhold information.  And the same for Barr’s assertion that Trump had formed a “sincere belief” that his presidency was being undermined by the investigation, a claim whose provenance was never explained and in any case was irrelevant to the question whether Trump had obstructed justice.  Weissmann rips Barr’s claim that the Russian active measures were directed at “social discord” rather than helping Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. Lie after lie after lie.

Weissman concludes with some recommendations for ways to strengthen the Special Counsel regulations but, more importantly, disputes compellingly the DOJ policy, adhered to strictly by Mueller, that if the president could not be indicted, it was improper to accuse him of wrongdoing. Weissman at 342. A sitting president can indeed defend himself if he chooses to do so. The policy makes no sense. I addressed the no-indictment policy in a prior post on this blog.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, Weissman notes that the presidential pardon power in the Constitution should not be used to protect the president personally by, in effect, covering up the crimes of others who would, absent the pardon power, have incriminating information on the sitting president. He argues that it should be unconstitutional for a president to use the pardon power to protect himself, independent of whether that power could be used to directly pardon himself. Weissmann at 344. That seems exactly right to me, although I have some doubts that the “conservative” majority now on the Supreme Court wouldn’t just take the simple-minded approach that the words conferring the pardon authority contain no limitations and therefore are absolute. That is a view that would further cement the anti-Constitutional idea of the imperial presidency that Trump tried to impose on the country. We can see in the events of January 6, among many other examples, where that leads.

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Links to Posts re Mueller Investigation:

Mueller’s Indictment of Russia Hackers   https://bit.ly/3gQe7Xb    July 13, 2018

Mueller’s Indictment of Russia Hackers – Updated  https:://bit.ly/3h33lvl July 14, 2018

The Mueller Report – Where From Here? https://bit.ly/3gZQElm   March 24, 2019

Semi-Final Thoughts on Mueller Report https://bit.ly/3j8gVRh  March 25, 2019

Issues raised by Mueller/Barr/Rosenstein https://bit.ly/3wSPjni March 27, 2019

Redactions of Mueller Report Must Be Coded  https://bit.ly/3j8nX8q April 6, 2019

MUELLER REPORT PART I – TRUMP CANOODLING WITH RUSSIA https://bit.ly/3jeBNGr  July 9, 2019

MUELLER REPORT PART I — TRUMP CANOODLING WITH RUSSIA – A https://bit.ly/3dagOkk  July 10, 2019

MUELLER REPORT PART I – TRUMP CANOODLING WITH RUSSIA – B https://bit.ly/3zNATqe  July 10, 2019

MUELLER REPORT PART I – TRUMP CANOODLING WITH RUSSIA – C  https://bit.ly/3xTRsPI  July 11, 2019

MUELLER REPORT PART I – TRUMP CANOODLING WITH RUSSIA – D  https://bit.ly/3vUR1D9  July 11, 2019

MUELLER REPORT PART I – TRUMP CANOODLING WITH RUSSIA – E https://bit.ly/2U46bIX  July 11, 2019

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice-A   https://bit.ly/3gQAXOu   July 23, 2019

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice-B, C  https://bit.ly/3A5gf5l   July 23, 2019

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice – D    https://bit.ly/3wVcw8l   July 23, 2019

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice-E   https://bit.ly/3gRyKlW  July 23, 2019

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice – F   https://bit.ly/3gRHR61  July 23, 2019

Issues raised by Mueller/Barr/Rosenstein

The Republican Party’s simulacrum of the Keystone Kops has reached a new low point. You would have thought that with two years to plan for it, the “machine” that supports Donald Trump would have figured out a coherent way to issue the Mueller report without stirring up yet another firestorm of suspicion and uncertainty. But, no, they did it again.

We know now that about three weeks ago Mueller’s team met with Attorney General Barr and Deputy AG Rosenstein to, apparently, reveal the gist of the forthcoming report. And maybe more. Since the meeting was not revealed until after Mueller’s report was transmitted, we don’t know but, as with all meetings associated with Trump (Trump Tower, Putin, Kim Jong Un, etc.) the shroud of secrecy simply raises suspicions. It seems likely more was discussed than just a simple heads-up to what was coming because it took less than 48 hours for two more curious events to unfold: (1) a “high level official” at DOJ disclosed that Mueller’s report did not recommend or plan more indictments – Mueller was done; (2) Barr/Rosenstein produced a four-page letter in which they, after allegedly a 48-hour review of the report and supporting evidence, decided that Trump did not obstruct justice, despite Mueller’s own finding that the evidence on that issue did not exonerate the president.

Alarm bells began to ring immediately. It was no surprise that Barr, handpicked by Trump after Barr volunteered a long memo basically undermining the legitimacy of the Mueller investigation, would want to clear the president as fast as possible. Many people are saying that Barr’s mission from Day One on the AG job was to declare the president “not guilty,” one way or the other. Rosenstein had, we understand, already resigned but planned to hang around until Mueller reported, further raising suspicion that the fix was in. For his part, and in keeping with virtually everything he has done, Trump immediately declared himself completely exonerated by Mueller despite the plain words of Mueller’s report, quoted by Barr/Rosenstein, that the evidence did not exonerate him on obstruction of justice.

If you’ve been following the story, you’re familiar with most of the foregoing. Trump supporters and much of the media are, of course, declaring total victory and telling the rest of us to “move on.” To this I say “no so fast.” I list below four sources of thoughtful and professional analysis of why there are so many questions about the Mueller report and the Barr/Rosenstein scheme to rewrite it for public consumption. If you read them, you will see that these are not just partisan screeds but serious, sometimes legalistic, explorations of the situation which, in fairness to my side, deals with some of the most consequential issues in modern American history: did the president of the United States or people working with and for him conspire with a foreign power known to have interfered with the national election?

Given the overarching importance of these questions, it is not too much to ask that, given the more-than-odd way Mueller’s report has been rolled out, we pause for a bit to think deeply about what is going on here. Just as Republicans didn’t want a “rush to judgment,” despite constant demands to bring the investigation to a close, we don’t want and will not accept a rush to judgment now based on a partisan “summary” of what must be a profoundly complex and crucially important document.

Read the following as you will.

https://www.lawfareblog.com/four-principles-reading-mueller-report  

NOTE: the above link is to an article presciently written before the Mueller report was transmitted.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/24/opinion/barr-mueller-report.html

http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/03/if-trump-obstructed-justice-he-cant-be-exonerated.html?utm_source=fb

https://www.lawfareblog.com/what-make-bill-barrs-letter

 

Semi-Final Thoughts on Mueller Report

Donald Trump and his enablers are jumping around like a bucking bronco that has just thrown its rider. This is to be expected. Supporters of the president are calling for revenge against those who questioned the president’s patriotism. Also to be expected from that crowd.The Trump gang does not, of course, care a whit about propriety as long as they win. Whether they have won remains to be seen, however.

I say that for several reasons, not least of which is the stunning revelation that Mueller’s team met with the Attorney General three weeks ago and disclosed that Mueller would make no finding on the obstruction of justice issue. Small wonder, then, that Barr/Rosenstein were able to absorb the entire Mueller report and provide their own crucial conclusion on obstruction (i.e., no obstruction) that Mueller had, on the evidence, declined to make.

Speaking of wonder, one must wonder now what else transpired during that meeting. Did Mueller’s people provide the AG with some or all of the evidence accumulated during the investigation? Apparently they did, because it would otherwise be impossible for Barr/Rosenstein to arrive at the conclusion of “no obstruction” as quickly as they did after Mueller’s report was “officially delivered” on Friday. This would also explain how an as yet unnamed “high official” at DOJ knew immediately after the report was delivered that there were no further indictments forthcoming.

If this is true, why was it done? I had originally thought it most likely that the Mueller report itself was just a summary, making the Barr/Rosenstein letter to Congress a summary of a summary, in which case Barr/Rosenstein wouldn’t have cared what the evidence was. Likely they don’t care anyway, but it is difficult to understand why Mueller would have provided a briefing to Barr/Rosenstein three weeks before releasing the report. Are we to believe as well that Barr/Rosenstein did not communicate the revelation to Trump before the DOJ letter was sent to Congress? It’s possible but if it were communicated in advance, we would have a hint as to why Trump was so suddenly down with the idea of pubic disclosure of the report.

All this is somewhat speculative, of course, but Mueller did the country no favors with these maneuvers. New questions arise at every turn. I confess that I decided early on not to watch the media circus of speculation and instant analysis that the Barr/Rosenstein letter inevitably created.

The ultimate question here – what role did Trump and his associates (family as well as hired hands) play in the documented Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election – will only be settled if and when the evidence on which Mueller relied is laid out for the public to digest. How much credence did Mueller give to Trump’s own statements and conduct in light of his refusal to be interviewed? It seems that Mueller discounted Trump’s own statements (Holt interview) about why he fired James Comey. If so, why did Mueller discount that evidence on both the collusion issue and the obstruction issue? Very importantly, how did Mueller square the Trump Tower meeting and Trump’s role in lying about its purpose with the conclusion that there was no collusion?

Was the no-collusion finding based on a lack of hard evidence such that Mueller, applying a strict beyond-a-reasonable doubt standard as a jury would do, felt no crime could be charged? To what extent did Mueller use the standard of probable cause in evaluating the evidence against Trump on collusion?

I could go on with this but it is pointless unless and until the full Mueller report and the evidence on which it was based are disclosed. Given the revelation of an undisclosed meeting between Mueller and DOJ leadership weeks ago at which Mueller’s findings were disclosed, such disclosure is essential if this sordid chapter of American history is to be put to rest.

The Mueller Report – Where From Here?

It is more than curious that Attorney General Barr and Deputy AG Rosenstein were able, in a matter of hours, to conclude that the massive evidence accumulated in the Mueller investigation in fact established that Trump did not obstruct justice when the Mueller report itself, according to quotations provided by Barr/Rosenstein, found that the evidence was inconclusive and did not exonerate the president on the obstruction issue. Not only is the Barr/Rosenstein conclusion not supported by the material they did disclose, there was no explanation of why Barr/Rosenstein felt it was appropriate for them to make their exoneration statement when the issue of how much of the Mueller report will be disclosed is still unresolved. Put that on top of the statement from an unnamed but high-ranking DOJ official on Saturday that the Mueller report contained no further indictments. Why, and who, was in such a hurry to begin pumping up the “not guilty” narrative for Trump?

The foregoing suggests to me that, in addition to other high crimes and misdemeanors, Trump has succeeded in undermining the core integrity of the Department of Justice. At the same time, the media seem to have lost their minds entirely and are reporting the story as if it were written by Barr/Rosenstein on their behalf.

Unless and until, the Mueller report, and the evidence on which it was based, is disclosed, the case against Trump will remain open. The only excuses for redaction of the report and withholding the evidence involve clear national security, executive privilege and grand jury limitations. The public is entitled to know how Mueller arrived at the conclusion that events such as the Trump Tower meeting and the multitude of lies told by Trump personally and by his family and other enablers did not support a finding of collusion. The public is also entitled to a deep understanding of the basis for Mueller’s conclusion that the evidence on obstruction was inconclusive when Trump admitted to, for example, firing James Comey for a corrupt reason.

I expect that after Trump does his victory dance, claiming exoneration when the Mueller report itself found no conclusion on that issue was possible, he will take the same position on disclosure that he took with his tax returns. He first said he would release them, then refused. He said just the other day that the Mueller report should be publicly disclosed but now, on the strength solely of the Barr/Rosenstein summary, he will almost certainly reverse his position again.

The battleground will now shift entirely to Congress and perhaps the courts as the various open cases against Trump and the Trump organizations proceed. There is no reason to give up, as some people, in shock no doubt, have suggested. Making a case against a sitting president, aided by a political party that is 100 percent invested in protecting him, was always going to be hard and take a long time. Trump’s victory claim is itself based on a false representation about the Barr/Rosenstein summary of the Mueller recommendations. No surprise that he would lie about that since he has lied about so many other things.

Hopefully, this development will awaken the Democratic Party to the difficult road ahead. Already, before the issues are even remotely resolved and while the actual Mueller report is still a mystery, pundits are predicting an easy win for Trump in 2020. Were that to happen, democracy as it has been known in America for my lifetime and beyond would likely be destroyed, possibly for decades. We would then be faced again with the duty outlined in the opening words of the Declaration of Independence: “when in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands ….”

So let’s keep our wits about us and get about the business of planning and executing the political force that is necessary to fulfill not the ambitions of the plutocracy that now governs this country but the wishes and needs of the majority that voted against Trump in 2016 and can, with the right leadership and the right understanding, prevail.

Mueller’s Indictment of Russia Hackers — Updated

In the original post, I reported that paragraph 43(a) of the Mueller Russian hacking indictment stated that a “candidate for the U.S. Congress” asked for, and received, stolen emails from the Russia hackers posing as Gucifer 2.0. The information related to the candidate’s opponent.

There is related news. The Palmer Report has stated that the Congressman in question is likely to be Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL). https://bit.ly/2NPvWVX The basis for the report is that Rod Rosenstein had advised Trump in advance that the Mueller Russian hacking indictments were imminent and had identified to Trump the Congressman referred to in paragraph 43(a). Apparently concerned about the fate of the Congressman, given his involvement in using the stolen materials from the Russia hack, Trump issued a tweet out of the blue while on his overseas trip:

“Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida is one of the finest and most talented people in Congress. Strong on Crime, the Border, Illegal Immigration, the 2nd Amendment, our great Military & Vets, Matt worked tirelessly on helping to get our Massive Tax Cuts. He has my Full Endorsement!”

Why Gaetz? Palmer Report suggests it’s because Gaetz is close to Roger Stone who has admitted that he, Stone, is the unnamed Trump associate mentioned in the indictment. Prior to the disclosure of the indictments, Gaetz was all over the news for months, complaining that the Mueller investigation was biased. No wonder Trump likes him.

Back on June 14 Politico reported that Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) was among the chorus of Republicans wetting themselves (I said that, not Politico) over the Justice Department’s inspector general report about FBI agent Strozk, saying:

“It is smoking-gun evidence that the Mueller probe is built on a rotten foundation,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a freshman lawmaker on the House Judiciary Committee who has also earned Trump’s praise for his criticism of the Russia inquiry.”

https://politi.co/2uwkohy

Curiously, though, I can find no indication that Gaetz has had anything to say since the indictments were released and Trump effectively outed him. There is nothing on his official congressional website.

There is some element of speculation in all this but it is mighty curious that Trump would suddenly rush to Gaetz’s defense when no one else but Mueller/Rosenstein knew Gaetz was the Congressman mentioned in the indictment.

So, the plot thickens. And the Republican enablers of Trump’s treasonous conduct continue to berate the investigators.  None of those Republicans can answer the question: if Trump is guilty, what difference does it make that some of the investigators that collected the evidence were opposed to his presidency? Their logic is that it is only important that he’s guilty if he’s exposed by evidence collected by people who have no opinion on whether he is, or even might be, guilty. The thing is that people with no functioning minds are not very good at collecting evidence.

 

 

 

 

 

Sessions’ Testimony Evaluated – Part 4 (Last)

Readers will likely be glad this is the final installment on the Sessions testimony. We concluded the last post with the exchange in which Sessions claimed that after his recusal he simply stopped being interested in the Trump-Russia issue and received no briefings and read little or nothing substantive about it.

Under questioning by Senator Harris, Sessions repeated his fan dance regarding disclosure of his notes and other relevant documents by saying,

I will commit to reviewing the rules of the department and as and when that issue is raised to respond appropriately.

“When that issue is raised?” It had just been raised by Sen. Harris’ request for the documents. Sessions yet again gets away with saying, in effect, “when, as and if you ask for documents after the hearing, I will consider whether to provide them.” We can only hope that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller has reviewed the testimony and is demanding those documents.

In one of the highlights of the hearing, Senator Reed asked Sessions this:

… on July 7th when Mr. Comey made his first announcement about the case, you were on Fox News, and you said, first of all, director Comey is a skilled former prosecutor and then you concluded by saying essentially that it’s not his problem. It’s Hillary Clinton’s problem. Then in November, on November 6th, after Mr. Comey again made news in late October by reopening, if you will, the investigation, you said, again, on Fox News, you know, FBI director Comey did the right thing when he found new evidence. He had no choice but to report it to the American Congress where he had under oath testified the investigation was over. He had to correct that and say this investigation ongoing now. I’m sure it’s significant, or else he wouldn’t have announced that.

So, in July and November director Comey was doing exactly the right thing. You had no criticism of him. You felt that in fact he was a skilled professional prosecutor. You felt that his last statement in October was fully justified so how can you go from those statements to agreeing with Mr. Rosenstein and then asking the president or recommending that he be fired?

Once again, perhaps due to the way the hearing was structured, Sessions escaped with a statement that the problem was that Comey was obligated to advise that he had reopened the Clinton email investigation because he had, in error, gone public about the investigation initially. That may be true, at least arguably, but it doesn’t answer the question of why Sessions thought he had license to address Comey’s firing, having previously blessed both the initial disclosures by Comey as well as the follow-up announcement about reopening the investigation and recused himself from the investigation. Sessions’ inconsistency was laid bare for all to see, but he skated away without much notice with some double-talk. Here, again, the Democrats, and the country, certainly could have been helped by a more rigorous approach to the questioning.

I apologize again for this, but the following exchange between Senator McCain and Sessions bears extensive quotation because it is so revealing of the selective memory of the Attorney General:

MCCAIN: Over the last few weeks the administration has characterized your previously undisclosed meetings with Russia ambassador Kislyac as meetings you took in your official capacity as a U.S. Senator and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. As chairman of the that committee, let me ask you a few questions about that. At these meetings did you raise concerns about Russia invasion of Ukraine or annexation of Crimea?

SESSIONS: I did, Senator McCain, and I would like to follow up a little bit on that. That’s one of the meetings — that’s one of the issues that I recall explicitly. The day before my meeting with the Russian ambassador, I’d met with the Ukrainian ambassador, and I heard his concerns about Russia, and so I raised those with Mr. Kislyak, and he gave, as you can imagine, not one inch. Everything they did, the Russians had done, according to him was correct, and I remember pushing back on it, and it was a bit testy on that subject.

MCCAIN: …. Did you raise concerns about Russia’s support for President Bashar Al Assad and his campaign of indiscriminate violence against his own citizens including his use of chemical weapons?

SESSIONS: I don’t recall whether that was discussed or not.

MCCAIN: Did you raise concerns about Russia’s interference in our electoral process or interferences of the electoral processes cause of our allies?

SESSIONS: I don’t recall that being discussed….

MCCAIN: Yeah. In other words, Russia-related security issues, in your capacity as the chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, what Russia-related security issues did you hold hearings on or otherwise demonstrate a keen interest in?

SESSIONS: We may have discussed that. I just don’t have a real recall of the meeting. I may, I was not making a report about it to anyone. I just was basically willing to meet and see what he discussed.

MCCAIN: And his response was?

SESSIONS: I don’t recall. [all emphases added]

I will just leave that one there.

Chairman Burr ended the hearing with the usual fawning all over the witness for his years of sacrificial service to the country. He then asked Sessions to “work with the White House” to “see if there are any areas of questions that they feel comfortable with you answering and if they do, that you provide those answers in writing to the committee.”

The hearing was held June 13, almost a month ago. There has been no follow-up indication that Sessions has acted on that request and no indication that the Intelligence Committee has pursued him about it.

My overall conclusion about Sessions’ testimony is that he was repeatedly allowed to escape answering hard questions, due largely to ineffective examination by senators who seem either ill-equipped or poorly prepared to go toe-to-toe with a skilled attorney intent upon avoiding political or personal damage arising from his potential complicity in the Trump-Russia collusion scandal. The hearing may yet provide some fodder for Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation but nonetheless a real missed opportunity.

Sessions’ Testimony Evaluated – Part 1

Given the speed with which events overrun, and overwrite, memories, I am going to devote a lot of words to the testimony of Jefferson B. Sessions III, attorney general of the United States, before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on June 13, 2017. This analysis is based on the transcript of the hearing published at http://politi.co/2rtgQJf with correction of obvious typos. A full evaluation is going to require multiple posts, so please bear with me. I think this worth doing because of the gravity of the issues raised.

Note at the outset one unusual feature of the hearing that distinguishes it from normal investigative legal work: both Chairman Burr and Vice Chair Warner go on at some length to detail the areas of inquiry, including specific questions they intend to ask the witness. This is part of the politesse of the political process that deters the kind of relentless interrogation that true investigative work involves. This was well illustrated when Senator McCain leapt into action to alert the Chairman that Senator Kamala Harris was being too aggressive in her very lawyer-like cross-examination of Sessions about the nature of his preparation, or lack of it, for testifying.

Also of special interest was Warner’s commendation of the Chairman about his remark at the end of the Comey hearing the week before that, given the “pattern of administration officials refusing to answer public, unclassified questions about allegations about the president in this investigation,” it was “not acceptable for [witnesses] to come forward without answers.” Later, Sessions would refuse to answer multiple questions on the grounds that the President should be given a prior opportunity to invoke Executive Privilege regarding answers to questions involving conversations with him and any member of the Cabinet and, likely, any member of White House staff.

Sessions’ opening remarks asserted that he did not remember what would in all events have been a casual contact with Russian Ambassador, and known Russian spy, Sergey Kislyak because they were both invited to Trump’s first foreign policy speech preceded by a private reception for perhaps two dozen people. This description is not implausible in the context of Washington political processes, but the question, not asked by any Committee member, was why was the Russian Ambassador invited in the first place to this small private and exclusive gathering that was attended by Trump himself, however briefly?

Sessions then undertook to address his response to Senator Franken during the AG’s confirmation hearing. The exact question posed, after a short recital of current press reports, was

if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”

Sessions never answered that question. Instead, he said:

Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.

During his Intelligence Committee testimony, Sessions entered a sweeping denial of any discussions with anyone about campaign interference, and a flat denial of knowledge of such conversations by anyone else in the Trump campaign organization. This he remembered quite clearly. Then, referring to Senator Franken’s question about then-current press reports, Sessions said:

That was the context in which I was asked the question and in this that context my answer was a fair and correct response to the charge as I understood it. I was responding to the allegation that surrogates had been meeting with Russians on a regular basis. It simply did not occur to me to go further than the context and to list any conversations that I may have had with Russians in routine situations as I had many routine meetings with other foreign officials.

On its face this is not a completely implausible explanation. However, there are other relevant facts that raise questions about plausibility.

Sessions was sworn in as Attorney General on February 9. His testimony maintained that until his formal recusal on March 2, a period of three full weeks, he received no information or briefings related to the Russia investigation other than discussions related to press reports that might bear on the need to recuse himself.

But, most curiously, Sessions expressly denied that his recusal had anything to do with possible campaign wrongdoing. Instead, he claimed his recusal was based entirely on a federal regulation, 28 CFR § 45.2, that forbids a DOJ employee from participating in a criminal investigation of an organization if the employee had a personal relationship with the target. A waiver is possible if the employee’s superior makes certain findings but there was no chance of a legitimate waiver for Sessions who stated he believed the regulation “required” his recusal. Sessions then declared that such a recusal could nevertheless not be allowed to stop him from running the Department of Justice and, therefore, he acted properly in presenting to the President

my concerns and those of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about the ongoing leadership issues at the FBI as stated in my letter recommending the removal of Mr. Comey along with the Deputy Attorney General’s memorandum on that issue…. Those represent a clear statement of my views. I adopted Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein’s points he made in his memorandum and made my recommendation. It is absurd, frankly, to suggest that a recusal from a single specific investigation would render the attorney general unable to manage the leadership of the various Department of Justice law enforcement components that conduct thousands of investigations.

This statement raises more fundamental questions that were never addressed by the Committee.

First, if, as Sessions claims, the recusal was based solely on the “campaign relationship” issue covered by the regulations, why did it take three full weeks for him to recuse himself? The governing regulation is only a few paragraphs and is very explicit. The President was reportedly furious about Sessions’ recusal and tweeted about it. What went on during that three weeks?

Second, whatever the asserted reason for the recusal was, if the recusal was from the Russia investigation, defined as the question whether there were inappropriate/unlawful contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians, being led by FBI Director Comey, how can Sessions, in the guise of managing the Department of Justice, justify recommending the firing of the person heading the investigation? Sessions appears to believe that he is free to do anything he chooses in the Russia investigation because his recusal was based on something other than his interactions with “representatives” of the Russian government. It is difficult to imagine a court accepting such twisted reasoning which effectively vitiates the recusal as regards anything related to the Trump-Russia investigation.

This concludes consideration of Sessions’ direct testimony. In the next installment, I will take up the questioning by the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Trump Lawyers Up As Obfuscation Engulfs White House

CNN reported on March 7 that Trump White House lawyers up. http://cnn.it/2qZYxvJ. The story was that the White House had retained 26 attorneys on the White House legal staff, an increase of four over President Obama’s legal team at the outset of his administration. There was nothing particularly striking about the report, given the breadth of Trump’s conflicts of interest and the complications encountered with his Muslim ban and other allegedly urgent needs to man up and fulfill his campaign promises. Moreover, the White House is engaged in untold complex problems that implicate serious legal issues, often at the border of known practice or precedent so having some rational thinkers close by for consultation is not a bad arrangement.

However, more recently Trump has lawyered up again. It is unclear who is paying for the new counsel, but according to Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Trump: “obviously, was aware of Senator Graham’s suggestion [that Trump’s business relationship with Russia be investigated] after he made it today and he’s fine with that. He has no business in Russia. He has no connections to Russia. So he welcomes that,” Spicer said.” In fact, he is [sic]already charged a leading law firm in Washington, D.C., to send a certified letter to Senator Graham to that point that he has no connections to Russia,” Spicer said.”

Several points of interest arise from that statement. Spicer is flatly parroting the Trump mantra that he is free of Russian entanglements of any kind. If nothing else, Spicer is a loyal soldier following orders. However, his statements of “fact” regarding Trump’s business connections with Russia are contradicted by earlier well-circulated statements by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and alter ego in the Trump business empire.

Moreover, it is not clear why anyone should conclude that a hired law firm’s “certified” letter will settle the question of Trump’s involvement with Russia. The “certified” refers only to a service offered by the U.S. Postal Service; it does not add credibility or probative force to the contents of the communication. And the law firm’s affirmation of Trump’s Russia connections, or lack of them, cannot possibly be regarded as a substitute for an independent investigation of the question whether such connections exist. Even if the law firm were to conduct a massive and thorough “investigation,” it would necessarily be relying on Trump and his associates’ version of the truth and could not possibly have access to all the documents being reviewed by the relevant congressional investigating committees, not to mention the FBI’s independent investigation. Given Trump’s relentless history of lying about matters big and small, there is little joy to be found in a law firm’s sign off on anything he says, especially when he is paying the firm (or has misdirected public funds to pay the firm).

Oh, one other thing, the fact that the unnamed law firm is “leading,” per Spicer’s description, will impress no one. There are more “leading” law firms in Washington alone than there are Starbucks stores.

That brings us to the firing of James Comey as Director of the FBI. The facts on this sordid episode are not all in yet, but we are told that in the days before he was fired, Comey had sought subpoenas from the Eastern District Court in Virginia for documents related to now-fired Michael Flynn, thereby indicating an apparent escalation in the seriousness and breadth of the FBI investigation into election meddling by Trump and/or his associates. Moreover, Comey had reportedly just asked for more resources to carry out the investigation from the same person who supposedly recommended on his own initiative that Comey be fired. The FBI refused to comment on that point, but, according to the New York Times, “Sarah Isgur Flores, the Justice Department spokeswoman, said “the idea that he asked for more funding” for the Russia investigation was “totally false.” She did not elaborate.” http://nyti.ms/2pkwBWL.

Beyond those curious circumstances, we have the actual documents that executed the dismissal of Comey.

The opening line of the dismissal letter states that the President has “received the attached letters … recommending your dismissal,” as if the letters were a surprise that was slipped under the door of the Oval Office while the President was watching TV. The second paragraph states the President’s concurrence in the judgment of the Department of Justice, again implying that DOJ came up with all this on its own and that Trump is simply acceding to their recommendations.

But most remarkable, perhaps, is this bizarre statement:

“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.” [emphasis added]

At the very same moment he is firing the Director for misconduct in office, Trump tries to borrow from whatever may remain of Comey’s credibility by saying, in effect, “look, he said I wasn’t guilty so I’m not guilty!” Can anyone not hallucinating believe that the insertion of the gratuitous claim that Comey had thrice absolved Trump of suspicion was inserted for any reason other than the guild the lily of Trump’s denials of involvement?

Beyond that, the inclusion of the claim that Comey in effect gave Trump a clean bill of health in the Russia investigation raises many questions that must be answered, under oath. One is, when exactly, and under what circumstances, did the Director of the FBI give such personal assurances to the President, if in fact he did? Comey is now in the position of an attorney whose client has publicly claimed the attorney gave unethical advice or otherwise violated the law in connection with his representation. The attorney must be allowed to defend himself and so must Comey. He should be called very quickly as a public witness by the relevant congressional committees to explain whether he did what Trump claims or whether Trump, in keeping with past practice, is flat out lying.

Now we come to the recommendation from Attorney General Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions III in which he recites his great dedication to “discipline, integrity, and the rule of law.” That, notwithstanding that he had previously recused himself, for lying to Congress about his own contacts with Russian operatives, from the investigation Comey was leading into the Trump-Russia connections. Apparently his having recused himself regarding the investigation was not seen as an obstacle to his participation in dismissing the leader of that investigation. This screams out for explanation. Was the recusal a head-fake to thwart an investigation into Sessions’ lies about his meetings with Russia operatives? Surely someone at the Justice Department remembered his recusal. You would think an explanation of his participation in the dismissal would have been offered by now. The total arrogance of these people is palpable.

Finally, there is the recommendation memorandum, also dated May 9, 2017, from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, to whom Comey reported and who had been on the job about two weeks. It must have been a busy day at the White House and DOJ for all these letters bearing the same date, May 9, 2017, to have been produced.

The document begins by praising Comey’s skills as a speaker and that “he deserves our appreciation for his public service.” The letter then acknowledges that Rosenstein and Sessions have discussed Comey’s handling of the “conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails” and states Rosenstein’s inability to understand Comey’s refusal to “accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken. Almost everyone agrees that the Director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives.”

The Memorandum then recites the errors made by Comey that in Rosenstein’s view usurped the authority of the Attorney General (then Loretta Lynch): (1) announcing Comey’s conclusion that the case against Clinton was being closed without prosecution, and (2) holding a press conference to “gratuitously” release “derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation,” and (3) using inappropriate words, like “conceal” in a subsequent letter to Congress.

The press conference to which Rosenstein objects occurred on July 5, 2016, just over nine months before Comey’s dismissal without notice or opportunity to address the charges against him. The letter to Congress was sent on October 28, 2016, before the 2016 election and just under three months before Trump’s inauguration. And until May 9, 2017, Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation and his public disclosures met with Trump’s enthusiastic approval. Perhaps in an attempt to counter the effect of those facts, Rosenstein’s memorandum recites excerpts of letters from seven former Attorneys General, Deputy Attorneys General and other unnamed Justice Department officials who concur in the condemnation of Comey’s actions, leading to the conclusion that “Having refused to admit his errors, the Director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions.”

More questions arise. When were these letters from former DOJ leaders written? No dates are given. How were they solicited? By whom? Are we to believe they were just lying around waiting for some enterprising Attorney General to cite them as authority for dismissing Comey? White House Deputy Press Secretary Sanders has stated that Trump was considering firing Comey as early as January 21 but her explanation for the delay is a mish-mash of incoherent blather.

To be clear, and in conclusion, I am not arguing that Comey’s conduct in 2016 was correct. I strongly believe he inappropriately influenced the 2016 election and helped elect Donald Trump. Trump rewarded that help by firing him because Comey was showing a frightening (to Trump) independence in pursuing the Trump-Russia connection, an independence for which Comey had a reputation. Trump views loyalty as the most important trait and Comey, in Trump’s eyes, now looked like a traitor. So, “you’re fired!”

But this is not reality TV. Trump has doubled down on thwarting the Russia investigation. He is so arrogant that today, less than 24 hours after firing Comey, Trump met at the White House with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak while excluding U.S. press.

The firing of Comey is, in my judgment, a non-survivable mistake that should, by itself, lead to Trump’s impeachment. It may take a while, but there is no way this interference can be tolerated in a democratic society. The issue is not whether Comey handled the Clinton investigation correctly or who objected or applauded at the time. The question is whether a sitting president can be permitted to directly interfere with an investigation of serious impropriety through the intervention of a hostile foreign power in the manner of his election. The answer must be ‘NO.’

Trump better get some more lawyers. He’s going to need them.