Sunday, March 25, 2018
Not long after being announced as additions to President Trump's legal team, Joe diGenova and Vicki Toensing have bowed out due to potential conflicts of interest, apparently connected to their representation of other clients in the Mueller probe. Politico's Darren Samuelsohn has the story here.
Thursday, March 22, 2018
Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Today in United States v. Marinello, the U.S. Supreme Court resolved a circuit split and significantly narrowed the reach of Internal Revenue Code Section 7212(a)'s Omnibus Clause, which makes it a felony to "corruptly or by force...endeavor[r] to obstruct or imped[e] the due administration of this title [the Internal Revenue Code]."
The Court held that the phrase "'due administration of [the Tax Code]' does not cover routine administrative procedures that are near-universally applied to all taxpayers, such as the ordinary processing of tax returns. Rather the clause as a whole refers to specific interference with targeted governmental tax-related proceedings, such as a particular investigation or audit."
Justice Breyer wrote the 7-2 opinion for the Court. Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, dissented.
The majority relied in part on analogous cases from its general obstruction jurisprudence, including United States v. Aguilar and Arthur Andersen v. United States. Although the focus was on the nexus required between the obstruction and a particular act of administration, the Court also stressed the rule of lenity and the need to provide fair warning to the public. This approach could be potentially relevant to any obstruction of justice case that Special Counsel Mueller may one day bring against President Trump or administration officials. Some of the theories floating around cable television about what constitutes obstruction under the federal criminal code are unusually broad and unlikely to survive rigorous analysis based on Aguilar and Arthur Andersen.
Tuesday, March 20, 2018
Lost in the shuffle of last weekend's uproar over the McCabe firing was the astonishing disclosure of yet another unredacted series of text messages between the FBI's Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. The Federalist has the story here. These messages and others had been provided to Congress previously in heavily redacted form, but Congressmen or Congressional investigators wishing to see them unredacted had to travel to DOJ.
Strzok had a pre-existing friendship with U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph "Rudy" Contreras, of the D.C. District Court. As luck would have it, Contreras was appointed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ("FISC" or "FISA Court") in May 2016. On July 25, 2016, Page texted Strzok, saying "Rudy is on the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court]! Did you know that?" Strzok responded that he did, adding "I need to get together with him." The two then discussed ways in which Strzok could run into Contreras during a social setting, as a mask for some kind of substantive discussion. Strzok texted Page that “[REDACTED] suggested a social setting with others would probably be better than a one on one meeting. I'm sorry, I'm just going to have to invite you to that dinner party.” Strzok thought he needed to "come up with some other work people cover for action.” Page replied "Why more? Six is a perfectly fine dinner party." During the exchange, Strzok expressed skepticism that such a meeting could be accomplished without forcing a recusal by Conteras, while Page assured him that the bar for recusal was a high one.
Do we even need to say how utterly repulsive it is for Strzok (a high-level FBI Supervisory Special agent) and Page (an FBI lawyer) to be seriously thinking of arranging a fake social get together in order to convey information ex parte to a sitting federal judge?
Most of the press coverage of the text exchange has focused on Judge Contreras' later recusal from the Michael Flynn criminal case. This misses the point entirely. Flynn was not even being criminally investigated in July 2016 and wasn't charged until December 2017. There is no way either Strzok or Page would know that Flynn would be charged, much less who the judge would be. This is all about the FISA Court. The FBI opened its Russian collusion case in late July 2016, right around the time that Page and Strzok were texting each other about Rudy. Strzok himself opened the case. It seems likely to me that the pair hoped Contreras would be sitting on the panel that would one day review a FISA application related to the Trump campaign. That affidavit was submitted in October 2016. Sources close to Strzok have told at least one journalist that the meeting never took place.
Monday's WSJ story (subscription required) by Del Quentin Wilber on the Strzok-Page exchanges, mentions that Contreras was appointed to the FISA Court but leads with a focus on the Flynn case and does nothing to connect any dots regarding the proximity in time between the texts and the onset of the formal (or any informal) FBI investigation. The story does not even mention the FISA Court's approval of the October 2016 FISA warrant application for Carter Page. That's not surprising given Weber's Wilber's previous softball reporting on the pair. Strzok and Page were sources for Weber's Wilber's WSJ predecessor on the DOJ beat, Devlin Barrett and it was FBI leaks to Barrett in October 2016 that led in part to the recent firing of Andrew McCabe.
Saturday, March 17, 2018
News is coming in fast and furious, since Friday night's firing of Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
First, there was McCabe's own defiant and somewhat poignant statement, seriously marred by his ludicrous suggestion that the career professionals at DOJ-OIG and FBI-OPR, appointed respectively by Obama and Mueller, were only doing Donald Trump's bidding.
Second, came President Trump's mean spirited tweet celebrating McCabe's firing.
Third out of the box? Trump Lawyer John Dowd's nutty call for Rod Rosenstein to shut down Mueller's probe. What else?
Brennan's tirade against Trump amid reports that McCabe has given notes of his conversations with Trump to Mueller. (Who hasn't done that?)
Jonathan Turley suggests here that McCabe's full statement poses potential problems for Comey, because McCabe claims that his conversation with the WSJ was authorized by Comey. This arguably contradicts Comey's sworn statement to Congress that he did not leak or authorize the leak of Clinton investigation details to the press. Turley also believes that McCabe's firing may embolden Trump to fire Mueller if McCabe, unlike Flynn, isn't prosecuted for lying to investigators. To top things off, there is the growing consensus that DOJ-FBI's original probe, taken over by Mueller after Comey's firing, was marred from its inception by the FISA affidavit's over-reliance on the Steele Dossier, made worse by the failure to disclose (to the FISA judges) that the dossier was bought and paid for by the DNC and Clinton's campaign.
Some things to keep in mind. The ends almost never justify the means. Whatever McCabe thought of Trump, he had no business leaking classified law enforcement information to a WSJ reporter in order to protect the Bureau's image surrounding its handling of the Clinton email and Clinton Foundation investigations. And of course McCabe had no right to lie about it to investigators, under oath or otherwise.
In the rush to hate Trump at all costs, care must be taken not to compromise the criminal law, investigative norms, or the Constitution. Trump may be unfit in many ways to serve as President of the United States. But he won the election. I see no substantive evidence on the public record now before us that he did so unlawfully. There is a difference between his repeated violations of decades-long institutional norms, regardless of how repulsive those violations may be, and impeachable or criminal offenses. Failure to recognize this difference, or bending the rules to get Trump, will have disastrous consequences in the long run.