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Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein pushed back at one of President Trump’s favorite talking points by telling lawmakers Wednesday that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation was “not a witch hunt.”

He declined to say whether Trump was wrong in making that claim.

The comment came in a House Judiciary Committee hearing on DOJ oversight, where on multiple occasions Rosenstein defended Mueller and his probe, which Rosenstein has oversight of due to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal. Republicans have amped up their efforts to cast doubt on Mueller and the DOJ writ large, as the investigation has secured charges against four Trump associates.

Earlier in the hearing, Rosenstein said that at the current time he saw no good cause for firing Mueller — a reference to DOJ regulations limiting when special counsels can be fired — as he was questioned about the scenario by Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler (D-NY)

“If you were ordered today to fire Mr. Mueller, what would do?” Nadler asked.

“As I’ve explained previously, I would follow regulations. If there were good cause, I would act. If there were no good cause, I would not,” Rosenstein said.

“And you see no good cause so far?” Nadler continued.

“Correct,” Rosenstein said.

Republicans at the hearing zeroed in on anti-Donald Trump texts that Peter Strzok — a top FBI agent who worked on the Russia probe as well as the Hillary Clinton email investigation — sent another DOJ official during the campaign. The texts were revealed as part of a Justice Department inspector general investigation into the DOJ’s handling of matters related to the presidential race, and Strzok was booted from Mueller’s team upon the texts’ discovery

Rosenstein told Nadler that Mueller acted appropriately in removing Strzok from his team.

Rosenstein batted down GOP lawmakers’ suggestions that other Mueller team attorneys’ donations to Democratic candidates amounted to an appearance of bias in the investigation.

“I’m not aware of impropriety,” Rosenstein told Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). “We do have regulations. The special counsel is subject to all the Department’s rules and subject to oversight by the Department, including the inspector general.  I’m not aware of any violation of those rules by the special counsel employees.”

Rosenstein repeatedly denied that attorneys on Mueller’s team having political opinions meant that they were biased in their investigation.

We recognize we have employees with political opinions. It’s our responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions,” Rosenstein told Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH). “I believe that Director Mueller understands that and that he is running that office appropriately, recognizing that people have political views, but ensuring those views are not in any way a factor in how they conduct themselves in office.”

Rosenstein was effusive in his praise for Mueller, telling lawmakers that it would be hard to find someone else “better qualified for this job.”

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Senate Judiciary Republicans were not eager to join a Trump attorney’s calls Tuesday that a second special counsel be appointed to investigate potential conflicts at the Justice Department.

Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley has called for a special counsel to probe the so-called “Uranium One” deal, but beyond that, the support for a second special counsel among senators charged with DOJ oversight was lukewarm at best.

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A firm that Michael Flynn once advised is denying Democrats’ claims that Flynn texted its top partner on Inauguration Day about gutting Russian sanctions connected to a Middle East nuclear power deal they’d been working on. A senior scientist at the firm released phone records that he said showed Flynn neither sent nor received any texts from the partner.

The phone records were included in a letter the scientist, Tom Cochran, sent to top House Oversight Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) on Friday that he provided to TPM Monday evening.

Cummings last week made public a whistleblower’s claim that he had seen Alex Copson, a top official at the company ACU Strategic Partners, on Inauguration Day, and that Copson touted a text he received from Flynn that day at 12:11 p.m. (The whistleblower did not see the content of the text but remembered the time stamp, according to Dems.) Copson informed the whistleblower that Flynn had told him that nuclear power project was “good to go” and that the sanctions would be “ripped up,” the whistleblower told the Democrats.

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A federal judge said Monday that Paul Manafort’s participation in the drafting of an op-ed was exactly the sort of media engagement she had banned in a gag order issued in his case, but indicated she was giving him a pass this time.

“Mr. Manafort, that order applies to you, not just your attorney,” U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson said, while deciding to vacate her request that his attorneys prove he didn’t violate the gag order.

Earlier this month, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team indicated they were withdrawing from a bail deal with Manafort due to their discovery of an op-ed, intended to run in a Ukrainian outlet, that Manafort had helped edit which defended his work in the country. Manafort has been charged with money laundering, tax evasion and failure to disclose foreign lobbying, as part of Mueller’s Russia probe. He’s pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Manafort’s attorney, Kevin Downing, continued to defend the op-ed Monday, even after the judge said that she considered Manafort’s ghostwriting of the op-ed an attempt to “circumvent” her gag order. 

It’s difficult for Manafort “to sit and watch his reputation” be “besmirched in the press,” Downing said, adding that he would like to get more advice from her on how to manage the negative media attention.

Jackson said it was not her job to give Manafort advice, but that he could come to her with individual queries about whether certain actions would violate the gag order. She noted that his attorneys had had the opportunity to object to her gag order when she first proposed it, but that they had not. “There’s a lot of negative press going on about the prosecutors,” she said, adding that Manafort’s team would accuse them of violating the gag order if they tried to counteract with a move akin to Manafort’s ghostwriting.

Manafort Inching Towards A Bail Package

With the op-ed dealt with, the judge turned to the other issues she had with the bail package his attorneys were assembling in consultation with Mueller’s team.

She raised concerns that some of the properties that Manafort is seeking to put up as bail did not have appraisals connected to them in the court filings. For at least one of them, his attorneys had submitted Zillow listings to show the property’s worth instead.

“Zillow is actually considered to be pretty accurate,” Downing said in defense of the move. The comment drew murmured laughter in the courtroom.

Jackson indicated that she would like to see appraisals or other formal confirmations of the properties’ values before approving them for bail, along with other financial details related to the proposed package.

She was also wary of Manafort’s request that he be able to travel between Florida, New York and the Washington area if he were to be released from home confinement. Jackson suggested that if his package was approved, he would still have to give pre-trial services a fair amount of warning before traveling between the three places.

Gates Waives A Conflict Issue

Another question Jackson dealt with was the potential conflict Rick Gates — the Manafort business partner who’s also been charged in the case — could face because one of his attorneys, Walter Mack, is also representing a Gates associate accused of a film fraud scheme in a separate case in New York.

Gates went through the process of waiving the conflict by answering a number of questions in front of the judge confirming he understood the potential conflict for him.

His attorneys, it appears, still have some ways to go to in hammering out details with Mueller’s team as they come up with a bond package for Gates. In the meantime, Jackson seemed annoyed with the frequent requests Gates has made to leave house arrest for various family events, beyond the general exceptions laid out in the home confinement order. She pointed specifically to his decision to sign on as a coach to one of his children’s sports teams.

Gates, she said, it appeared to her, was trying to turn his home confinement into a “home confinement unless I want to be elsewhere.”

Scheduling Update

The parties in the case agreed to put on the books a status conference on Jan. 16, when they could continue to discuss any discovery issues and begin to come up with a schedule leading into the trial.

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The extent of Paul Manafort’s alleged involvement in ghostwriting an op-ed favorable to him has become much clearer from a new court filing submitted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team Friday afternoon and emails about the op-ed provided to TPM by the man who claims to be its author: a former Ukrainian government publicist, Oleg Voloshyn.

Prosecutors are now accusing Manafort of not being forthright in his explanation to the court of an op-ed they alleged he was involved in ghost-writing, in violation of the judge’s gag order in the case.

“Manafort cannot bring himself to state that he had a role in drafting the op-ed, although that fact is established by irrefutable evidence,” prosecutors argued, referring to a court filed by Manafort’s attorney Thursday that contended he did not violate the court’s gag order. “And he does not disclose that the ostensible author of the op-ed has falsely represented to the government—and now the public—that Manafort did not write the op-ed.”

Manafort was indicted along with his protege Rick Gates in October on 12 counts including money laundering and tax fraud. They have both pleaded not guilty.

As recently as Dec. 4, according to the emails obtained by TPM, Manafort was working through a proxy with Voloshyn on an opinion piece submitted to an English-language newspaper in Ukraine—though in the emails, he is said to have “legal questions that are worrying him.”

Mueller claimed that Manafort had “parse[d” the language of the court’s gag order in order to defend his participation in the op-ed, while arguing that if Manafort thought the order was ambiguous, he could have asked for the court’s permission before participating in the drafting of the op-ed.

To establish Manafort’s involvement in the op-ed —which sought to defend his lobbying work in Ukraine — Mueller included the edits prosecutors claimed Manafort made to the draft sent to him by Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime business partner in Eastern Europe. Mueller also provided talking points said to be drafted by Gates in 2016 that “are mirrored in the op-ed piece [Manafort] substantially drafted.”

“Even taken in the light most favorable to Manafort, this conduct shows little respect for this Court and a penchant for skirting (if not breaking) rules.” Mueller said. 

Voloshyn exchanged emails several times with TPM on Thursday, primarily to complain about TPM’s characterization of his contributions to the op-ed. In particular, he objected to TPM’s observation that passages from the op-ed bore similarities to Manafort’s public defenses of himself, especially cooperation with NATO and a deal to begin denuclearizing Ukraine.

“I’ve read your piece about this story,” he wrote. “And was unpleasantly surprised to see very strange allegations that if I stipulate in my op-ed certain ideas and facts that were in this or that way earlier claimed by Manafort it allegedly looks suspicious.” Enumerating Manafort’s accomplishments, Voloshyn said they were “just factual,” which explained the similarities between his op-ed and Manafort’s public statements. “[T]here is no wonder that Paul when asked of his work in Ukraine and me writing about the same topic stress on same things.”

But on Friday evening, prosecutors filed copies of the op-ed, both its final form—as first published by TPM on Wednesday—and, crucially, in a tracked-changes version, showing the parts of the text Manafort is said to have asked to have altered himself. They do indeed reflect the points Manafort has made in defense of his lobbying in Ukraine in the past:

“HERE NEED TO ADD a couple of major reforms that [Viktor Yanukovych] brought to country in order to position Ukraine to apply for membership,” Manafort apparently  wrote. “Reforms that changed a Soviet based legal economic framework to a western one. (increase of NATO exercises/ Nuclear deal/)”

The version submitted by Voloshyn contained a new paragraph praising the Yanukovych, the Putin-friendly strongman Manafort helped bring to power, for his administration’s participation in NATO and the nuclear deal and crediting them to Paul Manafort, helpfully outlined in red in a separate document by prosecutors.

Voloshyn also shared exclusively with TPM emails dated Dec. 1 and Dec. 4 from Kilimnik, who has been described as Manafort’s “man in Kiev.” Kilimnik, who did not return a request for comment, is “assessed to have ties to a Russian intelligence service” according to prosecutors, an allegation he has denied to other news outlets.

Voloshyn strongly denied lending his byline to Manafort. “I didn’t correspond with Manafort directly at all,” he told TPM, a claim first reported by Bloomberg. “Just with Kilimnik. And it was his own initiative to forward it to Paul for review. But I hadn’t heard from him any feedback but for only phrase from Kilimnik [that] ‘Paul asked to pass you his deep gratitude for your honest position and friendly support’. No editions were intriduced [sic] by Paul.”

In the emails provided by Voloshyn, Kilimnik writes in Russian (translation by Alan Yuhas for TPM) on Dec. 1:

Take the draft with my small corrections. I caught some kind of flu, so I don’t particularly think there’s anything to add there – there’s one paragraph detailed in yellow, maybe you’ll remember what happened there. And if you finish writing, toss me plz the final version, just in case.
But in general the article’s [brilliant]. :)) I like it a lot. And the most important truth is that the truth always prevails.”

Kilimnik replied again to Voloshyn on Dec. 4, the day the Mueller probe said Manafort’s participation in the project had violated his bail.

I fixed up a couple commas… Now I’ll toss it to Paul so he can quickly glance from the perspective of legal questions that are worrying him, and immediately swing back around
Huge thanks

The next email, the same day, reads:

Paul looked it over, he’s very grateful. So let’s get it up
The latest filing Friday by prosecutors was a response to Manafort’s defense of the op-ed, which was obtained by TPM this week after they first raised concerns that Manafort was involved in its drafting. Prosecutors had initially sought to file the op-ed draft and its arguments about it under seal, but in the filing Friday said that was seeking to file those documents publicly because the op-ed was eventually published at the Ukrainian outlet it was intended for. According to prosecutors, Manafort’s attorneys “assured the government that the op-ed piece would not run.”
The editor of the Kyiv Post told Bloomberg he never intended to run the article. Kilimnik did not immediately return a request for comment. Manafort’s spokesman declined to comment.
Read the full court filing by prosecutors:

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The FBI sat down with top Trump aide Hope Hicks at least twice earlier this year to warn her that Russian operatives sought to make contact with her during the transition, the New York Times reported Friday.

The attempted contacts point to Russia’s ongoing, persistent efforts to establish channels of communications with people in President Donald Trump’s orbit.

FBI agents met with Hicks at least twice in the White House Situation Room for a “defensive briefing,” offering her names and information about the Russians who had contacted her from Russian government addresses under false pretenses, according to the Times report.

Hicks, who now serves as communications director, has not been accused of doing anything improper and reportedly requested additional meetings to better understand what Russian operatives were attempting to do. She reportedly informed White House counsel Don McGahn about her discussions with the FBI.

The Times reported that Hicks was interviewed on Thursday and Friday by investigators working for Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The young Trump adviser previously worked at the Trump Organization before joining the campaign as press secretary and ultimately becoming a senior figure in the administration.

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By Monday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team will have handed over to Paul Manafort’s and Rick Gates’ attorneys 400,000 items of evidence in its case against the two former Trump campaign officials as part of the pre-trial discovery process, according to a court document Mueller filed Friday.

The filing, ahead of a status conference slated for Monday, sheds additional light on aspects of Mueller’s investigation into Manafort and Gates. The two men were charged with tax evasion, money laundering and failure to disclose lobbying for foreign agents as part of Mueller’s larger Russia probe. They both have pleaded not guilty.

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LATE UPDATE 4:42 p.m. ET: CNN on Friday afternoon issued a major correction to a story that incorrectly stated that Donald Trump and top aides received a Sept. 4 2016 email providing them access to hacked documents released by WikiLeaks prior to their publication.

As CNN acknowledged, the email was actually sent on Sept. 14, suggesting that the sender may have simply been pointing the Trump campaign to publicly available documents, rather than providing them with early access to information that could offer them an advantage.

“We have updated our story to include the correct date, and present the proper context for the timing of email,” a statement from CNN’s PR team read.

The correction comes hours after the Washington Post published a report based on a copy of the email obtained by the newspaper’s reporters that contained the correct date. According to the Post story, the email including a link to a “(huge 678 mb) archive of files from the DNC” and a “decryption key” was sent by a man who identified himself as Michael J. Erickson, president of an aviation management company.

The email was among a trove of online communications turned over to congressional investigators by the Trump Organization, and Trump Jr. was questioned about it in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. It noted that DCLeaks.com had also publicized emails from former secretary of state Colin Powell—a development that the press had reported that day, as the Post pointed out.

It was sent to Trump Jr., an email address that Trump reportedly seldom used, Trump Organization attorney Michael Cohen, a Gmail account occasionally used by aide Hope Hicks, and several other Trump Organization employees, per the Post report.

Trump Jr.’s attorney, Alan Futerfas, condemned the reporting on the email in comments to the Post, criticizing the House Intelligence Committee for allowing details of Trump Jr.’s testimony to be publicized.

“It is profoundly disappointing that members of the House Intelligence Committee would deliberately leak a document, with the misleading suggestion that the information was not public, when they know that there is not a scintilla of evidence that Mr. Trump Jr. read or responded to the email,” Futerfas said, adding that the leak “undermines the credibility” of the probe.

Trump Jr. sent out a series of outraged tweets criticizing CNN for reporting “#fakenews” and asking for a “full retraction.”

Original Story:

Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. were emailed a decryption key and website address for documents hacked by WikiLeaks in the fall of 2016, CNN reported Friday.

Congressional investigators are seeking to determine whether the Sept. 4 email to the Trumps, which was turned over by the Trump Organization, is the latest example of entities or individuals associated with WikiLeaks trying to boost the GOP candidate’s campaign and tarnish Hillary Clinton’s.

Just three weeks after the email was sent, as previously reported, Wikileaks initiated an exchange of direct messages with Trump Jr., who occasionally responded to or acted on the messages the group sent him.

The early September message came from a man who listed his name as “Mike Erickson” and was sent to Trump Jr., his personal assistant, an email address set up for then-candidate Trump, and others at the Trump organization, according to CNN.

It reportedly suggested that recipients could have access to records associated with former Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose hacked emails were leaked 10 days later. CNN reported that a Russian front group was behind that release.

Trump Jr.’s attorney, Alan Futerfas, told CNN that the President’s eldest son did not recall receiving the message and took no action on it.

After the story’s publication, Futerfas issued a statement, reiterating that the team did “not know who Mike Erickson is” and “never responded to the email.”

Congressional investigators are still trying to determine the legitimacy of the email and the identity of the sender.

In the final months of the 2016 race, the Trump campaign openly embraced the data dumps of hacked information from Democratic officials and individuals associated with Hillary Clinton. Trump famously told a crowd at a Pennsylvania rally, “I love WikiLeaks!”

In August 2016, longtime Trump ally Roger Stone claimed he had a secret “back-channel communication” with the group.

And the head of Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that worked with the Trump campaign, reached out to WikiLeaks founded Julian Assange to offer help organizing and promoting emails deleted from Clinton’s personal email server. Assange said he rebuffed that offer.

Correction: An editing error inadvertently attributed the hacking of DNC documents to Wikileaks. We regret the error.

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The news that Donald Trump Jr. invoked attorney-client privilege Wednesday to refuse to testify about a key conversation with his father was met with confusion and some amount of mockery.

As House Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) put it, that privilege doesn’t typically protect “a discussion between father and son,” and shouldn’t stop Trump Jr. from discussing a phone call they had about negotiating the fallout from news reports over his June 2016 meeting with a Kremlin-linked attorney.

Legal experts told TPM that there are specific situations in which Trump Jr.’s invoking the privilege would be legitimate, though they noted that publicly reported information on the circumstances of the call suggests that it was not. In any event, the Republican-controlled House committee is unlikely to compel the GOP President’s son’s testimony via subpoena. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, on the other hand, will surely want to know the details of this call, and will be less sympathetic in his pursuit of that information, the experts said.

“If you’re Bob Mueller and you get an interview of Donald Trump Jr., this is going to be one of the three or four main topics in your outline. Like at the Roman numeral level,” said Andy Wright, a former White House associate counsel under President Barack Obama.

“This strategy would not work in a grand jury or special counsel investigation unless it was a valid invocation of attorney-client privilege; whereas in Congress, it’s based more on congressional will,” Wright, who is now a professor at Savannah Law School, added, noting that Trump Jr.’s refusal to talk to Congress “may be effective in a practical way even if its legally defective.”

Trump Jr.’s attorney, Alan Futerfas, did not respond to TPM’s request for comment. Trump’s White House special counsel Ty Cobb declined to comment on the record.

At issue for the Russia probe investigators is what Trump Jr. said to his father after the New York Times broke the news that Trump Jr. met with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who Trump Jr. was told had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, during a June 2016 sit-down at Trump Tower. The Washington Post reported that the President, while traveling back from the G-20 summit on July 8, 2017 on a plane full of aides, “dictated” a misleading statement released by Trump Jr about the purpose of the meeting. That statement said the meeting focused mostly on the ability of Americans to adopt Russian children.

Lawyers for both Trump and his son were on the call hammering out that response, according to the Wall Street Journal.

But the presence of attorneys alone does not validate Trump Jr.’s claim of attorney-client privilege.

Legal experts told TPM that the eldest Trump son’s legal team would need to be engaged in a common interest agreement with his father’s lawyers to openly share information; that the conversation would have to be specifically focused on obtaining legal advice rather than political crisis communications; and that no non-privileged parties could be listening in on the call.

“If Trump is talking on a plane full of people, that’s not a privileged conversation even if his attorney was there,” said Asha Rangappa, a former FBI special agent who now serves as a senior lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. “He’s not representing everyone on the plane.”

It’s not entirely clear who else was involved with this specific call. Trump Jr. has acknowledged coordinating his statement with adviser-turned-communications director Hope Hicks, who was aboard Air Force One and speaking with Trump while the statement was being drafted, according to CNN.

Former federal prosecutor Steve Miller noted that the “crime-fraud exemption” could also come into play if either attorney was providing guidance on how to conceal the true purpose of the Trump Tower meeting.

“If legal advice is being sought or legal communications exist for the purpose of furthering a fraud, then it’s not privileged,” he said.

Getting to the bottom of these questions is more likely to be a job for Mueller’s team than for Congress, given that it is at the discretion of a committee chair to decide whether to accept a privilege claim. Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX) so far appears uninterested in following up on his Democratic colleagues’ calls to subpoena Trump Jr.

“A lot of questions were asked and answered, and from my perspective all of our questions were answered,” Conaway said after the seven-hour interview wrapped.

As Rangappa put it, “I think that what was really going on with Don Jr. is that he was buying time. When he goes in to testify he’s testifying under oath so he’s getting locked into what he says. And anything he says that could later get disproven would make him liable for perjury.”

Trump Jr.’s attorney has reportedly requested more time to study whether they will ultimately voluntarily offer more facts about the father-son call. No deadline has yet been set to produce that information.

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