Tierney Sneed

Tierney Sneed is a reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked for U.S. News and World Report. She grew up in Florida and attended Georgetown University.

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Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein refused to answer questions Wednesday about  whether President Trump had contacted him to urge an action in a pending investigation.

Rosenstein would only say that he had not “received any improper orders” from Trump.

I’m not going to be talking about particular communications I may have, which are appropriate communications with the White House,”  Rosenstein told Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.

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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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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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Paul Manafort’s attorney on Thursday pushed back on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s claim that Manafort had violated a judge’s gag order by assisting in an op-ed being written about him for a Ukrainian newspaper.

“The Special Counsel’s standard would lead to the constitutionally untenable conclusion that a defendant is not even allowed to maintain his or her innocence when such an order is entered because, by doing so, that statement might influence the public’s opinion,” the attorney, Kevin Downing, said in court filings.

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Republicans, at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday with FBI Director Christopher Wray, did not show much eagerness to defend the agency from the attacks President Trump launched against it over the weekend.

More than a few GOP lawmakers were willing to back up Trump’s claim that the bureau is in “tatters,” with one Republican calling Trump’s allegation “understandable” and another saying that Trump was only talking about “senior leadership.”

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Asked about President Trump’s tweet claiming that the FBI’s reputation was “in tatters,” FBI Director Chris Wray gave a full-throated defense of the agency Thursday, praising the “tens of thousands of agents and analysts and staff working their tails off to keep Americans safe.”

“The FBI that I see is people, decent people, committed to the highest principles of integrity and professionalism and respect,” Wray said. “The FBI that I see is respected and appreciated by our partners in federal, state and local law enforcement, in the intelligence community, by our foreign counterparts, both law enforcement and national security.”

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House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) showed no interest Wednesday in further investigating claims a whistleblower brought to the committee’s Democrats about promises former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn allegedly made to a business associate about gutting Russia sanctions that been hindering the associate’s business project.

The whistleblower’s allegations were made public in a letter Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the committee’s top Democrat, sent to Gowdy Wednesday, to which Gowdy responded with a letter Wednesday evening.

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