Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

There are so many developments in the Russia story unfolding since Friday that it is hard to keep up with all the threads. But keep an eye on this. Today House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes is threatening to hold the Department of Justice in contempt for failing to turn information over to his committee. This is tied to news that a top FBI agent was taken off the Russia probe for texting political criticisms of President Trump. But as I explained last night there is strong evidence that Nunes himself is implicated in Mike Flynn’s efforts to obstruct the Russia probe, efforts which began in the first days of the Trump Presidency and was continued by his deputies at the National Security Council after he was fired.

I note this briefly in my post last night taking stock of the Russia probe. Let me briefly recap and point you in the direction of where to find more information.

There is both circumstantial and direct evidence that immediately on taking over the National Security Council Flynn tasked his deputy, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, with reviewing what the Russia probe had found to date and surveilling it going forward. I discussed this at some length back in March. The key point: Cohen-Watnick was Senior Director of Intelligence Programs for Flynn at the NSC. That gave him substantial ability to sift through the most secret findings and data across the intelligence apparatus, including what had been discovered about Flynn’s activities during the transition.

After Flynn’s ouster, Cohen-Watnick continued this ‘review’ and eventually brought his findings to White House Counsel Donald McGahn. McGahn immediately saw the danger of what Cohen-Watnick was doing and told him to stop. He didn’t stop. He continued his snooping and went around McGahn to the more receptive Devin Nunes. This is the origin of the whole ‘unmasking’ controversy, which made such news in the spring. It is almost certainly the indirect origin of Trump’s tweeted claim that Barack Obama had wiretapped him in Trump Tower.

The salient point is that Nunes completely involved himself in this caper, even to the point of weird late night hijinks and visits to the White House. He went from his role as overseeing the intelligence community in his committee role to becoming part of an effort to obstruct an investigation.

Nunes is implicated in this. The fact that he’s still involved in the investigation in any way is a scandal in itself. Click the link to the March post above to learn more.

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On this weekend’s back and forth on who Mike Flynn lied to, who knew he’d lied and why it might matter, let’s step back for a moment. With regards to Flynn lying to the FBI we’re now looking at the narrow factual question of whether Acting Attorney General Sally Yates told White House Counsel Don McGahn that Flynn had lied to the FBI; whether McGahn told Trump; and whether Trump knew this in the intervening days before he fired Flynn when he asked James Comey to drop the investigation. We are collectively running through this chain of connections because of our semi-reasonable but likely outmoded tendency to take the various claims we’ve heard from the White House at face value: especially the claim that Flynn was fired for lying to Vice President Pence, etc.

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As we sift through the details of the Flynn court documents we inevitably see them through a distorted prism because we know 2017 as it happened rather than as the Trump team intended it to unfold. This is particularly important for the roughly three months between candidate Trump’s election victory on November 8th, 2016 and Mike Flynn’s ouster on February 13th, 2017.

We see Flynn’s covert communications with Ambassador Kislyak; we see the escalation of the FBI’s scrutiny of Flynn; we know other top Trump officials, like Jared Kushner, were meeting with Kislyak and others and also possibly trying to execute financial transactions with Russian government officials. It’s all sort of a jumble. But the logic of events only really comes into focus when we realize that there was a sort of race taking place between the Trump team’s effort to arrange a rapid rapprochement with Russia in the first weeks of January and February and a mix of the intelligence community, the national security apparatus and the press piecing together what had happened during the 2016 election. Imagine it as a starting pistol firing off on the morning of November 9th, with both teams racing to get more of their critical work done by the end of January.

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Note a few things we now know from the follow-on reporting on the Flynn plea agreement.

The senior transition official who Flynn called into to confer on his conversations and negotiations with Russian Ambassador Kislyak was KT McFarland. Flynn conferred with McFarland and McFarland conferred with a group of other senior officials which, as I noted last night on the basis of the contemporaneous pool reports, appears to have been Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway and Reince Priebus.

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The key question out of the Flynn plea agreement is the identity of the person referenced as a “senior official of the Presidential Transition Team” and another termed a “very senior member of the Presidential Transition Team”.

Here’s why this is important.

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Statement from Trump lawyer Ty Cobb …

“Today, Michael Flynn, a former National Security Advisor at the White House for 25 days during the Trump Administration, and a former Obama administration official, entered a guilty plea to a single count of making a false statement to the FBI.

“The false statements involved mirror the false statements to White House officials which resulted in his resignation in February of this year. Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn. The conclusion of this phase of the Special Counsel’s work demonstrates again that the Special Counsel is moving with all deliberate speed and clears the way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion.”

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There’s no way to know for sure. We’ll never know definitively. But this morning, before the Flynn news broke, I was thinking that President Trump’s behavior has seemed more wild and erratic in recent days. Yes, the baseline standard is pretty high. But over the last week or so we’ve seen a number of reports of Trump saying wilder things in private to associates and advisors. He seemed to be gravitating back to the kinds of transgressive behaviors and assertions he makes when he’s under threat or pressure.

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I.F. Stone famously said “All governments lie.” This may be the first time I’ve heard this maxim invoked as a defense. The initial spin from the Trumpers about the Flynn plea deal is “everyone lies!”


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