There were several major articles on this development last week (e.g., here), including the original announcement from Jay Sekulow’s American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which obtained the immunity agreements for Cheryl Mills and Heather Samuelson via a FOIA-based lawsuit.
I commend those articles to your perusal. It’s important to review the full details and understand that the bottom-line conclusions they lead to are valid and necessary.
The details are indispensable to validate the conclusions, but they’re probably making many readers’ eyes glaze over. So the focus here will be briefly conveying the conclusions.
The top-line conclusion to be drawn – although the ACLJ doesn’t draw it explicitly – is that the immunity arrangement for Hillary aides Cheryl Mills and Heather Samuelson appears comprehensively designed to make Hillary’s deeds “disappear,” by making the evidence of them undiscoverable at any later date.
The immunity agreements could only address the slice of evidence related to Mills and Samuelson, of course. But that was still a considerable chunk of the evidence, because their laptops had at one time contained in memory all of the more than 62,000 emails at issue in the saga of Clinton’s use of her private email server as secretary of state.
Moreover, the witness of Mills and Samuelson against Hillary, in relation to the contents of the laptops, would potentially have explosive significance, given their close integration in her daily operations while at Foggy Bottom.
The effect of the immunity agreements was to take both of those threats of exposure for Clinton off the table.
The witness of Mills and Samuelson was neutralized with one key aspect of the immunity deal (executed for each of them). That was the agreement that handing over the laptops to the FBI would buy them immunity from prosecution under multiple provisions of the federal criminal code.
Those provisions included the Espionage Act, the statute on Removal of Classified Information by Public Officers and Employees, and the statute on Records and Reports. See the ACLJ article for the Title 18 citations in each category.
The point to understand here goes beyond Mills’s and Samuelson’s immunity. What this agreement means – in conjunction with a third provision noted below – is that regardless of what was found on the laptops, no court proceeding with discoverable records would result from it, from which additional information could be drawn based on a defense mounted by Mills or Samuelson.
The second element of the immunity agreement is more remarkable. For each witness, Mills and Samuelson, the Department of Justice undertook to “dispose of” the witness’s laptop. The ACLJ quotes directly from the letters (with emphasis added by ACLJ):
As soon as the investigation is completed, and to the extent consistent with all FBI policies and applicable laws, including the Federal Records Act, the FBI will dispose of the Device and any printed or electronic materials resulting from your search.
This is the “money” part of the agreement, and would certainly lead a cynic to conclude that it’s the main point of the agreement: i.e., to leave the DOJ and FBI in control of what would happen to the evidence.
However, two other elements of the agreement are significant. The third element, mentioned above, is the limitation set on searches of each laptop. The DOJ/FBI agreed to “limit its search of Mills’ laptop to (1) only a certain method of searching; (2) only for certain email-related files; and, (3) only files created within a certain time-frame.”
That narrowed down considerably the scope of potential vulnerability for Mills and Samuelson. But the point here is not that such agreed limitations are odd in immunity agreements. They’re not.
The point is that limiting the search in such a way inevitably limits what the FBI would have in its records later; i.e., what could be discoverable from its exertions with the laptops.
That this was, in all probability, the point is evident from the fourth element of the agreement, a bizarre one that the ACLJ interprets as a blatant attempt to evade FOIA requests down the road. The DOJ explicitly put in the agreement that the FBI would not “assert custody or control” over the laptops:
In voluntarily providing the Device, Cheryl Mills does not relinquish ownership or control over the Device, except for the FBI’s limited investigative use as specified by this agreement. The FBI does not assert custody and control over the Device or its contents for any other purpose, including any requests made pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552.
As the ACLJ puts it: “in other words, the DOJ/FBI purported or attempted to agree itself out of the requirements of FOIA, so that nothing on Mills’ or Samuelson’s culling laptops would be subject to FOIA.”
Remember where I said this above? “The effect of the immunity agreements was to take both of those threats of exposure for Clinton off the table.”
Let’s add that the effect of the immunity agreements was to take both of those threats of exposure for the DOJ and FBI off the table.
We have the record of the immunity agreements for Mills and Samuelson to show that there was suspect behavior by the DOJ and FBI. But we can’t discover, at this point, what the DOJ and FBI were apparently arranging to memory-hole. Even if we figure it out by other means, we won’t have an affirmative record that the DOJ and FBI had cognizance of it.
Decide for yourselves if that is the conclusion to draw about intent. It is logically the conclusion to draw about effect.
The ‘big picture’ timeline
Now, let’s put this in the context of the timeline of 2016. The ACLJ article puts it in the context of a few other events in the Clinton probe timeline. But it is very informative to view it against the timeline of activities in Spygate as well – I would say very informative indeed.
First, let’s anchor the timeline’s scope to this point: that then-director James Comey was at the FBI weeks before these immunity deals were executed, already writing the “exoneration” of Hillary Clinton.
It has always mattered that he was doing that the same week it became clear that Donald Trump would, against all odds, become the presidential nominee of the Republican Party. The period in which this happened ran from the primary election Tuesday of 26 April 2016 to Tuesday, 3 May 2016.
Comey began circulating his memo on Clinton (for comment within the FBI) on 2 May 2016. Prior to that, after the 26 April primaries, it was all but certain that Trump would head to the Republican convention in July with a majority of delegates sewn up. (See timeline below.) The Indiana primary on 3 May confirmed it, with Trump’s remaining rivals, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, dropping out of the race.
It is likely that the urgency of exonerating Hillary – to the point of memory-holing her email adventures – increased significantly for the key actors in Spygate at the time Trump, with his unusual groundswell of support, became the obvious GOP nominee.
And based on opinion polls, Hillary looked throughout 2016 as if she would defeat Trump in the general election. Moreover, there was no one else viable as a Democratic candidate with national appeal across demographics. Clinton, even with her flaws and politically stale aspect, was an obvious necessity, particularly to fend off the unique, surging challenge of a non-traditional, non-quiescent Trump administration.
That doesn’t mean the main Spygate actors were anxious to see any other Republican elected. But, with the exception of Ted Cruz, they might not have worked quite as hard to avert the election of a different Republican in 2016. More conventionally political candidates like Jeb Bush (early on) and Marco Rubio would be easier to corral and neutralize with the tried-and-true tactics of the progressive Left from the recent past.
Seen in this light, and given other elements of the Clinton and Spygate dramas, it doesn’t look all that startling that the DOJ and FBI would make these immunity agreements. It looks like part of a larger pattern.
If the anchor point is Comey writing his exoneration memo in early May, we can start the timeline with what else Comey knew about the Hillary emails that is relevant to both her case and Spygate. The timeline below is interwoven with other events that stand out as probably related.
“Early March” 2016: A sign that the Lynch DOJ had the fix in for Hillary’s email “matter”? The FBI received “what was described as a Russian intelligence document” that “cited a supposed email describing how then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch had privately assured someone in the Clinton campaign that the email investigation would not push too deeply into the matter.” The implication here is that the Russians were reading the emails of the U.S. persons involved.
According to Comey’s statements afterward, including testimony to the Senate and a passage in his memoir as FBI director, he was concerned about this getting out and suggesting an appearance of impropriety (on Lynch’s part) to the public.
Whether that sounds bogus or not, the point is that Comey has cited it as a concern a number of times, and a reason why he decided to make his exoneration announcement on Clinton’s case on 5 July 2016.
The Washington Post article that originally presented this “revelation” said that by August 2016, the FBI had determined the Russian-source information to be “unreliable.”
But Comey’s story on it has not changed. He has not recanted citing it as a motivation for his actions.
And the echoing import of this dimension of his “Hillary” problem goes beyond Hillary’s email issue itself. If the Russians were reading DOJ emails, there would have been a host of other concerns about things that could be exposed, whenever the Russians got around to it.
“Early March” 2016, Part 2: Fusion GPS contacted law firm Perkins Coie about doing opposition research work for the Democrats in the 2016 election.
9 March 2016: NSA discovers that civilian contractors for the FBI had for some time had access to raw signals intelligence information in which the identities of U.S. persons were exposed.
In articles in 2018, I assessed that discovery to probably be related to a text message Lisa Page sent to Peter Strzok on 9 March 2016, in which she spoke of a blow-up at the FBI’s Washington Field Office. The blow-up she referred to was probably the discovery that contractors at the Field Office had had access to the raw SIGINT data.
At the same time this data exposure became known outside the FBI, in other words, the FBI had also just received information that suggested the Russians were reading the emails of DOJ officials. (If we could check, we’d probably find that NSA had the same information about what the Russians were doing. Whether it was valid or not isn’t the point; the point is that someone besides the FBI knew about it. The implications here are significant, and would take a whole separate article to lay out.)
14 March 2016: John Brennan, in a trip to Moscow, makes an unannounced visit to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB; see link above). A U.S. intelligence spokesman said afterward that the meeting was about Syria. But that doesn’t hold water.
For national-policy intelligence issues, the Russian counterpart to the CIA is the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service). The FSB is the successor to the KGB, and is not a true counterpart of the CIA in the Russian intelligence structure. For some functions, the closest U.S. counterpart to the FSB would be the FBI.
There is some FSB-CIA overlap in the realm of running spy operations abroad. The likelihood of the head of either agency visiting the other in person to discuss spy ops is extremely low, however (the fictional treatments of spy novelists notwithstanding. Conference-style meetings with general agendas are another matter). That’s especially the case regarding Syria, as things stood in 2016. Syria was not an operational theater in which the FSB would have had a prominent role for Russia. Either Russian mercenaries – embedded in ground operations with Assad’s forces – or military intelligence GRU operatives with the uniformed Russian forces in country would have been far more relevant.
In any case, Brennan would have had no reason to discuss with the FSB either national policy or the actual in-theater issues the U.S. and Russia might have had (e.g., involving interactions between CIA-sponsored forces in Syria and Russians or Russian allies’ forces). That’s not the FSB’s wheelhouse.
Bottom line: it is quite unusual for a CIA director to visit the FSB – at all. Nothing in Syria at the time provided a compelling motive for Brennan to do something so out of pattern.
Perhaps this Brennan visit was unrelated to the events of the previous week, with the exposure of highly significant online data breaches, one of them reportedly involving the Russians. But with the knowledge of hindsight, Brennan’s abrupt, unheralded visit looks on its face like a clean-up operation.
Did it have another character as well? We can ponder the other event of 14 March 2016.
14 March 2016, Part 2: Joseph Mifsud meets George Papadopoulos at Link Campus University in Rome. Papadopoulos, then a director at the London Centre for International Law Practice, had received word on 6 March that he would be a Trump campaign adviser on foreign affairs. The 14 March introduction to Mifsud was the first date to which all the interactions relevant to the initiation of “Crossfire Hurricane” in July 2016 directly, demonstrably trace.
12 April 2016: Law firm Perkins Coie hires Fusion GPS on behalf of the DNC and Hillary Clinton campaign to do opposition research on the Trump campaign.
13 April 2016: Former FBI director Robert Mueller and his former chief of staff Aaron Zebley meet in the White House complex with Stefanie Osburn, executive director of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. The purpose of this visit is unknown. The timing, however, as with so many occurrences during Spygate, is eye-catching.
26 April 2016: Trump sweeps the primaries in CT, DE, MD, PA, and RI, bringing his delegate count to 854 (with 1,237 needed to clinch the nomination). This was the first multi-state primary date on which none of his remaining opponents won a state. Talk began in earnest of Trump actually getting to Cleveland with the nomination locked up.
26 April 2016, Part 2: Joseph Mifsud and an associate masquerading as “Putin’s niece” meet with George Papadopoulos in London. Mifsud dangles bait for Papadopoulos: “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, in the form of “thousands of emails,” available from the Russians. Papadopoulos doesn’t bite.
29 April 2016: George Papadopoulos is contacted by an intermediary (a friend, Christian Cantor, at the Israeli embassy in London) to arrange a meeting with Australian diplomat Erika Thompson. Her purpose is ultimately to arrange a follow-on meeting with Australia’s High Commissioner to the UK, Alexander Downer. (This and the date for the meeting with Downer, below, are taken from Papadopoulos’s book, Deep State Target.)
2 May 2016: Comey emails his draft statement on the Hillary Clinton email investigation (i.e., the exoneration memo) to Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, FBI General Counsel James Baker, and FBI Chief of Staff James Rybicki for comment.
3 May 2016: Trump wins the IN primary, and Ted Cruz drops out.
4 May 2016: John Kasich also drops out of the GOP race. Trump is now the only remaining candidate.
6 May 2016: Andrew McCabe forwards Comey’s draft statement on the Hillary Clinton email investigation to top counterintelligence officials Peter Strzok and E.W. “Bill” Priestap, along with Jonathan Moffa, and an employee in the Office of General Counsel whose name was redacted in documents viewed by the Senate. (2 May Comey link, above.)
6 May 2016, Part 2: In London, Erika Thompson contacts George Papadopoulos to set up the social meeting with Alexander Downer.
9 May 2016: Clues from redacted congressional testimony and Strzok-Page texts put Bill Priestap, Strzok’s FBI boss, in London. It appears, based on the timing of a Peter Strzok text, that the decision for Priestap to go to London was made just before (or perhaps on) 6 May 2016. Priestap, the chief of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, is thus in London just before (and probably on) the date of the next event below.
10 May 2016: George Papadopoulos has the meeting arranged with Alexander Downer in London. Although the media have reported this event with an earlier date, Papadopoulos has it as 10 May 2016. This meeting is later reported to have involved a drunken Papadopoulos bragging to Downer about the offer Joseph Mifsud made of Russian “dirt” and “thousands of emails” involving Hillary Clinton. However, both Papadopoulos and Downer have denied an exchange taking place in such terms.
Supposedly, Downer’s information about this meeting didn’t get to the FBI until late July 2016, whereupon the FBI began the Crossfire Hurricane “investigation.”
In the interim between this meeting and June, Christopher Steele was hired by Fusion GPS to compile the dossier on Trump, and the Democratic National Committee dealt with the intrusion on its IT system attributed to the Russians. (The intrusion was discovered on 29 April 2016. However, CrowdStrike was not brought in to set to work on the problem until a week later.)
7 June 2016: Carter Page, against whom the DOJ/FBI would spend the next four months seeking FISA surveillance authority, is invited to attend the July 2016 conference in Cambridge where he would be introduced to Stefan Halper. The invitation is made by a doctoral student of Halper’s who had connections to other Spygate personalities including John Brennan and Jonathan Winer. Page, like George Papadopoulos, was a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign.
9 June 2016: The notorious meeting in Trump Tower involving Donald Trump, Jr. and the Fusion GPS-linked Russian lawyer, Natalya Veselnitskaya, takes place.
10 June 2016: A revised draft of Comey’s statement on the Hillary email investigation is produced, reflecting softened wording that appears to excuse what was originally phrased in criminal-sounding language. Peter Strzok is reported to be the official who proposed the language change. (This is the language change from calling Hillary’s actions “grossly negligent” to calling them “extremely careless.”)
Note that all of this refinement of the Comey statement exonerating Hillary took place before the interviews of key witnesses, or the inspection of the Mills and Samuelson laptops. However, there was another significant occurrence on 10 June.
10 June 2016, Part 2: Cheryl Mills and Heather Samuelson sign immunity agreements with the FBI, allowing their testimony to go forward. This occurs the same day as the revised Comey draft with softened language.
20 June 2016: The date of the first Steele dossier entry.
23 June 2016: The BREXIT vote in the UK produces a resounding win for the “leave” proposal, shocking and alarming many of the personalities who have emerged as connected to Spygate. Notably, the impetus to ensure a Hillary Clinton victory in November was undoubtedly given a big boost in urgency by the outcome of the BREXIT vote.
27 June 2016: Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch meet in Lynch’s plane on the tarmac at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport.
30 June 2016: The FBI circulates a draft of Comey’s exoneration memo on Hillary Clinton in which Hillary is referred to as emailing President Obama via her private server from the overseas territory of “sophisticated adversaries” (namely Russia, although that wasn’t specified in the draft memo. See documentation for this entry and the next one here).
30 June 2016, Part 2: Strzok and Page, in a text exchange, discuss changing the verbiage to leave out Obama’s name. (Obama’s name is, in fact, removed.)
2 July 2016: Hillary Clinton is interviewed by the FBI in the investigation of her email “matter.” This event occurs two months after Comey began drafting the statement exonerating her; three weeks after the interoffice proposal to soften the language describing her handling of her email responsibilities (“gross negligence” versus “extreme carelessness”); five days after the Lynch-Bill Clinton meeting on the tarmac; two days after Obama’s name is removed from the Comey statement; and one day after Strzok and Page appear to indicate that Lynch already knew there would be no recommendation of charges. Clinton is not put under oath, nor is her interview recorded. If there is substantive, discoverable evidence from her interview, therefore, the public doesn’t have a direct, formal indication of it.
5 July 2016: James Comey announces there will be no further investigation of Hillary Clinton and no charges brought.
5 July 2016, Part 2: According to a report by The Washington Times, the Steele dossier makes first contact with the FBI via a meeting in the UK between Christopher Steele and his longtime FBI handler Michael Gaeta.
As I wrote more than a year ago, this is not the timeline of an Obama administration just waking up to possible “intelligence” about Donald Trump – while dealing separately, and disinterestedly, with Hillary Clinton’s email drama.
This is the timeline of an Obama administration waging an active “shadow ops” campaign to shape events, in collusion, at a minimum, with the Clinton presidential campaign. The ACLJ’s new confirmations about the immunity agreements for Cheryl Mills and Heather Samuelson look very much like an effort to cover up the DOJ’s and FBI’s traces – as well as Hillary’s – as part of that push.