Let's start with the good news: despite being an early skeptic on the need for a special prosecutor to investigate possible collusion between Russian entities and President Donald Trump's campaign, Senator Chuck Grassley told CNN's Manu Raju today, "The president should let the special counsel do his job."
Commenting further on Robert Mueller's first indictments, Grassley said in a written statement that "it’s important to let our legal system run its course," and that the "Judiciary Committee is continuing its work to ensure that the Justice Department and FBI are functioning free from inappropriate influence [...]." As chair of that Committee, Grassley is better-placed than most Republicans to let the White House know Congress will not tolerate efforts to obstruct justice by firing Mueller before his investigation is complete.
The rest of Grassley's news release focused on a small part of Mueller's case against Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his longtime business partner Rick Gates. Seizing on that angle--failure by Manafort and Gates to register as foreign agents--allowed the senator to highlight his longstanding concerns about similar lawbreaking by Democratic consultants and lobbyists. Today's statement continued Grassley's pattern of focusing his investigative energy on "tangential subjects," in an apparent effort "to minimize the culpability of Trump and his aides and to deflect attention from the core issues of the controversy."
Grassley did not address a newly-disclosed guilty plea by a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser. The government's "Statement of the Offense" charging George Papadopoulos with lying to the FBI, filed on October 5 but released today, lays out a damning timeline of attempts to connect Trump representatives with Russian officials. That document also indicates that Papadopoulos has been cooperating with investigators, who know more than what has been made public so far.
Here's the news release from earlier this afternoon (emphasis in original):
Grassley Statement on Indictments Filed by Special Counsel’s Office
WASHINGTON – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley today made the following statement regarding federal criminal charges filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller:
“As always, it’s important to let our legal system run its course. While we don’t have any more information regarding the current status of the special counsel’s investigation other than what has already been made public, it’s good to see the Justice Department taking seriously its responsibility to enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act. I’ve been raising concerns about lackluster enforcement of this foreign influence disclosure law for years now, regardless of administration or political party. It should be enforced fairly and consistently, regardless of politics or any other factor. The dirty little secret is that lots of people across the political spectrum in Washington have skirted their FARA registration obligations for years with little to no accountability. I’ve been working on legislation to improve the Justice Department’s enforcement of FARA, and expect to introduce it very soon.
“The Judiciary Committee is continuing its work to ensure that the Justice Department and FBI are functioning free from inappropriate influence, consistent with our constitutional oversight responsibility,” Grassley said.
Foreign Agents Registration Act
Several charges in the Special Counsel’s indictment stem from the alleged failures of Paul Manafort and Richard Gates to register as agents of a foreign principle working to influence U.S. government activities. Such registration is required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
Grassley first raised concerns about FARA enforcement in 2015 and held an oversight hearing on FARA enforcement in July. In April, Grassley questioned the Justice Department about potential FARA violations by Manafort and Gates as well as by Mercury L.L.C. and the Podesta Group, which lobbied on behalf of the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, the organization referenced in the special counsel indictment. The European Centre for a Modern Ukraine was essentially a front for the Ukrainian government as well as the Ukrainian Party of Regions.
Grassley has also questioned the Justice Department about possible FARA violations by Clinton confidantes Sydney [sic] Blumenthal and John Kornblum for their reported work on behalf of a political party in the nation of Georgia, Fusion GPS and various individuals working to undermine the Magnitsky Act, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s retroactive registration under FARA and Democratic National Committee consultant Alexandra Chalupa’s reported work with Ukrainian officials to undermine the Trump Campaign.
I'm all for better enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. That said, counts 10 and 11 of were hardly the headline news from today's 12-count indictment, and "possible FARA violations by Clinton confidantes" aren't on the same level as the alleged criminal activity by Manafort and Gates.
Mueller's team uncovered copious evidence of money laundering, tax evasion, failure to report foreign bank accounts, and making false statements to investigators. Most of today's news coverage of the indictments focused on those alleged crimes.
Manafort and Gates turned themselves in to the FBI this morning and pled not guilty to all charges this afternoon. If convicted, they could be sentenced to many years in prison for the money laundering alone.
But ominously, Mueller's team revealed today that Papadopoulos pled guilty a few weeks ago to making false statements to the FBI. This fourteen-page document contains a lot of previously unreported information, though Tom Hamburger, Carol D. Leonnig and Rosalind S. Helderman covered part of the Papdopoulos story in an August 13 article for the Washington Post.
Investigators have e-mail correspondence showing Papadopoulos served as intermediary for a Russian with Kremlin ties who offered "dirt" on Hillary Clinton. Papadopoulos repeatedly tried to arrange a trip to Russia by Trump or others representing the campaign, making clear that his Russian contact could set up meetings at the Foreign Ministry in Moscow.
The government's statement doesn't name the others with whom Papadopoulos corresponded, but the Washington Post story suggests Iowa's own Sam Clovis is the unnamed "Campaign Supervisor" said to be "running point" on these contacts. The same story indicates that Manafort is the "High-Ranking Campaign Official" who forwarded one of the Papadopoulos e-mails to Gates, ""Let[']s discuss. We need someone to communicate that DT [Donald Trump] is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal." UPDATE/CORRECTION: Corey Lewandowski was the "high-ranking campaign official" in earlier correspondence with Papadopoulos. Manafort later received a similar e-mail and forwarded it to Gates.
Michael Isikoff's reporting independently confirmed that Clovis was the unnamed "supervisor" who said "Great work" after Papadopoulos described a meeting with several foreigners hoping "to arrange a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss U.S.-Russia ties under President Trump."
Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti explained in a couple of detailed Twitter threads that Papadopoulos has surely "flipped" and is cooperating with Mueller's team to give evidence against others higher up the food chain. Today White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissed Papadopoulos as a "low-level volunteer" for the campaign, but low-level volunteers don't correspond with top staff or sit for a photo-op with the president and senior advisers like then-Senator Jeff Sessions.
Surprisingly, Gates was represented by a public defender today. I assumed he had some other steady source of income, since he "essentially functioned as the Trump campaign manager for more than two months, all while not collecting a paycheck," according to this Reuters report by Michelle Conlin and Grant Smith last September. If Gates can't afford an experienced white-collar criminal defense attorney, he may be more likely to accept a deal prosecutors offer in exchange for his testimony against others who worked for the Trump campaign.
Getting back to Grassley: his call for the president to "let the special counsel do his job" is welcome. Trump needs to know he can't fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (with a view to dumping Mueller) and count on the Senate Judiciary to quickly confirm a successor. Considering Grassley's many attempts to make excuses for Trump and create a "counter-narrative to the Trump-Russia storyline" that benefits the White House, I'm grateful for any sign he supports the Mueller investigation.
An even stronger warning against interfering with the special prosecutor's probe would be welcome.
I'll update this post as needed with more Iowa reaction to today's news. Senator Joni Ernst declined to comment on the indictments this morning. I haven't seen any public statements from Representatives Rod Blum (IA-01), David Young (IA-03), or Steve King (IA-04). King recently told Politico some House Republicans won't vote "for an open-ended appropriation into a Mueller witch hunt." He spent part of this weekend hosting Donald Trump, Jr. on King's annual pheasant hunt campaign event.
P.S.- To my knowledge, the Senate Agriculture Committee has not scheduled a confirmation hearing for Clovis, whom Trump appointed to a USDA undersecretary position. That nomination was already controversial, since Clovis lacks the required scientific background. I assume he will withdraw from consideration in the coming months to avoid testifying under oath.
UPDATE: Missed this hilarious CNN story by Ted Barrett: "Top Senate Republicans (literally) dodge questions on Trump aide indictments."
"Anybody have any questions for Senator Grassley, or anybody else here, on this topic?" Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked reporters, making clear he didn't want questions about the indictments and guilty plea involving three of President Donald Trump's campaign aides to dominate the news conference. [...]
As multiple reporters shouted out, Grassley, who chairs the judiciary committee, which is investigated alleged Russian meddling in US elections, decided to slip out.
The lanky Iowa Republican tried to make a quick exit out a back door that was directly behind the podium. The problem was that several American flags on stands were set up behind the participants and blocked the large wooden door he needed to open to leave the room. So instead of quietly slipping away, he opened the door, banging into it as he did, and then tried to squeeze awkwardly out between the flags and the door, nearly knocking over several flags as he loudly departed.
Reporters called out to Grassley, but the agile 84-year-old got away, leaving Cornyn at the podium struggling to regain control of the room.
SECOND UPDATE: The Washington Post's Helderman reported on October 30,
Victoria Toensing, an attorney for Sam Clovis, confirmed that several references in court filings to “the campaign supervisor” refer to the onetime radio host from Iowa, who served as Trump’s national campaign co-chairman. [...]
In August 2016, Clovis responded to efforts by Papadopoulos to organize an “off the record” meeting with Russian officials. “I would encourage you” and another foreign policy adviser to the campaign to “make the trip, if it is feasible,” Clovis wrote.
Toensing said Clovis “always vigorously opposed any Russian trip for Donald Trump and/or the campaign.” She said his responses to Papadopoulos were courtesy by “a polite gentleman from Iowa.”
Keep in mind that Mueller's team knows a lot more about these communications than what has been made public so far. From the first page of the statement on Papadopoulos: "These facts do not constitute all of the facts known to the parties concerning the charged offense."
If Clovis misled investigators in any way about what transpired, he is in legal jeopardy. Even if he's not facing a criminal charge, he is "poised to be at the center of the further investigation," Pat Rynard discussed in his take for Iowa Starting Line.
The October 31 edition of the Des Moines Register ran the USA Today articles on the first Mueller indictments, with no additional reporting about Grassley's reaction and no mention of how Clovis is involved in the story. Perplexing, since the Register normally loves to highlight the "Iowa angle" on any national news. Their readers deserved to be better informed. Here's hoping the newspaper will get a new politics editor in place soon.
The Cedar Rapids Gazette mentioned the Clovis connection in this story, pulled together from the Washington Post and other reporting.
The Sioux City Journal flagged the Clovis involvement for its readers in this story by Dave Dreeszen, with reporting from the Associated Press.
Staff for Ernst supplied this comment on October 31: "As I have said, it’s important that we let the Special Counsel and bipartisan congressional investigations continue in earnest."
THIRD UPDATE/CORRECTION: I was wrong about Clovis and the USDA position. Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Pat Roberts told Politico Pro Ag’s Catherine Boudreau on October 30 that Clovis "has been 'a fully cooperative witness' in the Senate Intelligence committee’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election."
“I don’t think he’s a target of any investigation,” Roberts said of Clovis, describing him as someone likely on the fringes of the inquiry. Neither Senate Intel officials nor the USDA press office returned a request for comment on Monday evening. Roberts confirmed that his plan remains for the panel to hold Clovis’ confirmation hearing on Nov. 9, an affair that will also include Stephen Vaden, the administration’s pick for USDA general counsel.
FOURTH UPDATE: The Des Moines Register covered the Clovis story in this piece by Brianne Pfannenstiel, which went online in the early afternoon on October 31 and drew on reporting by the Washington Post and Yahoo news.
Still no coverage of Grassley's reaction to the indictments.
Meanwhile, Ken Dilanian and Mike Memoli reported for NBC News on October 31,
Sam Clovis, the former top Trump campaign official who supervised a man now cooperating with the FBI's Russia investigation, was questioned last week by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team and testified before the investigating grand jury, a person with first-hand knowledge of the matter told NBC News.
Clovis, who is President Donald Trump's pick to be the Department of Agriculture's chief scientist, could not be reached for comment. His lawyer, Victoria Toensing, would neither confirm nor deny his interactions with the Mueller team. [...]
In the statement, Toensing said the Trump campaign had a strict rule prohibiting travel abroad on behalf of the campaign, and but that Clovis would have had no authority to stop Papadopoulos from traveling in his personal capacity.
"Dr. Clovis has not communicated with Mr. Papadopoulos since prior to the 2016 election," the statement says.
Radio Iowa's Matt Kelley reported on October 31,
“I’ve got great confidence in the special counsel approach and I’ll just let that work its way out,” Grassley says, “maybe not only on Sam Clovis, but on almost everything you might ask me about this.” Grassley told reporters in Washington, D.C. yesterday that President Trump “should let the special counsel do his job.” Grassley indicates there’s no reason to cancel or delay Clovis’ hearing date but he’ll be following developments closely.
“I think that one thing that would make a big difference to me is the extent to which Sam Clovis is committed to cooperating with the special counsel,” Grassley says.
LATER UPDATE: In a fascinating thread that starts here, former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti looks for clues in the recent news about Clovis. He noted, "Although Clovis testified, he is minimizing the role of Papadopoulos via his attorney and disputing some of what Papadopoulos said." Clovis is not withdrawing from consideration for the USDA post, and the Senate Agriculture Committee chair has described him as "cooperative."
Mariotti infers, "the lawyer for Clovis thinks that he does not have significant criminal liability." "If she did, she would have him withdraw himself from consideration. She’d also tell him not to testify or be interviewed." Mariotti added that Clovis is "not 'cooperating' with Mueller in the way a prosecutor would use that term. A flipper wouldn’t publicly minimize his conduct" and would not "publicly contradict the government’s other witness." Mariotti concludes that Mueller "doesn’t have the goods on Clovis at this time, and his lawyer (who knows more than we do) doesn’t think he ever will." She would be "much more cautious" if worried. (Incidentally, multiple sources have told me Victoria Toensing is an excellent attorney.)
The final tweet in that thread declared, "there can be no serious question that Mueller hasn’t flipped Clovis at this time."
NOVEMBER 1 UPDATE: The Des Moines Register's Jason Noble reported on Grassley's latest conference call with reporters.
Grassley said he has reviewed emails provided by the Trump campaign that include a fuller account of Clovis’ interactions with Papadopoulos. According to those 80-some emails, Grassley said, Clovis does not appear to encourage any travel to meet with Russian officials.
“There’s an entirely different context than what was reported about Clovis and his relationship to this George P.,” Grassley told reporters. [...]
When asked if he believes Clovis could face legal consequences over his role in the campaign, Grassley answered that it was “too early for me to say that.”
“But,” he went on, “reading these emails … that’s not an issue.