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Trump exults in his Mueller revenge play

POLITICO logo POLITICO 5/15/2020 By Natasha Bertrand
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: President Donald Trump has showered Attorney General William Barr and acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell with praise in recent interviews. © Evan Vucci/AP Photo President Donald Trump has showered Attorney General William Barr and acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell with praise in recent interviews.

“Hope you had fun investigating me,” reads a meme that has been reposted by President Donald Trump, his family and his allies several times over the last week on social media. “Now it’s my turn.”

More than one year after the Russia investigation ended and six months before he faces re-election, Trump is getting his revenge—and his most trusted advisers, some newly installed throughout the Justice Department and intelligence community since his impeachment acquittal three months ago, are helping him do it.

In the last week, Attorney General William Barr and acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell have arguably gone further in aiding Trump’s campaign against the so-called “deep state” than anyone in the last three years.

Barr, through his former aide Timothy Shea — tapped by the attorney general in January to serve as interim D.C. U.S. attorney—moved last week to dismiss the case against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn in circumstances that have alarmed a federal judge first appointed by Ronald Reagan.

Grenell, meanwhile, who was appointed days after Trump’s acquittal in February, subsequently declassified a list of Obama administration officials who might have been involved in “unmasking” Flynn’s name in intelligence reports — fueling unsubstantiated accusations from the president and his Capitol Hill allies of wrongdoing.

Trump has showered the two men with praise, hailing the “fantastic job” Grenell is doing in a phone-in interview with “Fox & Friends” the day after the Justice Department moved to drop the Flynn case. “This country owes a lot to him and they owe a lot to Attorney General Barr,” the president added.

Richard Grenell wearing a suit and tie: Ric Grenell’s appointment has done little to alleviate concerns that Trump is trying to bring the intelligence community even further under his control. Ric Grenell’s appointment has done little to alleviate concerns that Trump is trying to bring the intelligence community even further under his control.

And that is only the beginning of the vindication tour, Trump’s allies say, pointing to the ongoing probe into the origins of the Russia investigation that is being conducted by the Barr-appointed prosecutor John Durham.

Trump’s allies have also been increasing pressure on the intelligence community to declassify a memo written by House Intelligence Committee Republicans in 2018 that outlines evidence suggesting Russia actually favored Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016, according to people with direct knowledge of the effort, despite Russia hacking and leaking DNC emails to embarrass and undercut Clinton during the election and an intelligence community-wide assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin favored Trump.

“I am delighted with the turn of events, but I think it’s only the beginning,” said attorney John Dowd, who represented Trump early on in the FBI’s Russia inquiry. “I have no doubt that John Durham and his team will get to the bottom of it. There is a lot more to uncover.”

By declassifying a list of Obama officials who may have been seen Flynn’s name in intelligence reports in December 2016 and January 2017, Grenell has given Trump and his allies further ammunition to decry so-called “Obamagate”—Trump’s term for a scandal that he has been unable or unwilling to fully articulate.

DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec also told Fox News on Tuesday night that the new unmasking information could be relevant to Durham’s probe.

“Last week, ODNI provided information related to unmasking,” Kupec said. “And as it’s relevant to John Durham’s investigation specifically, I’m sure that he will take a look at that, and just to make this point: John Durham in his review of 2016 and 2017, of what happened there, he’s already looking at this issue of unmasking as part of this broader review.”

Barr confirmed last week in an interview with CBS News that Durham’s “portfolio” includes “the treatment of General Flynn,” adding that “we have our eye on” possible criminal charges.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Attorney General William Barr speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Wednesday, April 1, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) © Alex Brandon/AP Photo Attorney General William Barr speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Wednesday, April 1, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Barr wouldn’t say which individuals DOJ is eyeing, and the National Security Agency confirmed on Wednesday that all the former officials named were authorized to request the unmasking. But Grenell’s decision to declassify the list has given Trump’s allies a list of suspects to train their sights on.

“The administration is using Grenell as a temporary person who can pull off stuff that a confirmed DNI would not be able to do, because they would need to maintain a working relationship with both sides of the aisle,” said a former Trump White House official. “They are using Grenell because he is someone who has nothing to lose.”

An ODNI official pushed back on that, saying that Grenell has been “focused on making a series of changes recommended by career intelligence officials that will strengthen ODNI to meet its mission and ensure IC resources are used in the best way possible.” Grenell suggested in a tweet that he was acting in the name of transparency. The Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to vote early next week on GOP Rep. John Ratcliffe’s nomination to replace Grenell as DNI.

Grenell is expected to leave the post soon, according to several people familiar with his plans. If he leaves before Ratcliffe is confirmed, the next Senate-confirmed official who could take his place as acting director is Bill Evanina, the current head of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

Flynn, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the former Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak — and reaffirmed his guilt to the judge in December 2018 — is now at the center of Trump and his supporters’ efforts to rewrite the history of the Russia probe as politically motivated and unjustified.

Those efforts come despite Trump and Pence affirming that Flynn had lied to them about his dealings with Kislyak, and despite then White House counsel Don McGahn and then Chief of Staff Reince Priebus concluding after reviewing transcripts of the calls that “Flynn could not have forgotten the details of the discussions of sanctions and had instead been lying about what he discussed with Kislyak,” according to the Mueller report, which cited McGahn and Priebus’ interviews with the special counsel.

Michael T. Flynn wearing a suit and tie: WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 24: President Donald Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn leaves the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse on June 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. criminal sentencing for Flynn will be on hold for at least another two months. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images) © Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 24: President Donald Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn leaves the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse on June 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. criminal sentencing for Flynn will be on hold for at least another two months. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

And they come despite the Justice Department inspector general concluding late last year that the FBI probe of Russia’s election interference, codenamed Crossfire Hurricane, was sufficiently predicated with enough evidence to justify opening it in July 2016—including the individual investigation of Flynn.

The IG report faulted the FBI for more than a dozen inaccuracies or omissions in its surveillant warrant application for Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, but found “no information indicating that the team requested or seriously considered” the same surveillance of Flynn, who was picked up speaking to Kislyak during routine FBI surveillance of foreign diplomats’ communications in late December 2016. The list Grenell declassified focused specifically on NSA reports of foreigners’ conversations in December 2016-January 2017 that either mentioned or included Flynn.

But Flynn tried to take back his plea last year, alleging entrapment by the FBI, and DOJ abandoned its case against him last week on the recommendation of a Barr-appointed investigator, the U.S. Attorney in St. Louis Jeffrey Jensen.

The judge in Flynn’s case, Emmet Sullivan, has delayed ruling on DOJ’s motion to dismiss and on Wednesday asked a retired judge to argue against the government’s decision to drop the case—and to address whether Flynn may have committed perjury before the court.

But Trump’s allies and those who got caught up in the Russia investigation see the Flynn developments as more evidence that the tide is turning in their favor—the first sign being Barr’s decision to overrule career prosecutors in February and slash the sentencing recommendation for longtime Trump associate Roger Stone.

“I want to see people prosecuted,” said Mark Corallo, who served as the spokesman for Trump’s legal team in 2017. “If the facts support it,” he later caveated.

Asked who he believes committed wrongdoing, Corallo said he would wait to weigh in “until I see what Durham does” — but identified Rep. Adam Schiff, former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, former FBI director Jim Comey, and former CIA director John Brennan as those who “used the levers of government to try to overturn an election” — accusations they have repeatedly denied.

Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser who was surveilled by the FBI in 2016 and 2017 as part of the Russia probe, declined to comment on the recent developments but pointed to his book coming out in August—the description for which reads: “The chickens are coming home to roost for the corrupt officials, mainstream media, and Democratic operatives who ruined the life of an innocent American in an attempt to subvert our democracy.”

Former FBI officials have noted that if they wanted to try to derail Trump’s candidacy, they could have leaked the fact that his campaign was under investigation for suspected ties to Russia in 2016. Instead, the investigation was largely kept out of the public eye until January 2017, when the existence of the Trump-Russia dossier, and the FBI’s examination of it, was reported by CNN.

And former Obama administration officials argue Trump is now weaponizing the Justice Department and intelligence community—months before an election and in the middle of a pandemic that has ravaged the economy—to take revenge and drag his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, into another scandal.

“This is his re-election strategy now,” said one former Obama National Security Council official, who argued that Trump was looking for a new way to gain an edge in his campaign after his attempts to find “dirt” on Biden in Ukraine backfired. “There were people in place who blew the whistle on his Ukraine shenanigans. But they’re all gone now.”

One person close to the White House pushed back on the idea that Trump is orchestrating a revenge campaign. “He may be enjoying watching it, but to suggest that he’s involved in this or knows what’s happening is just wrong,” this person said. “I’m sure he’s loving this s***, no doubt.”

Trump’s glee was evident from his Twitter feed last weekend: “He got caught, OBAMAGATE!” Trump tweeted on Sunday, one of 126 tweets and retweets— most about Obama— that he sent that day alone.

“I think he saw President Obama hitting him and he wanted to hit back,” said a Republican close to the White House, referring to a recording of Obama criticizing Trump’s response to Covid-19 that was leaked to Yahoo News last week.

In late 2016, Obama was among those who warned Trump against hiring Flynn in the first place, according to the Mueller report. Trump ignored that advice, and later “had to fire” the three-star general for lying, he tweeted in 2017. But bringing Flynn back into the MAGA orbit—and, if re-elected, back into the White House—may be the ultimate vindication.

“I think Gen. Michael Flynn is an American patriot,” Vice President Mike Pence told Axios last week. “And for my part, I’d be happy to see Michael Flynn again.”

Daniel Lippman contributed to this story.

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