Curious timing: insider trading scandal, or retaliation for Senate Intel Russia report (updated)

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Several U.S. senators are currently under investigation for possible insider trading in their personal finances, including Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

This week, the Justice Department ramped up its investigation of Burr by obtaining a subpoena from the court to seize the senator’s cell phone. This is a BFD. Burr steps aside as Senate intelligence chair amid FBI probe:

A Republican senator with access to some of the nation’s top secrets became further entangled in a deepening FBI investigation as agents examining a well-timed sale of stocks during the coronavirus outbreak showed up at his home with a warrant to search his cellphone.

Hours later, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina stepped aside Thursday as chairman of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, calling it the “best thing to do.” Burr has denied wrongdoing.

“This is a distraction to the hard work of the committee and the members, and I think that the security of the country is too important to have a distraction,” Burr said. He said he would serve out the remainder of his term, which ends in 2023. He is not running for reelection.

The search warrant marked a dramatic escalation in the Justice Department’s investigation into whether Burr exploited advance information when he unloaded as much as $1.7 million in stocks in the days before the coronavirus caused markets to plummet. Such warrants require investigators to establish to a judge that probable cause exists to believe a crime has occurred.

The warrant was confirmed by two people familiar with the matter, including a senior department official. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss an ongoing investigation.

Burr faces no public accusations by the government that he exploited inside information received during briefings. But the search warrant immediately affected the standing inside Congress of the influential Republican, who has earned bipartisan support for leading a congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign — work that sometimes rankled President Donald Trump and his supporters.

News of the warrant also underscored the public scrutiny surrounding the stock market activities of multiple senators and their families around the same time.

On Thursday, a spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she was asked “some basic questions” by law enforcement about sales her husband made and had voluntarily answered questions.

Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a new lawmaker from Georgia, and her husband dumped substantial portions of their portfolio and purchased new stocks around the time Congress was receiving briefings on the seriousness of the pandemic. Loeffler has said she had no involvement in the trades and said they were managed by third-party advisers.

A spokesperson said Loeffler has forwarded documents to the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Senate Ethics Committee “establishing that she and her husband acted entirely appropriately and observed both the letter and the spirit of the law.”

In Burr’s case, the search warrant was served on a lawyer for him, and FBI agents went to the senator’s home in the Washington area to retrieve the cellphone, the Justice Department official said. The decision to obtain the warrant was approved at the highest levels of the department, the official said.

Alice Fisher, a lawyer for Burr, noted that Burr called for an ethics inquiry into the stock sales once they were disclosed. She said the senator has “been actively cooperating with the government’s inquiry, as he said he would.”

“From the outset, Senator Burr has been focused on an appropriate and thorough review of the facts in this matter, which will establish that his actions were appropriate,” Fisher said in a statement.

Now, your first reaction is that this is just another case of public corruption, and the senator is getting what he deserves. But there is also a curious timing to this subpoena this week which smacks of of political retribution and retaliation by the Trump administration.

The AP reports, Burr submits final Senate intelligence report on Russia election interference as he departs as committee chairman:

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr has submitted the final report in the panel’s three-year Russia investigation to the intelligence community for a declassification review. The move came hours before he was to temporarily step aside as chairman of the panel.

The report on the panel’s counterintelligence findings — including whether President Donald Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia — marks the conclusion of its Russia probe, which it first launched in January 2017. But the panel did not release any of the findings Friday, instead asking the intelligence community to quickly allow the release of a declassified version of the report.

Burr said Thursday that he would temporarily give up the position as chairman after federal agents examining his recent stock sales showed up at his home Wednesday with a warrant to search his cellphone. Friday was his last day in the position.

The final submission brought an unceremonious end to the years-long investigation that occasionally landed Burr, a North Carolina Republican, in trouble with his own party. It had been the final investigation of Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia that was still active.

Burr worked closely with the top Democrat on the panel, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, on a bipartisan basis to uncover Russia’s attempts to sow chaos in American elections. The committee had particular success in pushing social media companies to publicly reveal that Russia had used their platforms for misinformation and to make subsequent reforms to prevent such interference in the future.

Committee members have remained quiet on the panel’s conclusion on whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia. But Burr has said several times that he has seen no evidence of such collusion, a conclusion that would be in line with the House Intelligence Committee’s own Russia report in 2018. It is unclear if the panel’s Democrats would endorse such a determination, even though the first four reports from the Senate committee were bipartisan.

The Senate panel also sent its other four reports to the intelligence community for declassification and in some cases waited years for a response. In the other cases, however, the panel released its general findings first.

The prior reports looked at Russia’s social media interference, election security, the response of the Obama administration to the Russian meddling and the intelligence community’s 2017 assessment that Russia had intervened in Trump’s favor. The committee endorsed that assessment in a bipartisan report this year.

Last month, the Senate Intelligence Committee reaffirmed its support for the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the goal of putting Donald Trump in the Oval Office. Senate Intel report confirms Russia aimed to help Trump in 2016:

[The] bipartisan report, from a panel chaired by North Carolina Republican Richard Burr, undercuts Trump’s years of efforts to portray allegations of Kremlin assistance to his campaign as a “hoax,” driven by Democrats and a “deep state” embedded within the government bureaucracy.

The intelligence community’s initial January 2017 assessment of Moscow’s influence campaign included “specific intelligence reporting to support the assessment that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the Russian government demonstrated a preference for candidate Trump,” the committee’s report says. The panel also found “specific intelligence” to support the conclusion that Putin “approved and directed aspects” of the Kremlin’s interference efforts.

“The committee found no reason to dispute the intelligence community’s conclusions,” Burr said in a statement, adding that the intelligence community’s conclusions reflect “strong tradecraft” and “sound analytical reasoning.”

This did not sit well with Donald Trump and his new Roy Cohn “fixer,” Attorney General William “Coverup” Barr, who is actively working to rewrite the history of the Robert Mueller Russia investigation to create an alternative reality around Trump’s “Obamagate” conspiracy theory.

As The Post’s Ruth Marcus explains, Trump’s strategy: First, dismantle Mueller. Then peddle ‘Obamagate.’

President Trump wants to wipe away the stain of Russian interference on his behalf in the 2016 election. There are two tracks in this effort: one that reached its culmination in the past week, the other percolating for years but weaponized recently by Trump himself.

Think of the first as “The Great Undoing,” the effort to unravel the work of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The second can be best described as “Lock Her Up 2,” a cynical plan to deploy rhetoric that is as overheated as it is unspecific — “OBAMAGATE!” — in the service of tarnishing the opposition.

The Great Undoing has been long in the making. The president has seethed since the moment his first attorney general recused himself from the Russia inquiry and then-Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed a special counsel to oversee the investigation.

The entire point of naming a special counsel is that it would undermine public confidence in the impartiality of the outcome if the ordinary leadership of the Justice Department ran the investigation. Therefore, bringing in an outside party would be in “the public interest,” as the regulation explains.

But, of course, Trump has no conception of the public interest, only of his own interest. He cannot fathom — and he earned himself an obstruction-of-justice investigation as a consequence — that the department is supposed to operate independently of the White House, or that the attorney general is not, in fact, intended to function as his own personal Roy Cohn.

So Trump’s goal, from the start, has been to dismantle as much of Mueller’s work as he can — and he finally found his Cohn in the person of William P. Barr. Perhaps Barr is motivated as much by ideology — specifically, by his expansive view of the unitary executive and the view that prosecutorial decision should be within the president’s sole control — as he is by personal loyalty to Trump. The outcome is the same either way.

And so we have seen:

● Barr both misstating the findings of the Mueller report and effectively usurping the role of the special counsel by preemptively proclaiming that “the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.” (Mueller reached no such conclusion.)

● Barr disputing the finding by the Justice Department’s inspector general that the Russia investigation had a proper basis and was not motivated by anti-Trump animus.

● Barr dispatching U.S. Attorney John Durham to look into the origins of the Russia probe — and, even before Durham’s report is in — declaring that “what happened to [Trump] was one of the greatest travesties in American history” — an investigation started “without any basis” and, once Trump took office, “a whole pattern of events . . . to sabotage the presidency — or at least have the effect of sabotaging the presidency.”

● Barr intervening in the sentencing of Trump ally Roger Stone to override the recommendations of career prosecutors, who worked under Mueller’s direction until he closed up shop.

● And, now, Barr moving to undo the Michael Flynn guilty plea. Once again, if Mueller were still in place as special counsel, this would not have happened. Barr is, case by case and comment by comment, dismantling and denigrating Mueller’s work.

The next step in the enterprise is equating Trump’s behavior and the criminal conduct of those around him with that of his opponents [related: Trump’s ‘I’m Rubber, You’re Glue’ Campaign Plan], on the theory that if you fling enough mud at the other side, it will obscure and distract from the muck covering you.

This worked, or at least helped, during the 2016 campaign, with Flynn, appropriately enough, leading the “lock her up” chants about Hillary Clinton at the Republican convention.

Now, Trump and company want to lock up the rest of the supposedly corrupt bunch — Obama! Biden! — for unspecified, likely because they are unspecifiable, crimes.

Note: Remember that the Ukraine scandal was all about getting Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce that his country was opening an investigation into Hunter Biden, not that Ukraine would ever actually do the investigation. Trump merely wanted fodder for a smear campaign without any actual evidence of wrongdoing, just as his Hillary Clinton “but her emails” smear campaign in 2016 proves.

Trump’s Monday exchange with my colleague Philip Rucker seeking an explanation of a tweet that accused former president Barack Obama of “the biggest political crime in American history” was enlighteningly unenlightening. “What is the crime exactly that you’re accusing him of?” Rucker asked. “You know what the crime is,” Trump replied. “The crime is very obvious to everybody.”

It’s not, but no matter. By Thursday, Trump was upping the ante, demanding that Obama be hauled before Congress. “The first person I would call to testify about the biggest political crime and scandal in the history of the USA, by FAR, is former President Obama,” Trump tweeted. “He knew EVERYTHING.”

Yelling “Obamagate!” in the overheated theater of the presidential election serves, or so Trump hopes, both to justify Barr’s intervention in the Russia probe cases and to distract voters from his disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic.

How fitting, then, that the new centerpiece of the alleged scandal is what’s known as “unmasking” — not the president’s juvenile refusal to wear one, but the request by a number of Obama administration officials to intelligence agencies to reveal Flynn as an unnamed person in intelligence intercepts.

There’s no evidence this was improper. Barr claims that agents who questioned Flynn at the White House about his pre-inauguration conversations with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak acted for “the express purpose of trying to catch, lay a perjury trap for General Flynn.” Flynn had lied to White House officials, including Vice President Pence, about the conversations. Given the evidence of Russian attempts to help Trump win, given the compromising position in which Flynn’s lies left him, it would have been reckless for the FBI not to follow up.

But this is not about government misconduct. It’s about inflaming the base and muddying the waters. It’s about discrediting Obama as he assumes a newly prominent role in the 2020 campaign. It’s about winning, again, at any cost.




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