Monday, May 29, 2017

The Scandal Puzzle Is Finally Fitting Together. It's Even Worse Than We Thought.

STEPHEN CROWLEY / THE NEW YORK TIMES
If you think of the Russia scandal as a big jigsaw puzzle with lots of seemingly unconnected pieces when they are first spread out before you, several things become apparent as the pieces begin to fit together. 
The easy pieces are the corners and edges of the puzzle, which scandal investigators and certain reporters figured out some time ago as they painstakingly connected them.  But it has only been recently that the heart of the puzzle -- those funny shaped pieces in the middle from which a comprehensive picture of the scandal is emerging -- have begun to be connected. 
And behold, that is a picture of mutual backscratching on a mindbogglingly grand scale: Team Putin made Team Trump an offer it couldn't refuse.  You help us and we'll help elect your man by sabotaging Hillary Clinton, which will be Кусок пирога (a piece of cake) for us with you in the game.   
Oh, and when our little scheme works out, President Trump can relax those nasty Russia sanctions and our banks can offer some great financing for your Yankee capitalist business ventures.
Those middle pieces are falling into place because of recent disclosures, in most cases leaks by intel sources furious over Trump's flirtation with treason.  These disclosures reveal that about the time Trump campaign associates -- starting with Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn -- began meeting with Russians of interest, as investigators call them, the Kremlin's plan to throw the 2016 presidential election got off the ground, and that was not a coincidence.   
The way those middle pieces interconnect also is anything but coincidental, and the cause-and-effect relationship between what Team Trump was doing and Team Putin was doing is impossible to ignore even if it is not yet particularly clear.  But of one thing we can be sure: This relationship was not merely an astonishing series of events that have innocent explanations. 
Kushner, who is attracting a lot of attention these days as an American of interest as those middle pieces are connected, is a case in point. 
He is not merely Trump's son-in-law.  He wields enormous if ill-defined power as the president's closest adviser and takes the scandal to a new heights because of his proximity to him. When you understand that Kushner and his father-in-law have benefitted enormously from a culture where dealmaking, deceit and lying are as familiar to them as breathing, Kushner's serial prevarications -- no, let's just call them lies -- regarding his contacts with Russians of interest are telling.   
There were at least five contacts between Kushner and those Russians of interest, including three face-to-face meetings, that reflect a staggering naiveté -- or perhaps stupidity blinded by greed -- since it is widely known that the FBI monitors the communications of Russian officials in the U.S. and the NSA monitors the communications of Russian officials abroad.
The first meeting was in April 2016 as Trump was pulling away from a crowded Republican primary field.  That was when Kushner and campaign adviser Flynn met at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. with Sergey Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the U.S. and a man widely considered to be a spy in diplomat's clothing.   
Little is known about that meeting except for one hugely important thing: About the same time as the meeting -- speaking of non-coincidences -- U.S. intelligence intercepted the first communications among Russian in which they had shifted into higher gear and were now aggressively discussing putting their election meddling plan into action, and they indicated the centerpiece of that plan was sabotaging Clinton.   
Kislyak was to meet with several Trump associates, including twice with future Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in the intervening months prior to the second meeting between he and Kushner, again with Flynn present, on December 1 or 2 at Trump Tower in Manhattan. 
That was about three weeks after Trump's election victory and shortly before the Obama administration imposed tougher sanctions on Russia because it had solid evidence that the Kremlin had interfered in the election.    
There were two topics of discussion at the second meeting: Easing sanctions when Trump took office and, apparently at the suggestion of Kushner, having Kislyak set up a secret communications channel between the Trump transition team and the Kremlin using Russian diplomatic facilities to shield their discussions from monitoring.  It would be a slam-dunk case of espionage if an American intelligence officer had done anything like that.   
And then there was this: Any number of foreign dignitaries were being paraded before the news media as they arrived at Trump Tower to pay their respects to the president-elect during the transition, but Kislyak was snuck in a back door and the meeting remained a secret.
In mid-December 2016, Kushner met with close Vladimir Putin associate Sergey N. Gorkov, the chief executive of Vnesheconombak and trained spy with no diplomatic role, at its New York offices.   
The development bank, in street parlance, is mobbed up.  It has close ties to the Russian intelligence services, has been used to plant spies in the U.S. and was sanctioned by the Obama administration in 2014 prior to the arrest of Evgeny Buryakov, a spy working undercover as a bank executive who had met with onetime Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page in 2013 in an effort to have him engage in clandestine intelligence activities for Moscow.    
Buryakov was prosecuted for espionage in 2015 and did prison time, while Page was the subject of a FISA Court warrant, a distinction typically reserved for suspected terrorists. The bank remains under sanction.    
Kushner's legendary attention to detail failed him repeatedly in January of this year when it came time to fill out a background form so he could be granted a high-level security clearance that would give him access to the nation's most closely guarded secrets.   He somehow completely forgot about his meetings with Kislyak and Gorkov, as well as business contacts with dozens of other foreign officials.  And then forgot that Flynn had accompanied him to the Kislyak meetings after eventually acknowledging they had occurred.   
(This amnesia was contagious.  Jeff Sessions forgot about his own meetings with Kislyak when it came time for him to fill out the background form.) 
We have learned a great deal about Trump, Kushner and their associates as the Russia scandal has grown from a lot of smoke to a nasty fire and on to a general-alarm conflagration.  All of it is bad and all of it is about money: Ruthless profiteering, shadow corporations, phantom tax returns, emoluments, money laundering, dealmaking with authoritarians.  And Flynn. There is almost always the presence of Michael Flynn.  
Perhaps the biggest lesson of the scandal is that Team Trump knew that a batshit crazy billionaire celebrity TV star could not win fair and square.  But because of their culture of dealmaking, deceit and lying, they would not hesitate to help undermine the bedrock of American democracy for political and monetary gain, and that made them ideal co-conspirators for Team Putin. 

CLICK HERE FOR A TIMELINE OF THE RUSSIA SCANDAL.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Reflections On Memorial Day 2017


It is Memorial Day weekend in the U.S. 
The holiday originally was called Decoration Day and was a day of remembrance for Union soldiers who died in the American Civil War. After World War I, it was expanded to include soldiers who died in any war.  It more recently was expanded to allow retailers to shamelessly peddle their stuff at those ubiquitous if dying monuments to rampant capitalism -- the shopping mall.  
As always, I've hung an American flag outside of Kiko's House this Memorial Day, a 48-star banner that long waved outside the rural Minnesota farmhouse of my love's Norwegian immigrant forebears.  
As always, I will keep the weekend simple and go for a hike and perhaps a swim in our spring-fed mountain pool (brr!). 
As always, I will remember that freedom of speech is not protected by journalists like myself but by the men and women who have given their lives to defend American values. 
As always, I will feel a sadness over loved ones and friends who will not be with us  because of their sacrifices.  
But this Memorial Day is different.  So have too many holidays of remembrance as I have slouched into my dotage.   Besides being sad, I also am angry -- a slow burn, I suppose -- over the mess that we've made of our once great country.    
As my cousin County Bumpkin was fond of saying, dissent and bickering are the soundtrack of a democracy. But this should be a golden age for America and it is anything but.  I cannot recall a time in my life when so few have so much and so many are struggling.   
When an unrelenting fear rules our lives and the president's narcissistic craziness indelibly colors our country and culture. 
When America's heart and soul -- its middle class -- is so beleaguered. 
When we are so incapable of a national consensus on anything beyond the belief that government and many of our institutions have failed us. That things only will get worse before they get better, if they ever get better.    
So what’s to be done about this dismal state of affairs?  
Nothing.  
Such pessimism is uncharacteristic of me, let alone Americans in general, and I feel a twinge of shame that I am unable to be more upbeat this Memorial Day weekend.  But my glass is well below half empty, especially when I reflect on the sacrifices our men and woman at arms are asked to make.
Sacrifices for what? An ill-focused War on Terror? The mess in Mesopotamia? The pathetic war in Afghanistan? Preparing for the next war with an evil nut who has access to the nuclear codes as commander in chief? 
You tell me.  
-- Love and Peace, SHAUN

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Laws To Get Trump Are Working, For The Most Part. But Will They Be Enough?

MARIAN KAMENSKY
It is not that the trickle of news leaks staining Donald Trump's shiny black Guccis from the outset of his presidency have become a flood.  Nor that this flood has been a counterbalance to Trump's outrages, deceits and extraconstitutional forays since congressional Republicans have taken to the fainting couch en masse as evidence of his collusion with Russia in its effort to influence the 2016 presidential election has piled up.  It is that the leaks have become so damning that they might have been crafted by a prosecutor seeking Trump's impeachment. Which come to think of it, is a fine idea.  But, alas, a bit premature.   
On Monday and Tuesday, a senior intelligence official was quoted as saying Trump's goal has been to "muddy the waters" about the true scope of the FBI's Russia scandal investigation, a former CIA general counsel called Trump's actions "an appalling abuse of power," and an administration insider said Trump does not care about "maintaining legal boundaries." 
And then came the Mother of All Leaks on Wednesday. 
That is when The New York Times reported that U.S. spies collected credible information last summer revealing that senior Russian intelligence and political operatives were discussing how to influence Trump through then campaign chairman Paul Manafort and adviser Michael Flynn.  Both men, the operatives said, could be used to help shape Trump's views on Russia.  Hет проблем.  (No problem).
Meanwhile, the scope of the president's efforts to shut down the FBI's Russia scandal investigation has finally hoved into view and it is just as bad as even the most rabid Trump hater could hope it to be.   
That scope is far reaching, begs comparison with Richard Nixon's not dissimilar and ultimately disastrous efforts to try to quash the Watergate probe, and further cements the gut-wrenching reality that Russia not only "brazenly interfered" in the election, as John Brennan, Obama's CIA director, told Congress on Tuesday in what is by now accepted wisdom, but that Team Trump may have been successfully recruited by the Kremlin to help undermine a bedrock of American democracy, which The Times has now all but confirmed. 
Brennan, who chose his words with great care, stopped short of saying the Trump campaign had actively helped the Kremlin.  But he did not have to be explicit in circumspectly noting there was evidence of "troubling" contacts between Russian officials and the campaign in his testimony before  the rejuvenated, Devin Nunes-free House Intelligence Committee. 
His gripping appearance came only hours after The Washington Post reported in yet another leak-based scoop that Trump had asked two of the U.S.'s top intel officials to make public statements saying there was no evidence of collusion, which is about all the evidence you need to confirm that there was indeed collusion since the president has consistently refused to open his books -- literally and figuratively -- to investigators and obviously believes he has a great deal to hide.     
Trump, said The Post, made the requests in late March of Dan Coats, the director of national security, and NSA chief Admiral Michael S. Rogers following the March 20 testimony of then-FBI Director James Comey, who in effect called Trump a liar in publicly acknowledging for the first time in testimony before Congress that the FBI's investigation included Trump associates' contacts with Russians who were working to sabotage Hillary Clinton.
Coats and Rogers politely declined to do the president's dirty work. 
§  
Is there any doubt that Trump should resign, face impeachment or invocation of the 25th Amendment? 
No, unless you are a hair-splitting legal eagle who can't see the president's blatant and repeated attempts at obstruction of justice for the trees, or are part of the Republican fainting couch set that is fervently praying he hangs on long enough for him to help enact their Reverse Robin Hood legislative agenda.
Trump's biggest problem at this point is not belatedly coming clean (which is not in his genes), containing the damage (a fight he already has lost) or co-opting the Republicans (which he has never needed to do), but the reality that the laws designed to flush him out and perhaps bring him down -- they're called checks and balances, Donald -- actually are working.   
The exception is Congress -- and primarily the House of Representatives -- being MIA instead of being a check on a runaway president as mandated by the Constitution.  (More about this later.) 
For what it's worth -- and public opinion is tangental at this point -- in September 2006, nearly six years into George W. Bush's presidency, 29 percent of voters thought he should be impeached.  In November 2014, six years into Barack Obama's presidency, 30 percent were so inclined, while Trump hit 30 percent only one month after taking office and is now at a robust 48 percent. 
In any event, Congress can go screw itself for the time being because overall the scandal investigations are accelerating nicely, and there is all this in addition to the cavalcade of damaging leaks and Brennan's testimony: 
* The Senate and House intelligence committees have the deeply corrupt Michael Flynn in their crosshairs.  Flynn, who was appointed by Trump to be national security director despite repeated warnings of his Russia-tied toxicity, has repeatedly refused a subpoena from the Senate committee to hand over Russia-related business records and a House subpoena is in the works.
On Monday, Flynn invoked the Fifth Amendment against self incrimination in response to the Senate missive, although he had said last year that such an act was tantamount to an admission of guilt.  On Tuesday he refused again, was told by the committee that businesses cannot take the Fifth, and then on Wednesday refused yet again. 
* The circumstances under which Carter Page got easy access to the Trump campaign in the spring of 2016 is being examined by the FBI and Senate Intelligence Committee.  Page, a businessman with extensive Russian ties, supposedly was hired as a quick fix for the campaign's lack of foreign policy expertise.   
Investigators are especially interested in what conversations Page may have had with Russian officials about their effort to interfere in the election.  The FBI obtained and then renewed a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court warrant allowing it to monitor Page, whom it believes had been in touch with Russian agents in previous years. 
* Trump's ham-handed efforts to squelch the FBI investigation as it gained serious traction are blowing up in his face big time.  When Comey resisted the president's personal arm-twisting to get him to stop investigating Flynn, Trump unsuccessfully tried to roll Coats and Rogers and of course eventually resorted to firing Comey under false pretenses.   
What Trump got for his exertions was Robert Mueller, Comey's no-nonsense predecessor at the FBI, who was named a special prosecutor to head the Justice Department's foundering investigation.  Trump can fire Mueller, but does so at his own peril, a gambit that earned Richard Nixon a one-way trip home to San Clemente aboard Air Force One. 
* Trump knows that he needs more than his White House legal staff, so he has hired longtime pal and defense attorney Marc E. Kasowitz -- with emphasis on  defense -- to hold his hand as the various investigations dredge that cesspool.  (Bill Clinton hired his own legal sharpshooter in the Monica Lewinski scandal.) 
Kasowitz has represented the litigious Trump in numerous other cases, including his divorces (where he repeatedly took the Fifth), Trump University lawsuits, all of which eventually were settled out of court, and several sexual harassment lawsuits, one of which is still pending.       
Put all this together -- that a once manageable political embarrassment has become a full course meal of a scandal that is increasingly focused on Trump with Flynn and Manafort as the appetizers -- and you might be excused for a high five or two.   
Sorry, but like I said at the top, that would be premature.   
§  
Just because the laws being used to corner Trump by dredging his cesspool are working for the most part is not the same thing as saying they will result in his early departure from the Oval Office. 
By design (thank you, James Madison), these checks and balances make employing the 25th Amendment or the more traditional use of impeachment extremely difficult even though Trump certainly is in a league of his own.  Remember that in 228 years, only one president has resigned, two have been impeached but did not resign, and eight died in office.   
Therein lies a cautionary tale, and this leads us back to Congress and specifically the House.   
The likelihood of the investigations being derailed at this point is minute.  It is my guess that one or more of these investigations will hit pay dirt, but even though they will confirm the acts that were committed are criminal, it would be in the political arena that the president would be brought down. 
In other words, Flynn and Manafort could be nailed by a federal criminal prosecutor, but Trump . . . well, it's complicated. 
This is because by law (thank you again, Mr. Madison) any evidence of wrongdoing by Trump must be referred to the House, not a criminal prosecutor.  And although it is all but certain that Trump has committed the "high crimes and misdemeanors," that are requirements for impeachment under the Constitution, the House will take the only way out it knows.   
That is the cowardly way.   
Trump may yet resign, perhaps on a medical pretext, and may yet become so crazy that even his most ardent supporters -- Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan -- will have no choice but to invoke the 25th Amendment, which allows the vice president and congressional leaders to remove the president if he is deemed unfit.   
But at this point we may have to wait until the 2018 midterm elections when the Democrats could retake the House, which (finally) would then vote for impeachment, and the Senate, as well, where an impeachment trial would then be held.   
If Trump hasn't destroyed the country by then. 

Click HERE for a timeline of the Trump-Russia scandal.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Trump & Putin As Strange Bedfellows: The Story Behind The Story Of A Scandal

SAVO PRELEVIC / AFP-GETTY IMAGES
Although they ruled empires 4,600 miles apart, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin shared a vision.   
Trump, the billionaire New York real estate mogul and reality television star, wanted even more power and money, while Putin, the autocratic Russian president, wanted even more power and influence.  Trump fantasized about becoming president of the United States while Putin dreamed of returning the former Soviet Union to its Cold War glory and was willing to do whatever it took, most especially undermining America's standing as the sole superpower.   
Trump and Putin saw each other as enablers for their respective goals, and so the seeds were planted for a clandestine collaboration that has mushroomed from an assault on the bedrock of American democracy unleashed by its greatest foe with the help of one of its greatest celebrities into the most explosive scandal since Soviet spies stole atomic bomb secrets over 70 years ago.  The scandal is now so big that it threatens to take down Trump's improbable presidency.    
Although scandal investigators are focused on 2015 because that was the year Putin set in motion his plan to meddle in the 2016 presidential election and Trump -- probably not coincidentally -- announced his long-shot candidacy, it is possible that the confluence of Trump's and Putin's visions occurred not long after November 2013 when Trump was in Moscow for the Miss Universe Pageant. 
A meeting between Trump and Putin was arranged by Putin aide Dmitry Peskov, and although Trump has said he "badly wanted to meet" a man he had long admired and had praised publicly on innumerable occasions despite his thuggery, he and Putin did not connect.  Trump's departure from the U.S. was delayed because he wanted to attend evangelical minister Billy Graham's 95th birthday party in North Carolina, while Putin was unable to have the anticipated sit-down with Trump when he did finally arrive in Moscow because he was busy welcoming the king of Holland. 
But keen to build a relationship with the American, Putin sent Sheyla Agalarov, the comely daughter of oligarch Aras Agalarov, to deliver a gift to Trump after he had returned home to his gilded penthouse atop Trump Tower high above New York's Fifth Avenue.   
"They treated me great," Trump said of his Moscow trip in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in March 2014.  "Putin even sent me a present, a beautiful present."   
The nature of that beautiful present and the contents of the personal note that undoubtedly accompanied it are not known.  But a relationship between the wannabe president and very real president had blossomed and was doing very well, thank you for asking, by late 2015 when U.S. intelligence agencies were tipped by Britain's GCHQ, which is equivalent to the U.S.'s NSA, that it was monitoring suspicious interactions between individuals connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents. 
§  
At first glance, Trump and Putin would seem to be strange bedfellows.   
But when you understand the people with whom they have done business over the years, a crystal-clear pattern emerges: These people create shell companies by the dozens and the hundreds that help shield them from lawsuits and prosecution.  They use bankruptcy as an everyday tactic and not a last-ditch effort to save a failing business.  They are adept at money laundering.  They often have mob ties.  Most importantly, they have ties with the Kremlin.  And sometimes they are the very same people. 
Among those very same people is none other than Aras Agalarov. 
The Azerbaijani-Russian billionaire is a close Putin ally and partnered with Trump on the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant and possibly other ventures.  Trump made a cool $12 million from the pageant, according to his tax lawyers in their disclosure earlier this month of a scant few of his Russian investments in an effort to lower the volume over demands that Trump release his federal income tax returns, which critics correctly believe might show the full extent of his mostly hidden Russia ties.  
The similarities between Trump's and Putin's associates make Trump's storied if sordid business history an especially fertile avenue of inquiry for newly appointed Justice Department special counsel Robert Muller and other scandal investigators.  This follow-the-money entry point may make the by-now well publicized connections between Trump associates Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Roger Stone and Russian officials and intelligence assets comparatively less important than they may seem at the moment.   
§  
When you follow the money, you stumble on Trump business deals with partners in Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, the Philippines and Indonesia, to name but a few countries, that may not stand scrutiny under U.S. banking laws.  Muller understands this. 
And practically everywhere you turn, there is Jared Kushner. 
Kushner is Trump's son-in-law, husband of senior White House aide and push-up brassiere entrepreneur Ivanka Trump and is the senior White House adviser who is the "significant person of interest" to Russia scandal investigators, accordingly to a deeply sourced Washington Post story published to widespread shock and awe  last Friday. 
Far from being the "steadying influence" on the president that aides portray him as, Kushner is a hothead who has been seething with anger over the cloud of suspicion hanging over the White House and himself.  He not only was supportive of Trump's summary firing of FBI Director James Comey, but urged the president to counterattack before calmer heads prevailed.   
Kushner and his wife are close to Flynn and, according to reports, assured him that he would be named Trump's national security adviser as a reward for his "loyalty" to the family.   
He also accompanied Flynn to the meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who is a spy in diplomat's clothing, at which the easing of Obama administration sanctions on Russia was discussed that eventually cost Flynn his job, and Kushner was the go-between for other meetings between Trump associates and Russians that have not been disclosed.   
In December of last year, only weeks before Trump was inaugurated, Kushner met with the chief executive of Vnesheconombank. 
This is a development bank with close ties to Russian intelligence services.  It had been sanctioned by the Obama administration in 2014 prior to the arrest of Evgeny Buryakov, a spy working undercover as an executive in the bank's New York office who had met with onetime Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page in 2013 in an effort to have him engage in clandestine intelligence activities for Moscow.  Page has the distinction of being the only Trump associate who is the known target of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant, a legal bazooka that typically is reserved for suspected terrorists. Buryakov, meanwhile, was prosecuted for espionage in 2015 and did prison time.   
Kushner has kept nearly 90 percent of his vast real estate holdings even after pledging to separate his private interests from his public duties.  He is the kind of greedy creep who believes he is smarter than everyone else, failed to mention, as was required by law, his meetings with the Vnesheconombank executive and Kislyak, as well as business contacts with dozens of other foreign officials when he sought a high-level security clearances that would give him access to the nation's most closely guarded secrets.   
§  
It bears repeating as I have several times in the two weeks since Comey got axed and the Russia scandal has grown from a lot of smoke to a nasty fire and on to a general-alarm conflagration that Trump's impeachment or forced resignation is still an abstraction.  And that the use of the presidency as a profit center by Trump and his family -- and especially Kushner -- for their business enterprises, while obscene, is not the primary focus of any of the four main investigations by Justice, the FBI and Senate and House intelligence committees.   
The appointment of Muller as a special counsel actually takes us further away from appointment of a special prosecutor who would be largely immune to the president's imprecations.  But that doesn't particularly matter for the moment because the four main investigations are accelerating away from behind-the-scenes legwork to the conducting of interviews, holding public hearings and issuing subpoenas.   
Some of those subpoenas will be going to Tump's aides, and the more thoughtful among them will be confronted with a stark choice: Stand up for their boss or stand up for America.  But don't expect a flood of resignations.  Most of these people are amoral pissants. 
The scandal will have entered another realm, if not possibly the beginning of the end, when Trump lawyers up, as in hiring a mega-bucks defense attorney.  (Perhaps Bill Clinton can suggest one.)  That Trump already has not done so is surprising until you consider that in his own alternative-reality world, the Russia scandal still is "fake news" and a "witch hunt," although reality occasionally has a way of penetrating the skulls of even the most delusional narcissists.   
Meanwhile, Flynn has refused to honor a subpoena from the Senate intel committee to hand over all documents related to his dealings with Russian  interests.  As that general-alarm conflagration grows, he may find that the committee has become less interested in his immunity-for-blabbing offer unless he can hand over a very big fish. 
You know who I mean.   
Click HERE for a timeline of the Russia scandal.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Russia Scandal Takes A Yuge Turn As Trump Prepares To Throw Over Fellow Perps

DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Donald Trump is nothing if predictable.  He is reliably narcissistic, paranoid, borderline adolescent and a pathological liar who is unable to distinguish reality from fantasy, all traits that of course make him especially unsuited to be president.  And so it was inevitable that as the flames of the Russia scandal lick ever hotter at the heels of his Guccis he would begin laying the groundwork for another of his most predicable traits: Shifting responsibility to others and then abandoning them to save his own sorry ass as he has done repeatedly over the years when business deals built on his houses of cards collapse and he finds himself in jeopardy.  
Although it did not get the attention it deserved -- at least it hasn't yet -- Trump and his very special scandal turned a significant corner on Thursday when he yet again whined that he is the victim of a "witch hunt," but for the first time added that "I cannot speak for others." 
This is Trump Code for distancing himself from associates (he has no friends, so they're always associates) who had contacts with Russians with more than a casual interest in Vladimir Putin's brilliant plan to turn American democracy on its ear by sabotaging the Hillary Clinton campaign.   
It is Trump's hope that as these associates lawyer up and hunker down in anticipation of being  flambeed -- with lengthy investigations, plea bargains in return for ratting him out and possibly even criminal trials as the logical next steps --  he can escape the ignominy of early retirement by disassociating himself from the very conspiracy he embraced and the co-conspirators he so enthusiastically aided and abetted.
Pathetic, isn't it? 
§  
The timing of Trump's tacit admission that there is something to that Russia scandal thingie but it doesn't involve his virginal self comes as his latest house of cards -- the Fawlty Towers of presidencies with all the pratfalls but not nearly as many laughs -- threatens to collapse. 
Trump's wounds are always self inflicted, and there have been some lulus in the past week and change since the biggest of them all -- his summary firing of FBI Director James Comey.
That pretense lasted for about as long as it took for the ink to dry on Deputy AG Ron Rosenstein's reverse-engineered "legal opinion" written at Trump's behest on why Comey should go.   
In short order, Rosenstein threatened to resign because he realized Trump has used him, Trump met with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador and boasted about highly classified information about ISIS, Comey's replacement told Congress that Trump was full of excrement and vowed that the FBI's probe would continue, Trump issued a veiled threat to Comey not to become leak happy and indicated he may have tapes of their conversations, Comey indicated a willingness to testify before Congress but only if it is in public, Trump contradicted his aides and acknowledged that the Russia scandal was the real reason Comey was sacked, Rosenstein named Robert Mueller as a special counsel to oversee Justice's Russia investigation, Reuters reported that FBI and congressional investigators say fired national security director Michael Flynn and other Trump campaign advisers were in contact with Russians on at least 18 occasions during the last seven months of the presidential race, Trump denied Comey's assertion that he pressured him to drop his investigation of Flynn, Flynn himself indicated that he would not honor a Senate intel committee subpoena, The Washington Post reported that a senior White House adviser close to Trump is a "significant person of interest" to investigators,   and the Watergate-Russia scandal comparisons began flying hot and heavy. 
"What we are witnessing," wrote Chris Cillizza of Trump's peregrinations on why he axed Comey, "is a rare political feat.  The flip, flop, re-flip and possible re-flop."  
§  
Trump's Come To Geez moment and the maelstrom swirling around him takes us only a little bit closer to what we so fervently wish: An end to the unrelenting fear that rules our lives (Are we at war yet, Daddy?) and the way his evil craziness has indelibly colored our country and culture.   
That would be impeachment or a forced resignation, while Mueller's appointment actually takes us further away from appointment of a special prosecutor.  Mueller is a special counsel and there is a big difference.  You can look it up. 
But we can take some solace that, in the meantime, the domestic agenda of Trump and congressional Republicans, to the extent they overlap, is effectively on hold.  And that some Republicans are trying out saying "President Mike Pence" while they soap their butt cracks in the shower in the morning to see how that feels.   
And Trump is leaving the country for a few days.  After all, what trouble could he get us in while overseas? 
On second thought . . .   

 Click HERE for a timeline of the Russia scandal.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Why I Do What I Do: Reflections On A Career, Two Presidents & Two Scandals

Separating what you would like to happen from what may happen is always difficult for a citizen-journalist journalist like myself, but in the case of Donald Trump it can be hazardous to your health.  
I’ll explain what I mean: I chose journalism over architecture as the vocation I wanted to pursue at the tender age of 17 because I was interested in public service.  Journalism — while not neatly comparable with social work, teaching or law enforcement — seemed like a way to give back.  I believe that it still is, and I have endeavored over a 50-year career to give back.  

Trump's evil craziness (crazy evilness?) has indelibly colored our lives, as well as our country and culture.  He has been figuratively and literally hazardous to my health and yours.  Moving beyond a sense of impotent outrage by fighting him in my own small way was what got me back on my feet after his shocking “victory” on November 8.  I was determined to push away the dark cynicism that threatened to paralyze me, and that was by continuing to doing what I do.   
As the U.S. spirals downward into a full-blown constitutional crisis — and we’re just about there if Trump cannot be checked — the comparisons with Watergate are coming hot and heavy even if in my view Trump is not half as smart as Richard Nixon was.  And that at its heart Watergate was indeed a “third-rate burglary,” as Tricky called it, that begat a draconian cover-up, while at its heart the Russia scandal that hopefully will bring down Cheeto Jesus is nothing less than an assault on the bedrock of American democracy, and no matter how awful the cover-up, that cover-up cannot  compare to the crime of colluding with the Kremlin to successfully sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

While I did not have a direct hand in Watergate coverage, I did produce my first of many investigative stories.  This was a piece on how the Nixon administration, through Attorney General John Mitchell, was abusing the grand jury system for political ends, which included indicting friend and Vietnam veteran Bill Patterson, who became one of the Gainesville Eight merely because he had demonstrated against the war at the 1972 Republican National Convention.  (The whole bunch of them were acquitted.)  
I never spoke to Mitchell himself, but I did get his notorious wife, Martha, on the phone at their Washington home one night.  Drunk as a skunk, as she frequently was said to be, she confirmed the thesis of my story while interjecting asides about what a “deplorable” man her husband was.  
That adjective remained stuck in my mind for another 45 years until Clinton accurately if inopportunely used it during the presidential campaign to describe Trump followers, who are wondering these days why none of the millions of jobs he promised to create have come to their burg.  Or any other burg for that matter.  If that liberal news media would just stop obsessing about Russia.   
One of the lingering, if small, disappointments in my life was on the night of August 8, 1974 after Nixon finally resigned, grinned manically and gave that trademark two-armed vee salute on the steps of Marine One on the White House lawn and flew off into well-deserved obscurity.  
I of course was elated that Nixon was gone.  But when I got to my watering hole -- the Deer Park Tavern in Newark, Delaware -- after putting the next day’s edition of the old Wilmington Morning News to bed, instead of the raucous celebration I had expected there was a funereal pall in the townie bar.  People were so relieved that the long national nightmare was over that they just wanted to get drunk in peace.  
I expect it will be much the same when Trump tucks his forked tail between his legs and scuttles back to his gilded Fifth Avenue penthouse.  
Power ultimately lies with us, the people, and not with the president even if Trump is trying to dismember the Constitution and cowardly congressional Republicans -- who are defecating in their Dockers at the prospect of James Comey testifying in public, not to mention the appointment of Robert Muller as a special counsel -- are banking on Trump hanging on long enough to help enact their deeply unpopular agenda.  It has not helped that the hapless Democrats have meekly followed the grassroots resistance to Trump and not led it.   
We can hope that when the trickle of leaks to citizen-journalists from the people surrounding Trump with consciences turns into a flood, which I believe it will in the coming days, that the Grande Guignol of presidencies comes to an end and we are able to escape this second long national nightmare.   
Regardless, I intend to keep on doing what I do.  Thank you for your support.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Surprise! Chaos Engulfs The White House As Trump Blabs Secret Intel To Russians

THIS IMAGE NOT TAKEN BY A U.S. PHOTOGRAPHER
Just so you know before you get your liberal undies totally in a knot, it's not against the law for the president of the Untied . . er, United States to blab top-secret intelligence to two high ranking diplomats for your country's greatest adversary, one a known spy deeply enmeshed in the Russia scandal that is slowly nibbling away at his presidency.  But if anyone else did the same thing, they would of course be toast.   
Let's not get hung up on this . . . well, quirk in the U.S. Code, because it is merely a distraction.   
What matters is that Donald Trump has yet again outdone himself in revealing his staggering incompetence.  In doing so, he has set a new standard for hypocrisy of the most dangerous and traitorous kind in repeatedly declaring as a candidate that Hillary Clinton should be jailed for mishandling classified information, although there was never evidence that she did or shared it with an ally, let alone an enemy, and now as commander in chief has boastfully divulged top-secret classified information and jeopardized a critical source of intelligence to an unambiguously vile enemy who has repeatedly coopted American interests because of his complicity. 
As a PR person might say, the optics of what we now know happened in the Oval Office last Wednesday morning are awful.  Sadly awful, as the president himself might say.   
It looked bad enough that Trump's first visitors in the wake of him firing FBI Director James Comey were Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. ambassador and known spy Sergey Kislyak, whose multiple contacts with Trump associates during the presidential campaign and transition are one of the focuses an investigation led by Comey that was getting much too close for comfort for the president, who later threatened him with revealing secret tapes if he spoke out.   
It looked even worse that Trump excluded U.S. photographers from the meeting -- a questionable decision itself -- and so the only media presence was a photographer from Tass, a Russian news agency that is a glorified spy shop.
But then Trump went off script and into the rough.  Starved for attention, he bragged to the diplomats and their aides that "I get great intel.  I have people brief me on great intel every day."   
He elaborated on his boast by revealing an Islamic State plot disclosed to U.S. intelligence by a Middle Eastern ally that closely guards its own secrets.  Israel was my correct guess.  The intel was so sensitive that American officials did not even share it widely within the U.S. government or pass it on to other allies, and Trump's disclosure to the Russians of the city where the ISIS plot was being hatched was especially damaging.   
There is a bitter irony to the fact Israel was the secret U.S. partner.  Reports in the Israeli press from January said U.S. intelligence officials had warned their Israeli counterparts about sharing intelligence with Trump because of fears he might share such intel with Russia.  The president is scheduled to make a whirlwind trip to the Jewish state on May 22.
The U.S. and Russia both consider Syria to be an enemy, but have opposing geopolitical interests when it comes to Syria's long-running civil war, which has taken an estimated 470,000 lives.  Moscow defended Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad last month after a chemical attack by his air force killed more than 80 civilians in a rebel-held town, while Trump ordered a cruise missile strike in retaliation.  
A colleague suggests that what is so insidious about Trump's disclosure is that the information came from moles in Syria's own intelligence service that predate the civil war and the Russians will now out them to Assad. 
The White House pushback against the deeply sourced story published on Monday night in The Washington Post about Trump's boast was feeble and, in effect, confirmed the story.   
National security adviser H.R. McMaster, who replaced Michael Flynn after he was fired in part because of his secret meetings with Kislyak, read a statement to reporters with a pubic hair-width denial saying that "at no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed," but The Post's reporting didn't say they were.  McMaster refused to take questions and then walked back into a White House where shocked aides were literally said to be hiding in their offices.   
As if on cue, Trump contradicted McMaster and other aides by appearing to acknowledge in two tweets about 4 on Tuesday morning that The Post story was accurate and he had indeed shared highly sensitive information.  It is clear that as in innumerable past instances, he doesn't have a clue about what he did wrong.  
The Post also reported that a Homeland Security official called the directors of the CIA and NSA, the intelligence services most directly involved in intel-sharing with the ally, to try to contain the damage, while the problematic portions of Trump's discussion are to be stricken from internal memos and limited to a small number of recipients to prevent it from being further disseminated.   
Trump has repeatedly threatened to crack down on security leaks, but his own loosey-goosey attitude about sensitive information already is legendary.   
In February, the dining room at Mar-a-Lago became an open-air Situation Room when Trump fielded preliminary reports of a North Korean missile launch in full view of the Japanese prime minister and causal diners.  Later, the Army officer who carries the "nuclear football" posed for photographs with a Trump pal who posted one of them on Facebook. 
As I noted just the other day, wishful thinking will not hasten Trump's exit even after an outrage of this caliber.    
Invoking the 25th amendment, which allows for replacement of a president who is judged to be mentally unfit, would require Republican leaders to pull the trigger, and that is not going to happen.  Nor is impeachment with Congress firmly in Republican hands despite Trump's mounting list of impeachable offenses, of which obstructing justice by firing Comey and traitorously blabbing to the Russians certainly are.   
Sadly awful to say, Trump will survive this disaster even if some of his aides do not, while he has personally set back U.S. counterterrorism efforts against the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other groups while burning an ally in that effort.   
Press secretary Sean Spicer is on the verge of a meltdown as life imitates Saturday Night Live in what is commonly referred to as collateral damage.  The biggest victims of the disaster are the American people, while the greatest threat to national security is not illegal immigrants, Muslim refugees or even terrorists.  It's Donald Trump.

Click HERE for an index of previous Russia scandal-related posts
 and HERE for a timeline of the scandal.