Monday, December 31, 2018

'Keep Them Coming Till I Say Not To, Or Until You Throw Me Out . . . '

NEW YEAR'S EVE ON CHEW AVENUE 
(1962)
By ARNOLD SCHNABEL
It's New Year's Eve, it seems we've made it,
If only barely, through another year;
The terror, if not gone, has abated
Into a dull and grey persistent fear.
My mother’s sound asleep by eleven,
So I go to the VFW,
Shove to the bar of this drunkard's heaven,
And say, "Pat, if you please, I'll trouble you
For a Schmidt's, backed with an Old Forester,
And keep them coming till I say not to,
Or until you throw me out; whatever;
Do what your conscience says that you've got to."
I take that first sacred drink of cold beer:
"Happy new (let’s hope it’s not our last) year."
A tip of the Hatlo to Dan Leo and Arnold Schnabel.
Click HERE to learn more.  

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

How Trump Got It Wrong By Getting It Right With The Afghan, Syria Withdrawals

WIKIPEDIA COMMONS
There is an old Afghan folk tale that portrays a foreigner balancing two connected trays attached to the handheld weighing device used in South Asian bazaars.  The foreigner carefully loads one tray and then the other with frogs.  Just as he puts the last few frogs on one tray and then the other, some frogs on the first tray hop off.  As the foreigner returns those frogs to the tray, frogs on the second tray hop off or jump to the other tray.  Before long, all the frogs are in motion, moving in one direction or the other, and the foreigner gives up. 
Like the folk tale, the Afghanistan conundrum could not be simpler for all of its complexity.   What can the U.S. do differently than other great powers did over the millennia, including Alexander the Great, Mongols, Chinese, British and the Soviet Union, to bring a profoundly ungovernable country to heel?   
Put somewhat differently, what should Donald Trump do to avoid the continuing, reliably deadly stalemate in a now 17-year old conflict -- by far the longest war in American history-- that shows no sign of ending, other than what he did on December 19 in unilaterally ordering the withdrawal of 7,000 of the 11,000 American troops in Afghanistan and all 2,000 troops in Syria?
A shocked Marine Lieutenant General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the incoming commander of Central Command, had this to say: "If we left precipitously right now, I do not believe [the Afghan forces] would be able to successfully defend their country.  I don’t know how long it's going to take.  I think that one of the things that would actually provide the most damage to them would be if we put a timeline on it and we said we were going out at a certain point in time." 
But for once, I'm kind of sort of with Trump. 
This is because the answer is that no strategy will work in Afghanistan even if his order appeared to be yet another instance in which he was doing the bidding of Vladimir Putin since Russia, after the Taliban, would be the greatest beneficiary of an American pullout there.  (And Russia, after Bashir al-Assad and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, would be the greatest beneficiary of an American pullout in Syria.) 
My focus here is primarily on Afghanistan, something of which I know not a little as an historian, avid reader of the history of its history and deep skeptic of American foreign policy under Republican and Democratic presidents alike.     
This post-9/11 war, which in its most crucial early phase in 2002-2003 was robbed of materiel and men in service of the neocon wet dream of bringing democracy to Iraq, has taken about 2,300 American lives at a cost of more than $1 trillion, and another 1,200 lives of coalition soldiers, not including the thousands of GIs with severe physical and emotional problems who return home to a country, Veterans Affairs system and president ill equipped to deal with them. 
(On top of that $1 trillion to underwrite the Afghan misadventure, the U.S. has spent another $5 trillion to prosecute the so-called War on Terror.)  
Afghan casualty estimates are all over the place, but the consensus view is that they have passed 111,000 for soldiers, civilian and militants combined.  Meanwhile, the inept and deeply corrupt Afghan government controls barely half of the country.  The Taliban remain attractive to local tribal chieftains, the people who really run Afghanistan, because they are comparatively less corrupt, while the Afghan army is inept and has little loyalty to officers or the government.   
General McKenzie's reasoning is that since we've gotten nowhere in 17 years, we have to stay.  And the uproar over Trump's order from many of the same neocons that pushed Dubya to invade Iraq has been deafening. 
I would like to think Trump's order is actually kind of shrewd as it pertain to Putin because both the Syrian and Afghan quagmires will be an enormous drain on the Kremlin budget and his already marginal popularity, but we should know better. 
I also would like to think that Trump's order is a break with the decades-old Republican doctrine of Forever War, that perfect imperialist manifestation of Pentagon-defense contractor collaboration, as well as collective amnesia regarding the last disastrous war. Iraq?  Was there a war in Iraq?  Vietnam? Was there . . .  But again we should know better. 
In this light, the resignation-in-protest of James Mattis as defense secretary would seem to be a not-bad thing, but yet again we should know better.  Former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan, Mattis's acting replacement, has zero foreign policy or military experience, but is a personification of the Forever War doctrine.  And Trump's failure to consult American allies about the withdrawals is not the doing of a maverick who is forging a new and long-overdue American foreign policy.  (Oh, wait!  Trump did consult with the vile Benjamin Netanyahu and Erdoğan.)   
No, Trump's failure to consult and his order are more knee-jerk reactions from a man profoundly unfit to be commander in chief.  Besides which, there always will be another unwinnable war to fight if the generals and defense contractors get too uppity.   
As no less an eminence than John McCain sang, "Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran!"        

Dick Codor's Cartoon du Jour

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Another Trumpian Milestone: Has Ever A Nervous Breakdown Been So Obvious?

AL DRAGO FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
How are you spending your holidays?  Perhaps you are visiting friends.  Volunteering in a soup kitchen.  Getting tipsy on egg nog.  Kissing under the mistletoe.  Struggling to assemble a child's first bicycle. Attending a midnight church service.  Whatever it is, you aren't holing up in the White House wringing your presidential hankie and spreading Yuletide gloom tweeting out woes such as, "I am all alone (poor me) . . . waiting for the Democrats to come back and make a deal on desperately needed Border Security." 
Grievances have spilled from Donald Trump like crude oil from a ruptured pipeline in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as he spent the run-up to Christmas Day cowering in his bunker.   
Trump whined about the government shutdown that he alone had provoked.  He whined about the blowback from his summary execution of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.   He whined about "Little Bob Corker," the outgoing Republican senator who rebuked him over his Syria pullout order.  And he whined about the stock market closing out its worst December since 1931 with an enormous sell-off, blaming the Federal Reserve and likening the central bank to a golfer who "can’t putt."   
If there was to be a moment of levity amidst all the holiday whining, it should have been when the Big White Hat, who gave America those hideous blood-red Christmas trees, jetted back from Mar-a-Lago to join the president in the State Dining Room to make calls as part of NORAD's annual Santa-tracking program. 
What could go wrong?
Answering a call from a 7-year-old named Coleman, it went badly wrong when Trump asked:
Are you still a believer in Santa?  Because at seven it's marginal, right?
We don't know Coleman's reaction to the president's suggestion that his parents had been lying to him.  I was happily enveloped in the Santa Fantasy Fog at that age, but kids are exposed to all kinds of plot spoilers today, so perhaps Coleman wasn't shocked over Trump's faux pas even if we were.  (It later turned out that she didn't know what the word "marginal" meant.)   
After all, he warned us that he was going to shake up Washington.  But nuke our most sacred covenant with kids?  
Has any one man's nervous breakdown ever been so copiously documented?  Have we ever felt less sorry for someone at a time of year when compassion and forgiveness are supposed to banish less pure feelings? 
And isn't it time for an intervention?

Joyeux Noel et bonne année de Kiko’s House à vous

STATE THEATER, NEWARK, DELAWARE (ca. 1980)

Monday, December 24, 2018

My Friend Nick & The Silent Epidemic That Is Killing Our Iraq & Afghan War Vets


(I am reposting this 10-year-old piece because Mary, Nick's wonderful
 and long-suffering wife, passed on December 20.  Nora, their teacher 
daughter, has used a version of this post as a classroom aid.)
Nick was never the same after Vietnam.  He would lapse into deep depressions.  He let his teeth go, chain smoked cigarettes and pot and drank way too much booze, fought with his wife and would leave home for days at a time after suffering nightmares about the people that he had killed and seen killed.  
I was one of the very few people who knew about Nick's Vietnam experience.  It was horrific -- skippering a Navy river boat that patrolled the Mekong River.  You know what I'm talking about if you've seen Apocalypse Now.  Nick lived Apocalypse Now.  
It helped that Nick eventually was diagnosed with a condition that was long known as Shell Shock, among other misleading names, but has only fairly recently been given a fancy clinical name -- post traumatic stress disorder.   Even with the Veterans Administration's tough standards, Nick was an obvious candidate for 100 percent disability and got it, but I have to wonder if he would be so fortunate today.  
§   
The psychiatric fallout from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan long ago reached epidemic proportions, but it has remained a largely silent epidemic, poking its hydra head into our lives only when a returning vet loses his shit and shoots up a convenience store or you notice the flashing lights of an ambulance down your quiet suburban street and see the body of a returning vet on a gurney being wheeled from a garage after he ended it all by sucking automobile exhaust fumes.  
The breadth and depth of this epidemic is extraordinary: The number of suicides from the twin wars may exceed the combat death tolls because of inadequate psychiatric care, although those numbers aren't even being accurately calculated because of VA cover-ups.  
The VA itself estimates that 11 percent of Gulf War vets, 31 percent of Iraq war vets and 10 percent of Afghan war vets suffer from PTSD, but that is a conservative estimate and other observers believe that the number is much higher.  
§   
Author Ilona Meagher talks and writes about PTSD and frequently opens book events by listing a few of the 80 or so names for the disorder in the popular lexicon.  These include Old Sergeant Syndrome, Railway Spine, Buck Fever, Swiss Disease and War Syndrome in addition to Shell Shock.  
The multitude of names tell us a couple of things.  First, that each generation has to rediscover the horrors of PTSD.  And second, each generation does not want to have to deal with those horrors.  
Part of this is because there is disagreement among some clinicians about what exactly PTSD is. Part of this also is that "cowardice" is never far away in discussing PTSD.  
The notion that "you have to be a man" and not admit to pain or emotional distress runs deep in the military psyche, and begins to explain why there were so many cases of soldiers in Iraq being punished for saying that they had emotional problems, which is one of the war's more obscene legacies.  
While I did not expect my sergeant to kiss my boo-boo or read me a bedtime story, my one (non-combat) injury while serving in the Army was treated with disdain and ridicule even though I bucked up and tried hard to be a man.  
Meagher cuts to the chase when she writes:  
"The reality is that combat PTSD – or whatever we once called it, or whatever we're going to call it next – calls into question the human reliance on war to solve our problems.  
"While we may wish that our smart bombs and our superior military power will so overwhelm our enemies that our wars can be clean, quick and painless – and without any blowback on us or those we’ve sent to fight in them – there's no debating that war trauma has always existed, and it will exist as long as we wage war.  In many aspects, the war trauma of today can be more debilitating that that of previous eras . . . but a lingering shock to the system following combat has been a common thread that ties each generation to the next."  
§   
Nick would go fishing when he would run away from home, sometimes to a "secret" pool on a slow-running creek during trout season, and sometimes to the ocean where he would let the air out of the tires of his old GMC Suburban, drive onto a desolate stretch of beach and surf fish to his heart's content.  
Like I said, I was one of the very few people who knew about Nick's Vietnam experience.  I suppose that's because he respected me.  I  occasionally wrote about his favorite topic -- the weather, and Nick always had the Weather Channel on at home.  I would put up with his bullshit when he was in one of his moods, and I had known his first wife, who had confided to me that Nick would nightmare over accidentally killing a little Vietnamese girl.   
Nick and I were sitting in our neighborhood bar one afternoon.  It was nearly deserted. Nick was especially melancholy and had little to say as he chain smoked Marlboro Lights and sipped on rum and Cokes in seven-ounce rocks glasses.  
A creature of habit, Nick always drank Mount Gay rum and Coke in a seven-ounce rocks glass with a certain amount of ice.  He drove bartenders crazy over the ice and had to train newbies when they gave him too little ice or too much ice.  Nick had calculated how much ice it took to keep a drink cold but not dilute the rum before could finish it.   
Nick always wore a starched and ironed Oxford cloth open-collar shirt, never a T-shirt, and dressed immaculately even as his teeth were falling out, a reflection I suppose of a need for order because of the utter disorder of his bloody tour on the Mekong to the constant struggle for order in his daily life as a husband to "Wifey," which is what he always called his adored and soft-spoken wife, and as a father.  
I was drinking a beer, watching the smoke from Nick's cigarettes slowly ascend through shafts of sunlight toward the nicotine-stained ceiling while silently looking forward to a state-mandated indoor smoking ban that would soon take effect when he asked me if I had ever seen a dead person.  
I explained that I had seen a few too many in the Army but many more as a longtime big-city newspaper reporter and editor.  Fire and murder victims, mob hits, a plane crash, that kind of stuff.  
He then asked me if I had ever seen a dead child.  
Once in my youth when a kid fell into a water-filled construction ditch and drowned and twice at fire scenes, I replied.  
"But never a child with a sucking chest wound," he said, referring to the consequence of being hit with an M-16 rifle round that opens a massive hole in the chest and collapses the lungs.  
"No," I replied.  
Nick looked away from me.  When he turned back a single tear had formed in the corner of one eye. It rolled down his cheek and splattered on the bar.  
When Nick died at age 58 in 2004, he was finally at peace.  He was buried with full military honors.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

How The Right-Wing Claim Of FBI Entrapment Backfired Badly On Michael Flynn

DANA VANCOUTEREN / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
How silly of me to think that I could give the Russia scandal a rest as the holidaze approached.  I tried.  How I tried.  But reality intervened in the form of Michael Flynn's sentencing non-sentencing on Tuesday, and what happened in U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan's courtroom during what was supposed to be a routine proceeding has outsized importance because it may have been the last gasp of the right-wing fever swampers who share Donald Trump's view that the scandal is a hoax and Flynn was set up by the FBI. Not that they won't keep trying. 
The fever swampers have come up with outlandish conspiracy theories, one after another, to support their fact-free claim that the scandal is nothing less than a deep-state plot to avenge Hillary Clinton's loss and undermine the Trump presidency with Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his FBI cohorts secretly calling the shots.   Something, anything to stop the prosecutorial locomotive bearing down on Trump and members of his family and presidential campaign.    
There was the claim that a FISA Court warrant against Trump campaign aide Carter Page was invented out of thin air.  Debunked.  That the Steele Dossier was a tapestry of lies and had prompted the FBI to begin its investigation.  Debunked.  And who could forget the claim that Barack Obama had ordered Trump's phones to be tapped at Trump Tower? Debunked.   
This brings us to the latest theory: That Flynn had been the victim of intimidation and a "perjury trap" when two FBI agents interviewed him in his new West Wing office on January 24, 2017, four days after Trump's inauguration, after he had been named national security adviser despite warnings that he was badly damaged goods and susceptible to blackmail by Russian (and, as it turns out, by Turkey, too.)   
Then last week in a pre-sentencing memorandum to Sullivan, Flynn's lawyers implied that the FBI acted improperly in interviewing him and he had been tricked into lying when he denied that he and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak had discussed Trump lifting Obama administration-imposed sanctions as a favor to his buddy Vladimir Putin.  Which they indeed had. 
Some of Flynn's more fevered allies, including the president himself, speculated that Sullivan, who has a reputation for being a hard-ass when it comes to prosecutorial misconduct, might vacate Flynn's conviction for lying to the agents, which Mueller had parlayed into a deal under which Flynn has been cooperating.  And cooperating and cooperating, some 17 interviews with prosecutors in all, which prompted the special counsel to recommend in his own pre-sentencing memorandum to Sullivan that Flynn receive no jail time.   
"I think it’s a great thing that the judge is looking into that situation," Trump told reporters, and the president tweeted "good luck" to Flynn early Tuesday as he headed to court.  On Fox News, Trump ally and former judge Jeanine Pirro predicted Sullivan would throw out Flynn’s conviction because of tainted evidence, while the Wall Street Journal harped in an editorial that the FBI's treatment of Flynn "reeks of entrapment" and called on Sullivan to "question the entire plea deal" and Eli Lake wrote a column in Bloomberg Opinion declaring that Flynn, "defamed as a Russian agent and mocked as a bumbling Benedict Arnold," was owed an apology.  
Flynn, of course, is not just another lowlife and grifter who was attracted to the deeply corrupt Trump like a moth to a flame as have so many others.  He is a war hero and retired three-star general.  He also is, along with Michael Cohen, one of the key Trump campaign insiders to be flipped. 
Pirro was correct in noting that Sullivan is "a man who does not tolerate injustice or abuse of power," but not in the way she intended.  This is because from the moment Sullivan gaveled court to order, things quickly went south for Flynn and the conspiracy freaks as the judge condemned Flynn as the abuser of power in this case. 
Sullivan instructed his bailiff to swear in Flynn, which is routine when a defendant takes the stand at a trial or when pleading for a lighter sentence at a trial's end, but is an extremely unusual step at a sentencing.  And so Sullivan, the longest-serving active federal judge on the D.C. District Court, himself set a "perjury trap," in effect daring Flynn to lie some more. 
Flynn, his jaw clenched and his lawyers sweating bullets, listened as Sullivan methodically punctured the theory that Flynn was the victim of deep-state persecution as he read aloud an inventory of Flynn's lies and expressed his "disgust" that Trump's national security adviser sought to deceive FBI agents while "on the premises of the White House." 
Sullivan reminded Flynn that lying to the FBI is against the law and people who work in the White House are supposed to be held to a higher standard.   "This is a very serious offense," he told Flynn even after Mueller's prosecutors reminded the judge that they believed that Flynn should face little to no incarceration because of his cooperation.
The judge then pointed to the American flag behind his bench and told the decorated combat veteran that he had undermined it: "Arguably, you sold your country out." 
Sullivan wasn't finished. 
He said it appeared that Flynn was trying to have it both ways -- to take a generous plea deal even as his lawyers hinted that he might have been entrapped -- although FBI records showed Flynn had repeatedly lied to agents despite knowing it was a crime to do so.   
"You understand why" I was concerned, the judge told Flynn's attorney Robert Kelner. "This sounds like a backpedaling on the acceptance of responsibility." 
Kelner replied that he and co-counsel Steven Anthony were merely trying to show in their memorandum how Flynn was different from other perps who have admitted lying to Mueller's investigators because the FBI agents did not warn him he was under investigation and that he did not have an attorney present to advise him.  
But Sullivan wasn't buying, saying Flynn should be held to a higher standard.  "He was a high-ranking government official, advising the president of the United States.  I'm not hiding my disgust, my disdain, for this criminal offense." 
Sullivan still wasn't finished. 
He repeatedly asked Flynn whether he felt misled by investigators at any point.  Flynn replied that he did not, and Sullivan warned him that he believed Mueller's recommendation that Flynn serve little to no prison time was probably too kind.   
"I can't promise you a sentence that involves no jail time," the judge said before calling
a 30-minute recess so Flynn could confer with his lawyers.  (Under federal sentencing guidelines, Sullivan could sentence him to up to five years.) 
Clearly chastened, Flynn returned to court and agreed to a delay in sentencing until a later date and said he would continue cooperating, thereby avoiding Sullivan's "perjury trap."
Sullivan took one last shot at Flynn as the hearing ended. 
Noting that there had been no restrictions on Flynn's ability to travel, Sullivan wrote an order that beginning January 4, that he will no longer be allowed to travel more than 50 miles outside Washington without permission.  And will have to surrender his passport.

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.      

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Richard Codor's Cartoon du Jour

An Investigation Here, A Probe There & Pretty Soon You Have A Real Scandal

SLATE
There have been several yummy moments in the Russia scandal, although none will be as delicious as when Donald Trump finally goes down.  But until that moment arrives, we can relish the fact that not only have many of the president's associates turned on him, but so has the supermarket tabloid that was so instrumental in making him. 
I speak, of course, of the National Enquirer, which admitted to federal prosecutors last week in a non-prosecution agreement that it had acted as a dirty-tricks shop for candidate Trump in making a $150,000 catch-and-kill payment to Playboy centerfold Karen McDougal to keep her from blabbing about her affair with Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election.  That, of course, is not the half of it as the Enquirer was a Russian troll's wet dream in running extraordinarily sleazy and spurious ("fake news"!) stories as the campaign ground to a sickening end. 
Cover stories declaring that Hillary was "Corrupt!" "Racist!" "Eating Herself To Death!" "Suffered Three Strokes" "Has Violent  Rages!" "Stricken With Liver Damage From Booze!"  And so on and so forth. 
The non-prosecution agreement between the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, the folks who kneecapped Michael Cohen for his role in hush money payments, and American Media Inc., the Enquirer's corporate parent, gives AMI in general and David Pecker, its chief executive and now former Trump confidant in particular, immunity from prosecution for its participation in a campaign finance violation in exchange for cooperation in the ongoing investigation of that crime.   
But what is most important about this ongoing investigation is that it can lead in only one direction -- right into Trump's wheelhouse. 
As Charles Pierce has so divinely noted, the president "Has no friends anymore, only witnesses.  There are an extraordinary seventeen separate investigations ongoing, according to Wired magazine.  For those of you keeping score at home, these investigations -- and they're just the ones we know about -- include:
SPECIAL COUNSEL ROBERT MUELLER 
(1.) Russian government election attacks, including cyber intrusions and data thefts, an ongoing investigation into contacts between Russians and the Trump campaign, including what candidate Trump knew.  STATUS: 12 Russian intelligence officers, 13 Russian nationals and three companies indicted, one guilty plea.  Several individuals, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, are cooperating with prosecutors.  
(2.) WikiLeaks' publication of emails stolen from Clinton and other Democrats by Russian hackers, possibly in coordination with the Trump campaign.  STATUS: Indictment of Julian Assange and others expected. 
(3.) Middle Eastern influence targeting the Trump campaign and centering on the role of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel, including business ties to Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner.  STATUS: No public court action yet, but several individuals are cooperating, including George Nasser and Erik Prince. 
(4.) Paul Manafort's activities, including a sweeping money laundering indictment of Trump's former campaign chairman and investigations of Manafort associate and suspected Russian spy Konstantin Kilimnik and Trump inauguration committee chairman Tom Barrack.  STATUS: Manafort has been convicted at trial of eight felonies.  Cooperating individuals include Manafort associate and former campaign deputy chairman Rick Gates. 
(5.) The Trump Tower Moscow hotel-spa project, which was worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Trump, extended far into the campaign and included negotiations with close Vladimir Putin associates.  STATUS: Cohen has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the project and is cooperating.  Donald Trump Jr. may face legal exposure.
(6.) The June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians promising "dirt" on Clinton, as well as at least 13 other Russia-campaign contacts, some including campaign aide Carter Page and future AG Jeff Sessions.  STATUS:  Flynn and campaign aide George Papadopoulos have pleaded guilty.  Cooperating individuals include Cohen and Flynn.    
(7.) Obstruction of justice by Trump, including his firing of FBI director James Comey and numerous public statements made to intentionally mislead the public in an attempt to limit the scope of the Russia investigation.  STATUS: Even if there is enough evidence to bring a case, it will likely be passed on to Congress to consider as an article of impeachment. 
U.S. ATTY -- SOUTHERN DISTRICT of NEW YORK 
(8.) Campaign conspiracy and Trump Organization finances, including hush money payments and other financial shenanigans.  STATUS: Cohen has pleaded guilty.  Cohen, AMI's Pecker and Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg are cooperating.
(9.) Inauguration funding, including how the record $107 million raised was spent by the Trump inauguration committee and whether Russian oligarchs and other Eastern European businessmen illegally helped fund the event.  STATUS: No public court action yet, but Manafort associate Samuel Patten is cooperating.  
(10.) Funding irregularities involving Rebuilding America Now, a Trump SuperPAC related to the inauguration in which Manafort played a role. STATUS: No public court action yet, but Patten is cooperating. 
(11.) Foreign lobbying involving Tony Podesta, Vin Weber, and Greg Craig, and whether they allegedly failed to register as foreign agents for work related to Ukraine.  STATUS: Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan has pleaded guilty about his contacts with Gates, who is cooperating.
U.S. ATTY -- WASHINGTON, D.C. 
(12.) Mariia Butina and the National Rifle Association, including whether the Russian foreign agent enlisted boyfriend and Republican operative Paul Erickson to use the NRA as a conduit for Russian money going to the Trump campaign.  STATUS: Erickson is likely to be indicted, while Butina has pleaded guilty to being a foreign agent and is cooperating. 
U.S. ATTY -- EASTERN DISTRICT of VIRGINIA 
(13.) Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynove, alleged chief account for the Russian Internet Research Agency troll farm, is being investigated for meddling in the 2018 midterm elections.  STATUS: Khusyaynova has been indicted, but why she is being prosecuted separately is a mystery. 
(14.) Illegal influence by the Turkish government, including a campaign against exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, and a plot to kidnap and return him to Turkey.  STATUS: No public court action yet, but Flynn has testified extensively about the role his consulting business played. 
OTHER INVESTIGATIONS 
(15.) The New York State Tax Department is investigating an allegation that Trump benefited from upwards of $400 million in tax schemes.  STATUS: Unknown, but Cohen is believed to be cooperating. 
(16.) The Donald J. Trump Foundation, which is being sued by the New York attorney general for sweeping violations of  campaign finance laws, self-dealing and illegal coordination with the presidential campaign.  STATUS: Trump has agreed to shut down the foundation  while the lawsuit has cleared several preliminary hurdles and is proceeding.  
(17.) A lawsuit filed by the attorneys general of Maryland and Washington charging that Trump is in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits the president from accepting payments from foreign powers while in office. This included the purchase of more than 500 hotel rooms by the Saudi government at Trump's Washington hotel in the months after the election.  STATUS: The lawsuit is in the discovery phrase and is proceeding. 
No president has faced a legal assault so staggering nor has had a defense counsel as comically inept as Rudy Giuliani, who declared over the weekend that Trump's many lies pertaining to the scandal don't matter because he wasn't under oath. 
While Flynn's sentencing on Tuesday for lying about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak was postponed after he was rebuked by the judge, Mueller and other prosecutors are moving right along.  They have netted three sentencings, one conviction at trial, eight guilty pleas and charges against 38 people and business entities with a total of 196 criminal counts.  
And the best certainly is yet to come as prosecutors close in on the president and the innermost of his inner circle.  

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Yet Another Scandal Mind Blower: Russia Redoubled Its Efforts After Trump Won

Just when we think that our minds can no longer be blown, along comes a new Russia scandal revelation that yet again puts the lie to that notion.  This time it is the draft of a Senate committee report concluding that Russia used every available social media platform to elect Donald Trump, no big news there, but that it has worked even harder to support him since he has been in in office.  Mind blowing to be sure on its very own, but most especially because it begs a very big question: What have Trump and his associates been doing to aid and abet that effort? 
In struggling to answer that question, I go immediately to two meetings -- and there probably were more -- in the weeks following Trump's improbable victory in which Trump's surrogates sought to set up secret backchannels so Trump could communicate with the Kremlin away from the prying ears and eyes of U.S. intelligence agencies. 
"The Russian Witch Hunt Hoax, started as the 'insurance policy' long before I even got elected, is very bad for our Country," Trump declared in yet another Twitter outburst on Sunday shortly before a draft of the report was published by The Washington Post.   
Trump has continued to slavishly support Vladimir Putin, unsuccessfully tried to undermine a regime of U.S. sanctions that have impacted on Russia's struggling economy and Putin's faltering popularity and sought to downplay repeated warnings from his own intelligence officials of continued Russian meddling.  This gives substance to the report's conclusion that Russia's social media efforts on Trump's behalf actually increased after he became president.   
This increase, I conclude, may have been as much continuing a proven disinformation campaign central to Putin's strategy of enhancing Russia's power and prestige at the expense of the U.S. and West that had worked so well during the campaign than specifically continuing to support Trump. 
The report is the first to study the millions of posts provided by major technology firms, primarily Facebook, Twitter and Google, but also including Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest and Vine.  
The Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been a rare bipartisan outlier among Republican-dominated congressional committees that have ignored overwhelming evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election to help elect Trump, plans to release the report publicly later this week. 
The report, prepared by Oxford University's Computational Propaganda Project and Graphika, a network analysis firm, further confirms the extensive use of social media by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm that created social media accounts under fake names on virtually every available platform.  Its major goal was to support Trump, first against his Republican rivals in the presidential race, then against Hillary Clinton in the general election, and as president since his inauguration.   
In February, Special Counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russian nationals and three companies associated with the Internet Research Agency with illegally using social media to sew discord in the election through undermining the campaign of Clinton by energizing conservatives on issues such as gun rights and immigration, while diminishing the political clout of African-American voters by discouraging them from voting.
The big surprise in the report is that while the use of social media shifted over time, peaking at key political moments such as presidential debates or party conventions, the barrage not only did not abate after Trump won, but increased after he was inaugurated.  Indeed, there is evidence that the disinformation campaign ramped up as the 2018 midterm elections approached.   
The first of the two known meetings to set up backchannels occurred on December 1, 2016, three weeks after the election, when Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and national security adviser-designate Michael Flynn met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak at Trump Tower.  They discuss easing Obama administration-imposed sanctions and Kushner proposed that a secret communications channel be set up between the Trump transition team and Kremlin using Russian diplomatic facilities in the U.S. to shield their discussions from monitoring.  
The second meeting occurred on January 11, 2017, 10 days before the inauguration, when Blackwater founder Erik Prince Prince, working as an emissary for Trump, met secretly with Kirill Dmitriev, a Russian banker said to be close to Putin, in the Seychelles islands in an effort to establish a backchannel line of communication between Moscow and the president-elect.  Also present was Lebanese-American businessman and influence peddler George Nader, who convened the meeting. 
Flynn and Nader both have become cooperating witnesses in Mueller's investigation, which has netted three sentencings, one conviction at trial, eight guilty pleas and charges against 38 people and business entities with a total of 196 criminal counts as he closes in on the president and his inner circle.   
The report concurred with the U.S. intelligence community's 2017 finding that Russia aimed to assist Trump, a conclusion hotly disputed by Trump and many congressional Republicans, notably Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee 
 The data sets used by the report's researchers were provided by Facebook, Twitter and Google and covered several years up to mid-2017, when the social media companies finally cracked down on the known Russian accounts.  
"What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party— and specifically Donald Trump," the report said.  "Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign.  The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting." 
"Social media have gone from being the natural infrastructure for sharing collective grievances and coordinating civic engagement to being a computational tool for social control, manipulated by canny political consultants and available to politicians in democracies and dictatorships alike," the report added. 
The report's authors, while relying on data provided by the technology companies, said their response to the Russian disinformation campaign was "belated and uncoordinated" and, once it was discovered, the companies failed to share more information with investigators, criticisms that have been repeatedly made in investigations into the complicity of the profits-driven companies in the Kremlin's campaign.   
The authors also noted that the data includes evidence of sloppiness by the Russians that could have led to earlier detection, including the use of the ruble to buy ads and Russian phone numbers for contact information.  The trolls also left behind technical signatures in computerized logs, such as Internet addresses in St. Petersburg, where the IRA was based, but the companies were extremely slow to act. 
A second report commissioned by the Senate committee and released on Monday concluded that the Russian influence campaign made an extraordinary effort to suppress the African-American vote, unleashing a blizzard of posts on Instagram that rivaled or exceeded its Facebook operations, and also sought to smear Mueller.  
Renee DiResta, one of the authors of the report by the cybersecurity company New Knowledge, said the Internet Research Agency "leveraged pre-existing, legitimate grievances wherever they could."  As the Trump-Clinton race heated up and the Black Lives Matter movement became a center of attention in the United States, Russian operation took advantage of it, DiResta said,  and added "Blue Lives Matter" material when a pro-police pushback emerged.  
It may be no coincidence that black voter turnout declined in 2016 for the first time in 20 years. 
Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr, a Republican, concurred with the findings. 
"This newly released data demonstrates how aggressively Russia sought to divide Americans by race, religion and ideology, and how the IRA actively worked to erode trust in our democratic institutions," he said.   "Most troublingly, it shows that these activities have not stopped." 

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