Friday, March 31, 2017

The Russia Scandal Has Always Been All About The Money -- Just Like Trump

Despite its many twists and turns, the Russia scandal that has engulfed the White House and isn't letting go -- certainly not now that the Senate Intelligence Committee has joined the FBI in launching a full-scale investigation -- always has been all about the money. This is because Donald Trump always has been all about the money, and the outcome of investigators' labors will be determined by how far they are able to follow the money. 
Trump's infatuation with Russia has had much less to do with his admiration for Vladimir Putin's autocratic ways, although that is a factor, than the art of the deal and Trump's lifelong addiction to greed.  That is, making, losing and then making more money in the service of gratifying an insatiable narcissism.  Post-Soviet Union Russia is merely a big crack house for Trump where he has been able to feed his addiction without the cops looking over his shoulder.  Until now.   
Even without the benefit of Trump's jealously guarded federal income tax returns, there is no doubt that while the pathological liar-in-chief continues to claim that he has done no business with Russia -- oh, and Kenyan-born Barack Obama ordered his Trump Tower phones to be tapped -- he and his associates have cut deals worth many millions, if not billions, of dollars and rubles with officials, oligarchs and other businesspeople from Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet satellite republics.  USA Today reported this week at at least 10 of those business partners are out and out mobsters.   
Helping Putin manipulate the outcome of the 2016 presidential election by sabotaging Hillary Clinton was never Trump's primary motivation, and that likely will become glaringly obvious as the Senate and FBI investigations spool out.   
The Kremlin's sabotage of the foundation stone of America democracy was a bonus, if you will, of Trump's years-long business dealings behind the former Iron Curtain, while the willing participation of his surrogates with his acquiescence, if not direct involvement, was a consequence of the darkest of the dark side of his Russian dealmaking: While Trump has always believed himself to be the smartest guy in the room, Putin has played this ignoramus from Queens for a fool in cultivating, supporting and assisting him for so long that he has personal and financial kompromat (compromising information) on the now leader of his global arch enemy that can be leveraged.  Like helping to undermine the election.   
This is the nut of the Steele dossier and Sergei Millian (photo above) is the . . . uh, nut. 
Christopher Steele is the former British spy whose report on Putin's sock puppetry of Trump was believed to be so accurate that the FBI was prepared to pay him to keep digging, an arrangement that was interrupted when the dossier became the subject of news stories and vehement White House denials, and Steele had to go to ground.   
Millian was identified as "Source D" in Steele's dossier by the Wall Street Journal and later confirmed by the Washington Post.  He told an associate that some of the Russian officials with whom Trump had long-standing relationships were feeding him damaging and "very helpful" information about Hillary Clinton they had gleaned from the Kremlin's multi-pronged effort to influence the outcome of the election.  Unbeknownst to Millian, the associate passed on what he had heard to Steele.   
It is not definitely known who that message bearer was, but the smart money would go with Oleg Erovinkin, who was found dead in the back seat of his Lexus in Moscow last December 26 in what almost certainly was one of 10 or so suspicious deaths linked to the scandal but was claimed to be a heart attack by officials, which is the default cause of death in political murders. 
The problem with Millian, like so many other characters in this soap opera of a scandal is that he is credible in some respects and uncredible in others.   
The Belarusan-American businessman is undeniably shrewd.  He founded the Russian American Chamber of Commerce trade group and is well connected.  Among those connections are George Padaopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser.  But Millian likes to shoot off his mouth, and among the dirt he is said to have given Steele via the mystery messenger is the explosive allegation that Trump hired prostitutes at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton for some kinky sex during a 2013 visit and the Kremlin has evidence of the encounter that it is holding over his head.   
When Trump first announced his candidacy, Millian said he knew Trump and had had multiple contracts with the Trump Organization in the past, including several with Michael Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer.  Millian traveled to Moscow over the summer and was seen with many Russian officials and businessmen, including aluminum oligarch and mobster Oleg Deripaska, who has become ensnared in the scandal.   
But Millian has portrayed himself more recently as an innocent bystander unwittingly caught up in an international intrigue. 
He went on Russian television in late January to deny having damaging information on Trump and responded to a list of questions from the WaPo with a rambling defense of Trump's election as "God's will" and now complains that inquiries about his role are evidence of a "witch hunt." 
Among Millian's other assertions are that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort managed the relationship between the campaign and Russian leadership, which has the ring of truth.   
Manafort denies that, and he has been unable to get out from under an investigation by bank officials in Cyprus regarding money laundering allegations based on his ties to Deripaska. This fits hand and glove with Manafort's well-documented $10 million a year deal with Deripaska to rehabilitate Putin's battered image outside of Russia.   
Cohen also denies that he knows Millian, but numerous Facebook interactions between the two indicate otherwise.   
Cohen was seen having coffee in a Manhattan hotel in February with Felix Sater, a Russian immigrant and FBI snitch with extensive Russian mob ties, and Andrii Artemenko, a wealthy oligarch and member of the Ukraine Parliament, on a Crimea "peace plan" that Cohen later delivered to then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn at the White House shortly before Flynn's unceremonious ouster.   
Flynn, a career intelligence officer, has now offered to be interviewed by scandal investigators, but only in return for a grant of immunity.   
"General Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should circumstances permit," Robert Kelner, his lawyer, said of an overture that betrays desperation on Flynn's part and should strike fear in Trump's heart because of the likelihood that Flynn knows a great deal about contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials.  The offer, however, probably is a non-starter this early in the Senate investigation, the full scope of which has yet to be determined, and if he eventually is granted immunity it is because Flynn can implicate a higher-up.   
In Flynn's case, there is only one higher-up -- the president of the United States.   
For what it may be worth, Kelner is a #NeverTrump Republican who voted for independent candidate Evan McMullin, but it is too early to know whether his offer is a big deal, just a deal, or even a smokescreen.
Millian gets credbility points, even if by default, because the Trump administration's denials -- whether concerning Jeff Sessions, Flynn, Cohen, Manafort, Millian and a host of other characters -- are so glaringly false, while its pushbacks like the cloak-and-dagger intrigue involving hapless House Intel Committee Chairman Devin Nunes on the White House grounds in an effort to bolster Trump's obsession that Obama wiretapped him seem comically amateurish.   
Trump cannot escape the scandal simply because there is something -- if not an awful lot of something -- to it.   
The Republican Party is at the peak of its political fortunes but finds itself paralyzed because its leader is a narcissistic nut case.  A government shutdown that only those mean Democrats can avert is less than a month away.  And now Michael Flynn apparently has defected as the White House leaking and backstabbing continues apace and the drip-drip-drip of damaging scandal revelations threaten to become a downpour. 
We have become so chary of politicians in this era of hyper-partisanship and reliably unkept promises that the Senate Intelligence Committee's fast start on the Russia scandal must be viewed with caution even if these guys are acting like grown-ups.   
That was a big takeaway from the panel's first public hearing on Thursday where we learned that Russian cyber-mischief continues unabated and that two Republicans -- Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan -- were targeted as recently as last week in the Kremlin's strategy of spreading propaganda in the U.S. and undermining its democratic institutions.   
The stakes could not be higher for America and Republican Party.   
We are talking about an investigation that is the most explosive since Soviet spies stole American atomic bomb secrets over 70 years ago.  We are taking about repeated and egregious security breaches by the White House staff as it scrambles to gin up increasingly preposterous ways to defend the boss's tweets.  We are talking about a president's deep ties with a criminal underworld.  And we are talking about an enormous credibility test for members of a political party who for decades portrayed Moscow as the great global Satan but have gone all mushy as their president kisses Putin's ass.   
Will Senate Intel Committee Republicans stay the course if the outcome of their inquiries could further weaken if not cripple Trump?   

Thursday, March 30, 2017

(UPDATED) Senators Vow Major Scandal Probe As Trump Lies, Bobs & Weaves

We have come to expect rabid partisanship from Republicans, who have spent the last eight years trying to undermine one president and the last 10 weeks trying to prop up another.  But partisanship does not begin to explain, let alone excuse, why these selfsame Republicans, who for decades portrayed Moscow as the great global Satan have now gone soft as Donald Trump doggy paddles in the filth of Vladimir Putin's efforts to influence the outcome of the 2016 election by commandeering the foundation stone of American democracy.  
These Republicans are, of course, lapel pin patriots whose dedication to flag and country, and now even their historic jingoism, evaporates when the political stakes are high.  And those stakes could not be higher for a president and party reeling from the Obamacare debacle, a dawning realization that the next item on their Make America Great Again agenda -- taxes cuts for corporations and the rich -- may suffer the same fate, that non-existent Democratic votes will be necessary to build the border wall and avoid a government shutdown next month, and that the 2018 elections could be as unkind to them as the 2016 elections were to the Democrats.   
But all of this is so much small beer compared to whether the president's campaign provided aid and comfort to the most hostile of foreign powers in trying to influence the election, and that kept getting lost in the borscht until there was a promising breakthrough on Wednesday. 
The ranking Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee have now promised an aggressive  investigation that they say will focus on whether Trump was involved in the now indisputable Russian election meddling, while any attempts by the White House to interfere as it has in the House probe will be rebuffed.   
We shall see. 
This stands in bold contrast to the House Intelligence Committee chaired by Devin Nunes, a seven-term congressman from California's San Joaquin Valley, a Republican hotbed that has not voted for a Democrat for president in many years but now has a narrow Hispanic majority, which begs the question of when or whether Nunes, who is of Portuguese descent, will put an accent and tilde n his surname although that is something that might get him deported to Mexico.
It can be assumed that Nunes or Núñes or whatever was pretty much phoning it in as chairman of the House committee, but his stroll in the mists of relative obscurity bumped into the inconvenience of the Russia scandal and has now suffered a far more jarring collision because of demands that he recuse himself from the panel's investigation. 
This is because Nunes is now viewed as being too close to Trump to be impartial, which may have something to do with revelations that, after switching cars and ditching aides as any sneaky sleuth would, someone had secretly admitted him to the White House grounds where he met secretly with a "source," who turn out to be three White House staffers with national security credentials, who showed him a secret report that U.S. spies, in the course of doing their secret jobs, may have incidentally swept up Trump or his associates as they engaged in legal foreign surveillance during the post-election transition period.    
There is no indication that Nunes, as a member of the transition team, was incidentally surveilled himself, although that would be a hoot given that he's been doing a pretty fair imitation of being a goofball and obviously is deep in the tank for The Donald.
It has not helped that Nunes, armed with a non-story obtained as the result of an egregious two-way security violation, first briefed the news media, then the president, and then the news media again before getting around to letting committee Democrats know, which almost certainly means he was acting on the instructions of the man he is supposed to be investigating.    
The amazing shrinking Paul Ryan took time out from licking his wounds to say he has "full confidence" in the Inspector Clouseau of the House, which may end up being a kiss of death, as three other scandal-related stories percolate up from Putin's pot brimming with filth:
* Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is going to have a chat with the Senate Intelligence Committee about privately meeting during that wild and crazy transition period with the chief executive of Vnesheconombank, a Russian bank with ties to state intelligence services, and former spy himself.  
Vnesheconombank was targeted by Obama-administration imposed sanctions in 2014 in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, while a U.S.-based bank employee was arrested in 2015 and accused of being a spy.  He pleaded guilty in 2016 to conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government.   
* An appearance Tuesday by former acting attorney general Sally Q. Yates before Nunes's committee regarding links between Trump's campaign and Russian officials was cancelled after the White House sought to block testimony that was likely to be damaging by invoking executive privilege.   
Yates, who was fired by Trump for refusing to enforce his first Muslim Ban, played a key role in the investigation of then-campaign aide Michael Flynn, who secretly discussed sanctions with Russian ambassador Serge Kislyak, which later led to his unceremonious ouster as national security advisor. 
* Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort is being investigated by bank officials in Cyprus on money laundering allegations because of his ties to mob-tied Putin pal Oleg Deripaska.  Manafort closed the accounts after the probe was launched, something he now says he cannot recall doing. 
This juicy follow-the-money revelation fits hand in glove with Manafort's $10 million-a-year deal with Deripaska "to influence politics, business dealings and news coverage" outside Russia to help rehabilitate Putin's battered image.
This recusal stuff is becoming habit forming. 
Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from involvement in the scandal after it was revealed he was part of it and had failed to come clean about two meetings on behalf of Trump with that Kislyak, who is widely believed to be a spy in ambassador's clothing.   
For those of you keeping score at home, this means that the House Intelligence Committee and AG's office, two of the three security entities constitutionally mandated to investigate stuff like this, are now hopelessly tainted, although probes by the third entity -- the Senate Intelligence Committee, which will hold its first public hearing on Thursday -- and FBI's counterintelligence office appear to be on track.  Nunes, of course, has refused to resign as  committee char, but has conveniently cancelled his committee's next public hearing.   
This makes it all but certain that the seemingly nonpartisan Senate panel will be taking the lead in Congress's Russia investigation, which is good news for everyone except the president and his allies.  The Thursday hearing will focus on cybersecurity experts speaking to Russia's election meddling efforts, and no major intelligence figures will appear, while the investigation itself is nothing less than a credibility test for congressional Republicans because it's outcome could further weaken if not cripple Trump.
Meanwhile, the president has interjected himself into the scandal yet again by tweeting that the House committee should be investigating Hillary Clinton's ties to Russia and then, for good measure, called the scandal engulfing his administration "a hoax."  To which White House press secretary Sean Spicer helpfully added: "If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that's a Russian connection." 
The Nunes, Kushner, Yates and Manafort developments are of part of a pattern.   
The White House, which wants you to believe it has nothing to hide, continues to reliably fail to be forthcoming about Trump campaign contacts with Russians it claims were innocuous, let alone the cloak-and-dagger intrigues of its Capitol Hill allies.  This is genetic, to be sure, because this gang not only can't shoot straight, it can't be straight about anything and inevitably defaults to deflections and subterfuges. 
"You know things are looking grim for President Trump when he starts tweeting about Hillary Clinton again," noted one pundit. 
This, combined with polls showing that voters favor a special prosecutor by a 2 to 1 margin who could get to the bottom of the scandal, Trump's foaming-at-the-mouth outbursts have all the earmarks of someone who fears that reporters and investigators may be closing in on the truth.   
It was 10 days ago that FBI Director James Comey turned up the heat on that pot brimming with Putin's filth with his explosive testimony.  Since then, and despite the president's own rantings and the orchestrated obstructionism that has sunk the House probe, the pot is belatedly coming to a boil.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Epidemic Of Russia Scandal Deaths, Disappearances & A Falling Bathtub

Just because people with connections to Donald Trump's Russia scandal keep dying or disappearing unexpectedly does not necessarily mean that their heart attacks, assassinations in broad daylight, mysterious exits and other premature departures
are any more than an uncanny number of coincidences.  (Cough, cough.)  But the guy authorities claim was critically injured when his bathtub fell on him on the eve of a court
appearance that would have been deeply embarrassing to the Vladimir Putin regime who also happens to be a key witness in a U.S. fraud case took my conspiracy-averse, never-leap-to-conclusions investigative self over the top. 
By my count, 10 people have unexpectedly left this mortal coil, have been disappeared or gravely injured since Election Day who were Russia scandal principals or may have had connections to them.   
I hasten to add that while there is mounting evidence amidst this mounting carnage that Trump's campaign colluded with the Kremlin in its multi-pronged effort to influence the outcome of the 2016 election by sabotaging Hillary Clinton -- or in other words provided aid and comfort to a hostile foreign power trying to commandeer the process at the heart of American democracy -- there is no evidence that the president or his
surrogates are directly
 responsible for this epidemic, while there may be explanations having nothing to do with nefarious connections for a couple of the 10 men. 
The bathtub guy is lawyer NIKOLAI GOROKHOV, who represents the family of Sergei Magnitsky, an attorney who mysteriously died in custody in Moscow in 2009 after accusing law enforcement and tax officials of massive fraud to the tune of $230 million.   
Gorokhov also is a key witness for the U.S. government in a related money laundering suit brought by Trump-fired U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara against a Russian holding company. It is believed that Gorokhov was thrown from the top floor of his Moscow apartment building on March 21, the eve of that court appearance, and is in hospital with severe head injuries, but authorities claim he was injured while attempting to lift a bathtub up to 
his apartment with rope that snapped.  A pro-Putin tabloid dutifully published several photographs of a broken bathtub.
Other victims include:
DENIS VORONENKOV, 46, fatally shot on a Kiev street on March 23, was a former colonel in the Russian military and Putin insider who fled to Ukraine when he became a whistleblower and was preparing to testify about the inner workings of the Putin regime.  He was being hunted by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB).   
ALEX ORONOV, 69, a naturalized U.S. citizen who ran a fertilizer business in his native Ukraine, died under unexplained circumstances there on March 2.  Oronov reportedly had set up a meeting between Michael Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer, with whom he had family ties, and Russian officials where a "peace plan" for control of Russian-held Crimea was hatched.
Russian U.N. Ambassador VITALY CHURKIN, 64, widely believed to be a spy, was rushed to hospital from his office at Russia's U.N. mission in New York on February 20 after suddenly becoming ill.  The initial report that he had suffered a heart attack was withdrawn because medical examiners said the death required further study. 
OLEG EROVINKIN, 61, who is believed to have been instrumental in helping former British spy Christopher Steele compile an explosive dossier detailing Putin's alleged hold on Trump, was found dead in the back seat of his Lexus in Moscow on December 26 in what almost certainly was a murder, although authorities claimed it had been a heart attack.   
Although YVES CHANDELON, 62, was not Russian, he was chief NATO auditor responsible for investigating money laundering.  He was found in his car in a Belgian town on December 21 with with a single gunshot wound to the head in what may have been a murder made to resemble a suicide.  Although Chandelon was left handed, the gun was found in his right hand and was not one of three he owned.
ANDREI KARLOV, 62, Russia's ambassador to Turkey, was assassinated on December 19 as he made a speech at a photography exhibit in Ankara by a man later identified as a Turkish police officer, who shot Karlov in the back and reportedly shouted: "Don't forget Aleppo!  Don't forget Syria!"  
Later on the same day, Russian Foreign Ministry diplomat PETR POLSHIKOV, 56, was found dead from a gunshot wound in his Moscow apartment.  Two spent bullets were found near the body and the murder weapon under a bathroom sink, but little else is known about the circumstances of his death. 
SERGEI MIKHAILOV, 59, and DMITRY DOKUCHAEV, 33, who worked for the FSB, which was responsible for U.S. election hacking, were arrested in early December and charged with working for the CIA shortly before they disappeared.  Mikhailov reportedly was accused of passing on information about Russian efforts to breach U.S. election systems. 
Initial reports indicated that SERGEI KRIVOV, 63, like Gorokhov had taken a dry dive, in this case from the roof of the Russian consulate in New York on the morning of November 8, Election Day, and suffered blunt force injuries, but Russian officials quickly changed their story and said he had died of a heart attack.  Krivov was widely believed to be a counter spy who coordinated efforts to prevent U.S. eavesdropping.  
Trying to ascertain a pattern, let alone make sense of this epidemic is a fool's errand. 
But one possible explanation for some of the deaths, notably those of Mikhailov and Dokuchaev, are that they are the result of a purge related to U.S. election hacking. Another is that old standby: A victim is hot on the trail of damaging information and has to be eliminated, which might explain Chandelon's death.   
Oh, and for the record, in the 10th week of Donald Trump's presidency and as the Russia scandal continues to simmer, he has yet to say one harsh word about Putin, who was the target of yuge nationwide protests over the weekend, while continuing to praise him.   
What's with that? 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Oh That Russia Scandal: The Earth Moves, But Much Of The Media Barely Notices

Listening to National Public Radio for a coupe of news cycles after James Comey testified earlier this week before the House Intelligence Committee was an alternately depressing and infuriating experience.   
The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation had just publicly called the president of the United States a liar and confirmed that there is a counterterrorism investigation into whether the Donald Trump campaign colluded with Russia, a hostile foreign power, in its multi-pronged effort to influence the outcome of the 2016 election by sabotaging Hillary Clinton.  It was not merely an historic moment, it was an extraordinarily important one, and the FBI's counterterrorism investigation arguably is the most explosive since Soviet spies stole American atomic bomb secrets over 70 years ago.   
But NPR and a dismaying number of other media outlets seemed not to have felt the earth move and were more interested in focusing on trees and not the forest, including the Faustian tactics of intel committee Republicans and the president's latest furiously tweeted denials, then moving on to other trees like the foundering effort to repeal Obamacare and the Neil Gorsuch confirmation circus. 
Cynics might suggest that NPR soft pedaled the story because its funding is in jeopardy as Trump slashes and burns arts and cultural appropriations in the federal budget.   
Perhaps, but the bigger reason is a combination of things: Although the importance of what Comey said did not escape The New York TimesWashington Post, Talking Points Memo, Vox and CNN, and other cable news outlets breathlessly if briefly did their thing, the story was almost too big for people to get their heads around, including those somnambulant news editors at NPR.  There is so much craziness in Washington these days -- so many Trump lies and so little time -- that the nightmarish hugeness of Comey's declarations may have seemed like just more crazy. 
Beyond the incessant lying, the parallel universe in which Trump and his aides dwell complicates the news media's job.
This inevitably makes it easier to take for granted the ravings of the president, as well as the Kellyanne Conways and Sean Spicers.  It confers an undeserved credibility on them and further hobbles reporters who may have the best of intentions but couldn't see the forest for the trees as they skated through the Comey appearance, and as a consequence were unable or disinclined to put the scandal in the perspective it cries out for. 
And speaking of perspective, an irony of Machiavellian proportions hangs over the scandal that many reporters have inconveniently forgotten.  
It was Comey himself who was played by candidate Trump and his "Jail Hillary" noise machine, aided and abetted by the puppeteers controlling the Russian effort to influence the election by sabotaging Clinton, in going public 10 days before the election in announcing a reopened investigation into her emails that infamously fizzled, but much too late to prevent Trump's Electoral College victory.   
Then there is this: If there has been a winner in this sordid game, it is Russian President Vladimir Putin regardless of whether Russia's exertions actually tipped the election to Trump.  And Putin wins again as hyper-partisanship hobbles congressional efforts to get to the truth, as malleable as that concept has become, which further discredits American democracy abroad. 
Another factor is that unlike past scandals, it is hard for the media to get its head around the Russia scandal.  Same with the public, but that's why we need the media to tell us what's important and why, to focus on that damned forest and not just the trees. 
In Watergate, there was a two-bit burglary and attempted cover-up.  Bill Clinton had an affair with a young staffer and lied about it.  Valerie Plame was outed as a CIA agent as retribution for her husband discrediting a key rationale for invading Iraq. 
But the Russia scandal has more characters than a Dostoevsky novel.  There is no single plot line that wraps the scandal into a neat package, while the motivations of some of the characters, particularly those with big financial interests in Russia and Ukraine, are less than clear.  And we still don't know the extent of involvement of the central character.   
In fact, this could end up being an example of a cover-up without an identifiable crime because the collusion between the Trump campaign and Kremlin may have been "soft."  That is, campaign aides and others like Michael Flynn welcomed the sharing of information on Clinton, including those emails, by Russian contacts but did not actively collude insofar as trading information.
That would be deeply unfortunate for those of us who agree with presidential scholar Douglas Brinkley that "There's a smell of treason in the air."
Finally, even with Comey's explosive testimony, opportunities to publicly investigate the Russia scandal beyond the FBI's ongoing efforts are diminishing.   
House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, who is supposed to be impartial, has willingly allowed himself to be compromised (no surprise since he was on the Trump transition team) and rushed to kiss Trump's ring on Wednesday after meeting with the press but before bothering to brief Democrats on the committee about his non-news that U.S. intelligence resources monitored conversations involving members of Trump's transition team who were merely doing their jobs, which was keeping an eye on the activities of Russian spies in the U.S. gussied up as diplomats.   
Nunes' disclosure was a rather stunning security breach (for which he later half-heartedly apologized), with White House press secretary Sean Spicer declaring that the president had been "vindicated" although there still is no evidence that Barack Obama ordered the phones at Trump Tower to be tapped. 
And so Republican members of the Intel Committee are bought and things will soon conveniently bog down in partisan rancor as the drip-drip-drip of new revelations continue. This most recently included a CNN report that Trump campaign operatives helped coordinate Kremlin-orchestrated "news" coverage damaging to Clinton, as well as a rash of political assassinations and unexplained deaths in Russia and Ukraine with indirect links to the scandal.    
Over on the Senate side, the situation with the Senate Intelligence Committee is not a whole lot rosier.  Democrats want Republican committee chairman Richard Burr to issue subpoenas for documents related to the scandal.  His refusal to approve subpoenas would undermine the bipartisan nature of its investigation, while approving them would be a rebuke to the president.  
Meanwhile, the Justice Department is at sea with the recusal of AG Jeff Sessions after he lied about meeting twice with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during the campaign and the White House is madly scrambling to divert attention.  This includes downplaying the role of Trump associates including Paul Manafort, whose ties to Russians linked to the scandal -- included a couple of recently deaded ones -- are especially intriguing despite Spicer's hilarious claim that Manafort had a "limited role for a limited time" in the campaign although he ran it for the better part of six months.   
Evan McMullin, a former CIA agent who ran as an independent candidate for president last year, said it best: "Republican leaders have a choice: Protect the Republic or protect Donald Trump."
A special prosecutor beholden to no one, least of all Trump, is imperative.  But absent a dramatic new revelation that will force hands, that won't happen unless the few Republicans on Capitol Hill with fully descended testicles (are you listening Lindsay Graham and John McCain?) get uppity and demand one.   
To not do so would be a scandal.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Russia Scandal: Where We've Been, Where We Are & Where We're Going

At this extraordinary juncture in American history and the ninth week of the Donald Trump presidency, let us reflect on where we are: Russia attacked the U.S. in the form of a multi-pronged effort to influence the outcome of the 2016 election by sabotaging Hillary Clinton, a violation that in another time would have provoked a national security crisis. But instead there is an ever escalating series of confabulations by the president and his allies even as the director of the FBI, in an unprecedented public rebuke, calls the president a liar and strongly hints that his campaign conspired with the Kremlin. 
"There's a smell of treason in the air," said leading presidential historian Douglas Brinkley of Monday's extraordinary events.  "Imagine if J. Edgar Hoover or any other FBI director would have testified against a sitting president.  It would have been mind boggling." 
Indeed, but Comey's marathon testimony before the House Intelligence Committee -- which included the suggestion that a smoking gun in the Russian scandal had been found -- was somehow anticlimactic, as well as its enormity being under appreciated by feckless National Public Radio and some other media outlets even if providing aid and comfort to a foreign nation trying to commandeer the process at the heart of democracy is the very definition of treason.   
It was Trump who yet again boggled the mind, ferociously tweeting during and after the hearing that "NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process" and that collusion between his campaign and Russia "is all fake news," which was in sync with his aides and congressional allies' strategy to try to divert attention from the crisis engulfing the White House by ignoring the leaks that have helped keep the scandal alive and focusing on the leakers.  Or as Russian dissident Gary Kasparov, who now lives in the U.S., put it: "The house is on fire and the GOP demands to know who called the fire department." 
Saying anything that crossed his untethered mind on the campaign trail was one thing, but Trump has yet to realize that as president, his words carry extraordinary weight, and his repeated assertions that Barack Obama ordered his phones in Trump Tower tapped have become even more surreal in light of Comey's unequivocal denials. 
This has not stopped him from making a host of evidence-free claims, and that in part was why Comey was on Capitol Hill, further distracting from Trump's agenda, breathing new life into public interest in the Russia scandal and further emboldening Democrats, who smell blood and believe the scandal could hobble, if not take down, the Trump presidency as Trump continues to deal with crises by creating new ones.   
Democrats, meanwhile, are justifiably furious that Comey has been sitting on the Russia investigation for months but arguably enabled Trump's coronation by going public 10 days before the election in announcing a reopened investigation into Clinton's emails that fizzled. 
Let's look at exactly what Comey said under oath:
"I've been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI as part of our counterintelligence mission is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.  That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts." 
Comey further explained in response to a question from Republican Congressman Michael Turner that a counterintelligence investigation is opened when there is "a credible allegation of wrongdoing or reasonable basis to believe that an American may be acting as an agent of a foreign power." 
In response to a question from Congressman Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat, he said that the Russian government preferred a presidential candidate who had a dim view of NATO (which Trump has) and openly admires Russian President Putin (which he does).  
Comey testified that the investigation began "in late July."  This followed several events of probable interest to the FBI that would have been more than enough to start digging:
On July 7, Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page gave a speech in Moscow authorized by then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in which he spoke of Barack Obama's Russia policy in hostile terms. 
On July 11, the Trump campaign strong armed the platform committee at the Republican National Convention into striking a pledge to assist Ukraine against Russian military aggression.   
On July 16, Trump adviser Roger Stone, a self-proclaimed dirty trickster who later was found to be communicating with a Russian intelligence cutout who hacked the Democratic National Committee, launched a new broadside against Clinton.   
On July 21, Lewandowski was fired and replaced by Paul Manafort, a former business partner of Stone's and longtime communications advisor to the pro-Russian Ukrainian prime minister whose ouster led to the crisis in the former Soviet republic. 
On July 22, WikiLeaks released its first batch of hacked Democratic National Committee emails, infuriating Bernie Sanders supporters and further stoking the Clinton email controversy.  
On July 27, Trump himself infamously asked Russia to step up its hacking of Clinton emails and challenged it to find 33,000 so-called "lost" emails not included in a State Department probe. 
Stone, who is not on the White House payroll but has lawyered up, is believed to be a subject of the FBI investigation, which insiders describe as wide ranging, as are Page, Michael Flynn, who was Trump's short-lived national security advisor, and Manafort, who in addition to being a flak for that pro-Ukrainian prime minister secretly worked for a billionaire Russian aluminum magnate with mob ties who is close to Putin on projects to . . . uh, Make Russia Great Again, for a cool $10 million a year for several years.  Manafort took no salary running the Trump campaign, so who was paying him?  And when did his contract to advance Russian interests end?
Meanwhile, House Intel Committee chairman David Nunes, who has proven himself to be a dim bulb, let slip on Fox News Sunday that "I don't think there's any but one [at the White House] that's under any type of investigation or surveillance activities at all." 
Speculation on who that "but one" may be centers on Wilbur Ross, Trump's newly minted Commerce secretary, who has been mobbed up with the Bank of Cyprus, used by Russian oligarchs to launder billions of dollars in cash.   
Meanwhile, the probe also is said to include the role far-right news sites and Kremlin-controlled automated computer bots deploying pro-Trump articles may have played, and whether Trump campaign operatives helped coordinate coverage during periods when the campaign was flagging. 
So where do we go from here? 
Acknowledge that there is a lot of smoke but no fire.  Yet.  And the bizarro possibility of a cover-up but not a crime.  But appointment of a special prosecutor is now more necessary than ever as it becomes more and more obvious that this may be a scandal on the scale of Watergate, if not bigger, only carried out digitally and with a hostile foreign power calling the shots.
The Justice Department is at sea with the recusal of AG Jeff Sessions after he lied about meeting twice with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during the campaign and the White House scrambling to divert attention and downplaying the role of scandal principals like Manafort, whom press secretary Sean Spicer now hilariously claims had a "limited role for a limited time" in the campaign despite the fact he ran it for the better part of six months.
Yes, the contacts between important Trump associates and Russians both in and out of government could be a very big coincidence, but we're talking about dozens of contacts which, when they see the light of day, are at first denied and then downplayed.   
(Oh, and it turns out there was a wiretap at Trump Tower.  But it was in 2011-2013 and involved the FBI, which with court approval tapped unit 63A, several floors below Trump's penthouse, in pursuit of a Russian organized crime money laundering operation that led to 30 grand jury indictments.)
If Trump's assertion that there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russian government was even remotely true, he should welcome an independent investigator, but having someone in charge whom he would not be able to influence is his greatest fear.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Trump Isn't Merely Stuck On Stupid: He is Consumed By Fear, Loathing & Paranoia

The biggest surprise about Donald Trump's first two months as president is how unsurprising they have been when you consider he is merely being the same twisted person he has been for decades, only now with the nation's nuclear codes clutched in his small hands.  What is surprising is how shocking he has been -- how many people he intends to harm, as well as continually leaving us living in fear of what his next reality-bending explosion of narcissism will be, pondering how long his sham presidency can survive, and when he will get around to starting a war. 
The week just passed was the week that Trump and his Republican surrogacy were going to triumphantly roll out two centerpieces of the Making America Great Again agenda -- the repeal of Obamacare and a federal budget that would set the nation's priorities straight after eight years of deficit-expanding big government profligacy.  Instead, it became even more obvious that the Trump presidency is an ongoing disaster.   
What ended up happening last week, of course, was that Trumpcare had something for everyone to hate and was viciously attacked by right, left and center while the guns-and-no-butter budget (titled "America First" in a repugnant echo of the isolationist, covertly pro-Hitler mantra of the 1930s) was revealed to be a sucker punch.  That punch is straight to the gut of the president's core constituents, who are being thrown under the bus in the service of tax cuts for the rich, building a useless $21 billion border wall and further bloating an already excessive defense budget while giving a middle finger to the $1 trillion in infrastructure spending he promised but never intended to deliver on.   
But all that was overshadowed by federal courts blocking the new, unimproved Muslim Ban, continued questions about Trump's tax returns and ties to Russia, and his ravings about his phones at Trump Tower being tapped on orders of Barack Obama.   
Trump wouldn't allow the wiretapping brouhaha to go away despite denials any such thing happened by the three highest ranking intelligence committee Republicans, the attorney general and FBI Director James Comey, who further confirmed today before a congressional committee that there is no wiretapping evidence but there is an investigation into possible criminal ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.  By week's end, a furious Trump had dug an even deeper hole because of his pathological inability to back down no matter the issue.  His intransigence already had exacerbated the Mexico crisis, opened a rift with Australia, insulted Sweden and Germany, and has now triggered a diplomatic row with America's staunchest ally, the United Kingdom. 
And so we were forced to yet again run a gauntlet of disasters because of the incompetence of Trump, who is learning the hard way that running a country, let alone creating 25 million non-existent jobs, is nothing like leaving complimentary mints under hotel pillows.  And is utterly dependent on a kook-filled administration mired in the quicksand of abysmal management and suffering a collective case of paranoia that has aides locking away their White House-issued smartphones when they go home at night because they fear they will be surveilled by the boss. 
It is not merely that Trump is stuck on stupid, as one pundit put it.  He is consumed by a toxic cocktail or fear, loathing and paranoia and, as it has turned out, is incapable of leaving the cocoon of running for president, where he could say anything, and actually being president, where he has been unable to do anything beyond inflicting problems on himself, a consequence of which is the worst numbers for any president this early in his administration in the history of modern polling. 
Like I said, a lot of people are going to be harmed. 
It is appropriate that people who voted for Trump and told the rest of us to just get over it after he won are harmed first and worst.  With that off my chest, I can move on to pondering how long his sham of a presidency can last.   
The answer is that I don't know.  Nobody knows.  For one thing, the 62 million or so people who voted for Trump remain faithful even as many of them are about to be gut punched.  For another, the Republican-controlled Congress desperately needs Trump to turn its twisted agenda into law.  Only then can the party bother to begin to question whether he is doing the GOP more harm than good, never mind the country. 
My guess is that Trump's presidency will last until that moment when his manifold symptoms of instability, notably his inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, become too huge for even his handlers to continue ignore and must be dealt with.