Sunday, April 30, 2017

Reflections On The Writerly Life: Of Donald Trump & My Slow-Motion Epiphany

I finally have gotten my measure as a writer.  Not found it, but got it -- understanding what I did well and should continue doing and what I did not do well and probably should no longer keep trying to do.  
I had been working on figuring that out for some time.  Okay, actually for a few decades, a super slow-motion epiphany that finally began to take shape a couple of years ago when I was scratching around for a suitable topic for a third book, a book that would take us -- me and the reader, that is -- well beyond my 2010 true-crime thriller, which has been a steady if not spectacular seller, and a 2014 historical fiction-ish account of my life on a hippie farm in the 1970s that has set neither the world nor my bank account on fire although it was a pretty good effort that seemed to stretch my writerly capabilities.  But on reflection actually was dolled-up journalism written by a guy who was, at heart, a journalist.    
I had been carrying around a lot of what Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter calls "gestalt baggage." 
These are the duffels, totes and suitcases of life that together are bigger than life itself -- that is, in keeping with the principle of gestalt, should be perceived as more than the sum of their parts.   In terms of that third book, this would be a perspective-bending twist on eternal return, a story within a story in which the narrator slowly realizes that he keeps stumbling on bits and pieces of himself as he researches a book that he thought had nothing to do with himself.   
A nifty, idea, I thought, and one that plumbed some of my deeper nocturnal dreams.  In any event,  I gave up on my idea and can sense your relief that you never had to read it.
That slo-mo epiphany has jelled considerably through the early months of 2017 as we shake, rattle and roll through the mind-blowing alt-reality of the Age of Trump.   
I wrote over 150 columns in the run-up to the 2016 election, at a rate of two and sometimes three a week for generally receptive audiences, while plowing through Thomas Wolfe's four major novels, which total some 2,900 doorstop-sized pages in all.    
Wolfe was an appropriate messenger to bring home the realization that I should stick to writing that was more . . . uh, terrestrial.  He is considered a genius, but at the same time churned out an extraordinary amount of bad prose which reminded me of my halting attempts at that story within a story, although on balance his work is brilliant while mine merely waggles its fingers at the concept.  Yoo hoo! 
This is not acknowledgement of defeat, or retreat or something, only a better understanding that I am pretty good at the kinds of writing that have been my meal ticket for many years and less good at the Dionysian flights of prose fancy that kept Wolfe aloft for much of his too short literary life although he was a crushing bore.  

I had been told for years that Proust's In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past) is the greatest novel ever written, but it wasn't until I had slogged through Wolfe and was into recovery after Trump was "elected" that I picked up the first volume of three, which is a mere 1,070 pages.  In Search may not be the greatest novel.  That is not for me to judge.  But it is great without compare in my experience and unfolded before me like the Bayeaux Tapestry as it went on and on and on.  And then on some more with extraordinary beauty.  
Had I paused to affix a Post-It Note to each page with a memorable passage, as is sometimes my custom with an especially good book that I plan to review, In Search would have looked like a porcupine with bright yellow quills in a blue library binding by the time I finished it.   
There was one passage in particular that resonated especially deeply because it recalled my halting attempts at that story within a story:
Thus it is that most of our attempts to translate our innermost feelings do no more than relieve us of them by drawing them out in a blurred form which does not help us to identify them. 
Guilty as charged.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

'Crippled But Free, I Was Blind All The Time I Was Learning To See'

Robert Hunter-Jerry Garcia

Paradise waits
On the crest of a wave
Her angels in flame
She has no pain
Like a child, she is pure
She is not to blame

Poised for flight
Wings spread bright
Spring from night 
Into the sun
Don't stop to run
She can fly like a lie 
She cannot be outdone

Tell me the cost
I can pay
Let me go
Tell me love is not lost
Sell everything
Without love, day to day,
Insanity is king

I will pay
Day by day
Lock, bolt and key
Crippled but free
I was blind
All the time 
I was learning to see

Friday, April 28, 2017

(UPDATED) Hell To The Chief: Donald Trump's Disastrous First 100 Days In Office

The first 100 days of the Donald Trump presidency have been an unmitigated disaster.   
Our penchant for anniversaries dictates a ritualistic pause-and-reflect moment as each president reaches that milestone.  Barack Obama and George W. Bush, like their predecessors receding back into the mists of the last century, got mixed marks at 100 days, while Trump's three month-plus tenure has been a Category Five catastrophe from the moment he put one small hand on a Bible and raised the other to take the oath of office.   
This is not because of bad luck, disloyal Republicans or implacable Democrats.  It is not because of an inability to translate campaign promises into policy, which can be difficult for any new president, nor even his penchant for picking fights and his authoritarian impulses, two characteristics that set him so appallingly apart from Obama.   
No, it is this: For Trump, the presidency is all about him, a pathological obsession with image and a continuing if largely fruitless search for approval beyond his relatively small base.  Trump demands that we take his words seriously, but they are so twisted or outright false that his spokespeople, for whom damage-control has become a full time job, and his lawyers, in the course of fighting court injunctions blocking draconian diktats like the Muslim ban and sanctuary cities witch hunt, have had to repeatedly plead that he should not be taken literally.   
The president of the United States should not be taken literally. 
It turns out that behind all of Trump's world salad illiteralness, noise and bluster is . . . more noise and bluster that hides an addiction to dishonesty and the use of lies as a strategy to befuddle, a disinterest in detail and reliance on Fox News as a primary information source.   
This toxic mix (fortunately) undermined the first two attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare, revealed his foreign policy "initiatives" to be empty shells, may well scuttle his plans to "reform" the tax code by rewarding corporations and he and his wealthy oligarch pals, and made his decision to launch a cruise missile strike against Syria while eating "the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you've ever seen" with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping on the deck at Mar-a-Lago a truly frightening moment.  Until he confused Iraq with Syria in an interview the next day.  Then approved the Pentagon's deployment of the never used Mother of All Bombs in Afghanistan in an extraordinary example of military overkill even if it did turn out to be something of a dud.  And then "lost" a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and its escort ships.   
Only Trump's unilateral, rule-by-decree executive actions have lurched forward, and they have ripped apart families, will hurt the poor, weaken public education, foul rivers, pollute air, decimate national parks and wilderness lands, affect the quality of the foods we eat, and mean surrender to the calamity of climate change.  Sad!
Beyond the border wall, campaign promises large and small remain unfulfilled or have been blithely ignored, from a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that is dead on arrival to a pledge to avoid the golf outings and private getaways he criticized Obama over that has translated into him doing considerably more of both -- all at considerable taxpayer expense -- in the first months of his administration.   
Trump has spent 31 days of the first 100 days of his presidency visiting his properties, including 19 visits to his golf clubs, and has spent an astonishing one out of every five minutes in Palm Beach.  He has made no appearances west of the Mississippi, only visited states that he won, and even in those states has not made a single appearance outside of tightly controlled environments.  And he has stayed away from his beloved castle in the sky on Fifth Avenue in New York in dread of the immense protests his presence would trigger.   
The president of the United States is afraid of his own people. 
America has long been welcoming and its government comparatively open, both hallmarks of a democracy of which we can be justifiably proud, but Trump is the first president since Richard Nixon to work so determinedly in the shadows because his tissue paper-thin skin cannot tolerate scrutiny of any kind.  
Trump refuses to release his federal tax returns, a bow to openness honored by his eight predecessors, because of the unpleasant secrets that would be exposed regarding his finances and conflicts of interest.   
The White House is supposed to be the people's house, but unlike Obama, who routinely made public voluminous records regarding who visited the executive mansion and its grounds, Trump has brazenly declared that he will do no such thing because of "grave national security risks and privacy concerns" although a national security exception is built into the records policy.   
The real reason for keeping visitors logs hidden is so that he can meet with lobbyists, donors and individuals connected to the Trump Organization away from prying eyes.  And we really didn't have to know about House intel committee Devin Nunes' cloak-and-dagger rendezvous on the White House grounds with National Security Council staffers who fed him secret documents in the service of Trump's false claims that Obama had ordered the tapping of his phones in Trump Tower, right? 
The president of the United States is obsessed with secrecy.
Even Trump's smallest gestures often mask a sleight of hand: He publicly donated his $77,000 paycheck from his first three months in office to the National Park Service, but quietly stripped the budget of its parent agency, the Interior Department, of $1.5 billion.   
Trump's incoherence is mind boggling.  He is going to cover everyone, but 24 million people will lose their health insurance.  He is a great deal-maker, but can't even make deals with his own party.  He is going to get Mexico to pay for his wall, but he isn't.  China is a currency manipulator, but isn't.  He wants to be friends with Russia, but doesn't.  He is not going to intervene in Syria, then does.  He is going to wipe out the national debt, but his tax cuts and spending will add trillions to it.  He is so self absorbed and in over his head that it took a very public nudge from the First Lady when he forgot to put his hand over his heart at the White House Easter Egg Roll.  
Going into his presidency, Trump and congressional Republicans promised an ambitious legislative agenda, but have nothing of consequence to show for their bold claims unless you consider defunding Planned Parenthood, thus depriving the millions of women who rely on it for health care, to be an accomplishment, while his nomination of conservative darling Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court was a slam dunk.  
When a commando raid in Yemen went south,  Trump blamed the Pentagon, which had urged him to hold off.  When the stink emanating from Stephen Bannon became too great, he blamed him for the chaos in the White House although he had eagerly embraced his strategist-in-chief's fringe views. When caught out on his claim that none of his associates had contacts with Russians, including Russian spies, only to see a string of disclosures that son-in-law Jared Kushner, his attorney general and late unlamented national security adviser, among others close him, had done just that, he continued to insist that the burgeoning scandal is "fake news" and a "witch hunt."
The president of the United States refuses to take personal responsibility.  
Kushner, who like his father-in-law has never done anything that can be described as good for the country, has been entrusted with tasks far beyond his meager experience. Making sure that there are mints on the pillows at Trump hotels is not exactly comparable with being the administration's point man on China and Mexico or bringing the leaders of Israel and Palestine to heel.   
Nor is favorite daughter Ivanka's experience selling push-up bras, tummy control pants and thousand-dollar accessorized bling patriotically made in overseas sweat shops going to help in her role as a heavy in the factional wars wracking the West Wing, while her bromides about workplace equality and paid parental leave are cruelly empty because women are being discriminated against more than ever because of her dear father.
Ivanka and Jared are portrayed as moderating influences on the narcissistic Trump, but their outsized roles are really all about flagrant self enrichment and profiteering, and their influential roles will further diminish the already small number of people who have the president's ear while enhancing his sultanism.
The big reason they pushed behind the scenes for declawing Bannon was not that he is a kook with nationalist cravings, but that he is hurting the family brand's bottom line.     
The president of the United States is using his office as a profit center for his family's business empire. 
Many of us have been living in an unrelieved state of stress familiar to victims of sexual predation -- as in not knowing when their abuser will strike next -- and that is doubly so because Americans, guess what?, elected an avowed sexual predator last November.   
And although almost everything that Trump said during the campaign has been chucked down the memory hole, most of his core supporters remain faithful even if he didn't lock up Hillary, although their exultant choruses of "Get over it" seem to have faded as a slo-mo reality sets in that turning back the clock may not be such a great idea.   
What will Trump say or do next?  Will life in the White House continue to imitate Fox News?  Will his support erode to the point that Republicans will screw up the courage to dump him, or will they just continue to screw up?  Will his demolition of constitutional safeguards that are supposed to ensure that people don't profit financially from holding office be checked?  Will his genius for evasion finally fail him and the Russia scandal will crash his presidency?  Will the Democrats grow spines?  Will the resistance that coalesced around the immense post-inauguration marches remain energized?  What will the morning's headlines bring?  Are we at war yet, daddy?     
I'll get back to you on that in another 100 days, but one thing is certain: 
The president of the United States is incapable of changing. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Hillary's Unfortunate But Unforgivable Role In The Great American Catastrophe

I am reserving most of my surfeit of post-election bad feelings for Donald Trump and the Republican Party, but my leftovers go to Hillary Clinton, who despite herself -- and because of herself -- was a lighting rod for the catastrophic mess in which the U.S.  finds itself today, not to mention the enormous stress and feelings of foreboding that so many Americans feel as they labor through a mind-blowing present and confront a deeply uncertain future. 
Let me hasten to add that Clinton, to a great extent, was a victim of circumstances.   
There was the relentless right-wing noise machine that dogged her for decades, not to mention the institutionalized misogyny and double standard for working women that a man aspiring to be president would never have to endure.  Clinton's dedication to good works is legendary among people for whom there is no higher calling than public service. Those she has allowed to become close to her invariably describe someone who is warm and deeply caring.   
But as a hugely important New York Times story this past weekend reveals -- not so much in its devastating conclusion that James Comey may have thrown the election because of the very different ways the FBI investigated Clinton and Trump than in the briefly noted backstory of Clinton's failures -- America would not be in such dire straits today had she not kept giving her enemies fresh ammunition.   
It is easy to conclude from The Times story that Comey was biased toward Trump, but that is a cop-out.   
Yes, the Russians did what they did, with a big assist from WikiLeaks and probably the Trump campaign, as well, and Trump did what he did with a big assist from millions of ignorant voters.  There also was a failure of leadership of enormous proportions in the Obama White House as the gravity of Russian election meddling and probability of collusion by the Trump campaign became shockingly obvious in the weeks before the November 8 election, which as the pollsters said despite getting a lot of other things wrong, was Clinton's to lose. 
History will show that Clinton's propensity for self-inflicted wounds, as well as some very bad luck, was gasoline that helped fuel the fire that The Times story so compellingly recounts.  These wounds included a penchant for secrecy that was driven, most certainly in part, by her right-wing tormenters that nevertheless resulted in her questionable use of a private email server and squirrely email practices, shadowy family foundation activities and enormous paydays making private speeches to Wall Street fat cats while publicly decrying their profligacy.   
And while I'm piling on, what did Clinton stand for?  Why was she running for president?  Beyond "because it's my turn," I still have not been able to suss out a plausible answer, and neither could the staffers calling the shots in a presidential campaign so atrociously run that it resembled a Kafka-esque comedy minus the laughs unless you consider the consequence -- a Trump presidency -- to be funny.   
About that very bad luck: At several junctures, Clinton's truly sucked. 
As The Times story notes, aircraft carrying Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Bill Clinton happened to be at the Phoenix airport on the same day in late June 2016 and the unwise and impromptu chat between them during the FBI's investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails provoked a firestorm, while some of those emails later ended up on a computer belonging to sex pervert Anthony Weiner, who happened to be married to her close advisor, Huma Abedin, and was being investigated by the FBI.   
Their discovery prompted Comey to reopen the Clinton probe only days before an election that would radically alter the course of history and put American democracy on life support.
Declaring that Hillary Clinton's lightning-rod role in this enormous tragedy is being overlooked in the rush to identify other villains may seem like sour grapes.  And if it seems like I am proffering the equivalent of blaming the victim of a rape, that is certainly not my intention. 
But no matter your perspective, the story of the slow-motion disaster of the past couple of years -- beginning with the first Russian efforts in 2015 to hack Democratic interests through to the approaching 100-day mark of a man profoundly unfit for the presidency -- is incomplete without noting the role Clinton herself played.   
Historians will be dining out on these dramatic events for years to come.  It is my belief that the more perceptive ones will be unkind to Comey and wonder why he didn't climb onto the recusal bandwagon, let alone why no one investigated the FBI.  They will eviscerate Trump and his putrid posse.  And perhaps give Clinton more of a pass than I am willing to give her now.  As apparently are an outsized number of her former supporters according to polls showing that four times as many Clinton voters as Trump voters now say they would back someone else if there was an election redo. 
Of one thing we can be sure: The 2016 election cycle brought down the curtain on two political dynasties.  
The Bush dynasty ended with a whimper as Jeb revealed his incredible lightness of being.  Besides which, America has had quite enough of Bushes even if Dubya seems to have been . . . well, actually somewhat presidential compared to the plutocrat who is less occupying than destroying the Oval Office these days.   
The Clinton dynasty ended with a thud as Hillary captured the popular vote but lost the Electoral College as only a pathetic 55 percent of eligible voters stirred themselves to actually do so.  We can be fairly certain that we've seen the last of her save for the inevitable memwow and mega-buck mea culpa lecture tour.  This hopefully also will mean seeing less of Bubba, as well.   
But if daughter Chelsea decides to try to keep the Clinton family flame burning . . . oh, please spare us, Dear Lord.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Patriot As Sleazebag: Why Rudy Giuliani May Be The Worst Person In The World

Politics always has been populated by sleazebags, but every generation or so one comes along who is so vile that he stands out from the pack.  So it is with Rudy Giuliani.   
The stories of Giuliani's sleazyness are legion, and that is quite an accomplishment since he came into most of our lives on the highest of notes -- as "America's Mayor" who took charge after the 9/11 disaster.   
But from there it has been all downhill.   
Giuliani liked to brag that as mayor of New York City, he spent more time at Ground Zero than rescue and clean-up workers, which was a lie.  Actually, his administration had failed to address the flaws in the response to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, which came back in spades on 9/11, and he knowingly sent workers into the toxic hell of the collapsed Twin Towers. 
Then there are Giuliani's ample personal shortcomings, including being an admitted serial adulterer who broke the news to his wife that he was getting a divorce during a televised press conference, and his embrace of a succession of creepy characters from televangelist Pat Robertson to Bernard Kerik to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, about whom more later. 
Had Giuliani been nominated by the Family Values Party aka Republicans and then elected president in 2008, Kerik would have missed his inauguration.   
This is because the former NYC corrections chief, promoted to police commissioner by Giuliani, was doing prison time for just one of his multiple legal entanglements, which included glomming onto $165,000 in free renovations to his Bronx apartment by a construction company with mob ties, shacking up with his mistress in a Manhattan condo reserved for cops with post-9/11 traumas, and that timeless toe stubber, failing to pay taxes on an illegal immigrant nanny whom he was boinking on the side.  
None of this prevented Giuliani from drawing on his vast reservoirs of good judgment and recommending that Kerik become Dubya's first homeland security czar.  Dubya wisely demurred. 
Giuliani is a gold medalist in flip-flopping.   He was for gay rights before he was against them.  He was for gun control before he hearted the National Rifle Association.  He was for forgiving illegal immigrants eking out honest livings in the Big Apple until he wanted to deport them.  He was once a hawk on Iran, but . . . more about that later, too. 
Giuliani flailed at becoming the GOP presidential nominee again in 2012 and yet again last year, but was on the A-list to become Cheeto's secretary of state while helpfully bragging that he had advised the newbie president about how to impose his patently illegal Muslim ban "legally."   
But it turned out his conflicts of interest were too enormous and the top job at State went to Rex Tillerson, who recently was in Moscow delivering a toothless ultimatum that Russia withdraw its support for Syrian strongman Basha al-Assad, which was kinda strange since Tillerson and Russian President Vlad the Impaler are personal friends and Tillerson made tens of billions of dollar or rubles or something from Russian oil when he was CEO of ExxonMobil.
Giuliani has assuaged his grief over not serving his country in an official capacity by becoming filthy rich representing misunderstood oligarchs.  His latest client is Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman who faces federal charges in Giuliani's old stomping ground.   
Zarrab has struggled through life getting his hands dirty counting money.  The multi-billionaire owns 20 houses, seven yachts and a private jet, is married to one of Turkey's biggest pop tarts, and counts among his friends that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is Turkey's now stronger than ever strongman thanks to the kind of magical thinking by Turkish voters that made Cheeto emcee of the biggest reality show of all.  And of course has now become one of Cheeto's new best friends because, you know, it takes an authoritarian to know one. 
The U.S. government busted Zarrab in Miami last year at the request of the Obama administration (remember those guys?) while he ostensibly was en route to Disney World with the pop tart and their daughter.  He was held on charges that he masterminded a huge operation to help the Iranian government evade economic sanctions put in place to hinder its efforts to build nuclear weapons.  This is how it worked: Gold would be shipped to Iran from Turkey in exchange for Iranian oil and natural gas, and the feds say that at the peak of the operation Zarrab was buying a metric ton of gold and packing it off to Iran every day.
Zarrab has been moldering in the federal lockup in Manhattan despite the efforts of Erdoğan to spring him, but now Giuliani and Michael Mukasey are on the case.   
Mukasey was the last of Dubya's three attorney generals and proud author of what I call Mukasey's Law, which was promulgated at the height of the outcry over the torture of suspected terrorists and goes something like this: Lawyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of his lawyers.  Got that? 
It may not mean much (cough, cough), but Zarrab is in the slammer because of federal prosecutor Preet Bharara, who slapped a beyond serious trading-with-the-enemy charge on him. Erdoğan has accused Bharara of being in the pay of his arch nemesis, Fethullah Gülen, an imam and former Erdoğan ally who is living in exile in the Pennsylvania Poconos.   
One-time Iran hawk Giuliani states in court papers that he and Mukasey are seeking a "diplomatic" resolution of the case, which of course means dropping the charges, and Zarrab may yet make it to Disney World.  Cheeto conveniently fired Bharara, while Giuliani and Mukasey have traveled to Turkey to chat with Erdoğan about the case.
Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Meet Carter Page, The First Smoking Gun In Trump's Growing Russia Scandal

In the clearest evidence yet of contacts between Donald Trump's campaign and Russia, the FBI last summer obtained and then renewed a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant allowing it to monitor Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser for the future president whom it believed was in touch with agents for Moscow. 
The Washington Post, which reported the explosive allegation on Tuesday night, said contacts such as those made by Page are now the focus of the bureau's investigation into the now widely acknowledged effort backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to meddle in the 2016 election by sabotaging the campaign of Hillary Clinton and swinging the election in Trump's favor.   
A FISA judge granted the warrant after being convinced that there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case Russia, law enforcement and other officials told The Post.
The White House's serial downplaying of Page's involvement in the campaign and denial of the spying allegations, which Trump has repeatedly called "fake news," show how concerned it is not so much about Page himself -- who arguably was a small fish who may not have had much influence on Trump -- than all the big fish, and how the Russia scandal has increasingly consumed Trump's troubled presidency.   
The president denied any of his associates had contacts with Russians, only to see a string of disclosures that his national security adviser, attorney general and son-in-law had done just that.  
Trump had introduced Page, who had worked as an investment banker in Moscow, as one of his original campaign foreign policy advisers in March 2016.  But Page was pushed out about the time the FBI began monitoring him after he gave a speech in Moscow on July 7 at the New Economic School, a university, in which he spoke in harshly critical terms of Barack Obama's Russia policy and sanctions over Moscow's military intervention in Ukraine.   
"Washington and other Western capitals have impeded potential progress through their often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change," Page declared.    
While in Moscow for the speech, Page allegedly met with Igor Sechin, a Putin confidant and chief executive of Rosneft, a major energy company, according to an explosive dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer, detailing Putin's alleged hold on Trump.   
The dossier states that Sechin offered to sell a 19 percent share of Rosneft to Page in exchange for Trump lifting Obama administration sanctions on Russia if he won the election.  Oleg Erovinkin, who is believed to have been instrumental in helping Steele compile the dossier, was found dead in the back seat of his Lexus in Moscow in December 2016 in what almost certainly one of the murders linked to the scandal, although authorities claimed it had been a heart attack.
By this spring, Page had been demoted to a minor player in White House press secretary Sean Spicer's descriptions and Trump at one point claimed he didn't even know him.  And he didn't even use a private email server! 
Page, who has not been accused of any crimes, has acknowledged meeting with a Russian spy in New York City in 2013, but in response to The Post story vehemently denied any wrongdoing and compared the surveillance of him to government eavesdropping against civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.   
To obtain the warrant, the government had to show probable cause that Page was acting as an agent of Russia.  Approval had to be given by one of three senior Justice Department officials before prosecutors took the request to a FISA Court judge. 
The judges who rule on warrant requests under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act oversee the nation's most sensitive national security cases.  The warrants they may produce are closely guarded secrets. 
The Post said the application for the surveillance targeting Page included a lengthy declaration that laid out the investigators' basis for believing Page was an agent of the Russian government and knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence activities on behalf of Moscow, according to sources in Justice and the FBI.  The application cited contacts Page had with the spy in New York City in 2013 and other contacts with Russian operatives that have not been publicly disclosed.   
The surveillance of Page did not begin until after he had left the campaign, The New York Times reported.  This is because the Justice Department considered direct surveillance of anyone tied to a political campaign "as a line it did not want to cross," according to one official.   
The FBI has routinely obtained FISA warrants to monitor the communications of foreign diplomats in the U.S.   
These include Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who is widely considered to be a spy in diplomat's clothing.  Among the conversations monitored by the FBI are those between Kislyak and Michael Flynn, who was fired only days after being named Trump's national security adviser -- significantly not because he met with the ambassador, but had lied to Vice President Pence about doing so.   
Trump's sudden and extraordinary about face on Russia and Putin is seen as a cynical way of distracting attention from the Russia scandal.   
The president has long had a non-confrontational view of Russia, calling for a détente with the U.S.'s longtime foe.  He defended its invasion of Ukraine and praised Putin, but is now engaged in a diplomatic clash with Moscow over accusations it was trying to cover up an April 4 Syrian chemical weapons attack on civilians that Trump answered two days later with a cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base. 
Complicating matters is that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is in Moscow delivering an ultimatum that Russia withdraw its support for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, has been a personal friend of Putin and made tens of billions of dollars for ExxonMobil from Russian oil when he was CEO of the multinational energy company.
Since the 90-day FISA warrant for monitoring Page was introduced, it has been renewed more than once, officials told The Post.   
Meanwhile, the Obama administration intelligence reports breathlessly revealed by David Nunes, recused chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, after a cloak-and-dagger caper on the White House grounds, were neither unusual nor illegal, according to Republican and Democratic lawmakers who have been examining them. 
CNN reports that the lawmakers' assessment contradicts President Trump's allegation that former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice broke the law by requesting the "unmasking" of U.S. individuals' identities.  They said that the action was "normal and appropriate" for officials who serve in that role to the president.   
Trump has pivoted off the Rice allegation to continue to claim that President Obama personally ordered that his phones at Trump Tower be tapped, an allegation that has been widely disputed.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

(UPDATED) James Comey Helped Elect Trump. Could He Now Be His Greatest Foe?

There is little doubt that American intelligence agencies have long believed that Donald Trump's inner circle and perhaps the man himself aided and abetted Russian efforts to throw the 2016 presidential election.  How long they have believed that is germane because it helps explain why the Russia scandal that now engulfs the White House has taken so long to come to a boil.  
The conduct of the FBI is hugely relevant in this regard because it is the lead investigative agency on domestic intelligence concerns, not the Justice Department or CIA, let alone congressional intelligence committees, and the deportment of its director, James Comey, raises troubling questions.
Let's be clear from the jump that I'm not suggesting Comey is a Russian agent or is in the bag for Trump.  He's not, but he doesn't have to be because his actions -- and inactions -- behind the scenes and publicly arguably were the coup de grâce that enabled the least qualified man in modern presidential history to improbably beat an unpopular but eminently qualified opponent.  At this point, it matters not that Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by nearly three million popular votes.  There will be no redo. 
The consequences of Trump's Electoral College victory have been disastrous, and he's only been in office less than three months, while getting to the bottom of the Russia scandal may go far toward determining how long we have to live under the Trump kleptocracy.  
As early as 2013, U.S. intelligence agencies were aware of contacts by Trump's inner circle with Russians with ties to the Kremlin's intelligence services, as well as Trump's own dealings with Russians, including mobster Felix Sater, and his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. 
A timeline of the FBI's involvement in the Russia scandal -- that is, the information we have on which to judge Comey and the bureau -- has slowly come into focus.  This timeline is by no means complete, and there are outlier accounts, notably one in Newsweek magazine, but there is a consensus of a sort as detailed in a recent New York Times story, and another in The Guardian, among others, that this is what happened over the last 18 months:
In late 2015, Britain's GCHQ, which is equivalent to the NSA, first became aware of suspicious interactions between individuals connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents.  This intelligence was passed on to the U.S. as part of a routine exchange of information.
In early June of 2016, the CIA concludes in an internal report that Russia is actively engaged in meddling in the presidential election, and that includes the goal of getting Trump into the White House, not merely disrupting the U.S. political system.    
On July 5, Comey rebukes Clinton for being "extremely careless" but recommends no criminal charges in connection with her handling of classified information, including emails on a private server, as secretary of state, lifting a cloud from her presidential campaign.   
On July 19, Trump is nominated for president at the Republican National Convention after he and surrogates declare, in what becomes an oft-repeated campaign theme in the coming weeks, that Clinton should be "in jail" for her use of the private email server.   
By late July, the FBI has opened a counterintelligence investigation to examine possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia, but its existence is kept secret even from high ranking members of Congress colloquially known as the Gang of Eight
In the course of that investigation, the FBI obtains and then renews a FISA Court warrant allowing it to monitor Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, whom it believes is in touch with Russian agents and had been used in previous years by spies for Moscow to obtain information.   
By August, the CIA concludes that unnamed Trump campaign advisers might be working with the Russians to interfere in the election by sabotaging the Clinton campaign through a multi-pronged attack approved by Putin that includes email hacking, disinformation and false news stories.
By late August, CIA Director John Brennan is so concerned about Trump-Russia links that he initiates urgent, one-on-one briefings with the Gang of Eight -- four Democrats and four Republicans -- who by law are to be briefed on important intelligence matters.     
On August 25, Brennan briefs Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, then the highest ranking Democrat.  With Congress in recess, Brennan explains to Reid over a secure phone link that the FBI and not the CIA would have to take the lead in what is a domestic intelligence matter. 
In late August, Reid writes to Comey without mentioning the CIA briefing.  He expresses great concern over what he calls mounting evidence "of a direct connection between the Russian government and Donald Trump's presidential campaign." 
By September, intelligence shows that although Republican sites also are being hacked by Russian hackers, only Democratic emails are being publicized by Putin ally Wikileaks, but the FBI apparently still has not found conclusive evidence of Trump-Russia connections.   
On September 22, two other Gang of Eight members -- Dianne Feinstein and Representative Adam B. Schiff, the ranking Senate and House intelligence committee Democrats -- release a statement stating that Russian intelligence agencies are "making a serious and concerted effort" to influence the election.   
In late September, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, at the behind-the-scenes urging of the Obama administration, is asked to warn state election officials of possible attempts to penetrate their computer systems by Russian hackers.  McConnell resists, questioning the veracity of the intelligence.   
On September 25, McConnell writes to state election officials.  He does not mention the Russian connection, but warns of unnamed "malefactors" who might seek to disrupt elections through online intrusions.  Reid and Gang of Eight Democrat Nancy Pelosi and Republican Paul Ryan also sign the letter.    
On October 28, Comey tells Congress that the FBI is reopening its Clinton investigation because of emails found on a computer belonging to former Congressman Anthony Weiner, whose estranged wife is a top Clinton aide, throwing the Clinton campaign into crisis only 10 days before the election.
On October 30, Reid writes an angry letter to Comey accusing him of a "double standard" in renewing the Clinton investigation so close to the election while sitting on "explosive information" on ties between Trump and Russia.  Comey's response, if any, is not known.  
On November 6, Comey announces that after a intensive review of the "new" emails, they were found to be either personal or duplicates of those previously examined, and that the FBI had not changed the conclusions it reached in July in exonerating Clinton.   
On November 8, Trump defeats Clinton decisively in the Election College but loses the popular vote in a close race that pundits widely agree was decided by voters who were influenced by Trump's repeated characterization of Clinton as being a criminal and Comey's October 28 announcement.   
By early January, the CIA and FBI have "high confidence" that Russia was trying to help Trump through a hacking campaign, while the NSA has only "moderate confidence."  The agencies also believe that Russia gained election board computer access in a number of states.   
On January 5, President Obama's national security director releases a report stating that the CIA, FBI and NSA believe that Russians hacked Democratic email accounts and then passed the emails on to WikiLeaks to try to tip the election to Trump because he would be friendlier to Russian interests.  
On January 20, Trump becomes president.  He insists that the Russia scandal is "false news" while naming people to key positions who had secret contacts with Russians involved in the meddling effort, including his national security director, who is soon cashiered and later threatens to tell what he knows.
On March 20, Comey in effect calls Trump a liar in publicly acknowledging for the first time in testimony before Congress that the FBI's investigation into Russian election meddling includes Trump associates' contacts with Russians who were working to sabotage Clinton. 
Meanwhile, on April 7, Spanish authorities arrested Pyotr Levashov at the request of U.S. authorities, who believe he is one of the Russian election meddlers who distributed pro-Trump "fake news" to try to influence voters.  Levashov, who was vacationing in Barcelona with his family, has been identified by private cyber-crime analysts as possibly the man behind the moniker Peter Severa (Peter of the North in Russian), who under that name has specialized in employing spambot engines that can infect tens of thousands of computers with billions of spam messages.  
If a Spanish court agrees to the U.S. request to extradite Levashov, he would become the first person charged in connection with the election meddling. 
Why did Americans go to the polls on November 8 without knowing what was really going on?  And why did Comey remain silent until over four months after the election? 
The short answer to these questions is that while intelligence agencies raced in the final weeks of the campaign to understand the scope of the Russian meddling, the Democrats and Republicans who were privy to classified intelligence briefings saw the intelligence through an acutely political lens -- and consequently missed the elephant in the room -- while sparring endlessly over whether the intelligence showed that the Russians were helping Trump.   
President Obama feared that a public statement about Russia's pro-Trump efforts would look like a "partisan" attempt to help Clinton, while Comey separately had a similar concern.  In Obama's case, this was a n enormous failure of leadership, while in Comey's case it doesn't add up because the FBI director exhibited no such restraint in telling Congress 10 days before the election that an investigation into Clinton's emails had been reopened.   
The least worst rationale for Comey's actions is this: The FBI director was still smarting from attacks from the Republican leadership and relentless criticism from candidate Trump for closing the initial Clinton investigation without drawing blood and believed he had no choice but to let Congress know of developments that he was unable to walk back eight days later when they turned out to not be new at all but almost certainly gave Trump an 11th hour bump.      
These answers and explanations are deeply unsatisfactory because of that elephant in the room:
The Russian effort to elect Trump was an unprecedented assault from the U.S.'s greatest foe on the bedrock of American democracy and is the most explosive scandal since Soviet spies stole atomic bomb secrets over 70 years ago.
That should have overridden the partisan nattering, but did not. The consequent failure of leadership in the White House, FBI and Congress was immense, and something insightful historians will be dining out on for years to come.   
Yet it may turn out that Comey, who would seem to be the good guy turned villain in this drama, could become its hero.   
This is because Republicans have build a protective wall around Trump that not even the supposedly nonpartisan leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee may be able to surmount in investigating the Russia scandal.  The House intel committee, of course, has been deeply compromised because of its now recused chairman's efforts to not just protect Trump, but to be a willing pawn in the White House's ham-handed efforts to push back against the scandal and try to change the subject, which certainly was a factor in the April 6 cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base. 
Only the FBI may be capable of sorting through a scandal deeply complicated by sensitive and often secret information involving international espionage and electronic spying to accumulate the damning evidence that would stand up in a court of law against Trump's inner circle.  And perhaps the president himself.