Friday, April 07, 2017

Russia Scandal Update: Is Donald Trump's Son-In-Law Stupid, Greedy Or Both?

In January 2013, nearly four years before the Russia scandal began eating away at the Trump presidency, future Trump campaign foreign policy advisor Carter Page, by his own admission, met with Evgeny Buryakov, a Russian spy working undercover as an executive in the New York office of Vnesheconombank, a development bank with close ties to Russian intelligence services.  In December 2016, only weeks before his father-in-law was inaugurated and as the scandal was gaining traction, Jared Kushner met with the chief executive of the same bank, which the Obama administration had sanctioned in 2014 prior to prosecuting Buryakov for espionage in 2015 and sending him to prison. 
Kushner failed to mention, as was required by law, his Vnesheconombank meeting, a sitdown with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who had set up the bank meeting, and dozens of other contracts with foreign officials when he sought a high-level security clearance that would give him access to the nation's most closely guarded secrets.  
This begs a very important question: Is Kushner stupid, greedy or both? 
The inescapable conclusion is both as the scandal continues to suck in people at a prodigious rate.  In addition to Page and Kushner, they include Trump's attorney general, former national security chief, personal lawyer, former campaign manager, a self-avowed Republican dirty trickster, three National Security Council officials, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and most recently Erik Prince, the ultra-right wing billionaire who sought to open a secret back-channel line of communication for Trump with Vladimir Putin.   
(Trump's ousted national security boss, Michael Flynn, also suffered a bout of amnesia when filling out his own security clearance application when it came to his meeting with Kislyak, who is widely considered to be a spy in diplomat's clothing.) 
The president, of course, continues to maintain that the scandal is "fake news and a "witch hunt," knows that the right-wing media echo chamber has his back, and hopes that his missile strike on Syria will provide a much needed distraction.  And while he spoke of Page a year ago as a trusted foreign policy advisor to his campaign, White House press secretary Sean Spicer, reading from the libretto of the administration's now familiar alternative universe operetta, says Page is someone the president "does not know." 
For those of you following the Russia scandal who are keeping score at home, there is a significant new addition to the timeline: The CIA sussed out long before the FBI that the Russian effort to disrupt the election included the goal of getting Donald Trump into the White House, not merely disrupting the U.S. political system. 
The New York Times reports that CIA analysts reached that conclusion last June even before a more generic FBI investigation limped off the ground.    
So concerned was the CIA by late August -- 10 weeks before the election -- that then-CIA Director John Brennan began a series of urgent, one-on-one briefings for the eight top members of Congress after telling aides that unnamed advisers to Trump might be working with the Russians to interfere with the election, although such proof remains elusive eight months later.  Publicly, anyway. 
Then-Senate Leader Harry Reid, the highest ranking Democrat in Congress, concerned about what Brennan had told him, communicated the CIA's view to FBI Director James Comey a few days after he had been briefed and urged him to have the bureau put the to pedal to the metal in its own nascent investigation, but the bureau continued to take a broader view of the meddling even as new batches of hacked Democratic emails surfaced through Putin ally WikiLeaks while the product of Russian hacking of Republican sites was not similarly publicized.   
Reid wrote an angry letter to Comey on October 30, accusing him of a "double standard" in reviewing the Clinton investigation two days earlier while sitting on "explosive information" on ties between Russia and Trump.  
Comey did finally publicly acknowledge that the FBI's investigation of election meddling included Trump associates' contacts with Russians while testifying before Congress on March 20. 
The question was never whether Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, would recuse himself from that panel's foundering investigation into the Russia scandal, but when and what excuses he would use after his cloak-and-dagger pratfalls revealed him to be an ethical slacker who was in the bag for President Trump. 
When the inevitable recusal announcement came on Thursday, it was a howler. 
Nunes said in a statement that he had done nothing wrong and had stepped aside after "several leftwing activist groups" filed complaints with the Office of Congressional Ethics over "entirely false and politically motivated" charges. 
The House Ethics Committee wasn't playing along.   
It said that it was taking seriously the possibility Nunes "may have made unauthorized disclosures of classified information" in surreptitiously going to the White House grounds after switching cars and ditching aides to meet with secret sources who turned out to be three White House staffers with national security credentials who fed him secret documents that U.S. spies, in the course of doing their secret jobs, may have inadvertently swept up  Trump or his associates as they engaged in legal foreign surveillance during the post-election transition period. 
A Trump transition team member who deservedly has become the butt of Inspector Clouseau jokes, Nunes ran to the press and then the president about the documents in what obviously was a coordinated effort before even briefing his intel committee colleagues.   
Meanwhile, the Susan Rice Is A Bad Girl boomlet has collapsed because the White House refuses to release the documents it leaked to Nunes that it claims would implicate Barack Obama's national security adviser in intentionally seeking to embarrass Team Trump because it would do no such thing.
Nunes joins Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the Recusal Hall of Shame, and the upshot is that his antics called further attention to the scandal and raise questions no one was necessarily asking, while Trump's follow-up junkyard dog tweets about Barack Obama tapping his phones has created more pressure for the kind of investigation Nunes would never allow to happen. 
It is easy to forget amidst the all the smoke and mirrors that on the surface the Russia scandal has always been about the money -- just like Donald Trump has always been about the money.  But the scandal runs much deeper than that:  
The scandal is the most explosive since Soviet spies stole atomic bomb secrets over 70 years ago.  The latest generation of those spies engaged in sabotaging a foundation stone of American democracy -- a presidential election.  They succeeded, in part, because of the extensive interactions of Trump's inner circle with those spies and Vladimir Putin's success in playing the future president for a fool.  
This core truth keeps getting lost because many of us -- most politicians, public officials and pundits, anyway -- don't want to confront the awfulness of what lies beneath the tip of this most ugly iceberg, while the scandal's episodic nature -- sandwiched as it is between not repealing and replacing Obamacare, Senate nuclear options and the Syria crisis -- makes that easy to do.

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