Monday, May 01, 2017

The Russia Scandal Goes Underground As Trump's Denials Grow More Hollow

The Russia Scandal (you remember it, right?) has not gone away.  It has just gone underground as four separate major investigations plod forward and Donald Trump continues to create the impression that he has plenty to conceal because of his blanket refusal to cooperate.   We are yet again reminded that Trump has chosen to be small and petty instead of big and presidential, as he has so often, in the face of what has gained wide acceptance as gospel truth -- an unprecedented assault by the U.S.'s greatest foe on the bedrock of American democracy is a big reason he occupies the White House, and that probably didn't happen without his help.   
And so 100 days into Trump's presidency he owns the scandal, the time having long passed when he could provide assurances that all those associates surveilled by American intelligence as they wheeled and dealed with Russian spies and oligarchs were rogues and, by golly, he has nothing to hide. 
Instead, Trump doubles down as his approval rating craters at 40 percent, the lowest of any newly elected president since Gallup started measuring it.  A substantial majority of Americans believe Trump's campaign colluded with Moscow, while he continues to insist the scandal is a bigly fantasy as he tries to isolate himself from further criticism.  Reince Priebus, his chief of staff, suggests in all seriousness that perhaps the First Amendment needs to be abolished or changed to break the news media of the habit of criticizing his boss "about constant contacts with Russia" and other bad stuff. 
Meanwhile, this is where we are:
* The four major investigations are being conducted by the FBI, Justice Department, Senate Intelligence Committee and House Intelligence Committee.  The FBI investigation, which began last July and is considered the "lead" investigation, has made the most progress. 
* The FBI has determined that Russian operatives approached Trump advisers, including foreign policy adviser Carter Page, to infiltrate the Trump campaign, but have not ascertained whether Page and others may have known they were talking with Russian agents. 
* The congressional committees have secured access to top-level intelligence after negotiations with intelligence agencies, which combined with their subpoena powers will enable them to dig deeper. 
* The Senate probe is nearing the point where it can begin interviewing Trump associates and others while the House probe is on track after amateurish efforts by the White House to compromise now-recused committee chairman Devin Nunes blew up in its face. 
* Investigators have four major targets -- Page, former National Security Director Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and former Trump aide and avowed dirty trickster Roger Stone. 
* Page would appear to be the most fruitful avenue because the FBI went so far as to obtain a FISA Court warrant allowing it to monitor him, although only after he left the campaign.  He says he is cooperating with the Senate panel. 
* While the White House has distanced itself from these major targets, it is most concerned about Flynn because he has offered to testify in return for some form of immunity and because, unlike Page, it doesn't know how deep Flynn's contacts with Russians may have been. 
* Among the key people the Senate committee will interview is Sally Yates, who as deputy attorney general was an important player in an Obama Justice Department investigation of Flynn.  She later was dismissed by Trump for refusing to enforce his Muslim ban.    
* Flynn's troubles have become more problematic for the administration because he broke the law in failing to disclose on security clearance forms some $65,000 in payments from companies linked to Russia, including $45,000 from Vladimir Putin's state propaganda television network. 
* Another focus of investigators is the Bank of Cyprus, used by Russian oligarchs, including mobster Oleg Deripaska, to launder billions of dollars in cash.  Manafort, who has done deals with Deripaska, had an account at the bank while Wilbur Ross, Trump's Commerce secretary, had ties to it.
* A key player in the Kremlin's efforts was Russian ambassador Serge Kislyak, who is widely believed to be a spy and met with Flynn, now-recused AG Jeff Sessions and Trump in-law Jared Kushner at various times.  Trump denied meeting with Kislyak, but did so in April 2016.   
* A plan to influence the election in Trump's favor from the Institute for Strategic Studies, a Kremlin-backed think tank with personnel hand picked by Putin, was distributed at the highest levels of the Russian government last June and updated last October.  
As I have noted, presidential scandals follow their own individual arcs, but they all have certain things in common. 
The biggies are that the cover-up can be worse than the crime, which is not the case here because the crime is so immense, and that at some point there is a standoff as the scandal teeters on the cusp between going super nova or becoming a mere historic footnote.   We have been at that standoff stage since March 20 when FBI Director James Comey, in an unprecedented public rebuke, called Trump a liar and strongly hinted that his campaign conspired with the Kremlin.   
There certainly is an element of wishful thinking in my belief that the scandal is far more likely to go the way of Watergate than Whitewater. 
But the laundry list above of where we are in the first week in May reinforces that view.  Dots are being connected, although nowhere in there is the proverbial smoking gun.  Yet. 
Meanwhile, Comey has a reputation to salvage, there appears to be an effort at bipartisanship and real competition between the congressional intel committees to see who can run the best investigations now that the House committee is back on its feet following the Devin Nunes debacle, Sally Yates's testimony could be explosive, Trump loyalist Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight, has broken ranks with the president over the mounting stink surrounding Michael Flynn, and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an outside watchdog group with a record of winning lawsuits against government overreach, is pressing a court case against the president for deriving income from foreign governments through his private businesses.   
All of that is bad for Donald Trump.  And good for democracy.


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