Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Trump's Russia Intransigence Puts Him In Legal Jeopardy & America At Great Risk

It took months of lying, obfuscating and obstructing, but the president of the United States has now painted himself into a legal corner from which there can be no escape. This does not translate into impeachment, but Donald Trump has gotten himself into a heap of trouble.    
By continuing to not express the slightest concern about the gravest assault on democracy since Soviet spies stole atomic bomb secrets after World War II, by calling the Russia scandal investigations the "greatest witch hunt in American history,"  by refusing to cooperate with investigators, and now by shifting blame for Moscow's interference in the 2016 presidential election onto Barack Obama, Trump cannot risk softening his hard line, let alone striking a conciliatory note. 
Trump reportedly now begins each day not being briefed by his aides on national and world affairs, but huddling with his criminal defense lawyers.  They certainly have told him that any equivocating at this late date -- that is, diverging from the position that he is a victim -- would expose him to a fusillade of investigative questions he will be unable to answer without further undercutting his precarious legal standing.  
The reason Trump has taken this view is by now familiar.  He is narcissistic, paranoid and a pathological liar and coward who has a profound disdain for the law.  As someone who has never done an honest day's work in his life and almost always got away with that, he believes that he is smarter than everyone else and wiggling out from under the disaster he has created will be just another deal to be negotiated.   
Where Trump's view hits the big bad brick wall of reality is that being president is not like being a real estate mogul and pussy-grabbing reality TV star, and he is on perilous ground on several fronts:
* Trump's domestic agenda already is in deep trouble and he risks further alienating the Senate by objecting to its overwhelming vote to toughen sanctions on Russia.   
The House will take up the Senate bill, although probably not anytime soon, and Trump is no longer assured of its automatic support with a small but vocal faction of Russia hawks openly critical of his fawning appreciation for Putin. 
* There are a growing number of state election officials who are concerned that Trump has done nothing to safeguard the 2018 and 2020 elections against further Russian intrusions. 
Trump could care less, and also has shown no interest in following the lead of European nations who are using bold tactics to expose Russian attempts to sway their voters. 
* The longer Trump allows the impression to linger that he is considering dismissing special counsel Robert Mueller the more precarious his position becomes and the closer the U.S. lurches to a constitutional crisis. 
Mueller, who has assembled a crack team of investigators, is digging ever deeper into how the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow, and if Mueller is dismissed, it is probable that the Senate will simply reappoint him.
And there will be an increasingly stiff price to be paid as that corner becomes tighter.
Considering that we're talking about Russia here, it is fitting that there is a Dostoevskian aspect to the White House's newly-minted view that Obama is to blame for his reaction to something that it won't even acknowledge happened.   
This disingenuous defensive tack was trotted out last weekend after The Washington Post published a blockbuster story on the former president's secret struggles to punish Russia for interfering in the election.   
The big takeaway of the piece is that while Obama sought to respond with his trademark dispassion, proportionality and caution, those qualities failed him, and he ended up bringing a cap pistol to a gunfight.   
Tweets like the one above leave Trump even more exposed legally.  This is because he now acknowledges, in his own small-fingered way, that American intelligence agencies were right about Russian interference and, by extension, were right about that interference being for the purpose of getting his Moscow-sympathetic self elected.   
This, in turn, makes the kryptonite shot through the scandal even more toxic.  That Trump's campaign colluded with Russia, which may well finally be borne out as his intimate circle of grifters and con artists -- including Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Roger Stone and personal lawyer Michael Cohen -- are called onto the carpet by investigators while Vice President Pence, Attorney General Sessions and son-in-law Jared Kushner lawyer up. 
All of this (again) begs the question about what Trump will do "next time" since no one can seriously doubt that Putin's meddling will not have stopped with Trump's ascendancy. And another question: Will Trump even be around "next time"? 
I am gravitating to the view that Trump will not be around "next time" not because he will be impeached, but because he will find a pretext to resign before that happens.  That is, if he's not felled first by fast food.

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Crime Of The Century & Story Of How Obama Choked Trying To Fight Back

As Pulitzer Prize-caliber blockbusters go, The Washington Post's takeout on Barack Obama's secret struggles to punish Russia for interfering in the 2016 presidential election with the aid and abetment of Donald Trump is a brilliant letdown.  It is brilliant because it is investigative reporting at its finest and a letdown because it confirmed in excruciating detail what I have long suspected -- that Obama choked in handling the greatest crisis of his fraught presidency and what can now be fairly called the crime of the century.
Even giving Obama the benefit of the doubt, and Post reporters Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous are scrupulously fair, the president and his closest aides, and to a great extent the U.S. intelligence community, failed to grasp that the very foundation of American democracy had been assaulted.   
Perversely, this failure-to-grasp has continued well beyond Election Day.  The overlapping investigations and attendant minutiae -- how many times did Attorney General Sessions met with Ambassador Kislyak? -- have had the effect of obscuring the enormity of what Vladimir Putin wrought with an assist from Trump and his confederates.   
Even when the success of Putin's assault had become glaringly obvious, The Post makes a compelling case that Obama and the key players still fumbled and stumbled.   
In the end, fears that the White House would be accused of trying to influence the election, which of course is exactly what Putin and Trump did, as well as the overconfident view that Hillary Clinton would be the walk-off winner of the ferociously contested election, enabled a profoundly unqualified nut who never seriously thought he would win to wrest the keys to the national car from an eminently qualified if problematic opponent. 
Obama and his aides considered dozens of options for deterring or punishing Russia, according to The Post in its June 23 blockbuster.  These included cyberattacks on Russia's infrastructure, the release of CIA-gathered material that might embarrass Putin, and sanctions so tough that officials said they could "crater" the Russian economy. 
While Obama's back-channel warnings to Moscow to cease and desist as the election played out may have prompted it to abandon plans to escalate its attacks even further, including sabotaging U.S. voting systems, in the end Russia got off with a laughably negligible toughening of existing Obama-imposed sanctions that when placed in the overall context of the Russia scandal was profoundly inadequate. 
This weak-kneed response -- the expulsion of a mere 35 diplomats and closure of two Russian compounds -- was an open invitation for the Kremlin to work future mischief against the world's sole remaining superpower, which it surely will, and advance Putin's dream of returning the former Soviet Union to its Cold War glory, which it is well on its way to doing as it seeks to outmaneuver the feckless Trump.  He may be making less headway in European countries, as The Post reports in a separate story, because of the kind of bold tactics and tools they are using to expose Russian attempts to sway voters. 
The Post's blockbuster is a first draft of history writ large and indelibly tarnishes the legacy of an otherwise damned fine president whose trademark dispassion and caution ultimately failed him.   
It also makes even more important the ongoing work of special counsel Robert Mueller and other investigators in what Trump still claims is a "witch hunt" -- and now disingenuously blames the Obama administration for not stopping the Russians in an an apparent change of strategy on view this weekend -- even if impeachment by a Republican-controlled Congress remains an abstraction. 
If The Post piece has a shortcoming, it is giving short shrift to the desolate political landscape through which Obama trekked over the months of deliberations on how to respond. 
While Obama did not exactly go it alone, few of his Democratic allies in Congress understood the gravity of the situation.  Exceptions included Senators Harry Reid and Dianne Feinstein and Representative Adam Schiff, three ranking Democratic members of Congress who were members of what is colloquially known Gang of Eight, which is a legacy of the George W. Bush NSA warrantless surveillance scandal who by law are to be briefed on important intelligence matters.
Meanwhile, Republicans with exceptions hardly worthy noting, remained smugly in denial, and no one more so than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as eminent a personification of evil to slither through the halls of the Capitol in ages.  The Soviet Union and later Russia may have been the Republican Party's go-to bogeyman for decades, but their lapel-pin patriotism ended where the shameless expedient of kissing Trump's ring to get their agenda passed began.   
There is an opposing view of Obama's handling of the crime of the century that has merit. 
It goes something like this: There was nothing Obama could have done to keep Trump from winning.  His immediate responsibility was to preserve the U.S., not engage in confrontations with Russia once the election had been sabotaged.  The thinking was that there would be "ample time after the election, regardless of outcome, for punitive measures," according to one Obama insider interviewed by The Post.   
According to this opposing view, the longer term responsibility to deal with Russia falls to Trump and Congress, and ultimately voters to elect a new president and other legislators if they don't like the response of either.   
Where this view collapses, of course, is that Trump is morally bankrupt and determined to ditch sanctions.  And while the Senate has shown a willingness to strengthen sanctions, Congress as a whole will never fulfill its constitution duties while remaining in the oleaginous grip of the Republican Party. 
Treason, it seems, has never had it better.   

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

'Things Went Down We Don't Understand But I think In Time We Will'


Please don't dominate the rap, Jack
If you got nothing new to say
If you please, don't back up the track
This train's got to run today

I spent a little time in the mountain
Spent a little time on the hill
I heard some say "better run away"
Others say "better stand still"

Now I don't know but I've been told
It's hard to run with the weight of gold
Other hand I heard it said
It's just as hard with the weight of lead

Who can deny? Who can deny?
It's not just a change in style
One step done and another begun
In I wonder how many miles?

I spent a little time on the mountain
Spent a little time on the hill
Things went down we don't understand
But I think in time we will

Now I don't know but I was told
In the heat of the sun a man died of cold
Do we keep on coming or stand and wait
With the sun so dark and the hour so late?

You can't overlook the lack Jack
Of any other highway to ride
It's got no signs or dividing lines
And very few rules to guide

I spent a little time on the mountain
Spent a little time on the hill
I saw things getting out of hand
I guess they always will

Now, I don't know but I've been told
If the horse don't pull, you got to carry the load
I don't know whose back's that strong
Maybe find out before too long

One way or another
One way or another
One way or another

This darkness got to give

Monday, June 19, 2017

About That Scandal: Can Donald Trump Be Brought To Justice? Yes. No. Maybe.

With news media coverage of the Russia scandal in a sort of stasis -- we're between leaks and the only decent entertainment seems to be Donald Trump's criminal defense lawyers falling all over themselves trying to pretend that he's not under investigation for obstruction of justice -- let's approach his involvement in the successful Kremlin effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election from a somewhat different perspective.   
By backing into the question of whether Trump can be brought to justice instead of approaching it head on, we expose an essential component of the present and future of the Russia scandal: What can be done when a president of the United States breaks the law?   The deeply dissatisfying short answer usually is damned little.   
But we're not talking about jaywalking across Pennsylvania Avenue.  We're talking about complicity in an unprecedented assault from America's greatest foe on the bedrock of democracy in the most explosive scandal since Soviet spies stole atomic bomb secrets over 70 years ago, something that to my deep vexation keeps getting lost because too many people are fixating on the trees and not the forest. 
When you look at the forest, the constitutional carapace protecting a president from prosecution begins to come apart.   
There is no question Trump is guilty of obstructing justice at the very least, but how to prove that most serious allegation and get it to stick to the point where the words President Pence begin to roll easily off the tongue. 
Trump, who without question in mentally ill, may completely lose his shit before he can fire special counsel Robert Mueller as he fired FBI Director James Comey, which seems increasingly likely as a slow-motion version of Richard Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre unspools. The president's deeply disturbed psyche simply cannot abide deferring to anyone else while he remains appallingly indifferent, and in fact downright dismissive, of what Russia wrought and what that means to national security.   
The obstruction of justice case against Trump is, in my view, a slam dunk. 
18 U.S. Code Section 1505 requires that it be shown that the perp "corruptly, or by threats of force, or by any threatening letter or communication influences, obstructs, or impedes or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede the due and proper administration of the law"  (You can look it up.)  What this boils down to is acting with improper intent, which Trump did in spades in:
* Clearing the room before asking his national defense director and NSA director to stop Comey. 
* Clearing the room again before asking Comey to stop investigating Michael Flynn. 
* Firing Comey under false pretenses. 
* Becoming angry with Attorney General Sessions for recusing himself. 
* Becoming angry with Deputy AG Rosenstein for naming Mueller. 
* Floating a bogus story about Barack Obama ordering his Trump Tower phones being tapped to divert the FBI.
For his part, Trump does not believe he obstructed justice.  This is because in his fevered mind there was no underlying crime, only a "witch hunt" of historic proportions. 
There also is a sub-plot here worthy of a Sopranos episode. 
Trump gets AG Sessions to order Rosenstein to reverse engineer the legal justification for him to fire Comey, but over the FBI's Hillary Clinton email server investigation, turns around and says Comey actually was axed for turning up the Russia scandal heat, Rosenstein responds by naming Mueller, and an apoplectic Trump blames the deputy AG for double-crossing him.
Whether Rosenstein walks the plank (or quits or recuses himself) before Mueller's fate is determined is not out of the question.  But in any event, justice will run its course.
This course, of course, will be criminal in the case of Trump's associates and political in his own case, although it should be noted that the issue of a sitting president being immune from criminal prosecution has not been settled.
The associates said to be under the investigative microscope -- Carter Page, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, Roger Stone, son-in-law Jared Kushner and the especially oleaginous Flynn -- could face a variety of criminal charges.  Flynn seems a shoo-in unless he lands the big fish for investigators and there are reports that he is blabbing to the FBI. 
It is widely assumed the big fish won't be impeached because the gatekeepers to that political process are House Republicans, and even Trump being caught in flagrante delicto with Vladimir Putin would not move them to bring the hammer down on The Donald until their legislative agenda has been blessed by his signature.   
But what if that agenda remains stalled and the hot winds of electoral armageddon in 2018 are blowing down their necks? 
Well, as extraordinarily shameless as this crew is, then things might change. 

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal.    

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Russia Scandal Update: Is There A Smoking Gun In Donald Trump's Dirty Laundry?

What is the big hammer the Kremlin is holding over Donald Trump's head, so big that he has backed himself into an ever tighter corner where he continues to bleat that the Russia scandal is "fake" news while flailing and failing to shut down the FBI's lead investigation, let alone the four congressional probes? 
The most intriguing answer to that question comes in, of all places, the last paragraph of a New York Times story this week which itself was a follow-up to a Washington Post scoop on special counsel Robert Mueller investigating the beleaguered liar-in-chief for obstructing justice (although the explosive content of that last graf was not explicity mentioned in the WaPo story). 
The Times graf:
A former senior official said Mr. Mueller's investigation was looking at money laundering by Trump associates.  The suspicion is that any cooperation with Russian officials [in their interference in the presidential election] would most likely have been in exchange for some kind of financial payoff, and that there would have been an effort to hide the payments, probably by routing them through offshore banking centers.  
Could this be the proverbial smoking gun?  It may well be for those of us whose focus on the scandal has turned from how many meetings Jeff Sessions had with Sergey Kislyak or Trump's continuing attacks on James Comey and back several months to the takeaway observation of former British spy Christopher Steele in his infamous dossier:
The Russians had been "cultivating, supporting and assisting" Trump for years and have compromising personal and financial [both italics mine] information on him that could be used for blackmail. 
The more salacious aspects of the dossier, including Trump's alleged romps with Kremlin-financed prostitutes in a Moscow hotel in 2013, have received most of the news media attention.   
But the stories almost always have overlooked the big picture, which did not escape the attention of Comey when he was still FBI director and took Steele's digging so seriously that he considered putting him on retainer last October until Steele, frustrated by the bureau's slow progress investigating Trump-Russia ties, cut off contact and then went to ground after the explosion of media stories about the dossier. 
As I wrote in March when the scandal seemed to be more smoke than fire:
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.
Mueller has not assembled a crack staff of white-collar fraud litigators for nothing.   Nor is it a coincidence that of the seven Trump associates known to be under the investigative microscope, at least five (Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page and son-in-law Jared Kushner) have had business dealings with Russians.     
There are numerous transactions between Manafort and Bank of Cyprus, the offshore haven for money laundering by Russian oligarchs and mobsters, who can be indistinguishable from each other.  Ukrainian authorities are investigating Manafort for allegedly receiving $2.7 million in illegal payments from Ukraine's former pro-Russia ruling party laundered through offshore accounts. 
Two Trump companies are headquartered in Cyprus, which is the only EU country to give the Russian army and navy the right to freely use its facilities for bases of operation.    
Meanwhile, Deutsche Bank, which loaned Trump $300 million when no American bank would extend him credit, was a prominent player in a Russian laundering scheme known as the "Global Laundromat" run by Russian criminals with ties to the Kremlin.  The chairman of Bank of Cyprus is Josef Ackerman, former Deutsche Bank chairman.  Wilbur Ross, Trump's secretary of commerce, was vice chairman. 
Closer to home, wealthy Russians have invested nearly $100 million in Trump luxury high rises in Florida.
Trump can continue to blame a "biased" news media, which he no doubt will do.  Or I should say promptly did after the WaPo bombshell:

So there you have it: Less than 150 days into the troubled presidency of a troubled man, the main Russia scandal investigation of a foreign government interfering in an election for the purpose of getting that man elected has now reached into the Oval Office and the man's dirty laundry, Vice President Mike Pence has decided to hire his own criminal defense lawyer, and the Senate has voted overwhelmingly to block Trump from easing Russia sanctions and to step up sanctions for Moscow's election interference.   
Oh, and unlike Watergate, the cover-up still isn't worse than the crime.

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Scandal Update: That Very Big Something & The Coming Disaster In Washington

Allowing that at the end of the day Donald Trump is stupid in addition to being narcissistic, mean spirited and a pathological liar, there can be only one explanation as to why he has gone to such extraordinary lengths to try to block the Russia scandal investigations while continuing to insist that the whole affair is "fake" news.  There is something very big that must remain hidden at all costs.  And because a function of Trump's stupidity is that he thinks he's the smartest guy in the room, he still believes at this late date that he can get away with that.  But in order to get away with that, he needs his confederates to remain silent about that very big thing. 
This latest and greatest of Trumpian showdowns between fantasy and reality -- as in repeatedly claiming he is innocent of any complicity in successful Russian efforts to hand the 2016 presidential election to him while repeatedly saying and doing things that only make sense if he's guilty -- is occurring at a pivotal time in his presidency.   
As I am fond of saying and you are no doubt tired of reading, the Russia scandal has grown from a lot of smoke to a nasty fire and on to a general-alarm conflagration as Trump still refuses to express the slightest concern about the greatest assault on American democracy since Soviet spies stole atomic bomb secrets after World War II, something that Attorney General Jeff Sessions inadvertently reinforced in testimony on Tuesday afternoon in making the damning statement that he "did not recall" a single instance in which Trump even broached the subject. 
The smell of disaster is in the air with bipartisan approval in Congress for strengthening sanctions against Russia likely later this week, the possibility of there being a secret White House taping system that could be used to blackmail fired FBI Director James Comey turning out to be yet another Trump lie wrapped in a threat, Trump's credibility ebbing to the dimensions of a mosquito-infested mud puddle among even Republican congressfolk, his disapproval rating smashing the 60 percent barrier in a Gallup poll, and a Trump surrogate making grunting noises about him firing special counsel Robert Mueller.   
As Charles Pierce notes at Esquire:
Washington these days is stuck in a kind of Cassandra Syndrome.  Everyone knows the disaster is coming but nobody knows how to stop it, and too many people don't want to because they figure they can get rich selling off the ruins. But everybody knows the disaster is coming.  People talk about it matter-of-factly, the way they talk about rain when the dark clouds gather over the monuments by the river.  They also talk about it in whispers while every institution of democratic government screams for help.  The government of the United States is in the hands of feckless time-severs and coat-holders at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and in the hands of an unpredictable and perilous clown show at the other.  It is an altogether remarkable, if terrifying, place to be as summer comes on. 
Jesus, won't somebody get a net?
Enter Jefferson Beauregard Sessions and the need for Trump's confederates to keep secret that very big something if the mother of all stonewalls is going to hold.   
Sessions is a prototypical late 20th century Southern politician of the caucasian persuasion.  Although he piously claims otherwise, he is a racist and bigot, a hardliner on anything that compassionate people support like a humanitarian immigration policy for refugees or medical marijuana, and he oozes -- like syrup from an Aunt Jemima bottle -- an oleaginous insincerity.   
An opportunist in the finest tradition of the smoke-filled room, Sessions climbed on Trump's bandwagon not because he saw him as a transformative figure, but as a meal ticket, in this case being named attorney general in return for carrying out the president's draconian diktats.  He also is a coward, because behind that colonnaded plantation facade of a Selma drawl is an acutely tuned survival instinct.     
While lacking the drama of Comey's testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last Thursday, the very big thing was lurking just beneath the surface during Sessions' contentious turn in the hot seat on Tuesday afternoon. 
Predictably, Sessions called any suggestion that he colluded with Russians during the campaign an "appalling lie," denied he had met with Sergey Kislyak a third time -- it was an "encounter . . .  not a formal meeting" -- having lied under oath during his confirmation hearings in January that he had not met with any Russians at all any place anytime, and then later grudgingly admitted to two meetings with the ambassador, who is widely considered to be a spy in diplomat's clothing.   
Five months later, the shameless Sessions had the temerity to say those lies actually were his words being taken out of context. 
Pressed on what he and Trump had discussed in the run-up to Comey's firing, Sessions fell back on what already was public and when that didn't sit well with some committee members, fell further back on executive privilege, as in protecting Trump's right to assert privilege in the future.  Speaking of "appalling," and despite being a two-term senator himself, Sessions fell even further back in claiming Congress has no Executive Branch oversight role.   
When not dissembling, Sessions kept contradicting himself.  Avoiding the truth has a way of making one do that.   
Among his whoppers was saying the letter he wrote to Trump supporting the FBI director's dismissal was based on Comey's goof-ups in the investigation of Hillary Clinton's private email server, a transparent lie that Trump himself quickly discarded. Besides which, Sessions had been lavish in his praise of Comey until Trump signaled it was time to turn on him.  
Sessions categorically refused to say if he has discussed the FBI investigation with Trump and was forthcoming only when talking about prosecuting leakers of classified information to the news media, which is the Republicans' favorite way of trying to change the subject.
Despite having recused himself from the Justice Department's Russia investigation but then having his hands all over Comey's firing, Sessions also said he would not re-recuse himself and will continue to oversee Justice. 
All that noted, I continue to believe that the attention being paid to the Kislyak-Sessions encounters is a big, fat distraction.  So does Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, who wrote as Sessions was speaking that:
There were lots and lots of warning signs about Trump's relationship with Russia (both policy subservience and business ties) before what we now think of as the centerpiece of the story even happened.  The possible quid pro quo of policy subservience in exchange for business opportunities and cash was right there in the open before Russia began a massive campaign of more or less open interventions on Trump's behalf. 
. . . What happened stretches way back to the earliest days of the race and likely, in key respects, long before.  The meetings and events that are now the focus are more like the fruition of whatever was afoot.  They are far from the whole story.
To which I can only add, the key to Sessions' role is to what extent he was privy of that very big something.   
It is difficult to believe Sessions was out of the loop because he has kept resorting to taking big bites out of the perjury apple.  Even given that he is someone for whom lying has become reflexive over a long career in Republican politics, what he has continued to lie about is figuratively at the heart of the scandal and literally a heartbeat from that very big something.  
Finally, back to the report that Trump is contemplating firing Mueller.   
Some pundits say he has no intention of doing so.  They note that NewsMax Media boss Christopher Ruddy, the friend who floated the possibility, actually thinks it is a lousy idea.  He knew Trump was unlikely to take his advice when he visited the White House on Monday, but because Trump is so consumed by television news so he can see who is being naughty and who is being nice, Ruddy knew he would pay attention to what he said on the boob tube later that night. 
Amazing, eh? 
Other pundits say Trump's nothing-if-not-erratic personality and disrespect for political norms makes firing Mueller for the same reason he fired Comey (and New York U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara before him) a real possibility.  They note that Trump cannot help but act on his impulses, sees the special counsel as a huge threat to unearthing that very big thing, and it becomes more difficult for him to repress his knee-jerk "Off with his head!" impulse every time Mueller's name comes up. 
Like I said, amazing, eh?

Click HERE for a comprehensive Russia scandal timeline.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Revelations, Recriminations, Recusals & Reality: The Russia Scandal One Year On

There has been but one constant in the year of revelations, recriminations and recusals that have become known as the Russia scandal: Donald Trump has never -- not once -- expressed concern about the greatest assault on democracy since Soviet spies stole atomic bomb secrets after World War II, and that tells you all you need to know about the relationship between America's greatest foe and one of its greatest celebrities, as well as how that treasonous tryst birthed the demon spawn of a presidency that has shaken Washington, the nation and world.    
As huge as that underlying reality may be, it's easy to overlook now that the scandal has exploded, like a Fourth of July firework, into so many fiercely burning streamers of light that it can induce a kind of blindness.   
And has for many people who look away in horror or move on in shock rather than try to comprehend the scandal's numbing complexities, not realizing that once the process of chipping away at democracy commences, and the deceit underlying Trump's victory was just that, it makes getting back the protections we assumed we've had all along much more difficult, if not impossible.   
My own comprehensive timeline of the scandal now includes some 130 events of note, including nearly 40 since the beginning of May alone as it has grown from a lot of smoke to a nasty fire and on to a general-arm conflagration that eventually will take down the Trump presidency, although not soon enough.   
It was a year ago that American intelligence agencies confirmed something deeply disturbing. 
Britain's GCHQ, which is equivalent to the U.S.'s National Security Agency, had informed the NSA late in 2015 that it had become aware of suspicious interactions between individuals connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents.  The NSA passed on the information to the FBI and CIA, among other American intel agencies. 
By early June, the CIA had concluded in an internal report that Russia was actively engaged in meddling in the presidential election, including the goal of getting Trump elected, and not merely disrupting the U.S. political system.  The FBI, which routinely monitors the communications of Russian officials in the U.S., opened an investigation to examine possible links between the Trump presidential campaign and Russians who had been identified as people of interest, as potential perps are called in the spy community. Among the Americans of interest were campaign manager Paul Manafort, advisers Michael Flynn, Carter Page and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. 
A year later, we know because of a tsunami of leak-based disclosures that more or less simultaneously with the contacts between Russians and these individuals, that the Kremlin's election-meddling plan was revved up and its focus came into view for the intel agencies monitoring these contacts.  It would be a multi-pronged attack to sabotage the Hillary Clinton campaign through email hacking, disinformation and false news stories. 
It can be argued that the CIA and FBI were too slow to notify the Obama White House and high ranking members of Congress colloquially known as the Gang of Eight who by law are to be briefed on important intelligence matters.  But it also can be argued that once the president and his advisers and eventually those key members of Congress were in the loop following briefings by CIA Director John Brennan, they too moved too slowly to sound the alarm, while Republicans lining up behind nominee Trump were downright resistant.   
This tug of war between good and evil, and that is what we're talking about when the onion-like layers of my scandal timeline are peeled away, was to continue through Election Day, when it became shockingly obvious that the meddling-and-sabotage plan had succeeded, and on to last Thursday when fired FBI Director James Comey uttered the instantly immortal words, "Lordy, I hope there are tapes."
The explosive testimony of Comey and Trump's sanctimonious counterattack -- in which any hint of concern about his Russian pals hijacking the election was yet again conspicuous in its absence -- were high political theater and showed how far our understanding of the scandal has come yet how far we still have to go before we know the full story and the frog walking can commence.   
Next up: Attorney General Sessions, who keeps taking bites out of the perjury apple, making history by having to re-recuse himself.  This process could begin as early as Tuesday when he answers a request from the Senate Intelligence Committee to chat about why his name kept popping up during Comey's testimony.  
That testimony was, in a word, devastating, both legally and more importantly in the short run, politically.   
Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation will run its course, as will the four congressional investigations.  Based on what we now know, Trump obstructed justice and at least a few of his associates are in huge trouble even if impeachment remains an abstraction with Republicans firmly in control on Capitol Hill.   
And as if we needed reminding, while Comey was testifying British Prime Minister Theresa May was going down in flames.  Because of the differences between the UK's parliamentary system and ours when it comes to dealing with failed leaders, she may be long gone before Trump is.  No snap election for The Donald. 
Along with Trump's continuing refusal to condemn Moscow, also conspicuous in its absence last week was any sense that Republicans as a group believe their president is being treated unfairly.   
The questions asked Comey by Republican members of the intel committee betrayed in their mechanical dutifulness that these people know Trump is toxic, that Comey's description of the president of the United States as dishonest and untrustworthy is accurate, that Trump's boasts of being exonerated and offers to testify under oath are hogswallop, and that they are now in a race for time.   Can Trump help them enact their agenda before the weight of the scandal is so great that the White House ceases to function? 
Questioned the day after Comey's testimony about Trump's outrageous claim of "total and complete vindication," administration spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders harrumphed that "the president is not a liar.  I think it's frankly insulting that that question would be asked." 
The truth of course, is that Comey merely confirmed what we already knew.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

High Drama Aplenty As Comey Makes The Case That Trump Obstructed Justice

The big question going into fired FBI Director James Comey's appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday was less what he would say about President Trump's repeated efforts to get him to ease up on the FBI's Russia scandal investigation since they are by now well known, than whether Comey would make the case that Trump obstructed justice. 
While "a kind of bombshell-induced numbness" has set in from endless scandal revelations, as The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin well puts it, make no mistake: Comey implicitly made the case that Trump obstructed justice and that is a very big deal. 
It also is a big deal that Comey acknowledged for the first time that the FBI is scrutinizing Trump's actions as part of "the scope" of its investigation, which includes whether members of Trump's campaign colluded with Russian agents to try to influence the outcome of the presidential election, although Comey said the president was not specifically under investigation at the time he was fired a month ago.    
Beyond obstruction of justice being an impeachable offense -- even if impeachment isn't going to happen anytime soon, if ever -- the short-term importance of Comey making that case by citing instances in which Trump directly or more subtly told him to move on is that it should have the effect of focusing the four congressional scandal investigations, which have been all over the place.   
These investigations should now bear down on the obstruction issue and less on whether Trump and his associates colluded with the Russians in their successful efforts to swing the outcome of the 2016 presidential election by sabotaging Hillary Clinton (which by now is pretty much unquestionably true) or prosecuting leakers of classified information to the news media (which is the Republicans' favorite way of trying to change the subject). 
Comey insisted on testifying publicly.  The Senate committee obliged and the television networks, anticipating high drama, were ecstatic.   So were Washington bar owners, who threw viewing parties as if it was a World Cup final. 
There indeed was high drama as Comey, at his Veteran Washington Hand-practiced best, described Trump's vendetta against him while steering clear of saying anything that might compromise the investigation that really counts, that of Robert Mueller, who took over the FBI probe after Comey didn't get the message, Trump summarily fired him and then, out of the ensuing firestorm of criticism, the Justice Department appointed Mueller as a special counsel with broad powers.   
Inconveniently for Trump, beyond the slippery slope of what constitutes obstruction of justice is a legal term known as consciousness of guilt.  Trump's infamous meeting with Comey on February 14, the day after he fired national security director Michael Flynn, fits that to a tee. 
In addition to the president and FBI director, present in the Oval Office were Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was Comey's boss, and son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner.  Trump told the others to leave so he could speak to Comey alone.   
In other words, Trump cleared the room of anyone who would be privy to a conversation that arguably was an effort to obstruct justice, while at one point chief of staff Reince Priebus looked in and was told to butt out. 
As Comey recounts the moment, Trump began talking about Flynn in general terms and then about news leaks.   
According to Comey's notes, 
The president then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, "He's a good guy and has been through a lot."  He repeated that Flynn hadn't done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice-President.  He then said, "I hope you can let this go."  I replied only that "he is a good guy."
Comey said he related the exchange with his leadership team at the FBI and then went to see Sessions.
I took the opportunity to implore the Attorney General to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me.  I told the AG what had just happened -- him being asked to leave while the FBI Director, who reports to the AG, remained behind -- was inappropriate and should never happen.
Sessions, Comey said, did not respond.  
In something of a bombshell, Comey testified that he shared his notes on the February 14 meeting with a friend so they could be leaked to the news media.   The reason, he said, was his express intention of getting a special counsel named after Trump suggested, in a tweet, that there could be tapes of their meetings.  
"Lordy, I hope there are tapes," Comey told the senators. 
Trump's penchant for self-sabotage eventually kicked into high gear.   When Comey had not acceded to Trump's February 14 arm twisting, which was followed up in telephone calls from the president and several surrogates, he fired Comey on May 9.    
Then, after cycling through several false explanations, including one that FBI agents had lost confidence in their leader, Trump told NBC's Lester Holt that evening, "You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story," and boasted to the visiting Russian foreign minister and U.S. ambassador the next day that "I faced great pressure because of Russia.  That's taken off."  
"Those were lies, plain and simple," Comey said in brief opening remarks of Trump's claims as to why he was fired. 
Two hours of questioning followed during which Comey revealed that he had never trusted Trump, believed him to be a liar and had never felt the need to keep cover-my-ass notes when he met with President Obama, who appointed him to succeed Mueller as FBI director although he was a self-identified Republican. 
Most intel committee Republicans, carrying Trump's water while not outright defending him, sought to trip up Comey by criticizing him for sharing his memos with his colleagues and then leaking them, and implied that he might have been trying to entrap Trump by not expressing concern about their interactions.  There also were some bewildering comments by John McCain, who seemed to be out of it. 
The president, for a change, did not tweet during the course of the hearing, but son Donald Jr. took up the slack in trying to undercut Comey.  His tweets were immediately picked by and retweeted by Michael Flynn's son.   
And while the right-wing noise machine will be dutifully apoplectic about Comey's self-acknowledged leak, they're barking in vain.  This is because unlike other recent scandal-related leaks, there was nothing classified in them, although they are putting Trump in a much bigger world of hurts. 

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal.