The Russia Caper–Putin Plays a Card

June 2, 2017–Vladimir Putin has played another card in the Russia Caper. As foreseen here (“How Many Cards Has Putin?” May 12, 2017), the Moscow leader has the ability to keep the pot boiling in America by letting out information from his own side on the cyber-political action against America’s 2016 election. It’s “Miss Scarlett, in the Conservatory, with the Lead Pipe”-type stuff.

Putin’s latest is that, perhaps, Russians did interfere in the U.S. elections, but that they would have been private citizens, “artists,” who got up in the morning, saw something happening, and wanted to play a part. Nothing governmental, nothing real–and he has some inmates in the FSB’s Lubyanka whom he can, in due course, trot out to put pretend substance on these assertions.

There’s been lots of talk, here and elsewhere, about whether the Russia Caper was real or not, perhaps just fevered figments of imagination. Lots of attention has gone into various American figures, inside the Trump White House and out. Some very esteemed colleagues think the charges are all hokum. But consider this, yet one more layer in this cake– the antics of Russian leader Putin and his government.

Putin has behaved all along as someone who does have a stake in play. All through 2016 Moscow’s line, like Trump’s, was there’s no there there. Mind you, cyberwar has daily been becoming a subject of more intensive global cooperation, with Washington and Moscow on the same side. But on this? No soda. The FSB’s arrests came at the end of the operational cycle, with the election done and the Trump transition underway. Putin said nothing at the time except deny his nation had had any role, and gracefully forego retaliation in late December when the U.S. government imposed certain sanctions on Russia. When the activities of Russian officials came into question–for example, with questions regarding President Trump’s leak of sensitive intelligence at a meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, Putin offered to provide the Russian meeting record to document what was said. Not said, by Putin, is anything about the reported requests by certain Trump operatives for a communications backchannel using Russian devices, from them to Putin. There has been no comment, either, on the hacking of American political entities by adversaries traced to Russian intelligence agencies. In each of these cases of action or inaction, the path Putin has followed corresponds to how a conspirator might proceed.

To Miss Scarlett in the Conservatory let’s propose an alternative– it was Ambassador Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016.

It is time that those who wish to dismiss the reality of a Russian Caper be required to account for the Russian side of the hill, and advance explanations that would demonstrate the innocence of Putin and his minions in this affair.

Trump Foreign Policy: The Shape of Things to Come

May 29, 2017–With President Donald J. Trump completing his first overseas tour the broad outlines of what will be his foreign and national security policies are beginning to come into focus. The good news is that, when confronted with the slapdash silliness of many things that he advocated as a political candidate, President Trump often relents and retreats to a more traditional and recognizable policy stance. The bad news is that, with distressing frequency, Mr. Trump hews to the slapdash and silly. Meanwhile, he is creating a policy machinery that promises to guarantee sloppy action.

Trump’s first trip ended in chaos as he denounced longstanding NATO allies, seemed to open up to their concerns on global warming, threaten economic war with Germany, while looking askance at our friends in France. Germany too. At a beer hall a couple of days after the bullish American had left, German chancellor Angela Merkel stood up to tell the crowd that the age of alliances is at an end. President Trump was warned going into this trip, he refused to relent, and the result has been predictable.

If that leaves your head spinning, there is more–in Israel where Trump had been promising friendship–and to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (an open affront to Palestinians and Arab countries)–he suddenly reverted to a version of the old American approach of encouraging a two-state peace. In Saudi Arabia Trump went native, did the sword dance restricted to men, and looked on while Saudi royal family members made donations to Ivanka Trump’s foundation dwarfing anything for which candidate Trump lambasted the Clinton foundation in the last election.

In the Middle East Trump remained silent on human rights–a major issue in the region. Indeed, he participated in an odd séance with a lighted globe and the Saudi king and Egyptian military president, in both of whose nations human rights are threatened. Trump has recently chummed up to the Philippine president who is carrying out an active pogrom in his country. Combined with actions on the European portion of the trip, Mr. Trump cozies up to dictators while castigating democracies.

China also has a problem with human rights, and it, too, has benefitted from a Trump flip flop. Denounced consistently is Iran, which has just re-elected a moderate president and exhibits signs of improvement. There the United States has conceded the Iranians are keeping their side of a bargain on nuclear developments, and is “rewarding” that with plans for new sanctions. The ISIS enemy is also consistently condemned though there most would agree.

Trump’s line on North Korea is aggressive, matching the irrationality of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. There is no reason to suppose this approach will lead anywhere good.

Then there is the Russian Caper. Fresh revelations about Trump officials and family members and Moscow’s manipulation of U.S. politics in the 2016 election emerged almost every day during the Trump trip, and a parade of his senior officials made their way home to deal with the fallout almost every day of the tour. The latest is that the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, actually met with the Russian ambassador last December to request that he set up a Russian backchannel to afford secret communications with Moscow. The move smacks of espionage, reinforcing the impression the Russian Caper is every bit as sinister as some suspect.

Coming to the rescue, now again, is “Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster (see “H. R. McMaster: Appropriate Dereliction,” May 17, 2017, here below), who called a press briefing (from which the Trump officials fled after half an hour, and which they refused to allow cameras) to calm the waters. While refusing to comment on “Backchannel Jared” directly, the new national security adviser sought to reassure Americans, saying, of the backchannel, “No, I would not be concerned about it.” Pressed to explain, McMaster went on, “We have backchannel communications with a number of countries. So, generally speaking, about backchannel communications, what that allows you to do is to communicate in a discreet manner.” Over the weekend Homeland Security secretary John Kelly joined McMaster in dereliction, not only repeating the total BS line that a backchannel controlled by a foreign power is completely innocuous, but asserting that what Kushner did was good for the country! (Whatever Backchannel Jared thought he was up to in this gambit it had nothing to do with the country.)

Here is the kernel of thought about the administration’s new national security machinery: backchannels from the White House to substitute for front channels through the Department of State. If you wondered how the Trumpists expected to get away with gutting the State Department, reducing it by a third in the next budget, here is the answer. The foreign policy will be run directly out of the White House, relying on backchannels. The diplomats’ role will be to explain–from the outside–the rationale for whatever Trump does. Woe to everyone who has yet to master the art of the flipflop.

Meanwhile, Hal McMaster confirms why I have given him the sobriquet “Appropriate Dereliction.” Dereliction is what McMaster has accused his forebears of–the military leaders in the Vietnam war, McMaster maintains, failed to stand up to their president when he was leading the country into the Big Muddy. Well, here we are, and for the second time McMaster has acted in public to excuse egregious behavior from the president’s inner circle. In speaking of backchannels McMaster was directly misleading–the ones he refers to are set up within the U.S. government and the communications usually transmitted by the CIA. What Backchannel Jared sought was a com link over Russian channels. That’s what you do when you need to consult on an ongoing operation and don’t want your own side to know about it. See what I mean about sinister?

Defense: When Is Too Much?

May 26, 2017–President Donald J. Trump yesterday took his campaign rhetoric to the level of potential diplomatic crisis, accusing fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies of, in effect, “owing” the United States due to the lesser amounts of money they invest in their military establishments. At the ceremonies opening a new NATO headquarters Mr. Trump pointedly remarked he had not asked how much the building cost–though as a contributor the U.S. knows perfectly well–and in a speech Trump castigated fellow allies with the language noted above.

Most commentaries on this matter have focused on the president’s politesse, or lack thereof. The sharper issue is, why should allies follow Mr. Trump’s stupid defense policy–and what business has the United States criticizing them for not following our disastrous lead.

Trump’s criticisms, on the campaign and now, ignore the entire reach of NATO history. The fact of the matter is that resource allocation has been problematic throughout the history of the alliance. During the Cold War that mattered. In the 1950s, before the reunification of Germany, and facing massed Soviet armies across the Iron Curtain, military buildup was a huge issue. That involved even the creation of a new German army–prohibited since World War II. A major NATO conference at Lisbon in 1952 even set down a timeline for force creation designed to field a military suitable to defend NATO Europe. But NATO allies, barely recovered from the war, could not meet the promises.

That was only one iteration of this story. NATO has never met either its force goals or its investment promises for one simple reason–the differential economic performance of its many, many economies. Not in the 1950s when the Soviet threat loomed. Not in the 60s-80s when the threat of tactical nuclear weapons use implied the destruction of Western Europe in its defense. Not in the 1990s, with the Soviet Union gone and the global economy booming. Not in 2016, in the wake of the European Community economic collapse of 2009.

The first piece in the puzzle is to ask why the United States ought to expect otherwise today, when there is no looming archenemy (even Mr. Trump proclaims Russia is our friend) to set against many competing economic demands.

Next question is, what is a proper level of defense spending. In the 1960s, to bring back that old bug-a-boo Robert S. McNamara, the defense secretary brought in a generation of so-called “whiz kids” to revamp U.S. budgeting procedures (their system is still our foundation today). One of them was Alain C. Enthoven, whose key work is titled How Much is Enough? and sought to illustrate methods for rational decision-making in defense planning. Enthoven’s question is ours. Against what enemy are we building forces? None. The United States military outspends the next seven world powersincluding some of our NATO allies–taken together. But Mr. Trump pretends our defenses are deficient and wants to expand the defense budget another ten percent. What specific threat are the forces facing? Terrorism. But defense budgets buy aircraft carriers and infantry divisions that do not defend against terrorists. Most experts on the subject would actually argue that military forces are less effective against terrorism than diplomacy, spies; information and propaganda; economic aid, and other means. The Trump budget cuts all the more effective means in favor of mindless force-building.

A corollary element is where to draw the line. The whiz kids, arguably, would say it is at the point where military spending distorts the rest of the economy. Some experts think we passed that point long ago, but the gouging of non-defense spending in the Trump budget certainly puts a fresh, harsh light on this problem. To finance the defense increases plus tax cuts for the rich, Mr. Trump is gutting all the elements of the nation’s budget that help make America the place it is. And he is demanding that our NATO allies follow him in this?

The other side of the ledger is the cost of diplomatic confrontation. The “Article 5” of the NATO Treaty of August 24, 1949, has been much in the news recently. Article 5 is the central element of the alliance and provides the “one for all, all for one” aspect of action. But while that has garnered all the world’s attention, no one has been talking about the other aspect of Article 5–a geographic scope covering only Europe and North America. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 all the talk was about would NATO survive, because future conflicts would be “out of area” with respect to Article 5. Once the Bush administration began fighting in Afghanistan, later Iraq, it deemed the support of other NATO members crucial to the legitimacy of the conflicts, and NATO countries rewarded the Americans.

Mr. Trump is thumbing his nose at his sole base of international support, in service of a farcical defense policy that has a good chance of wrecking the fabric of American society.

Trump has smart bombs but stupid strategy.

John Brennan: The Flying Dutchman

May 24, 2017–John Brennan offered open testimony yesterday before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) on the Russian Caper. The former CIA director lent greater weight to and offered more emphasis on concerns the Russians had interfered with America’s 2016 election. Mr. Brennan’s worries, expressed as early as summer a year ago, were a factor in the FBI’s decision to open an investigation of the Russian Caper and in the legal and political hot water that President Donald J. Trump finds himself in today.

The former CIA director did not find too warm a reception at HPSCI. That was not only because its Republican members are doing their best to insulate the president. It is also due to Mr. Brennan himself. As spy chief in his own right John Brennan fought to  separate the CIA from the authorities tasked to oversee the agency. Like predecessors, Brennan talked a good line on responsiveness to oversight, then labored to deep six the Senate intelligence committee report on CIA torture, the most important bit of congressional oversight of intelligence in several decades. Brennan danced close to authorities, telling his nomination hearing that he favored release of the report, then sailed away, like the fabled “Flying Dutchman.” Brennan quashed the Senate report, refused to discipline anyone involved in the CIA program–or in efforts at countersurveillance against Congress–even drove the agency’s inspector general to resign.

One part of Brennan’s campaign to beat the authorities was to hype the threat (this also had something to do with the CIA’s drone war, of which Brennan had charge at the White House even before he came back to CIA). The combination of big threat from terrorism plus dangers of actually submitting to accountability put the CIA on a road to defiance. Then came the summer of 2016, when the agency saw signs of a Russian Caper. Brennan found it hard to get anyone willing to listen to him. Meanwhile the hyping of the threat further inflamed Americans, many of them willing to listen to Trumpian blandishments. John Brennan contributed to the election of Donald Trump–and he even helped complicate exposure of the Russian Caper, concurring with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s idea for a Russian Caper report so watered down it enabled those implicated to laugh off such a simple-minded effort.

The Flying Dutchman set his jib to the wind. Now he is being blown along by it.

H. R. McMaster: Appropriate Dereliction

May 17, 2017–Now the truth stands revealed. When then-Lieutenant Colonel McMaster published his book Dereliction of Duty in the middle 1990s he got an extremely friendly reception. He rode that to generals’ stars, command in Iraq, scuttlebutt finding him a suitable candidate for chief of staff of the United States Army, and more. Today, Lieutenant General McMaster is national security adviser to the President of the United States. On the White House podium yesterday it all came tumbling down.

There were some more doubtful observers of the McMaster parade, me among them. I always thought McMaster’s argument about the Vietnam war a cheap shot. I said so in historian circles and in my book Unwinnable War. The thesis in McMaster’s book was that the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and NSC staff at the time of the Vietnam war played the inexcusable roles of enablers by going along with President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s strategy–partial, cautious steps, fragmentary escalations–instead of demanding action on their real, much more forceful menu of operations. By McMaster’s lights this left the United States on an uncertain, wavering course, meandering through history to defeat in Vietnam. I thought McMaster wrong both in general and in detail. It was not true the JCS never held out for their “large solution” operations. What was true was rather that each time a major strategic review occurred the Chiefs argued for the large solution. Lyndon Johnson, acutely aware of the dangers war in Vietnam could morph into war with China or Russia or both, consistently resisted the maximum escalation. While LBJ staged scenes to denounce and embarrass the generals they never, in fact, gave up their underlying strategy. They were never guilty of dereliction of duty in the sense that H. R. McMaster (and the U.S. military) use the term.

The generals (and NSC staff) did act to preserve the dignity of the president and his office. They did not complain of the president’s high handedness. Only one, Army chief Harold K. Johnson in 1967, contemplated resigning in protest (hoping LBJ might agree to war mobilization and an invasion of North Vietnam to dissuade him). He didn’t do it–and he, too, kept his silence on what had happened.

McMaster’s prescription in his book was that an official, faced with such a dilemma, must resign in preference to dereliction of duty. Yesterday, in reality, the general met his Waterloo. Elevated to national security adviser, Hal McMaster serves Donald J. Trump. The president blocked his national security adviser from ousting staff who made trouble, prevented McMaster from keeping offensive rhetoric out of Trump’s public comments, and kept silent as the president called him a “pain.” In the past week the general no doubt watched in horror as President Trump fired the FBI director even as evidence of an attempt to manipulate a federal investigation began surfacing. Then, a few days ago, Mr. Trump blabbed to visiting Russian officials of secrets given the United States by an intelligence ally, reportedly Israel. This violation of every protocol regarding handling of classified information, Mr. Trump defended with the bland defense that, as president, he can declassify any intelligence.

General H. R. McMaster stood up for President Trump. He denounced the Washington Post’s report that Trump had leaked classified information, “It didn’t happen.” Why not? Not because it did not happen but because a president can decide to declassify secrets. Yesterday McMaster took the podium at the White House. He made more excuses for Trump. “The president wasn’t even aware,” the general said, “where this information came from.” The president had an “absolute right,” the general said. Nine times the general insisted that what President Trump had done was “wholly appropriate.”

Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster did not resign in protest. He did do precisely what his forebears had done during the Vietnam war–act to preserve the dignity of the office of the president. General McMaster seems to have discovered appropriate dereliction of duty.

Maybe Trump’s Right–So was Hillary

May 16, 2017–The latest escapade of this dysfunctional White House is the admission that, during the recent visit of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, President Donald Trump told the visitors secrets shared with us by our spy allies. Evidently in haste to defend the president, national security adviser H. R. McMaster insisted that no operation had been revealed that was not already known, and that no sources or methods were mentioned. Earlier today Mr. Trump himself, relying upon the power of the president to “declassify” information, insisted he had the “right” to divulge the secrets he did. This mess brings us full circle to where we were a year ago when Donald J. Trump’s minions persecuted Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server, chanting “lock her up!”

There’s quite a bit to unpack here. First, the Hillary investigation, conducted by James B. Comey’s FBI, helped fuel the Trump political campaign as it gathered momentum. As discussed here and elsewhere, Comey’s re-opening of the investigation just before Election Day affected the outcome. So did Mrs. Clinton’s wooden handling of the issue. In this space I argued repeatedly that the movement of classified emails–and the excesses alleged by certain government agencies–were less than simple press bulletins made it appear. Not only was that correct, but recently it turns out that FBI Director Comey exaggerated his claims of the dimensions of the potential leak.

In terms of transgressions, Hillary Clinton’s offense was moving message traffic across a medium (a private server) that had not been approved at a time when the State Department had yet to set its policy for handling this kind of information. There is no evidence the server was ever penetrated or read, hence no indication of a national security breach. By contrast, Mr. Trump personally and physically disclosed secrets to representatives of a nation long our adversary. They were secrets given by an ally. Although U.S. classification policy permits a president to release secrets, foreign government information is typically protected in our system. At a minimum Mr. Trump breached that confidence. National security damage was done.

When the Clinton email scandal first arose, the instant reaction here was not just to show how the issue had been blown out of proportion but to argue that current policy on secrecy makes it virtually impossible for senior officials to do their jobs without violating classification regulations. The Donald Trump faux pas just demonstrates that anew. It’s time to change the policy!

How Many Cards Has Putin ?

May 12, 2017–Seeing Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov parade through the White House two days ago was highly suggestive. The minister exhibited the facial expression of a person enchanted, entering their new domain for the first time, the scene documented by a photographer from the Russian news agency TASS. That in itself speaks volumes for the competence–or lack thereof–of the Trump White House, which had deliberately excluded press from the event but not bothered to check whether the Russian photographer worked for the Foreign Ministry or some other government entity (like TASS). In any case Lavrov had the air of someone surveying property, or potentate meeting vassal.

You can’t say that is evidence for the Russian Caper, but the White House parade is consonant with behavior you might expect from a successful conspirator. The very next day the chiefs of the U.S. intelligence agencies–now Donald Trump’s intelligence agencies–were at the other end of The Mall, on Capitol Hill, presenting their annual run down of threats facing the United States. Cyberattack took the lead, with the Russian attempt to manipulate the U.S. 2016 election the top exemplar. Mr. Trump may think the Russian Caper a hoax but only fabulists of his stripe will agree.

Readers of this space will know we’ve been following the Russian Caper for months. Articles here identified a quid and a quo, discussed the evolving events, related them to figures in the Trump election campaign, and analyzed the parallel, equally damaging, actions of Federal Bureau of Investigation director James B. Comey.

Yesterday I analyzed the president’s actions using the game of Bridge (“Trump Trumps Comey,” May 11, 2017). We left the piece with a few tricks still to play and the question, among others, of what cards Vladimir Putin may hold. This is a fair, in fact a crucial question.

First is the existence of the Russian Caper. As a real thing. With a timeline, strategy, and players. A story. Making Moscow’s manipulation public would instantly blow away Mr. Trump’s pathetic squirming in his attempt to suppress investigation. More than that, revelation of the cover-up would instantly plunge American politics into crisis. If the aim of a Russian political action operation was to create chaos in the United States, that would be a huge success. Moreover the threat of such a revelation–with President Trump now having fired his FBI director in commission of a cover-up–could be expected to incline the American leader to act as Moscow desires. Former acting attorney general Sally Yates lost her job warning of the dangers of a national security adviser (Michael Flynn) who could potentially be a Russian operative, imagine the scope for a president as an agent. That’s an Ace of Spades. In No-Trump Bridge there is no higher card.

To continue that analogy, Mr. Putin also holds the King of Spades. Last December the Russian security service FSB arrested two of its own, General Sergei Mikhailov, a deputy director of the service’s computer security unit; and Major Dmitri Dokuchaev, an operating hacker. Mikhailov, we are told, was interrupted in the middle of a meeting, a black cloth bag put over his head, and frog-marched away. Also taken was Ruslan Stoyanov a top cybersecurity expert at a contractor firm. Rumored reasons for the arrests included that these individuals were engaged in cybercrime, or that they were CIA agents. But these people were also linked to “Fancy Bear,” as Western cybersecurity experts have dubbed the hacking entity responsible for the penetrations into American political parties and networks, believed to be a unit of the military intelligence service GRU. If this is correct, the FSB can at any time roll out a set of witnesses to put details into the so-far hazy picture of exactly how the Russian Caper worked.

Next to the Ace, the King of Spades is the strongest card in No-Trump. The president does not control these cards and is, in fact, beholden to them. After firing Director Comey, President Trump’s hand is nearly exhausted amid a political situation in which specific concern over the Russian Caper is at fever pitch.

 

 

 

Who Trumps Whom ?

May 11, 2017–In the game Bridge the players establish a set of expectations and nominate a suit of wild cards before play of the hand begins. They do this in a ritual of bidding, four players in two teams for the game. The players also seek to signal their partners the strength of their hand through this same bidding process. The card suits have a rank order from the lowly Club to the top-notch Spade, and from the deuce at the bottom to the Ace at the top. “Two Clubs” is the smallest opening bid you can make. If your hand is not worth that you pass. To bid in “No Trump” is nirvana, indicating your hand is strong in every suit. If the bidding results in a named suit, by contrast, play of any card in that suit will beat the highest card of the suit currently on the table. This is relevant in today’s political controversy–I have heard pundits who could not resist the endearment of “Trump trumps Comey,” as the dismissed FBI director disappears out the door. But my thought is that the bidding was wrong–the card tricks will not play out the way Mr. Trump thinks.

The president, being Donald Trump, naturally bid “No Trump,” the strongest form of play. In No Trump the top card in the suit in play wins. There are no wild cards. The cards mean what they say. Sometimes a player with a weak hand bids in No Trump when he should not, or an inexperienced one does not know any better. This is problematic for President Trump because he has the lead in this game, and he is trying to escape the consequences of the Russian Caper.

There will be thirteen card tricks in the play of the hand. Mr. Trump took the first two when he benefitted from Russian intervention in the presidential campaign and then when he won the election. After that he started to squirm. The big reveal of partner Mike Pence’s hand showed the cards are not so strong after all. Trump bulled his way through a trick by insisting the Russian Caper is a hoax, then sacrificed one by remaining silent as Congress organized to investigate Moscow’s role in American politics. But the attempt to coax out the opponents’ high cards flubbed when the White House was revealed to be bending the congressional  investigators to its whim.

On the next trick came a major blowup, when national security adviser Michael Flynn was caught on surveillance tapes talking to the Russian ambassador. Flynn further complicated the play, at every step being caught in more compromising poses (taking Russian money, disguising that he did, neglecting to get required permissions, to register as a foreign agent; even carrying water for his foreign clients at the very moment of the election). The FBI, headed by James Comey continued its investigation throughout all this, and when Mr. Trump entered office the Flynn dossier had already grown thick. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates did Trump the courtesy of giving the White House advance notice of the burgeoning file. Rather than do anything about Flynn, the White House demanded to see the evidence. Trump lost a trick when Mike Pence rushed to Flynn’s defense, spouting Flynn’s phony denials as gospel truth. Trump’s spin doctors made it worse by attacking media for doing their jobs–and the president doubled down by, in fact, blaming the media for the dismissal of Michael Flynn.

Mr. Trump’s sixth trick was to blame Barack Obama, alleging the former president had ordered surveillance of his political campaign. That flubbed too.  Carter Page of the Trump campaign was a subject of FBI investigation for his role in the Russian Caper, but that flowed from solid investigative leads. When Mr. Trump fatuously declared the “leaks” of juicy tidbits from the investigations to be the problem, rather than the Russian Caper itself, he lost another trick. The latest press reports paint a president furious at the FBI for continuing to investigate the Caper instead of focusing on the phony Obama surveillance allegation. Trump still had one high card. He used it to fire Bureau director James Comey. But the incompetence and lack of political skills of Mr. Trump’s White House are such that no one made any preparations for handling the fierce questions that were sure to follow Comey’s dismissal. Trump took a trick but immediately lost another.

Now the president is stuck. The Russians actually have some of his cards. No one knows how many. Trump himself is down to, say, a deuce of clubs and a three of diamonds. The game continues. Opponents have the big cards and–because this is No Trump–there are no wild cards to smite them. It’s not enough any more to assert that no one is interested in this story, or that it’s yesterday’s news, or that it’s fake news, or any of the other low-grade deceptions Trump has relied upon in the past. Stay tuned.

“Mildly Nauseous?”

May 7, 2017–Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James B. Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee a few days ago that thinking his actions last October 28, scant days ahead of the 2016 presidential election, might have had some impact on its outcome makes him “mildly nauseous.” Poor Jim Comey! He’s had all kinds of rocks thrown at him, he says. “Lordy!” it’s “been painful,” he says. All this is uttered in a tone of wonderment as if it’s a surprise people might connect any FBI action–more specifically the re-opening of the Hillary Clinton email investigation on the eve of the election–to her defeat. Perhaps Mr. Comey doesn’t know (but if he does not, he has no business being in charge of the nation’s primo investigative agency). The fact is that lots of people have been talking about Comey’s action in exactly those terms since October 29, 2016. Readers of this space, for example, saw two commentaries on Director Comey’s actions (“Spooks Gone Wild!!”, posted that same day; and “Obama and Comey,” November 2, 2016), both posted before Election Day, that worried Mr. Comey’s actions would have the precise effect they did.

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times (April 23, 2017) ran an extensive investigative piece by journalists Matt Apuzzo, Michael S. Schmidt, Adam Goldman and Eric Lichtblau that explored the inner workings of the FBI’s decisions in this case. They quote candidate Donald J. Trump saying, “This changes everything!”

The point is the impact of Comey’s actions was obvious, not hidden in any way. In an email to the work force Mr. Comey explained that not informing Congress of the resumed FBI inquiry– which would have conformed to the Bureau’s standard operating procedure– was wrong. The authors of the Times story quote Comey’s email: “It would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record.”

Let’s review the byplay. Director Comey could have followed Bureau standard procedure, which would also have conformed to the instructions he had from the Attorney General. What he did went outside both those rubrics. That requires some significant rationale. We now know the FBI had several related investigations underway at the same time. Trump political operative Paul Manafort was under investigation for acting as an illegal foreign agent for Russian and Ukrainian interests. Other Trump operatives, separately or together, were potential subjects of an investigation into Russian political actions in the United States. Whether these were different investigations or the same one we don’t yet know. We do know that the Director of National Intelligence and the chief of the Department of Homeland Security had already gone on record, in early October 2016, charging that Russia had been conducting these actions. So far as we know at this writing, the FBI was resisting public reference to its own inquiries in this area. Had Mr. Comey’s concern only been whether he was misleading Americans if he did not own up to re-opening the Clinton email affair, he could have preserved an equal political footing by simultaneously revealing the Trump-centered inquiries.

Instead Director Comey, in a charged political atmosphere, was willing to confirm to the public an investigation targeting Hillary Clinton but not to place the Trump campaign in the same soup. His resignation ought to have been on President Obama’s desk the day after the election. Now he is only “mildly nauseated?” Rubbish!

This is not about Mr. Trump’s margin of victory, or Ms Clinton’s political mistakes that cost her the election. It is not about politics per se. It is about an action by a security agency that had any political impact at all–and about the actions of a director who knew, but stubbornly refused to acknowledge, his actions had that effect. The most plausible explanation for Comey’s actions–the argument I made at that very time–is that he was attempting to avoid criticism of the FBI (from Republicans) for alleged inactions in the email affair. If so, Mr. Comey was putting the FBI’s–and his own–interests ahead of those of the entire American political system. For that reason alone he should be gone.

Now Director Comey is on Capitol Hill asking for an unregulated extension of government surveillance powers, the so-called “Section 702” eavesdropping provision of the USA Freedom Act, set to expire this year. The head G-Man insists the spy powers are absolutely necessary. But now Mr. Comey has credibility and judgment problems. Americans can no longer believe what he says nor can they trust his judgment. That is the price of the FBI’s election interference.

Senate Intelligence Committee’s Mojo Coming Back?

March 31, 2017–Capitol Hill is a place of contrasts. The most recent is the startling difference between inquiries into the Russian Caper being mounted, respectively, by the United States House of Representatives and Senate. The House committee’s “inquiry” has been a pure smokescreen, engineered by a chairman acting as an operative of the Trump White House, in ways calculated to protect President Donald J. Trump from the consequences of his methods. (The jury is still out on what actually happened in the Russian Caper–and the appropriateness, even legality, of that–but it is quite clear that tactics used subsequently to distract attention and/or evade scrutiny are wholly unacceptable.) Democratic Party members of the House Committee are powerless in the face of California Republican Devin Nunes, the chairman. Nunes may be destroying any bipartisanship that existed among his colleagues, recasting himself as a laughing stock, but the practical effect of his actions has been to destroy the House investigation.

That leaves the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI). Readers of this space will recall that during the time of the fight between the Senate committee and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) over the SSCI’s inquiry into the CIA torture program, my analysis was that the agency maneuvered to obstruct and emasculate its Hill overseers. Langley had good success doing so, enough that at the end of the day the SSCI seemed impotent. Now the Russian Caper plus the failure of the House inquiry casts the SSCI in the lead role for what probes that remain possible within the current framework.

The good news is that the SSCI, so far, seems to be stepping up to the plate. Over the past several weeks Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, the ranking opposition member and vice-chairman, has garnered most of the public attention, but has consistently held to a bipartisan approach, and said good things about how the Senate committee will proceed. Then on March 29 Senator Warner appeared with his chairman, North Carolina Republican Senator Richard Burr, at a joint press conference. For forty minutes they laid out how the SSCI will proceed, defended each other, and generally put on a good face.

Senator Burr had gotten off to a rocky start after taking the committee over from California’s Dianne Feinstein. Burr had demanded government agencies return all copies of the SSCI torture report to the committee, evidently intending to deep six the data, handing the final victory to CIA. Investigation of the Russian Caper–which calls Republican party loyalties into question–is an even more difficult proposition for the GOP senator than overseeing the agency.

But Burr and Warner are clearly together in this enterprise. Senator Warner spoke of thousands of documents handed over to the SSCI investigators, and the first public hearing the committee held, on March 30, pulled no punches, with a former FBI special agent discussing Russian active measures tactics. It seemed a good start. Perhaps the Senate intelligence committee is getting its mojo back. We’ll see.