The Russian Caper

March 4, 2017–Even as two days ago Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any inquiry on the Russian caper, the Trump White House was busily asserting that Mr. Sessions was being improperly accused. Just another step in this delicate dance. Let’s review the latest developments in the story of the Russian caper.

First, the Russians. The evidence on them grows by the day. Yesterday the New York Times reported that Dimitri K. Simes, of the Center for the National Interest, introduced the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergei I. Kislyak, to Donald J. Trump. That happened in April 2016 at a Center dinner. On March 2, Trump adviser Carter Page admitted on an MSNBC telecast, “All In with Chris Hayes,” that he had met with Ambassador Kislyak in Cleveland during the Republican Convention last July. Jeff Sessions who gave the nominating speech for Trump at Cleveland, also met with Kislyak at the convention. Michael T. Flynn, the retired Army general who initially led Trump’s national security staff, was in Cleveland too, but his contacts there with the Russian ambassador have yet to be established.

Now there are new skeins of yarn atop those. In the early days of the Trump campaign the candidate hardly had a foreign policy advisory shop. Just a few people, really, and Trump explicitly mentioned Carter Page as one of them. J.D. Gordon was another. Both participated in a Global Partners in Diplomacy round table event held at Case Western Reserve University during the convention, where they spoke afterwards with the Russian ambassador. Both men, when initially questioned, denied having met Mr. Kislyak. Equally to the point, Gordon had an official role at the convention as representing Trump’s interests on the Republican Platform Committee, and there he acted to block language in the party platform that would have condemned Russia’s aggressive actions in the Ukraine. Here the quid for the quo begins to come into view.

On July 25 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced it had begun investigating Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee. Two days after that Mr. Trump virtually invited the Russians to hack America, in the guise of asking if they could find emails of Hillary Clinton that were missing from her computer servers.

Jeff Sessions saw the Russian again, in Washington at the then-senator’s Capitol Hill office, on September 8. According to the assorted reports on the Russian hacking from U.S. security services, the cyber intrusions peaked around May 2016. Readers of this space will know that already last year we observed that the American spies botched their inquiry into the Russian caper by serving up watered down evidence that permitted both the Russians and the Republicans wide scope for denial. But you can see in this chronology a logical progression– the Russian links with Trump, Russian cyber positions itself to act, Russians apparently all over the Republican convention, Trump invites them to do more, Kislyak sees Sessions at least one other time.

Sessions’s role is underlined by the odd way he responded at his confirmation hearing for Attorney General, when asked if he would recuse himself from any U.S. investigation of the Russian Caper. Sessions did not answer that question at all. Instead the nominee talked about his contacts with Russians: “I didn’t have–did not have communications with the Russians.” Since Senator Sessions was under oath when he said this, the categorical denial amounted to perjury.

Another key Trumpian power player, son-in-law Jared Kushner, had more contacts with Ambassador Kislyak during the transitional period following the November 2016 vote. The Washington Post reminds us of an important Russian comment, just after the election, from deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, who told the Interfax news agency not only that there had been Russian contacts with the Trump campaign, but went on, “Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage.”

Now let’s bring back General Flynn. It became apparent shortly after Mr. Trump’s inauguration that, in December, when President Obama imposed sanctions on Russia to respond to the hacking, Flynn was on the phone to Kislyak the same day. The general lied to Vice-President Michael Pence about the contacts, leading the latter to spread falsehoods in defending the Trump campaign. Flynn’s lies were serious enough to force him to resign as national security adviser.

What is it that requires multiple participants to obfuscate, lie, or otherwise obscure their roles when asked about an activity? Guilty knowledge. This is not an individual event. There is a pattern here. Whether or not the conspiracy was criminal can be established only by investigation. The FBI itself is not entirely in the clear. Its questionable role adds to the mystery. It’s a good thing Mr. Sessions recused himself, but I fear America is going to need more than that to get to the bottom of this.

 

 

Fearful Leader Against Loose Cannon: CIA’s Purge Begins

January 5, 2017–For all his bombast, expressed in 160 character sound bites, Donald J. Trump is a loose cannon. One of his targets has been United States intelligence. Regardless of his latest–“The media lies to make it look like I am against ‘Intelligence” when in fact I am a big fan!”–what is consistent in the Trump messaging, for months now, is that American spies are in his crosshairs. This sense is well enough established that since before the American elections you’ve been reading here of the coming purge of the spooks. The message carries beyond Trump–his minions spout it at much greater length and with blatant exclamations the CIA lacks evidence for a conclusion that Russia sought to influence the U.S. presidential election.

As this is written the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and his top agency directors are appearing on Capitol Hill to acquaint Congress with their conclusions in more detail. The DNI, General James Clapper, has long been an obsequious apparatchik, so much so that it’s amazing he wasn’t able to get in with president-elect Trump. In any case, the DNI has assembled a report on Russian hacking, which goes to President Barack Obama and Congress today, and which is supposed to be briefed to Trump in New York tomorrow.

There is more than a little irony that Donald Trump thinks little of U.S. intelligence and its charges. To start with Clapper, who has been a Fearful Leader, seeing threats behind every bush and creating an atmosphere that helped make possible the emergence of Trump, is now being slapped down by one he built up. This DNI also pictured his own employees, American spies, as the major threat to U.S. national security and then, when he finds a foreign (Russian) threat, can’t get that taken seriously by the incoming president. In fact Mr. Trump is evoking Julian Assange of Wikileaks–a person whom Fearful Leader and associates have wanted put away (or worse) to refute the reported intelligence findings. A further irony lies in the fact that FBI director James Comey, who played a key role in Trump’s election with a panicky eleventh-hour allegation against the president-elect’s opponent, is part of the delegation who will go to New York to brief Mr. Trump on the hacking findings. Trump has already rejected regular receipt of the top secret President’s Daily Brief. The notion he will be receptive to the message on Russian hacking is wishful thinking.

Here’s my prediction on what will happen: Mr. Trump will emerge from that meeting to say he is taking the intelligence on board. That will endure for about 24 hours, long enough for Fearful Leader and his own acolytes to get back to Washington and report how tense was the encounter with The Donald. The U.S. intelligence community, which is already reeling from charges of complicity in torture, obstruction of justice, foundering amid an operations-oriented reorganization, will add deep disarray due to its stock in trade, analysis, being rejected out of hand.

Mr. Trump has already asserted that he knows things the rest of us do not, and pontificated (rightly, actually) on the inherent insecurity of computers, while inviting the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton, and then asserting that some 400-lb guy sitting on his bed could have been the hacker. Trump cannot accept the intelligence on Russian hacking because it challenges the legitimacy of his election.

What is truly disturbing in this is that intelligence is being read with rose-colored lenses.  The field is full of arguments about the disastrous effects of what observers call “politicization,” but that has traditionally referred to spies self-censoring, serving up what they think the president wants to hear. No one has ever dealt with the situation where the “validity” of intelligence depends on whether it can pass the test of the president’s pre-existing beliefs. The politicization here is demanded by the consumer. CIA calls into question Trump’s rosy picture of the character of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It has got to shape up. That is why there will be a purge, half of it made up of honest professionals fleeing this craziness. The CIA that emerges at the other end of this will be desperate to regain President Trump’s esteem, ready to do anything at all.