There was Watergate. There was Iran-Contra. There was Bill and Monica. There was the outing of Valerie Plame, and Dick Cheney shooting his friend in the face with a shotgun – but there were no Obama scandals. Benghazi was no more than a tragic screw up. After all the investigations and committees, eight or nine, the Republicans seemed to lose track of just what the problem was, other than the problem was Hillary Clinton, somehow. No one knew how. Move on – and her email scandal was another screw up, and not intentional, with no real harm done. James Comey, the head of the FBI, enraged Republicans when he said he wouldn’t prosecute her, because he couldn’t. There was nothing there. He scolded her instead.
Trump ran insisting there was something there, and the press played along, but there was nothing much to work with – trivia isn’t scandal. Oh well. The impression of scandal would do – but as for Obama, the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal didn’t have legs. There was nothing there either, or with the IRS scandal. The IRS checked for charitable organizations that were actually doing political work – there’s no tax exemption for that. They were worried about Tea Party organizations – and that wasn’t fair – until it turned out that they were worried about everyone. The IRS was doing its job. Oops. Move on – nothing to see here, folks. Obama seemed to be ethical, or boring. The Republicans would have to hammer Obama for his positions and policies, and that’s boring too. They needed a juicy scandal. They came up empty. They said they didn’t. The nation eventually shrugged.
That’s about to change. Donald Trump isn’t boring, and given how he’s run his businesses – stiffing contractors and screwing investors, not to mention his Trump University scam that cost him a bundle – he’s certainly not ethical, and proud of it. That sort of thing is for losers – but presidents are supposed to have scandals in office, not on the way into office. Settle in and then screw up. Preemptive scandal is ruining your presidency before you even start, but Donald Trump is an unusual fellow. He started early. He has Russia.
Now there’s this. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius posted a column that contained this about Trump’s new national security advisor Michael Flynn:
According to a senior U.S. government official, Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking. What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions? The Logan Act (though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about “disputes” with the United States. Was its spirit violated? The Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Trump campaign later said it was just small talk, which is odd enough, but the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth ran a curious article that claimed that American intelligence officials just told their Israeli counterparts that they should be cautious about sharing their closest-held stuff with the Trump administration, because it might be shared with Russia and by Russia with Iran.
It seems that no one should be sure of Trump:
These fears, which began upon Trump’s election, grew stronger following a meeting held recently between Israeli and American intelligence officials (the date of the meeting is not mentioned to protect the sources of the report). During the meeting, according to the Israelis who participated in it, their American colleagues voiced despair over Trump’s election, as he often lashes out at the American intelligence community. The American officials also told the Israelis that the National Security Agency (NSA) had “highly credible information” that Russia’s intelligence agencies, the FSB and GRU, were responsible for hacking the Democratic Party (DNC) servers during the elections and leaking sensitive information to WikiLeaks which hurt Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
The American officials further added that they believed Russia President Vladimir Putin had “leverages of pressure” over Trump – but did not elaborate. They were apparently referring to what was published Wednesday about embarrassing information collected by the Russian intelligence in a bid to blackmail the president-elect.
The Americans implied that their Israeli colleagues should “be careful” as of January 20, Trump’s inauguration date, when transferring intelligence information to the White House and to the National Security Council (NSC), which is subject to the president. According to the Israelis who were present in the meeting, the Americans recommended that until it is made clear that Trump is not inappropriately connected to Russia and is not being extorted – Israel should avoid revealing sensitive sources to administration officials for fear the information would reach the Iranians.
Josh Marshall flags those two items and adds this:
These are, needless to say, highly disturbing claims.
To evaluate them, we should bear in mind that what we are hearing is what American intelligence officials supposedly told Israeli intelligence officials and which Israeli intelligence officials, by whatever means, passed on to an Israeli journalist. The sourcing is at best attenuated. But we should also note that the paper is Israel’s largest circulation daily and the reporter is a highly respected investigative journalist, Ronen Bergman.
That’s enough for Marshall:
We are in a totally unprecedented situation with the range of questions being asked about the incoming president and what can only be called odd behavior of the intelligence community. This is the case even if no one has done anything wrong. No fight between a president and the intelligence community, let alone with an incoming president, has ever cut so deep or been so public.
A couple days out it is even less clear what US spies made of the ‘dossier’ that was released by Buzzfeed. Did they share this with the outgoing and incoming presidents simply to apprise them of stuff that was “out there”? Was it some sort of brushback to Trump for his aggressive, scathing criticisms of the US spy bureaucracy? Are we supposed to believe that they believe some of it is true? James Clapper’s statement today was clear on some points but he rather conspicuously did not say the contents of the dossier were false or even unreliable.
Clapper said this about what he shared with Trump:
We also discussed the private security company document, which was widely circulated in recent months among the media, members of Congress and Congressional staff even before the IC [intelligence community] became aware of it. I emphasized that this document is not a U.S. Intelligence Community product and that I do not believe the leaks came from within the IC. The IC has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions. However, part of our obligation is to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.
Clapped didn’t say this stuff was untrue, and Marshall adds this:
These are equivocal statements in what is clearly a closely worded statement. If I’m Donald Trump wanting this document dismissed as worthless hearsay or lies, I’d be quite disappointed. What’s going on? If US intelligence officials are telling close allies to be cautious, that’s really something Americans should be aware of.
Something is up:
Everything we are hearing is that disjointed, half-contradictory, actions are taken that have no clear rationale or explanation behind them. It is not just troubling. Much of it simply doesn’t fit together. One global explanation is that you have an impetuous, feral incoming President, a host of awkward and not fully answered questions and an intelligence community which is trying to address those questions, to serve the current president but also prepare to serve the next one – and this all in a climate of a deeply polarized country. The other explanation – not necessarily contradicting this one at all – is that there are other things happening which we are not seeing, and not seeing them makes all the rest seem out of joint.
But something is up, because Donald Trump is almost hysterically defensive about this:
Donald Trump on Friday morning continued to lash out against the media and the intelligence community over reports about a dossier containing information about alleged ties between the President-elect and Russia.
Trump appeared to reference reports that the dossier originated as an opposition research file for a super PAC supporting Jeb Bush, though the super PAC’s attorney denies that the file originated with the group.
The President-elect also continued to blame the leaks about the dossier on the intelligence community even though Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Wednesday that the leaks did not originate with the intelligence community.
That certainly called for a Trump Tweet:
It now turns out that the phony allegations against me were put together by my political opponents and a failed spy afraid of being sued… Totally made up facts by sleazebag political operatives, both Democrats and Republicans – FAKE NEWS! Russia says nothing exists.
Russia says nothing exists. Trump knows who he believes. Does that settle matters? A few hours later, the reporter who first broke that story, David Corn, decided it was time to clarify a few things:
Last fall, a week before the election, I broke the story that a former Western counterintelligence official had sent memos to the FBI with troubling allegations related to Donald Trump. The memos noted that this spy’s sources had provided him with information indicating that Russian intelligence had mounted a years-long operation to co-opt or cultivate Trump and had gathered secret compromising material on Trump. They also alleged that Trump and his inner circle had accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin. These memos caused a media and political firestorm this week when CNN reported that President Barack Obama and Trump had been told about their existence, as part of briefings on the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia hacked political targets during the 2016 campaign to help Trump become president. For my story in October, I spoke with the former spy who wrote these memos, under the condition that I not name him or reveal his nationality or the spy service where he had worked for nearly two decades, mostly on Russian matters.
In short, go to the source:
The former spy told me that he had been retained in early June by a private research firm in the United States to look into Trump’s activity in Europe and Russia. “It started off as a fairly general inquiry,” he recalled. One question for him, he said, was, “Are there business ties in Russia?” The American firm was conducting a Trump opposition research project that was first financed by a Republican source until the funding switched to a Democratic one. The former spy said he was never told the identity of the client.
The former intelligence official went to work and contacted his network of sources in Russia and elsewhere. He soon received what he called “hair-raising” information. His sources told him, he said, that Trump had been “sexually compromised” by Russian intelligence in 2013 (when Trump was in Moscow for the Miss Universe contest) or earlier and that there was an “established exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin of mutual benefit.” He noted he was “shocked” by these allegations. By the end of June, he was sending reports of what he was finding to the American firm.
The former spy said he soon decided the information he was receiving was “sufficiently serious” for him to forward it to contacts he had at the FBI. He did this, he said, without permission from the American firm that had hired him. “This was an extraordinary situation,” he remarked.
An established exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin of mutual benefit would be extraordinary, and even the FBI thought so:
The response to the information from the FBI, he recalled, was “shock and horror.” After a few weeks, the bureau asked him for information on his sources and their reliability and on how he had obtained his reports. He was also asked to continue to send copies of his subsequent reports to the bureau. These reports were not written, he noted, as finished work products; they were updates on what he was learning from his various sources. But he said, “My track record as a professional is second to no one.”
Corn checked that:
After speaking with the former counterintelligence official, I was able to confirm his identity and expertise. A senior US administration official told me that he had worked with the onetime spook and that the former spy had an established and respected track record of providing US government agencies with accurate and valuable information about sensitive national security matters. “He is a credible source who has provided information to the US government for a long time, which senior officials have found to be highly credible,” this US official said.
It seems the FBI trusts the guy and has been on the case since last July, but has not yet said whether any such any investigation is being conducted. The FBI is like that. They don’t comment on ongoing politically-sensitive investigations. That would not be fair, but then this just happened:
Embattled FBI director James Comey has refused to clarify whether his organization is investigating Donald Trump’s ties to Russia in a closed briefing on Friday for members of Congress, angering legislators who recall his high-profile interjections about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign…
Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who had pressed Comey during a September hearing about his criteria for acknowledging an investigation, sharply asked Comey if the director was applying a double standard to Trump.
Comey had said in September testimony that his standard was a “a need for public to be reassured, [and] when it’s obvious, it’s apparent, given our activities, public activities that the investigation is ongoing.”
Nadler, according to a different source, then asked Comey in the Friday meeting: “Do you believe that standard has been met with reference to the possible investigation of the Trump campaign’s possible connections to the Russian government? And if not, why not?”
That was a bit awkward. Ten days before Election Day, Comey announced to the world that there was a trove of new Hillary Clinton emails on the laptop of the husband of one of her aides, and he was reopening everything. Trump ran with that. She was going to be indicted – and then, two days before the election, Comey said sorry about that – there was nothing new there at all – carry on.
That drove the nail in the coffin for Clinton. She might have lost anyway, but probably wouldn’t have lost but for Comey – not that it matters now – unless it does matter:
Michael Horowitz, inspector general of the Justice Department, announced an investigation into the FBI’s handling of its inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s private email server, including the now-infamous Comey letter. The review, which will also cover Justice Department actions in the email investigation, has been initiated at the request of members of Congress and the public, the IG’s office said in a statement.
The letter James Comey sent to Congress on October 28 informing members of new Clinton emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop has been blamed, in part, for Clinton’s loss. It resulted in a torrent of bad headlines, reigniting the email “scandal.” A second letter, released two days before the election, said the new emails were insignificant, but Clinton claims it did even more damage than the first letter. Just two days before polls opened, Trump’s complaints of a “rigged system” were given new life.
In addition to the timing of Comey’s letters, Horowitz will investigate whether members of the FBI and DOJ improperly leaked information about the investigation and whether certain officials should have recused themselves from the probe.
Comey is in trouble, and this doesn’t begin to address the mirror-problem, saying nothing about the investigation of Trump going on since last July or so – if it is going on. In that closed briefing, Comey said, over and over, that he couldn’t say a word about that. He never speaks of such things. That wouldn’t be fair. The Democrats were screaming bloody murder – but he would say nothing.
This is a hell of a way for Trump to start his presidency, and this Russia scandal may be as big as they get. Roger Cohen adds perspective:
There’s a mood of confidence in Moscow bordering on triumphalism. Russia is dictating the grim outcome in Syria. It has annexed with impunity part of Ukraine and set limits on the country’s Westernizing ambitions. It has influenced through hacking the outcome of the American election. It has fostered the fracture of the European Union. All this from a nation President Obama dismissed in 2014 as a mere “regional power” acting “not out of strength but out of weakness.”
In addition, whether or not Donald Trump was ever lured into some Moscow honey trap (the oldest trick in town for Vladimir Putin’s intelligence services) Russia has reason to regard with satisfaction the coming presidency. Trump has called Putin “very smart” and “very much of a leader” (more than Obama); he has cheered on a British exit from the European Union; he has signaled deep skepticism of NATO; he has, in short, intimated that he may be ready to be complicit with Putin in the dismemberment of the Western alliance.
America’s European allies are in a state of high anxiety. For the first time in decades there seems to be a possibility that the White House will deal with Moscow at Europe’s expense. The last thing Europe needs at a time of huge internal pressures, and in the year of the French and German elections, is a crisis in trans-Atlantic relations, or an American president who is openly dismissive of the European integration that brought peace to a war-racked continent.
Cohen thinks this needs fixed, fast:
No more important challenge awaits Trump than clarifying where he stands on Putin’s threat to the West. Hurtling into some macho love fest with Vlad based on the vague shared aim of smashing ISIS would be calamitous. Trump said that if Putin likes him, “That’s called an asset, not a liability.” Wrong. It’s a liability if Trump is so susceptible to being liked he forgets to be tough.
Trump must make clear soon after Jan. 20 that the United States stands by its NATO allies in the Baltics and that Article 5 of the NATO treaty guaranteeing collective defense is sacrosanct. Trump must leave no doubt that sanctions imposed on Russia for the annexation of Crimea and for interference in the American election will stand. He must warn Putin against attempts, in a reprise of the American operation, to sway the French and German elections through hacking and fake news.
Fine, but that’s unlikely:
Trump has gushed in support of the British nationalist bigot Nigel Farage and Brexit. It’s important that he not compound this error with backing for the French anti-EU rightist Marine Le Pen, who was at Trump Tower on Thursday, an ominous signal even if she did not see the president-elect. The French election is set for April 23. Putin wants nothing more than for Le Pen to win – still a long shot, but then so was Trump. Brexit plus Le Pen would leave the European Union in tatters.
“Putin believes the way to restore Russia’s great power status is at the expense of an American-led order, particularly in Europe, but also in the Middle East,” William Burns, a former deputy secretary of state and the president of the Carnegie Endowment, told me. “Trump must recognize this without any illusions.”
That too is unlikely:
Dispensing with illusions means curtailing impulsiveness and the gut instincts that constitute Trump’s worldview, such as it is. Trump is drawn to Putin’s authoritarianism, toughness and embodiment of white Christian resolve against threatening (read Muslim) hordes. He needs to get over these inclinations fast and get on with defending the free world.
There are encouraging signs: James Mattis, the retired general who is Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, said during confirmation hearings that Putin “is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.” Rex Tillerson, the nominee for secretary of state, said, “Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia.”
For now, however, Trump shows no indication of any such alarm. There is also no sign, a week from the inauguration, of any coordination between the president-elect, Mattis and Tillerson. Is anyone in charge here?
That’s a dismal question, but there was late-breaking news:
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said late Friday that his committee will investigate possible contacts between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia, reversing himself one day after telling reporters that the issue would be outside of his panel’s ongoing probe into Moscow’s election-disruption efforts.
Burr and the intelligence panel’s top Democrat, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, said in a joint statement that the committee’s probe would touch on “intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns” as well as Russian cyberattacks and other election meddling outlined in an intelligence report released last week.
The committee will use “subpoenas if necessary” to secure testimony from Obama administration officials as well as Trump’s team, Burr and Warner said.
Expect a Trump tweetstorm, but some things have been worked out:
Burr said late Thursday that he did not plan to touch on possible contacts between Trump emissaries and Russia, asserting that the issue likely falls under the FBI’s purview. “We don’t have anything to do with political campaigns,” the Republican said.
But Warner had said during a Tuesday committee hearing that he wanted the probe to touch on possible contacts between Moscow or its emissaries and political campaigns, putting the two senators potentially at odds. Warner told reporters late Thursday that his view hadn’t changed, meaning that the Friday joint announcement effectively brought Burr around to the Democrat’s perspective.
This is beginning to feel a bit like the end of Watergate, when Barry Goldwater and a bunch of other Republicans walked over to the White House and told Nixon to give it up – it was over. Nixon resigned. Trump hasn’t even taken office, and a few hours later he was digging deeper:
President-elect Donald Trump suggested Friday he is open to lifting sanctions on Russia, though he plans to keep them for “at least a period of time.”
He told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published Friday evening that he might do away with them if Russia helps the US battle terrorists or with other goals important to the US. The sanctions were implemented by the Obama administration last month in response to alleged Russian hacking during the election.
“If you get along and if Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions if somebody’s doing some really great things?” he said in the interview.
He should listen to his own nominees – Mattis and Tillerson, for Defense and State. He’s in a lonely place now. It took Nixon six years to get that same lonely place, before that knock on the door – but perhaps there can be a preemptive knock in the door in this case. His own people may have to tell him to give it up. That’s happened before.