Tuesday, January 31, 2017

So, What is in the Steele Memos

So, what is in the now-infamous collection of memos on Donald Trump, gathered by British spy Christopher Steele and published by BuzzFeed?

Naturally the most salacious part has caught the public attention.  The first memo (No. 80, pp. 1-3) claims that Trump, while staying at the Ritz Carlton in Moscow, rented the same suite used by the Obamas and hired some Russian prostitutes to urinate on the Obamas' bed.  It further claims that the Russian intelligence bureau filmed the whole episode and used it to blackmail Trump into being their agent.  No date was given for this episode, except that it was probably in 2013.  And in fact Trump is known to have been in Moscow in November, 2013, attending the Miss Universe contest.  Some people have actually taken the accusation seriously enough to obtain floor plans for the suite showing that there was another room in the suite where Trump could have slept after rendering the bed used by the Obamas unfit for use.

The same memo also hints that there may be other such tapes, since Trump's "unorthodox behavior" in Russia "over the years" provided enough "embarrassing material" to give ample room for blackmail.  Apparently the intelligence agencies agree and believe that there is "more than one tape" on "more than one date" in "more than one place" that can be used for blackmail.

But really the salacious parts are only a small portion of the memos.  There are plenty of other allegations which are, if less titillating, even more explosive.  Now, just to be clear, I know nothing whatever about intelligence gathering and analysis, so what follows is purely an Enlightened Layperson's take on the contents.

After reading it through, what jumped out at me?

First of all, the first memo, besides being the most salacious, is also the most thoroughly sourced.  It lists no less than seven sources, identified by letter rather than number as (A) "a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure," (B) "a former top level Russian intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin, (C) "a Russian financial official," (D) "a close associate of Trump who had organized and managed his recent trips to Moscow," (E) so sensitive that the description is blacked out, (F) a female staffer at the hotel where Trump stayed, and (G) "a Kremlin official."  Steele does not appear to have had direct access to A, B or G, but rather to a source they confided in, the same source for A and B, presumably a different one for G.  So the information is second-hand at best.  But D, E and F all appear to have first-hand knowledge of the black mail tape, and B said that Trump's "unorthodox behavior" in Russia over the years gave the Russians plenty of blackmail material on him.  That three separate sources claimed first-hand knowledge of the episode gives it credibility to this Enlightened Layperson.  Also significant in the first memo -- allegations by both A and D that Russian intelligence had been feeding Trump information on his opponents for several years.  It also said that Trump had very little investment in Russia, even though the authorities offered him many lucrative deals.

The first memo is dated June 20.  It is numbered 80.  Steele was apparently first hired to research Trump in June.  He must have been busy!*  After the first, his sourcing becomes much sloppier, often citing to a single, second-hand source.  It may be that Steele produced his first 80 memos not expecting them to be made public and therefore was less cautious in giving possible identifying details about his sources (a female staffer at the Ritz Carlton when Trump stayed there in 2013 presumably is not all that large a group to choose from).  Once he started circulating his memos, Steele may have become conscious that they might some day see the light of day and therefore become more careful about concealing identifying details on his sources, at the expense of making his report less verifiable.

Memo 95 (pages 7-8), undated, although presumably between Memo 94 dated July 19 and Memo 97 dated July 30 says that Trump had been providing the Russians with information on Russian oligarchs living in the US for several years.  It also says that his investments in Russia were minimal although (contrary to Memo 80), he had been trying to get in for some time.  It says that there was a well-developed conspiracy between the Trump organization and Russian leadership, with campaign manager Paul Manafort (forced out August 19) managing the ties on Trump's side and using Carter Page as a go-between.  Source: an ethnic Russian close associate of Trump.

Two other things are significant about this memo.  One is that it refers to Russian hackers in the US and specifically that Russian intelligence made payments to them disguised through its pension system, through diplomatic staff in "key cities such as New York, Washington DC and Miami."  This has been taken as discrediting the memo because Russia apparently does not have a consulate in Miami.

Second, it says that in return for Russia's assistance in the election, Trump promised to sideline Russian intervention in the Ukraine as an issue and raise NATO defense commitments to the Baltics. Indeed, Trump is believed to have intervened at the Russian National Convention to ask the party to take its condemnation of Russia's invasion of the Ukraine off the party platform.  The Convention  took place on July 18-21, so this had already happened when the memo was prepared.  Trump also questioned the US commitment to defending the Baltics in the first presidential debate.  The debates did not take place until September, so to that extent the memo might be taken as correctly anticipating future events.  I do not know if Trump had raised the question of our commitment to the Baltics before then.  Make of it what you will.

Memo 97 (pages 11-12), dated July 30 says that there had been a mutual exchange of information between the Trump organization and Russian intelligence for eight years, i.e., since 2008.  The information Trump supplied was mostly about Russian oligarchs living in the US.  The source as "a Russian emigre close to the campaign."  This may be the same source cited in the previous memo, although that is not clear.

A good many memos deal with the panic in the Trump camp and in the Kremlin as their leaks of Hillary's e-mails proved less damaging than they anticipated and the anger over Russian influence in the campaign proved stronger than they had foreseen.  I find this part comforting, really.  Too often our side has shown signs of succumbing to paranoia, thinking of the Russian State as a vast, unstoppable colossus, and the rest of us as its mere puppets.  Hearing about Russian leaders fighting among themselves and believing they had failed is a good reminder that it is not so.

Memo 102 (page 17), dated August 10, says that Russia's leak of e-mails showing Democratic machinations against Bernie Sanders was Carter Page's idea.  He suggested it to the Russians, saying that it would split the Democratic voters by turning Sanders supporters against Clinton.  There is no direct evidence of this, but to me it does seem plausible, simply because I would expect an American to have a better understanding of the intricacies of US politics than a Russian would have.

Memo 112 (pages 25-26) dated September 14 is intriguing.  It discusses the Alfa Group (misspelled as the Alpha Group). which it describes as a group of businesses led by oligarchs Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan and discussed at some length their rather nebulous relationship with Putin.  No mention of Trump is made.  But remember that Slate article?  The one that mentioned some mysterious communications between the Trump organization and Alfa Bank?  It refers to its leaders as Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven, so clearly this is the same organization.  Admittedly the Steele memos (at least the ones made public) do not mention any ties between Trump and the Alfa Group.  But it is a tantalizing straw in the wind.

Memo 94 (pages 9-10) dated July 19 and Memo 134 (pages 30-31) dated October 18 may be the most explosive, both because they contain some of the most detailed, verifiable information, and because there appears to be at least some verification of them.  Memo 94 discusses a meeting between Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page and Igor Sechin, CEO of Rosneft, a Russian oil company that is publicly traded, but with a controlling interest in the hands of the Russian government.  According the the memo, a "source close" to Sechin said that Sechin and Page had a "recent" secret meeting to discuss future bilateral energy cooperation and the lifting of sanctions against Russia for its invasion of the Ukraine.  According to this memo, Page reacted positively, but Sechin was non-committal.  It also mentioned Page meeting with another Russian official who provided embarrassing information on Hillary Clinton, but warned that they had such information on Trump as well.

Memo 134 appears to be more details about the same meeting.  This memo says that the meeting took place on either July 7 or 8, the day of or the day after Page giving a public speech to the Higher Economic School in Moscow.  (This part should be verifiable, I would think).  The memo says that at the meeting Sechin offered Page or Trump's associates a 19% stake in Rosneft in return for lifting the sanctions.  Page appeared interested and confirmed that, if elected, Trump would lift the sanctions. Page did not expressly say that he was speaking for Trump, but he implied it.  The memo also says that by October 17 (one day before the memo was written), Sechin had come to believe that Trump would not be elected and started looking for another buyer.  The source give is a "trusted compatriot" of a "close associate" of Sechin.

While these memos contain a great deal of gossip and second hand information and no doubt much of them are false and (almost) all unverified, there just might be some confirmation of this part.  On December 26, Oleg Erovinkin, Sechin's chief-of-staff/treasurer/liaison to Putin turned up dead in his car.  It was first reported as a murder, later as a heart attack.  So we don't know whether Erovinkin was the "close associate" listed in Steele's account, or whether there was foul play involved.  But it looks suspicious.  If this isn't exactly confirmation, it may be grounds not to dismiss the story out of hand.

And another part of this story has been confirmed.  Rosneft really did sell a 19.5% stake on December 7 to a Singaporan investment vehicle on behalf of a joint Swiss-Qatari venture, fronting for a mystery offshore account in the Cayman Islands.  Obviously, now, there is no evidence that the mystery buyer(s) have anything to do with Donald Trump or any of his associates.  Since Memo 134 says that the Russian leadership was looking for another buyer it is possible that they were already looking for another buyer and considered Trump one of many possibilities.  And maybe everyone in the know was aware of the proposed sale, so it shows nothing special that Steele reported it.  And since I would expect agreements of this sort to have a level of trust somewhat below your average drug deal, it seems implausible that the Russians would transfer their interest in Rosneft to anyone associated with Trump before he lifted the sanctions.  Or could the sale be to an intermediary who will turn over the company upon actual lifting of the sanctions?  Who knows?

On the other hand, some of the memos have been decisively disproven.

Memo 134 cites the same source as saying that after Page and Manafort departed the Trump team, Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen took over as liaison, followed by several sections so sensitive that they have been blacked out.

Memo 135 (pages 32-33), dated October 19 reports the Cohen had met secretly with the Russians somewhere in the EU in August to discuss cover-up.  The Russians decided that it was now too dangerous to have any direct meetings between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and that contacts would have to take place through unofficial representatives of the Russian state.

Memo 136 (pages 18-19 (Don't ask)), dated October 20, presumably citing the same source, says that the meeting took place in Prague and that the unofficial Russian contacts would be the parastatal organization Rossotrudnichevsto and Duma member Konstantin Kosachev.

This part of the dossier, at least, has been proven false.  Cohen's US associates and Czech intelligence have established he was in the US at the time of the alleged crime.  Possible a different Michael Cohen with a non-US passport may have been in Prague at the time, presumably on an innocent errand.

There is one other, very strange memo, Memo 166 (pages 34-35).  What is so strange about it is that it is dated December 13, 2016, which is not only after the election, but after the memos appear to have been widely circulated in elite circles, and after John McCain brought the memo to the FBI on December 9, 2016.  All other memos in the collection pre-date the election predate David Corn's scoop on October 31, 2016.  This has led some to suspect that BuzzFeed got its copy from the intelligence community directly.  Whatever the story there, Memo 66 gives further details about Cohen's disproven visit to Prague.  It says that the meeting took place in the last week of August or the first week of September, that Cohen was accompanied by three associates, that he met with Rossotrudnischevsto official Oleg Solodukin, and that they discussed how to make but conceal cash payments to the hackers involved.  Details were given about how the hackers would be concealed. It also says that the Trump organization as well as the Kremlin paid the hackers, but that their ultimate loyalty was to the Kremlin.

So, clearly there is a lot more there than just the salacious parts.  There is the allegation that Trump has been a Russian intelligence asset since 2008; that he received tips from Russians about his political rivals; that there was extensive collaboration between Trump and the Russians on the leaks, with Trump associates suggesting strategy to the Russians; and that the Trump campaign offered the Russians specific policy concessions (dropping the Russian invasion of the Ukraine as a campaign subject, raising questions about US commitment to defend the Baltics) in exchange for support.  The point has been made a number of times that many if not most of these allegations are probably false.  But if any are true, that is grounds for impeachment, if not worse.

Some allegations, particularly the ones about alleged meetings between Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and Russian intermediaries Prague, have been proven false.  That would probably also disprove the allegation that that meeting specifically discussed direct payments to the hackers by the Trump organization.

On the other hand, there is possible collaboration of the allegations of a meeting between Carter Page and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin.  Allegedly, Sechin offered Trump and his associates a very large bribe, specifically, a 19% stake in their parastatal oil company in exchange for lifting the sanctions.  Since then the possible source of this leak has turned up dead under mysterious circumstances and the 19% stake has been sold to a mystery buyer.

Is Trump a Russian spy?  There is not enough evidence to say.  But no one has even asked such a question about any earlier US President.

*He does appear prolific, at least once prolific, at least once producing three memos on a single day (Nos. 111, 112 and 113 are all dated September 14).

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Leaking Fast

Now, back to the question of whether Donald Trump might be a Russian spy.  As his inauguration loomed closer and closer, the leaks started pouring in fast.  Even before CNN and BuzzFeed dropped their respective bombshells, there was plenty of evidence of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.  Confidant and adviser Roger Stone admitted to have a "back channel" to Wikileaks, which gave all appearances of having extensive ties to Russia.  Foreign policy adviser Carter Page had extensive business ties to Russia and was rumored to be engaged in back-channel negotiations with the Russians about lifting of sanctions if Trump was elected.  But neither Page nor Stone had all that prominent a role in the Trump campaign and Trump staffers (not always a reliable source!) denied  that Trump and Page had ever met.  More alarming was Paul Manafort, Trump's one-time campaign manager, who had extensive ties to Russia and pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians and was known to advocate for them.  Manfort's ties to Russia ultimately became so embarrassing that he was forced to withdraw from the campaign.

Once CNN and BuzzFeed made their revelations, more reports started coming in.  The Guardian   reported that the FBI had sought FISA warrants to monitor "four members of the Trump team suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials," although it could not confirm that any warrant was granted.  The BBC said that FISA warrants were actually issued to investigate three Trump associates, and that the source for this warrant was not the Steele memos at all, but an intelligence agency in the Baltics.*  Even earlier, the day before the election, the lesser known Heatstreet reported that the FBI had obtained a FISA warrant to investigate the Trump server's ties to Russia and covered "at least three" Trump associates, one of whom was strongly implied to be Carter Page.

Well, the day before the inauguration the New York Times came right out and identified the three under investigation as Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Roger Stone.  It also says that the source of the investigation was not the Steel memos (though it does not say what the source was), and that the investigation began last spring, before Christopher Steele even began his private investigation.  The article is also at pains to point out that the legal standard for such investigations is low, that prosecutions are rare, that no conclusive evidence of wrong-doing had been found, and that they did not know whether the investigations had anything to do with the Trump campaign, with Donald Trump, or with Russian hacks on the Democrats.  The article also made clear that the intelligence community was leaking fast for fear that the newly-inaugurated Trump would put a stop to their campaign.

So, we have the report that Russia was hacking the Democrats and leaking the information to Wikileaks in order to help Trump to be elected President, that Trump's policies are consistently pro-Russia, and that three members of his campaign staff, including a former campaign manager, had suspicious ties to the Russians.  But there is no evidence that any of these things are related.  And I suppose maybe they aren't.  But things are getting to look mighty suspicious.

But did you catch something?  The BBC and the New York Times say three members of the Trump campaign were under investigation, all of whom have returned to the private sector.  But the Guardian identified four members of the Trump team, and Heatstreet at least hints that there might be a fourth.  Which raises a terrifying possibility.  Could the fourth one be Mike Flynn, Trump's choice for National Security Adviser (a position that does not require approval by the Senate)?

Two days after the inauguration, the Wall Street Journal came out with an article saying that Flynn's contacts with Russia were under investigation by the intelligence community.  The article says that "a key issue" in the investigation was Flynn's calls to the Russian ambassador on the day that then-President Obama instituted sanctions against Russia for its election hacks, i.e., after the election.  The article also said that officials have examined "earlier conversations between Mr. Flynn and Russian figures," at least some of them calls to the Russian ambassador.  The article did not say whether scrutiny of Flynn began before the election.  CNN, in turn, ran a story indicating that the investigation was entirely over those phone calls, i.e., post-election, and expressly saying that there was no determination of any wrongdoing and that no one under investigation for Russian ties during the election now held office in the Trump Administration.  It further says that the calls were picked up in routine monitoring of the Russian embassy.  The Washington Post confirmed this account and said that Flynn was not under active investigation.  So this may be a complete nothing-burger.

So maybe evidence of suspicious contacts between Trump's team and the Russians during the election were merely coincidence.  And maybe Trump kept denying that Russia was behind the hacks because he likes inventing his own reality.  Maybe I am being paranoid and attempting to find a pattern where there is none.  But it is completely unprecedented in our history to elect a President who might or might not be a Russian spy; no one knows.    And scary.

*The article loses some credibility by falsely reporting the FISA warrants cannot target US citizens.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Congratulations to Our Side on a Job Well Done

Congratulations to our side for a job well done.  Let's face it.  Our side has a problem.  Every time we hold a demonstration, it keeps getting infiltrated with bad elements who want to riot and smash things -- or worse.  This has happened with anti-globalization protests; it happened with Occupy Wall Street; it has happened with Black Lives Matter marches; it has happened with immigrant activists protesting against Trump; it happened in the anti-Trump protests that followed the election; and it happened with Inauguration Day protests.  Very pointless it is to argue that the rioters make up a tiny fringe  minority of the protesters.  When rioters go smashing windows, setting fires, and beating police and rivals, the peaceful protesters will go unnoticed and the rioters will be the public face of the movement.  And when rioters become the public face of the movement, would-be supporters turn away and support for a crackdown grows.

But this time our side did it.  We held massive demonstrations all across the country the met peacefully and managed to be a bit vulgar, but not hateful.  And, unlike Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders campaign, which remained overwhelmingly white, the latest protests drew people of all kinds.  So what lessons can we learn from this success?  One might be that really large-scale protests can overwhelm the trouble makers with sheer numbers.  But we can't count on sustaining crowds of this side, so what else would I suggest?

Get a permit and follow it.  Come on, folks, when the Tea Party marched, they got a permit and followed its limitations, and they were highly effective.  Is it so much to ask our side to do the same? Why do you insist on blocking major traffic arterials?  Hot news flash: needlessly snarling up traffic just makes people resent you.  I hear as a defense that you have to get people's attention somehow.  To which I answer, marching on the sidewalks and meeting in parks gets people's attention just fine. The same goes for illegally camping out in public places.  Guys, that is not going to be tolerated indefinitely.  Get a permit and stick to the reasonable conditions it sets.  Rule of law and all that good stuff.

Be feminine.  Donald Trump is basically an attack of testosterone poisoning.  So are the rioters.
Pussy hats
The last thing we need is to counter one fit of testosterone poisoning with another.  Is it too much to assume that rioters and anarchists aren't attracted to events that call themselves "women's marches," and call on the participants to dress in pink and wear "pussy hats"?  Yes, granted, plenty of men participated, too,  That is fine.  We don't mind men in our marches.  We just want to keep out the kind of men who like smashing things and beating people.  A strongly feminine vibe should discourage them and, if it doesn't, maybe it can at least clearly dissociate the trouble makers from peaceful marchers. Incidentally, I would encourage immigrant rights activists and Black Lives Matter people to do the same thing.  Granted, most black victims of police brutality are male, but black men killed or wounded by police have wives, sisters, girlfriends, mothers, etc.  Encourage black women's events to protest police abuse of their men.  Try senior events also, with younger people welcome, but, again, elderly-themed events will presumably discourage the sort of young men who are out for trouble.

Humor and eccentricity are fine, if not overdone.   Rioting is a deadly serious activity.  Being a bit light and fluffy and silly can also discourage it, or at least dissociate from it.  But for the love of Mike, don't become a freak show like Occupy Wall Street.
An occasional man leading his llamas down the street in the middle of a protest is kind of cute and gets an innocent and amusing sort of attention.  A sustained freak show turns people off and mostly serves to prove that you are not normal, relatable people.  John Oliver did a charming piece on why freak shows are worse than useless.  If a man dressed up as a Viking explains why banks need to be be better regulated, it makes no difference how reasonable his words may be.  No one will hear a word he has to say; all they will see is a man dressed as a Viking.  Also, no flag burning, no masks, no general anti-Americanism.

Organize.  Outrage alone cannot sustain a movement.  Only organization can create something with real staying power and political clout.  That was the difference between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.  The Tea Party got organized; Occupy Wall Street treated any sort of organization as a violation of basic principle.  The result: the Tea Party took over the Republicans and much of the country; Occupy Wall Street fizzled out.

Move beyond the streets.  Once again, large scale street demonstrations are a good start, but the passion is not sustainable.  The people most likely to keep showing up are the trouble makers.  We need to move beyond marching and protesting and start doing other things.  Organize voter registration drives, calls to one's Congressmen, showing up at meetins, letter writing campaigns.  Yes, be so old-fashioned as to write a letter with paper and ink.  The more personal and individually crafted the letter, the greater an impression it will make.  Start up candidate campaigns.  And don't just rely on government, start building non-governmental organizations to fill in the gap Republicans are leaving in services.  These are less glamorous than marches and protests, less dramatic, and less grass roots feeling, but they are where real power lies and things get done.  And they are a whole lot harder for the rioters to infiltrate and start smashing.

Donald Trump's Flying Circus, 1/23/17

Of course, we mustn't let a little thing like the possibility that Donald Trump might be a Russian spy distract us from just how outrageous he is in small things as well.

When his day of triumph turned out to have a rather lackluster triumph and the press reported it, with, you know, actual photographic evidence as proof, his response was outrage that anyone would accept the evidence of their lying eyes over his word.

In Trump's defense, a number of people have pointed out that it takes aerial photography to see the actual crowd size, and that from the perspective of people at the actual ceremony, there is really no way to tell whether the crowd reaches all the way to Washington Monument or not.  But that is all the more reason why a President needs to pay attention to actual facts and evidence beyond his own subjective experience, because his subjective experience is incomplete and more information from outside is necessary to get the full picture.  In this case, the evidence is easily produced by photographs from beyond where the President can see from his podium.  But what will happen when proof is not so clear and obvious, and the President refuses to let any mere fact interfere with his preconceptions?  Imagine, lead up to Iraq War, on steroids.

So, what does Donald Trump do when confronted with rock-solid evidence that his preconceptions are not only wrong, but easily refuted?  First, he goes to the CIA and delivers a speech originally intended to mend fences, but instead turning into an extended complaint about unfair it is of the media to disagree with him on the size of the crowd at his inaugural, based only on something so trivial as aerial photographs (and subway ridership estimates, and photographs of empty stands, etc).  He also insists, despite all the nasty things he said about the intelligence community, that really he doesn't have any feud with them at all, and it is just a figment of the imagination of a dishonest media.  Next he has his press secretary, Sean Spicer, lecture the press pool about how wrong the mere fact are, and give them outraged instructions on what they should and should not cover in the future. I don't think Spicer and Trump understand this free press business.

So maybe Trump isn't a Russian spy after all.  Maybe he really is just as far in denial about who hacked the Democrats as he is about the size of the crowd at his inauguration.  Maybe he really does believe that any concern about facts and evidence is limited to a handful of out of touch liberal elitists, and that it is more authentic to ignore them and go with the gut.  Certainly if I were an intelligence officer I would not be reassured about what sort of reaction I could expect next time I had to tell the President something he didn't want to hear.

But let's focus on what is important.  At least Donald Trump never sent State Department e-mails on a private server.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Well and Truly Boggled, Part 2

So, what are these shocking revelations about Donald Trump?

Sticking with what can be verified in public reports, it would appear that in September, 2015, unknown Republican rivals of Donald Trump hired the investigation firm Fusion GPS to dig up dirt on Donald Trump.  Hiring researchers to dig dirt on one's opponents is a normal, routine, completely acceptable practice in politics known as opposition research, or oppo research.  After Trump secured the nomination, the firm transferred its services to the Democrats.  In June, 2016 the research effort was joined Christopher Steele, a former agent of M-16, the British intelligence services.  Steele had worked in Russia and cultivated extensive Russian contacts, and was hired to use them to dig dirt on Trump.  Exactly what anyone expected to find is unclear, possibly evidence of shady business ties to Russia.

What he found was explosive.  The first memo we have, dated June 20, 2016, have claims that the Russians had been cultivating ties with Trump for five years (since 2011), had been blackmailing him since 2013, and were feeding him information throughout the campaign.  As Steele continued to uncover more and more evidence of complicity between the Trump campaign and the Russians, he became sufficiently alarmed that he informed the FBI.  (I seem to recall August given as the date).  In September, he gathered the most explosive material into a single document and submitted it to the FBI.  But he continued gathering material even after the election; some of the memos are dated as late as December.  It was not just the FBI or the intelligence community that got the memos.  Apparently they were widely circulated in our ruling circles in Congress and among the press.  No one published the memos because the were unsubstantiated.

Eleven days before the election, FBI Director James Comey dropped a bombshell -- the FBI was reopening its investigation of Hillary Clinton's State Department e-mails sent on a private server. Normally the FBI does not comment on sensitive investigations in the 90 days before an election.  In this case, the investigation proved to be a complete nothing-burger, but the damage was done.  Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid accused the FBI of sitting on explosive material about Trump and Russian ties.  Alarmed that these disclosures were threatening to get Trump elected, Steele  approached lefty journalist David Corn of Mother Jones with his story, on the condition that his name, intelligence service, and nationality would not be revealed.  Corn published a story essentially giving the background on how Steele began his investigation, became increasingly alarmed at what he saw, went to the intelligence community, and provided his information to the FBI.  Like many journalists, Corn saw the memos but declined to publish the contents because they were not proven. He did, however, drop a few hints:
The first memo, based on the former intelligence officer's conversations with Russian sources, noted, "Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance." It maintained that Trump "and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals." It claimed that Russian intelligence had "compromised" Trump during his visits to Moscow and could "blackmail him." It also reported that Russian intelligence had compiled a dossier on Hillary Clinton based on "bugged conversations she had on various visits to Russia and intercepted phone calls."
About the same time Slate magazine published an alarming story that a server with the Trump organization had a mysterious pattern of communications with a Russian bank called Alfa.  Computer scientists who discovered the link did not know what was being communicated, but whatever it was was highly secretive and well coded to keep everyone else out.  The story also reported that the New York Times was aware of the link and was investigating it.

Neither of these stories made much of an impression at the time.  Mother Jones and Slate are generally considered lefty publications outside of the mainstream, and the thought of a major party candidate for President being a Russian spy was simply too fantastic to be taken seriously.  Besides, these stories, coming as they did so soon after a disclosure that was highly damaging to Hillary Clinton, looked very much as if they had been planted by the Clinton campaign as the desperate flailings of a campaign in deep trouble.  And such talk was put to rest by an article in the New York Times dismissing such talk as mere partisanship and saying that the FBI had concluded that the communications between servers were mere spam or marketing.  The story was actually rather thin and flimsy compared to the tech-heavy Slate account.  And the entire nature of marketing material and spam is wide disbursement.  To send them to only one server, and in a highly secretive manner, makes no sense whatever.

And then, of course, Trump was elected.  As President elect, he had increased access to top secret intelligence, yet he continued to insist in the face of all evidence that there was no proof that Russia was behind the hacks.  The intelligence community arranged a special briefing in which they would lay out the evidence that Russia was behind the hacks.  CNN reported that the briefing was conducted by the heads of the FBI, CIA, NSA and Director of National Intelligence (DNI).  After the briefing, FBI directory James Comey apparently took Trump aside and told him that it had Steele's memos and gave a brief summary of the contents.  CNN reported that the "compromising material" the intelligence chiefs presented was based on a 35-page memo from a British intelligence operative.  They also attributed the information to "multiple US officials with direct knowledge of the briefings." Given that the briefings were supposed to be highly secretive, this suggests a lot of leaking going on. CNN stated that it had seen the memos and declined to reveal the contents because they were unverified.  But it did darkly hint that that the synopsis "included allegations that there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government."

Whether this story would by itself have had legs is anybody's guess, though coming as it did after weeks of Trump denying the obvious, my guess would be yes.  But when Buzz Feed posted the actual memos in all their glory, the story grew enough legs to become a veritable millipede.

As soon as his nationality came out, the British spy went underground, fearing for his life and knowing it was only a matter of time before his identity would be revealed.  (Of course, once the whole report took off, that was probably inevitable anyway).  He was soon outed as Christopher Steele, and various British sources have come forward to defend their countryman's credibility.  The Guardian reported that the FBI had sought a FISA warrant against four members of Trump's team in the summer, but been refused as too broad.  Paul Wood of the BBC reported that, after two applications were rejected as as too broad, a FISA warrant was granted October 15 to investigate two Russian banks.  The source was purportedly not the Steel memorandums, but an intelligence agency in a Baltic country, and the investigation was part of a six-agency task force investigating three Trump associates and ultimately aimed at Trump.  And the Guardian article links an unconfirmed source (American) saying that the warrant was granted in October and that the two banks were Alfa and SVB Bank, and that the subject of the investigation was that very same server that we read about in Slate and that the New York Times was so quick to dismiss.  (The author adds that the investigation was secret enough that the agents interviewed by the Times may not have been aware of it).

And most recently McClatchy has come out with a story that the FBI and five other agencies are investigating the Russian hacks and possible Trump ties.  McClatchy identifies the same six agencies as the BBC, and days that the investigation began in the spring, before Christopher Steele even began his investigation.  (Once again, this matches Wood, who says that the investigation began in April). The McClatchy story focuses mostly on the investigation of the Russian leaks.  One interesting new account it has is that the FBI investigated whether the use of the pension system used to pay emigre pensioners might also have been used to pay hackers.  This possibilities was raised in the Steele memos, though the article does not say whether the memos were the main source.  It does say that the memos would not have been evidence enough to qualify for a FISA warrant, so there must have been other sources as well.  This is significant.  It means that the hacks did not necessarily take place overseas, but may have involved operatives in the US.  I suppose it is even possible that Wikileaks did not know that the hackers in question were Russian agents, although that would probably fit in the category of willful ignorance.  The vast majority of the article deals with Russian leaks and not with evidence of complicity by the Trump team.  But it did say that some members of Trump's campaign and business empire are also targets.

Next up:  My utterly amateurish and uninformed thoughts on the Steele memos.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Well and Truly Boggled, Part 1

My mind is well and truly boggled.  "Flying circus" doesn't even begin to do justice to it.  Look, I hate Donald Trump's guts.  I think he is the most unqualified, unsuited, corrupt, incompetent, insane and many other adjectives candidate for President, ever.  And it became increasingly clear that the Russians were pulling for him.  But I never suspected that there was any complicity on his part.  I dismissed such speculations at tinfoil hat territory.  When the suspicions wouldn't go away, firmly positioned myself as one of the respectable people who didn't believe it.

And yet there were some very strange things going on.  Trump's views on every other subject might be flighty as birds, but his pro-Russian views never changed.  And he continued to deny that the Russians were behind the hacks of the Democrats' e-mails no matter how overwhelming the evidence. I could think of only two explanations.  Either he was completely delusional, or he was lying. I preferred to think that he was lying because at least it meant he had some contact with reality and wouldn't do something truly insane.  But why would he be lying?  I didn't speculate on that.  Probably I thought it was just a matter of ego, he couldn't bring himself to admit the obvious because it would tarnish his victory.  I was quite in denial myself that Trump would have an obvious motive to lie if he knew that the Russians were behind the hacks from the start and was deeply complicit.

So let's start off with what we do know.

Beyond any doubt someone was hacking the Democratic National Committee and later John Podesta, chairman of Hillary's campaign.  The experts were unanimous in saying it was the Russians, not only the intelligence agencies which might be vulnerable to political pressure by Obama, but independent outsiders as well.

Yet Trump kept insisting in the face of all evidence that no one knew who was behind the hacks, that it could be anyone and there was no proof that it was Russia.  Even though he received regular intelligence briefings presenting him with the evidence, he continued to deny that there was any proof who was behind the hack.  Yes, it could be a delusion impervious to all evidence.  Or it could be a lie told out of egotistical unwillingness to admit the truth.  Or it could be a lie born out of complicit.  And let's admit it.  That last best explains his refusal to allow any amount of evidence to sway him.

The hacked material kept showing up on Wikileaks.  Initially, one could wonder if Russia was the source.  But as the time lag between Russian hacks and Wikileaks publication got shorter and shorter, it became harder and harder to dispute the source.  And Julian Assange of Wikileaks openly said that he was acting to harm Hillary.  Whether Wikileaks was in the tank for the Russians, the Russians continued to feed Wikileaks damaging material on Hillary Clinton and Wikileaks continued to publish.  Clearly Assange's actions pleased the Russians or they would not have continued to feed him information.  And give Trump's pro-Russian orientation, it should hardly be surprising that the Russians were eager to see him win.  But none of this is evidence of complicity.

What evidence is there of complicity?  Well, there is Trump's relentlessly pro-Russia approach to foreign policy.  While other Republicans may favor the policy that has been called omnidirectional belligerence, Trump appears to favor belligerence in all directions but one --Russia.  But that is not proof of complicity in the Russian hacks.  It might just mean that the Russians liked what they saw and decided to support him.  What other evidence is there?

It has been frequently noted that the Trump campaign and the Russians often show considerable similarity in messaging, such as both calling the investigation of the hacks a "witch hunt" aimed at delegitimizing Trump, both blaming the Democrats for not having better cyber security, and so forth. But that is not necessarily evidence of secret collusion.  It may just mean that ideological kindred think alike.  Or they could be quoting each other's open utterances.

Rather more suspicious was when the Trump campaign began repeating a specific Russian error.  What happened was this.  On October 21, 2015, Newsweek columnist Kurt Eichenwald wrote an extremely long column condemning the Benghazi investigations as no more than a partisan witch hunt designed to thwart Hillary Clinton's anticipated run for President.*  The column, though overwhelmingly addressed to denouncing the Republicans, does concede them one point:
One important point has been universally acknowledged by the nine previous reports about Benghazi: The attack was almost certainly preventable. Clinton was in charge of the State Department, and it failed to protect U.S. personnel at an American consulate in Libya. If the GOP wants to raise that as a talking point against her, it is legitimate.
 When the Russians hacked John Podesta's e-mails, they found one in which Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal attached a copy of that Newsweek article.  He may have quoted the article in the body of the e-mail as well.  (Not having seen the material leaked, I do not know).  Sputnik, the Russian news agency, ran a story attributing the above quote as an acknowledgement by Blumenthal himself.  Trump offered the Sputnik story within hours.  Of course, that doesn't necessarily prove any more than that the Trump campaign closely followed Sputnik, or at least were in contact with people who closely followed Sputnik.

And then there was Trump adviser Roger Stone, who on August 21, 2016 tweeted, "Trust me, it will soon the Podesta's time in the barrel."  And, indeed, when Wikileaks started publishing Podesta e-mails in October, this looked remarkably as though he had an inside tip.  And, in fact, Stone admitted  back channel contacts with Wikileaks, although he did not admit to any contacts with Russia, or to any contacts by Trump.

In short, you have a set of suggestive circumstances, but no clear evidence of complicity between Trump and Russia.  So I was prepared to dismiss this as Russia helping a favorable candidate, but without any active participation on his part.  But the latest revelation, together with Trump's remarkably persistent refusal to acknowledge Russia's obvious role in the hack and his unswervingly pro-Russian policies have changed my mind.  I now believe it most likely that we have elected a President who really is a Russian spy.

*It was from the Benghazi investigations that it was discovered that Hillary Clinton sent State Department e-mails on a private server and this was amplified into the worst crime committed by any political leader in the entire history of our Republic.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Give 'Em Hell, Chuckie

Many Democrats were alarmed when Harry Reid stepped down and Senate Minority Leader and handed the office over to Chuck Schumer.  They feared that Schumer didn't have the combative spirit of old Give 'Em Hell Harry.

Well, guess what.  Reid wasn't always Give 'Em Hell, Harry either.  When Democrats first retook the Senate and the House, they started with the common division of labor, the feisty, chomping-at-the-bit House with its grand plans and the more restrained Senate.  These were led, respectively by Nancy Pelosi, the liberal crusader, and Harry Reid, the moderate.  But a funny thing happened.  As the Republicans were endlessly combative, Harry Reid saw little choice but to retaliate in kind.  And so he became a notably feisty and combative character.

Now Schumer is in the same position, and he seems to be a quick study.  When the Republicans attempted to rush through Trump appointees without adequate vetting he tweeted the letter Republican leader Mitch McConnell sent at the beginning of the Obama Administration, about the importance of adequate vetting.  Just crossed out Harry Reid and wrote in Mitch McConnell.

Give 'em hell, Chuckie!

Here We Go Again

This election reminds me of the 2000 election, at least in the aftermath.  Not just that the winner of the Electoral College did not win the popular vote.  But both victors overcompensated in the same way.  After all, since rural areas tended to go Republican and urban areas tended to go Democrat, both Trump supporters and Bush supporters have used the electoral map to create the impression of a landslide where none existed.  Both times we were assured that Authentic Real Americans in the Heartland voted for the Republican and only a handful of Out of Touch Liberal Elitists in coastal enclaves voted for the Democrat.  Somehow, though, the out-of-touch elitists outnumbered the Authentic Real Americans.  Every attempt was made to conceal this awkward fact.

This time it goes even further.  Because journalists predicted a Clinton victory, this was taken as evidence of just how out of touch they were with Real America.  Comparison was sometimes made to Pauline Kael in 1972 who couldn't believe that Nixon would win because everyone she knew was voting for McGovern.

Look, Nixon won in 1972 by nearly a 2-1 margin.  He carried every state but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.  Clearly anyone who didn't foresee a Nixon win really was seriously out of touch with the country as a whole.

This time, on the other hand, the winner of the election received fewer votes than the loser, so clearly it was not out of touch with Real America to support Clinton -- unless Real Americans are outnumbered by liberal imposters.

Furthermore journalists were not just predicting a Clinton win because everyone they knew was voting for her.  They predicted a Clinton win because that was what the polls showed.  And not only did the polls show it, in the previously election Republicans had dismissed the polls as a mere artifact of liberal bias and insisted that they knew better.  The polls turned out to be right after all.  It was not unreasonable to expect the same thing to happen the next time around.

So spare us any comparisons to 1972 (the outcome, that is, underhanded behavior by the winner, maybe).  The better point of comparison is 2000, when the electoral winner was not the popular winner and kept creating the illusion of a landslide where none existed.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Donald Trump's Flying Circus, 1/8/17

The intelligence community's report on Russian hacking of the election has been pretty underwhelming, but the publicly release information on the hack leaves little doubt who was behind it.  Donald Trump responds with an obviously pre-prepared statement saying nothing.  He seems most concerned to show that the hack did not affect the election.  If by that he means that there is no evidence of tampering with vote results, that is certainly true.  As for whether the Russian hack swayed enough votes to affect the outcome, barring the invention of a time machine to re-run the election, we will never know.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are attempting to rush through many Trump appointees before the Office of Government Ethics has completed its check for conflicts of interest, and action unpresidented unprecedented since the Office was established.  And making it more egregious, Trump chose many of his appointees in such haste as not to have done any vetting on many of them.

But let's focus on what is important. At least Trump never sent State Department e-mails on a private server.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Few Further Thoughts

I like to imagine the following conversation taking place among the Republican caucus:
Rep A:  OK, what should we do now to cause massive outrage?
Rep B:  How soon are you talking about?
Rep A:  Immediately.  I want the whole country angry at us before we even convene.
Rep B:  We could call a press conference to introduce our legislative program.  That should do it.
Rep A:  Sure, that'll piss off the general public, but hard core libertarians will love it.  I'm looking for something that will offend absolutely everyone, regardless of party or ideology.
Rep C:  I don't see any sort of legislation that everyone would hate.  If we want to offend everybody, we would have to do something really corrupt.
Rep A:  Sure, any individual Congressman can do that, but I am thinking of something that would that would get people outraged at our entire caucus.
Rep C:  But for all of us to be corrupt, we would have to have some sort of criminal conspiracy.  That sort of thing takes too much time and too many moving parts.
Rep D:  Besides, we aren't even in session yet.  We need more time to commit even individual crimes.
Rep E:  We could take action to preemptively prevent investigation into future corrupt acts.
Rep A:  What do you have in mind?
Rep E:  I don't know, something to short circuit the investigation process.  That'll convince people we're corrupt without our actually having to do anything.
Rep A:  Great idea!  What's the best way to do that?
OK, I know that conversation didn't really take place.  But honestly, what was the Republican caucus thinking?  I can think of two possibilities.

One was they assumed that the maneuver was too obscure, too technical, too "insider baseball" for the general public to follow.  They should have known better. They were, after all, the ones who made such effective use of the "Cornhusker Kickback,"  basically a plan to extend special advantages to Nebraska to persuade Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson to vote for it.  Senate Democrats assumed the agreement would be too obscure, too technical, too "insider baseball" for the general public to follow.  They were wrong.  The details may not have been entirely clear, but the basic outline -- that Democrats were offering Nebraska a special privilege as a bribe to the Nebraska Senator -- was easy to understand and reeked of corruption.  So, too, the general public may not understand the difference between the Office on Congressional Ethics and the House Ethics Committee.  But it's easy to understand that the Republican Caucus voted to end independent oversight of Congress and to police their own instead.

The other possibility is that they figured the Trump had gotten a free pass on his outrageously corrupt behavior despite accusing Clinton of being corrupt and promising to "drain the swamp," so they assumed they would get a free pass too.  Again, they should have known better.  Donald Trump can get away with just about anything because he is Donald Trump.  If Donald Trump shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, the Republican base would applaud him for showing those Manhattan elitists what real Americans think of them.  But no one else is Donald Trump, and they can't get away with imitating him.  Just ask Marco Rubio, who tried behaving like Donald Trump and found his prospects tanked.

At least part of the reason Trump gets away with such things is that a lot of his supporters buy into the general view of "government bad, private sector good."  Since Trump has never held an office in government before but has been part of the private sector, he must be good.  Besides, he can claim himself above temptation because he is too rich to buy.  And so when he stocks his cabinet with CEO's and Goldman Sachs types, supporters assume that, as members of the private sector, they must be good and uncorrupt too, and besides, they are also too rich to buy.  Republicans in Congress, on the other hand, have no such free pass.  They are part of the evil entity called "government" and must therefore be corrupt to start out with.  Besides, Congressional Republicans are not in the good graces of their base to begin with because they failed to remove Obama from office, or even to really humiliate him and make him crawl.  Obviously, this must be evidence that they are corrupt.  And deriding members of Congress for their corruption is a longstanding American tradition.

The good news here is that Congressional Republicans are not immune to public pressure.  They can be shamed.  The bad news is the public outrage alone quickly burns itself out.  What is needed for an effective political movement is outrage plus organization.  The Tea Party are a prime example.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Some Thoughts.

So, the new Republican Congress's first action, before they are even sworn in, is to undermine any independent ethical oversight.  This was apparently undertaken by the rank-and-file, against the advice of the leadership, who are probably imagining what the 30-second ads would look like.

OK, Democrats. if you have any political skills at all, get started on those 30-second ads.

PS:  I actually recommend following Trump's advice on security, sort of.  You need the internet to exchange e-mails with the general public.  You need it to put out your final product.  And there is really no help for using it to bring in information.  For all internal deliberations, I recommend computers with their internet access disabled, and communications by thumb drives and old-fashioned printed memos.  And yes, that will mean frequent use of couriers (as well as US mail, Fed Ex, etc).  I realize these things are vulnerable to theft, but at least the scale will be smaller and more difficult.

PS:  Primary challengers will probably run those 30 second ads, too.