Ken Ashford

https://twitter.com/KenAshford/status/954086849009635332

Today’s Fake News Awards

Today was to be the day that Trump promised he would embark on another unpresidential act, announcing the “winners” of the “Fake News Award.”  This might prove to be difficult for him, as he like to be the winner of everything.  If he goes through with the preposterous thing, I’m sure he’ll find a way to give himself an award.

Of course, Trump’s motive here is insidious. Blasting the press is always the refuge of dictators and despots. The goal is to close out any dissenting viewpoints, in order to create a “safe space,” state-run media bubble, where no one hears or reads negative views about him. All that is filtered out and all that’s left are the sycophants and bobbleheads of Fox News and Gateway Pundit.

Whether or not Trump does this, some, particularly two GOP Senators from Arizona, are taking this non-event to scold Trump on his treatment of the press. Senator McCain in an op-ed writes:

This assault on journalism and free speech proceeds apace in places such as RussiaTurkeyChina, Egypt, Venezuela and many others. Yet even more troubling is the growing number of attacks on press freedom in traditionally free and open societies, where censorship in the name of national security is becoming more common. Britain passed a surveillance law that experts warn chills free speech, and countries from France to Germany are looking to do the same. In Malta, a prominent journalist was brutally murdered in October after uncovering systemic government corruption. In Poland, an independent news outlet was fined (later rescinded) nearly half a million dollars for broadcasting images of an anti-government protest.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s attitude toward such behavior has been inconsistent at best and hypocritical at worst. While administration officials often condemn violence against reporters abroad, Trump continues his unrelenting attacks on the integrity of American journalists and news outlets. This has provided cover for repressive regimes to follow suit. The phrase “fake news” — granted legitimacy by an American president — is being used by autocrats to silence reporters, undermine political opponents, stave off media scrutiny and mislead citizens. CPJ documented 21 cases in 2017 in which journalists were jailed on “fake news” charges.

Trump’s attempts to undermine the free press also make it more difficult to hold repressive governments accountable. For decades, dissidents and human rights advocates have relied on independent investigations into government corruption to further their fight for freedom. But constant cries of “fake news” undercut this type of reporting and strip activists of one of their most powerful tools of dissent.

We cannot afford to abdicate America’s long-standing role as the defender of human rights and democratic principles throughout the world. Without strong leadership in the White House, Congress must commit to protecting independent journalism, preserving an open and free media environment, and defending the fundamental right to freedom of opinion and expression.

And Senator Jeff Flake just finished a fiery speech on the Senate floor:

Investigators Scrutinizing Newly Uncovered Payments By The Russian Embassy

Officials investigating the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election are scrutinizing newly uncovered financial transactions between the Russian government and people or businesses inside the United States. This could reveal good stuff.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, charged with investigating Russian election interference and possible collusion by the Trump campaign, is examining these transactions and others by Russian diplomatic personnel, according to a US official with knowledge of the inquiry.

The transactions reveal:

  • One of the people at the center of the investigation, the former Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak, received $120,000 ten days after the election of Donald Trump. Bankers flagged it to the US government as suspicious in part because the transaction, marked payroll, didn’t fit prior pay patterns.
  • Five days after Trump’s inauguration, someone attempted to withdraw $150,000 cash from the embassy’s account — but the embassy’s bank blocked it. Bank employees reported the attempted transaction to the US government because it was abnormal activity for that account.
  • From March 8 to April 7, 2014, bankers flagged nearly 30 checks for a total of about $370,000 to embassy employees, who cashed the checks as soon as they received them, making it virtually impossible to trace where the money went. Bank officials noted that the employees had not received similar payments in the past, and that the transactions surrounded the date of a critical referendum on whether parts of Crimea should secede from Ukraine and join Russia — one of Vladimir Putin’s top foreign policy concerns and a flash point with the West.
  • Over five years, the Russian Cultural Centre — an arm of the government that sponsors classes and performances and is based in Washington, DC — sent $325,000 in checks that banking officials flagged as suspicious. The amounts were not consistent with normal payroll checks and some of the transactions fell below the $10,000 threshold that triggers a notice to the US government.
  • The Russian embassy in Washington, DC, sent more than $2.4 million to small home-improvement companies controlled by a Russian immigrant living not far from there. Between 2013 and March 2017, that contractor’s various companies received about 600 such payments, earmarked for construction jobs at Russian diplomatic compounds. Bankers told the Treasury they did not think those transactions were related to the election but red-flagged them because the businesses seemed too small to have carried out major work on the embassy and because the money was cashed quickly or wired to other accounts.

Each of these transactions sparked a “suspicious activity report” sent to the US Treasury’s financial crimes unit by Citibank, which handles accounts of the Russian embassy. By law, bankers must alert the government to transactions that bear hallmarks of money laundering or other financial misconduct. Such reports can support investigations and intelligence gathering — but by themselves they are not evidence of a crime, and many suspicious activity reports are filed on transactions that are perfectly legal. Intelligence and diplomatic sources who reviewed the transactions for BuzzFeed News said there could be justifiable uses for the money, such as travel, bonuses, or pension payouts.

The Treasury Department turned over the suspicious activity reports to the FBI after the bureau asked for records that might relate to the investigation into the election, according to three federal law enforcement officials with knowledge of the matter. The bureau did not respond to requests for comment on what, if anything, it has done to investigate the transactions.

As the foregoing shows, there is nothing that connects these payments to Trump, Trump’s campaign, or any service or act done for the benefit of Trump’s campaign.  But it does show that Mueller is looking hard at money-laundering by Russians, something that Trump may have been involved with long before he ran for President.