Trump-Russian Collusion

Good News In The Offing

(1)  Georgia On My Mind

In Georgia 6th district, the special election to replace Tom Price in the House, Jon Ossoff received 48.1 percent of the vote, just short of the 50 percent threshold needed to win the seat, and he will face Karen Handel, the top Republican vote-getter, in a June runoff.

This is a terrific showing from a young 30 year old Democratic for a seat once held by Newt Gingrich. Combined with Democrats’ better-than-expected performance in a special House election in Kansas last week, the Georgia result will be an immediate boon to Democratic groups, lifting their fund-raising and bolstering candidate recruitment efforts, while sobering Republicans who are assessing whether to run in Mr. Trump’s first midterm election.

Ossoff still has to win the runoff,  against Handel. Handel, who took 19.8 percent, is a former Georgia secretary of state and chair of the Fulton County Commission who has unsuccessfully run for governor and Senate. But in recent years, Handel is probably best known—and notorious—for her time at Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which ended after her failed, politically motivated effort to get the organization to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood to perform cancer screenings.

But win or lose in the runoff, the Ossoff win last night shows that Democrats can compete even in non-swing districts.

And don’t believe the White House spin that this was not a rebuke of the President. It clearly was. The more closely aligned a candidate was with President Trump, the worse that candidate did.

(2)  The No-Bill Zone

Many anonymously-sourced news stories are out there that say the following:

A well-placed source said Tuesday afternoon that representatives for Fox and O’Reilly have begun talking about an exit. But this prompted a denial from sources in O’Reilly’s camp.

Even one person close to O’Reilly, however, said he will probably not be back on “The O’Reilly Factor.”

The original well-placed source said an announcement about O’Reilly’s fate was likely by the end of the week.

The fact that none of these sources were willing to go on the record speaks to the delicate maneuvering underway.

The network’s parent company, 21st Century Fox (FOX), will hold a board meeting on Thursday, a spokeswoman told CNNMoney. One of the sources said O’Reilly will be a primary topic.

The Murdochs, the men who control 21st Century Fox, are pointedly not commenting on any of this.

But conversations inside Fox have already turned to possible O’Reilly successors.

The Murdochs have had loyalty to O’Reilly, but they have greater loyalty to money. And with advertisers fleeing O’Reilly by the dozens (he had virtually none in his last aired show, and had to end 10 minutes early), it is hard to see how O’Reilly survives this.

Good riddance.  He was an out-and-out liar.  And pervert.  Next stop, Sean Hannity.

UPDATE: From NY Mag

The Murdochs have decided Bill O’Reilly’s 21-year run at Fox News will come to an end. According to sources briefed on the discussions, network executives are preparing to announce O’Reilly’s departure before he returns from an Italian vacation on April 24. Now the big questions are how the exit will look and who will replace him.

Wednesday morning, according to sources, executives are holding emergency meetings to discuss how they can sever the relationship with the country’s highest-rated cable-news host without causing collateral damage to the network. The board of Fox News’ parent company, 21st Century Fox, is scheduled to meet on Thursday to discuss the matter.

Sources briefed on the discussions say O’Reilly’s exit negotiations are moving quickly. Right now, a key issue on the table is whether he would be allowed to say good-bye to his audience, perhaps the most loyal in all of cable (O’Reilly’s ratings have ticked up during the sexual-harassment allegations). Fox executives are leaning against allowing him to have a sign-off, sources say. The other main issue on the table is money. O’Reilly recently signed a new multiyear contract worth more than $20 million per year. When Roger Ailes left Fox News last summer, the Murdochs paid out $40 million, the remainder of his contract.

According to sources, Fox News wants the transition to be seamless. Executives are currently debating possible replacement hosts. Names that have been discussed include Eric Bolling, Dana Perino, and Tucker Carlson, who would move from his successful 9 p.m. slot and create a need for a new host at that time. One source said Sean Hannity is happy at 10 p.m. and would not want to move.

Recommended Reading

I guess it is not a surprise, but Ryan Lizza at The New Yorker reports that Trump advisers turned the White House upside-down looking for information to justify Trump’s crazy “Obama spied on me” tweet. Key graf:

The intelligence source told me that he knows, “from talking to people in the intelligence community,” that “the White House said, ‘We are going to mobilize to find something to justify the President’s tweet that he was being surveilled.’ They put out an all-points bulletin”—a call to sift through intelligence reports—“and said, ‘We need to find something that justifies the President’s crazy tweet about surveillance at Trump Tower.’ And I’m telling you there is no way you get that from those transcripts, which are about as plain vanilla as can be.” (The White House did not respond to a request for comment.)

This isn’t mere buffoonery.  This could have created serious intel problems:

Some American intelligence officials are now concerned that Trump and Nunes’s wild claims about intercepts and Rice have made Section 702 look like a rogue program that can be easily abused for political purposes. The intelligence source said, “In defense of the President, Devin Nunes and some other partisans have created a huge political problem by casting doubt, in the service of Donald Trump, on these intercepts.” Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky, a leading critic of Section 702, has been using the episode to rally libertarians. He recently tweeted, “Smoking gun found! Obama pal and noted dissembler Susan Rice said to have been spying on Trump campaign.” Democratic critics of Section 702 have also been emboldened. “Section 702 of FISA allows warrantless searches on Americans. That’s unconstitutional & must be changed,” Representative Ted Lieu, the Democrat from California, tweeted last month, during the controversy.

“They manufactured a scandal to distract from a serious investigation,” Eric Swalwell, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, who would not comment on the N.S.A. documents, said. “And the collateral damage is the public confidence in our intelligence community when we need to count on them now more than ever. Considering the threats we are facing right now from North Korea and isis, it’s a pretty dangerous time to undermine the I.C.’s credibility to make a five-yard sack in the Russia investigation.”

Even though there is now some bipartisan agreement that Nunes’s description of the intercepts was wildly inaccurate, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee are still preparing to focus on Obama’s national-security team, rather than on Vladimir Putin’s. Last week, Democrats and Republicans finalized their witness lists, and the names tell a tale of two separate investigations. The intelligence source said, “The Democratic list involves all of the characters that you would think it would: Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Carter Page,” speaking of the three Trump campaign officials who have been most closely tied to the Russia investigation. “The Republican list is almost entirely people from the Obama Administration.”

The fake scandal created by Trump and Nunes is not over yet. The first name on the Republican list is Susan Rice.

They are playing the game “best defense is a strong offense”. It has worked before. I don’t think it will work this time.

Carter Page: Subject Of A FISA Warrent

It has been a weird week in news, as the nation focuses on United Airlines and its treatment of passengers.  It’s a nice break from the Trump-Russia scandal, I suppose, but the steady drumbeat of that scandal continues, as each week offers up more revelations.

WaPo reports that Carter Page, whose credentials Trump once bragged on like a proud grandpa when he wanted to show that his campaign foreign policy shop had cred, was the subject of a FISA warrant because he was suspected of acting as an agent of a foreign government: Russia. The warrant was subsequently renewed.

That. Is. A. Big. Deal.

When Republicans ask for evidence of a wrongdoing, you can specifically say: Carter Page, who Trump mentioned by name as an adviser to the campaign, was the subject of a FISA warrant.

Now, it is true that there is nothing there, i.e. that the warrant was based on bad evidence, or that the FBI found nothing. But when you combine this piece of news with these other things….

  • Flynn lying about his contacts with the Russians and resigning in disgrace;
  • Campaign chairman Paul Manafort being cut loose because of his shady Kremlin ties;
  • Sessions perjuring himself in his senate hearings about meetings with Russia;
  • Kushner omitting meetings with Russians on his security clearance disclosure form;
  • Nunes running interference for the White House on “unmasking” that we now know was legitimate; and
  • Pretty much everyone in Trump’s orbit being involved with Russia on some level

… it’s a little hard to be so dismissive of the problem.

Maybe it all begins and ends with Flynn and Page and Manafort.  Who knows?  But this scandal is not nothing. And there could be lots more to come.

And this is a little scary:

Nunes Recuses Himself From Trump-Russia Investigation And Lies About Why

So the bombshell this morning? House Intel Committee Chairman Devin Nunes dismisses himself from the Trump-Russia investigation. Obviously, it relates to his difficulty being impartial and running defense for the executive branch.

In a petty statement, Nunes said:

Nope. it has nothing to do with leftwing activist groups filing accusations.  The accusation exist and the House Ethics Committee seems to have acted on its own volition:

  Pursuant to Committee Rule 7(g), the Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the Committee on Ethics (Committee) determined to release the following statement:

The Committee is aware of public allegations that Representative Devin Nunes may have made unauthorized disclosures of classified information, in violation of House Rules, law, regulations, or other standards of conduct.  The Committee, pursuant to Committee Rule 18(a), is investigating and gathering more information regarding these allegations.

The Committee has determined to investigate these allegations in order to fulfill its institutional obligation, under House Rule X, clause 11(g)(4), to investigate certain allegations of unauthorized disclosures of classified information, and to determine if there has been any violation of the Code of Official Conduct under House Rule XXIII, clause 13.  The Committee notes that the mere fact that it is investigating these allegations, and publicly disclosing its review, does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the Committee.

In order to comply with Committee Rule 7 regarding confidentiality, out of fairness to all respondents, and to assure the integrity of its work, the Committee will refrain from making further public statements on this matter pending completion of its initial review.

Chris Cillizza has other thoughts:

Asked late last month about the prospect of stepping away from the Russia investigation, Nunes responded: “Why would I?”

Someone — or something — changed Nunes’s mind between then and now. And I guarantee you it was not the ethics complaints filed by “leftwing activist groups” that explain why Nunes reversed course Thursday morning.

My very strong suspicion is that Nunes came under heavy pressure — from Congressional leadership and even from the White House — to get out of the way because the controversy surrounding his White House visit was causing a major distraction.

Speaker Paul Ryan said as much during his weekly press conference on Thursday.

“Chairman Nunes wants to make sure this is not a distraction to a very important investigation,” Ryan said.

***

Nunes’s decision to recuse himself will, Republicans hope, be some short term pain in exchange for a long-term gain. Yes, it will create even more smoke for a controversy that seen a lot of that already. But, Republicans believe it will also, eventually, clear the decks so that if and when the investigation by the Intelligence Committee yields no significant wrongdoing by the Trump campaign it will be regarded as a credible finding by the political world.
That’s a lot of “maybe’s.” But for Republicans desperate to find a way out of the Russia imbroglio, it’s the best path forward they have available to them.

About this Trump-Russia scandal… for a supposed “nothing burger” there have certainly been a lot of casualties so far:

  1. Manafort (position resigned)
  2. Flynn (position resigned)
  3. Sessions (recused as attorney general on investigation)
  4. Nunes (recused as House Intel Committee Chairman on investigation)

This thing is toxic.

Bannon On The Run

Steve Bannon has more free time:

President Donald Trump has removed Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, from the National Security Council, according to a filing in the federal registry. A top White House official told NBC News that Bannon was put on the NSC’s Principals’ Committee only as a check against then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Now that Flynn is gone, Bannon is no longer needed in that role, the official said.

Rrrriiiiiiight.  Flynn left on February 14, so, you know, that reason isn’t very good.

Also it begs a BIG question: why did the White House think that Flynn needed a “check” anyway? If he was a security risk, why was he (Flynn) on the NSC at all?

Yeah, I Admit That I Just Emailed Rachel Maddow

I know you get a lot of email, which means I only have a few seconds to grab your interest.  Here I go…

WHY AREN’T YOU DOING A COMPLETE SHOW ON EZRA COHEN-WATKINS?
Let me bullet-point it for you:
  • Reminder: ECW is the 30-year-old White House aide — the NSC’s senior director of intelligence who started his own ‘review’ of surveillance intercepts of the Trump transition, took his findings to the White House Counsel’s office only to get told to stop. [Source: AP]

  • Although reports say that Michael Ellis and a third person gave the unmasked intel to Nunes, it seems obvious that ECW gathered this information in his ‘review’ [Source: NYT]
  • ECW is a Flynn protege [Source: NYT, above]

  • McMaster wanted ECW out, but Bannon and Kushner intervened [Source: NYT, above]  (Isn’t that intervention unusual? Why those two? Where is the Chief of Staff in all this?)

  • ECW has no face. (No, seriously. You can’t find a picture of him online, which doesn’t mean anything, but is fun/weird)

  • His wife works for a D.C. public relations firm. Her client is… Russia. [Source: a reputable blog, but I think your staff should try to confirm.]

Now the heavy stuff that nobody seems to be talking about (save perhaps Nancy LeTourneau at the Washington Monthly this morning)

  • In order to unmask a document, one needs the approval of the underlying intel agency that masked the document in the first place. Furthermore, once unmasked, you cannot share that unmasked information with another person unless it relates and is necessary to the purposes of your briefing, etc.  And finally, if you are going to share that information outside of your branch of government (say, with a congressional committee) you need to go BACK to then intel agency for further approval.  (I heard this many times last night and I believe Susan Rice said this as well.  Transcripts aren’t available yet, but someone can find this out).

  • This begs the question: regardless of why ECW got the unmasked information (i.e., on whose authority, if anybody), he would have to get permission from the underlying intel agency to share it.  Question: Did ECW follow intel protocol with the unmasked information that he obtained? Did anyone in the White House? (I suspect not)

  • Regardless of whether he got permission to share, ECW really really appears to be a leaker — or a link in within a “leak chain”  — is he not?  He cannot be a whistleblower — for that, he would have to expose wrongdoing. But even conservative news outlets acknowledge that Rice’s unmasking was perfectly legal.  So my questions are: Why hasn’t he been brought in for questioning? Why does he still have (as far as we know) security clearance?
Okay, that’s my quick pitch.

Thanks for your time.  I enjoy your show (obviously), but I won’t fanboy here.

Wow! Fox News And The White House Are Going Full Bore On This Susan Rice Thing!

It is amazing how the goalposts have moved from Trump’s initial tweets on March 10.  Let’s look at them again:

Okay.

So Obama has now become Susan Rice, Obama’s National Security Adviser.

“Wiretap” has become “names unmasked”.

“Trump” and “Trump Tower”, the object(s) of the supposed “wiretap(p)”, is not Trump associates.

But other than those things — Trump was 100% correct when he said “Obama wiretapped me”.

Here’s what we do FOR A FACT: Susan Rice — who was the NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER — sought to unmask intelligence a lot.  When she or anybody else does this, the N.S.A. uses a two-part test to evaluate unmasking requests: “Is there a valid need to know in the course of the execution of their official duties?” and “Is the identification necessary to truly understand the context of the intelligence value that the report is designed to generate?”

The answer to these questions is often yes. “Masking and unmasking happens every single day, dozens of times, or hundreds of times. I don’t even know the numbers,” Jim Himes, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told me. “There needs to be a process followed. It’s a fairly rigorous process, involving lots of review by counsels and that sort of thing.”

There is an audit trail for these requests and the responses.  Which means that if Susan Rice was abusing this process, she did a terrible job of covering it up. All Trump’s aides had to do to discover her alleged abuse was to review logs on a White House computer that tracked her requests.

And while Republicans are targeting Rice, recklessly asserting that she spied on Trump’s campaign, their attacks also implicate the N.S.A., which would have had to determine that the intercepts had “intelligence value,” and then to approve any unmasking based on its two criteria: that Rice had “a valid need to know” the identities of masked names and that unmasking was necessary to understand the report.

And they love that it is Rice, because Rice was also involved in the non-scandal called Benghazi.

So it seems the political winds may be shifting on this story, or at least blowing in a slightly more favorable direction for the White House. But unless firm evidence of any actual wrongdoing emerges, these partial revelations, some favorable to the president and some unfavorable, are probably mostly a distraction, or at least a way to while away time, until the real news emerges from the congressional or FBI investigations.

Let’s set aside that his “story” emanates from Mike Cernovich, the man who made up stories that there is an child-sex ring literally underground at a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant.  Let’s also set aside the fact there is nothing there.  Just don’t believe the Fox hype.

UPDATE:  The Wall Street Journal gets in on the act, with its editorial board issuing a blistering op-ed on Tuesday morning:

All this is highly unusual — and troubling. Unmasking does occur, but it is typically done by intelligence or law-enforcement officials engaged in anti-terror or espionage investigations. Ms. Rice would have had no obvious need to unmask Trump campaign officials other than political curiosity.

I can think of a need. And it is obvious. If the Russians were hacking the DNC and attempting to sabotage the election (which was known at the time by Rice), and Trump campaign officials were meeting and talking with Russian agents (which was known at the time by Rice), then I can understand why she might want that information unmasked.

Rice spoke to MSNBC shortly and said she didn’t use any such intelligence for political purposes.

“The allegation is that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes; that’s absolutely false,” she said. She added: “I leaked nothing to nobody, and never have and never would.”

She confirmed that such unmasking was part of her duties as national security adviser, without referring to specific cases.

“That’s necessary for me to do my job,” she said. “It’s necessary for the secretary of state, or the secretary of defense, or the CIA director to do their jobs. We can’t be passive consumers of this information and not — and do our jobs effectively to protect the American people. Imagine if we saw something of grave significance that involved Russia, or China, or anybody else, interfering in our political process and we needed to understand the significance of that. For us not to try to understand it would be dereliction of duty.”

Right.  And It’s circular logic. If Rice didn’t know who was on the calls how could it be a political attack? On the other hand if Trumps people hadn’t been talking to Russian operatives they wouldn’t have been recorded.

UPDATE AGAIN — CNN’s Chris Cuomo gets it:

CNN anchor Chris Cuomo told viewers on Tuesday that the controversy surrounding former national security adviser Susan Rice is “another fake scandal being peddled by right-wing media.”

Cuomo offered the remarks about Rice’s reported request to know the identities of President Trump transition team members mentioned in intelligence briefings during CNN’s “New Day.”

Rice has been accused of unmasking the Trump transition members.

“So President Trump wants you to believe that he is the victim of a ‘crooked scheme,’ ” Cuomo began. “Those are his words. And here are our words: There is no evidence of any wrongdoing.”

“And, in fact, if anything the [national security adviser] asking for identities was a reflection of exactly how much traffic there was involving Trump people and foreign players,” Cuomo continued.

“The White House blasting the press for not reporting on another fake scandal being peddled by right-wing media.”

When Doing Something Legal Is A Scandal

So let’s recap two of Trump’s tweets this morning:

What is her referring to?  Well, it stems from something in Bloomberg:

White House lawyers last month discovered that the former national security adviser Susan Rice requested the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions that connect to the Donald Trump transition and campaign, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

….Rice’s requests to unmask the names of Trump transition officials does not vindicate Trump’s own tweets from March 4 in which he accused Obama of illegally tapping Trump Tower. There remains no evidence to support that claim….The standard for senior officials to learn the names of U.S. persons incidentally collected is that it must have some foreign intelligence value, a standard that can apply to almost anything. This suggests Rice’s unmasking requests were likely within the law.

Emphasis mine.

Yes. Susan Rice, the NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER requested unmasked intelligence.  She probably asked for unmasked security intelligence all the time, being the NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER and all. Did I mention she was NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER at the time, and that Russia had hacked the DNC and tried to sway the 2016 election?

Is this “evidence” that Trump’s team was surveilled, perhaps incidentally?  Yeah, maybe.  But given what we know AS FACT about Flynn, is Trump arguing that he SHOULDN’T have been surveilled?

Some Leaks Are Illegal; Ours Aren’t

At a press conference today, House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes gave the following statement:

At our open hearing on Monday, I encouraged anyone who has information about relevant topics—including surveillance on President-elect Trump or his transition team—to come forward and speak to the House Intelligence Committee. I also said that, while there was not a physical wiretap of Trump Tower, I was concerned that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates.

  • I recently confirmed that, on numerous occasions, the Intelligence Community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.
  • Details about U.S. persons associated with the incoming administration—details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value—were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting.
  • I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked.
  • To be clear, none of this surveillance was related to Russia or any investigation of Russian activities or of the Trump team.

The House Intelligence Committee will thoroughly investigate this surveillance and its subsequent dissemination to determine:

  • Who was aware of it
  • Why it was not disclosed to Congress
  • Who requested and authorized the additional unmasking
  • Whether anyone directed the intelligence community to focus on Trump associates; and
  • Whether any laws, regulations, or procedures were violated

I’ve asked the Directors of the FBI, NSA, and CIA to expeditiously comply with my March 15 letter, and to provide a full account of these surveillance activities. I informed Speaker Ryan this morning of this new information, and I will be going to the White House this afternoon to share what I know with the President.

Nunes went on to say this was normal incidental collection, possibly including Trump’s communications. He said it was all obtained legally. He said the communications were collected in November, December, and January. He stated he was unsure whether these were wiretapped phone calls, or something else. He wondered why the identities of Trump people were unmasked (though his later statements suggested it may have been circulated in raw form) and said “it bothers me that that would have any foreign intelligence value whatsoever.”

Nunes said he saw dozens of reports and that the information he saw has nothing to do with Russia or the Russia investigation, or any discussions with Russians.

HOWEVER… before sharing all this to the press, he went over to the White House and shared it with Trump, whose team is the focus of the study.  (In fact, Nunes himself was on the Trump transition team).

“It’s all classified information,” Nunes explained.

He added: “”What I’ve read bothers me, and it should bother the President himself and his team, because some of it seems inappropriate.”

And Nunes so lacks any self-awareness, he seemed completely oblivious to the ways he had violated everything the Republicans were wailing about on Monday – the leak of classified information.

What’s worse… Nunes didn’t share this information with anyone else on his committee.  Just the Speaker Ryan and the President.  So much for checks and balances, huh?  So much for impartiality.

Legal, incidental collection of US officials’ communications is routine. It is odd for an Intel Chair to visit WH to emphasize that it occurred.  Guess he was trying to help out.

So wrong. The FBI and the intelligence community will be skittish sharing information now with the House Intel committee. Nunes clearly knows this. Maybe that was his goal, too.

UPDATE: And now they are campaigning off of it….

UPDATE #2: Nunes on Jake Tapper right now: “From the reports I have seen, it does appear that Trump could have been picked up.”  Also says other people associated with transition team were picked up.

He believes that Trump should have been informed “It’s only fair.”

The FISA warrant, he says, was legal, but was not directed toward Russia.

Take Him At His Word

The right wing Washington Times reports:

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Monday that President Trump has access to information and intelligence others do not and that “credible news sources” suggested there might be more to look into, after Mr. Trump accused former President Barack Obama over the weekend of tapping phones in Trump Tower during last year’s campaign.

“Well, let’s get to the bottom of it — that is the president’s entire point,” Ms. Conway said on “Fox & Friends.” “You have a number of various and credible news sources showing that there was politically motivated activity all during the campaign and suggesting that there may be more there.”

“The president’s entire point is that the people deserve to know,” she said. “If we don’t know, then let’s find out together.”

If it is true that “President Trump has access to information and intelligence others do not” and this is the basis for his knowledge that Obama tapped Trump Towers, then hell, some Congressional committee needs to look into the Obama wiretapping right now.  And their first witness should be Donald Trump himself.

Let Trump tell the American people what he “knows” to be true, and more importantly, HOW HE KNOWS IT.

I have a feeling, as everyone does, that he is wanting the government to chase conspiracy theories.

But I’ll be happy to be proved wrong.  CALL TRUMP TO THE STAND!!

The Trump-Russia Connection

With a line that runs through newly confirmed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Rachel Maddow connects the dots between a billionaire Russian oligarch and a Donald Trump deal worth tens of millions of dollars.  It’s long (Rachel tends to baby-step us through things) but thought-provoking.

At the end of the day, I have to ask…. so what?  Any illegalities?  It might explain Trump’s love for Mother Russia.  It doesn’t suggest anything like a scandal though.  Unless I’m missing something?

The Law of Leaks

Today is the day two story of the Flynn resignation and the White House wants us to focus on a different aspect of the story: the rampant leaks from the intelligence community.

But for perspective, let’s start off with Trump’s most interesting morning tweet:

Hmmmm.

During the campaign, Paul Manafort and Carter Page (Trump’s campaign manager and foreign policy adviser, respectively) were let go because of their Russia connections, and Mike Flynn (Trump’s national security adviser) was let go this week (due to “trust issues” says the White House, but trust issue surrounding his lying about speaking with Russia).

Seems like Trump is letting a lot of people go because of what he calls “FAKE NEWS”. And if the leaks are about “fake news”, I wonder why he’s calling them “leaks” at all. Is the intelligence community “leaking” secret information which are lies? Is that his point? There’s a bit of a disconnect there.

But Trump is on a rampage.

Ok.  Well, let’s talk about the price for leaking.

The cornerstone of anti-leak law is a provision of the Espionage Act of 1917, codified at 18 U.S.C. § 793, which criminalizes improperly accessing, handling, or transmitting “information respecting the national defense” with the intent of injuring the United States or aiding a foreign nation. Under Supreme Court precedent, “national defense information” is broadly defined and includes sensitive information relating not only to the military, but also to national security more generally. As Professor Patricia Bellia notes, while “the phrase ‘national defense information’ used throughout §§ 793 and 794 is not coterminous with the phrase ‘classified information,’” nevertheless “a document’s classification status could provide evidence that the document was closely held or that the document, if transmitted, would injure the United States or aid a foreign nation.”

Later amendments added 18 U.S.C. § 798, criminalizing the disclosure of various kinds of classified information including information “concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government.” Section 798 contains no explicit intent requirement: in order to violate that provision, one need only “knowingly and willfully” communicate the information. Notably, this is the provision of the law which FBI Director Comey famously determined Hillary Clinton did not violate, despite demands for prosecution from President Trump and other political opponents. While the law facially allows prosecution for mere gross negligence, in reality it does seem to require some degree of intent.

The other law that often forms the basis of leak prosecutions is the general theft statute at 18 U.S.C. § 641. This provision makes it a crime to steal, sell, or convey “any record, voucher, money, or thing of value of the United States or of any department or agency thereof.” The federal courts of appeals differ on applying this statute to leaks of government information: while all of the circuits recognize the government’s property interest in records and documents (so if you physically steal actual records, the statute most certainly applies), some refuse to extend that to the underlying information contained in the records.

Other laws criminalize more specific leaks. The Intelligence Identities Protection Act, for instance, makes it a crime to reveal the identity of covert agents. Former CIA officer John Kiriakou was indicted under this act and the Espionage Act for leaking classified information relating to the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. He pled guilty in 2012 and was the first CIA officer to serve a prison sentence for leaking. This is also the substantive offense at the heart of the Plame affair, discussed below.

And beyond those substantive offenses criminalizing leaking itself, there’s the crime of making false statements. Under 18 U.S.C. § 1001, it is a felony offense to “knowingly and willfully . . . make[] a materially false” statement in the course of an investigation by any branch of the federal government. So if you lie about a material fact in the course of a leak investigation (see more below on investigations), you’ve committed another substantive felony, and one that is very frequently prosecuted.

This provision is used far more frequently than the others, in part because of the aggravating nature of lying to law enforcement and in part because the offense is easier to prove. As the saying goes, it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup.

For example, the high-profile leak investigation of the naming of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame might have involved the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, but prosecutors ended up indicting Scooter Libby, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, on multiple counts of obstruction of justice, perjury, and making false statements. As The Washington Post reported at the time, the U.S. Attorney on the case “noted that proving illegal disclosure of classified information under various federal statutes is difficult,” in part because many require proving specific knowledge or intent.

Besides criminal violations, the government also employs non-disclosure agreements.  Often these involve pre-publication review: if you are a former intelligence officer, and you’re writing an article or book, you need to run it by the intelligence agency per the NDA.

Aaaaand that’s it, really.

Here’s something else worthy of note: leak investigations are overseen by DOJ’s National Security Division and conducted by the FBI. In a 2006 interview, David Szady, former assistant director for counterintelligence at the FBI, outlined how leak investigations proceed. First, the “victim agency” (the owner of the classified material) refers the matter to the Department of Justice, who decides whether to open an investigation. Importantly, investigations are opened only when the leaked information is accurate—that is, the mere fact of an investigation is an indirect confirmation of the accuracy of the leak. DOJ then sends the file to the FBI, who conducts the actual investigation, typically reviewing documentation and signals intelligence but sometimes through interviews and polygraphs.

There is something troubling about the intelligence agencies working against the President as many Democrats and Republicans have pointed out.  I certainly agree, but this does not strike me as an all-out war between the intelligence community against Trump.

It is certainly not a slow-motion coup d’etat as some say.  And look, If the information about the Trump campaign’s apparent collusion with the Russians were not leaked, it would have been smothered and covered up. Congress refused to act. The Department of Justice has shown zero interest. The president’s occasional remarks about the matter carry all the conviction of O.J. Simpson’s vow to search for the real killers.

What, exactly, were investigators supposed to do with their information if they did not share it with the public? Evidence that close associates of the current president of the United States had contacts with a hostile foreign-intelligence service is not a matter of purely historical interest. It’s not just a law-enforcement matter. The whistle blowers are blowing whistles, at immense professional and legal risk to themselves, because the people in charge of protecting the system against foreign spy penetration are themselves implicated in that penetration.

Besides, if they could bury Trump, they would have done so long before the election.  And even as it related to Flynn — when they knew Flynn was lying to Veep Pence about his Russia contacts, they went to Obama (still President) and THEN TO TRUMP.  That doesn’t sound like an intelligence community out to subvert President Trump.  In fact, Trump seems to have his own feud with the intelligence community, often degrading their “intelligence” by using quotation marks (as I just did).

During the campaign, Trump often bragged that he had better intelligence than the generals, a comment that was dismissed as bizarre.  But perhaps not.  Perhaps Trump has been the beneficiary of Russian intelligence (although its accuracy has yet to be determined).  Perhaps Trump is the Manchurian candidate who doesn’t know he is Manchurian.

Last Night’s Bombshell: Trump Campaign Advisers Talked With Russia Throughout The Campaign

The New York Times broke the story at 9:11 pm EST.

(Obviously, the story is longer than that).

The first two paragraphs are the bombshell; the third one there is an important caveat.

In some ways, it is not news — in a largely ignored story from November, CNN reported that Russia said it was in contact with Trump campaign aides.  But what might be news last night was the level of contacts.

When that is coupled with the knowledge throughout the campaign that Russia was behind the DNC hacks — well, it doesn’t look good.

It also doesn’t look good that the Trump administration has repeatedly denied these contacts.  For example, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said this back in a December appearance on “Face the Nation” with John Dickerson:

DICKERSON: Did anyone involved in the Trump campaign have any contact with Russians trying to meddle with the election?

CONWAY: Absolutely not. And I discussed that with the president-elect just last night. Those conversations never happened. I hear people saying it like it’s a fact on television. That is just not only inaccurate and false, but it’s dangerous and it does undermine our democracy.

For his part, Trump is trying to make this all about leaks, but as I’ve said in another post, that argument (coming from Trump’s White House) is laughable.  As for the Russia connections, Trumps tweets call them “conspiracy theories” (again, an ironic phrase coming from Trump)

The NYT article and these series of tweets — these are historic documents.  Or will be, I think.

It wasn’t just the Times. CNN also weighed in with a similar investigation, reporting that “high-level advisers close to” Trump were in “constant communication during the campaign with Russians known to U.S. intelligence.”

CNN added a new wrinkle — that Trump had been briefed on this after the election.

If that last detail is true, then it means Trump knows that intelligence officials have, indeed, concluded that this happened. Which might explain why some of his tweets today sort of function as confirmation of the stories, by blasting intel agencies for leaking classified information.

If Trump is not embedded in the wrongdoing, all this is certainly making him look stupid, childish and weak.  From The Plum Line:

Indeed, the lashing out is beginning to look less and less fearsome, and more and more impulsively buffoonish and self-defeating. And there’s a broader pattern developing here, one that undermines a key narrative about the Trump presidency, in which Trump is pursuing strategic disruption and breaking all the old rules and norms to further an unconventional presidency that is designed to render the old way of doing business irrelevant. It’s obvious that all of this is now actively undermining his own designs, on multiple fronts.

Consider: The use of the White House bully pulpit by Trump and his top aides to interfere in a dispute between Nordstrom and Ivanka Trump — which seemed intended as a big middle finger to the pointy-headed ethical norms police — resulted in Republicans condemning it. The trip to Mar-a-Lago with the Japanese prime minister — another intended sign that Trump will damn well use the presidency to enrich himself if he pleases, by turning his own resort into an official court of sorts while pocketing the profits from it — ended up getting marred by the surprise North Korea ballistic missile test. This made his administration look incompetent, chaotic, unprepared and unconcerned about basic security protocol.

The administration’s handling of the Michael Flynn fiasco was a mess that was partially created by Trump himself. We now know he had been briefed three weeks ago that the Justice Department concluded Flynn had misled Vice President Pence about contacts with the Russian ambassador. Yet Flynn remained, and new reporting indicates that this was driven in part because of high-level White House skepticism about the Justice Department’s warnings — something that likely emanated from Trump himself. The botched rollout of Trump’s travel ban — the first high-level exercise in translating Trumpism into reality — was a legal and substantive disaster, largely because of a lack of concern over basic legal and process niceties that also reflected Trump’s evolving leadership style.

Meanwhile, today’s events are a reminder that the press is bearing down hard on the Russia story, which may make it harder and harder for Republicans to continue resisting a full accounting.

To be sure, Trump is getting a lot of his Cabinet nominees confirmed. It’s likely that Trump and Republicans will win a lot of victories before long, ones that will be very demoralizing to Democrats. It is also true that the White House has at its disposal a tremendous range of tools to take control of events and news cycles, thus turning things around. So all of this might change soon enough. A doubling-down on Trump’s worst policies, perhaps in the form of a newly implemented and then expanded “Muslim ban,” or in the form of stepped-up deportations, remain real possibilities. A terrorist attack could empower Trump and lead to far worse.

But right now, Trump looks weaker, less effective and even more ridiculous than anyone might have anticipated — and it happened surprisingly quickly, too.

Lot Of Hypocrisy About Leaks

The Pentagon Papers was a leak from Daniel Ellsberg. It helped de-legitimize the Vietnam War.

Deep Throat was Mark Felt, a top FBI official. He gave Woodward and Bernstein the deep background on the Watergate scandal.

Edward Snowden leaked information about US government surveillance programs.

Chelsea Manning leaked documents and video relating to Iraqi air strikes, diplomatic cables, and Gitmo, most of which did not put the US in good light.

Vice President Cheney outed Valerie Plame as a CIA operative in order to exact revenge on her husband, a critic of the Bush Iraq War policy.

To most people, one of more of these people are heroes — one of the “good guys”.  But they were all leakers.

Everybody constructs reasons for leaks they like and leaks they don’t like. But it is hard to come up with a non-hypocritical reason for distinguishing “good leaks” from “bad leaks”.

We’re at a remarkable point in history where the president accuses his own intelligence community of working against him, as exhibited by his tweetstorm this morning:

What sounds hollow about all this is that Trump was totally fine — in fact he PRAISED — Wikileaks when it printed the John Podesta emails.

I know, I know. The Podesta emails weren’t technically leaks.  They were hacks by the Russians.  But doesn’t that make it WORSE?  Think about it.  The President is fine with Russian intelligence stealing secured information and making it public — in fact he encouraged it! — but he’s upset about “illegal” leaks from American intelligence sources?

It really does beg the question — whose side is the President on?  At best, it cements the notion that he is in the pocket of Russia.

Flynn Exit

So… less than a month into the Administration, Trumps’ National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, resigns.  WHY he resigned is important — he said (in a letter) that he regrets giving incomplete information to the Vice President.

Ummm…. interesting way to put it.

Another way to put it is… Flynn LIED to the Vice President.  And yet an even better way to put it is…. Flynn lied to the Vice President about whether or not he spoke to the Russians and told them to ignore Obama’s sanctions.

And yet another way to put it is…. Flynn opened himself to blackmail by the Russians for the having a conversation in violation of the Logan Act with Russians about Obama’s sanctions, and the White House knew about it as far back as a month ago…. and did nothing!

The White House would like to leave it at “Flynn lied to the Veep and that’s bad, but now he’s gone, so let’s move on.”

But lying to Pence is NOT the story.  The story is what he lied to Pence ABOUT.

And it is about how acting AG Sally Yates informed WH counsel Don McGahn about Flynn’s vulnerability because he lied to Pence.

Aaaaaaand as I write this, Trump just tweeted another attempt at diversion:

Bzzzzzt.  I’m sorry. The leaks are not the “real story” either (and by the way, if the leaks ARE the problem, you’re still at fault, Donald.  It’s your administration!)

And it looks like congressional Republicans are ready to move on, too….

No, no, no.  This is not over. There are some very important open questions (from WaPo):

1. What, if anything, did Trump authorize Flynn to tell the Russians before his inauguration?

2. Why was Trump planning to stand by Flynn? “One senior White House official said that Trump did not fire Flynn; rather, Flynn made the decision to resign on his own late Monday evening because of what this official said was ‘the cumulative effect’ of damaging news coverage about his conversations with the Russian envoy,” Greg Miller and Philip Rucker report. “This official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the situation, said Trump does not relish firing people — despite his television persona on ‘The Apprentice’ — and had intended to wait several more days before deciding whether to seek Flynn’s resignation. ‘There obviously were a lot of issues, but the president was hanging in there,’ this official said.”

3. What did White House counsel Donald McGahn do after the then-acting attorney general notified him last month that Flynn was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail? “In the waning days of the Obama administration, James R. Clapper Jr., who was the director of national intelligence, and John Brennan, the CIA director at the time, shared (Sally) Yates’s concerns and concurred with her recommendation to inform the Trump White House,” Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima and Philip Rucker report. “They feared that ‘Flynn had put himself in a compromising position’ and thought that Pence had a right to know that he had been misled. … Yates, then the deputy attorney general, considered Flynn’s comments in the intercepted call to be ‘highly significant’ and ‘potentially illegal,’ according to an official familiar with her thinking. … A senior Trump administration official said before Flynn’s resignation that the White House was aware of the matter, adding that ‘we’ve been working on this for weeks.’”

Yates was accompanied by a senior career national security official when she alerted McGahn. What we don’t know is who McGahn subsequently shared that information with and what he did after the meeting. He didn’t respond to a request for comment last night from my colleagues.

“It’s unimaginable that the White House general counsel would sit on it (and) not tell anybody else in the White House,” said David Gergen, who worked in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations. “In every White House I’ve ever been in, this would go to the president like that,” he added during an interview on CNN, snapping his fingers.

If McGahn did indeed tell others, especially the president, how come Flynn kept his job until last night?

4. What is the status of the FBI investigation into possible contacts between Trump associates and Russia? FBI Director James B. Comey initially opposed Yates notifying McGahn, citing concerns that it could complicate the bureau’s ongoing investigation. “A turning point came after Jan. 23, when (Sean) Spicer, in his first official media briefing, again was asked about Flynn’s communications with (Ambassador Sergey) Kislyak,” Adam, Ellen and Phil report. “Spicer said that he had talked to Flynn about the issue ‘again last night.’ There was just ‘one call,’ Spicer said. And it covered four subjects: a plane crash that claimed the lives of a Russian military choir; Christmas greetings; Russian-led talks over the Syrian civil war; and the logistics of setting up a call between Putin and Trump. Spicer said that was the extent of the conversation. Yates again raised the issue with Comey, who now backed away from his opposition to informing the White House.” Yates then spoke to McGahn.

5. Will Flynn face prosecution under the Logan Act? Yates and other intelligence officials suspected that Flynn could be in violation of the obscure 1799 statute, which bars U.S. citizens from interfering in diplomatic disputes with another country. But no one has ever been prosecuted under that law, so it is very, very unlikely.

Another mitigating factor: Jeff Sessions got confirmed as attorney general despite refusing to commit to recuse himself from DOJ inquiries into Trump and other administration officials.

6. What will the Senate Intelligence Committee uncover about contacts Flynn and others affiliated with Trump had with Russia before the election? U.S. intelligence reports during the 2016 campaign showed that Kislyak was in touch with Flynn, several sources have said. Communications between the two continued after Nov. 8. The Russian ambassador has even confirmed having contacts with Flynn before and after the election, though he declined to say what was discussed.

The committee led by Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is continuing to explore Russian efforts to interfere with the election, including the intelligence community’s assessment that the Kremlin was attempting to tilt the election to Trump. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the committee, told reporters a few hours before Flynn resigned that his contacts with the Russian ambassador are part of the bipartisan inquiry. “This and anything else that involves the Russians,” Rubio said, per Kelsey Snell. “We’re going to go wherever the truth leads us.”

7. Who exactly is in charge at the White House? Yesterday was just the latest illustration of the chaos and dysfunction that plague the infant administration. Officials found themselves in an uncomfortable holding pattern for much of Monday, unsure about whether to defend Flynn and privately grumbling about the president’s indecisiveness.

“After Trump made it through a joint news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau without being asked about Flynn, a group of reporters gathered outside Spicer’s office for more than 80 minutes,” Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker report. “Spicer twice declined to answer questions about Flynn. When chief of staff Reince Priebus walked by, he was asked whether the president still had confidence in Flynn. Priebus gave no answer. Then, a few minutes later, Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, declared on MSNBC that Trump had ‘full confidence’ in Flynn. Yet a few minutes later after that, Spicer issued an official — and conflicting — statement, saying Trump was ‘evaluating the situation.’” A few hours after that, Flynn was gone.

Conservative columnist Michael Gerson, a veteran of George W. Bush’s White House, opens his column today with a damning anecdote: Last month, Paul Ryan met with a delegation from the president-elect on tax reform. Attending were Priebus, Conway, Stephen K. Bannon, Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller. As the meeting began, Ryan pointedly asked, “Who’s in charge?” There was silence.

“It is still the right question,” Michael writes. “Former officials with deep knowledge of the presidency describe Trump’s White House staff as top-heavy, with five or six power centers and little vertical structure. ‘The desire to be a big shot is overrunning any sense of team,’ says one experienced Republican. ‘This will cause terrible dysfunction, distraction, disloyalty and leaks.’”

One yuge area of concern for me — Trump’s tweet above.  He (i.e., Bannon) might use this scandal to exert tighter control over the intelligence community.  Maybe even purge the non-Trumpians.  Then his power would be consolidated.

UPDATE: This isn’t good —

Executive privilege is something the PRESIDENT asserts, not the investigative body. It does not hurt to inquire.

and this:

So the Oversight Committee isn’t looking into it, and the Intelligence Committee isn’t looking into it.  We have no oversight now.

On the other hand:

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told House Democrats Tuesday that the recent revelations about former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn’s conversations with the Russians are only the beginning, and more information will surface in the coming days, according to multiple sources in a closed party meeting.

Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, also said that any conversations that Flynn had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Donald Trump took office would not be covered by executive privilege, potentially making some information subject to congressional investigations. Republicans have so far balked at probing this matter.

Will this be swept under the rug, or will it be a slow drip?  I think (and hope) that latter.

LATER UPDATE:

EVEN LATER UPDATE — Spicer just gave his daily press conference, and we learned the White House take on this.  I suspect some of these claims will not hold up:

1. Spicer denied that Flynn or any other campaign officials were in touch with Russian government officials during the campaign. yes, during transition, but not during campaign.  He has a problem here in that this is flatly contradicted in multiple press reports.

2. Spicer insists that President Trump instinctively knew that what Gen. Flynn did was not wrong and his White House Counsel confirmed this for him.  I have a feeling White House Counsel’s view might come under more scrutiny.

3. Spicer claims that the President did not instruct Flynn to discuss sanctions with the Russian Ambassador. “No, absolutely not. No, no, no – no” was Spicer’s response.  Interesting though, because if what Flynn did was not wrong (according to Trump), then what would have been the problem if Trump DID tell Flynn to do it?

4. Spicer says that President Trump was not aware of the Flynn/Russia discussions when they happened and only learned of them after the DOJ briefed the White House Counsel.

In other words, Flynn lied to Pence about something insignificant and not illegal, and that’s why Trump could no longer trust him.

Does that make sense to anyone?

But there’s more, starting with Spicer’s timeline:

Flynn said in mid-January that he not discussed sanctions with Kislyak. On January 15, Vice President Mike Pence went on CBS and repeated that. According to Spicer, White House Counsel Don McGahn heard from then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates on January 26 about evidence that Flynn had discussed sanctions with Kislyak, despite his denials. McGahn then brought the matter to Trump, who asked whether Flynn had broken the law. McGahn reported back that he did not think Flynn had broken the law.

According to Spicer, Trump then gradually lost trust in Flynn, over the period between January 26 and February 13, in what Spicer called “an evolving and eroding process.” He couldn’t say whether Flynn had intended to mislead Pence and others.

“I don’t know that it was intentional,” Spicer said. “He may have just forgotten [that he discussed the sanctions]. At some point that trust eroded to the point that the president did not feel comfortable and asked for an received his resignation.” He added that when Trump “thought it was time for a decision, he immediately made it.”

But the question is why Trump thought that Monday night was the time for a decision. After all, some three weeks passed between Yates’s call to McGahn and the actual firing. Spicer criticized the Justice Department for informing the White House of its suspicions about Flynn sooner, but it’s hard to square that criticism with the lengthy dithering the White House went through. If Trump had known about the calls 10 days earlier, moving his decision up by 10 days, that still would have been two weeks into his presidency.

Spicer wouldn’t say what made Trump change his mind about his national security adviser, who was a close ally during the campaign and spoke at the Republican National Convention, or why it took so long. Spicer said, somewhat cryptically, that the change was based on “this and a series of issues,” without elaborating.

Yet that, too, presents some contradictions with what was publicly known. If what Spicer says is true, Flynn continued lying about his conversations with Kislyak, telling The Washington Post as late as Wednesday that he had not discussed the sanctions with the Russian. If the White House knew that was untrue, why did it allow Flynn to reiterate it? Finally, on Thursday, Flynn admitted to the Post that he might have discussed the sanctions, though he could not recall for sure. On Friday, while flying to Mar-a-Lago, Trump was asked by a reporter about The Washington Post report including Flynn’s admission. The president answered as though he had no idea what was being asked. Spicer defended that by saying that Trump simply had not read the Post article, but Trump’s response is strange if he’d known for weeks that Flynn had misled.

Spicer’s story of Trump gradually losing trust in Flynn is at also at odds with a statement from Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway Monday afternoon that Trump had “full confidence” in Flynn. Spicer and Conway’s accounts can’t both be true, though whether that’s a product of chaos or spin is unclear.

Perhaps the most troubling element of Spicer’s account is that if taken at face value, it makes it appear that Trump was for a time relatively untroubled by the fact that Flynn had misled both the vice president of the United States and, through him, the American people. For three weeks, he allowed Flynn to remain in his post as his top security aide. It was only when it became public that Flynn had misled Pence and the people that Trump moved and decided Flynn had to go. The worrisome implication is that Trump was OK with Flynn’s dissembling until anyone knew about it, which calls into question the White House’s honesty on other accounts. As Sean Spicer might put, it’s a matter of trust.

And hey. If Trump was informed about Flynn’s discussions with the Russian ambassador, and referred the matter to White House counsel, then why was Flynn allowed to sit in classified security meetings in the interim?
Tomorrow, the White House will try to say “asked and answered” to everything.  But will that satisfy the press?  (Hint: it shouldn’t)

It’s Hard To Keep Up With All That’s Going Down

Just yesterday — on ONE day…

Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway broke ethics rules promoting Ivanka Trump clothes, which wouldn’t have happened if Trump hadn’t tweeted about how unfairly Nordstrom’s was treating Ivanka Trump by dropping her line of clothing.

Then we learned that Trump, when talking to Putin last week, had to put Putin on hold in order to ask his advisors what the New START treaty was. Then he got back on the phone and told Putin the New START treaty was a “bad deal”.

Later, Trump lost an appeal of his temporary travel ban. He tweeted “SEE YOU IN COURT” apparently unaware that he just lost in court.

Then the “failing” New York Times reported that China hasn’t been taking our phone calls because of Trump’s faux pax with Taiwan back in November.

Then, the Washington Post informed us, in a heavily-sourced story, that General Flynn, Trump’s closest military advisor, discussed sanctions with Russia while Obama was President, which is illegal. And then he lied about it. Many times.

So, that was yesterday.

The Flynn matter is dominating the news this morning. It’s really looks bad for Flynn:

National security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials, current and former U.S. officials said.

Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election.

Flynn on Wednesday denied that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak. Asked in an interview whether he had ever done so, he twice said, “No.”

On Thursday, Flynn, through his spokesman, backed away from the denial. The spokesman said Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

(Emphasis mine).

Clearly, Flynn got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.  That’s the only reason why he would back away from a denial.  Also, Mike Pence had gone to bat for him…

“They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia,” Pence said in an interview with CBS News last month, noting that he had spoken with Flynn about the matter. Pence also made a more sweeping assertion, saying there had been no contact between members of Trump’s team and Russia during the campaign. To suggest otherwise, he said, “is to give credence to some of these bizarre rumors that have swirled around the candidacy.”

…. and he is not about to take the fall.

This isn’t a he said, she said.

Neither of those assertions is consistent with the fuller account of Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak provided by officials who had access to reports from U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies that routinely monitor the communications of Russian diplomats. Nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

All of those officials said ­Flynn’s references to the election-related sanctions were explicit. Two of those officials went further, saying that Flynn urged Russia not to overreact to the penalties being imposed by President Barack Obama, making clear that the two sides would be in position to review the matter after Trump was sworn in as president.

An administration official stressed that Pence made his comments based on his conversation with Flynn. The sanctions in question have so far remained in place.

You have to wonder how stupid Flynn must be.  As a former intelligence officer, he should have know his communications with the Russians would be monitored.  There was no way he could get away with that lie.  As Mother Jones says:

UPDATE:

– END UPDATE –
The question now is…. will Trump stand by him, or throw him under a bus (where he belongs)?

His hand my be forced by public opinion (that is, assuming Trump believes in public opinion, which I doubt).  Here’s the latest from PPP.  I reprint it in its entirety because it shows just how Trump is losing popular opinion on almost every front — foreign policy, the “ban”, the “wall”, transparency, etc.:

PPP’s new national poll finds that Donald Trump’s popularity as President has declined precipitously just over the last two weeks. On our first poll of his Presidency voters were evenly divided on Trump, with 44% approving of him and 44% also disapproving. Now his approval rating is 43%, while his disapproval has gone all the way up to 53%. If voters could choose they’d rather have both Barack Obama (52/44) or Hillary Clinton (49/45) instead of Trump.

Just three weeks into his administration, voters are already evenly divided on the issue of impeaching Trump with 46% in favor and 46% opposed. Support for impeaching Trump has crept up from 35% 2 weeks ago, to 40% last week, to its 46% standing this week. While Clinton voters initially only supported Trump’s impeachment 65/14, after seeing him in office over the last few weeks that’s gone up already to 83/6.

Here are the reasons things are going bad for Trump:

-Voters think he’s over reaching to make a country safe…that they already consider to be safe. 66% of Americans consider the United States to be a safe country, to only 23% who consider it unsafe. Perhaps as an outgrowth of that sentiment only 45% of voters support Trump’s Executive Order on immigration, to 49% who are opposed to it. Among those who do support it you have to wonder how well thought out their position is- by a 51/23 margin Trump voters say that the Bowling Green Massacre shows why Trump’s immigration policy is needed.

By a 48/43 spread, voters do think that the intent of the Executive Order is to be a Muslim ban. And just 22% support a Muslim ban, to 65% who are opposed. The order has also increasingly raised issues about Trump’s competence in voters’ eyes- only 27% think the Executive Order was well executed, to 66% who think it was poorly executed. The spread on that question was 39/55 when we asked last week.

Another aspect of voters already feeling safe is that they don’t want to pay for the wall with Mexico. Just 32% support a 20% tax on items imported to the United States from Mexico, to 55% who are opposed to that concept. And in general only 37% of voters want the wall if US taxpayers have to front the cost for it, to 56% who are against that.

-Voters are concerned by the implications of Trump’s fight with the Judiciary. 53% of voters say they trust Judges more to make the right decisions for the United States, to only 38% who trust Trump more. And only 25% of voters think Trump should be able to overturn decisions by Judges that he disagrees with, to 64% who don’t think he should be able to do that. Trump voters have evidently had enough of the Constitution and those pesky checks and balances though- 51% of them think he should personally be able to overturn decisions he doesn’t agree with, to only 33% who dissent.

-Voters don’t like the people Trump has surrounded himself with. Betsy DeVos may have been confirmed this week, but she made a horrible impression on the public. Only 27% of voters see her positively to 49% with a negative opinion of her. Clinton voters are almost unanimous in their distaste for her (5/83 favorability), while she doesn’t generate nearly an equivalent amount of enthusiasm from Trump voters (53/12 favorability.) Other people close to Trump have come off poorly as well- Steve Bannon has a 22/45 favorability rating, Kellyanne Conway’s is 34/47, and Sean Spicer’s is 32/41.

-Voters continue to have a lot of basic transparency concerns when it comes to Trump. 62% think he needs to fully divest himself from his business interests, to only 27% who don’t think it’s necessary for him to do that. And 58% want him to release his tax returns, to just 31% who don’t think he needs to. In fact by a 53/32 spread, voters would support a law requiring that candidates for President release 5 years of their tax returns in order to appear on the ballot.

-Voters are concerned that in the realm of foreign policy, Trump likes who they don’t like and doesn’t like who they do like. Trump has antagonized Australia, which Americans give a 76/5 favorability rating. Meanwhile he has been warm to Russia, which Americans give a 13/63 favorability rating. He’s threatened to invade Mexico- a course that only 7% of voters support while 83% oppose it- while making nice comments about Vladimir Putin, who Americans give a 10/72 favorability to.-Voters are concerned about Trump taking away Obamacare. 47% of voters now say they support the Affordable Care Act to only 39% who are opposed. It just keeps getting more popular. And only 32% think the best course of action to take on health care is repealing the ACA, while 65% would like Congress to keep it and just fix parts that need fixing.

-Voters are increasingly taking the media’s side in his fights with them. The New York Times has repeatedly been a target of Trump’s attacks, but voters say they think the Times had more credibility than them 52/37. Trump seems to be losing ground in that conflict- he was only down 51/42 a week ago. The Presidency has been so diminished over the last 3 weeks that voters even say Saturday Night Live has more credibility than Trump, 48/43.

On another note it was unclear last week whether Donald Trump really knew who Frederick Douglass was, and it turns out that puts him in pretty good alignment with his party base. Only 47% of Trump voters know that Frederick Douglass is dead, compared to 78% of Clinton voters who know that. Even though they evidently need it, Trump voters aren’t very excited about Black History Month. Only 45% of them have a favorable opinion of it, to 35% with a negative one. By contrast it’s 81/9 for Clinton voters. And in yet another measure of the terrible economic anxiety gripping Trump voters though, 46% of them think there should be a White History Month to 36% opposed to that concept. They may not get far with that though, since only 28% of voters overall are in favor of such a thing to 58% opposed.

Finally we continue to find that unhappiness with Trump- and with Congressional Republicans- could help Democrats to make big gains in 2018. Democrats lead 49/41 on the generic Congressional ballot. That’s partially a product of Trump’s unpopularity but also an outgrowth of Paul Ryan (35/47 approval), Mitch McConnell (23/52 approval), and Congress as a whole (16/68 approval) being unpopular in their own rights.

Emphasis in original.

While this confirms that Trump is generally doing down down down, here’s what jumped out at me:

Among those who do support it you have to wonder how well thought out their position is- by a 51/23 margin Trump voters say that the Bowling Green Massacre shows why Trump’s immigration policy is needed.

And of course, there never WAS a Bowling Green Massacre.

In other words, most of Trump’s support – what little he has — comes from stupid and/or uninformed people.

For now, the Republican establishment (with a few exceptions) is not distancing itself from Trump, as this Tweet suggests.

But how long will that last?  GOP Congressman are returning back to their states, only to find angry voters at town hall meetings (they are cancelling them).  The GOP owns Trump now, and the longer they do, the better things looks for Dems.

(And I haven’t even brought up the Obamacare repeal yet!)

The Bombshell Report That Russia Can Blackmail Trump, Explained

There’s an enormous amount we don’t yet know about CNN’s bombshell report that US intelligence agencies believe Russia has “compromising personal and financial information” on President-elect Donald Trump and that his campaign was in direct contact with with Russian intermediaries before the election.

We don’t know who CNN’s sources are or if those people’s information is accurate. We don’t know which Trump aides were allegedly dealing with the Russians or whether those Russians worked for Vladimir Putin’s government. And we don’t know the answer to the biggest question of them all: just what does Russia have on Trump?

“So while people are being delicate about discussing wholly unproven allegations, the document is at the front of everyone’s minds as they ponder the question: Why is Trump so insistent about vindicating Russia from the hacking charges that everyone else seems to accept?” Benjamin Wittes, Susan Hennessey, and Quina Jurecic wrote in a post for the Lawfare blog.

There is one thing, though, that we can say with absolute certainty. If the allegations are true, they will spark criminal investigations and the types of Congressional probes that could end Trump’s presidency before it fully begins. If the allegations are false, Trump will accurately be able to say that he’d been slandered by a politicized intelligence community looking for ways of undermining his legitimacy.

Trump’s weeks-long war with the CIA means that this kind of moment may have been inevitable: after weeks of quiet sniping, sources inside the agency or familiar with its work have responded by leaking something truly and genuinely explosive.

This is “news” NOT because of the actual allegation in the memos, but because Trump and Obama were briefed on them last week after US intelligence looked into it, suggesting some credibility.  Furthermore, the Guardian is reporting that the FBI applied for a warrant from the foreign intelligence surveillance (FISA) court over the summer in order to monitor four members of the Trump team suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials. The Fisa court turned down the application asking FBI counter-intelligence investigators to narrow its focus. According to one report, the FBI was finally granted a warrant in October, but that has not been confirmed, and it is not clear whether any warrant led to a full investigation. But again, the news is that at least the FBI thought there was enough credibility in the memos to go to the FISA court in the first place.

A lot of people have joked about whether Russia had something on Trump. Turns out that it might

Here’s what we know. Late on Tuesday afternoon, CNN reported that the heads of America’s top intelligence agencies had showed Trump evidence that the Russians had compromising information on him. The allegations came from unsubstantiated memos compiled by a former British intelligence operative that had been in circulation since last summer but that US spy agencies had only recently deemed “credible.”

According to CNN, Sen. John McCain passed a full set of the memos to FBI Director Jim Comey last month. The New York Times reported that top intelligence officials have also briefed President Obama, the top leaders of the House and Senate, and the chairman and ranking member of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees on the information from the memos even though none of it has been proven true:

The decision of top intelligence officials to give the president, the president-elect and the so-called Gang of Eight — Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress and the intelligence committees — what they know to be unverified, defamatory material was extremely unusual.

After the CNN report, Buzzfeed published the actual dossier, which includes the allegation that Russia’s FSB, the successor to the KGB, believed it had “compromised Trump through his activities in Moscow sufficiently to be able to blackmail him.” More specifically, the dossier alleges that Russia had information that Trump engaged in “perverted sexual acts which have been arranged/monitored by the FSB” and had been recorded having sex with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel.

Zack Beauchamp at Vox notes that there are three other less salacious but potentially more damaging explanations of what Russia may have on Trump, and of why the president-elect would have have been so worried about its release. First, proof that Trump isn’t as rich as he claims. Second, evidence that Trump’s campaign directly coordinated with a Russian government hell-bent on ensuring his election. And third, that Trump’s business dealings with Russia — and the amount he may owe Russian investors in his company — is far, far greater than we think.

Trump took to Twitter Tuesday night to flatly deny the CNN report (and later take a shot at BuzzFeed):

It may be a while until we know if Trump is right or if the CNN report is accurate. In the meantime, the president-elect has a different problem entirely: He’s taken so many jarringly pro-Kremlin positions that something that would seem too ludicrous for Hollywood — Russian spies preparing to potentially blackmail an American president — seems like a semi-plausible explanation.

Astute readers will note that nobody has suggested what the “compromising information” actually is.  That is because only Buzzfeed published the actual dossier.  Other news outlets are not doing so, saying (correctly) that the allegations are unverified (I don’t recall them being so queasy when it came to leaked John Podesta emails, but that’s another commentary).

Since *I* am not a journalist, I am happy to include the dossier with this post, and let the reader read all the salacious “compromising information” that Russia has on Trump, allegedly.  I say again, ALLEGEDLY.  Those who have read it focus on the “golden showers” aspect of it, because kink.  But there are far more serious allegations in there, including one in which Trump and members of his campaign staff colluded with Russia on the hacking and Wikileaks in exchange for a non-interventionist policy on Russia and the Ukraine invasion.  That’s treason.

Anyway, dossier is below the fold.  Back to the issue at hand.

Trump’s embrace of Vladimir Putin — and war on the CIA — starts to make sense if you believe he was worried about being blackmailed by Russia

One of the enduring mysteries of the 2016 election is how Republican voters who have for decades venerated Ronald Reagan for defeating the Soviet Union got so strongly behind a pro-Russian candidate like Trump.

During the campaign, the president-elect praised Putin’s strength as a leader, brushed aside concerns about Putin’s abysmal human rights record, hinted that he might recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and talked about leaving NATO entirely or opting to ignore America’s legal obligation to defend any NATO member who comes under Russian attack.

Trump’s pro-Russian positioning goes all the way back to the Republican convention, when his campaign softened the party platform’s language on Ukraine to remove all reference about providing weapons to Kiev so it could protect itself from Russia. A short time later, Trump hinted to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that he was fine with Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

“The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were,” Trump said.

One of Trump’s former campaign managers, meanwhile, had been a paid consultant for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine like its former president, Viktor Yanukovych. The campaign manager, Paul Manafort, later resigned as part of an internal campaign shakeup.

Trump himself has spent months praising Putin. “I will tell you that, in terms of leadership, he’s getting an ‘A’ and our president is not doing so well,” Trump said during an NBC forum in September.

He has also effusively praised Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria: “What’s wrong with Russia bombing the hell out of ISIS and these other crazies so we don’t have to spend a million dollars a bomb?” Never mind that Russian bombs have targeted the relatively moderate opposition more than ISIS, and that the point has been to prop up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. With Russian help, Assad’s forces just finished reconquering the rebel stronghold of Aleppo.

Trump’s rhetoric about Russia has been even more startling since November 8. He has spent weeks mocking the CIA’s conclusion that Putin tried to interfere in the election to help him win the White House by pointing to the spy agency’s faulty intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War. When US spies personally briefed Trump on their findings about Russia, he issued a remarkable statement that barely mentioned Russia. Instead, Trump lumped it in with China and other unnamed countries and outside groups as potential perpetrators.

Trump’s complete refusal to admit that Russia interfered in the election has baffled and infuriated many Republican lawmakers, who have called for Congressional investigations into Moscow’s activities during the campaign and condemned Putin as a quasi-dictator. Just this week, five Republican senators said they’d back a Democratic bill that would make it harder for Trump to lift the punishing US sanctions on Russia.

It would make a bit more sense if Russia did in fact have something on Trump that was so big and so embarrassing that he would do Putin’s bidding to ensure it never became public. Given that Trump has survived the release of an audio recording of him bragging about sexual assault, it would presumably have to be something huge.

It’s hard to predict exactly what will come next. Congressional Republicans say they want to probe Russia’s interference in the election, but it’s not clear if this will be enough to make them stop consistently rejecting Democratic calls to create bipartisan investigative panels modeled on the 9/11 commission. Regardless of whether the CNN story holds up, the leak is sure to further fuel Trump’s war with the nation’s intelligence agencies. Given the array of threats facing the US, that may be one of the most dangerous outcomes of all.

UPDATE:  NBC is reporting that Trump never got the briefing and did NOT receive the two-page summary:

A senior U.S. intelligence official with knowledge of the preparation for the meeting with Trump told NBC News that the president-elect was not briefed on the so-called two-page addendum to the dossier originally generated as part of anti-Trump Republican opposition research.

Multiple officials say that the summary was included in the material prepared for the briefers, but the senior official told NBC News that the briefing was oral and no actual documents were handed to the Trump team.

“Intel and law enforcement officials agree that none of the investigations have found any conclusive or direct link between Trump and the Russian government period,” the senior official said.

According to the official, the two-page summary about the unsubstantiated material made available to the briefers was to provide context, should they need it, to draw the distinction for Trump between analyzed intelligence and unvetted “disinformation.”

The briefers also had available to them unvetted “disinformation” about the Clinton Foundation, although that was not shared with Trump.