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    DC Spy Novel Roundup: March 4 Edition

    Do you ever feel like John Le Carre's writing a novel called "American Politics?" Because U.S. politics are looking seriously Le-Carre-ified right now. Let's try to catch up on the story so far, leading up to the President's Saturday-morning tweetstorm accusing Obama of illegally wiretapping Trump Tower. (Boy, does Jared Kushner have a surprise coming when he gets back on line tonight.) Okay, let's walk through the last few weeks of front-page counterespionage.

    1) Michael Flynn ousted as Nation Security Adviser after lying about meetings with Russian ambassador.

    What's interesting about this is the way Flynn got caught in the lie. He got on the phone with the Russian ambassador, multiple times, and started talking about Russia sanctions. Why Flynn, who used to head the Defense Intelligence Agency, did not stop to think that US intelligence routinely records all of the Russian ambassador's calls is a mystery. I mean, of course they do.

    The Russian ambassador to the United States is presumably involved in espionage against the United States, and American intelligence would be negligent not to presume that. So if American intelligence were not watching and listening to the Russian ambassador (just as Russian intelligence surveills our ambassador to Russia) it would be a dereliction of duty.

    What interested me at the time, if Flynn was acting on Trump's orders, was how Trump would replace that line of communication to Russia.  Flynn got caught not because he was being watched, but because Kislyak was. The FBI caught the message boy because they were watching the mailbox. So anyone else Trump sent would also just get caught immediately. I did not realize that POTUS already had another problem:

    2. Jeff Sessions gets caught lying about meeting Russian ambassador. Then Jared Kushner also turns out to have met with Flynn and Kislyak.

    It turned out, of course, that more of Trump's inner circle had already met with Kislyak. And so when Flynn was burned, those people also had to know they were burned, for the same reason. US intelligence always watches the Russian ambassador. If he takes steps to avoid observation, they only get more interested. So US intelligence had seen everyone else from the Trump camp who'd met with the ambassador.

    Jeff Sessions knew that American intelligence knew he'd met with Kislyak. And he knew he'd lied to Congress about those meetings. But he did not come clean. He waited for the story to hit the newspapers. Jared Kushner did basically the same thing. The not-coming-clean-when-you-know-they-have-you is interesting, and not fully explained yet.

    What is clearer to me is why POTUS was so angry about "leaks" and so eager to denounce them around this time. He knew, by this point, that US intelligence had at least some information on his inner circle that it hadn't released yet. He wasn't worrying about what investigators might find out, or not just about that. He was worried about information that investigators already knew, but had not released yet.

    3. How about that Jeff Sessions lie?

    The strangest thing about Jeff Sessions's, errr, inaccurate testimony is, as others have mentioned, that he volunteered a dishonest response to a question he had not been asked. Al Franken asked what he would do if it turned out Trump campaign people had met with the Russian government, Sessions volunteered that he was part of the Trump campaign and had not met with anyone from the Russian government. No one had asked about him, actually.

    What Sessions did is the equivalent of being asked, "If we make you sheriff, what will you do about the stalled investigation into Laura Palmer's murder?" and answering, "I want to make clear that I was absolutely not with Laura Palmer on the night she died." Not what you were asked, but potentially pretty illuminating, especially if proven inaccurate.

    I can't explain Sessions's weird error and maybe no one, including Sessions, can. But one hypothetical way to read it is as a tell: Sessions may have been so anxious to fend off certain lines of questioning that he jumped to parry an attack that hadn't been made. It's strange.

    4. Trump apparently gets angry over Sessions's recusal

    Sessions recusing himself from any election-related investigation is obviously the absolute minimum concession required to call off the hounds, which even Republicans were calling for, and it's not clear that it will be enough. But it evidently, it was too much for Trump, who had publicly said that Sessions need not recuse himself a few hours before it happened, and who allegedly lost his temper at his own White House counsel yesterday over Sessions's decision.

    This is really odd, because after the met-with-Kislyak shoe dropped, Sessions's recusal was basically the only play. Keeping him officially in charge of an investigation where he was now implicated would have brought worlds of hurt. That Trump has not grasped this suggests that he either has absolutely no sense of strategy or tactics here or that he feels that he's in serious jeopardy himself. It could be both. It's hard to tell.

    That brings us to this morning, before breakfast:

    5. President Trump tweets accusations that President Obama illegally wiretapped Trump Tower.

    So much going on here. First of all, this play carries two major risks. One, it risks making the President of the United States look crazy and paranoid if it turns out no such wiretap existed. (That may sound like we've hit the proving-a-negative problem, but if there is no wiretap, there are actual people who do know that. They are called the FBI and the NSA.)

    Second, and worse, it calls attention to the possibility that there may actually have been a legal "wiretap" approved by a FISA court based on real probable cause. That is basically the first thing Twitter thought of this morning, on the assumption that the President of the United States knew what he was talking about when he mentioned a wiretap. And Trump does not need people thinking about the kind of evidence that would convince a FISA judge, appointed by Chief Justice Roberts, that there was probable cause to treat Trump Tower as a threat to national security. Wow. Why would you bring that up, ever?

    Now it turns out that the President did not learn about this alleged wiretap from sources inside the federal government, who report to him and actually know whether or not this happened, but from a highly speculative Breitbart News story. And here I'd like to pause to marvel at President Trump's relationship to the news media. Not his attacks on it, which is another story. What's odd is his attempt to use the news media as a source of news when he actually has better access to information than journalists do. The President of the United States doesn't watch CNN to find out what the FBI has been doing. He can just ask the FBI. Other Presidents watch the news to see how the coverage is being slanted, and to gauge exactly what reporters have or haven't learned. But on most things, the President is in the position of knowing more about the subject being covered than the reporters do. Taylor Swift doesn't read the tabloids to find out who she's dating. She knows. That a sitting president would look to a speculative Breitbart story as a source of information about secret government surveillance programs is very strange.

    Now, the strategy here may simply be to go on the offensive. If Trump has accepted that the Russia story is going to keep coming, he may have decided that his best or only play is to try to turn the accusations around so that the investigation into his behavior itself is somehow the criminal act. That isn't going to persuade anyone in the corridors of DC power, but it gives his faithful a storyline to grab on to and maybe muddies the water for a bunch of low-information swing voters.

    But Trump's decision also does something odd to any investigations into his Russia ties. Those investigations are mostly about pressuring smaller fish and flipping them into cooperating witnesses. And here's the weird part. There may never have been a wiretap. Maybe no FISA warrant was ever approved. Maybe, if one was approved, it had nothing to do with phones. (It may have been a warrant for information on ... wait for it ... an internet server in Trump Tower that communicated with two servers at a Russian bank.)

    But even if there was no tap on the Trump Tower phones, Donald Trump just told everyone who might be questioned in the investigation that there WAS. If you get questioned by the FBI next week about the Trump/Russia thing, Trump just basically told you that the FBI already has you on tape. The feds don't even have to bluff anymore. Potential witnesses will come in the door pre-bluffed. I can't imagine that this is going to work out well for Trump.

    But then, none of this is working out well for any of us.

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    Comments

    Yes, I can't see how No. 5 turns out to be anything but a majorly bad move. Not smart!


    Nice run-down. Thanks. 

    I'm still confused about the sheer volume of contact there seems to have been. So many people attached to the Trump campaign being in such constant and flagrant contact with the Russians. If the contacts were just a matter of agreeing on some quid-pro-quo (say, publishing Clinton's emails in exchange for an easing of sanctions) as in the Casey-Karrubi 1980 deal, that should have taken all of 3 minutes total. No collusion theory I can think of requires 10s or 100s of meetings and calls at multiple levels. 

    And Flynn seems to have been careful not to violate the letter of the Logan act, careful enough to not justify a legal charge. As the dumbest of the bunch, I doubt the others were any less careful. 

    So is the underlying bombshell more about details regarding financial quid-pro-quo that were getting discussed, thus raising the issue of violations of the emoluments clause? But if so, the communications or negotiations should rather have been flowing through Trump's shady Russian business contacts rather than the ambassador or Kremlin officials. 

    Also, no matter how incompetent Trump's inner circle may be, why would the Russians be so careless? 

    Or is it just a matter of the Trump campaign treating the Russians as a friendly foreign power, swapping views and advice and prospective collaboration as one could imagine another campaign doing with Isreali officials while raising little outrage. In which case, their inept stonewalling seems excessive given the limited damage it could cause. After all, Trump was openly warming up towards Russia. 

    I really can't come up with a clear cogent theory of what the cover-up is covering up... 

     


    James O'Keefe seemed to be getting money directly from Trump, & I think I saw some indications that Wikileaks or related were getting some direct money too. Considering the illegality of hacking emails, this *should* be high up there as a felony investigation against the sitting president, but maybe I missed a piece that keeps it from going there (for now).


    In regards to Trump "openly warming up to Russia", another trench coat has entered stage left:

    Fiona Hill has been reported to be considering the job of being Trump's advisor upon Russia. It is hard to make out how all this effort to network with the Russians can possibly make sense to someone who has said:

    Many Russian and American analysts now refer to the current state of U.S.-Russia relations as a kind of new Cold War; Hill gave the current state of affairs an even more alarming tag. “I think we are in a hot war with Russia, not a cold war,” she said. “But we have to be careful about the analogy. It’s a more complex world. There is no set-piece confrontation. This is no holds barred. The Cold War was a more disciplined competition, aside from the near blowups in Berlin and Cuba, where we walked back from the brink. The Kremlin now is willing to jump over the abyss. They want to play for the asymmetry. They see themselves in a period of hot kinetic war. Also, this is not just two-way superpower. There is China, the rising powers. I almost see it as like the great power competition from the time before the Second World War.”

     My brain hurts


    Thanks, Obey. Why so many contacts is the big question here. And I am also wondering why the Russians aren't using better tradecraft, or telling Trump's people to do so. Kislyak certainly knows that he's constantly being surveilled, and behaves accordingly.

    I wouldn't give Flynn much credit for staying on the right side of the Logan Act, since no one has ever been prosecuted for violating the Logan Act. There is no case law about where the line is, so you can't say that Flynn crossed it but also can't say he didn't.

    But back to the big question. I don't know why there are so many meetings, by so many different parties. But it is very clear that the Trump people are going to lengths to hide those contacts, so THEY thinks something is up. By definition, they have a clandestine relationship with Russia, because they go to lengths to keep that relationship secret.

    I see three main possibilities:

    1) This is a strange result of Trump and Trumpworld's obsession with secrecy. They're covering this up because they cover everything up. The first problem there is Sessions, who is not from Trumpworld and does not have those habits. The second problem is that whatever's been going on has been enough to topple multiple advisors: first Manafort, then Flynn, and also smaller fry such s Carter Page.

    2) This is about shutting a line of inquiry down, because investigating the Putin connection -- even if that didn't turn up much -- would lead investigators toward other things, like financial ties to Russian mob figures, that is a bigger deal. It's like bootleggers trying to quash a murder investigation, even if they didn't do the murder, because the bootleggers can't afford to have the cops around.

    3) The worst scenario is this: It's not a quid pro quo. It's a relationship.

    Yes, there are far too many contacts, and too many meetings, for any single payoff deal. But all those meetings and contacts make sense for two organizations that are engaged in a serious ongoing relationship.

    There's some reporting to back this: the belated White House admission that Kushner met with Kislyak suggests that Flynn was trying to open a new line of communication (Kushner) for the Russians.

    And Russian intelligence doesn't usually work on a quid-pro-quo basis. Once you work for them, you are compromised by the fact of working for them (because they can expose you as a traitor or a spy), and they use that to squeeze you further. It's their standard playbook. You don't pay off your debt to Russian intelligence. You just get further in hock to them.

    If you don't like the sound of that, you're right. Because if Trump does have a relationship with Russian intelligence, that means it's not about loosening Ukraine sanctions and walking away. It's a relationship where they will try to influence and control him for as long as he remains useful.


    One amusing element of this story that I haven't seen anyone comment on. It's old news. The Breitbart piece that apparently prompted this shitstorm is just a compendium of old articles. The bit about "wiretapping" Trump tower (not wiretapping but whatever) came from a Heatstreet article published three months ago.


    I think Huffpost or someone else did a post-op on this, including the woman who resurrected it & put several more layers of spin on (factually wrong, but if it sells, who's to blame her? welcome to 2017)



    Thanks, PP. That's a good piece that cuts through all the bs.


    Sure. It's ridiculous. Especially because the right wing "news sources" don't actually do much (read: any) reporting, They just repackage and spin, sometimes adding a healthy dose of speculation. I realize that this is also a fair description of my post above. But getting your news from my blog would also be inexplicably stupid. It's an opinion blog by someone who reads the same papers you do. And yet, Fox News does not rise above this bloggy level. It's like an endless video stream of opinion blog.

    There isn't any news in Breitbart News, because they don't go out and collect news. They aggregrate and aggravate


    And aggrandize and aggress


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