Oval Office asset, Kremlin handler

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Jon Chait's long New York piece on Trump/Russia points out that "What is missing from our imagination is the unlikely but possible outcome on the other end [of the Russia scandal]: that this is all much worse than we suspect:"

After all, treating a small probability as if it were nonexistent is the very error much of the news media made in covering the presidential horse race. And while the body of publicly available information about the Russia scandal is already extensive, the way it has been delivered -- scoop after scoop of discrete nuggets of information -- has been disorienting and difficult to follow. What would it look like if it were reassembled into a single narrative, one that distinguished between fact and speculation but didn't myopically focus on the most certain conclusions?

Here's a bit of his background:

In 2015, Western European intelligence agencies began picking up evidence of communications between the Russian government and people in Donald Trump's orbit. In April 2016, one of the Baltic states shared with then-CIA director John Brennan an audio recording of Russians discussing funneling money to the Trump campaign. In the summer of 2016, Robert Hannigan, head of the U.K. intelligence agency GCHQ, flew to Washington to brief Brennan on intercepted communications between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Chait asks us to "suppose the dark crevices of the Russia scandal run not just a little deeper but a lot deeper:"

If that's true, we are in the midst of a scandal unprecedented in American history, a subversion of the integrity of the presidency. It would mean the Cold War that Americans had long considered won has dissolved into the bizarre spectacle of Reagan's party's abetting the hijacking of American government by a former KGB agent. It would mean that when Special Counsel Robert Mueller closes in on the president and his inner circle, possibly beginning this summer, Trump may not merely rail on Twitter but provoke a constitutional crisis.

And it would mean the Russia scandal began far earlier than conventionally understood and ended later -- indeed, is still happening. As Trump arranges to meet face-to-face and privately with Vladimir Putin later this month, the collusion between the two men metastasizing from a dark accusation into an open alliance, it would be dangerous not to consider the possibility that the summit is less a negotiation between two heads of state than a meeting between a Russian-intelligence asset and his handler.

Chait puts together some of the pieces of Trump's political involvement:

Tom Wright, another scholar who has delved into Trump's history, reached the same conclusion. "1987 is Trump's breakout year. There are only a couple of examples of him commenting on world politics before then."

What changed that year? One possible explanation is that Trump published The Art of the Deal, which sped up his transformation from an aggressive, publicity-seeking New York developer to a national symbol of capitalism. But the timing for this account does not line up perfectly -- the book came out on November 1, and Trump had begun opining loudly on trade and international politics two months earlier. The other important event from that year is that Trump visited Moscow.

During the Soviet era, Russian intelligence cast a wide net to gain leverage over influential figures abroad. (The practice continues to this day.) The Russians would lure or entrap not only prominent politicians and cultural leaders, but also people whom they saw as having the potential for gaining prominence in the future. In 1986, Soviet ambassador Yuri Dubinin met Trump in New York, flattered him with praise for his building exploits, and invited him to discuss a building in Moscow. Trump visited Moscow in July 1987. He stayed at the National Hotel, in the Lenin Suite, which certainly would have been bugged. There is not much else in the public record to describe his visit, except Trump's own recollection in The Art of the Deal that Soviet officials were eager for him to build a hotel there. (It never happened.)

"How do you even think about the small but real chance," Chait asks, "that the president of the United States has been influenced or compromised by a hostile foreign power for decades?"

Trump returned from Moscow fired up with political ambition. He began the first of a long series of presidential flirtations, which included a flashy trip to New Hampshire. Two months after his Moscow visit, Trump spent almost $100,000 on a series of full-page newspaper ads that published a political manifesto. "An open letter from Donald J. Trump on why America should stop paying to defend countries that can afford to defend themselves," as Trump labeled it, launched angry populist charges against the allies that benefited from the umbrella of American military protection. "Why are these nations not paying the United States for the human lives and billions of dollars we are losing to protect their interests?"

Trump's letter avoided the question of whom the U.S. was protecting those countries from. The primary answer, of course, was the Soviet Union. After World War II, the U.S. had created a liberal international order and underwritten its safety by maintaining the world's strongest military. A central goal of Soviet, and later Russian, foreign policy was to split the U.S. from its allies.

The safest assumption is that it's entirely coincidental that Trump launched a national campaign, with himself as spokesman, built around themes that dovetailed closely with Soviet foreign-policy goals shortly after his Moscow stay.

"It is not difficult to imagine that Russia quickly had something on Trump," he continues, "from either exploits during his 1987 visit or any subsequent embarrassing behavior KGB assets might have uncovered:"

But the other leverage Russia enjoyed over Trump for at least 15 years is indisputable -- in fact, his family has admitted to it multiple times. After a series of financial reversals and his brazen abuse of bankruptcy laws, Trump found it impossible to borrow from American banks and grew heavily reliant on unconventional sources of capital. Russian cash proved his salvation. From 2003 to 2017, people from the former USSR made 86 all-cash purchases -- a red flag of potential money laundering -- of Trump properties, totaling $109 million. In 2010, the private-wealth division of Deutsche Bank also loaned him hundreds of millions of dollars during the same period it was laundering billions in Russian money. "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets," said Donald Jr. in 2008. "We don't rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia," boasted Eric Trump in 2014. [...]

Shady business transactions offer the perfect cover for covert payments, since just about the entire Russian economy is shady. Trump's adamant refusal to disclose his tax returns has many possible explanations, but none is more obvious than the prospect that he is hiding what are effectively bribes.

"In July 2013, Trump visited Moscow again," Chait writes, speculating that "If the Russians did not have a back-channel relationship or compromising file on Trump 30 years ago, they very likely obtained one then:"

Former FBI director James Comey recounts in his book that Trump was obsessed with reports that he had been recorded in a hotel room watching prostitutes urinate on a bed that Barack Obama had once slept in. Trump, Comey wrote, "argued that it could not be true because he had not stayed overnight in Moscow but had only used the hotel room to change his clothes."

Trump's claim is bullshit! (Or, in other words, "journalists Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reconstructed Trump's trip to Moscow and established that he did in fact stay overnight.") "For all the ambiguous, suspicious facts surrounding Trump's ties to Russia," Chait observes, "Manafort's role is the most straightforward:"

He is an utterly amoral consultant and spent at least a decade directly advancing Russian foreign-policy interests while engaging in systemic corruption.

"Manafort was asking about," confirms Chait, "the possibility of trading his position as Trump's campaign manager for debt forgiveness from Deripaska:"

This much was clear in March 2016: The person who managed the campaign of a pro-Russian candidate in Ukraine was now also managing the campaign of a pro-Russian candidate in the United States. And Trump's campaign certainly looked like the same play Putin had run many times before: Trump inflamed internal ethnic division, assailed the corruption of the elite, attacked Western allies while calling for cooperation with Russia, and sowed distrust in the fairness of the vote count. And in addition to deploying social-media bots and trolls, Russia apparently spent directly to help elect Trump. The FBI is investigating Alexander Torshin, a Russian banker who built ties to Republicans and allegedly funneled campaign funds to the National Rifle Association, which spent three times as much to help Trump as it had on behalf of Romney four years earlier.

Trump surrounded himself with several staffers, in addition to Manafort, with unusually close ties to Russia. His national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, had traveled to Moscow in 2015 to fĂȘte Putin at a banquet; George Papadopoulos met with Russian officials during the campaign; Russia had marked Carter Page as a possible asset. Michael Cohen and Felix Sater, the two business associates of Trump's with decades-long ties to Russian organized crime, engaged in a mix of diplomatic and commercial negotiations with Russia during the campaign.

Several Trump advisers knew Russia was working to help Trump. Papadopoulos let it slip that Russia had dirt on Clinton; Roger Stone, a former longtime business partner of Manafort's who communicated regularly with Trump throughout the campaign, knew what material WikiLeaks had obtained, according to two associates. Stone also repeatedly boasted of his back-channel contacts to Julian Assange and flaunted advance knowledge of what dirt Assange had. Between a pair of phone conversations Donald Jr. had to set up his Trump Tower meeting, he spoke with someone with a blocked phone number. (His father has a blocked phone number.) John K. Mashburn, a former campaign and current White House staffer, testified in March that he recalled receiving an email in early 2016 that Russia had negative information on Clinton.

"Russia's hacking appears, in short, to have been common knowledge within the campaign," Chait writes. He then wonders, "How much more evidence of collusion is yet to come out? Maybe a lot more:"

In July 2016, a loose-knit community of computer scientists and cybersecurity experts discovered a strange pattern of online traffic between two computer servers. One of those servers belonged to Alfa Bank in Moscow and the other to the Trump Organization. Alfa Bank's owners had "assumed an unforeseen level of prominence and influence in the economic and political affairs of their nation," as a federal court once put it.

The analysts noted that the traffic between the two servers occurred during office hours in New York and Moscow and spiked in correspondence with major campaign events, suggesting it entailed human communication rather than bots. More suspiciously, after New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau asked Alfa Bank about it but before he brought it up with the Trump campaign, the server in Trump Tower shut down. The timing strongly implied Alfa Bank was communicating with Trump. [see here]

"If that server was transmitting data to and from Moscow," Chait wonders, "who in Trump Tower was feeding it?" To date, there is no definitive answer.

Now that he's in office, Trump's ties to Russia have attracted close scrutiny, and he has found his room to maneuver with Putin sharply constrained by his party. In early 2017, Congress passed sanctions to retaliate against Russia's election attack. Trump lobbied to weaken them, and when they passed by vetoproof supermajorities, he was reportedly "apoplectic" and took four days to agree to sign the bill even knowing he couldn't block it. After their passage, Trump has failed to enforce the sanctions as directed.

Trump also moved to return to Russia a diplomatic compound that had been taken by the Obama administration; announced that he and Putin had "discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit" to jointly guard against "election hacking"; and congratulated the Russian strongman for winning reelection, despite being handed a card before the call warning: "Do not congratulate."

"There is one other way in which Trump's behavior has changed in recent months," Chait notes ominously:

As Mueller has plunged deeper into his murky dealings with Russia, the president has increasingly abandoned the patina of innocence. Trump used to claim he would be vindicated, and his advisers insisted his periodic fits sprang from an irrational resentment that Mueller was tarnishing his election and obscuring his achievements.

Trump barely puts much effort into predicting a clean bill of health anymore. He acts like a man with a great deal to hide: declining to testify, dangling pardons to keep witnesses from incriminating him, publicly chastising his attorney general for not quashing the whole investigation, and endorsing Russia's preposterous claims that it had nothing to do with the election at all. ("Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!" he tweeted last month, contradicting the conclusion of every U.S. intelligence agency.) Trump's behavior toward Russia looks nothing like that of a leader of a country it attacked and exactly like that of an accessory after the fact. [...]

Meanwhile, the White House has eliminated its top cybersecurity position. That might simply reflect a Republican bias against bureaucratic expertise. But it might also be just what it looks like: The cop on the beat is being fired because his boss is in cahoots with the crooks.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on July 8, 2018 11:32 PM.

"fear over hope" was the previous entry in this blog.

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