Time Machine: Back On Russia
As you may have seen, there was a bit more news about the various investigations into the Trump Administration. I would say they were into the Trump-Russia-Election Meddling connection, but it seems clear that the findings of the investigation would cause the scope to widen. Which you would expect when a core-corrupt organization is put under the spotlight.
The global press is unable to keep up with the scope of the investigation as it continues to widen. Major events – the kind that would have created political tsunamis not two years ago – receive little scrutiny, at least for now. I’m in no place to do better than large organizations in investigative reporting. But I also want to try to think about the topic from angles not being covered, maybe I pick up on something small that others have missed.
You probably don’t remember, but three months ago I put out a list of questions resulting from the departure of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. I thought it would be a good exercise to go through them again, see what has been answered and what no; what is still relevant and what not. The news has been so momentous, this might be a way to think about the high-level progress (as well as to check my prescience as to what would prove critical).
Q1: Did Flynn talk to the Russian ambassador before the election?
A1: We know that the Trump Campaign (i.e., before the election) had at least 18 undisclosed calls with Russians. Safe to say at least some of these were with Mr. Flynn. Now – nothing so strange about a campaign talking to a foreign government. But eighteen times? To a hostile government? And then not disclosing them despite the investigation? What happened on these calls?
Q2: For the talks during the transition, did he have permission to have these talks? Was he ordered to have them?
A2: Given the large volume of calls, it seems clear that contact with the Russians was “part of the campaign” rather than the actions of a rogue operative. We don’t know yet where the strategy vis-à-vis Russian interaction was coming from – this remains a key question.
Q3: If so, did he have permission to discuss sanctions?
A3: I have not seen any reporting on this either way. I am not aware of what the Trump Campaign says it needed to discuss on this large volume of calls with our chief global adversary.
Q4: Did he report the results of the calls to Trump (or write a memo etc)?
A4: Again, I haven’t seen anything on this topic. We don’t know what Trump knew and when he knew it about these conversations.
Q5: What was Flynn's testimony to the FBI in the immediate aftermath of the call?
A5: We had the answer to this several months ago: seems his FBI testimony was far from truthful.
Flynn cover-up and dismissal:
Q6: Did Flynn resign, was he asked to resign, or was he fired?
A6: Amazingly, this still isn’t 100% clear to me. The administration has not been consistent (to put it mildly) about why Flynn is no longer our President’s top White House security advisor.
Q7: During the period when the WH was aware that he was a security risk, was Flynn's access to Trump/confidential material/meetings etc curtailed?
A7: A resounding No. Well after the WH was aware of Flynn’s Russia and Turkey ties, he was still central to the decision-making process. He took specific action to veto a plan that Turkey was against, while he was on Turkey’s payroll, while he was National Security Advisor. Let that one sink in.
Q8a: What was the decision-making process behind such curtailment/lack thereof?
Q8b: If Flynn's firing/resignation was due to steady loss of confidence, why was he on the Mar-a-Lago trip less than 48 hours previous?
A8: There is no evidence that the WH had any issue with their National Security Advisor being a foreign agent. Only with him getting caught. We know that the White House was warned about Flynn by at least:
Congress, via the House Oversight Committee. Note: this letter was addressed to Mike Pence and its receipt was acknowledged.
In other words, the Trump Administration knowingly named an undeclared foreign agent to be the top White House national security post.
Q9: Were the leaks fake or is the news real?
A9: By many accounts, Trump still supports Flynn and thinks he was treated unfairly.
Q10a: With the awareness that the campaign was a large organization, so it is difficult to account for everybody, what is a list of senior campaign officials who are confirmed to have no contact with Russian nationals?
Q10b: If there is any senior official not on this list, who are the Russian nationals they spoke to?
Q10c: What topics did they speak about?
A10: It would be easier to take the Trump Administration’s word on any of these topics if the goalposts did not switch so rapidly. Every day brings new revelations of more contacts and dealings between his inner circle and the Russians. If there is no fire, isn’t it time to disclose rather than stick to the provably-false no contact story?
Q11: What is the official view of the Trump Campaign (and WH, if different) as to the sources of the hacking of the DNC/Podesta emails?
A11: The Trump Organization still frequently casts doubt on the source of the hacking of the DNC. This doubt appears to be strategic: sometimes they admit the truth about Russia’s aim, sometimes they say it might have been something else.
Q12: Was the RNC or any Trump Campaign entity or staff member hacked?
A12: It seems that some RNC/Trump services were hacked, but not as extensively as the DNC. I have not seen a full accounting of the potential kompromat that Russia does have on these groups.
Q13: Is it appropriate for a Presidential Transition to discuss policy with other countries during the transition phase?
A13: I think we can synthesize this view as: the undisclosed contacts on undisclosed topics that we don’t agree happened were all proper and for the good of the country.
Q14: The Trump Campaign pushed to soften language about Russian intervention in Ukraine. What is the Administration's view of said Russian intervention?
A14: We’ve gotten more information that Trump-aligned persons pushed for the GOP platform to be softer on Russia. In office, Trump has taken only steps to “normalize” the behavior of Putin’s Russia, including the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine invasions. He also continues to encourage Putin to involve himself in US and European election campaigns by utilizing Russian propaganda.
Q15: Recently, Sec. Mattis made comments about the US commitment to NATO members. Was this intended to signify a change in US policy with respect to NATO Article 5 (collective defense)? If so, what is the new policy?
A15: It seems as though Trump has begun to understand some of the purpose of NATO; learning is a good thing. We’ll probably know significantly more about this after the NATO meeting in Brussels this week.
Q16: Does the Administration support any investigation into these issues? If so, what would such an investigation look like?
A16: Ah, the big one. So far, the Administration has been strongly against any investigations into its connections with Russia. Trump admitted to Lester Holt, the Russians and others that he recently fired Jim Comey in order to prevent the FBI investigation from moving forward. Both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were impeached for obstruction of justice without more evidence that we already have on Donald Trump.
Q17: Irrespective of the previous question, will the Administration co-operate with a Congressional/DOJ investigation? In other words, will it use Executive Privilege?
A17: So far, there have not been blanket claims of Executive Privilege. However, there has also been consistent stalling and obfuscation where information has been requested, e.g. the White House directing Congress to the Trump Campaign, which no longer really exists.
Q18: If the Administration is against any investigation, can AG Sessions impartially determine whether any such investigation is warranted?
A18: We know the answer to this: AG Sessions has recused himself. Although, because Sessions was apparently involved with the firing of Jim Comey (at least in some of the White House’s stories), it isn’t clear what this recusal really means. It seems possible that Sessions will himself be part of the probe, which we did not expect three months ago.
Q19a: Who does Trump owe money to? Both personally and through any entity.
Q19b: Have there been any significant changes to his finances since his declaration of candidacy in summer 2015?
A19: This is the key question, and word is that the various investigations are beginning to look into financial crimes. Specifically, whether financial crimes have been committed by people close to the President (“current senior White House official”). While it has not been entirely confirmed, most careful readers interpret what is known to mean that Jared Kushner’s financial dealings are falling into scope. If Kushner is in scope now, I don’t see how Trump himself can’t be in scope later. In an odd twist, Trump’s lawyers wanted him to submit updated financial disclosures without signing them. Huh? This is the same set of lawyers who wrote the letter saying Trump has no ties to Russian actors, with holes gaping enough to drive Air Force One through.
Where does all this leave us? What have we learned in three months? Well – a lot, but if I had to summarize:
Mike Flynn was corrupted to an insanely high level. Members of Trump’s team – and Trump himself – knew or should have known this, as they were repeatedly presented with the information.
The Campaign had an alarmingly high level of contact with Russia; alarming especially because of the pro-Russia, anti-American talk coming out of said Campaign’s mouthpiece.
The investigation has broadened: from Manafort and Flynn to people in Trump’s inner circle still at the White House; from collusion to obstruction to financial crimes and maybe elsewhere.
The White House still is unwilling or unable to get its story straight on these topics. If there is an innocent explanation, why all the lying? (See for example: rationale for the firing of Comey, James).
A lot of the questionable actions occurred during the transition. Mike Pence was the head of the transition.