By Kent R. Kroeger (May 21, 2018)
When in American electoral history has the incumbent party’s administration launched a counterintelligence investigation against the opposition party’s presidential candidate?
Never. Until the 2016 election.
This past week’s revelation that the FBI used a secret informant to investigate whether Donald Trump’s presidential campaign had ties to the Russians is a defining moment in U.S. history. There is no precedent.
Presumably, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his investigative team will eventually present evidence to the U.S. Congress that will justify such an investigation. Former intelligence chief James Clapper is already priming the pump for the news media narrative that the Obama administration “spying” on the opposition party’s presidential campaign was the “right thing to do.”
Until the real story emerges (if ever), circumstantial evidence, baseless conjecture, and media-fueled hyperbole will be the news media’s primary currency while covering the Trump-Russia investigation.
Its worked for the media so far. Their ratings and profit margins have rarely been higher. So why stop now?
The following New York Times headline from May 19th regarding the FBI’s interference in the 2016 election says all you need to know about the elite bias of our nation’s most respected newspaper:
That headline is straight-up deceptive, frosted with layers of creamy dishonesty. The definitional nuance between “spying” and “using an informant to investigate” was likely dictated to the New York Times’ writers — Adam Goldman, Mark Mazzetti and Matthew Rosenberg— by their Department of Justice (DoJ) sources. And then there are the story’s opening paragraphs:
President Trump accused the F.B.I. on Friday, without evidence, of sending a spy to secretly infiltrate his 2016 campaign “for political purposes” even before the bureau had any inkling of the “phony Russia hoax.”
In fact, F.B.I. agents sent an informant to talk to two campaign advisers only after they received evidence that the pair had suspicious contacts linked to Russia during the campaign. The informant, an American academic who teaches in Britain, made contact late that summer with one campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, according to people familiar with the matter. He also met repeatedly in the ensuing months with the other aide, Carter Page, who was also under F.B.I. scrutiny for his ties to Russia
No independent, unbiased journalist writes opening paragraphs as convoluted as those without being told to.
“President Trump accused the F.B.I…without evidence, of sending a spy to secretly infiltrate his 2016 campaign…,” they write. And then in the next sentence(!) they provide the very evidence the president is referring to when he says his campaign was spied on.
On an average day, Trump uses the vocabulary of a fourth-grader. So, please, forgive him if his interpretation of the F.B.I.’s admitted use of a secret informant to gather information from three campaign advisers comes out as: “They were spying on us!”
The vast majority of Americans would come to the same conclusion if the FBI had done that to them.
In both cases, the “informant” or “spy” does not reveal their purpose (i.e., collecting intelligence) or their client (i.e., the FBI) to their targeted sources. But the distinction the DoJ and its publicity arm, The New York Times, are trying to sell is that “spying” would be if the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign itself; whereas, using an informant to investigate Russian election meddling is entirely different. To quote the late-Richard Pryor, “Only white people can come up with sh*t like that.”
Did George Papadopoulos really get this started?
There is some good reporting and news analysis going on with respect to the Trump-Russia investigation. My top-of-mind list includes The Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross, the National Review’s Andrew C. McCarthy, The Wall Street Journals’ Shane Harris, Carol E. Lee and Kimberley Strassel, Politico’s David Stern, The Federalist’s Sean Davis, and The New York Time’s Michael Schmidt, among others.
All of the reporting agrees that on May 10, 2016, a drunken Papadopoulos boasted to Australian diplomat Alexander Downer that the Russians possessed thousands of stolen Hillary Clinton emails. It was this meeting, supposedly, that prompted the FBI to open a counterintelligence investigation (‘Crossfire Hurricane’) into the Trump campaign on July 31st, according to The New York Times.
But the Times’ own reporting leaves open the question as to when the Australians notified their American counterparts about the Papadopoulos drunken confession? The Times presumes Wikileaks’ publishing of the DNC emails in mid-July prompted the Australians to contact the FBI, but there is no concrete evidence offered by the Australians, the FBI, or anyone else that confirms this. All we have is the formal start date of the FBI counterintelligence investigation (July 31st).
Thanks to The Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross, we know the FBI planted an informant, Stefan Halper, a Cambridge professor with connections to the CIA and its British counterpart, MI6, close to the Trump campaign to investigate Russian election meddling. From Ross’s reporting, we know one of Halper’s earliest contacts with a Trump campaign adviser occurred when Halper met with Carter Page at a London symposium around July 11th.
Was Halper already an FBI informant at that point? If so, the original Papadopoulos-Downer meeting on May 10th was still unknown to the FBI, so how could that meeting have been so pivotal in the FBI’s decision to launch ‘Crossfire Hurricane’? The easiest and most obvious conclusion is that the Papadopoulos-Downer meeting wasn’t pivotal.
Is it possible, however, that the FBI’s interest in the Trump campaign predated even the Papadopoulos-Downer meeting? Consider that the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication, had hired Fusion GPS to collect intelligence on Trump in late 2015, and that contract was taken over by a Democratic National Committee-connected law firm in the Spring 2016.
The U.S. intelligence community (USIC), which includes the FBI, and its web of private contractors is surprisingly small and insular, particularly at the highest management levels. It should not surprise us if, in the coming months, we learn that the FBI knew of Fusion GPS’ efforts from the beginning, or at least after the contract was handed off to the Democrats.
After more than a year, what do we really know?
When considering all of the reporting done so far, an open-minded but always skeptical citizen could reasonably come to these conclusions about the Trump-Russia connection:
(1) Russian intelligence operatives targeted the Trump campaign no later than Spring 2016. It was at that time Professor Joseph Mifsud, suspected to have connections to Russian intelligence, told Papadopoulos that the Russians had thousands of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.
As an aside, Mifsud also introduced Papadopoulos to the woman who would become Papadopoulos’ fiancee (see photo below).
Yeah, I know what you are thinking. Russian intelligence may operate the world’s greatest dating service (if you are a single guy, at least).
(2) More likely, Russian intelligence started an intelligence operation against Donald Trump around the time of the Miss Universe Pageant held in Moscow in November 2013. It would be consistent with known Russian intelligence conventions for them to target wealthy American with a known interest at the time in running for president. If they didn’t, I would ashamed of them.
(3) There is nothing in Donald Trump’s known personal code of conduct that rules out the possibility of a ‘pee-pee tape’ from his November 2013 trip to Moscow. I’d bet my left arm there is one. There is also no reason to believe Trump’s supporters (and potential supporters) would abandon him if such a tape were to surface.
(4) The Russians pursued an aggressive, multi-faceted campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And their efforts were focused on two outcomes: (a) creating division within the American electorate (like both U.S. political parties aren’t doing that already!) and (b) helping to get Trump elected.
(5) Trump campaign operatives, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, and, of course, George Papadopoulos, had verifiable connections to wealthy and politically-connected Russians. The Trump campaign was also decidedly aggressive in trying to find Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails.
None of that behavior is necessarily illegal, but these behaviors obviously opened each of them up to intelligence collection and manipulation by Russian intelligence. Were any of these Trump campaign operatives working “for” Russian intelligence? Highly unlikely (though Carter Page still seems a little odd to me).
(6) And, finally, Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. And did the Russian meddling make a difference? I encourage to read my quantitative analysis on that question, where I do find evidence that the Trump campaign’s digital efforts (which included work by Cambridge Analytica) were an important factor in solidifying Trump’s voter base, particularly voters that would have otherwise considered voting for Hillary Clinton.
So, that is what we know. What will happen next?
It will soon be Roger Stone’s time in the barrel
Media reports are emerging that Roger Stone is now the focus of the Mueller probe, at least until a Trump interview is arranged.
Stone’s uncanny ability to predict the release of the Wikileaks-published Podesta emails and his tendency to promote his important political contacts (e.g., Guccifer 2.0, Julian Assange, etc.) makes him hard to ignore, if you are Robert Mueller.
The truth about Stone and his contact with Wikileaks and Guccifer 2.0, however, is not quite as damning as Trump’s opponents would prefer; or, at least, that was my takeaway after reading The Atlantic’s Natasha Bertrand’s comprehensive rundown of Stone’s Wikileaks and Guccifer 2.0 communications. Stone is a blowhard and serial exaggerator and it is hard to believe anything he says.
As a political science graduate student in the late 1980s, one of my first research projects was documenting the rise of a new generation of political consultants, many of whom were associated with the Ronald Reagan presidential campaigns of 1980 and 1984. Perhaps the most infamous was the firm, BMSK & Associates, started in 1980 by Charles Black, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone (and later joined by Peter Kelly and a young pit viper from South Carolina named Lee Atwater).
[Side note: Reagan’s pollster, Richard Wirthlin, was the real strategic genius in the Reagan campaigns]
Black, Manafort and Stone were infamous to political consultant-wannabes like myself because they were so ruthless and unconnected to common rules of decency…and they didn’t hide it. They helped their political clients win through raw intimidation. Sound familiar?
The firm established their dark side reputation early in their history by representing notoriously brutal dictators such as Mohamed Siad Barre (Somalia), Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines), Mobutu Sese Seko (Zaire) and Jonas Savimbi (Angola).
British journalist Richard Dowden wrote of Mobutu Sese Seko’s reign in Zaire: “The CIA helped bring Mobutu Sese Seko to power to stop the pro-Moscow Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. Protected physically by Israeli security guards and financially by Washington, Mobutu turned the country into his personal fiefdom, treating the national treasury as his own bank account.”
But Angola’s Jonas Savimbi was even more cringe-worthy. During the Reagan administration, Savimbi’s UNITA movement was fighting to overthrow the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which was supported by the Soviet Union (with manpower assistance from Cuba). But even ardent Communism fighters in Reagan’s State Department, like the Secretary of State, George Schultz, found Savimbi’s methods for maintaining discipline in his ranks to be unacceptable. Along with executions, torture and the disappearance of any internal rivals, Savimbi also tolerated public witch burnings.
Just an example of the types of clients BMSK & Associates specialized in serving.
It is hardly a coincidence that Roger Stone and Paul Manafort joined the Trump campaign when they had a chance. These were two old war horses, no longer considered relevant by a political consulting community that generally likes to discard its elders when young mavericks touting the newest campaign methods are available. Political campaigns are a young person’s game and Stone and Manafort were no longer relevant in 2016…until Donald Trump, having won a series of early primaries for the Republican nomination, needed a credible campaign organization as fast as possible.
So entered two of the oiliest, money-hawking bastards to every run a major presidential campaign.
Documenting that period in the Trump campaign, filmmakers Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro, and Morgan Pehme released their documentary about Roger Stone, Get Me Roger Stone, to rave reviews for their unfiltered portrait of how Stone’s brand of dirty tricks defined the Trump campaign’s attitude.
As critical as I have been about the mainstream media’s frequently dishonest reporting of the Trump-Russia collusion story, there is no doubt Roger Stone and Paul Manafort are capable of such chicanery. But when one of the Get Me Roger Stone co-directors was recently asked on CNN if he believed Stone could have engineered the Trump-Russian collusion effort, he said, “Roger doesn’t have those kind of contacts in Russia.”
It is much more likely Stone was grasping for relevance in the 2016 election, using any connection he could conjure up to make him look important (and raise some cash).
How will this all end?
Regardless of the Mueller investigation’s final outcome, serious damage has been done to the American political system. This country will not be the same and neither political party and its staunchest partisans will emerge unscathed, to say nothing of the damage the news media has done to itself.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s decision to pass President Trump’s request for an investigation to the Department of Justice’s Inspector General is just a polite way of Rosenstein telling the president where he can stick his request.
Inspector General offices are the B-teams of criminal investigations within the federal government. Conservative radio’s Mark Levin is right when he calls for a special counsel to investigate the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign. Unless that happens, nothing significant will happen.
Who ultimately will lose when Mueller wraps up his final report?
(1) Donald Trump is the biggest loser. Independent of whether or not his campaign colluded with the Russians, his presidency is permanently handicapped by the constant drone of a hostile media and D.C. political class (the “swamp” if you prefer) that will never accept him as president. Mueller will have done his duty to Democratic partisans if he can extend his investigation through the 2018 midterms.
However, unless Mueller can offer up a video of Trump taking orders from his Russian handlers, there is nothing that is likely to come from the Mueller investigation that will force Trump to resign or be removed from office.
(2) The news media is the next big loser. When Trump fades away (and he will), the news media will have lost their money tree and will, instead, be left with a public image so tarnished by their collective dishonesty that even Manhattan’s corporate liberals won’t have any patience left for Rachel Maddow’s meandering monologues to nowhere.
If you still live under the fiction that the news media is doing a good job covering the Trump administration, just read journalist Glenn Greenwald’s incomplete list of instances when the U.S. press corps screwed up in their coverage of Donald Trump in 2017 (you can find his list here.)
When I think of the American press’ love for its war on Trump, I am reminded of Lt. Col. George Custer’s famous quote about war:
“You ask me if I will not be glad when the last battle is fought, so far as the country is concerned I, of course, must wish for peace, and will be glad when the war is ended, but if I answer for myself alone, I must say that I shall regret to see the war end.” —Lt. Col. George Custer
(3) The third big loser is the Republican Party’s establishment, led by Mitch McConnell, John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and the Bush family, who will all be culpable for their arrogant exploitation of their electoral base, working-class and evangelical Americans. For forty years, the Republicans ginned up religious, nationalist and ethnic fears in order to keep their base loyal; while, at the same time, pursued social, economic and military policies that ignored their interests. If you want to explain Donald Trump’s appeal, you start there.
(4) Finally, Barack Obama, and the corporatist Democrats that created him, will not be treated kindly by historians. History doesn’t reward whiners.
Barack Obama’s presidential legacy is in ashes; and, even if the Democrats take back control of the government in the next two and a half years (and I think they will), corporatist Democrats offer nothing substantive to think we are on the brink of a new, permanent Democratic majority. if you think Republican obstructionism was bad during the Obama years, wait and see what they’ll be like during the Kamala Harris administration.
I tire of Obama apologists bemoaning how little the Republicans worked with him during his eight years in office. Obama’s inability to work across the aisle was his failing, not the Republicans. If the U.S. had a parliamentarian system like the British, Obama would have been justifiably removed from office right after the midterm elections in 2010.
Hopefully, future presidents will reject the hubris of Obama’s famous brush-off of congressional Republicans when he told them soon after his 2008 victory that “elections have consequences.”
Yes, they do Mr. Obama. And everyone of those Republicans you insulted were elected too.
Will there be any good outcomes?
Hopefully, at least good outcome will arise from the Trump presidency. After four consecutive failed presidencies (Clinton, Bush Jr., Obama and Trump), it is time for Congress take back power usurped by the ever-creeping executive branch.
The days are hopefully over when a president can send Americans to war without congressional approval, enter international treaties without Senate approval, or re-write immigration policy on the whim of a presidential executive order.
Moreover, whether we call it the ‘deep state,’ ‘the permanent government,’ or just the mundane ‘federal bureaucracy,’ the unelected members of our executive branch have become too powerful and unaccountable. Our Founders established a democratic republic, but our democracy has evolved into a bureaucracy in service of oligarchs.
If, as a result of Trump’s time in office, the U.S. presidency were to once again be rendered a co-equal branch of government, a little Russian election meddling in 2016 was a small price to pay.
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