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Fusion GPS Goes Public at Last

One of the main subplots of the “Russia thing” soap opera, in case you haven’t been paying attention, is a dossier of information compiled by a former British intelligence agent alleging that President Donald Trump had a long history of shady business dealings with various Russian organizations and that the Russian government worked diligently to get him elected. It also had some very salacious stories about Russian prostitutes, which delighted all the late night comics, and it’s gotten a lot of attention.
To Trump’s die-hard defenders, what was scandalous about the dossier was its very existence. Although it was first commissioned by the right-of-center Washington Free Beacon, which was hoping to stave off Trump’s insurgent campaign for the Republican party’s presidential nomination, and then funded by some unknown Republican donor who still held out faint hope in latter stages of the primary race, it was eventually funded by the Democratic National Committee and the campaign of Hillary Clinton, and that’s enough to taint it on talk radio. The former British intelligence agent relied on the sources he’d developed as the MI6 agency’s top Moscow spy, and apparently that’s what Trump means when claims that Clinton and the Democrats colluded with the Russians. There were a couple of quickly proved errors, too, and much was hard to verify.
What Trump’s defenders called the “dodgy dossier” or the “debunked dossier” and even the mainstream news is now calling the “infamous dossier” quickly became it’s own scandal. It was alleged that the dossier was the evidence presented to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to open the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s counter-intelligence probe into Russian meddling in the American presidential election, and therefore all of its findings should are the fruit of a poisoned tree. Last summer that Republicans on the Senate intelligence committee hauled in the top two people at Fusion GPS, the private investigating firm started by former Wall Street Journal investigative reporters that had hired the former British intelligent agent, and grilled them for ten straight hours of a closed hearing. Information about the testimony was leaked that allowed the talk radio hosts to paint the pair as a couple of conspirators out to smear Trump’s stellar reputation, and their dossier as “dodgy” and “debunked” and at the very least “infamous.”
On Monday the top two Republicans on the Senate intelligence committee, chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, even referred that British intelligence agent to federal law enforcement for criminal investigation. That was apparently a step two far one of the committee’s top Democrats, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who audaciously defied her Republican colleagues and longstanding tradition by releasing all 300 pages of that long ago testimony by the two guys at Fusion GPS.
The two guys at Fusion GPS had always insisted their testimony be made public, and so had a lot of other people who suspected that they’d made a better case for themselves than the talk radio talkers suggested with the selectively leaked information. As it turns out, it’s clear why they wanted the testimony made public and the Republicans didn’t.
They credibly deny any political motivations, rightly noting they offer their opposition research services to both Republicans and Democrats, testified they found reasons to believe federal law enforcement also had sources warning of Russian meddling in the election, and noted that Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence agent they’d hired, had an excellent reputation with America’s intelligence agencies. Recent reports suggest that one of those sources was the Australian ambassador to the United States, who reported to the American former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Popadopoulos had been drinking with him one evening and bragged that his candidate had dirt on his Democratic rival straight from the Russian government, reports indicate that others who listen in on Russian calls had passed along similar warnings, and that happened before Steele started snooping around.
We’re not clear what criminal acts Grassley and Graham think that Steele might have committed, but he doesn’t seem convincing as the bad guy in the whole “Russia thing.” Despite the aforementioned quickly proved errors in what he frankly acknowledged was raw and unfinished intelligence gathering, and even though a lot of it has not yet been verified by a subpoena-wielding special counsel probe, much of it holds up well. Steele’s early allegation that the Russians were making a concerted effort to help Trump in the election is now the consensus opinion of America’s intelligence community, Trump’s Central Intelligence director has blamed the Russians for the hacking of the DNC, his Department of Homeland Security has acknowledged Russian hacking attempts on 20 state election offices, all the social media sites have testified to Congress that the Russians used them to spread propaganda, and Trump himself begrudgingly mumbles his slightly equivocating agreement. Steele called the FBI to warn them of Russian meddling, which is more than Donald Trump Jr. did when some Russians he knew to be connected to the Kremlin offered dirt on Clinton, and even the talk radio conspiracy theories are based on the assumption that his word was good enough for the FBI and the FISA court.
There’s also been a lot of solid reporting by respected publications and broadcast programs around the world that backs up Steele’s accounts of Trump’s shady dealings with Russians, the aforementioned idiot Trump Jr. has bragged to the press about all the Russian money flowing into the family’s still wholly-owned businesses, and the special counsel team of investigators includes some lawyers famed for their past money-laundering and Russian mob prosecutions. The special counsel already has a couple of guilty pleas, including the aforementioned idiot Papadopoulos, as well Trump’s short-lived and very Russia-connected national security advisor Mike Flynn, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is currently contesting a variety of Russia-related charges, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner is clearly in the investigative cross-hairs, and the special counsel has reportedly requested an interview with Trump himself.
Trump’s lawyers will probably protect him from anything short of some written answers to written questions, and his defenders on “Fox & Friends” and talk radio and the Senate intelligence committee will surely come up with some spin, but from our seat on the sidelines the “Russia thing” doesn’t seem likely to end soon. We’ll not venture any predictions how it all turns out, and it may all turn out to be a grand conspiracy between the “deep state” and the “globalists” to prevent Trump from making American great again, but we don’t expect that those Fusion GPS guys and that former British intelligence agent turn out to be the bad guys.

— Bud Norman

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A Red Herring Twist in the Russia Story

One of the recent revelations about the “Russia” thing is that the Democratic National Committee helped pay for the now famous dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent that alleged President Donald Trump had fishy financial dealings with the Russian government and even fishier dealings with certain other Russians. All the top-rated conservative talk radio shows and other Trump-friendly media were giddy about the story, first reported by the oh-so liberal establishment Washington Post, and Trump also claimed vindication, but it doesn’t strike us as much of big deal.
Any thoughtful observer assumed there was some Democratic involvement in the dossier when it first became known, the hippy-dippy but reliably factual Mother Jones magazine first confirmed it a full year ago, and all those top-rated conservative talk radio shows and other Trump-friendly media have been telling their audience about it all along. The knowledge hasn’t yet made the “Russia” thing go away, nor the dossier’s numerous allegations about it, and probably won’t now. Recent attempts to turn “Russia” into a Democratic scandal also seem destined for failure.
The highly ethical sensibilities of all those talk radio shows and other Trump-friendly media are deeply offended that the Democrats would stoop so low as to pay for opposition research on a Republican opponent, but this is hypocrisy too obvious for the public at large not to notice. Way back when Donald Trump Jr. was was forced by The New York Times to release an e-mail chain that showed a Russian lawyer explicitly offering the Trump campaign dirt on the Democratic nominee straight from the Russian government, and Trump Jr. agreeing to a meeting with an exclamatory “I love it,” the party line was that politics ain’t bean bag and of course everyone does opposition research.
The president’s defense of his son was that “most people would have taken that meeting,” even if it was a representative of a hostile foreign power offering something of value that campaign laws clearly prohibit campaigns from accepting, so its hard to share his current indignation that the Democrats paid for a British private investigator to snoop around his Russian connections. None of the Trump-hating liberal media seem have to mentioned it yet, but even such old-fashioned Republicans as ourselves recall when Trump claimed he had hired a team of private investigators to look into President Barack Obama’s birthplace, and “tweeted” that “they can’t believe what they’re finding.” Trump later declared that “Obama was born in Hawaii, period,” and took credit for at long last putting any scurrilous rumors otherwise to rest, and in his defense we have to admit he probably never did hire any private investigators, but his suddenly puritan views about opposition research still look ridiculous.
The dossier is still largely unsubstantiated, as all the establishment media routinely admit, but by no means discredited, as the Trump-friendly media always describe it, and the fact that the Democrats helped pay for doesn’t change that. Every sort of conservative  has always insisted that just because a study skeptical of climate change was paid for by an energy company or some analysis of tax policy was paid for by rich people doesn’t mean the findings are necessarily valid, and that the data and methodology should be judged on their merits, so we’ll judge the dossier accordingly. So far a few niggling errors have been found, other parts have been corroborated by the media and the intelligence, the more salacious details have largely been ignored except by the gleeful Trump-hating late night comics, who have a collectively far larger audience than all those top-rated conservative talk radio shows, and for now we’re keeping an open mind about all of it.
The year-old Mother Jones scoop and the more ballyhooed report of the past week by The Washington Post both say that the dossier first started with funding from a Republican donor backing one of the many non-Trump candidates in the party primaries, who cut off the money after Trump won the nomination, and the Democrats then pitched in for a while, and after that the British private investigator continued the work on his own because he thought the entire world needed to know what he was finding out. No one on the left or right is disputing any of this, and on the right they’re speculating about which Republican from the hated Republican establishment would do such a thing, with Trump telling reporters that he has his own guesses he might reveal later, and it any case it doesn’t really matter.
Meanwhile the congressional and special counsel investigations into “Russia” continue, the unfriendly-to-Trump media keep coming up with incriminating and convincing stories about something fishy with the “Russia” thing, and we’ll try to continue looking with a open mind at the data and methodology as it all unfolds.

— Bud Norman

The Plot Thickens

Pity the poor fellows who have to come up with the next best-selling cloak-and-dagger novel or big-budget spy movie screenplay. Such a staid source as The New York Times is reporting that the former British intelligence agent who compiled the dossier with the salacious allegations about the president-elect that was included in the classified yet widely read reports of Russia’s meddling in the recent election has now gone missing, and even the likes of Ian Fleming or John Le Carre would be hard pressed to top that plot twist in the latest reality show thriller.
The plot was already plenty complicated, even if you’re sticking with the most staid sources and not looking into the conspiracy theory sites, where the even the most fevered imaginings no longer seem so far-fetched. By now even even president-elect Donald Trump admits that he thinks it was probably the Russians who hacked and leaked some Democratic operatives’ e-mails and otherwise meddled in the past presidential election, but he’s still holding out hope that it wasn’t and in any case he scoffs at the idea it had anything to do with his victory and urges the American people to get on with their lives, and he seems mostly angry with the American intelligence agencies who have been leaking their conclusions about Russia’s meddling to the press, and of course with the press that has been reporting the leaks. Then came that dossier compiled by the former British intelligence agent full of salacious allegations that no one can very and no one can stop talking about, and after sitting on the news of its existence for months the press had to acknowledge it after it was included in the high-level briefings about the whole Russia thing, and Trump’s further outrage with both the intelligence agencies and the press has only made it harder not to talk about.
Now the former MI6 operative who compiled the dossier, reportedly at first with funding from some of Trump’s Republican primary opponents and their backers and then from the Democrats and ultimately for his own reasons, has gone missing, so the conspiracy theorists should have fun with that. There was already a wide range of theories, ranging from far-left to far-right, with some theorizing that Trump is indeed a puppet of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin because of debts to the Russian mob or the blackmail scenario alleged in the dossier, others arguing that Trump is being undermined by his own country’s intelligence agencies in order to prevent him from dismantling some corrupt and hidden power structure, and other contending that Russia is playing its best prank yet. At a time when the president-elect has alleged his predecessor was foreign-born and the previous president and the nation’s intelligence agencies lied America into a war for some unknown reason and that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s father was in on the Kennedy assassination, all seem at least somewhat plausible.
All that talk about Trump owing debts to Russia and his son’s past statement that a lot of the family financing was coming from there will surely be put to rest when he releases his tax records, and all those salacious allegations in the dossier are dubious enough that even the late night comics are acknowledging that they are unverified even as they endlessly riff on the golden opportunities it presents, but there has to be some explanation for Trump’s out-in-the-open mutual admiration with Putin. Trump argues that it’s because friendly relations with Russia will help America defeat the Islamic State restrain Chinese ambitions, which is arguable, but there’s also an argument to be made that Russia has been less interested in defeating than Islamic State than in propping up the mass-murdering Syrian dictatorship that is aligned with the same Iranian apocalyptic suicide cult that Trump has vowed to get tough with, and that his threatened tariff on Chinese goods is going to cost his working class supporters another 45 percent on every trip to Wal-Mart, and that friendship with the nascent democracies of the former Soviet Union is more honorable and desirable than friendship with the oppressive kleptocracy that now threatens to re-conquer them.
By now we’ve all seen enough Hollywood movies to know that the intelligence agencies might just be out to get Trump, though, and there’s no denying that they have from time to time been up to some pretty nasty business. They have an obvious motivation to dislike Trump, who had made his contempt for them quite clear throughout the campaign. and we can easily imagine that they leaked their conclusions about Russia’s meddling with a certain glee. There’s still the matter of whether their conclusions were correct or not, although even Trump now says he probably thinks so, and the related question of whether the public has a right to know about, which Trump had no problem with when Democrats’ alleged scandals were being leaked, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any spook agency malice involved. Trump has likened the leaks to something from Nazi Germany, which seems a been overblown, given that none of Nazi Germany’s intelligence were leaking anything about the great leader who was going to make Germany great again, but as the old joke goes just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.
Our favorite of the conspiracy theories is the one about the Russians playing a prank. The once-highly respected former British intelligence agent who compiled the dossier was once the Russian expert for the MI6, a name familiar to any James Bond fan, and after leaving Her Majesty’s Secret Service he made a good living selling advice to western corporations and businessmen about how to deal with Russia’s highly complicated graft system, and there’s much speculation that his previously reliable sources fed him a lot of nonsense about Trump that would seem so highly dubious that all the talk about Trump being a Putin puppet would be ridiculed, and people would stop wondering why Trump’s foreign policy was so suspiciously friendly to Russia. If that was the plan, at least they’ve stopped any substantive debate regarding the merits of Trump’s stated intentions, and all the late night comics are telling kinky sex jokes instead.
Various other conspiracists are theorizing that the spy agencies and their brief cases full of high-tech gadgets will somehow prevent will Trump from being sworn into office, but at least we’ll know within a week if that proves true. It should be a while longer before we know what’s become of that former British intelligence agent, but our guess is that he’s holed up somewhere avoiding interviews and waiting for the highest bid from the publishing houses and movie studios.

— Bud Norman

Trump Meets the Press

Watching Donald Trump’s first press conference as president-elect, we were reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s apocryphal theater review that advised “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” Those who voted for Trump because they like his abrasive and combative style were no doubt pleased by the performance, but those who voted for him in spite of it because he wasn’t Hillary Clinton, and the plurality of voters who went ahead and voted for Clinton, and the majority of the country that voted for someone other than Trump or didn’t vote at all were probably less entertained.
Back during the interminable and still seemingly ongoing presidential campaign Trump always revved up the crowds by taunting the penned-in print and radio and television and internet contingent, whom the Trump rally crowds were already predisposed to hate with a red-hot passion, and he brought the same confrontational attitude to his first full-blown post-election press conference. He opened by boasting that “I think we probably maybe won the nomination because of news conferences and it’s good to be with you,” but in the next sentence explained “We stopped giving them because we were getting quite a bit of inaccurate news.”
Just in case you hadn’t heard the gossip about Trump and Russian prostitutes and kinky sex acts and unfulfilled real estate deals, which Trump alleged was “nonsense that was released maybe by the intelligence agencies? Who knows,” he then took the opportunity to thank all the news outlets that hadn’t reported on what he had already “tweeted” were Nazi-like efforts by America’s intelligence agencies to undermine his legitimacy. That was followed by some boasting about all the American companies that are staying put for fear of Trump’s border tax-imposing wrath, how he’s also cowed the entire military-industrial complex out of cost overruns, a threat to do the same thing to “pharma,” yet another promise to be “the greatest jobs producer that God ever created,” a boast about how the great the inauguration will be and how he’s booked all the best bands that the military has to offer, and announcement that some guy would be in charge of the Veterans administration, all of which probably bored even his most ardent fans. Then he opened himself to questions, and that’s when the latest installment of this reality show finally got to the good part.
The first questions naturally pertained what the questioner carefully and obliquely referred to as “these unsubstantiated allegations” about Russian prostitutes and kinky sex acts and unfulfilled real estate deals, and whether the intelligence agencies had given him a heads-up on the reports eventually splashed all over the internet, and also whether Trump still doubted the intelligence agency’s unanimous conclusion that Russia had meddled for some reason or another in the election. Trump claimed he couldn’t answer because of highly classified confidentiality stuff, then said he read all of whatever it was, presumably about Russian prostitutes and kinky sex and all the rest of it nobody explicitly mention, and went on to say that “It’s phony stuff. It’s all fake news. It’s phony stuff. It didn’t happen. And it was gotten by opponents of ours, as you know, because you reported it and so many of the other people. It was a group of opponents that got that together — sick people — and they put that crap together.”
That now-famous dossier of putative crap apparently was put together by a former British intelligence official and a former muckraking journalist who now sell their services on the open market, and it was originally Republican but then Democratic buyers who paid to begin their “opposition research” on Trump, and although its too-good-not-to-talk-about allegations are very much unverified and seems to have some flaws it was nonetheless splashed across the internet by a previously little-known site called Buzzfeed.com, which carefully acknowledged that the information it was disseminating was “unverified.” Mentioning the site by name, Trump said “It’s frankly outrageous and highly irresponsible for a left-wing blog that was openly hostile to the president-elect’s campaign to drop a highly salacious and flat-out false information on the internet just before he takes office.” Most of last of the big city newspapers and television networks, who were well of the story that they knew was being circulated in congress and included intelligence networks but decided to sit on it more or less agreed, and given all the seeming flaws in some of the allegations it seems likely Trump also be able to boast of victory over some site called Buzzfeed.com.
The slightly more formidable CNN aired and posted on the internet a report about the undeniable fact that some site called Buzzfeed.com had splashed all that salacious talk over the intent, just as we’re now doing, and they stressed that the information they were reporting on was unverified and that it contained some seeming flaws, just as we do, but they also noted that the British intelligence agent and the muckraking journalist for-hire had pretty good reputations, and that the three biggies of America’s intelligence agency had included their findings in reports to by the out-going and in-coming presidents, which also strikes us as newsworthy, and they tried to put it in the broader context of the longstanding and still ongoing story about Trump’s seeming “bromance” with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, which we’ve also been wondering about.
Obviously we find no particular with fault with CNN in this case, despite all our other numerous complaints with the network over the years, but Trump singled them out for the same “garbage” criticism as Buzzfeed.com. He even got into one of those reality show-worthy shouting matches with the poor schmuck from CNN, snarling “Your organization is terrible,” “quiet,” “don’t be rude,” and “I’m not going to give you a question.” He didn’t have the fellow roughly evicted from the hall, although there was a tantalizing hint of that possibility that will surely keep viewers tuned in, and he had a sort of mini-rally of supporters cheering on the exchange, no doubt along with all those people who voted for Trump because he’s willing it to stick to punch back against all those smart aleck reporters, but it left us with a queasy feeling.
We only watch CNN when we’re stuck in an airport terminal and only read it on the internet when it breaks a story, and we didn’t vote for either Trump or Clinton, but we’re still rooting for the free press and skeptical public that was badly need over the past eight years and will surely be needed over the next four. A shouting match with a member of that hated mainstream media will endear Trump to his already enamored supporters, but conservatives and liberals and the more sensible types who didn’t vote for him or did so only for fear of Hillary Clinton will still want to know how Trump will be separating himself from the vast and as-yet unlocked business holdings he has around the world, and how Obamacare will differ from Trumpcare, and if it’s not Russian prostitutes and kinky sex acts and unfulfilled real estates or something else hidden in Trump’s still-undisclosed tax returns then what is the deal with his weird “bromance” with Putin? Trump finally admitted that he thinks probably maybe Russia did do all the hacking that wound up in those intelligence reports no one should know about, except for the parts about Hillary Clinton that got all the attention, but he didn’t seem nearly so angry about it as he was about CNN.
None of Trump’s answers on those questions were at all reassuring to us, and although we hold out hope that something better than Obamacare will come of all this we’re thinking that Trump’s plan to let his kids run the shop for the time being is bound to raise some constitutional issues, and even without any salacious talk about prostitutes and kinky sex we’re still worried about Trump’s obvious affinity for Putin, so even though we hate the media as much as the next guy we’re hoping that someone will keep asking.

— Bud Norman