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A Sunny and Relatively Mild Weekend in the Ongoing “Russia Thing”

Except for Tiger Woods’ surprisingly near miss at the British Open and a scary hostage situation at a Trader John’s store in Los Angeles there wasn’t a lot of distracting news over the weekend, which left plenty of room in the news cycle for more talking head talk about the ongoing fall-out from President Donald Trump’s most recent foreign tour and the latest developments in the “Russia thing.”
One of our brothers is in town and the weather’s been as nice as one can hope for around here, so we might not have noticed if we hadn’t stopped by Kirby’s Beer Store for a couple of Pabst Blue Ribbons on Sunday afternoon. A lawyer friend of ours, the only regular at the notorious northeast dive with a juris doctorate, was staring at his “smartphone” and chuckling gleefully as he read the written argument that the Federal Bureau of Investigation made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to obtain various warrants to investigate a ¬†fellow named Carter Page way back when he was a little-known Trump campaign official in final days of the race against “Crooked” Hillary Clinton.
The document was mostly black lines of predictably redacted paragraphs, and our friend is a professional Democrat who owes his current low-level judicial position to his party’s meager number of appointments, but we’ve long known him to be one of the good guys and his arguments that that the un-redacted disproved Trump’s apologists proved convincing.
If you’re been obsessively following the whole convoluted “Russia thing” from either of the two available prospectives, you by now know that the FBI first got involved in the affair when it obtained those FISA court warrants, and that the Trump-ian perspective is that it was a worse-than-Watergate attempt to spy on the Trump campaign to benefit of “Crooked” Hillary’s effort, based only a discredited dossier by a foreign intelligence agent with Russian ties and paid for by “Crook” Hillary’s effort, along with a “fake news” article in some obscure internet site, along with other “deep state” shenanigans, but that’s all the harder to explain after the FBI made the highly unusual step on Saturday of publicly releasing even a heavily-redacted FISA warrant application.
As our Democratic friend undeniably points out, the document notes that the disputed dossier was produced by an English intelligence officer who had long proved a reliable source in many counter-intelligence operations, and frankly acknowledges the partisan funding of the document that talk radio had long insisted they concealed, which is more bi-partisan than talk radio wants to admit, and clearly hints that all the redacted parts probably reveal how the FBI had reason to suspect Page was an unregistered Russian agent even before he became one of candidate Trump’s top foreign policy advisors.
All the rest of it looks bad for Trump from our third perspective here on the political sidelines. That supposedly discredited dossier alleged the Russians were waging a three-pronged cyber-attack on the American election on behalf of Trump, and by now that’s the consensus conclusion of Trump’s very own top intelligence and defense and foreign policy appointees, and all the big social media companies and most of the country’s secretaries of state have confirmed two of those prongs with sworn testimony before congressional committees. The dossier also included some salacious and still-unsubstantiated about Russian prostitutes and rather unusual sexual fetishes, but given all the news about pay-offs to a Playboy playmate and and a porn star and the rest our president’s much-bragged about sexual adventuresome nothing seems unthinkable, and the warrants were renewed by Republican appointees to the Republican-created-and-renewed FISA courts during both Democratic and Republican administrations..
Not to mention all the fallout from that foreign trip when Trump was conspicuously friendlier to Russian than he was to America’s traditional allies and his own top national intelligence and defense and foreign policy appointees.
None of this convicts Trump of any impeachable high crime or misdemeanor, of course, but we think our Democratic friend is justified in exulting that it all means the “Russia thing” investigation will continue on its ominous course.

— Bud Norman

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Trump’s Tough Stretch of News

Although he got in another lucrative weekend of golfing and socializing at his warm and sunny Mar-a-Lago resort, the last few days have not been kind to President Donald Trump. The team owned by his best friend in the National Football League was upset in the Super Bowl, the release of a much ballyhooed congressional memo did not completely vindicate him in the “Russia thing,” and suddenly the stock markets are in a swoon.
Trump will probably get over the Super Bowl soon enough, and maybe even score some political points against the winning players who have already announced they’ll skip a White House visit, but the ongoing “Russia thing” and the recent woes on Wall Street are more troublesome.
The president had hoped that a four page memo penned by the staff of die-hard Trump apologist and California Rep. Devin Nunes would persuade the American people to to demand an end to all the ongoing investigations into the “Russia thing,” and he got his wish with a certain portion of the public. All the right wing talk radio talkers and the rest of the die-hard Trump apologists relished the unsurprising revelation that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had used the “salacious and unverified” dossier of evidence compiled by a foreigner with money from the Democratic National Committee and the campaign of its presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to obtain an early warrant in the investigation from a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. Sean Hannity even found that sufficient reason to demand that special counsel Robert Mueller’s snooping around cease and the indictments he’s already obtained again Trump’s campaign manager another high-ranking campaign official be dropped and the guilty pleas he’s already forced from Trump’s former national security adviser and a campaign foreign policy advisor be rescinded.
Alas, the rest of the public was more skeptical and Hannity’s demands are unlikely to be met. The more Trump-skeptical media noted the memo acknowledged that the Federal Bureau of Investigation started snooping around when an Australian official tipped them off that a drunken Trump campaign foreign policy advisor had been boasting in a London Pub about all the dirt his candidate was getting from the Russians, that still-classified material other than the information compiled by a respected former British intelligence agent was also submitted to the court, and that in any case the warrants were reauthorized by other FISA courts based on the finding they were yielding important evidence. The notion of a “deep state” conspiracy against Trump to stage a “coup” with “fake news” was always a hard sell, given that it involves Republican-appointed FBI agents seeking warrants from the Republican-appointed judges on FISA courts that the Republicans established and just last week voted to renew, and the four pages that Nunes’ staffers penned didn’t make the case.
Nunes also admits that neither he nor his staffers actually read the classified case that the FBI made for its FISA warrants, and everyone who has is saying that the memo is misleading. That includes the FBI chief that Trump appointed, and the impeccably Republican South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, who was a right wing talk radio hero just a couple of years ago for his dogged investigation of Clinton’s embarrassing role in the deadly Benghazi debacle. Gowdy was the only House Republican who got too look at the classified warrant application because Nunes had been forced to more or less recluse himself from the whole “Russia thing” after some embarrassing antics, and he told the media that “There is a Russia investigation without a dossier.” Listing off a number of reasons to snoop into the “Russia thing,” he accurately noted “To the extent the memo deals with the dossier and the FISA process, the dossier has nothing to do with the meeting at Trump Tower. The dossier has nothing to with an email sent by Cambridge Analytica. The dossier really has nothing to do with George Papadopoulos’ meeting in Great Britain. It also doesn’t have anything to do with obstruction of justice.”
Gowdy is one of several Republicans who aren’t seeking reelection, so be’s free to be so frank, but even some of his partisan colleagues who are hoping for another term are also distancing themselves from the Nunes memo. Several Republicans have signaled the support of a rebuttal memo penned by California Rep. Adam Schiff, who has seen the classified warrant application and seems a far smarter fellow than Nunes, and the “Russia thing” will surely linger.
Meanwhile the stock market has been plummeting, and for now that’s an even bigger problem for Trump.
By the sometimes perverse logic of the stock markets, the bad news is being driven by good news and might turn out in the long run to be good news. After an historically long run to record levels the markets are apparently worried the currently low unemployment rates and slight upticks in economy activity and long-forestalled wage increases will cause the Federal Reserve Board to slightly raise the rates on the historically inexpensively obtained money that has been fueling it, lest inflation rear its ugly head, and there’s a strong case to be made that a long-forestalled and much-needed market corrections is needed to forestall the inevitable next crash until after you’re dead. Trump will be hard-pressed, though, to make such a complicated argument.
Trump will quite plausibly claim that the recent stock market downturn is not his fault, but his critics will provably point out that he was always willing to take credit for the recent record highs. He “tweeted” about it 56 times, boasted about it in public pronouncements far more often, including that long-forgotten State of the Union speech he gave just a week or so ago, and for now he’s deprived of a favorite bragging point. He could turn on a dime and make the populist claim that he’ll gladly trade a workingman’s pay hike for some fat-cat investor’s coupon-clipping, and brag about how he prescient he was back in the campaign when he claimed the record stock market highs of President Barack Obama’s administration were just a great big bubble about to burst, but after all the boasts about those Wall Street records and given Trump’s limited vocabulary it’s a very complicated argument to make.
The sorts of people who do grasp such complicated economic arguments immediately recognize the Fed’s complicated role in all of this, and are probably aware that Trump has recently appointed its new chairman. The previous chairman was chairwoman Janet Yellen, who was generally well regarded by by all the smart people with the smart money for her open spigot policies in the early stages of recovery from the 2008 recession and gradual reductions during the slower-than-usual but longer-than-ever recovery that lasted through Trump’s first year.
It’s a longstanding presidential tradition to appoint a generally well-regarded Fed chairman to a second term regardless of the party that had made the first appointment, but Trump isn’t much for longstanding presidential traditions and to replace Yellen with his own guy. Of course Trump chose a guy, Jerome Powell, but he’s a former under secretary for domestic finance at the Treasury Department and is widely expected to be the same sort of apolitical number-crunching policy wonk as Yellen, and along with all the stock holders we’ll be eager to see how he responds. Trump is probably wondering, too, as it will be hard to blame Yellen for a downturn that began shortly after she was replaced by Trump.
Our hope is that the stock markets and the broader economy both continue to fitfully prosper, and our expectation is that if it does Trump will take credit for it, and that if it doesn’t he’ll accept no blame. We wish Trump well with that whole “Russia thing,” too, but we hope that truth will prevail and expect that the special counsel will find plenty of it.

— Bud Norman