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Another Round of Dueling Scandals

One tale of Russian intrigue is tough enough to follow, but there are two of them running in the news lately, both quite convoluted, they intertwine in all sorts of hard-to-follow ways. There’s really no one to root for, too, and so far no one seems to know anything for sure. There have lately been plot twists in both tales, and they only make things more confusing.
The first story concerns the Russian government’s alleged attempts to interfere with the American presidential election, and alleged collusion with those efforts by the campaign of President Donald Trump, which if true is undeniably a big deal. All the intelligence agencies have concluded the Russians did meddle in the race, although they wisely decline to say if it any effect on the outcome, even if all the leaks and other efforts alleged did seem aimed against Trump’s challenger, because she was so awful a candidate that no one could say with any certainty, and even committees in the Republican-controlled Congress agree the matter deserves further investigation. There’s less consensus about the allegations of Trump or his associates colluding with the meddling, but there’s ample evidence of business ties between state-controlled Russian interests and several of Trump’s associates, as well as countless contacts with Russian officials that were suspicious enough they were lied about, and a past campaign manager and National Security Advisor have already been defenestrated as a result and the Attorney General has been gladly forced to recuse himself from the whole mess. The latest revelation from The Washington Post is that yet another meeting between Trump’s transition team and Russian officials was arranged by the United Arab Emirates, which might or might not be anything nefarious, but it’s surely further proof that the story isn’t going away any time soon no matter how much Trump and his more stubborn supporters might wish it so.
Meanwhile, though, there’s always the ongoing saga of how President Barack Obama’s administration alleged meddled in the election. That all began one early morning when Trump “tweeted” the allegation that Obama — a “Bad (or Sick)” person — had wire-tapped Trump Tower during the “very sacred election process,” and it’s been mutating into an exponentially endless number of stories ever since. So far there’s absolutely no evidence offered by anyone at all that Obama literally wire-tapped Trump Tower, and the White House spokespeople have gone to great lengths to emphasize that of course Trump did not mean that allegation literally, but there has been reason to believe the more carefully vague claim that there was some sort of shenanigans going on. All the post-election leaks have indeed been damaging to Trump, some have surely violated some classified information law or another, and all have come from the kinds of federal government employees who have access to such information and probably preferred to Obama to Trump. Long before anyone considered the possibility of a Trump administration there were stories about Obama’s administration tapping the phones of Fox News and Associated Press reporters, as well as collecting phone information on just about everybody, which came to light after another leak the Russkies were probably in on, and they were also caught in enough big and small lies that almost anything seems possible, even all those talk-radio and YouTube theories about a “deep state” plot to destroy a populist threat.
The latest twist in this plot is that former Obama administration National Security Advisor Susan Rice has been unmasked as the woman who “unmasked” defenestrated Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and other Trump associates in the widely leaked accounts of wire-tapped conservations with Russian officials. Those Trump associates weren’t being wire-tapped, by all accounts, but the Russians officials they were conserving with were under surveillance, so the wire-tapping was “incidental contact” and thus legal and justified by the most strict Republican standards, but “unmasking” the identity of American citizens overhead in such circumstances requires legal justifications that weren’t met to Republican standards, so it was all the talk on the right-wing redoubts of talk radio and YouTube. It didn’t help that it was Rice, well known for peddling such big Obama-era lies as the Benghazi fiasco being the result of an obscure YouTube video rather than the administration’s utterly incompetent handling of the entire Libyan fiasco, or Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl being a sympathetic hero rather than a deserter the administration traded five high-level terror leaders for, and that she was careful to say that any unmasking was “absolutely not for any political purposes.” At this point we wouldn’t anything past the Obama administration, but by now we know better than to try to prove that any of it was for a political purpose.
We don’t mind the government listening in on Russian officials no matter which party controls the executive branch, and we understand the reasons for classified information and protections, but we also appreciate knowing if someone in the government is involved in any shenanigans no matter which party is currently in power, and at the moment we wouldn’t put anything past anybody, so we’re following both plots through all the obligatory investigations with a desultory interest. We’ll venture no guesses how either story might end, except that as always the Russians don’t turn out to be the good guys and nobody winds up a unblemished hero.

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Who’s Bugging Who?

There’s all sorts of consequential politics going on these days to keep a president busy, what with repealing Obamacare and replacing it with Trumpcare and passing a thus-far unpopular budget and whatnot, but that’s all pretty dry stuff and involves a lot of math. Which makes it all the harder to turn one’s gaze away from the far juicier ongoing allegations coming from all directions about all sorts of international espionage and high-tech skullduggery and assorted movie-worthy twists. Monday alone provided enough plot twists to fill up several sequels.
The already convoluted plot plot started way back during the past presidential election, when Republican nominee Donald Trump was praising the strength of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s leadership and shrugging off the occasional extra-judicial killing and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign was taking a hit from some embarrassing e-mails that had been suspiciously hacked, and suspicious sorts started wondering if that was entirely coincidental. The resignation of Trump’s campaign manager after business ties to a Russia-friendly Ukrainian were revealed and the resignation of a foreign policy advisor for similar reasons did nothing to quell the suspicions, and neither did Trump’s still-unreleased tax returns, and although he nonetheless became President Donald Trump the news hasn’t helped much. His already-controversial National Security Advisor had to resign after a few days on the job because he’d lied to the Vice President about having been in contact with Russian officials, his already-controversial Attorney General recused himself from any role of a potential investigation into the matter of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials after similar revelations, and the late night comics and other conspiracy theorists have been having a ball with it.
Trump, of course, has been doing the counter-punching he so boastfully prides himself on. On an early morning a couple of weeks ago he “tweeted” a series allegations that past President Barack Obama had tapped his phone lines at Trump Tower, which, if true, would truly be worse than the Watergate scandal that Trump mentioned. That was immediately followed by a “tweet” ridiculing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s paltry ratings on “The Apprentice,” the reality show Trump starred in prior to his presidency, but the president still stands by his allegations. His press secretary has since explained that Trump had taken care to put quotation remarks around “wire tapped” to emphasize that he didn’t literally mean that Obama had tapped his wires, and occasional spokeswoman and former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway further explained that he could have meant that Obama was spying on Trump through the Trump Tower microwave oven, and of course the late night comics have been having even more of a ball with it. Subsequent “tweets” and presidential interviews have promised that would proof would be forthcoming, and that his Republican allies in Congress would provide it through hearings, but so far that has not happened.
Trump still has plenty of supporters in the comments sections of all the internet stories about all of this, and is still cheered on by some old-time Republicans who should know enough to at least hedge their bets with some skepticism, but Monday provided another public relations beating. Those Republican allies in Congress have thus far admitted they don’t have any proof to back up Trump’s allegations, and on Monday they invited Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey to testify that the allegations are untrue and that the Department of Justice has authorized him to say so, and that he was also authorized to says investigations of Russia’s meddling in the past election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign was ongoing, and in the absence of any classified documents that a president could unilaterally un-classify that was bound to be Tuesday’s big headline and the punchline of all the late night jokes.
The more determined Trump apologists will continue to explain how a “deep state” shadow government is still doing the bidding of Obama, and they’ll be quite right that Obama’s administration tapped so many phones and did so many shadowy things over eight years that you can’t put anything past them, and we’ve seen enough Hollywood movies to always be suspicious about those intelligence agencies, but such old-school Republicans are ourselves still expect some proof. All those intelligence agencies and their more boring bureaucratic colleagues are clearly opposed to Trump for reasons different than our own, all the leaks lately have clearly served their agenda, and there’s still some reason to keep most classified information classified, but for now we’re still waiting for proof of Obama’s worse-than-Watergate behavior and something in the way of usual financial disclosure to assure us that Trump’s seeming Russophilia is just bad ideology and not something to do with the global business empire that Trump still owns.
Which is a shame, as far as old-fashioned Republicans such as ourselves are concerned, because Obamacare really does need to be repealed and there’s still some hope that the old-fashioned Republicans left in office will be able to come up with something too imperfect for any hyperbole but at least better than what we’ve got. We find a lot to like in that unpopular budget proposal, too, and would even be cheering if a Republican president had the extra amount of guts to take aim at the popular entitlement programs that are driving the national debt to eventual bankruptcy. Fiscal solvency and other matters requiring hard choices and hard math are always a hard sell, and all the harder when you squander your credibility with claims that are never proved and only cast further lingering suspicion on yourself.
Trump’s supporters can also rightly note that none of his critics’ have yet proved their most damning allegations, but at this moment in the news cycle the claims are at least as plausible as that story about Sen. Ted Cruz’ dad being in on the Kennedy hit and President George W. Bush lying the country into the Iraq War that Trump was never for, or that one about Obama being born in Kenya that Trump took credit for putting to rest, and these days it all a needless distraction. At this point we want Trump to put up or shut up, disprove his conspiracy-minded critics with full financial disclosure and an independent investigation, then lay off the “tweets” and get on with all the boring but consequential stuff.

— Bud Norman

No Returns from the Tax Returns

As a general rule tax returns are pretty dull reading, but President Donald Trump is an exception to an awful lot of rules, so of course there was was some interest in the two pages of his 2005 filing that was somehow intriguingly leaked. There wasn’t enough in those two pages to justify some of the resulting coverage, as it turns out, but the resulting hubbub is also newsworthy.
The two purloined pages were reportedly mailed to a journalist and published Trump biographer of little renown, then passed on to Rachel Maddow of the MSNBC cable news network, whose program relentlessly hyped the finding for hours and then spent a full 20 minutes of the long-awaited showtime in further build up before disclosing that there’s really nothing very embarrassing to Trump in the two pages. It was revealed that Trump paid $38 million in income taxes that year, which was more than most Americans did, and it represented a percentage of his income greater than what President Barack Obama or self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders forked over, and there was nothing about deductions claimed for contributions to the Russian mob or anything like that.
We’d call it the biggest journalistic anticlimax since Geraldo Rivera broke into Al Capone’s vault, but by now every other media in the critic in the country has already beat us to the analogy. All the ancien regime media cringed in embarrassment, and even such a fellow Trump-bashing liberal as the late night comedian Stephen Colbert couldn’t resist some piercing ridicule. Maddow is the most impeccably liberal voice on television’s most impeccably liberal channel, which has lately been racking up record ratings as liberals seek a “safe place,” but her fellows liberals are understandably miffed about how she muffed the far bigger story they still have hopes for.
Those tax returns reveal Trump would have paid even more if not for something called the Alternative Minimum Tax, which his tax reform proposals would repeal, but that’s a rather arcane policy point, and even such Trump-bashing conservatives as ourselves don’t believe that just because something’s bad for Trump it’s good the country, and it’s certainly not the sort of complicated economic argument you hype all day long and then have two pages of anti-climax to show for it. The bigger story that liberals would prefer to hype is that all we of know of the vast financial empire that Trump has not divested himself from is two pages of a 12-year-old tax return somehow includes only exculpatory evidence. A Trump campaign manager and National Security have already been forced to resign because of contacts with the Russian government Trump has thus far flattered, and his Attorney General had recused himself from an ongoing investigation in broader contracts between the campaign and Russia, and all that’s been released of the tax returns that would surely prove Trump himself has no financial ties with the Russian government were those two not-entirely-exculpatory pages. There are already rumors afloat that Trump himself leaked his $38 million tax bill, then preemptively tweeted his indignant denial of whatever MSNBC might report to cover his tracks, and although even the ancien regime media won’t touch that conspiracy theory we will note it’s at least as plausible as Sen. Ted Cruz’s dad being in on the Kennedy hit, and people are saying, and we’ll leave it up to Congress to investigate if it’s true or not, and let similar Trumpian standards of truth prevail.
There’s something fishy about Trump’s Russophilia even from our rightward Trump-bashing perspective, perhaps all the more so after so many years of Cold War vigilance, so we’re also annoyed that handsome Rachel Maddow fellow has momentarily muddied the media waters. With enemies of the people like these, Trump might be wondering, who needs friends?

— Bud Norman

J’Accuse, Recuse, Repeat

Any old spy novel or ongoing news story that involves Russia inevitably becomes complicated, but the latest sequel in that long-running series became altogether labyrinthine after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself on Thursday from the rest of the inevitable unfolding plot.
As per usual in these sordid tales, pretty much even everyone is somewhat compromised. Session’s critics are making a flimsy case for perjury charges and calling for his resignation after he denied during his confirmation hearings that he’d had any contact with any Russian officials on behalf of the campaign of now-President Donald Trump and calling for his resignation, even though his only proved contacts with Russian officials during the time in question were arguably in his capacity at the time of a ranking member of Senate foreign relations committee and not on behalf of the Trump campaign. His defenders had a good old time laughing at Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill for “tweeting” that her fellow Senators on the committee never met with Russian fellows after making some dug-up “tweets” boasting of her own personal contacts with Russian officials, and of course recounting the countless episodes of equally questionable behavior during the past administration of President Barack Obama that some never raised any Democrat or many media eyebrows.
Despite all the gloating there was no denying by any of Session’s defenders that his answer to that under-oath question about his contacts with Russian officials, which had been poorly framed by a former Saturday Night Live comedian, did seem to imply he’d had no contacts at all with any Russian officials at all, and although the government’s top lawyer found plenty of wiggle room between himself and a perjury charge it looked bad enough even to some congressional Republicans that Sessions was forced to bow out of any ongoing investigations to the other alleged contacts between Trump’s campaign and various officials of the Russian government or its broader oligarchy. For an administration that prides itself on denying everything and apologizing for nothing that’s a rather loudly tacit admission that things do indeed look back, and after Trump’s firing of a campaign manager and campaign foreign policy adviser because of their financial ties to Russia, and his accepting the resignation of duly confirmed National Security Advisor because of similar contacts with Russian officials, and the ongoing leaks about Russian attempts to influence the past election, that looks even worse.
Trump’s and Sessions’ defenders have plenty to say, and much of it is well worth hearing. All those leaks are obviously coming from disgruntled Democrats left over from the gone but not forgotten Obama administration, there are legal and national security implications to that, and it’s quite fair to say to say there wasn’t such a fuss about it when Obama’s people were offering the Russians plastic reset buttons and promises of greater flexibility after the next election and having countless questionable foreign relationships, and by now no one bothers to deny that the Democrats are out to get Trump any way they can. The spectacle of Democrats regaining a Cold Warrior attitude they’d hadn’t used since the late and lamented Sen. “Scoop” Jackson and had ridiculed as recently as Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign in ’12 is pretty ridiculous, too, as is their suddenly re-found enthusiasm for that old “question authority” bumper sticker slogan.
Starting with the Bolshevik Revolution the Republican Party stood steadfast against Russian expansionism, and except for a brief lull after Pearl Harbor that ended at the Yalta Conference they kept it up right through the ’12 presidential campaign when nominee Mitt Romney was ridiculed by all the Democrats for his old fogey Cold War foreign policy, so it’s also odd to hear a Republican president talking about the Russkies with all the flattery and morally relativistic friendliness of some university-addled lefty. There’s something ridiculous, too, about the spectacle of Republicans pretending their heads wouldn’t have exploded if Obama had ever sloughed off a question about the ex-KGB dictator of Russia’s political crimes by saying “Do you think we’re so innocent?”
Trump’s defenders still have plenty to say, but at the moment they also have plenty to defend, and as of now his Attorney General has recused himself from the thankless role. It’s been leaked and not denied that the intelligence agencies are generally agreed that the Russkies meddled in the past election, there have already been two high-ranking campaign officials and a high-ranking administration official defenestrated over this Russia stuff, the tax returns and other financial disclosures that would surely prove Trump himself has no financial entanglements with any Russian oligarchs remain undisclosed, and just because the accusers are politically motivated doesn’t mean they’re wrong. We could go at length about the dubious dealings of the Obama administration, but we did so for eight long years, so we won’t be hypocrites and pretend that there’s nothing at all dubious going on here. Even the most crazed conspiracy theories people are concocting about it on the internet are at least as plausible as Trump’s claims about President George W. Bush lying the country into the Iraq War or Obama being born in Kenya or Sen. Ted Cruz’s dad being in on the Kennedy assassination, or the stories in The National Inquirer that Trump has nominated for a Pulitzer Prize or the InfoWars outfit whose respected reputation Trump has praised, and there’s enough that the more reasonable liberals can make a reasonable case for further investigation. It’s damned dubious enough to us a few other remaining old school and consistent-on-the-Russkies Republicans to warrant an independent investigation by the duly authorized authorities, but not an independent prosecutor, and the continued scrutiny of the press, but not the partisan and prosecutorial sort so many of them are inclined to in the case of Republicans.
Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the whole mess was principled, which should help him retain his widely respected reputation in conservative circles, even if doesn’t change the liberals’ opinion that he’s a unrepentant old racist reactionary with a souther accent, and we expect he’ll at keep his job and generally do well at it. Not having to answer all the questions that are about to be asked about the Russians should free up a lot of his valuable time.

— Bud Norman

Out Like Flynn

The resignation of Gen. Michael Flynn as President Donald Trump’s National Security is not only the biggest story of the moment, it seems to have spun off into a dozen or so biggest stories of the moment.
At such a very early point in an administration such a high-ranking official’s resignation, or “ouster” if you prefer the more recent term that keeps popping up in the press, is going to be a story with legs and sidebars. This unusually quick departure seems to have more than the usual subplots, however, and at this point in this particular administration the press is especially eager to pursue them every one of them. The fact of Flynn’s resignation or ouster or whatever you call it seems to confirm press reports that he had questionable contacts with the Russian government during the transition period and lied about it to Vice President Mike Pence, which does not make Trump look good, so the established media are delighted to have that at the top of the front pages and hourly broadcasts. Some of the radio talkers and other anti-establishment media are continuing to insist that whatever contacts Flynn had with the Russians weren’t at all questionable, and that he never lied about it, but they glumly admit that also makes Trump look bad.
Trump is “tweeting” that big story is Flynn’s conversations with Russia being leaked to the press in the first place, and his more creative supporters in the anti-establishment media are elaborating that it’s another example of the intelligence community and the “deep state” trying to undermine Trump’s administration, and it’s plausible. Meanwhile the establishment press is putting the whole affair in the context of the intelligence agencies’ consensus conclusion that the Russians meddled in the past presidential election in an apparent attempt to help Trump, and Trump’s denunciation of the intelligence agencies and apologetics for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and the various contacts that several of Trump’s business and campaign and administration officials have with with the Russian oligarchy, and all the implications they can make out of that also seem well within the realm of plausibility.
There also stories about who knew what and when they knew it, and they all feature prominent administration spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway telling television audiences that Flynn had the president’s full confidence just hours before Trump accepted the resignation, and none of them are helpful to Trump or any of his more ardent defenders in the anti-establishment media. They all seem to confirm a popular press narrative about a dysfunctional White House riven by all the petty power-grabbing and back-stabbing machinations you’d want from a reality television show, which is altogether too plausible, and all of those leaks are coming straight from contestants. At the moment Trump’s anti-establishment media allies have been reduced to the Nietzschean argument that out of chaos comes order, and let’s us hope they’re right.
There’s also surely a sidebar somewhere out there about how all of this hubbub will affect national security, but so far we haven’t found it. We were never fond of Flynn, who seemed far too chummy with the Russkies and is prone to crackpot conspiracy theories and always reminded us of Sterling Hayden’s Gen. Jack D. Ripper character in “Dr. Strangelove,” and although he’s properly tough on Islamism we figure Trump is more in need of someone to advise occasional restraint and not encourage all the war crimes that were promised during the campaign. Press reports indicate that one of the possible replacements is Gen. David Petraeus, whose military brilliance turned the tide in the Iraq War before he competently assumed the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency, but who also pleaded guilty to providing his mistress with classified material and then lying about it, and it will be interesting to see if Trump sets all those storylines off. The other names seem reasonable career national security, and of course aren’t any of the Republican establishment professionals who took public stands against Trump during the campaign, and in the end we effect that the national security will be as insecure as always.

— Bud Norman

Hero or Anti-Hero

The man who exposed the National Security Agency’s top-secret surveillance programs has mysteriously disappeared from the Hong Kong hotel room where he had recently taken refuge, and a massive world-wide manhunt is now underway. We’re not talking about the American law enforcement officials who hope to arrest him on various espionage charges, although they’re probably on the job as well, but rather about the army of Hollywood agents eager to secure the rights to his story.
The saga of Edward Snowden would make for an interesting movie, and we’d happily pay the price of admission if only for the suspense of finding out if he is portrayed as a hero or a villain.
A 29-year-old former technical assistant for the Central Intelligence Agency, Snowden was working as a private contractor for the NSA when he reportedly concluded that its extensive snooping into public phone and internet records represented a threat to the basic liberties and privacy rights of the American people, leading him to leak the most salacious details of the program to Great Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Youthful, with a CIA background, high-minded ideals, and a connection to one of the world’s most impeccably leftist rags, Snowden has all the makings of a Hollywood hero. Pictures indicate that he has a rather nerdish appearance, but if the luscious Scarlett Johansson can be cast as Hillary Clinton in a hagiographic bio-pic there’s no reason that Snowden can’t be portrayed by some suitably handsome matinee idol. In most circumstances, Snowden would be the biggest action adventure hero since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers back in the bad old days of Nixon.
Snowden leaked his top secrets during the golden age of Obama, however, which introduces a moral ambiguity that the modern cinema is not comfortable with. As much as Hollywood loves the ol’ speaking-truth-to-power shtick, it always has another sort of power in mind. It took the election of Obama for Hollywood to eagerly embrace the war on terror, and the newfound hawkishness has provided better much better box office action than the string of self-righteously dour anti-war movies that kept showing up at the theaters during the Bush years, so a return to the old-fashioned anti-government themes might prove a tough pitch. We also suspect that any Hollywood types hoping to snag an invitation to the next White House Correspondents’ Association dinner will likely be hesitant to lionize any whistle-blowers who blew their whistles at the movie industry’s favorite president.
The press, which is eagerly spreading all of the secrets Snowden exposed even as they tsk-tsk about the security breach, seems just as uncertain about the main character in the latest big story. How he is treated by the media as his story plays out will be worth watching, especially if you’ve invested in the movie.

— Bud Norman