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A Pre-Dawn Twist on the Russia Story

The latest intriguing twist in the ongoing story about “Russia” — if you know what we mean, and by now we assume you do — is the revelation of a pre-dawn raid by the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the home of the one-time campaign chairman for now-President Donald Trump. It’s not clear what the G-men were looking for, and unlikely they’ll find that smoking gun Trump’s most bitter enemies are so ardently hoping for, but a pre-dawn raid is pretty darned intriguing nonetheless.
Paul Manafort was already providing plenty of intrigue in this whole “Russia” story. Long before he became the Trump campaign’s chairman Manafort was notorious for the millions he’d made lobbying on behalf of ¬†despots such as the Philippine’s Fernando Marcos and Angola’s Jonas Savimbi, and The New York Times reported shortly before his resignation from the campaign that he’d also made an undisclosed $12.7 million secretly lobbying on behalf of the Russian-linked government in Ukraine. Since then it has also been reported that he’s somehow $17 million in debt to Russian interests, that his name kept coming up in conversations among Russian officials that various intelligence agencies here and abroad were monitoring, that he sat in on that meeting that Donald Trump Jr. arranged with a Russian lawyer on the clear understanding they would be getting help direct from the Russian government, and remained in frequent contact with the campaign even after his resignation.
Throw in a pre-dawn raid by the FBI, and it all looks pretty fishy. Some of the stories are anonymously sourced from outlets that Trump’s most faithful allies can dismiss as “The New York Slimes” and “The Washington Compost,” but the dictator-friendly lobbying business was publicly boasted about, the source for the meeting with the Russian lawyer was Trump Jr. himself, all those anonymous sources have lately been mostly confirmed by White House responses, and there’s nothing in Manafort’s biography that makes any of it at all seem implausible. The story about the pre-dawn raid is also anonymously sourced, but so far there haven’t been on-the-record denials, and if true it means that some federal judge somewhere agreed with a special counsel’s argument that there was credible reason to believe that evidence of a crime would be found at the home where the search warrant was issued. Although Manafort has provided numerous documents and sworn testimony to closed Congressional committees and various law enforcement officers, it also means a judge agreed that he could not be trusted to voluntarily preserve or hand over everything he had.
There’s nothing in any of the reporting to link Trump to anything Manafort might have done, except to the slight but nonetheless embarrassing extent that Trump did once hire the guy to be his campaign chairman, but there’s nothing in any of this that can help the president. If there is even the slightest link between Trump and anything Manafort might have done, Manafort now seems to have a compelling motive to cut a deal in exchange for any testimony he might provide about anyone higher up in the campaign he once chaired. He might yet prove completely innocent of any wrongdoing, or steadfastly loyal to the president who kicked him off a campaign, but the way things have been going for Trump lately we don’t think he can count on that. Trump’s general “Russia-schmussia-what’re-you-talkin-’bout?” defense isn’t holding up lately in the Congressional committees of special counsel investigations or public opinion polls, and there’s no way a pre-dawn raid on his former campaign chairman’s home is going to help.
Except with the hard-core fans, who will see it as further evidence that the deep state conspiracy to oust Trump is up to ever more nefarious deeds. They’re already convinced that special counsel Robert Mueller, a lifelong Republican who rose through the ranks of the Justice Department during two Republican presidents and was appointed director of the FBI by a third Republican president, is a tool of an establishment plot to destroy Trump before he can destroy it. They note the indisputable fact that Mueller’s team of highly-specialized investigators includes several who donated to campaigns of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but they ignore the indisputable fact that so did Trump’s own lawyer in this mess and Trump’s daughter and son-in-law and Trump himself, and they seem not to have noticed that Mueller’s hires are highly-specialized in money-laundering and Russian interests and other areas that seem ripe for investigation.
None of this yet amounts to that smoking gun that Trump’s most bitter enemies are so ardently hoping for, but all of it makes it harder for his most loyal allies to argue Russia-schmussia-what’re-you-talkin’-bout.”

— Bud Norman

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The Perfect Scandal

Dennis Hastert was such a forgettable Speaker of the House that we had completely forgotten about him, but we have lately been reminded of his existence by all the gleeful news reports about his indictment by a federal grand jury. He’s charged with lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about a series of relatively small bank withdrawals, which is not particularly scandalous by Washington standards and raises the question of why the government is empowered to ask people nosy questions about relatively small bank withdrawals in the first place, but the inevitable unlawful leaks about the case have claimed the withdrawals were used to hush a sexual relationship with a young male who had been a student of Hastert’s during his days as a high school teacher and wrestling coach, which explains all the gleefulness of the press.
Hastert is a Republican, and a self-proclaimed “traditional family values” Republican with his name on a building at a Christian college at that, so the irony is far too delicious for the press to resist. The hypocrisy of Democrats who rail against income inequality while enriching themselves through government service to the one percentile, or decry the Republican “war on women” while rallying around the enabling wife of a serial sexual harasser, is more easily ignored when there’s a story like this afoot. There are still scores to be settled from the impeachment charges that were filed during Hastert’s speakership against President Bill Clinton after he lied under oath about his heterosexual sex scandals, too, and with Hastert having acquired the job after two Republican predecessors were found to have cheated on their wives there’s yet more ammunition for the old argument that there’s no longer any sense in expecting our leaders to hew to a higher standard of sexual conduct and that we should all just go ahead and do it in the road. Given the facts as they have been established thus far, and their usefulness for a variety of Democratic narratives, we expect the Hastert story should push the Islamic State, Hillary Clinton’s slush fund foundation, the recently shrinking economy, and everything else of greater public importance off the front pages for weeks to come.
Still, there’s no denying it does seem a very tawdry affair. Aside from the decades-old but still-sickening allegations of sexual exploitation of a student, which are bad enough, there’s also the matter of how a former high school teacher turned public servant had enough money on hand to pay the $1.7 million in blackmail that Hastert is alleged to have paid. Much of Hastert’s wealth is said to have come from real estate deals, including properties whose value was increased by laws passed during his speakership, and the rest has come from a lucrative lobbying career commenced shortly after he left Congress. Even those questions about why the government is empowered to ask people nosy questions about relatively small bank withdrawals are answered by the Patriot Act that Hastert helped to enact. If the facts as they have been established thus far prove true, Hastert will richly deserve the ignominy that is currently being heaped on him.
Nor is there much that even a die-hard Republican can muster in his defense. We were surprised to re-learn that Hastert was the longest-serving Speaker of the House in history, but one can liken that to the record-setting yet forgettable reign of Larry Holmes as world heavyweight champion, who remains overshadowed by his flamboyant predecessor Muhammad Ali and memorably thuggish successor Mike Tyson, just as Hastert is less well-remembered than his pugnacious and effective predecessor Newt Gingrich and his “first woman” and downright awful successor Nancy Pelosi. Chosen for his dull personality and happy talk of bipartisanship and presumably scandal-free past, Hastert spent his time in power going along with Clinton and then helping George W. Bush push through that Medicare drug plan and the rest of his big government heresies, and was otherwise so good at avoiding controversy that even such news junkies as ourselves had completely forgotten him.
One might note that a recent rash of underplayed stories about sexual exploitation of students by teachers mostly involve women educators in public schools, and that by up-to-date standards an emphasis on cases such as Hastert’s alleged behavior should be considered heteronormative, and that tawdry tales of lucrative careers in public service are quite bipartisan, with the presumptive Democratic nominee being a prime example, and that Republican presidential contender Sen. Rand Paul is currently being pilloried in the press for opposing repeal of the Patriot Act in defiance of a Democratic president who now likes all of the governmental powers it endows, and that the Patriot Act was intended to target terrorists rather people with other reasons for making relatively small bank withdrawals, and that the presumptive Democratic nominee’s husband has been a frequent flyer on the private jet of a known pedophile, ¬†and that everyone isn’t cheating on a spouse and higher standards of conduct should still be expected from public officials regardless of their party affiliation, but it will be of no use. Unless new exculpatory facts unexpectedly emerge, Hastert has handed the Democrats’ media allies an extraordinary gift, and Republicans can only hope that readers will notice the other sickening facts that somehow make it onto the inside pages of your local newspaper.

— Bud Norman