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The Threats Keep on a -Threatening

The Senate intelligence committee held hearings Tuesday on worldwide threats, and it all sounded pretty threatening. So far as we can tell the most pressing threat is to the credibility of President Donald Trump.
The hearings opened with testimony from Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray, which wound up dragging out the recent embarrassing storyline about the alleged wives-beater who was allowed to resign last week from his high-ranking position in the White House with fulsome praise from Trump. The president and his chief of staff both claimed to have been shocked by the allegations against staff secretary Rob Porter when they learned of them in a recent Daily Mail expose, but those pesky reporters kept pestering the White House press secretary about why the allegations hadn’t been exposed by an FBI background check, and why the agency hadn’t granted Porter the security clearance he needed to do his high-ranking job, which dragged the story through the weekend an into Monday. The answers weren’t quite clear, but they seemed to suggest that the FBI had failed in its duty to vet the White House staff.
Wray was appointed to the FBI directorship by Trump, but on Tuesday he declined to commit perjury and scapegoat his hard-working agents by sticking to the White House script. Instead he testified that his agency had given the White House a preliminary report last March that two ex-wives saidt Porter had physically abused them, and included corroborating police reports and court filings in a complete report last July. If chief of staff John Kelly is truthfully claiming that he only found out about Porter’s problem when the Daily Mail wrote about it, which seems highly unlikely, it does not speak well for the efficiency of the White House.
The hearing also heard about even scarier threats to the national security than a wives-beating staff secretary, and raised questions about how efficient the White House will deal with them.
Joining Wray at the hearings were Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo, and all agreed that the Russian government meddled in the last American elections in various nefarious ways and is keenly intent on doing so again in the next one. Wray assured the senators that the FBI is undertaking “a lot of specific activities” to counter the Russian efforts, but admitted that none were “specifically directed by the president.” Coats also spoke of unspecified specific activities, but acknowledged that “no single agency is in charge.” Pompeo defended his agency’s had work countering the Russian threat and promised more specific information in the closed session that followed, and given his reputation as an efficient man he probably had plenty to tell them, but despite his reputation as a Trump loyalist he didn’t mention anything about the president’s leadership in the effort.
All of which ties into that whole “Russia thing” storyline that has loomed so large in the Trump reality show, and none of which does him much good. Trump’s apparent insouciance about Russian attacks on American democracy is one of the most compelling reasons so many people suspect there’s something to this particular “witch hunt,” and despite his apologists best efforts to blame it on a “deep state” “silent coup” of corrupt FBI agents and CIA spooks we note that Trump’s own appointees aren’t backing them up.
To make things worse, Coats also testified that the federal government’s “increasingly fractious political process, particularly with respect to federal spending, is threatening our ability to defend our nation, both in the short term and especially in the long run.” Given the budget-busting spending bill Trump recently signed, and his own contributions to the fractiousness of the political process, that was hardly a ringing endorsement of his boss.
Perhaps it will be quickly forgotten, though, as that embarrassing storyline about the porn performer who alleged a past affair with Trump and Trump’s lawyer paying her $130,000 during the election was back in the news. The latest hook is that Trump’s longtime lawyer and spokesman and valued advisor is now claiming he made the payment out of his own pocket, for some undisclosed reason we cannot imagine, which he claims clears Trump of any campaign finance disclosure problems. There’s also talk that Kelly will soon be out as chief of staff, and Trump’s longtime lawyer had been rumored as a possible replacement, so we expect more threatening storylines to come.

— Bud Norman

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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

Meanwhile, Far Away in the Far East

President Donald Trump picked as good a time as any to embark on an extended multi-nation tour of Asia, given all the bad political news for the Republicans over the past week, but as usual he managed to grab his share of the attention.
During the campaign Trump frequently claimed that America had been “raped” by China in their trade relationship, but while in China he basically said that America was asking for it. “Who can blame a country for being able taking advantage of another country for their benefit of their own citizens?,” he said to an audience of Chinese political and business and leaders quite a few American businessmen, who responded with a slight and nervous-sounding laughter. He placed the blame for America’s trade deficit with China squarely on “past administrations,” apparently beginning with the Nixon administration, a charge he later reiterated via “tweet,” and the die hard-supporters back home were all more robustly cheering the implication that things are going to be different from now own.
Trump wasn’t talking the campaign talk labelling China a currency manipulator or slapping 45 percent tariffs on Chinese imports or holding the negotiations over a Big Mac and fries rather than a state dinner, though, and he didn’t give any details about what he wanted to change. We don’t claim to be the masterful negotiator that Trump claims to be, but we note he also didn’t give any details about how he’s going to persuade the Chinese to go along with his announced plan to take advantage of them for the benefit of his citizens, and most of the business leaders in the audience seemed to be hoping for a different tactic.
China is going to have to reconfigure its entire economy to get its citizens buying enough Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Gibson electric guitars to make much of a dent in the trade imbalance, and although it probably would make the country a whole lot cooler they’re unlikely to do so for Trump’s sake. America’s economy will also require a lot of reconfiguring before Americans stop snatching up low-priced Chinese-made products at Wal-Mart, although doing without some of that junk might also make America cooler, and there’s also the matter of the high-end airplanes and delicious wheat that folks here in Kansas make and the Chinese spend a lot of money on, so the Chinese will have some some threats of their own to make when any treaty is being debated in the Senate. Something better than the status quo is possible, and we wish Trump well in achieving that, but for the foreseeable future a balance of trade isn’t possible, and neither is it necessary desirable, so we hope Trump will be more understated and realistic in the future.
The trip also took Trump to Vietnam, which gave his critics an opportunity to chortle about the bone spurs that prevented him from serving in a war there, and brought him into direct contact with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, which also gave his critics plenty to work with. Trump told reporters that Putin had assured him that Russia didn’t do the tiniest bit of meddling in the past American presidential, and Trump said that he believed him, although after the predictable outrage he quickly revised that to mean that he believed that Putin actually believed that, and that in fact he believes the contrary conclusion of America’s intelligence agencies, at least now that they’re headed by his appointees and saying the same things they said under Obama’s appointees.
Continuing his penchant for disparaging past American governments in front of foreign audiences, Trump dismissed Obama’s past intelligence chiefs as “political hacks,” although both began their careers in Republican administrations and were decorated combat veterans of the war in Vietnam, and said the same things about Russian meddling that the Trump appointees are saying. In any case, Trump made clear that he didn’t see any reason why Russian attempts to sabotage an American should stand in the way of friendly relations.
There was also a stop in the Philippines, where the current President is Rodrigo Dueterte, who has cursed the Pope as the “son of a whore” and called an American president a “black bastard” and routinely forces kisses on women at his campaign rallies and unleashed gangs of vigilantes who have killed thousands of suspected drug users. Trump has previously praised Dueterte’s approach to the country’s problem, and always seemed quite comfortable with the rest of it, and Dueterte seems to like Trump’s style, too, so their meeting was fairly cordial. There’s a huge “Trump Tower” being built in downtown Manila, too, and Trump hasn’t divested himself of the branding agreement that’s expected to earn him millions of dollars, and the real owner of the property also happens to be Dueterte’s trade minister, so we expect it to remain cordial no matter how many suspected drug users are shot down without so much as a warrant.
The Philippines has lately benefited from America’s military support in quashing one of its occasional outbreaks of terrorism from it’s long-troublesome Muslim minority in the southern islands, too, and Dueterte has tamped down his anti-American rhetoric. He remains resistant to restoring America’s past military presence in the country and continues to make concessions to the Chinese in an apparent belief that they’re a more reliable diplomatic and economic partner.
During a stop in South Korea Trump managed to avoid making many big headlines, at least not to big enough to nudge the electoral losses or a Southern Gothic sex scandal out of the way, as he carefully avoided to referring to North Korean dictator Kim Jon-Ung as “Little Rocket Man.” The talk was tough, but within the usual diplomatic bounds, so the critics couldn’t muster of a case that he was taunting the North Korean nutcase into a nuclear confrontation by lowering himself to the dictator’s level of personal insult. After Kim once again called Trump a dotard, meaning an old and demented person, though, Trump “tweeted” back that “Why should Kim Jong-Un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat.’ Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend — and maybe that will someday happen!” Around the same time he offered to arbitrate some of China’s disputes with its neighbors over islands in the South China Sea, citing his great negotiation skills, but was politely declined by all parties.
At every stop along the way the leaders went out of their way to provide the most lavish welcomes and flattering praise, however, and Trump seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. Our guess is he and his fans will take it was proof that they’re making America great again, but that’s about all they’ll get out of it.

— Bud Norman