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Another Twist in the “Russia” Story

President Donald Trump has had a couple of relatively good weeks of news coverage, to the point we were all set to write about his so far so good performance at the United Nations, but at the last moment we noticed The New York Times’ scoop about the office of the special counsel into “Russia” informing Paul Manafort that he’s about to be indicted. If true — and to those who have been following the “Russia” story closely it seems all too plausible — that means many bad weeks of news coverage for Trump no matter how well everything else might turn out.
Even if you haven’t been following the “Russia” story very closely you probably know that Manafort was once Trump’s presidential campaign chairman, and has long boasted of his lucrative lobbying efforts on behalf of some of the world’s worst foreign leaders, including the Ukrainians tied to their country occupying Russian government. You might also know that as campaign chairman he sat in with Trump’s son and son-in-law in a meeting with a Kremlin-tied Russian lawyer and another Russian long suspected of laundering Russian mob money through American real estate holdings and a couple of other shady Russians, a meeting Trump’s son has acknowledged he arranged with the clear understanding that it would involve the transfer of information from the Russian government’s ongoing efforts to assist the Trump campaign. It was also widely reported that the special counsel had enough dirt to convince a federal judge to issue a rare “no-knock” search warrant on Manfort’s home to seize evidence relevant to an ongoing counterintelligence investigation, so unless you haven’t been paying any attention at all an imminent indictment shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Still, it’s a significant development in the “Russia” story. Former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer once described Manafort as “someone who played a limited role in the campaign for a short time,” but Manafort’s title in that limited role was “campaign chairman” and he served in that capacity until the press revealed his undisclosed business dealings with the Russkies themselves, and Spicer was last seen at the Emmy Awards doing a comedy routine that basically admitted he outright lied about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration. Unless you’re the most strident sort of supporter of Trump, the imminent indictment of a former Trump campaign chairman on charges related to “Russia” isn’t the “nothing burger” that Trump’s most strident supporters always claim. At the very least, Trump will have to explain why he ever hired the guy as a campaign chairman in the first place, given all the bragged-about dirt already known about him.
At this point we guess Manfort’s high-priced lawyers are advising him to spill whatever beans he has on the Trump son and son-in-law who were also indisputably in on the meeting with the Kremlin-tied lawyer and suspected Russian-mob-money-laundering Russian and the other two shady Russians, and whatever he might have on the even higher-ups. Given the loyalty Trump has shown to him, we don’t expect that Manafort will go too far out of his way to be loyal Trump or any of his kinfolk.

— Bud Norman

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After the Storms, the Gathering Drip, Drip, Drip

Hurricane winds and epic flooding on the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean have blown most of the rest of the news off the cable news channels for the past couple of days, with President Donald Trump’s recent dalliance with the Democrats grabbing the rest of the attention, but the steady drip, drip, drip of leaks about “Russia” have continued.
It’s an ill wind that blows no good, as the saying goes, and the recent natural disasters and self-inflicted political disasters have at least served Trump well by largely blowing away some of the recent revelations. Right around the time Hurricane Harvey started battering Houston and environs it was revealed that Trump had signed a letter to build a Trump Tower in downtown Moscow in late 2015, which was right around the time he was starting to campaign for president and saying suspiciously nice things about the Russian government and indignantly denying that he had any business dealings with anyone in Russia. This doesn’t look good, even if the die-hard supporters can insist it’s not at all illegal, and it would have looked a worse if there had been room for it on the front page.
There’s also recent news that the son of retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former top campaign foreign policy advisor and a transition team member and briefly the national security advisor, has also come under the scrutiny of the special counsel investigation that seems to be coming along at a brisk pace. The elder Flynn is already in legal jeopardy for failing to disclose his lucrative earnings as an agent for foreign governments in Turkey and Russia, as well as conflicts of interest regarding the advice he gave Trump on issues involving Turkey and Russia, and at the very least his failure to disclose this on his ever-updated security clearance forms. It was bad enough to get Flynn kicked out of the Trump administration after less than a month on the job, although questions about why he was there in the first place will continue to linger, and it’s bad enough to drag his son into the mess.
The son has long been on the father’s payroll as a chief of staff, even though hi most impressive credential seems to be an associate’s degree in golf course management, and he was already a controversial figure in his own right. He got kicked off the Trump campaign after he “tweeted” about the nutcase “Pizzagate” conspiracy that had Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton running a satanic child sex-abuse ring in the basement of a Washington pizzeria, and has apparently been knee-deep in his father’s begrudgingly disclosed dealings with foreign governments. His dad’s lawyer has stated that his client has “a story to tell,” presumably about people even more high up than a national security advisor, and will be willing to tell in exchange for immunity, and we imagine the downright Trumpian go-after-the-families strategy that the special counsel is pursuing will probably make him all the more willing.
Trump’s own son got dragged before a congressional investigative committee to talk about that meeting in Trump Tower he agreed to with a Russian lawyer that he understood to be a representative of the Russian government and its ongoing efforts to assist the Trump campaign, which also included four other Russians with ties to alleged money laundering schemes and other Russian mischief, as well as Trump’s son-in-law and campaign chairman, but at least it was in a closed session. There were leaks of of the testimony, of course, which of course had Democrats grousing that it should have been televised, so Trump is also feeling the pressure of when they come after your family.
There’s also a noteworthy development that the powerful Facebook social media site has admitted it sold $100,000 of ad space to a Russian “troll farm” that targeted certain of its readers with dubious stories regarding Clinton’s fitness for the presidency and Trump’s unprecedented credentials for the job, which seems to corroborate the conclusions of all the intelligence agencies that the Russians tried to meddle in our election. A hundred grand of internet advertising buys a lot more than a similar amount spent on a broadcast network, given how the internet knows everything about everyone and can specifically target the most susceptible audience for any given messages, so it’s harder than ever for Trump and his most ardent supporters to deny that Russia played any role in the past election.
They used to grouse that the real scandal was that we only know about any of this if because President Barrack Obama tapped Trump’s phones at Trump Tower and led the “deep state” to stage a silent coup, but the past weeks have dealt a further blow to that silliness. Trump’s “tweeted” accusation about Obama ordering a tap on his phones was never backed up with any proof, but the past week brought quietly conceded admission that a White House ordered review found none of the top-secret warrants that would have been needed, but he’s long since shifted to the claim it was a broader pattern of surveillance that he was talking about. To his most ardent supporters that meant how Obama-era officials were eagerly leaking the intercepted conversations that Trump campaign officials were having with Russians tied directly to the Russian government, but that narrative also took a blow during the hurricane lull.
The chief villainess of the “deep state” conspiracy theory was Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, who stood accused of “unmasking” the identities of Trump campaign officials whose conservations with foreign officials had been intercepted by the intelligence community. The intercepts occurred because the government was taking an interest in the communications of foreign officials, and they just happened to involve some that occurred with Trump campaign officials, but Rice stood accused of “unmasking” the redacted identities of the people they were talking about. We’re no fans of Rice, who blatantly lied to the American people about the causes of the tragedy at Benghazi and advised all sorts of policies we though ill-advised, but we could never see why it was wrong for her to to ask which Americans the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates were talking to about setting up a back-channel of communications with the Russians, who turned out to be the next president’s son-in-law and most trusted advisor.
Even such a conservative talk radio hero as South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy had to admit that “I thought she gave a very good accounting of herself, frankly, and I’d be the first to say otherwise.” Rice was entirely within her rights as a national security advisor to ask how the Americans were on those tapes she was listening to, and for matter obliged by the duties of her job as a national security advisor, and so far no one is alleging that she illegally leaked information about what she had learned. Even if she did, we’re still grateful for the heads up.
By now these bombshells seem mundane, and there are always so many other natural and man-made disastors that Trump’s most ardent supporters and most strident critics can seize on, but the drip, drip, drip seems heading to flood levels.

— Bud Norman

Okay Then, Lock ‘Em All Up

President Donald Trump’s most staunch defenders are lately having a hard time defending some recently released e-mails, which show the president’s son and son-in-law and campaign manager readily agreeing to what they clearly understand to be a meeting with a Russian agent working on behalf of the Russian government’s efforts to sway the presidential election in their favor, so they’ve instead gone on offense. Trump himself hasn’t yet “tweeted” anything about it, but his official and unofficial surrogates are already trying to change the subject to all the awful things done by former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee and presumptive First Woman President Hillary Clinton.
They have a point, of course. Clinton was truly godawful in every capacity she ever held, and the cumulative weight of the outrageous baggage she and her hound dog of a husband President Bill Clinton acquired over the years was no doubt a significant reason she managed to lose the electoral vote to the likes of Trump. Both Clintons have committed outrageous ethical violations since so far back that the statutes of limitation have long since run out of many of them, they’ve probably dodged double jeopardy on countless others, and there’s still plenty of fresh material for Trump’s most staunch defenders to seize on.
With Trump’s now-undeniable business ties to Russia and its oligarchy in the news, his defenders are pointing to the sale of much of America’s uranium supplies to a Russian oligarch that Secretary of State  Clinton did indeed suspiciously sign off on. As Trump’s critics note the willingness of top Trump campaign aides to meet with what they clearly thought was a Russian effort to influence the election on their behalf, his most staunch supporters note a believable report that Clinton’s campaign willingly accepted the help of Ukrainians eager to expose Trump’s ties to Russia. The most daring of Trump’s staunchest are touting a story about a Democratic opposition research firm called Fusion GPS, which is tied to that  dossier compiled by a former British intelligence official that has all sorts of salacious but unverified information about Trump, and which also has some reported ties to that presumed Russian agent that Trump’s son and son-in-law and campaign manager met with, which has of course led to all sorts of conspiracy theories.
For the most part, we’re inclined to believe every word of it. As we constantly remind our annoyed Republican friends, we were believing the worst about Clinton back when Trump was contributing to her campaigns and inviting her to his third wedding and telling all his interviewers she was the best Secretary of State ever, and even with Trump in office we’re no more favorably incline toward her now. There have been some fairly convincing articles written by her most staunch defenders about that uranium deal, but that big donation to the Clinton Foundation that followed still looks pretty suspicious to us, and after so many decades of the Clintons we’ll give some credence to almost anything nasty you might have to say about them.
From our current pox-on-both-their-houses perspective, though, the Trump offensive isn’t a convincing defense. That salacious dossier that Fusion GPS might have paid for still isn’t verified but isn’t yet “discredited,” as the Trump-friendly media always describe it, and the idea that Fusion GPS deviously lured Trump’s son and son-in-law and campaign manager into a brilliantly-planned scam that would be exposed some eight months after Clinton lost the election isn’t convincing at all. If Clinton was indeed concluding with the Ukrainians to expose Trump’s ties to the Russians who were illegally occupying Ukrainian territory, it’s hard to say whether we hate Democrats and Russians more than we usually like Republicans and Ukrainians.
Back during the campaign, Trump used to lead his enthusiastic campaign rallies in chants of “lock her up” about Clinton. At the time he was urging she be locked for her careless e-mail practices, but after the discovered e-mails that his son has lately admitted to the chant seems more on general principles. It then struck us as slightly Banana Republic-like to have a major party nominee for president to be promising his adoring crowds that their hated villainess would be imprisoned, but by now we’re getting to used it.
We also note that The New York Times was the source for that Russian uranium story, Politico broke the news about the Clinton-Ukranian connection, understand well why  the mainstream press has understandably been more concerned lately about the winner’s scandals, and admit that Trump’s most staunch defenders are as always largely dependent on the “lame stream” media they otherwise decry as “fake news.”
So go ahead, President Trump, and instruct your Justice Department to pursue a vigorous investigation of everything your staunchest defenders are saying about that undeniably godawful Clinton woman. You promised to do so on national television during the presidential debate, even if you did immediately renege on the promise shortly after your election by saying she had suffered enough, and given our longer standing animosity toward her we  won’t mind a bit. Losing to the likes of you once seemed a hellish enough fate for Clinton, but some official punishment might do the country’s rule of law some good.
Those e-mails and all the rest of the Russia scandal also look pretty damned bad for the president, however, and we hope that the congressional investigations and the special counsel investigations and the press investigations and the rest of the country’s curiosity will continue to look skeptically at all that.. If it all winds up with both of the past presidential election’s major nominees locked up, we’ll hope there’s at least a chance the rule of law might have somehow prevailed.

— Bud Norman