By Dan Peak
The Commoner Call (12/11/17)
Dear Fellow Readers,
This has been a relatively quiet Trump-Russia news cycle, though there are always new developments. As an example, there is more to the Donnie Jr. June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with indicted former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and various Russians. It would take a herculean effort to count the number of times Donnie Jr. has lied about the communications prior to the meeting, who was present at the meeting, what was discussed or what, if anything, happened after the meeting.
So it’s no surprise that CNN reports on newly discovered follow-up communications following the Donnie Jr.-Russians meeting
“The British publicist who arranged the June 2016 meeting with Russians and Donald Trump Jr. sent multiple emails to a Russian participant and a member of Donald Trump’s inner circle later that summer, multiple sources told CNN, the first indication there was any follow-up after the meeting.”
In a similar vein The Washington Post brought new perspective on former Trump national security adviser and admitted liar to the FBI Mike Flynn’s fateful communications with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak about Russian sanctions imposed by Obama following Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Inside The Day That Set In Motion Michael Flynn’s Guilty Plea.
There is the part of the story we know about already:
“It was Dec. 29, 2016, and President Barack Obama had just imposed sanctions against Russia for its alleged interference in the election. Trump aides were trying to decide how to respond.
“Trump’s incoming national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, was on vacation in the Dominican Republic, so the president-elect was scheduled to be briefed by Flynn’s top deputy, Kathleen Troia “K.T.” McFarland.
“A crucial chain of events unspooled over the day, according to court filings, congressional documents and people familiar with the interactions: Flynn and McFarland discussed by phone that Trump’s transition team did not want Russia to escalate the situation. McFarland told other Trump advisers Flynn was reaching out to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn called the ambassador, urging Moscow not to retaliate — and Russia later surprisingly agreed.”
But Ryan Goodman, a New York University law professor, says the events of the day “have to be reinterpreted”. We know that Flynn and McFarland strategized on what to tell Kislyak, we know Flynn and McFarland “discussed that the members of the Presidential Transition Team at Mar-a-Lago did not want Russia to escalate the situation.” We know that McFarland informed other Trump advisers and emailed Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon (Priebus later becomes Trump’s chief of staff; Bannon, a senior Trump strategist).
We know that Kislyak let Flynn know that Putin would not retaliate against new sanctions, to the delight of Trump. We know that Flynn lied about his discussions with Kislyak, telling Vice President Mike Pence and others he had not raised the issue of sanctions, and ultimately he repeated this lie to the FBI, which led to his guilty plea. But there is an open question given all that is now known; this from Goodman:
““If the president-elect was involved in authorizing, instructing or encouraging Flynn to engage in a conversation with the Russians that violates the Logan Act, then Trump himself would be liable under federal law as an aider, abettor or co-conspirator,” said Goodman, who served as legal adviser on national security to the Pentagon in the last year of the Obama administration.”
Right now, Flynn is a pivotal character in the Trump-Russia collusion investigation. Here’s a great explanation from John Kiriakou, a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kiriakou was the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act – a World War I-era law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.
Here’s Kiriakou’s take on Flynn:
“The linchpin to this whole “Russiagate” case is Mike Flynn. The former three-star general and director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) was a loose cannon whom Obama in 2014. While Flynn had a real vision to transform the bloated DIA from a second-tier also-ran in the intelligence community to a primary war zone intelligence service, he was known as a nasty jerk to those around him, he was unnecessarily harsh with his subordinates, and he simply could not or would not follow the president’s direction.”
It is Kiriakou’s view that Obama knew that if he told Trump not to hire Flynn, Trump would do exactly the opposite. Here’s what Obama knew before meeting with Trump as part of the post-election transition and advising him to not hire Flynn:
“NSA [National Security Agency] spies on Americans. They also spy on Russians. And when an American is on the phone with the Russian ambassador, or meeting with Russian attorneys with “,” and then reporting back to a major Republican presidential campaign, NSA lights up. So NSA knew that Flynn was even before the two hung up the phone.
“A conversation between a senior presidential campaign official and a Russian diplomat or intelligence officer is major news in the intelligence community, and that news would have been reported back to Obama posthaste. So Obama knew that Flynn, Donald Trump Jr., and others were meeting with the Russians. And he knew what was being said because NSA had given him the transcripts.”
Of course, Trump ignored the warning and went ahead to hire Flynn who made the reported calls to Kislyak on December 22 and 29. It is Kiriakou’s view that Flynn’s actions do not amount to collusion, but as we now know, Flynn lied to the FBI about the calls – somewhat inexplicably since with his experience he would known the NSA would record his calls with Kislyak and provide the FBI with a transcript.
And here, in Kiriakou’s opinion, is the possible upshot of Flynn’s failure:
“In the greater scheme of things, Mike Flynn is a small fish. His son, Mike Jr., who was also implicated in the case, is a smaller fish. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has Jared Kushner in his sights. He has Donald Trump Jr. in his sights. Eventually, he wants to get the president, if the evidence leads him there. Mike Flynn can give him that evidence. That’s why he made an agreement to plead guilty to that false statements charge. He likely won’t see any prison time, and his son won’t be charged with any crime at all. In exchange, the Flynns, along with George Papadopoulos and, probably, Richard Gates, will all be free to rat out Kushner and the Trumps. That’s the end game.”
Flynn could serve up Donnie Jr. and Kushner to Mueller. While Kiriakou goes on to credit Obama as, “one of the brightest and most politically savvy presidents we’ve had in generations”, we’ll take Kiriakou’s opinion on the eventual downfall of Donnie Jr. and Kushner, and even possibly Trump, and consider this against the current news climate as fueled by Trump.
In the last edition of the Russia Monitor we reviewed some of the possible paths forward for Trump – impeachment, prosecution, winning at the polls – any and all of which are made more or less realistic based on public opinion. Now, as, The Guardian reported yesterday (12/8), Trump’s offensive is clear: A Battle For Public Opinion: Trump Goes To War Over Mueller And Russia.
“Even if they do not win in the court of public opinion, that should Mueller produce damning evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the reaction will be as divided as everything else in split-screen America, offering the president an escape route.
““It’s the only way he’s going to get out of this: by trying to make the investigation seem partisan,” said a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP) Action Fund in Washington. “It’s the only strategy now: make sure his base is with him and Republicans in Congress won’t hold him accountable.”
So is Trump’s strategy of disparaging Mueller, the FBI and the media working? Here are some views from Trump’s recent rally in Pensacola, FL:
“La-Vonne Haven of Pensacola, who was wearing a “Make American Great Again” wool hat to keep warm on an unseasonably cold day on the Gulf coast, said: “We watch Fox when we want to get the truth. I’ll go to Fox because there’s just too much political untruths out there.” … “It’s time we put it to rest because there’s nothing against our president.” She conceded that there may be a case against others in the campaign but was confident that Trump was not involved.”
And here’s Trump’s view to his diehard base:
“They can’t beat us at the voting booths so they’re trying to cheat you out of the future and the future that you want,” “They’re trying to cheat you out of the leadership that you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us and most importantly demeaning to our country and demeaning to our constitution.”
What might happen? Mueller has now brought charges against four people. But in the recent Pew Research Center polling results only 59% of Americans “think improper contact between senior Trump officials and Russia during the campaign “definitely or probably occurred.””
59% seems low given the president’s approval rating has dropped to a new low of 32%. While Trump approval is dropping across all demographics, he manages to have stronger support AGAINST Trump-Russia and Mueller’s investigation. Trump’s approval collapses but he is apparently still able to rally doubt against the investigation of Trump collusion.
If Kiriakou is right and Flynn indeed serves up Donnie Jr. and Kushner to Mueller we enter an entirely new chapter of Trump-Russia collusion. Trump and Trumpsters will make more noise, make more threats and break more things we value. But if Donnie Jr. and Kushner make the list of those indicted or pleading guilty Trump will be severely pushed into a corner of personal risk. Given his ability to form his own parallel universe of beliefs, I likely lack the imagination to anticipate how much stuff he will throw at the wall – or for that matter, the ability of those that are complicit to let him rage forward.
Or, perhaps, of his cultish loyal MAGA supporters to stay the course.
Given keeping track of the Trump-Russia storyline is a little like doing a crossword puzzle on a roller coaster, The Guardian put together a clever interactive resource for readers: Trump-Russia Investigation; The Key Questions Answered.
Take a minute and try this interactive site. If you click on “Is this a ‘witch-hunt’ as Trump claims?” you get to a summary of Trump’s view of “the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history”. But there are seven embedded links, so you can click on “criminal behavior” and navigate to “What’s in the Michael Flynn plea deal?” as an example. Feel free to wander, it’s concise and well done. Start with “What is collusion?” and wander through the thickets of Trumpland to your heart’s desire.