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How Putin Got in Trump’s (and So, All of Our) Head

As of 8AM on December 22, this tweet has over 50,000 likes and almost 11,000 RTs.

The AP story he RTed selectively reported Vladimir Putin’s taunt in response to a Dmitry Simes’ question at his yearly epic press conference (posed well into the process, even after a possibly more interesting exchange about doping and the Olympics).

In context, Putin’s response is not that inflammatory. It uses domestic US politics as a way to pressure Trump to sign START-3. (I’ve italicized the Putin language that AP took out of context and provided their own translation of; also note: Simes was himself a subject of the Mueller investigation for the early advice he gave Jared Kushner on how to manage this relationship and is close to a number of key members of Congress.)

D. Simes:  Channel One, The Big Game.

D. Peskov : Please give a microphone.

D. Simes:  Mr. President, two days ago the US Congress passed bills on sanctions against Russia. Moreover, by such a majority that it would be very difficult for President Trump to maintain his veto.

And, as you probably know, the House of Representatives passed an impeachment act yesterday. This is the context in which he has to make decisions on foreign policy as a whole and more specifically, of course, in relation to Russia.

In this situation, what, do you think, do you and Russia have the opportunity to try to maintain or strengthen dialogue with the United States until the end of Trump’s presidency? What can you do for strategic stability, and more specifically, for the extension of the strategic offensive arms treaty START-3?

Vladimir Putin:  Regarding the extension of our dialogue until the end of Trump’s presidency, it’s as if you are already raising the question that it is ending. I’m just not sure about that. You also need to go through the Senate, where the Republicans, as far as I know, have the majority, and they are unlikely to want to remove the representative of their party from power for some, in my opinion, absolutely far-fetched reasons.

It’s just a continuation of the internal political struggle, and one party that lost the election, the Democratic Party, it is achieving results by other means, by other means, charging Trump with conspiracy with Russia, then it turns out that there was no conspiracy, this cannot lie in the basis of impeachment. Now they have come up with some kind of pressure on Ukraine. I don’t know what it is … But it’s more visible to your congressmen.

As for those decisions that are made in [respect] of Russia. They are accepted by people who practically do not bear responsibility for these decisions. These are not executive authorities, but representative ones, they must pass laws. They make such decisions regarding Russia.

Of course, this will affect the level of our interstate relations. We know the general approach, which is that the United States will work with us where it is interesting and profitable, and at the same time will restrain Russia with the help of solutions of this kind. Knowing this, we, too, will act in a mirror image, and that’s it. There is nothing good about it. These are absolutely unfriendly acts against Russia.

They want to help Ukraine maintain transit. I just told a colleague from Ukraine: we ourselves want to preserve transit, we are interested in this anyway and will do it. If you wanted to help, it would be better if they gave money. Why don’t they give money to Ukraine? Would give them the opportunity to subsidize.

Look, because they almost do not give money, they give only guarantees for possible loans, but this is not real money – there is no real support. And the IMF, at the same time as the United States, is demanding that all privileges for energy resources, including gas, be canceled. And now the population will again have a leap.

Other Westerners, the EU, are demanding that the round timber be exported and allowed to be exported to Europe. There will soon be nothing left of the Carpathians – bare rocks will be there if they take out the round timber. It seems like they support the current Ukrainian regime and leadership, but at the same time, in my opinion, they are doing some serious blows.

Now they demand that land be sold. For Ukrainians, the land has sacred significance, and I can understand it: these are the “golden” lands. Of course, the opposition immediately took advantage of this, now it begins to inflict domestic political blows on Zelensky.

They accuse us of something in relation to Ukraine, they allegedly want to help, but they really want to do something so that Ukraine replenishes its budget at the Russian expense. Give money yourself, help, give good loans at preferential rates for a long period. There is nothing.

Nevertheless, we are interested in developing and maintaining relations with the United States, and we will do this regardless of who is in the White House or who controls both houses of the US Congress.

Are there any prospects here? I think there is. You yourself mentioned one of the foundations on the basis of which we must build our relations – these are global security issues, including START-3. We have given our proposals, I have already said, and I want to repeat once again: until the end of the year we are ready to simply extend, just to take and extend the current START-3 agreement.

If tomorrow they send us by mail, or we are ready to sign and send to Washington, let the relevant leaders, including the President, put their signature there, if they are ready. But so far there is no answer to all our proposals. And if there is no START-3, then there will be nothing at all in the world that holds back the arms race. And this, in my opinion, is bad.

Along the way, though, Putin’s correct observation that Republicans will be loathe to replace their own president led AP to foreground his claimed opinion that the impeachment was like the Mueller investigation and the allegations are far-fetched.

In a world of rigorous journalism, such a report would note that the Ukraine allegations are in some ways the continuation of Trump’s efforts to undermine the Russian investigation and incorporate a hoax that Trump believes partly because Putin has convinced him to (claim to) believe.

But the AP didn’t include that. It instead included Putin’s comment with the spin he might prefer, and slapped it into a tweet that emphasized Putin’s predictive powers. And somehow that tweet attracted Trump’s attention (how it did so — after all, the AP is not Trump’s regular media diet — is one of the more interesting questions about this). And Trump tweeted it out, “A total Witch Hunt!,” like he would other tweets parroting precisely what he wants to hear.

Given Trump’s kneejerk narcissism, that he retweeted this Putin comment is not much different than him retweeting Rand Paul or Jim Jordan or Mark Meadows saying something similar. Putin is just one other person Trump has chosen to include in his echo chamber,  and he’s there for the same reason: because he says to Trump what Trump wants to hear.

Of course it is different, not just because Putin has a role in Trump’s crimes, which has made this tweet go viral in part due to outrage retweeting. A slew of stupid news coverage has followed.

But the tweet is also different because by elevating the tweet, Trump will allow Putin to claim to be correct when the Senate fails to remove Trump, not just on his analysis that Republicans won’t want to remove their own President, but also that the allegations are far-fetched, something many but not all Republicans are willing to perform belief of, but which few people who’ve read the facts actually do believe.

Along the way, Putin will co-opt those Republicans (like John Kennedy) willing to spew hoaxes about Ukraine out of partisan loyalty. Loyalty to Trump will appear to be validation of Putin, even on a question premised on the overwhelming bipartisan support for sanctions on Russia. And that, in turn, will be deemed, by Trump opponents, to demonstrate irrationality of his supporters.

It’s all very predictable and — pro Trump, anti Trump, and lazy journalist — we’re all playing our designated parts like trained monkeys. All of this reactive expression only serves to heighten partisanship on terms with real consequences for foreign policy. It doesn’t take genius by Putin to do this either (though he’s very very good at playing Trump and the western press). It just takes our own reactiveness triggered by social media.

William Barr’s Asymmetric Confusion about Shitty Mueller Reporting

It turns out that once and future Attorney General William Barr has been better able to wade past shitty reporting on the outcome of the Mueller investigation than he has shitty reporting on the public evidence about what Mueller has found.

In two of my posts on Barr’s memo about the Mueller investigation (one, two), I note that Barr’s project consists of writing up 19 pages on a subject that start with an admission he knows nothing about the subject.

Barr also adopts the logically and ethically problematic stance of assuming, in a memo that states, “I realize I am in the dark about many facts” in the second sentence, that he knows what Mueller is up to, repeating over and over claims about what theory of obstruction he knows Mueller is pursuing.

Both in his prepared statement yesterday and in his testimony, he excused his memo by blaming his badly mistaken understanding of what Mueller was doing on media reports.

[M]y memo was narrow in scope, explaining my thinking on a specific obstruction-of-justice theory under a single statute that I thought, based on media reports, the Special Counsel might be considering.

He’s not wrong! I have long bitched about shitty Mueller reporting that suggested Mueller was primarily investigating whether Trump obstructed justice. Such problems persist even in recent reports that the counterintelligence focus on Trump was any different from the obstruction inquiry.

The investigation the F.B.I. opened into Mr. Trump also had a criminal aspect, which has long been publicly known: whether his firing of Mr. Comey constituted obstruction of justice.

That has, in turn, led to claims that the counterintelligence concerns stemmed exclusively from the firing of Jim Comey and not a slew of other behaviors going back some time before that.

So Barr might be excused for totally misunderstanding what the public evidence from the Mueller investigation actually showed (though not his willingness to comment without first learning what the evidence actually was), because most mainstream media reports badly misreported the public record.

Curiously, Barr didn’t get snookered by the other topic that is consistently badly reported (and badly reportedly, most likely, for the same reason — because Trump’s team has seeded that shitty reporting): whether and how Mueller will issue a report. A great deal of yesterday’s testimony pertained to whether Barr will release “the Mueller report.” Barr promised, in his his prepared testimony and later, to release as much of the results of the investigation as he could.

I also believe it is very important that the public and Congress be informed of the results of the Special Counsel’s work. For that reason, my goal will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law.

But both Democratic and Republican Senators were concerned by that (which is itself a testament to wildly divergent understandings of what Mueller is looking at), with John Kennedy going so far as suggesting Barr should release all the grand jury materials and Dianne Feinstein conditioning her vote on whether Barr commits to make Mueller’s report public.

In fact, Barr did two things. First, he said he’d speak to Rod Rosenstein and Mueller to understand what their current plans for a report were. But he also repeatedly cited the regulations to argue that Mueller’s report is — by regulation — confidential.

For shits and giggles and because I knew what response I’d get, I asked Mueller’s spokesperson Peter Carr what form their report will take today. I wasn’t disappointed. His response was to attach their governing regulations and call attention to the language that describes the mandated Special Counsel Report.

Thanks for reaching out. All I can point you to is the regulations that govern our office, which are attached. Section 600.8 states the following:

(c) Closing documentation. At the conclusion of the Special Counsel’s work, he or she shall provide the Attorney General with a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the Special Counsel. [my emphasis]

That is, if you ask Mueller — or the closest thing we get, his spokesperson — he will answer precisely what Barr did: that his mandated report is simply a confidential prosecutions and declinations report.

That shouldn’t be surprising, either. Mueller continues to use pseudonyms for identities of people in his filings — like Donald Trump himself — that are readily identifiable, based on the principle that DOJ doesn’t refer to uncharged individuals. It’s a principle that explains part of why Mueller submitted yesterday’s Manafort filing in heavily redacted form.

[T]he redactions relate to ongoing law enforcement investigations or uncharged individuals, and public disclosure of certain information in the submission could unduly risk harming those efforts.

In other words, virtually all of the coverage of the “Mueller report” has promised it will be something other than we had reason to believe — short of an indictment request overridden by the Attorney General — that it would be.

By the same token, there’s abundant reason to believe that that’s not what the “Mueller report” will be.

Yesterday, the same day questions about a Mueller report were central to Barr’s confirmation hearing, the WSJ reported this entirely unsurprising detail about Michael Cohen’s testimony before the Oversight Committee on February 7.

Mr. Cohen, who is scheduled to speak in an open hearing on Capitol Hill for the first time Feb. 7, won’t be able to talk about topics that he has discussed with special counsel Robert Mueller, according to a person close to Mr. Cohen.

The indication that Cohen’s testimony will be sharply limited (presumably based on the intercession of Mueller’s congressional liaison, Stephen Kelly, about whom we’re likely to hear more in coming days) suggests several things: First, Mueller doesn’t expect to be done with Michael Cohen by February 7. That, in turn, suggests that all the claims — which I’ve heard too — that Mueller will soon issue a “report” likely misunderstand what form that report will take, because a one-time report covering the importance of Trump Tower deals to entice Trump’s family would present little reason to silence Cohen next month, particularly because he’d be free to talk about it anyway. But if something more public — such as an indictment, even if it’s just of Trump Organization — or if a non-public report that can be conveyed to the House Judiciary Committee is in the works, then you’d want to silence Cohen. Indeed, contrary to a lot of other bad reporting, Cohen remains on the hook in his cooperation with Mueller; he won’t get a reduction in sentence until they decide he has done enough to get a year lopped off his existing sentence.

That many reporters are being told by reliable sources that Mueller will soon unveil a “report” and that Mueller still officially maintains that their required report won’t be public suggests Mueller is moving towards yet another speaking indictment, which is how he has always reported. That’s consistent with the limits on Cohen’s report, it’s consistent with reports that Mueller is presenting evidence against Jerome Corsi to a grand jury, and it’s consistent with what we saw in yesterday’s Manafort filing (which presented evidence of Trump campaign crimes dating to 2016).

I have my concerns about Barr, especially his willingness to make policy decisions informed only by right wing propaganda (on which point he was worse on his testimony about immigration and criminal justice issues than on Mueller). Those concerns extend to what will happen if Barr gets to decide what parts of a Mueller report gets made public; it’s clear that Barr currently believes that Mueller will issue a report finding that Trump did nothing criminal. Those concerns are heightened by the fact that on virtually every other topic, Barr had not done enough homework to answer basic questions (the most remarkable instance of which was his confession that he hasn’t read the Supreme Court’s decision in Carpenter), but he was prepared to state, correctly, that Mueller’s report will be confidential, addressed solely to him.

I have other concerns. Once CSPAN fixes their transcript, I hope to show how badly hypocritical Barr is about both Matt Whitaker and Donald Trump’s sleazy influence peddling. His comments about recusal from the Mueller investigation were troubling. And he seems to believe — as he explained to Patrick Leahy near the end of the hearing — that in November 2017 there remained, after DOJ had investigated both and after Mueller had rolled out the George Papadopoulos plea deal showing him trying to hide that he was discussing emails and meetings with Putin in the days after he became a foreign policy advisor to Trump, more evidence to support an investigation of the Uranium One and Clinton Foundation allegations than into “collusion.”

But Barr also strongly suggested he would not step in the way of any Mueller indictments. And Senators did get him on the record agreeing that if Trump suborned perjury it would be criminal. And he respects Mueller, so if Mueller shows him evidence that Trump has been gravely compromised, then he should take that evidence seriously.

Barr appears to be an arrogant man who believes right wing propaganda is sufficient evidence to base policy decisions on.

But he also has a better idea of what the regulations say to expect from a Mueller report — as distinct from Mueller indictments — than the Senators questioning him did.

Update: This useful JustSecurity piece lays out the regulations and the Attorney General’s discretion.

As I disclosed July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans Have No Excuse for Not Doing Something about White Supremacist Violence

Last I checked, the following Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee have criticized white supremacists, violence, and/or Trump’s appeasement of the former in Charlotteville.

Chuck Grassley, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair:

What ” WhiteNatjonalist” are doing in Charlottesville is homegrown terrorism that can’t be tolerated anymore that what Any extremist does

Orrin Hatch, President pro tempore:

We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home

Their tiki torches may be fueled by citronella but their ideas are fueled by hate, & have no place in civil society.

Lindsey Graham, Chair of Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism:

The South Carolina Republican called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to go to Virginia and “personally handle domestic terrorism investigations” and alleged civil rights abuses by the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis “who took this young woman’s life.”

Graham was referring to Heather Heyer, 32, who was killed when a car ran into a group of counter-protesters Saturday in Charlottesville where white supremacists and neo-Nazis were holding a “Unite the Right” rally. Many more were injured.

Graham additionally proposed the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security form a task force on the threat of white supremacist groups and report back to Congress with potential solutions for cracking down on them.

“This is an opportunity for the Trump administration to come down like a hammer on white supremacists,” Graham said during a news conference in his Columbia office. “And I hope they do.”

John Cornyn, Chair of Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration and Senate Majority Whip:

No place for the bigotry & hate-filled violence in . These actions should be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

And (update, from August 17):

We’ve all been shocked that the unhealed wounds of the nation’s racial divide flared up in such a surprising and disturbing way,” Cornyn said in a Chronicle interview. “I think the president had an opportunity to send a message that would unite America behind our common resolve to heal those wounds and unite our country, and unfortunately I don’t think he did that.”

Ted Cruz, Chair of Subcommittee on the Constitution, who while Chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts, had a hearing on the importance of naming Islamic terrorism Islamic terrorism:

It’s tragic and heartbreaking to see hatred and racism once again mar our great Nation with bloodshed. Heidi’s and my prayers are with the loved ones of those killed and injured in the ongoing violence in Charlottesville. The First Amendment protects the rights of all Americans to speak their minds peaceably, but violence, brutality, and murder have no place in a civilized society.

The Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists are repulsive and evil, and all of us have a moral obligation to speak out against the lies, bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred that they propagate. Having watched the horrifying video of the car deliberately crashing into a crowd of protesters, I urge the Department of Justice to immediately investigate and prosecute this grotesque act of domestic terrorism.

These bigots want to tear our country apart, but they will fail. America is far better than this. Our Nation was built on fundamental truths, none more central than the proposition ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.’

But,

“One of the things we’re seeing going on is the media and the Democrats are, to the surprise of no one, demagoguing this issue and using it for political advantage,” Cruz said. “So, in the media’s telling, they want to tar and feather any Republican, any conservative, and paint us all as these crazy racist nutbags.”

Jeff Flake, Chair of Subcommittee Privacy, Technology, and the Law):

We can’t accept excuses for white supremacy & acts of domestic terrorism. We must condemn. Period.

Flake, more generally:

Under our Constitution, there simply are not that many people who are in a position to do something about an executive branch in chaos. As the first branch of government (Article I), the Congress was designed expressly to assert itself at just such moments. It is what we talk about when we talk about “checks and balances.” Too often, we observe the unfolding drama along with the rest of the country, passively, all but saying, “Someone should do something!” without seeming to realize that that someone is us. And so, that unnerving silence in the face of an erratic executive branch is an abdication, and those in positions of leadership bear particular responsibility.

Ben Sasse, Chair of Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts:

“I refuse to accept that mankind is tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism… Unconditional love will have the final word” -MLK

“My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope of earth.” -Abraham Lincoln

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that ALL men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator with…unalienable Rights”

These people are utterly revolting–and have no understanding of America. This creedal nation explicitly rejects “blood & soil” nationalism.

John Kennedy:

Violence and hatred are never the answer.

There are 20 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, 11 Republicans and 9 Democrats. Of the Republicans, eight have made statements at least condemning the violence in Charlottesville, even if Cornyn and Kennedy, among others, are obviously issuing empty condemnations.

If even two of the Republicans who’ve made statements condemning the right wing violence in Charlottesville are serious — or more specifically serious about actions that DOJ must take, as in comments that both Lindsey and Cruz made — then they’ve got the numbers to make it happen.

They’ve got the numbers to force DOJ to refund the Life After Hate program, which white supremacist Seb Gorka’s wife Katherine defunded. They’ve got the numbers to ask Jefferson Beauregard Sessions whether his DOJ will treat this act of terrorism as terrorism. They’ve got the numbers to ask whether FBI ignored warnings of surging white supremacism.

Republicans often complain that there’s nothing they can do about their unmanageable President. This is one case where that’s patently false.