Posts

Buried Amid the John Dowd News, Mueller’s Team Seems to Think Trump Knows about the June 9 Meeting

I didn’t get a chance to unpack this story before John Dowd up and resigned. It lays out the four areas that Dowd was, until yesterday, negotiating with Mueller’s office regarding Trump’s testimony. It actually provides less detail than the WaPo and CNN stories I covered here. Those stories laid out that Mueller’s team was asking specific questions about:

Flynn’s Firing

  • Whether Trump knew about Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition?
  • What instructions, if any, the president gave Flynn about the contact?Whether he fired Flynn because he had misled Vice President Pence about his contact with Kislyak?

Comey’s Firing

  • Whether he fired Comey because he had mishandled an investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton?
  • What was Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ involvement in the Comey dismissal?

While far less detailed than those earlier articles, however, yesterday’s pre-Dowd departure story describes Mueller’s team asking questions about four areas (I’ve reordered these to make them chronological):

  1. The circumstances surrounding [the June 9, 2016] Trump Tower meeting
  2. The President’s role in crafting a statement aboard Air Force One that miscast Donald Trump Jr.’s campaign June 2016 meeting with Russians in Trump Tower
  3. The firing of national security adviser Michael Flynn
  4. The firing of FBI Director James Comey

It was this focus, according to CNN, that pissed Trump off because,

The focus on Trump himself in Mueller’s pursuits has alarmed and angered the President, who adhered to a legal strategy of holding back set by his attorney John Dowd and White House special counsel Ty Cobb, who have said for months the investigation was likely to conclude soon.

And now Dowd is gone and Ty Cobb is reportedly likely to follow him, to be replaced by table-pounders who will make noise rather than argue the facts.

Bullet 1 — seven words slipped into the CNN story between stuff we’ve long talked about Trump’s involvement in — ought to be blaring headlines.

BREAKING: “Robert Mueller’s prosecutors are going to ask the President about the circumstances surrounding the meeting at which some Russians, including representatives from Trump’s old business associate Aras Agalarov, pitched Junior, Jared, and Trump’s corrupt campaign manager, on dirt about Hillary in the context of relaxing sanctions,” the headline should have read.

Call me crazy. But I doubt Mueller’s team would ask the President about this unless they had reason to believe Trump knew something about it.

And that changes the import of the three other bullets dramatically.

For example, most people have assumed Bullet 2, Trump’s claim this meeting pertained to adoptions and not dirt-for-sactions, is about obstruction charges (Elizabeth de la Vega lays out how that might serve as the basis for one or another conspiracy charge here). But that ignores that Trump spent the weekend leading up to that statement meeting, twice, with Vladimir Putin, including that bizarre meeting over dinner with no babysitter right before the White House released the statement.

BREAKING: The President met twice with Vladimir Putin while he was taking the lead on responding to questions about a meeting we’re all pretending Trump knew nothing about, and then came out with the spin that Vladimir Putin would most likely give it, the designated Russian propaganda line to cover up its campaign against Magnitsky sanctions.

Which brings us to Bullet 3: Whether Trump (via KT McFarland serving as a go-between from Mar a Lago) ordered Flynn to ask Sergey Kislyak to hold off on responding to sanctions, and if so, why he fired Flynn for doing what he told him to do.

Trump surely didn’t fire Flynn because he lied to Mike Pence (if indeed he did lie). Did he fire Flynn because he didn’t lie about it, making an otherwise marginally legally problematic discussion a legally problematic issue? Or did he fire Flynn because he believed it was the most efficacious way to make the focus on his efforts to roll back sanctions on Russia go away?

Bullet 4. Mueller’s prosecutors want to know why, a day before the Russians showed up for a meeting at which Trump refused to have US press, Trump fired Comey, and then told the Russians,

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Mr. Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.”

Laid out like this, this is what Mueller’s four bullets might look like:

  1. What Trump knew about the dirt-for-sanctions relief deal his one-time business partner Aras Agalarov pitched
  2. Whether Trump gave his National Security Adviser orders to deliver that dirt-for-sanctions deal even before being inaugurated
  3. Why Trump fired Flynn if he was following his orders delivering on that dirt-for-sanctions deal
  4. What Trump meant when he said he fired Comey because firing him took care of the great pressure he had because of Russia

Even as Mueller was negotiating these four questions, Trump called up Putin, at which, according to the Kremlin, “It was agreed to develop further bilateral contacts in light of [the fact that Trump had just fired Rex Tillerson, the next guy standing in the way of fulfilling the dirt-for-sanctions relief deal]. The possibility of organizing a top-level meeting received special attention.” “We will probably get together in the not-too-distant future,” Trump said of the call on Tuesday. “I suspect that we’ll probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future,” he said a second time, a line that reportedly surprised his aides, another piece of news lost in the legal team shake-up. “I think, probably, we’ll be seeing President Putin in the not-too-distant future,” Trump said a third time in his public comments.

So now Dowd is gone, which is probably lucky for him because otherwise he’d be business negotiating over Bullet 5.

5. Why did Trump fire Rex Tillerson and how does that relate to this big new push to meet with Putin again?

The Very Globalized Forces Manipulating the Anti-Globalist President

I want to consider three stories related to the conspiracies that got Trump elected and have influenced his policy decisions.

Cambridge Analytica and Facebook privatizes intelligence sources and methods behind “democratic” elections

First, there’s the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Here are some of the most scandalous tidbits:

Likelihood Facebook failed to abide by a 2011 FTC consent decree and certainty that Cambridge Analytica and Facebook failed to abide by British and EU privacy law, respectively. While Facebook and other big tech companies have sometimes publicly bowed to the onerous restrictions of more repressive regimes and have secretly bowed to the invasive demands of American spies, the public efforts to rein in big tech have had limited success in Europe and virtually none in the US.

In the US in particular, weak government agencies have done little more than ask consumers to trust big tech.

As privacy advocates have long argued, big tech can’t be trusted. Nor can big tech regulate itself.

Cambridge Analytica used legally suspect means — the same kind of illegal means intelligence agencies employ — to help its customers. Channel 4 reported that Cambridge Analytica at least promised they could set honey traps and other means to compromise politicians. The Guardian reported that Cambridge Analytica acted as a cut-out to share hacked emails in Nigerian and a Nevis/St. Kitts elections. Thus far, the most problematic claim made about Cambridge Analytica’s activities in the US are the aforementioned illegal use of data shared for research purposes, visa fraud to allow foreign (British) citizens to work on US elections, and possibly the illegal coordination between Rebekah Mercer’s PAC with the campaign.

Internet Research Agency used the same kind of methods advertising and marketing firms use, but to create grassroots. The IRA indictment laid out how a private company in Russia used Facebook (and other tech giants’) networking and advertising services to create fake grassroots enthusiasm here in the US.

All of these means undermine the democratic process. They’re all means nation-state intelligence services use. By privatizing them, such services became available to foreign agents and oligarchical interests more easily, with easy ways (many, but not all, broadly acceptable corporate accounting methods) to hide the financial trail.

Russia buys the network behind Joseph Mifsud

Then there’s the Beeb piece advancing the story of Joseph Mifsud (ignore the repetitive annoying music and John Schindler presence). It provides details on the role played by German born Swiss financier and lawyer Stephan Roh. Roh has three ties to Mifsud. In 2014, Roe started lecturing at the London Academy of Diplomacy where Misfud worked. In the same year, he bought the Roman institution Misfud helped manage. And then, in 2016, when George Papadopoulos was being targeted, Roh was on a panel with Papadopoulos’ two handlers.

That same month, Mifsud was in Moscow on a panel run by the Kremlin-backed Valdai Club with Timofeev and the third man, Dr Stephan Roh, a German multi-millionaire.

Mifsud and Roh interlock: in 2014, Roh became a visiting lecturer at the London Academy of Diplomacy. Roh bought Link Campus University, a private institution in Rome where Mifsud was part of the management and Mifsud became a consultant at Roh’s legal firm.

The Beeb piece goes on to describe how Roh bought a British nuclear consultancy too. When the British scientist behind it balked at cozying up to Russia, he was fired, but it appears to still be used as a cut-out.

Again, none of this is new: Russia just spent a lot of money to set up some fronts. The amount of money floating around and the ability to buy into a title by buying an old castle do make it easier, however.

George Nader purchases US foreign policy for the Saudis and Emirates

Then there’s NYT’s confirmation of something that was obvious from the first reports that the FBI whisked George Nader away from Dulles Airport before he could meet Donald Trump at Mar a Lago earlier this year. Nader got an immunity deal and has been cooperating with Mueller’s team to describe how he brokered US foreign policy decisions (most notably, and anti-Qatari stance). He did so by cultivating GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy, turning him into both an asset and front for foreign influence. Those activities included:

  • Securing hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts for Broidy’s private security firm, Circinus, with the Saudis and Emirates, and offering several times more.
  • Working with Broidy to scuttle the nomination of Anne Patterson to DOD and to orchestrate the firing, last week, of Rex Tillerson, in both cases because they were deemed too supportive of diplomacy towards Iran.
  • Offering financial support for a $12.7 million Washington lobbying and public relations campaign, drafted by a third party, targeting both Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • Paying Broidy $2.7 million to fund conferences at both Hudson Institute and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies attacking Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood; Broidy provided a necessary American cut-out for the two think tanks because their fundraising rules prohibit donations from undemocratic regimes or foreign countries, respectively. The payment was laundered through an “Emirati-based company [Nader] controlled, GS Investments, to an obscure firm based in Vancouver, British Columbia, controlled by Mr. Broidy, Xieman International.”
  • Unsuccessfully pitching a private meeting, away from the White House, between Trump and Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
  • Obtaining a picture of Nader with Trump, effectively showing the president in the company of a foreign agent and convicted pedophile.

Effectively, Nader provides Mueller what Mueller has been getting from Rick Gates: details of how a foreign country purchased American policy support via cutouts in our easily manipulated campaign finance system.

Nader brings two more elements of what I pointed to last May: what is ultimately a Jared Kushner backed “peace” “plan” that is instead the money laundered wish of a bunch of foreign interests. While we’ve seen the Russian, Saudi, and Emirate money behind this plan, we’re still missing full details on how Mueller is obtaining the Israeli side, though I’m sure he’s getting that too.

Note, Broidy has claimed the details behind his work with Nader were hacked by Qatari hackers. That may be the case; there have also been a slew of presumably hacked documents from Emirates Ambassador to the US, Yousef al Otaiba, floating around. So while this is important reporting, it relies on the same kind of illicitly obtained intelligence that was used against Hillary in 2016.

Importantly, the Nader story generalizes this. Nader has worked with both the Clinton and the Dick Cheney Administrations, and the laundering of foreign funds to US think tanks has long been tolerated (in some cases, such as Brookings, the think tank doesn’t even bother with the money laundering and accepts the foreign money directly). Democrats are not immune from this kind of influence peddling, in the least. It’s just that Trump, because of his greater narcissism, his ignorance of real foreign policy doctrine, and his debt and multinational business make Trump far more vulnerable to such cultivation. Given Cheney’s ties to Halliburton and the Clinton Foundation, it’s a matter of degree and competence, not principle.

Globalism is just another word for fighting over which oligarchs will benefit from globalization

Which brings us to Trump’s claim (orchestrated by Steven Bannon, paid for by the Mercers) to oppose “globalists,” a racialized term to demonize the downsides of globalization without actually addressing the forces of globalization in an effective way. Little Trump is doing (up to and including the trade war with China he’s rolling out today) will help the white people who made him president (the demonization of immigrants will have benefits and drawbacks).

What it will do is foster greater authoritarianism in this country, making it easier both to make Trump’s white voters less secure even while channeling the resultant anger by making racism even more of an official policy.

And it will also shift somewhat which oligarchs — both traditionally well-loved ones, like the Sauds, and adversaries, like the Russians — will benefit as a result.

Importantly, it is being accomplished using the tools of globalization, from poorly overseen global tech companies, easily manipulated global finance system, and a global network of influence peddling that can also easily be bought and paid for.

“DO NOT CONGRATULATE:” Putin Does a Victory Lap — Over Rex Tillerson

As the WaPo reported, when Donald Trump called Vladimir Putin yesterday, he ignored his aides’ instructions not to congratulate Putin for winning reelection. He also ignored their instructions to condemn Putin for trying to kill Sergei Skripal.

Trump also chose not to heed talking points from aides instructing him to condemn Putin about the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom with a powerful nerve agent, a case that both the British and U.S. governments have blamed on Moscow.

That story is all the more interesting given the circumstances surrounding the call. The US readout of the call, posted only after Russia revealed it took place, doesn’t say that the White House initiated the call. The call … just happened.

President Donald J. Trump spoke today with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. The two leaders discussed the state of bilateral relations and resolved to continue dialogue about mutual national security priorities and challenges. President Trump congratulated President Putin on his March 18 re-election, and emphasized the importance of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. The two leaders confirmed the need for the United States and Russia to continue our shared efforts on strategic stability.

But if you’re going to call someone — anyone — after they’ve just won an election, you’re going to congratulate them. Trump even called Turkish president Erdogan last April after he won a referendum to make authoritarian changes to the Turkish Constitution.

And, as the Kremlin readout makes clear, it was the White House’s idea to make the call. It’s right there in the title, and the first words emphasize the congratulations Trump offered Putin (unless I’m mistaken, the readouts of other leader calls don’t emphasize that the counterparty initiated the call).

Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with President of the United States Donald Trump at the latter’s initiative.

Donald Trump congratulated Vladimir Putin on his victory in the presidential election. [my emphasis]

Given all that — given that Russia lorded over the way Trump simpered up to Putin — I’m particularly interested in this paragraph of the Russian readout (the second-to-last). [Update: Clarifying that I meant to refer to the Turkish, South Ossetian, and Jordanian congratulatory calls provided in Russian.]

It was agreed to develop further bilateral contacts in light of the changes in leadership at the US Department of State. The possibility of organising a top-level meeting received special attention.

Russia basically says that “it was agreed” (an interesting use of the passive voice) that the US and Russia could start cozying up together now that Rex Tillerson is out of the way!!! It’s as if this call was not just Trump bowing to Putin, but Trump checking in after firing Tillerson just one day after Tillerson — in his last speech save his farewell remarks — condemned Russia for attempting to assassinate Sergei Skripal. Here’s what Tillerson said right before he got fired:

The United States was in touch with our Allies in the United Kingdom ahead of today’s announcement, including in a call between Secretary Tillerson and Foreign Secretary Johnson this morning. We have full confidence in the UK’s investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack that took place in Salisbury last week.

There is never a justification for this type of attack – the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation – and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behavior. From Ukraine to Syria – and now the UK – Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.

We agree that those responsible – both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it – must face appropriately serious consequences. We stand in solidarity with our Allies in the United Kingdom and will continue to coordinate closely our responses.

I’m actually not all that surprised Trump congratulated Putin; it’s consistent with his past behavior. The more alarming victory lap in this phone call pertains to Putin’s victory lap over Rex Tillerson.


I’m including this exchange from yesterday’s Trump presser, as another example of how much Putin has Trump cowed. Note Trump’s emphasis on some purported arms race. Yes, Putin is waggling his new nukes around. But the more interesting arms race involves cyber.

Q How was your call with President Putin?

PRESIDENT TRUMP: I had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory — his electoral victory.

The call had to do, also, with the fact that we will probably get together in the not-too-distant future so that we can discuss arms, we can discuss the arms race. As you know, he made a statement that being in an arms race is not a great thing. That was right after the election — one of the first statements he made.

And we are spending $700 billion this year on our military, and a lot of it is that we are going to remain stronger than any other nation in the world by far.

We had a very good call, and I suspect that we’ll probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control, but we will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have. And also to discuss Ukraine and Syria and North Korea and various other things.

So I think, probably, we’ll be seeing President Putin in the not-too-distant future.

Update: CNN reports that Trump is furious that it leaked that he had ignored his aides’ instructions. But I don’t rule out Trump leaking it himself. It’d give him a good excuse to fire HR McMaster (so Putin could receive another simpering call from Trump and lord over that Trump is firing the people he doesn’t like).

Open Thread: Russia, Russia, Russia! and Everything Else

This is an open thread launched while current events still unfold. It may offer an overview for folks still acquainting themselves with the news about Rex Tillerson, Russia, and the UK.

By now you likely know Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by tweet. Like Sally Yates on the travel ban and James Comey about his firing, Tillerson was blindsided; he found out he was terminated from a Trump tweet. Take note of Marcy’s post on Tillerson’s replacement, Mike Pompeo, and his sketchy replacement, deputy CIA director Gina Haspel.

Trump may have fired Tillerson because of this response to the poisoning in the UK of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter this past week.

Notice the response attributes the poisoning to Russia but makes no mention of the U.S. role as a NATO member and any response required by that membership. The response doesn’t even name Skripal.

Tillerson’s statement followed UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s demand before Parliament yesterday that Russia explain the poisoning of Skripal, setting a two-day deadline.

The poison used is believed to be an extremely powerful nerve agent Novichok developed by the former USSR.

Russia’s point persons, Sergei Lavrov as Russia’s foreign minister, and Maria Zakharova, his spokesperson, as well as Russian parliament member Andrei Lugovoi have pushed back on May’s attribution and demands while demanding samples of the nerve agent found in Skripal’s poisoning.

NATO’s Article 5 obligates member nations to defend other NATO members in the attack on any NATO member:

Article 5

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

On May 25 last year at a visit NATO’s new headquarters during Trump’s first trip to Europe, Trump avoided continuing U.S. commitment to Article 5. It wasn’t until five weeks later during a speech in Poland that Trump reaffirmed Article 5, saying,

… To those who would criticize our tough stance, I would point out that the United States has demonstrated — not merely with its words but with its actions — that we stand firmly behind Article 5, the mutual defense commitment …

Many articles speculate Tillerson’s firing is the culmination of more than a year of tensions between Tillerson and Trump, including at least one episode during which Tillerson is said to have called Trump a moron (a “fucking moron” according to some). However the immediacy of the termination suggests Trump wanted to remove Tillerson before he could support Theresa May once the two-day deadline has passed.

It’s worth noting that Trump has yet to enforce sanctions on Russia established by bipartisan legislation on a nearly unanimous basis.

It’s also worth noting the GOP majority of the House Permanent Subcommittee on Intelligence abruptly terminated its investigation of Trump-Russia only yesterday afternoon, without providing any notice to the Democratic minority members.

Do read Marcy’s post about Pompeo; bring anything non-Russia comments here to this thread.

Welcome to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Pompeo — the Latest Committee to Have Reason to Investigate Russia!

Yesterday, Rex Tillerson committed the one unforgivable sin on the Trump Administration: holding Russia accountable for its actions. While Trump and Sarah Huckabee Sanders equivocated, Tillerston strongly stated that the poison used in the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter obviously came from Russia.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Britain “clearly came from Russia” and “certainly will trigger a response.”

Tillerson says he doesn’t know whether Russia’s government had knowledge of the poisoning. But he is arguing the poison couldn’t have originated anywhere else. He says the substance is known to the U.S. and doesn’t exist widely. He says it’s “only in the hands of a very, very limited number of parties.”

Tillerson calls the poisoning “a really egregious act” and says it’s “almost beyond comprehension” that a state actor would use such a dangerous substance in a public place.

Today, Tillerson’s counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, drew the unenviable task of denying Russia’s involvement, even while the Russian Embassy and Putin himself barely hid their glee about the attack.

“Russia is not responsible,” Sergei Lavrov said during a televised press conference that marked an escalation of the standoff with the UK over the poisoning of the former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

Lavrov also suggested Moscow would not comply with a Tuesday midnight deadline set by Theresa May to deliver an explanation or face retaliation. He said Moscow’s requests to see samples of the nerve agent had been turned down, which he called a violation of the chemical weapons convention outlawing the production of chemical weapons.

“We have already made our statement on this case,” he said. “Russia is ready to cooperate in accordance with the convention to ban chemical weapons if the United Kingdom will deign to fulfil its obligations according to the same convention.”

Trump did the predictable thing: Fired Tillerson by tweet, naming Mike Pompeo his successor and torturer Gina Haspel America’s first female CIA Director.

Of course, both those nominations require confirmation. And while it would probably be easy for Haspel to work as Acting Director for the foreseeable future, it may be far, far harder for Pompeo to make the move.

Admittedly, Pompeo was confirmed CIA Director with a 66-32 vote (this was before Democrats got bolder about opposing Trump’s more horrible nominees, and Pompeo was, after all, a member of Congress). But Pompeo likely faces a harder time even getting through committee. While Senate Foreign Relations Committee Dems Jeanne Shaheen and Tim Kaine are among the idiotic Dems who voted for Pompeo for CIA Director, SFRC Republican Rand Paul was the sole Republican voting against Pompeo. So even if just Shaheen and Kaine flip their votes, Pompeo will be bottled up in SFRC. But SFRC also includes several of the other Republicans who’ve been most skeptical of Trump and/or his dalliances with Russia: Bob Corker (who is retiring and has been chilly about Pompeo’s confirmation in the past), Jeff Flake (who is retiring), and Marco Rubio (who was hacked by Russia himself; though he has already said he would support Pompeo).

Since Pompeo’s last confirmation, he has done several things to coddle Trump’s Russia dalliance, as I laid out here.

Already, Pompeo’s cheerleading of Wikileaks during the election should have been disqualifying for the position of CIA Director. That’s even more true now that Pompeo himself has deemed them a non-state hostile intelligence service.

Add in the fact that Pompeo met with Bill Binney to hear the skeptics’ version of the DNC hack, and the fact that Pompeo falsely suggested that the Intelligence Community had determined Russia hadn’t affected the election. Finally, add in the evidence that Pompeo has helped Trump obstruct the investigation and his role spying on CIA’s own investigation into it, and there’s just far too much smoke tying Pompeo to the Russian operation.

Remember, too, that in his last confirmation process, Pompeo refused to rule out using hacked intelligence from Russia, something Rubio should be particularly concerned about.

Pompeo can also expect to be grilled about why he ignored the sanctions against Russia’s top intelligence officers so they could all come for a meet and greet earlier this year.

I’m not saying it won’t happen. But it will be tough for Pompeo to get through the narrowly divided SFRC, much less confirmation in the full senate.

House Intelligence Republicans yesterday made asses of themselves in an attempt to get Russian investigations off the front page. But by nominating Pompeo to be Secretary of State, Trump just gave an entirely different committee, one far more hawkish on Russia issues, reason to start a new investigation into Trump — and Pompeo’s — Russia dalliances.

Meanwhile, Over In Turkey . . .

Well isn’t this interesting? From Diplopundit last Friday comes a post with this title: Tillerson Meets Erdoğan in Ankara With Turkish Foreign Minister as InterpreterThe post is a series of tweets from all kinds of media folks, which include some of these gems:

Nicholas Wadhams of Bloomberg News:

Secretary of State Tillerson is currently meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He is the lone US representative and Turkey’s foreign minister is translating.

Rajib Soylu, Washington correspondent for Daily Sabah:

This is the second Erdoğan – Tillerson meeting where all Turkish, American officials, and even the translators excluded.

Turkish FM functions as a translator.

Ihlan Tanir of Washington Hatti US:

Im trying to understand — I never expected Pres Erdogan and Sec Tillerson to have a press conference but they did not even read statements following 200 minutes of a meeting?

Let’s pause here for a moment to let that last one sink in.

It’s one thing if the Turkish Foreign Minister brings Erdogan over to Tillerson at a meet-and-greet and translates some friendly “let me show you pictures of my grandkids” chit-chat between the two. But that’s not what this was. This was a lengthy, official, and private meeting that lasted over three hours between some very high level folks at a time of rather significant tension between the two countries.

You don’t have meetings like this without your own translator. You just don’t. The typical process is that both sides have interpreters. Official A speaks, the interpreter for Official B tells Official B what was said, and the interpreter for Official A says some version of “Yes, that’s correct” to verify the interpretation. Then it all works in reverse when Official B replies. With difficult issues under discussion, the last thing either side wants is confusion about what each side is saying.

Excluding your own interpreter is so far outside of normal protocols it is unreal, and begs the ever-green question about most everything since 1/20/2017: idiot or crook?

As Diplopundit noted in his/her own tweet, someone else was missing from this meeting — an official note taker:

Saving money on translators*, too? And the foreign FM will just share his notes of the T-E discussion with the State Dept. Or EUR can use their Magic 8 ball. 😭 It knows everything and always willing to share.

(* Diplopundit later corrected this to “interpreters”, as a slip of the fingers since “translators” are more precisely those who deal with written documents while “interpreters” handle verbal communications.)

“EUR” in that last tweet is the State Department’s Office of European Affairs, where long ago I was an intern. I can only imagine the reaction in Foggy Bottom was when word of Tillerson’s meeting with Erdogan reached them. It likely involved multiple variations on “He did WHAT?!?!?” with various . . . ahem . . . flavoring words for emphasis added. As former State Department spokesperson and retired Rear Admiral John Kirby told CNN:

“If the meeting is not conducted in English, it is foolhardy in the extreme not to have at his side a State Department translator, who can ensure that Mr. Tillerson’s points are delivered accurately and with the proper emphasis,” said former State Department spokesman and CNN diplomatic and military analyst John Kirby.

“That Mr. Tillerson eschewed this sort of support in what he knew would be a tense and critical meeting with President Erdogan smacks of either poor staff work or dangerous naïveté on his part,” Kirby added.

And that’s what Kirby said about this in public. I’ll leave it to your imagination what he and other current and former State and Defense Department folks said to each other about it in private. Hold onto this for a moment, because we’ll come back to it in a bit.

Eventually, Tillerson and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu did in fact have a press availability, which the State Department has up on their website. In the statements issued by both, as well as their answers to questions from the reporters, they talked about all manner of increasingly tense topics, from the Kurds to what’s happening in Syria to the failed coup and the Turkish demands for Fethullah Gulen to be extradited back to Turkey, and more.

Two items stood out here. First, there’s this from Tillerson about midway through:

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, with respect to how we’re going forward – and that’s what all of the discussion here was about, recognizing where we find ourselves. And I think as the foreign minister indicated, we find ourselves at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship. And we could go back and revisit how we got here, but we don’t think that’s useful. We’ve decided and President Erdogan decided last night we needed to talk about how do we go forward. The relationship is too important, it’s too valuable to NATO and our NATO allies, it’s too valuable to the American people, it’s too valuable to the Turkish people for us to not do anything other than concentrate on how are we going forward.

And out of the meetings last night – and much of our staff was up through the night to memorialize how we’re going to go about this, and we’ll share a little bit of that in the joint statement. We’re going to reserve a lot of the details because there’s a lot of work yet to be done, and we – and our working teams need to be allowed to do that work in a very open, frank, honest way with one another so that we can chart the way forward together.

I’ll bet the staff was up through the night. If no staff were allowed in the three hour meeting, then the only one who can tell them what was said, what kind of emphasis it was given, what threats were made, what promises were made, and what kind of nuance there was to each of the exchanges was Tillerson. No offense to the Secretary, but that makes the work of the staff very very difficult. To begin with, they had to interview Tillerson just to get all the information about the meeting (and pray he didn’t leave anything out), before they could even think about “how we’re going forward.”

But the larger item that stood out to me came in the very last pair of question asked, reprinted in full below but with emphasis added:

QUESTION:[ed: to Tillerson] Did you warn Turkey that they could be subject to sanctions under CAATSA legislation if they go ahead with the purchase of the S-400 system? [ed: CAATSA is the Russian sanctions legislation that Congress passed but Trump refuses to implement with any teeth.]

And for you, Mr. Foreign Minister, would the threat of U.S. sanctions stop you from going ahead with the purchase of the S-400 system? And if you do buy the system, do you still want to remain in NATO if you’re obtaining the weapons from Russia?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: We did discuss the impact of the CAATSA law that was passed by the Congress last summer that deals with purchases of Russian military equipment. I discussed it last night with President Erdogan; we had further discussions this morning about it. And indeed, it’s in the first group of issues that the foreign minister is referring to. We need to put a group of experts together, and we’ll look at the circumstances around that, as we’ve done with governments all over the world, not just Turkey, because the intent of that legislation was not to harm our friends and allies. But it is directed at Russia for its interference in our elections. So we’ve been advising countries around the world as to what the impact on their relationship and purchases that they might be considering with Russia, and many have reconsidered those and have decided to not proceed with those discussions.

Every case is individual on its own. We want to consult with Turkey and at least ensure they understand what might be at risk in this particular transaction. We don’t have all the details yet, so I can’t give you any kind of a conclusion, but it’ll be given very careful scrutiny, obviously, and we’ll fully comply with the law. And we are – we are now implementing CAATSA and fully applying it around the world.

FOREIGN MINISTER CAVUSOGLU: Thank you very much. First and foremost, I need to underline that I am against the terminology that you use. You used the threat terminology. That is not a correct terminology to be used because it is true for all countries and states. We never use the language of threat and we deny if it is used against us, because this is not correct.

But as Rex has also indicated, this was not something that we talked just yesterday and today. When we met in Vancouver, we talked about this, and from time to time when we have phone conversations, we talk about such issues. This was again brought to the agenda in one of those talks. Of course, there is a law that was enacted by the United States Congress, and they explained this legislation to us. But on the other hand, this is our national security, and it’s important for our national security. I have emergency need of an air defense system. We want to purchase this from our allies, but this does not exist. So even when we are purchasing small-scale arms, the Congress or some other European parliaments, we have – we have and we had difficulty in purchasing these because of these excuses, and I have an emergency need. And the Russian Federation came up with attractive proposals for us. We also talked to other countries, not just with Russia, but we talked about this issue of emergency need with many countries and we had bilateral talks.

Also, in the mid-term, we talked about joint production and technology transfer. We focused on this because this is important for Turkey. And lastly, during the Paris visit of our president – with Eurosam – this is a French-Italian partnership – there was a pre-agreement signed, a memorandum of understanding signed with these groups. So we do not have any problems with our allies. Why should we not meet this requirement with NATO? But, of course, when it is not met within this platform, we need to look for alternative resources. Otherwise, some batteries – some Patriot were withdrawn from our frontier. Some European allies withdrew them. We have (inaudible) of the Italians and Patriots of Spain, and we do not have any other air defense. And we need to meet this requirement as soon as possible. And when we talked to Russia, this was actually an agreement that we reached before the legislation in Congress was enacted. And the remaining part was about the details of loans, et cetera.

Of course, we talked about all of these, and we will take into consideration this – within this working group the commission, but all of us need to understand each other and respect each other. Thank you very much.

In Cavusoglu’s answer, he is pushing back hard on attempts to isolate Turkey. He’s being polite about it, but the very public message is clear: “You know, the Russians seem very interested in making a deal with us, and if you persist in trying to pressure us and don’t back us with the Kurds and cause problems in Syria and don’t return that coup-instigating terrorist you are harboring, the Russians seem pretty clearly ready to help us out where you will not.”

Which makes Tillerson’s earlier comment above sound like he got that message loud and clear. To repeat: “The relationship is too important, it’s too valuable to NATO and our NATO allies, it’s too valuable to the American people, it’s too valuable to the Turkish people for us to not do anything other than concentrate on how are we going forward.”

But there were also some private messages being sent here, too.

Let’s go back to that no-staff-allowed element of the meeting once more. In general, it is in the interests of both parties to a conversation like that to have interpreters and notetakers present, so that in the public discussions that follow (like the one above), everyone agrees on the basic facts of what was said and you don’t getting into a “but you said . . .” and “no I didn’t” back-and-forth. For the meeting to exclude such staffers means that there is something else that overrides this interest.

In this case, the Turks had to have demanded that Tillerson not bring anyone with him to this meeting. There’s no way he would have told his staff “I got this – you take a break while I talk with Erdogan” on his own. The question is why, and all the possible answers I can come up after reading the Turkish Foreign Minister’s reply to that last question involve Vladimir Putin wanting Erdogan to pass on some kind of message to Trump — a message that he did not wish to be delivered within earshot of interpreters and notetakers.

It reminds me very much of that May 2017 Oval Office meeting that Trump had with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and outgoing Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. That was the meeting where we later learned that Trump revealed Israeli intelligence to the Russians about their source inside ISIS and told them that he just fired “that nut job” James Comey which took the pressure off of him because of Russia.

Oh, and the US press were kept out of that meeting as well, with the only reports of it coming after the Russians told us about it. As Politico’s Susan Glasser noted about that Oval Office meeting, it came at the specific request of Putin:

The chummy White House visit—photos of the president yukking it up with Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak were released by the Russian Foreign Ministry since no U.S. press was allowed to cover the visit—had been one of Putin’s asks in his recent phone call with Trump, and indeed the White House acknowledged this to me later Wednesday. “He chose to receive him because Putin asked him to,” a White House spokesman said of Trump’s Lavrov meeting. “Putin did specifically ask on the call when they last talked.”

Kind of makes me wonder if the reason Tillerson left the interpreter back at the embassy is because Putin asked him to in a phone call last Monday. From CNN:

Washington (CNN) President Donald Trump spoke Monday with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to express condolences for a weekend plane crash outside Moscow, according to a US official.

The phone call came amid ongoing Washington-Moscow tensions over policy in the Middle East and Russia’s attempts to meddling in US elections.

Russian news agencies reported the phone call also included discussion of the situation in Israel. . . .

Again we’re hearing about this via Russian news agencies? I’m sensing a pattern here . . .

How Does the Strzok Text Dump Differ from Jim Comey’s July 5, 2016 Speech?

I’m a bit bemused by the response to DOJ’s release of the texts between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. As Rod Rosenstein testified before HJC yesterday, the release came after notice to Strzok and Page through their lawyers. The release of the texts came with the approval of DOJ IG Michael Horowitz — who says the investigation into the underlying conduct may last through spring. And Rosenstein strongly implied he wanted them released, taking responsibility for it (while claiming not to know whether Jeff Sessions had a role in their release).

As he explained to Trey Gowdy — who, like a number of Republicans, claimed to be at a loss of what to say to constituents who asked “what in the hell is going on with DOJ and the FBI” — the release of the texts proves that any wrongdoing will be met with consequences.

Gowdy: What happens when people who are supposed to cure the conflict of interest have even greater conflicts of interests than those they replace? That’s not a rhetorical question. Neither you nor I nor anyone else would ever sit Peter Strzok on a jury, we wouldn’t have him objectively dispassionately investigate anything, knowing what we now know. Why didn’t we know it ahead of time, and my last question, my final question — and I appreciate the Chairman’s patience — how would you help me answer that question when I go back to South Carolina this weekend?

Rosenstein: Congressman, first of all, with regard to the Special Counsel, Mr. Strzok was already working on the investigation when the Special Counsel was appointed. The appointment I made was of Robert Mueller. So what I’d recommend you tell your constituents is that Robert Mueller and Rod Rosenstein and Chris Wray are accountable and that we will ensure that no bias is reflected in any actions taken by the Special Counsel or any matter within the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice. When we have evidence of any inappropriate conduct, we’re going to take action on it. And that’s what Mr. Mueller did here as soon as he learned about this issue — he took action — and that’s what I anticipate the rest of our prosecutors, the new group of US Attorneys, our Justice Department appointees. They understand the rules and they understand the responsibility to defend the integrity of the Department. If they find evidence of improper conduct, they’re going to take action.

So Congressman, that’s the best assurance I can give you. But actually, there’s one other point, which is you should tell your constituents that we exposed this issue because we’re ensuring that the Inspector General conducts a thorough and effective investigation, and if there is any evidence of impropriety, he’s going to surface it and report about it publicly.

I actually think Rosenstein did a much better job than others apparently do, yesterday, at distinguishing between the Strzok texts (which apparently were on DOJ issued cell phones and, in spite of having Hillary investigation subject lines may not have been logged into Sentinel) and the political views of Andrew Weissmann or the past representation of Jeannie Rhee. Furthermore, he repeatedly said he would only fire Mueller for cause, and made it clear there had been no cause. Several times he talked about how closely he has worked with Mueller, such as on the scope of what gets included in his investigation (even while defending the charges against Manafort as appropriately included).

That said, I wonder how Rosenstein distinguishes, in his own mind, what he did in approving the release of the texts from an ongoing investigation and what Jim Comey did on July 5, 2016, when he gave a press conference about why Hillary Clinton had not been charged. While Rosenstein’s biggest complaint in his letter supporting the firing of Comey was that he substituted his decision for that of prosecutors, he also argued that the Department shouldn’t release derogatory information gratuitously.

Compounding the error, the Director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation. Derogatory information sometimes is disclosed in the course of criminal investigations and prosecutions, but we never release it gratuitously. The Director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial. It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.

In response to skeptical question at a congressional hearing, the Director defended his remarks by saying that his “goal was to say what is true. What did we do, what did we find, what do we think about it.” But the goal of a federal criminal investigation is not to announce our thoughts at a press conference. The goal is to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to justify a federal criminal prosecution, then allow a federal prosecutor who exercises authority delegated by the Attorney General to make a prosecutorial decision, and then – if prosecution is warranted – let the judge and jury determine the facts. We sometimes release information about closed investigations in appropriate ways, but the FBI does not do it sua sponte.

In some ways this is worse because of the off chance that Inspector General Michael Horowitz finds that these texts don’t merit some kind of response; the investigation is not finished yet.

That said, I actually do think there’s a difference: Strzok and Page are department employees, rather than subjects of an external investigation. DOJ exercises awesome power, and usually DOJ is releasing the texts of private citizens in this kind of embarrassing way.

Even former clearance holders seem surprised that these texts were discovered. It is unbelievable to me how few people understand the great liberty that counterintelligence investigators like Strzok can have in obtaining the communications of investigative targets like he has now become, particularly during leak or insider threat investigations. That may not be a good thing, but it is what other targets have been subjected to. So I think it reasonable to have FBI’s own subject to the same scrutiny, for better and worse.

I do think it worthwhile for DOJ to show that it will hold people accountable for improper actions.

Plus, aside from one August comment — which we may obtain more context on when Horowitz does finish this investigation — about an “insurance” policy against Trump, the texts simply aren’t that damning (though they do raise questions about Strzok’s role in the investigation). Strzok agrees with Rex Tillerson, after all, that Trump is an idiot.

So as far as that goes, I’m actually okay with Rosenstein’s release of these texts.

Except I worry about something else.

I actually worry less about Mueller getting fired than just about every other Trump opponent on the planet. Rosenstein seems intent to let him do his work, and (notably at several times during the hearing) seems to agree with the gravity of the investigation. Trump can’t get to Mueller without taking out Rosenstein (and Rachel Brand). And I actually think Rosenstein has thus far balanced the position of a Republican protecting a Republican from Republican ire fairly well. I expect the next shoes Mueller drops — whenever that happens — will change the tone dramatically.

What bothers me most about the release of these texts, however, is that they are a response to the same pressure that Comey was responding to (and which he thought he was smart enough to manage, just as Rosenstein surely thinks he can handle it here).

They are a response — from the same people who ran the Benghazi investigation then ignored DOJ’s prosecution of the Benghazi mastermind — to a willingness to challenge the very core of DOJ functionality, all in a bid to politicize it.

Perhaps Rosenstein is right to bide his time — to create space for Mueller to drop the next few shoes — with the release of the Strzok texts.

But at some point, Republicans need to start calling out Republicans for the damage they’re doing to rule of law with this constant playing of the refs, this demand for proof that Democrats aren’t getting some advantage through the rule of law. If those next shoes don’t have the effect I imagine, it may be too late.

Throwing H2O on the Pompeo to State Move

I could be totally wrong, but I don’t think the reported plan for Rex Tillerson to step down, to be replaced by Mike Pompeo, who in turn will be replaced by Tom Cotton (or maybe Admiral Robert Harward because Republicans can’t afford to defend an Arkansas Senate seat), will really happen.

The White House has developed a plan to force out Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, whose relationship with President Trump has been strained, and replace him with Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director, perhaps within the next several weeks, senior administration officials said on Thursday.

Mr. Pompeo would be replaced at the C.I.A. by Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas who has been a key ally of the president on national security matters, according to the White House plan. Mr. Cotton has signaled that he would accept the job if offered, said the officials, who insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations before decisions are announced.

I say that for two reasons.

First, because of all the evidence that Mike Flynn is working on a plea deal. Particularly given that Mueller has decided he doesn’t need any more evidence of Flynn’s corrupt dealings with Turkey, I suspect his leverage over Flynn has gone well beyond just those crimes (which, in turn, is why I suspect Flynn has decided to flip).

I think that when the plea deal against Flynn is rolled out, it will be associated with some fairly alarming allegations against him and others, allegations that will dramatically change how willing Republicans are to run interference for Trump in Congress.

If I’m right about that, it will make it almost impossible for Pompeo to be confirmed as Secretary of State. Already, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker, who’d oversee the confirmation, is sending signals he’s not interested in seeing Pompeo replace Tillerson.

“I could barely pick Pompeo out of a lineup” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Thursday morning.

Already, Pompeo’s cheerleading of Wikileaks during the election should have been disqualifying for the position of CIA Director. That’s even more true now that Pompeo himself has deemed them a non-state hostile intelligence service.

Add in the fact that Pompeo met with Bill Binney to hear the skeptics’ version of the DNC hack, and the fact that Pompeo falsely suggested that the Intelligence Community had determined Russia hadn’t affected the election. Finally, add in the evidence that Pompeo has helped Trump obstruct the investigation and his role spying on CIA’s own investigation into it, and there’s just far too much smoke tying Pompeo to the Russian operation.

All that will become toxic once Mike Flynn’s plea deal is rolled out, I believe.

So between Corker and Marco Rubio, who both treat Russia’s hack of the election with real seriousness (remember, too, that Rubio himself was targeted), I don’t see how Pompeo could get out of the committee.

But there’s another reason I don’t think this will happen. I suspect it — like earlier threats to replace Jeff Sessions — is just an attempt to get Tillerson to hew the Administration line on policy. The NYT cites Tillerson’s difference of opinion on both North Korea and Iran.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson have been at odds over a host of major issues, including the Iran nuclear deal, the confrontation with North Korea and a clash between Arab allies. The secretary was reported to have privately called Mr. Trump a “moron” and the president publicly criticized Mr. Tillerson for “wasting his time” with a diplomatic outreach to North Korea

It’s Iran that’s the big issue, particularly as Jared frantically tries to finish his “peace” “plan” before he gets arrested himself. The fact that Trump has floated Cotton as Pompeo’s replacement is strong support for the notion that this is about forcing Tillerson to accept the Administration lies about Iran and the nuclear deal: because Cotton, more than anyone else, has been willing to lie to oppose the deal.

Trump is basically saying that unless Tillerson will adopt the lies the Administration needs to start a war with Iran, then he will be ousted.

But Tillerson’s claim that he doesn’t need to replace all the people who’ve left state because he thinks a lot of domestic issues will be solved soon seems to reflect that he’s parroting the Administration line now.

Obviously, there’s no telling what will happen, because Trump is completely unpredictable.

But he also likes to use threats to get people to comply.

Update: CNN now reporting I’m correct.

Dear Bob Corker: Trump Has Also Been Starting Wars Here at Home

There is great delight in the chatter classes about — first — Bob Corker’s quip about the White House serving as an adult day care center caring for old people with dementia.

And then this article with a series of accusations about how unstable Trump is.

Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, charged in an interview on Sunday that President Trump was treating his office like “a reality show,” with reckless threats toward other countries that could set the nation “on the path to World War III.”

In an extraordinary rebuke of a president of his own party, Mr. Corker said he was alarmed about a president who acts “like he’s doing ‘The Apprentice’ or something.”

“He concerns me,” Mr. Corker added. “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.”

But I want to point to several passages most people aren’t focusing on.

First, Corker claims that he still likes his golfing buddy Trump.

The deeply personal back-and-forth will almost certainly rupture what had been a friendship with a fellow real estate developer turned elected official, one of the few genuine relationships Mr. Trump had developed on Capitol Hill. Still, even as he leveled his stinging accusations, Mr. Corker repeatedly said on Sunday that he liked Mr. Trump, until now an occasional golf partner, and wished him “no harm.”

Then, Corker says he doesn’t regret normalizing Trump during his campaign.

One of the most prominent establishment-aligned Republicans to develop a relationship with Mr. Trump, the senator said he did not regret standing with him during the campaign last year.

“I would compliment him on things that he did well, and I’d criticize things that were inappropriate,” he said. “So it’s been really the same all the way through.”

And ultimately Corker stops short of deeming Trump unfit, in spite of all the comments that make it clear almost all Republicans do view him as unfit (which, indeed, he would be if he required adult day care).

“As long as there are people like that around him who are able to talk him down when he gets spun up, you know, calm him down and continue to work with him before a decision gets made, I think we’ll be fine,” he said.

Mr. Corker would not directly answer when asked whether he thought Mr. Trump was fit for the presidency. But he did say that the commander in chief was not fully aware of the power of his office.

“I don’t think he appreciates that when the president of the United States speaks and says the things that he does, the impact that it has around the world, especially in the region that he’s addressing,” he said. “And so, yeah, it’s concerning to me.”

This is important for several reasons.

For the most part, Corker is focusing on the damage Trump will do internationally. He mentions North Korea, matters on which he fantastically imagines the worst Secretary of State in recent memory, Rex Tillerson, is “negotiating,” and the Iran Deal.

When specifically asked if Trump is unfit, Corker focused on his role as Commander-in-Chief, bracketing all the other parts of being President, as a way to avoid calling the man unfit, which might require action under the 25th Amendment.

And, still, Corker still normalizes the golfing buddy who has spent over two years sowing division in this country and ten months working to dismantle the country internally.

Yes, Corker mentions Trump’s racist comments after Charlottesville, and then confesses he still likes the man who made them.

It’s nice that Corker has finally made it clear his Republican colleagues recognize what the rest of us have too, that Trump is a disaster. But he did so in such a way as to absolve himself and his colleagues from direct action, choosing instead to leave Trump in place to continue his war on America and Americans, even while hoping that Tillerson and his co-babysitters can keep Trump’s fat fingers off the nuclear button.

These are great one-liners from Corker.

But these are not responsible comments. Congress is a co-equal branch of government. And if almost all Republicans in the Senate recognize that Trump is unfit to be president, their constitutional duty is to do something about it, not to continue to normalize him in the hopes he’ll finish dismantling the laws and policies protecting vulnerable Americans.

On Trump’s Impenetrable Cyber Security Unit to Guard Election Hacking

Man oh man did Vladimir Putin hand Trump his ass in their meeting the other day. While most the focus has been on Trump’s apparent refusal to confront Putin on the election hack (which Trump is now trying to spin — pity for him he excluded his credible aides who could tell us how it really went down or maybe that was precisely the point).

But I was more interested in Putin and Sergei Lavrov’s neat trick to get Trump to agree to a “joint working group on cybersecurity.”

Lavrov says Trump brought up accusations of Russian hacking; Moscow and DC will set up joint working group on cybersecurity.

Here’s how Trump has been talking about this in an [unthreaded] rant this morning.

People who’re just discovering this from Trump’s tweets are suitably outraged.

But I think even there they’re missing what a master stroke this was from Putin and Lavrov.

First, as I noted at the time, this comes at the moment Congress is trying to exclude Kaspersky Lab products from federal networks, accompanied by a more general witch hunt against the security firm. As I have said, I think the latter especially is problematic (and probably would have been designed at least partly to restore some asymmetry on US spying on the world, as Kaspersky is one of the few firms that will consistently ID US spying), even if there are reasons to want to keep Kaspersky out of sensitive networks. Kaspersky would be at the center of any joint cyber security effort, meaning Congress will have a harder time blackballing them.

Then there’s the fact that cooperation has been tried. Notably, the FBI has tried to share information with the part of FSB that does cyber investigations. Often, that ends up serving to tip off the FSB to which hackers the FBI is most interested in, leading to them being induced to spy for the FSB itself. More troubling, information sharing with US authorities is believed to partly explain treason charges against some FSB officers.

Finally, there’s the fact that the Russians asked for proof that they hacked our election.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: The Russians have asked for proof and evidence. I’ll leave that to the intelligence community to address the answer to that question. And again, I think the President, at this point, he pressed him and then felt like at this point let’s talk about how do we go forward. And I think that was the right place to spend our time, rather than spending a lot of time having a disagreement that everybody knows we have a disagreement.

If the US hadn’t been represented by idiots at this meeting, the obvious follow-up would be to point to Russia’s efforts to undermine US extradition of Russians against whom the US has offered proof, at least enough to get a grand jury to indict, most notably of the three Russians involved in the Yahoo hack, as well as Yevgeniy Nikulin. The US would be all too happy to offer proof in those cases, but Russia is resisting the process that will end up in that proof.

But instead, Trump and his oil-soaked sidekick instead agreed to make future hacking of the US easier.