A Mid-March Summary of Recent Kremlingate Developments
If you are having trouble keeping up with all of the news regarding Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion by Donald Trump’s campaign, I have decided to maintain a summary of relevant news items and publish them in an essay on a bi-weekly basis going forward. We are at the Ides of March, not even two months into Trump’s presidency (though at times it seems like it has been an eternity), and the evidence is coming out at a brisk clip, day after day, drip after drip, accumulating into an avalanche that will eventually bring down the president and associates of his far and wide, including, perhaps, even Vladimir Putin. As Senator John McCain stated Sunday, “There are a lot more shoes to drop from this centipede.”
Here are the notable developments from the first half of March:
On Sunday Wikileaks was verifiably exposed as residing, at least part-time, on a Russian server registered to a known cybercriminal with ties to the Kremlin. The proof was dug up by an enterprising and obscure network analyst and citizen investigator by the name of Laurelei Bailey. This revelation comes five days after Wikileaks released a trove of highly classified CIA documents from 2016 and earlier detailing the CIA’s electronic and cyber spying capabilities and claiming that such tools gave the CIA the ability to frame Russia for the hack of the emails of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign official John Podesta. Although the Wall Street Journal on Saturday reported that the documents showed no such thing, Wikileaks’ deliberately misleading explanation was promoted by the notorious hacker Kim Dotcom, then picked up by conspiracist ZeroHedge and thereafter broadcast throughout rightwing media, including the Laura Ingraham Show and Fox News. Meanwhile, the White House avoided criticizing Wikileaks at all. Instead, Trump said that he was “extremely concerned” about the security breach at the CIA and vowed to go after “leakers.” The CIA has known for at least three years that Wikileaks is a tool of the Kremlin, but the general public, especially those on the left and civil libertarians, have been sympathetic towards Wikileaks. Now as we continue our journey through the Trumpian looking glass, the political alliances have done a 180, so that it is the left that now sees clearly the motivations of Wikileaks while the right lionizes Wikileaks as heroic and views the CIA as potentially criminal.
Wikileaks’ attempt to discredit the CIA coincided with reports that certain congressional leaders were for the first time reviewing raw CIA intelligence related to the emails hacks and other interference by Russia in the 2016 U.S. election. It also comes after the January 12 report by BBC correspondent Paul Wood, an award-winning war journalist with two decades worth of contacts in the intelligence community, that a “senior member of the US intelligence community” corroborated information from “several” other sources that the CIA was given a recording last April by the intelligence agency of a Baltic state that appeared to indicate financial transfers between the Trump campaign and associates of the Russian government. As further reported by the BBC, the response to that intelligence, which was deemed credible by the CIA, was the formation of an extraordinary joint investigative task force of six federal agencies including the CIA, FBI, NSA, Department of Justice and Department of Treasury and the eventual granting of a warrant by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court to intercept and sift through the electronic records of two Russian banks.
President Trump apparently learned of the alleged FISA warrant the weekend before last, via a misleading and mistaken Breitbart article based on a misinterpretation of the BBC report (and other accounts) by conspiracist Mark Levin. Trump then alleged that former President Obama committed “high crimes” by illegally wiretapping him in Trump Tower in the days leading up to last year’s election and demanded that Congress investigate. A spokesman for Obama dismissed the allegation. The House Intelligence Committee, controlled by Republicans, gave Trump until this past Monday to provide evidence that Obama ordered such a wiretap, but the White House provided nothing beyond preposterous speculation that the microwave ovens in Trump Tower might have had cameras embedded in them. Reports on Breitbart and Fox News claimed that, per three unnamed intelligence sources, Obama nefariously went outside the chain of command to contract with British intelligence services to spy on Trump. A British security official quickly shot down that theory, and in an opinion published in the Observer, former counterintelligence officer and War College professor John Schindler explained point by point the absurdity of the accusations. Meanwhile, Obama was photographed relaxing in Hawaii, away from the stormy bluster in Washington.
Trump’s accusation about Obama came on the heels of news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions blatantly lied under oath about meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who is renowned in the intelligence community as being a spy recruiter, on three occasions during the campaign. The fact that Sessions went out of his way to lie unnecessarily (meetings between ambassadors and senators or campaign officials are routine) was odd, to say the least. Regardless of whether Sessions’ meetings with Kislyak were quotidian, they fit a pattern of Trump associates lying about contact with Russians, and they were therefore suspicious enough to force Sessions to recuse himself from any DoJ/FBI investigations regarding Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Trump was reportedly furious. But one week later, Sessions, out of the blue, fired on the spot every U.S. prosecutor, including Preet Bharara, who was overseeing several investigations that had the potential to impact, or even implicate, Donald Trump. The White House, already grappling with an unprecedented backlog in required appointments — including for mission-critical positions in the Pentagon and the Departments of Energy, State and Treasury — now has another 46 vacancies awaiting vetted nominees. Hundreds of ongoing criminal investigations and prosecutions are affected, including investigations into Russian money laundering by Trump creditor Deutsche Bank and the extent of conflicting foreign business dealings by the Trump organization.
The same day that Trump tweeted that Obama ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower, Trump associate Roger Stone, a cartoonish ruffian who looks like a Dick Tracy villain in the flesh, went on an expletive-laden Twitter rant that got his account suspended for 24 hours. When he was back on Twitter, he claimed he had merely had one too many martinis. But it may be that he is starting to panic. Stone was foolish enough to brag on tape about his connections to Wikileaks and Julian Assange, and through two separate tweets he exhibited foreknowledge about the hacking of John Podesta’s email and pending Wikileaks revelations, all while “advising” Trump’s campaign. Stone also took up a public, and enthusiastic, Twitter conversation last summer with Guccifer 2.0, the hacker who penetrated Podesta’s and the DNC’s emails, even after it was widely reported that U.S. intelligence had determined that Guccifer 2.0 (G2) was a Russian intelligence operative. When he was called out for his communications, Stone backed up G2’s claim that he was a Romanian acting against “the Illuminati,” even though in a June 2016 interview with Vice News, G2 demonstrated his utter lack of fluency in Romanian. Oops. This past week it was reported that the FBI, in tracking and hacking G2, had intercepted numerous private Twitter direct messages between Stone and G2 during the campaign. Stone, who up until this revelation denied having any direct contact with G2 or any Russian hackers, released several fawning private messages between himself and G2 to the Washington Times in an attempt to prove that the private correspondence was innocuous. Meanwhile, per an investigative report in The Smoking Gun last week, Stone engaged in multiple election-financing frauds in which he paid himself and his friends hundreds of thousands of dollars for “consulting services” from PAC’s he himself established and funded from tax-free third-party donations. One has to wonder how the ever dapper Stone, who admits to enjoying watching muscular and well-hung black men bang his wife, will fare in prison. No wonder he is downing so many martinis.
Stone’s former business partner from a Washington lobbying firm, Paul Manafort, was also on the hot seat last week. Text messages from the phone of Manafort’s daughter that were uploaded to a hacker website (Manafort previously confirmed that his daughter’s phone was hacked last summer in a blackmail attempt) included allegations by Manafort’s daughter that he was complicit in the murder of Ukrainian citizens opposed to disgraced former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the corrupt Russian-backed authoritarian who employed Manafort for ten years. The texts also include details about Manafort’s affair with a young woman for whom he purchased a house in the Hamptons, a fact that did not go over well with Manafort’s daughter (and presumably his wife). And more significantly, the hacker claimed possession of documentation of millions of dollars in kickbacks received by Manafort at the behest of Yanukovych. Unverified ledgers showing millions of dollars paid to Manafort were published last August, shortly after the phone hacking is reported to have occurred.
There were others among Trump’s posse who made news last week with respect to Russia and Ukraine. First, there was J.D. Gordon, a former Pentagon spokesman who went on to advise campaigns of Sarah Palin, Herman Cain and Mike Huckabee before signing on with Trump in February 2016. Besides confirming that he along with Trump’s son-in-law/advisor Jared Kushner also met with the Russian ambassador/head spy recruiter Kislyak in December, Gordon admitted to CNN that the mysterious softening of the original tough stance in the Republican party platform regarding policy towards Russia and Ukraine was made by him under direct instructions from Trump. Since Trump sought no other changes in the platform, a 66 page manifesto covering dozens of policies and issues, his obsession with and obsequiousness towards Russia once again begs the question: why?
Second, there was Trump ally and EU antagonist Nigel Farage, the U.K. white nationalist and purveyor of disinformation during the Brexit campaign. Farage, who used to attend Trump campaign rallies and who just last month dined with Trump, was photographed last Thursday — two days after the Wikileaks dump of CIA documents — leaving the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where Julian Assange has bunkered himself to escape extradition to Sweden on rape charges. When he was asked what he was doing at the embassy, Farage, rather than give the reasonable excuse that he was seeking an interview with Assange for his radio show, instead said that he could not remember what he was in the embassy for. Farage may be more than a mere Putin apologist. If he is colluding with Assange, then he is a Russian agent.
Is your head spinning yet? Well, breathe in deep, stiffen your upper lip, stay focused and do not let the onslaught of information overwhelm you to the point that you tune out altogether. In the past, any one of these revelations would have driven the news cycle for days. But these times are extraordinary. And even if any of the aforementioned seems ludicrously amusing, it is all actually quite serious. Deadly serious.
Consider this: the Pentagon last week formally confirmed that Russia is violating a 1987 nuclear treaty with the U.S. There has also been some evidence that Moscow is non-compliant with parts of the 2010 New START treaty. The appropriate initial step in confronting such cheating would be high level diplomacy coupled with punitive sanctions. But would Trump, whose first national security adviser was forced out after he discussed with the Russian ambassador the potential rollback of existing sanctions on Russia, consider implementing additional sanctions? Or are we on our way to a renewed nuclear arms race? Or maybe Trump will just let it slide, since we most certainly would not want to upset Russia.
In the Trump administration, U.S. national security is for sale for personal gain. The individual who Trump chose as U.S. national security adviser was an actual documented agent of a foreign government. And it was not the government of a friendly country. It was the government of Turkey, an increasingly anti-NATO member of NATO, a former ally headed by Recip Erdogan, a corrupt megalomaniac outspokenly anti-western and anti-democratic. Michael Flynn was paid half a million dollars over three months by an affiliate of the Turkish government (that’s two and a half times his annual salary as national security adviser) in the months leading up to election day when he was advising candidate Trump. What Turkey wanted in return for its investment in Flynn, at least to start, was the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a conservative Turkish cleric living in the Poconos who Erdogan accuses of conspiring to overthrow him. The Obama administration, alarmed by the elimination of due process in Turkey, the purging of the judicial system and the widespread arrest of political opponents and intellectuals by Erdogan, refused to extradite the controversial, cultish Gulen absent evidence of his involvement in the July 2016 coup attempt, launched and then withdrawn by a faction of the Turkish military. The Obama administration assumed that Gulen, who until 2012 was a close political ally of Erdogan, would be summarily executed if he was returned to Turkey. Michael Flynn, in an opinion published in The Hill on election day called Gulen “the bin Laden of Turkey” and accused him of being a “radical Islamist” affiliated with terrorists. Flynn advocated for Gulen’s extradition.
Flynn was never in office long enough to carry out his intention to extradite (and execute) Gulen. He was forced to resign on February 13th following reports in the Washington Post and New York Times on February 9th that sourced nine current and former intelligence and Department of Justice officials confirming that Flynn telephoned Russia’s U.S. ambassador, Sergey Kislyak (yet again), five times the day after Obama announced sanctions on Russia in retaliation for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Flynn sought to reassure Kislyak that Trump would rescind the sanctions once he took office. When it was revealed in early January that Flynn’s conversations were recorded in routine surveillance of Kislyak by U.S. intelligence services, incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer told the press that there was just one phone call and that the topic of sanctions never came up. Vice president-elect Pence echoed that line in a television interview, saying that he had been personally assured of it by Flynn. Within several days of Trump’s ascension to the presidency, deputy U.S. attorney general Sally Yates informed the White House about the specifics of Flynn’s recorded conversations with the Kislyak and warned the White House that Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians. After the White House failed to act, the nine intelligence officials apparently felt compelled to get the word out via the Post and the Times. Flynn was gone within four days.
But that’s not the end of the story with Flynn. The most critical element of the Post’s February 9 report on Flynn is that the December telephone calls “were part of a series of contacts between Flynn and Kislyak that began before the Nov. 8 election,” according to intelligence officials. Given that all seventeen agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community independently concluded that the Russians carried out a massive effort to influence the U.S. election in favor of Donald Trump, what exactly were Flynn and Kislyak discussing during the campaign? Was there collusion?
Also worth noting is that the payment records of Flynn’s consulting firm that were attached to his delinquent application to the U.S. government to act as a foreign agent, which he filed at the beginning of March, showed that he paid tens of thousands of dollars in kickbacks to the Turkish “businessman” who hired him. That’s a clear violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, punishable by up to five years in prison. Perhaps a merciful judge will allow Flynn to serve that sentence concurrently with his term for treason. Of course, Flynn will probably not be prosecuted as long as Sessions is Attorney General and the Republicans control Congress.
There is yet one more twist to the Flynn saga. The person in charge of vetting Flynn was vice president-elect Mike Pence, who Trump designated to lead the transition. Flynn’s ties to the Turkish government were not a secret at the time that Trump appointed him. The Daily Caller, Politico and the Associated Press all reported within a week of the election that Flynn was working as a lobbyist for an arm of the Turkish government. Citing those reports, Elijah Cummings, a top House Democrat, sent a letter to Pence on November 18 requesting more information on the potential conflicts of interest posed by Flynn’s work for Turkey. Besides the letter from Cummings, a twenty second Google search on Flynn would have informed Pence and his transition team about Flynn’s ties to Turkey. Pence now claims that he never knew about Flynn’s lobbying work for Turkey, and Pence implies that if he had known, Flynn would have been replaced a lot sooner than he was. This was no simple, inconsequential oversight on the part of Pence. And it may come back to haunt him when he ascends to the presidency.
At least Pence was not mentioned in the infamous “golden showers” dossier authored by former Mi6 counterintelligence officer Christopher Steele while acting as a private investigator on behalf of unidentified campaign opponents of Donald Trump. Steele, who went into hiding in January after the Wall Street Journal disclosed his identity, reappeared in public again on March 7. While the dossier was initially dismissed as unverified sensationalism, CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times have all reported that the intelligence community has successfully corroborated key elements. Additionally, McClatchy News and MSNBC journalist Rachel Maddow have matched certain claims made in the dossier with factual circumstances. In fact, so far not a single claim made in the dossier has been publicly disproved, including those related to Michael Cohen and his alleged meeting in Prague with Kremlin operatives. Steele has been invited to testify before Congress, though he is unlikely to do so in a public setting.
Let me end this write-up (finally) by including three links. The first link contains the gripping congressional testimony last week by former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ives detailing Estonia’s experience with Russian cyber warfare, “asymmetric” disinformation campaigns and “digital aggression.” Ives bluntly asserted that “influencing a country’s election outcome is warfare.” His testimony makes clear that the U.S. and its European allies are under attack by Russia.
The other two links are long investigative pieces published last week on two of Trump’s international real estate projects, the first in Baku, Azerbaijan, the second in Panama City. Both pieces provide evidence of Trump’s links to organized crime and involvement in laundering dirty money. The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson details Ivanka Trump’s complicity in flagrant violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and U.S. sanctions law to collaborate with oligarchs funneling money to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard via a hideous Trump building located in a rundown section of Baku. Meanwhile, Fast Company’s Anna Lenzer explains how former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli may seek to leverage his inside knowledge of Donald Trump’s money laundering machinations in Panama City’s notorious real estate racket as a means of avoiding extradition from the U.S. to Panama to face multiple corruption charges. If Congress ever gets around to investigating Trump, both he and Ivanka and so many others will spend years in prison. This country has never seen such corruption at such a level. The Trump organization is its own mafia. And Russia is its partner in crime. It’s chilling.