An End of March Summary of Recent Kremlingate Developments
It is time for another Kremlingate round-up. As with three weeks ago, there is A LOT to cover. This scandal is of such complexity that it will take years to fully unwrap, digest and respond to. But we’re making progress. Here are the highlights since my last essay:
The Hearings Begin, and the Cover-up Grows
The single most important development over the past half month was confirmation from FBI Director Comey, in testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, that the FBI is conducting a counterintelligence investigation into possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. For the first time in history, a U.S. president is under investigation for treason.
HPSCI public hearings had been scheduled to resume last week with the testimony of former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, but HPSCI Chairman Devin Nunes literally shut down the investigation not only by indefinitely postponing all testimony (there were around 20 witnesses invited to testify), but also by cancelling regular HPSCI meetings altogether, even though there are other issues besides the Trump/Russia investigation on HPSCI’s agenda. Why would Nunes blatantly obstruct a Congressional investigation that he was tasked with leading? The obvious explanation is that Nunes himself has something to hide, something that the White House knows. In Russia, that’s called kompromat.
That Nunes is in cahoots with the White House became even more apparent when he allowed himself to be a pawn of the White House in a transparent attempt to give President Trump cover for his unhinged insistence that President Obama wiretapped him. Under the guise of humble patriot, Nunes called a press conference — two days after Comey’s bombshell testimony — to explain that, with the approval of Speaker Ryan, he was rushing off to the White House to urgently brief the president on new intelligence that was so sensitive that it could not be shared with anyone else on HPSCI. He explained that the intelligence consisted of transcripts of telephone discussions between Trump surrogates and non-Russian foreign nationals collected during the course of routine counterintelligence surveillance, thereby proving that Trump was correct to allege that he and/or his aides may have been innocently caught up in surveillance. Less than a week later both the Washington Post and the New York Times reported that Nunes’ source was, in fact, the White House. It was all just political theater, a dumb ploy that fooled no one.
That scheme, widely assumed to have been hatched by Steve Bannon (the supposed evil genius who is infinitely more evil than genius) is already backfiring. As Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Barton Gellman surmised, Nunes and the three White House staffers, all of whom report to National Security Adviser McMaster, not only betrayed top-secret intelligence to pull off their stunt, almost certainly without the knowledge of McMaster, but also appear to be putting the FBI on notice that they’re keeping an eye on it. It is doubtful that either McMaster or Comey was particularly impressed. They’re either shaking their heads or banging them against a wall. Disclosure of the existence of such surveillance is illegal. Moreover, in his Capitol Hill press conference, the doe-eyed Nunes implicated Speaker Ryan in order to give himself cover. Ryan, of course, can deny that he ever approved Nunes’ cockamamie plan. But if Nunes becomes a suspect in the FBI’s investigation — and there is now a fair chance that he will — Ryan may need to explain to the FBI what he and Nunes discussed. A four-year old child could have mounted a more effective cover-up. The popular catch-phrase for this White House, “malevolence tempered by incompetence,” has been taken to a whole new level.
Meanwhile, it was announced that witnesses to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal will include Sally Yates and James Clapper (sorry, Devin) as well as boy-wonder Jared Kushner, who will be asked about his contacts with certain Russians, including head spy recruiter Kislyak and certain notorious Putin-associated, and/or Mafia-associated, bankers and businessmen with whom Americans are prohibited from conducting business.
SIC hearings commenced on March 30 with a focus on Russian tactics. The most disturbing testimony came from former FBI agent Clint Watts, currently with George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, who explained how, during election season in the U.S., an onslaught of thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of Russian bots, botnets, trolls, hackers, hecklers and honeypots attacked political targets, infiltrated social media networks, and propagated disinformation in order to undermine confidence in democratic governance, exacerbate political divides, erode trust towards elected officials and democratic institutions, popularize Russian policy agendas, and create general distrust of information sources by blurring the lines between fact and fiction, with the goal of weakening the U.S. and its European allies as a means of achieving Russia’s ultimate objective of breaking up both the EU and NATO. Under questioning, Watts explained that Trump was Russia’s favored candidate even during the Republican primaries and that candidates who were not viewed as friendly to Russia, such as Marco Rubio, were the targets of Russian active measures. Further, Watts detailed how Trump campaign talking points parroted Russian propaganda, including Trump’s regularly repeated assertions that “the system is rigged” and “the election is rigged.”
Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and Russian Disinformation
The Putin government, which uses many tactics to rig Russian elections, wanted Americans to believe that elections in the U.S. are just as much a charade as those in Russia. The ideas that millions of illegal votes were cast and that Hillary Clinton was given debate questions ahead of time, or that she was fed answers through a wire during the debates, were Russian propaganda deliberately amplified by Trump. Manipulation of public opinion was enhanced by what Cambridge Analytica, the Robert Mercer-affiliated data analysis firm that advised the Trump campaign, referred to as micro-targeting. Profiled in the New Yorker’s March 27 issue, Robert Mercer is a mathematician and computer scientist who made billions of dollars running a hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies, that, according to a U.S. Senate investigative panel, used deceptive, and possibly illegal, tactics to avoid paying over $6 billion in taxes. The IRS, urged by the Senate to collect those taxes, has yet to do so. As long as Trump is in the White House, it is doubtful that they will. After all, Robert Mercer gave Trump’s campaign over $13 million.
Besides being an investor in Cambridge Analytica, Robert Mercer is also a major shareholder of Breitbart and a close friend of Steve Bannon and Nigel Farage. According to the New Yorker, Mercer’s political views occupy the absolute precipice of the far right fringe. He believes, among other things, that the radiation from the nuclear bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima made the Japanese healthier, that African Americans were better-off economically under segregation, that climate change will benefit Earth, and that the Clintons were involved in a secret, murderous drug-running scheme with the CIA.
Aside from Mercer, the others behind Cambridge Analytica include SCL Group, a private U.K. company controlled by the notoriously corrupt Vincent Tchenguiz, who, just like former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, is a business associate of pro-Putin Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash. A grand jury in Chicago recently indicted Tchenguiz’s and Manafort’s buddy Firtash for bribery, racketeering and money laundering, and authorities in Virginia have issued an arrest warrant for Firtash on charges bribery and corruption (an extradition process, from Austria, is in progress). But I digress. Suffice it to say that it was in this SCL and Cambridge Analytica culture of Mercer’s and Tchenguiz’s crackpot political theories and shameless corruption that psychologist Aleksandr Kogan devised a plan to lure unwitting Facebook users into planting trojans that illegally harvested the data of all of their FB friends, constituting tens of millions of FB users. That data was used by Cambridge Analytica to assist the Trump campaign, apparently by creating detailed psychological profiles of FB users and targeting them with individualized propaganda.
In general, there is nothing illegal with collecting and analyzing voter data and using such data to target potential voters. The Obama and Clinton campaigns had extensive databases that they leveraged for campaign advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts. But, as the Guardian reported, “Cambridge Analytica makes the astonishing boast that it has psychological profiles based on 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters..[its purpose] is to use this data to understand people’s deepest emotions and then target them accordingly.”
To the extent that the Clinton campaign contacted voters to spread negative information regarding Donald Trump, such information reflected Trump’s own recorded words and his well-documented business record of bankruptcy and fraud. But the anti-Clinton disinformation peddled by Russian trolls, bots, and propaganda sites, such as RT and Sputnik, armed with Cambridge Analytica’s algorithms, often did not constitute protected free speech. Their anti-Clinton propaganda, which amounted to 500% of the volume of anti-Trump news that made the rounds on FB and Twitter, included libelous accusations that Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta were involved with a pedophelia ring, that Clinton was secretly suffering from Parkinsons or a terminal illness, that she was a murderer, or that her indictment by the FBI was imminent. According to McClatchy News, the FBI is investigating whether InfoWars, Breitbart and other right-wing news organizations deliberately colluded with Russian propagandists to hype false information, including lies that prompted an armed attack on a Maryland pizza restaurant. Last week, conspiracist Alex Jones published an admission on his InfoWars website that the “Pizzagate” story he pushed was untrue. But he blamed other unnamed news organizations.
Besides Facebook, where did Cambridge Analytica get “5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters?” Let me just throw out a couple of wild guesses: either they bought stolen data from hackers, or they stole the data themselves (as they did with Facebook). And let me venture yet another guess: the hackers they worked with were Russian. It was not just the Democratic National Committee that the Russians hacked. They broke into the Republican National Committee too. Additionally, on January 10, FBI Director Comey confirmed to Congress that the Russians were behind numerous reported hacks of state voter registration databases. It was extensively reported last summer that hackers had penetrated the voter registration rolls of Arizona, Illinois and Florida, and both CBS News and ABC News reported last September that the voter databases of at least 10 states and as many as 20 states had been hacked. The Obama Department of Justice confirmed that the hackers did not change any voter data; apparently they just copied the data. And on March 15, the Department of Justice charged two Russian intelligence officials with stealing data from 500 million Yahoo accounts in 2014. It seems almost too obvious that the Russians shared data they stole with Cambridge Analytica, possibly via the Putin-Firtash-Manafort-Mercer/Bannon connection. And Cambridge used that data to help propel Trump to the White House. If that’s true, it’s more evidence of collusion.
Alfa Bank and that Server in Trump Tower
Like Trump, the Russians think they can get away with playing the innocent victim, even when they’re the bully. Two weeks ago Moscow’s Putin-affiliated Alfa Bank, which is reportedly one of two banks named to a FISA warrant granted to the FBI in October and which was depicted in the infamous golden showers dossier compiled by former Mi6 agent Christopher Steele as engaged in a corrupt bargain with Putin to collude with the Trump campaign, hired a bigshot American law firm to threaten Indiana University computer scientist Jean Camp with litigation. Camp was one of several computer scientists with specialized expertise in the Internet’s DNS system to voice concerns last October about suspicious communications between Alfa Bank and a computer server located in Trump Tower that occurred between May and September 2016. In its letter to Camp, Alfa claimed, to widespread derision by the online community of cyber experts, that it was the innocent victim of hacking designed to create the illusion that it had a secret correspondence with Trump, when, so Alfa claims, it has no relationship with the “Trump Organization.” Actually, Alfa was directly linked to Trump’s campaign via its board member Richard Burt, a former lobbyist for Gazprom who served as a top campaign advisor to Trump, even writing Trump’s first major foreign policy speech.
Meanwhile another computer scientist that goes by the twitter handle Conspirador Norteño analyzed the pattern of communications between Alfa and Trump Tower and concluded that it may be part of a “data laundering” operation. When the Trump server was not receiving “pings” (by which it was likely downloading data via a hidden “tunnel”) from Alfa, it was either sleeping or receiving pings from a server located in the offices of Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Alfa and Spectrum were the only servers communicating with the Trump server. The patterns of the pings among Alfa, Trump and Spectrum and the duration of such pings indicate that the Trump server was receiving and processing data from Alfa and then, in turn, the Spectrum server was downloading data from the Trump server. Moreover, someone was apparently using the Spectrum server illicitly, either by borrowing Spectrum’s WiFi or by using an open proxy running on Spectrum’s IP. One can only speculate at this point what sort of data was being laundered, and whether such data included financial transactions, but CNN reported on March 10 that the FBI’s counterintelligence unit is on the case.
The FBI’s counterintelligence unit is also being kept busy by former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. If his goose sits in the oven any longer, it might just burn to a crisp. Since my last update, an additional three damaging pieces of information have come to light. First, the Associated Press uncovered evidence that Manafort was paid $10 million annually for at least four years (2006–2009) by a Russian organized crime figure to promote the Putin government in the U.S. Yes, Manafort was essentially a Russian agent paid by the Russian Mafia. Like Mike Flynn, Manafort never bothered to register as a foreign agent, as required by law. Worse, it appears that Manafort laundered the $40 million he was paid through various accounts at the Bank of Cyprus, using 15 bank accounts set up for ten different companies. The top money laundering enforcer in Cyprus recently handed over related documents to U.S. authorities. Additionally, a Ukrainian lawmaker claims to possess evidence showing that Manafort accepted $1 million from a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party and then laundered that money through a phony company in Belize that supposedly sells computers. Finally, a WNYC investigation showcased a series of questionable real estate transactions in New York by Manafort in which he bought three buildings with cash and then borrowed against each of those buildings in full. Such transactions are one of the more common ways that dirty money gets laundered. Apparently the laundry sacks in the Manafort household are full of dirty rubles rather than dirty underwear and towels.
Before any of those allegations were publicized, Manafort offered to be interviewed (as opposed to testify under oath) by HPSCI and/or SIC, as have both Carter Page and Roger Stone. And a few days ago Mike Flynn publicly offered to testify too, though only in exchange for immunity. By requesting immunity, Flynn is both admitting criminal culpability and indicating that he has dirt on others. He either (i) has information that would convict President Trump of a crime; (ii) has information that would convict one or more of Trump’s associates of even more serious crimes than those that investigators know that Flynn committed; or (iii) is admitting that he committed a crime that investigators do not yet know about (how thoughtful of him to offer to save them the trouble) that is more serious than the crimes that they do know about. So far, the Department of Justice as well as both SIC and HPSCI have rejected Flynn’s offer.
Flynn’s proposal came one week after former CIA Director and Trump campaign and transition advisor James Woolsey told the Wall Street Journal that he attended a meeting last September in which Flynn proposed kidnapping and handing over to Turkey a Turkish national with U.S. residency being sought by Turkish authoritarian Recip Erdogan. One would think that Flynn would have known that conspiracy to kidnap is a federal crime. Then again, he was being paid half a million dollars by the Turkish government. For some reason, he must have thought that Woolsey would not turn in him. Which, oddly, Woolsey did not. Until now.
At least Flynn came clean regarding payments he received from two Russian companies and from the Kremlin-controlled and funded RT News. Other than the questionable legality of Flynn’s receiving payment from the Russian government, given that he is a former military officer, the most interesting element of that story is that Flynn was paid over $11,000 by Kaspersky Lab, a Russian cyber security firm whose most famous hacker hunter employee, Ruslan Stoyanov, was arrested in Moscow at the end of January and charged with treason. After Stoyanov was arrested, independent Russian media reported that he was one of several moles responsible for leaks to Western sources, including U.S. intelligence, about Russian cyber attacks. It would be interesting to know how Putin found out about Stoyanov. Could Flynn have tipped him off, via Kislyak?
Speaking of Russian spies, it has been noted by many that Boris Epshteyn, who mysteriously departed his position at the White House two weeks ago (his title was “Special Assistant to the President” and he was the point person for television networks to request appearances by White House staffers), fits the profile of Source E in the Steele dossier. Like Source E, Epshteyn is an ethnic Russian and a Jew who is part of Trump’s inner circle, and he is a former Moscow investment banker. He was also in Moscow during certain key events mentioned in the dossier. Source E is an interesting guy. Not only is he one of the sources for the alleged pee and sex party at the Moscow Ritz Carlton, but, more significantly, he confirms that Trump colluded with the Kremlin. According to the dossier, Trump knows that Source E works for Putin, and Source E knows that Trump knows. Both the White House and Epshteyn were mum on details behind his departure, as was Boris’ (former) best friend Eric Trump. According to former Heat Street reporter Louise Mensch, who first reported that a FISA warrant was granted in October to intercept certain transactions involving Alfa Bank and SVB Bank, her sources in the intelligence community recently confirmed that Epshteyn was named on a request for a FISA warrant that was rejected last July. But no one else has confirmed that, and it is unknown whether the FBI ever did obtain a FISA warrant to keep an eye on Epshteyn. I just hope he has a wife or girlfriend named Natasha.
The Watergate Comparison
It has been said many times that it was the cover-up rather than the Watergate burglary itself that brought down President Nixon and his syndicate. The comparisons between Kremlingate and Watergate are inevitable, but the Trump/Russia web of criminality is far more complex, sinister and damaging than anything that Nixon, his 1972 campaign squad (the Committee to ReElect the President, or “CREEP”), or his bumbling White House staff committed. It took a Democratic Congress (including a bipartisan Senate Select Committee) and a special prosecutor over two years of investigation before the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment in July 1974. Nixon, of course, resigned before the full House could consider impeachment, and even though Nixon was granted a full and unconditional pardon by President Ford in September 1974, indictments, pleadings, trials, convictions, sentencing and appeals of Nixon’s co-conspirators dragged on until 1977. In the end, 48 government officials and seven burglars were imprisoned. The lying, the denying, the threats, and the laundering and disbursement of hush money were no match for the rule of law. And it all started with the hacking of the DNC the June before the election.
Even though Adam Schiff, the former prosecutor who is the ranking Democrat on HPSCI, said ten days ago that he has seen sufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign to convene a grand jury, the Republican leadership of Congress has declined to even consider a special committee or an outside commission to investigate Kremlingate. The White House and Devin Nunes may have derailed the House investigation for now, but probes by the FBI (which is reportedly undertaking at least three separate investigations), SIC (with a generous staff of seven), the Department of Treasury’s money laundering investigator (FinCEN), the CIA and the NSA continue, along with extraordinary efforts by a panoply of talented journalists and various citizen investigators and academics with expertise in cybersleuthing. Only when Congressional Republicans feel sufficient political pressure will they investigate Trump in earnest, thereby fulfilling their duty to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.
With that in mind, let me quote a recent opinion piece by Michael Gerson in the Washington Post :
“It is now dawning on Republicans what they have done to themselves. They thought they could somehow get away with Trump. That he could be contained. That the adults could provide guidance. That the economy might come to the rescue. That the damage could be limited. Instead, they are seeing a downward spiral of incompetence and public contempt — a collapse that is yet to reach a floor. A presidency is failing. A party unable to govern is becoming unfit to govern.”
A few Final Thoughts
As Trump’s approval ratings continue to suffer, the Republicans, led by Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins and Ben Sasse, will come around. But in the meantime, Vladimir Putin, without a whisper of criticism from the White House, continues to suppress his own citizens, imprison and murder his political opponents in broad daylight, prop up Assad in Syria, and deploy a shameless “spies and lies” strategy to undermine upcoming elections in France and Germany. Last week the U.S. Central Command concluded that Russia has teamed up with the Taliban in Afghanistan specifically in opposition to American and NATO efforts there, 16 years after the Taliban allowed Al Queda to use Afghan territory to prepare for and launch an attack against the U.S. that killed 3,000 innocent people. Yes, Russia is boldly teaming up with U.S. enemies all over the globe. With Donald Trump in the White House, Russia is on the march, and U.S. influence is shrinking economically, politically, militarily and morally. But Trump will not get away with this. And neither will Putin. The truth is coming.