The fire through the smoke (Part I)

In the early 1980’s, then-U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions prosecuted a city commissioner for conspiracy and complicity in a fraud and extortion scheme.  Now, first things first: for all the Resistance, and conscientious WKC, who are familiar with Old Beauregard Sessions and his twisted idea of prosecutorial discretion, this not one of those stories.

No, this is a case where Ol’ Beauregard appears to have been using his office appropriately: two creeps were running an ongoing fraudulent scheme to steal money from a municipal auditorium, bilking artists and acts who performed there, and engaging into all varieties of malfeasance to cover all of this up.

The challenge in the case involved a third conspirator, a city commissioner named Gary Greenough, a guy who didn’t have a whole heap to do with the fraud itself, who didn’t even appear to know exactly what the two lead criminals were up to.  But there was evidence that (i) Greenough knew about the ongoing conspiracy, (ii) had general knowledge of the operations of the auditorium (even if he didn’t know exactly what the conspirators were doing), (iii) received a benefit, in the form of campaign contributions, from the conspirators, and (iv) actively attempted to prevent an investigation into the conspirators and the fraud.  Based on this, Ol’ Beauregard persisted, and Greenough was convicted.  On appeal, the reviewing court concluded that – despite Greenough’s minimized role, despite there not being direct evidence (no smoking gun!) of his collusion with the two lead criminal – those above factors were more than enough evidence for a jury to conclude that Greenough aided, abetted and benefitted from the conspiracy, and therefore was a part of the conspirator’s “community of unlawful intent.”

Last night, the latest Russia news broke: Jared Kushner, prodigious son-in-law, right hand man of F.A.T., urged Russian Ambassador Kislyak, a guy who U.S. intelligence folks describe as a top spy and recruiter of spies, to set up a secret communication line to Russia; not “back channel” communications in the traditional diplomatic sense, but a link between Kushner (and presumably President Trump) and Russia that Russia would control, and that the United States (the intelligence community, diplomatic corps, Congress, the American people) would be entirely left out of.  This meeting, which included compromised former NSA Michael Flynn, and occurred just days after U.S. intelligence definitively announced that Russia had aggressively meddled in our elections, was the same meeting that Mr. Kushner “forgot” to disclose in applying for  security clearance to be senior counselor to the President (Trump administration folks have an interesting record of “forgetting” meetings with Mr. Kislyak).

This is very bad, deeply “troubling,” to use the cowardly Republican parlance of our times, and wholly unsurprising, given that President Trump himself has shown himself strangely willing to cut America out of the loop when it comes to dealing with the Russians.  And while the outrage is real, and more vociferous than ever, we’re still seeing many in the Media – as well as the Enablers, even some Noxious Mods – fall victim to the same tropes: “well sure, it looks bad, but this just may be an example of extreme incompetence, or naivete,” and my favorite, “well it adds to the billowing smoke surrounding Trump and Russia, but do we really have evidence of a fire yet?”

Many within the Media loves this “smoke, but still no fire” metaphor because it’s an easy crutch, it allows them to avoid being definitive and clear about this extraordinary attack on our democracy, by constantly moving the goalposts: “sure, [INSERT NEWEST BREAKING STORY] is indicative of a fairly clear intent to collude with a foreign adversary, and sure, this revelation exposes that about three dozen previous Trump Administration statements were outright lies, and sure, this type of activity with a foreign adversary is unprecedented in American history, but until we know more, it’s still all smoke, no fire…”

I’m hoping to find the time, asap, to address this frustrating and dangerous Media instinct in Part II, but for now, let’s focus on the substance, the idea that there is still “no fire” with regards to Trump and Russia.

And that brings us back to Ol’ Beauregard and poor, corrupt Mr. Greenough, back in 1985.  It’s just a minor, stupid case from 30+ years ago, it has very little real, legal applicability to these extraordinary and dangerous times, but it’s nevertheless been rattling around in my brain, I think because of its simplicity, and easy applicability to our current crisis.  If we can accept and agree that Russia engaged in an espionage attack against the United States during the 2016 election, and apply the exact same grounds that Jeff Sessions used to convict Greenough for conspiracy, then there is already a very strong case, based only on the stuff that we know, that President Trump, his advisors, and many in Republican leadership, were effectively co-conspirators in that attack on America.

This is all happening in a terrifying political climate, where nothing really matters, but based on what we know, setting aside all of the shady dealings and unknowns, there is already a raging fire right outside our door.

President Trump could go on television tomorrow and proudly state as fact (“believe me”) that the sky is neon yellow and the grass is a bloody maroon, if it suited whatever needy notion was banging around in his brain.  So to say that the facts below are “undisputed” obviously disregards our President’s unique relationship with the concepts of “fact” and “truth.”  But outside of F.A.T.’s brain, the below facts are undisputed; most are a matter of public record.

First, Russia did, unequivocally, attack the United States during the 2016 election.  We  are still only getting bits and pieces of the massive scope of those efforts, but they included hacking – multiple times – our political organizations, releasing and weaponizing the stolen information from one candidate (HRC), and timing the release of weaponized information at moments most damaging to that candidate.  Russia also flooded our country with an aggressive misinformation campaign, unleashing “troll farms” (thousands of Russians charged with spreading false information to carefully  targeted American voters), sophisticated spamming operations and fake news outlets “as part of an expanding focus on psychological operations in cyberspace.”

It’s probably a sign of our increasingly illiterate times that Time’s excellent reporting on Russia’s incredibly effective “psychological operations” received less attention than its provocative cover:

Time Cover

But for as unnerving and effective as that image is, the reporting in the Time piece is downright bone chilling.   President Trump can dissemble and lie (“believe me”), but Russia launched what was nothing short of a targeted, carefully planned attack on the United States, part of a broader, farther reaching attack on the western alliances that have served America so well, and for so long.

So if we accept the indisputable reality that Russia attacked us (and that it was clearly known that Russia was attacking us during the election), then based only on public information, and on the factors Ol’ Beauregard used to prosecute and convict poor, corrupt Mr. Greenough back in 1985, there is a strong case to be made that F.A.T. was in league with the Russians’ “community of unlawful intent,” that he and his campaign were active, willing, co-conspirators.

The factors that sunk Greenough included:

(i) Knowledge of the ongoing conspiracy/general knowledge of its parameters. Then candidate-Trump was briefed, in detail, on the Russian attack as early as August of 2016, and he would have received additional briefings for months thereafter.  The Russian involvement in hacking the DNC was reported publicly as early as June of 2016.  Moreover, the Russian efforts with regards to the hacking itself (if not necessarily the massive online propaganda campaign), it’s efforts to damage HRC and prop up Trump, could not have been more clear: one of the “dumps” of hacked materials came on the eve of the Democratic convention, another came hours after the “pussy grabbing” tape threatened to derail the Trump campaign.

(ii) Receipt of benefit from the conspirators.  Greenough received campaign contributions from the guys running the fraud, and there have been reports regarding potential Russian funding channeled to the Trump campaign.  But we’re sticking with stuff that is publically known and acknowledged, so let’s disregard that for now.  We know that Russia provided a benefit to the Trump campaign that was far more valuable than cash; Russia provided Trump with weaponized information, released strategically at moments that would most benefit Donald Trump.  And F.A.T. didn’t reject this gift, he didn’t disown it, or condemn the attack on Americans; he took this benefit from the foreign agents attacking the U.S. and used it, every day, 164 times in the last month of the campaign alone.

(iii) Efforts to prevent investigation/protect conspirators.  Much of the talk lately has been about “obstruction of justice,” and the events and revelations since President Trump took office can and should be part of the conversation: he is still, openly and unapologetically, attempting to block an investigation into Russian interference, and obfuscating about Russia’s culpability in an attack on our democracy.  But even during the campaign, at the height of the Russian attack on our democracy, F.A.T. was actively providing cover for the Russians.  Again, then-candidate-Trump was briefed on the IC’s firm conclusion that the Russians were behind the hacking in August of 2016.  In the months following that report, which represented a consensus of U.S. intelligence, F.A.T. went out of his way many times – including in an interview with Russian television, and on the enormous stage of all three presidential debates (“It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”) – to deny that Russia was responsible.  This was a lie, plain and simple, and the fairly obvious intent and result was provide cover for Russia, plausible deniability, while Russia engaged in an ongoing attack on the United States.

The above three factors – (i) general, if not specific, knowledge; (ii) receipt of a benefit; and (iii) efforts to cover-up the conspiracy – were enough for Jeff Sessions to prosecute and convict Greenough, and you can certainly pin each of those factors squarely on F.A.T. and the Trump campaign.

And even still focusing solely on what is known (ignoring the dozens of secret meetings that we, admittedly, don’t [yet] have details on), F.A.T. went above and beyond Greenough in a number of key ways that are even more indicative of complicity:

(iv) Promise and delivery of quid pro quo, incentive to Russia.  During the campaign, F.A.T. famously bellowed to the world tthat he hoped Russia would “find” Hillary’s “missing emails,” and that Russia would “probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”  F.A.T. later claimed this was just a joke (“believe me!”), but even if we take him at his word (ha), the list of times that President Trump or his campaign promised or delivered some form of benefit, a quid pro quo, to Russia, while Russia was attacking the United States, is staggering:

– President Trump repeatedly provided, as detailed above, cover for Russian bad acts, lying, ignoring all evidence, and casting doubt on Russia’s culpability in the election hack, and a range of other issues dating back to the very start of the campaign.

– President Trump repeatedly downplayed the Russian aggression towards Ukraine, and famously lobbied for a change in the Republican platform to weaken the GOP’s stance against Russian aggression.   Since becoming president, it appears that F.A.T. is prepared to make good on his promise to roll over and let President Putin do what he likes with Ukraine.

– To that end, President Trump repeatedly praised Putin as a strong, admirable leader – “stronger” than President Obama – again providing cover and support for a weakened, desperate dictator who resorts to criminal tactics and murder to stifle opposition and curtail a free press.

– When he had secured the Republican nomination, President Trump hired, as his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, a guy with absurdly shady dealings in Russian affairs, close ties to many of Putin’s closest allies, and a history of lobbying on behalf of Putin.  Manafort hadn’t been engaged in American politics since 1996 when F.A.T. plucked him out of obscurity (i.e. making tens of millions of dollars doing scary things for pro-Putin interests) and put him in charge go his entire campaign.

– President Trump’s campaign staff, close allies and advisors, had an inordinate amount of contact with Russian agents, and famously failed to disclose almost all of those meetings.  Again, for this exercise, I’ll acknowledge that we don’t know what was said in many of these hidden meetings.  But we do know that at least one Trump surrogate gave a speech in Moscow attacking the United States as “hypocritical,” and urging the exact type of overthrow of the world order that Putin is seeking.  And I think it’s safe to assume that this kind of access to a potential President of the United States – even if every meeting was just the Russians and the Trumpians complaining about the weather – would be considered quite a boon for most adversaries of the United States.

– And of course, despite Russia being a foreign adversary, despite it being engaged in an attack on the United States during the election,  President Trump repeatedly promised “better relations” with Russia.  And for all the talk about how the Syrian bombing charade would disrupt Trump’s plans on this front, it seems fairly clear that Trump is following through on his promises to the Russians, bigly.

(v) Cooperating with, and amplifying, Russian mis-information campaign. Finally, most damning and most troubling, is that the Trump campaign actively participated in, and amplified, Russia’s efforts to bury Americans in false information.  Amidst all of the other F.A.T. nonsense in recent weeks, this testimony from a former FBI agent was unfortunately buried:

Let’s unpack that a little bit.  The specific examples Mr. Watts refers to include two obviously fake stories, created out of thin air by Russian propaganda machines, that were eagerly parroted on American television by Paul Manafort (the same guy with hands on expertise in Russian propaganda tactics), to deflect attention from another Trump scandal, and by F.A.T. himself.  The Sputnik story is especially interesting: Sputnik took heavily doctored Wikileaks documents to create a ham-handed “Crooked Hillary Benghazi!” story that no one in the American media would touch with a 10 foot pole.  But F.A.T. saw fit to waive the Sputnik article around at a campaign rally like he had discovered the holy grail.

I understand the fog of politics – especially in the Trump era – can be tricky, and that it’s tempting to write this off as “politics as usual.”  But the Trump campaign’s efforts to amplify and exploit the Russian misinformation campaign was constant, and inextricably linked to his overarching campaign “message.”

Russia’s propaganda machine churned out fake news content, and manipulated voters, using, as its guide, Trump’s drumbeat of “Crooked Hillary,” and a “rigged election,” and “you can’t trust the media.”  Russia stole information from the Democratic Party, and falsely manipulated and weaponized that information, and Mr.  Trump gleefully used that information to his advantage, to bolster his “message.”  Indeed, as Mr. Watts testified, Russia had tried this shit before, but it didn’t get that far; but this time around, Russia had an active partner in the Trump campaign, which gave Russia’s weaponized misinformation an exponentially larger platform than it ever had enjoyed before, and encouraged Russia to go even further in attacking our democracy.

Politics is, indeed, bloodsport, but there is nothing “usual” about any of this.  The Trump campaign and Russia worked in concert, one party helping and propping up the other, both receiving mutual benefit, in support of a common goal.  This is, by Attorney General Sessions’ standards (and by the basic standards of American criminal and civil law),  reflective of “community of unlawful intent,” an active, and undeniably effective, conspiracy.

Poor, corrupt Mr. Greenough knew vaguely about the conspiracy, accepted a benefit from the conspiracy, and took some steps to stop an investigation into the conspiracy; on those grounds alone, he was convicted and jailed.  President Trump – his campaign, members of Republican leadership – did everything Greenough did, and then they actually upped the ante, by also working in concert with the conspirators to amplify and escalate the conspiracy, and by promising the conspirators just rewards for their efforts.

There are, sadly, still bizarre and craven political calculations at work – muddying the waters every chance they get – and we as a country are still hesitant, nervous, reluctant, to grow the fuck up and call this what it is.  But in any other, saner time, with any other, saner politician, this would already be the biggest political scandal in American history.

With apologies to those fixating on the “billowing smoke,” this is, by any reasonable reckoning, a massive, raging fire.

[Cue ominous music]

To be continued, whenever I find the time to churn out another 47k words, in Part II…

3 thoughts on “The fire through the smoke (Part I)

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