• Mueller’s End Game

    December 11, 2018 // 12 Comments »

    A baby born when Robert Mueller started his investigation would be talking by now. But would she have anything to say?

    We last looked at what Mueller had publicly, and what he didn’t have, some ten months ago, and cautioned skepticism that he would prove “collusion.” It’s worth another look now, but we’ll give away the ending: there is still no real evidence of, well, much of anything significant about Russiagate. One thing clear is the investigation seems to be ending. Mueller’s office reportedly even told various defense lawyers it is “tying up loose ends.” The moment to wrap things up is politically right as well; the Democrats will soon take control of the House and it is time to hand this all off to them.

     

    Ten months ago the big news was Paul Manafort flipped; that seems to have turned out to be mostly a bust, as we know now he lied like a rug to the Feds and cooperated with the Trump defense team as some sort of mole inside Mueller’s investigation (a heavily-redacted memo about Manafort’s lies, released by Mueller on Friday, adds no significant new details to the Russiagate narrative.) George Papadopoulos has already been in and out of jail — all of two weeks — for his sideshow role, Michael Avenatti is now a woman beater who is just figuring out he’s washed up, Stormy Daniels owes Trump over $300k in fees after losing to him in court, there is no pee tape, and if you don’t recall how unimportant Carter Page and Richard Gates turned out to be (or even remember who they are), well, there is your assessment of all the hysterical commentary that accompanied them a few headlines ago.

    The big reveal of the Michael Flynn sentencing memo on Tuesday was he will likely do no prison time. Everything of substance in the memo was redacted, so there is little insight available. If you insist on speculation, try this: it’s hard to believe something really big and bad happened such that Flynn knew about it but still wasn’t worth punishing for it, and now, a year after he started cooperating with the government, nobody has heard anything about whatever the big deal is. So chances are the redactions focus on foreign lobbying in the U.S.

     

    This week’s Key to Everything is Michael Cohen, the guy who lied out of self-interest for Trump until last week when we learned he is also willing to lie, er, testify against Trump out of self-interest. If you take Cohen’s most recent statements at face value the sum is failed negotiations we all knew about already to build a Trump hotel in Moscow went on a few months longer than originally stated. Meanwhile, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York submitted a sentencing memo Friday for Cohen recommending 42 months in jail. In a separate filing, Mueller made no term recommendation but praised Cohen for his “significant efforts to assist the special counsel’s office.” The memos reveal no new information.

    Call it as sleazy as you want, but looking into a real estate deal is neither a high crime nor a misdemeanor, even if it’s in Russia. Conspiracy law requires an agreement to commit a crime, not just the media declaiming “Cohen was communicating directly with the Kremlin!” Talking about meeting Russian persons is not a crime, nor is meeting with them. The takeaway this was all about influence buying by the Russkies falls flat. If Putin sought to ensnare Trump, why didn’t he find a way for the deal to actually go through? Mueller has to be able to prove actual crimes by the president, not just twist our underclothes into a weekly conspiratorial knot. For fun, look here at the creative writing needed to even suggest anything illegal. Doesn’t sound like Trump’s on thin ice with hot shoes.

     

    Sigh. It is useful at this point of binge-watching the Mueller mini-series to go back to the beginning.

    The origin story for all things Russiagate is a less-than-complete intelligence finding hackers, linked to the Russian government, stole emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2016. The details have never been released, no U.S. law enforcement agency has ever seen the server/scene of the crime, and Mueller’s dramatic indictments of said hackers, released as Trump met with Putin in Helsinki, will never be heard of again, or challenged, as none of his defendants will ever leave Russia. Meanwhile, despite contemporaneous denials of the same, it is now somehow accepted knowledge the emails (and Facebook ads!) had some unproven major affect on the election.

    The origin story for everything else, that Trump is beholden to Putin for favors granted or via blackmail, is opposition research purchased by the Democrats and carried out by an MI6 operative with complex connections into American intelligence, the salacious Steele Dossier. The FBI, under a Democratic-controlled Justice Department, then sought warrants to spy on the nominated GOP candidate for president, based on evidence paid for by his opponent.

    Yet the real origin story for all things Russiagate is the media, inflamed by Democrats, searching for why Trump won (because it can’t be anything to do with Hillary, and “all white people and the Electoral College are racists” just doesn’t hold up.) Their position is Trump must have done something wrong, and Robert Mueller, despite helping squash a Bush-era money-laundering probe, lying about the Iraq War, and flubbing the post-9/11 anthrax investigation, has been resurrected with Jedi superpowers to find it. It might be collusion with Russia or Wikileaks, or a pee tape, or taxes, all packaged as hard news but reading like Game of Thrones plot speculation. None of that is journalism to be proud of, and it underlies everything Mueller.

    As the NYT said in a rare moment of candor, “From the day the Mueller investigation began, opponents of the president have hungered for that report, or an indictment waiting just around the corner, as the source text for an incantation to whisk Mr. Trump out of office and set everything back to normal again.”

    The core problem is Mueller just hasn’t found a crime connected with Russiagate someone working for Trump might have committed. His investigation to date hasn’t been a search for the guilty party, Colonel Mustard in the library, but a search for an actual underlying crime, some crime, any crime. All Mueller has uncovered are some old financial misdealing by Manafort and chums that took place before and outside of the Trump campaign, payoffs to Trump’s mistresses which are not in themselves inherently illegal (despite what prosecutors simply assert in the Cohen sentencing report, someone will have to prove to a jury the money was from campaign funds and the transactions were “for the purpose of influencing” federal elections, not say simply “protecting his family from shame.” Cohen’s guilty pleas cannot legally be considered evidence of someone else’s guilt), and a bunch of people lying about unrelated matters.

     

    And that’s the give away to Muller’s final report. There was no base crime as the starting point of the investigation. With Watergate there was the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters. With Russiagate you had… Trump winning the election (remembering the FBI concluded the DNC hack was done by the Russians forever ago, no Mueller needed.)

    Almost everything Mueller has, the perjury and lying cases, are crimes he created through the process of investigating. He’s Schroeder’s Box; the crimes only exist when he tries to look at them. Mueller created most of his booked charges by asking questions he already knew the answers to, hoping his witness would lie and commit a new crime literally in front of him. Nobody should be proud of lying, but it seems a helluva way to contest a completed election as Trump enters the third year of his term.

    Mueller’s end product, his report, will most likely claim a lot of unsavory things went on. But it seems increasingly unlikely he’ll have evidence Trump worked with Russia to win the election, and even less likely that Trump is now under Putin’s control. If Mueller had a smoking gun we’d be watching impeachment hearings by now.

    Instead Mueller will end up concluding some people may have sort of maybe tried to interfere with an investigation into what turned out to be nothing, another “crime” that exists only because there was an investigation to trigger it. He’ll dump that steaming pile of legal ambiguity into the lap of the Democratic House to hold hearings on from now until global warming claims the city of Benghazi and returns it to the sea. Or the 2020 election, whichever comes first.

     

    BONUS:

    The uber-point of all this Ocean’s Nineteen-level conspiracy is supposedly so Putin can, whatever, sow dissent in America. Because if he wanted a puppet in the Oval Office it has been a damn poor return on investment — sanctions are still in place, NATO is still on Russia’s border, Montenegro joined NATO, Trump approved arms sales to the Ukraine, RT and Sputnik are sidelined as registered foreign agents, Cold Warrior-like hardliners Bolton and Pompeo are in power, the U.S. just delivered Russia an ultimatum on an arms control treaty that could return some American missiles to Europe, and more. On the plus side, there were those friendly Tweets.

    Along the way new journalistic “norms” were created: Trump is too stupid to have made his money, so it must be ill-gotten. Trump did real estate deals in NYC and so is mobbed up. Trump’s taxes (albeit available to the IRS and Treasury for decades, the FBI and Mueller via warrant for years) hide secrets. Meanwhile, everyone in Russia with a few bucks is an oligarch, and everyone who anyone from the Trump side spoke with is “connected to Putin.” Trump doesn’t have lawyers, he has fixers and consigliere.

    These tropes allow journalists to communicate in a kind of shorthand with the rubes who still imagine something will happen to annul the 2016 election. They allow each mini-development to appear to be a major event, as in the mind of the media everything is related, and everything accumulative. So a lie about a real estate deal in Russia is HUGE because it has something to do with Russia and see that connects all the dots!

    None of that is journalism to be proud of, and it underlies everything Mueller. It is almost sad looking back at the old articles and TV tales to see how excited everyone got — Flynn was indicated! Sessions recused himself! Comey will save us! The Nunes Memo! They all used to matter sooooo much. Outlets like the NYT and WaPo rolled out a “source close to the White House” to comment whatever just happened means Mueller is getting close to nailing Trump. The nutters who took over once cogent places like HuffPo and Salon run “reporting” that reads like Game of Thrones plot speculation. Everybody runs the same headlines: BREAKING: Reports: Sources: Trump Fixer to Flip; Avenatti Says “Orange is the New Black, Buttercup!”

    As one writer puts it, “For the last two years the mass media machine has been behaving very, very strangely, and it isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse. Not since the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq have we seen mainstream media outlets trying to shove narratives down our throats so desperately and aggressively.”




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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    Posted in Democracy, Trump

    Politics, Justice, and the Surveillance State

    March 12, 2018 // 5 Comments »




    The role pervasive surveillance plays in politics today has been grossly underreported. Set aside what you think about the Trump presidency for a moment and focus instead on the new paradigm for how politics and justice work inside the surveillance state.


    Incidental collectionis the claimed inadvertent or accidental monitoring of Americans’ communications under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. Incidental collection exists alongside court-approved warranted surveillance authorized on a specific individual. But for incidental collection, no probable cause is needed, no warrant is needed, and no court or judge is involved. It just gets vacuumed up.

    While exactly how many Americans have their communications monitored this way is unknown, a significant number Trump staffers (no evidence of incidental surveillance of the Clinton campaign exists) were surveilled by a White House controlled by their opposition party. Election-time claims the Obama administration wasn’t “wiretapping” Trump were disingenuous. They in fact gathered an unprecedented level of inside information. How was it used?

    Incidental collection nailed Michael Flynn; the NSA was ostensibly not surveilling Flynn, just listening in on the Russian ambassador as the two spoke. The intercept formed the basis of Flynn’s firing as national security advisor, his guilty plea for perjury, and very possibly his “game changing” testimony against others.

    Jeff Sessions was similarly incidentally surveilled, as was former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, whose conversations were picked up as part of a FISA warrant issued against Trump associate, Carter Page. Paul Manafort and Richard Gates were also subjects of FISA-warranted surveillance; they were surveilled in 2014, the case was dropped for lack of evidence, then re-surveilled after they joined the Trump team and became more interesting to the state.

    Officials on the National Security Council revealed Trump himself may also have been swept up in surveillance of foreign targets. Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, claims multiple communications by Trump transition staff were inadvertently picked up. Trump officials were monitored by British GCHQ with the information shared with their NSA partners. Some reports claim after a criminal warrant was denied to look into whether or not Trump Tower servers were communicating with a Russian bank, a FISA warrant was issued.

    How much information on Trump’s political strategy a Democratic White House acquired via surveillance, as well as the full story of what might have been done with that information, will never be known. We do know Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats saw enough after he took office to specify the “intelligence community may not engage in political activity, including dissemination of U.S. person identities to the White House, for the purpose of affecting the political process of the United States.”

    Coats likely had in mind the use of unmasking by the Obama administration. Identities of U.S. persons picked up inadvertently by surveillance are supposed to be masked, hidden from most users of the data. However, a select group of officials, including political appointees in the White House, can unmask and include names if they believe it is important to understanding the intelligence, or to show evidence of a crime.

    Former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice told House investigators in at least one instance she unmasked the identities of Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and Steve Bannon. Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, also made a number of unmasking requests in her final year in office.

    But no one knows who unmasked Flynn in his conversations with the Russian ambassador. That and subsequent leaking of what was sad were used not only to snare Flynn in a perjury trap, but also to force him out of government. Prior to the leak which took Flynn down, Obama holdover and then-acting attorney general Sally Yates warned Trump Flynn could be blackmailed by Moscow for lying about his calls. When Trump didn’t immediately fire Flynn, the unmasked surveillance was leaked by a “senior government official” (likely Yates) to the Washington Post. The disclosure pressured the administration to dump Flynn.

    Similar leaks were used to try to pressure Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign, though only resulted in him recusing himself from the Russiagate investigation. Following James Comey’s firing, that recusal ultimately opened the door for the appointment of Special Counsel Mueller.

    A highly classified leak was used to help marginalize Jared Kushner. The Washington Post, based on leaked intercepts, claimed foreign officials’ from four countries spoke of exploiting Kushner’s economic vulnerabilities to push him into acting against the United States. If the story is true, the leakers passed on data revealing sources and methods; those foreign officials now know however they communicated their thoughts about Kushner, the NSA was listening. Access to that level of information and the power to expose it is not a rank and file action. One analyst described the matter as “the Deep State takes out the White House’s Dark Clown Prince.”

    Pervasive surveillance has shown its power perhaps most significantly in creating perjury traps to manufacture indictments to pressure people to testify against others.

    Trump associate George Papadopoulos lied to the FBI about several meetings concerning Clinton’s emails. The FBI knew about the meetings, “propelled in part by intelligence from other friendly governments, including the British and Dutch.” The feds asked him questions solely in hope Papadopoulos would lie, commit perjury, even though there was nothing shown to be criminal in the meetings themselves. Now guilty of a crime, the FBI will use the promise of light punishment to press Papadopoulos into testifying against others.

    There is an element here of using surveillance to create a process crime out of a non-material lie (the FBI already knew) where no underlying crime of turpitude exists (the meetings were legal.) That that is then used to press someone to testify in an investigation that will have significant political impact seems… undemocratic… yet appears to be a primary tool Mueller is using.

    This is a far cry from a traditional plea deal, giving someone a light sentence for actual crimes so that they will testify against others. Mueller should know. He famously allowed Mafia hitman Sammy the Bull to escape more serious punishment for 19 first degree murders in return for testifying against John Gotti. No need to manufacture a perjury trap; the pile of bodies who never saw justice did the trick.

    Don’t be lured into thinking the ends justify the means, that whatever it takes to purge Trump is acceptable. Say what you want about Flynn, Kushner, et al, what matters most is the dark process being used. The arrival of pervasive surveillance as a political weapon is more significant than what happens to a little bug like Jared.




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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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