Wednesday, February 15, 2017

"What did the president know and when did he know it?"

That was the headline I planned for this post - before it got replayed by other sources. Oh, well. I am running with it because it is as if the Ghost of Politics Past is walking the halls of the White House.

You political history buffs might recall the Watergate Senate hearings at which Republican Sen. Howard Baker asked that question. I’ll get back to Baker at the end of this post.

Now we can paraphrase Baker and ask “What did Donald Trump know, and when did he know it?” (DNC War Room email).

Ryan Lizza at the New Yorker critiques The questionable account of what Michael Flynn told the White House. Here are the essential snippets.

The White House would like you to know that Michael Flynn’s sin was lying. Flynn resigned late last night as President Donald Trump’s national-security adviser, after twenty-four days on the job.

To understand why this account is so self-serving and dubious, you have to review the chronology of events surrounding this unusual episode.

I’ll reorder the snippets to make the chronology apparent.

Almost immediately after Obama made his sanctions announcement, on December 29th, expelling thirty-five Russian diplomats and closing down two Russian compounds, the Russian government made clear that Putin would retaliate in kind.

“We, of course, cannot leave unanswered the insults of the kind, reciprocity is the law of diplomacy and foreign relations,” Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, said during televised remarks in Russia. “Thus, the Russian Foreign Ministry and officials of other authorities have suggested the Russian President to announce thirty-one personnel of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and four diplomats from the Consulate General in St. Petersburg persona non grata.” Lavrov also said that he had recommended the closure of two U.S. facilities used by American diplomats.

Lavrov’s spokesman said, “Tomorrow there will be official statements, countermeasures.”

Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary to Vladimir Putin, affirmed that a reciprocal response would be forthcoming. “There is no doubt that Russia’s adequate and mirror response will make Washington officials feel very uncomfortable, as well,” he said. The Russian Embassy’s official account tweeted that Obama’s sanctions “are aimed directly at undermining bilateral relations,” and “they won’t be left unanswered.”

And then: nothing.

What happened between Obama’s statement on Thursday and Putin’s statement on Friday to change the Russian government’s response? This is the period when Flynn and the Russian Ambassador exchanged a flurry of communications, including, we now know with certainty, discussions about the Obama Administration’s sanctions. … the [Washington] Post confirmed with nine officials that Flynn had discussed sanctions on those calls

And then an announcement from Putin and praise from Trump.

On Friday, December 30th, early in the morning in the United States (the afternoon in Moscow), an official statement from Putin was posted on the Kremlin’s Web site. “Although we have the right to retaliate, we will not resort to irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy but will plan our further steps to restore Russian-US relations based on the policies of the Trump Administration,” the statement said. “We will not create any problems for US diplomats. We will not expel anyone.”

A few hours later, Trump celebrated the decision. “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!” he tweeted.

Even if the transcripts of the wire tap did not exist, the chronology itself is damning.

But now Flynn is gone, and there are some bigger unresolved questions. Did Trump instruct Flynn to discuss a potential easing of sanctions with Russia? Did Flynn update Trump on his calls with the Russian Ambassador? Did Trump know that Flynn lied to Pence about those contacts? What did the White House counsel do with the information that he received from [acting AG Sally] Yates about Flynn being vulnerable to blackmail?

“It wasn’t one report,” the senior White House official told me about the series of news articles that made Trump finally focus on Flynn yesterday. “It was a drip, drip, drip.”

Both Congress and the F.B.I. are looking into Flynn’s links to Russia. There are several former Obama officials who saw transcripts of his calls with the Russian Ambassador. The dripping has only just begun.

Ping! More communications between the Trump organization and Russia

I am not surprised that someone high up in the Trumpiverse would have direct communications with Russian officials. Even without the transcripts of Flynn’s calls to the Russian ambassador, there is a pima facie case to be made just on the basis of the chronology. Even A happens, agent B intervenes with calls to agent C, reaction to A suppressed. I don’t believe in coincidences. I don’t think agents B and C were talking dinner plans.

Among other sources, I posted on the secret communications link between a sever in the Trump tower and the Russian Alfa Bank before the election: Evidence that Trump is The Moskovian Candidate. The essence was that cybersecurity experts were worried that the hacking against the Clinton campaign might have been part of a larger effort also directed against the Trump campaign. What they found instead was a secret communications link. The content of the messages remains unknown, but the pattern of communications (“pings”) was suggestive of human political activity. The frequencies of pings, for example, spiked during the Democratic and Republican conventions. When a reporter began asking about that communications link, the Trump server was shut down. For more, see my post on it (in which I have links to the original reporting and more evidence of Trump-Moscow relations). I remain puzzled that the back channel communications has received so little play from the national media. It may be that the technical evidence is too difficult for the press to digest and communicate.

So my Trumpothesis is that the Flynn fiasco was just an extension of what had been going on for months prior to the election. For evidence of that, see the NY Times report today, Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence, which reveals, in part:

Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.

American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said. The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.

Remembering Howard Baker

PBS Newshour reminisced about then-Senator Howard Baker’s role in the Watergate hearings, Remembering Howard Baker, whose famous question embodied the Watergate hearings.

Howard Baker’s question sliced to the core of Watergate: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

Repeated over and again in the senator’s mild Tennessee drawl, those words guided Americans through the tangle of Watergate characters and charges playing daily on TV to focus squarely on Richard Nixon and his role in the cover-up.

Baker’s famous question has been dusted off for potential White House scandals big and small ever since.

Baker considered his years as Senate majority leader, 1981 to 1985, the high point of his career. He called it “the second-best job in town, only second to the presidency.”

He made a fleeting bid for that best job in 1980, and left the Senate with an eye to another presidential run in 1988. Instead, he ended up in the White House as Reagan’s chief of staff.

Reagan needed him to put things in order after ousting chief of staff Donald Regan amid scandal over the administration’s secret moves to trade arms for hostages in Iran and divert the profits to Nicaraguan rebels — another of history’s what-did-the-president-know moments.

This great Senator died in June 2014. And now Drumph-gate is underway. Who will step up to fill Baker’s role?

P. S.

It took years for Richard Nixon to screw up so badly he was faced with impeachment and had to resign. It took Ronald Reagan years before he called in Howard Baker to manage the Iran-Contra mess. It took Donald Trump just weeks to create his own version of Watergate. And we have yet to see a Republican figure in the U. S. Senate as brutally honest and gutsy as Baker.

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