Friday, 16 February 2018

A thought about Mueller's Indictment of Russian interference in the American Election

The depth of detail in the indictment filed today by Mueller's Russian investigation team is quite amazing and should put to rest all but the most deluded conspiracy theorists about Russia's active interference campaign.  Its important to note that this indictment makes no claims about the impact of the campaign nor does it identify Americans as willing co-conspirators.  But the sheer amount of detail, and the fact that it is unlikely that the much of the evidence collected by Mueller's team is in this charge document, should make Trump and his gang even more nervous.  Because although this document might show "no collusion" there are plenty of indications within the indictment that the other shoe might well be dropping down the road.  As there is little chance that any of the named conspirators in the indictment will ever face US justice, this is a 'speaking indictment': it sets out a narrative of events onto which later pieces of the investigation will be mapped.  It provides a base to which other bad actors can be connected.

But clearly details are included or not included in this indictment for reasons we cannot know.  For instance, take a look at Item 81 in the indictment  (see below).  This item is part of a detailed chronology of events, and yet it doesn't quite fit.

Page 29
[The passage was highlighted and annotated by Josh Marshall in his column on Talking Points Memo].

What is described here is the updating of a list of US residents with who the defendants have been in contact and are working with Russian operatives (knowingly or not).  The inference is clear that it was created at some point in the past, and likely updated many times, possibly after this date.  But why is this update included in this very precise indictment?  Why is this important enough to be noted?

What else was happening in the Trump campaign around 24 August 2016?  Well a week before, Trump named Steve Bannon campaign CEO and Kellyanne Conway campaign manager. Bannon and Conway are close allies of Robert Mercer and Rebekah Mercer, who encouraged the use of the company Cambridge Analytica to micro-target political data on social media.  Also on 17 August, Trump received his first classified national security briefing from the US intelligence community.  The same day, Roger Stone famously tweeted: “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the barrel. #CrookedHillary.” Then on Aug. 21 Guccifer 2.0 posted hacked DCCC documents on Pennsylvania’s congressional primaries.  The next day Guccifer 2.0 uploaded almost 2.5 gigabytes of stolen documents — including the Democratic Party’s get-out-the-vote strategy for Florida.  In an interview with Breitbart Radio on 26 Aug. Roger Stone said “I’m almost confident Mr. Assange has virtually every one of the emails that the Clinton henchwomen, Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills, thought that they had deleted, and I suspect that he’s going to drop them at strategic times in the run-up to the rest of this race.” On 31 Aug. Guccifer 2.0 posted documents hacked from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s personal computer.    

So no obvious, direct, connections but a critical and busy point in the campaign, with some suggestive possible connections. I don't think the inclusion of this notice of an update of a list of Americans contacted to assist the Russian campaign in the indictment is of no consequence.  The Mueller investigators know a lot more than they are currently saying.  I expect that some of the people on that list will be important when Mueller's other shoe drops in the months to come.


Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Learning from the Brexit and Trump Campaigns: Comparing British and American attempts to fight 'Fake News'

On the British hearings in Washington about Social Media's role in spreading political misinformation

It didn’t get much mainstream press in North America, but last week 11 British MPs held hearings in Washington investigating US technology companies and their responsibility for monitoring and/or preventing malicious "news" content on their platforms.  This hearing was the first ever select committee session to be live-streamed from abroad.  Why the committee chose to hold its hearings in the US is unclear, but it may be a sign of both how seriously the UK is taking this issue and of how important it is that the inquiry be highly visible on both sides of the Atlantic.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Trumpian Assault on American Justice

The Dangers of the Current Moment

While Trump gave his first State of the Union in a fashion clearly meant to be conventionally “presidential”, developments in the ongoing attack on the credibility of the FBI and the Mueller investigation by the White House and its and GOP enablers have moved in a very dangerous direction.  Last year right after FBI director Comey was fired, lots of commentators worried aloud about the slide towards autocratic rule that further meddling in the independence of the career officials at the Department of Justice would entail. After all, it was a major campaign pledge of Trump: wielding the Justice Department’s immense power as a political weapon. 

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

On the history of the Steele Dossier... you know the Trump "pee pee" document

What’s known about the provenance of the infamous Steele memo on Trump-Russia collusion.

Recent revelations in the Washington Post about the funding of the opposition research memo prepared by British ex-Spy, Christopher Steele, has caused a storm of controversy (at least among conservatives in the US), with pundits on the political right suggesting this funding history indicates the dossier is a partisan ‘hack’ job, and that Hillary Clinton should actually be investigated for collusion with Russians.

The following is a timeline of what has been made public about the origins and funding of the Steele dossier, compiled from Washington Post, the New York Times, publicly accessible court documents and reporting in Talking Points Memo, Mother Jones and other reputable media outlets.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Trump again uses his thumbs to distract, again

The current furor over Trump's comments about the NFL is leading to some much needed discussion about race issues on mainstream venues -- which is important. 


While Trump stirs up another high profile culture conflict that sucks-up all the media oxygen:

I haven't seen the analytics yet, but I'm willing to bet the NFL/anthem tweets and subsequent story dominates almost mainstream media at the moment.  Dangerously, Trump may not know much about anything, but he is very effective at disguising that fact and distracting everyone from pressing issues at any given time.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Pardoning the unpardonable

While much of North America is worried about the impending landfall of a potentially catastrophic hurricane in Texas, the US president has quietly pardoned the Arizona Sheriff recently convicted of racial profiling and refusing to obey a federal court’s injunction against continuing such practices.  Trump’s pardoning of Joe Arpaio may seem like a rather minor issue compared to the litany of major issues that have bedeviled this president, or indeed the impending disaster facing South East Texas.  I don’t want to diminish those other issues, but I want to highlight why this pardon is also a very big deal.  

Trump has recently mused publicly about the extent of his pardon powers.  And the Arpaio pardon his may well be the trial run of a string of pre-emptive pardons.  But even if it isn’t, the suggestion that Arpaio merited a pardon, as he hinted at his Phoenix political rally with the phrase that Arpaio had been “convicted for doing his job” is indicative of the contempt Trump holds for the rule of law and to his willingness to use the Presidency’s judicial privileges for crass political gain.

Normally, a president considering a pardon solicits and make publicly available the recommendation of the Department of Justice.  However, in this case that is unlikely to have happened since it was Trump’s own Department of Justice that secured the very conviction for criminal contempt that is the subject of the pardon.  A president can ignore a DOJ recommendation, but the DOJ’s participation is one check on the abuse of this extraordinary power in the hands of a president.  And even Attorney General Sessions was hardly likely to recommend a pardon for a law enforcement officer convicted of willfully and openly flouting a federal court order, prosecuted by his own department.

Moreover, this case is still active with Arpaio’s lawyers preparing an appeal of a decision that was only issued this past July.  Normally (and this pardon just goes to underline how far from ‘normal’ the US has travelled in the past 7 months), this would be a strong reason for a pardon to be thought entirely premature: the president is literally intervening in the middle of an ongoing legal proceeding.  Thus the pardon circumvents normal judicial process and has the appearance of being (and substantively is) a direct interference in the regular administration of justice.  Trump has already shown himself to have difficulty grasping and respecting the independent and impartial operation of federal law enforcement.  With this act, Trump has dramatically escalated the assault on these limits.

Trump is pardoning a political ally who quite deliberately flouted the law and did so as a law enforcement officer.  It places Trump, again, on the side of bigotry and racism. Trump has already made political spectacle of Arpaio in order to placate some of his restive critics: at his Phoenix political rally he asked, “Do people in this room like Sheriff Joe,” showing explicitly the very defined political audience for the pardon.  Perhaps Trump thought that pardoning Arpaio would bring political gain without cost.  It is true that this pardon cannot be stopped and will please the Trumpite base.  But it will also not escape the attention of Mueller and his team as they investigate obstruction of justice and evaluate evidence bearing on Trump’s motives and lack of respect for law.  

Unlike a pardon of himself, family members, or aides in the Russian investigation, pardoning Arpaio will probably not result in a demand for an impeachment inquiry.  But as impeachment pressure increases in the future (as they will), the Arpaio pardon in the background will be highly damaging to the Trump’s position.  Ultimately, it will strengthen the arguments of those who have long claimed Trump does not have the requisite respect for the rule of law, or an understanding of the meaning of his constitutional oath, to remain the president.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Who now is the hand of the king?

The infighting within Trump’s White House reached a crescendo this week, with the addition to the menagerie of mini-me-Trump Anthony Scaramucci and the subsequent and connected ousting of the buffoonish Sean Spicer and stalwart Republican insider Reince Priebus. 

Friday, 21 July 2017

The new Trump offensive

I think we should expect a ramping-up of accusations against Trump’s critics in the coming days.

Trump’s interview with the New York Times on Wednesday 19 July, and the subsequent reporting in the Washington Post on Trump’s querying of the extent of his own powers of pardon signal, I suspect, the start of new offensive on the part of the Trump White House against those tasked with both usual legal oversight of the US government and the extra-ordinary Russia investigation.

Monday, 10 July 2017

What do the latest Trump-Russia revelations actually amount to?

Gunshot sounds, smoking gun, and bullet holes, but no forensically matched bullets...yet.
Last year Trump very publicly called on "Russia, if you're listening" to help him find Clinton's missing emails.  Over the past week two major stories have been reported that indicate there were more active, behind the scenes, efforts on the part of the Trump campaign to get damaging information on the Clinton campaign.  The Wall Street Journal  and now the New York Times have reported active Trump campaign contacts with Russian agents or intermediaries toward the goal of obtaining negative information about Clinton.  And Donald Trump Jr. has now publicly confirmed that the campaign communicated directly with a Russia foreign national connected with the Putin regime in the bid for that material damaging to their election opponents.  Why is this significant?  Simply, these are the first clear examples of the Trump team deliberately "colluding" with Russians in the 2016 election.

American experts have pointed to the legal problems a presidential candidate would face if they received “substantial assistance” from or were “aided and abetted” by a foreign national in an effort to influence an election.  Plenty of evidence has been accumulating on the public record of this happening in “plain sight” -- including Mr. Trump's own comments during the campaign.  These have been brushed off as rhetorical flourishes.  Now there is the first evidence of the intent and willingness to have direct Russian assistance, and the actions undertaken to obtain it.

The Wall Street Journal story outlined the activities of a Trump-campaign supporter, Peter W. Smith, who assembled a team dedicated to locating Clinton's deleted emails, and who put out the word that they were interested in what hackers could find.  Smith's contact with the Trump team was supposedly Mike Flynn.  We don't know whether Flynn had direct contact with Smith; Flynn isn't saying and Smith is now dead (note, not likely a conspiracy, he was in his 80s). The Trump campaign has not, however, denied Flynn's involvement, saying only that “if Flynn coordinated with [Smith] in any way, it would have been in his capacity as a private individual.”  Yet, Smith and one of his associates apparently indicated to others the belief that Flynn was their connection to the Trump campaign. This is all being investigated, no doubt.
Then this weekend the New York Times reported that Donald Trump Jr., along with Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort (Trump Campaign Chair at the time), met last June with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.  The latter is a person with close ties to the Kremlin, who for years has been advocating for repeal of the Magnitsky Act: an American law from 2012 that blacklists suspected Russian human rights abusers.  Putin was reportedly so angry at the law he retaliated by halting American adoptions of Russian children.  Veselnitskaya has been at the forefront of campaigning against the law ever since, including, attempts to discredit its namesake, Sergei L. Magnitsky, a lawyer and auditor who died in a Russian prison in 2009, in dubious and never fully explained circumstances, after exposing one of the biggest corruption scandals during Mr. Putin’s rule.  We also learned in a second story based on sources from within the Whitehouse itself that Trump Jr., took the meeting because he was promised that he would receive damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

Trump, Jr. has changed his story on this meeting at least twice (first denying it, then saying it was about something else), but he now acknowledges it was about getting dirt on Clinton but claims the meeting was disappointing because “It quickly became clear that she [the Russia lawyer] had no meaningful information.”  He now says her claim to have had this material as mere “pretext” for the meeting.  And more evidence is emerging that Trump Jr., and others, knew that the Russians were willing to help them.  Moreover, the President’s son is admitting that the campaign arranged the meeting solely to get information on Clinton.

Trump Jr claims in his defence that all campaigns look for dirt on their opponents (true enough), and that he did not know of Veselnitskaya's Russian connection (this should be treated as highly dubious - what campaign would send its top people to such a sensitive meeting without first finding out who they were meeting with?).  Trump Jr. claims when he invited Kushner and Manafort to join the meeting he did not know that Veselnitskaya was a Russian lawyer; nor did any of them seem to care. That strains credulity, but if there is any truth to it, ignorance of whom they were dealing with will likely be seen as “willful blindness” by those investigating the Trump team -- that won't help their legal position.
The Times reports that they got the information from “three advisers to the White House briefed on the meeting and two others with knowledge of it.” Those sources apparently talked after the release of the first story.  Advisors to the White House are not in the business of taking highly damaging stories and volunteering new information which makes them catastrophically more damaging.  The inference to be drawn here, it seems to me, is that the President’s allies were trying to get ahead of something much more damaging or get a first crack at shaping the public understanding of something much more damaging. We don’t know yet what drove them to volunteer such highly damaging information, but five of them did it, so it wasn’t a rogue whistleblower.

May, June and July 2016 are critical months in the Russia story.  A large amount of stuff of consequence happened just in July [see the timeline here]. There are already suggestions, as yet unproven, that a top Trump associate was offered caches of email in the months or weeks just prior to the first Wikileaks release on July 22nd, 2016.  This story sounds quite similar, or at least the opening gambit to such an offer.  We have a growing number of stories like these, each seemingly damning but which we are told are mere coincidences and misunderstandings with no connection to any of the other stories.  As the coincidences pile up, the credibility of claims they are just unconnected coincidences wears thinner and thinner.

All this new information adds considerably to the potential criminal violation of the federal law that prohibits “substantial assistance” to foreign nationals seeking to influence a federal election.  Donald Trump can’t very well sustain his position that in calling for the Russians to find the missing email, he was merely joking. His campaign was working behind closed doors to fulfill the objective that the candidate was “jokingly” about.  If confirmed and further developed in the Mueller investigation, these facts also bolster the campaign’s exposure to “aiding and abetting” liability for a campaign finance violation.

A question clearly raised by the new information is whether the Trump campaign’s public and private communications about the hacked emails constituted a request or suggestion that funds be spent to acquire the stolen emails. The candidate certainly requested this assistance in his public remarks. Now, in a meeting scheduled with a Russian national with ties to the Putin regime, the campaign made clear that it was actively interested in having this kind of information.  Press reporting suggests that a) the campaign was interested in the emails, because the candidate had said so, and supporters like Smith was engaged in a concerted effort to find them; and b) both the campaign and Smith were dealing with Russian nationals in the search for negative information on Clinton. 

It would hardly be unreasonable for the Russians to infer that the campaign was very much in the market for this information.  By suggesting that she had such information, Veselnitskaya was able obtain an audience with intimate associates of the candidate.  The  Russians could not mistake the intensity of the campaign’s interest.  The very scheduling of the meeting–and the status of the attendees–was sufficient to get the campaign’s point across about what it highly valued and was prepared to take from a foreign source.  And if they had any doubt, it would have been resolved by the President’s public call, six weeks later, for the Russians, “if you’re listening,” to find the emails.

We still don't have the direct connections necessary to judge if Trump and his campaign committed campaign finance violations in soliciting and receiving support from Russia, and assisting the Russians in their plan to influence the 2016 presidential election. But there is now little doubt that there is such a case to be investigated.  

What is becoming increasingly clear is that Mr. Trump and his campaign were open to whatever help the Russians would provide: they made that clear to the Russians, and took specific actions to invite and receive this foreign national assistance.  In response to the latest disclosure of Russian contacts, the campaign’s defense seems to be that it never checked whether the people from whom they were soliciting stolen emails and other negative information were Russians, much less connected to the Kremlin.  That may beggar belief; some may even find the claim perversely amusing.  But under campaign finance law, it is no joke, its a crime.

BUT, just as we seem to be getting somewhere...

MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow has raised the alarm that credible news outlets may be getting sent fake documents on the Russia investigation from sources trying to scuttle media credibility on the issue.  After being sent doctored “Top Secret” NSA documents claiming coordination between a named member of the Trump campaign and Russia, Maddow noted a possible link to recent sourcing problems with stories at CNN and Vice both led to their retraction and in one instance the resignation of several journalists. 

Clearly there will be more smoke ahead. 

Monday, 26 June 2017

A database of the normalization of autocracy

Those who have studied authoritarianism, both historical and contemporary, have argued for the importance of recogonizing how authoritarian governments take hold — often with incremental changes that seem shocking at first but quickly become normalized.   

Amy Siskind took this heart and has, since Trump's inauguration, documented every small change to American political norms she's observed and put them in weekly medium posts.  Each post begins with: “Experts in authoritarianism advise to keep a list of things subtly changing around you, so you’ll remember.”  Now, in Week 32, every item has a source link, and rather than just a few items, there are dozens.  Siskind is not alone.  On Twitter, for example, designer Laura Olin created @_rememberbot, where frequent tweets begin with the words “It is not normal” and catalogue the oddities of TrumpWorld. (“It is not normal for U.S. presidents to criticize federal judges.”)  But Siskind is most likely the most systematic.  
Here is a searchable database of all her lists.  

It makes sobering reading for how much things have changed incrementally and how much has become normalized.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Conspiracies to the left of us, conspiracies to the right, and Russia….in the middle?

Recent political campaigns, particularly the 2016 British Brexit vote, the 2016 US and 2017 French Presidential elections, are now all under scrutiny for potential meddling by Russia operatives and allies.  In all three cases an influence and propaganda campaign has been detected, with operatives directed by or sympathetic to Russia trying to manipulate social media and release hacked information thought damaging to the party not favoured by Russian interests.  Russian interference has led to a multitude of conspiracy theories about Russian influence, on both the left and right of the political spectrum, on social media manipulation by shady elites, on the rise of ‘alternative’ media outlets with Russian connections or pro-Russian views, and rapidly proliferating fake news about fake news. 

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

We are Approaching a Dangerous Moment in the Trump Presidency

Right now, Trump still has too many powerful defenders for him to face a political or legal reckoning, but he is getting seriously frustrated with the political crisis he has himself wrought, and wants desperately to ‘change the channel’ to distract attention from his manifest troubles.  And when he is on the defensive, Trump lashes out.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Trump throws out some red meat to his base

While everyone is (rightly) obsessed with the Comey firing... Trump appoints another white nationalist ideologue to lead his dangerous “election commission”.

Yesterday (May 10), just before basically conceding the White House lines on the Comey firing over the past 48 hours were fabrications, Trump launched a long-promised commission on “election integrity,” rekindling a controversy over the prevalence of voter fraud at US polls.  The commission, established by executive order, is the upshot of Trump’s unsubstantiated claim shortly after taking office that more than 3 million undocumented immigrants illegally voted in November’s election.  The new commission includes Republicans Connie Lawson, the secretary of state of Indiana, and Kenneth Blackwell, who formerly held that post in Ohio; Democratic election officials William M. Gardner of New Hampshire and Matthew Dunlap of Maine.  Christy McCormick, a Republican member of the nonpartisan US Election Assistance Commission appointed by President Barack Obama, has also been selected to serve on the panel.  All these officials seem entirely reasonable choices, but he has appointed Kris Kobach to co-lead (along with Vice President Mike Pence) this commission and its investigation.  Kobach is a white nationalist, anti-immigrant ideologue with a long and notorious career of voter suppression efforts.  The new commission is unlikely to find much evidence of real voter fraud, but with Kobach’s guidance, it could entrench voter suppression measures nonetheless.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Comey's Firing: A Moment of Truth for America

A Key Turning Point for Trumpism and Democracy

James Comey’s firing by Trump was lawful, and for some legal experts even overdue, but the now former FBI Director's role in leading the Trump-Russia investigation means that Trump’s action has brought his presidency to a turning point moment – a very dangerous moment for American democracy.  It really all depends on whom Trump nominates to succeed Comey.  If he tries to nominate a loyal stooge, then a constitutional crisis, or worse, the slide into authoritarianism, lies ahead.  If he nominates a credible, independent replacement (or a special prosecutor), or if the Republican controlled Senate insists on an independent replacement, then this will eventually blow over and Trump’s shambolic presidency will limp on. 

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Grand Jury Investigations into the Russian Connection

Are there Grand Juries already investigating the Trump-Russian connection?

A number of Washington insiders certainly think so.  And FBI Director Comey’s comments to the Senate on Wednesday seem to indirectly confirm such suspicions.

Friday, 5 May 2017

The Ruin of the Twentieth Century Returns: Exclusionary nationalism and Brexit

Brexit, Nationalism and the International Far Right

This is the lightly edited text of a talk I gave at Hamilton Third Age Learning on exclusionary nationalism and Brexit. It's a long, illustrated, post explaining the connections between the far right, the rise of nationalism and Brexit, Trump and anti-EU movements in Europe today.

Brexit refers to the referendum held on 23 June 2016 regarding Britain’s continuing membership in the European Union.  A relatively simple question was asked:

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” 
Voters had two choices:

1. “Remain a member of the European Union” 

2. “Leave the European Union”  

The Result:  17,410,742 voted to leave; 16,141,241 voted to remain. 

The leave campaign thus earned 51.9% of the 33.5 million votes cast – a turn out of 72% of the 45 million people eligible to vote.  Thus, 37% of the total eligible electorate cast a vote to leave the European Union [or EU].  This result was widely seen as surprising.