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Monday, December 09, 2019

Editor's Blog

Charles McGonigal

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The arrest of Charles McGonigal, chief of the FBI counterintelligence division in New York from October 2016 until his retirement in 2018, reopens festering questions about the troubled election that put Donald Trump in the White House. Among the crimes charged against McGonigal in two lengthy federal indictments is a secret financial relationship with Oleg Deripaska — a Russian oligarch close to dictator Vladimir Putin and associated with Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign manager, himself convicted of crimes and pardoned.

During his FBI career, McGonigal oversaw investigations of Deripaska and other oligarchs suspected of various crimes, including espionage. Now the exposure of his illegal connection with Deripaska may provide fresh insights into Trump's tainted victory.

On October 4, 2016, a month before Election Day, FBI director James Comey appointed McGonigal as special agent in charge of the FBI counterintelligence division in New York City, an exceptionally influential job that he took over at an extraordinarily sensitive moment. The bureau already had open investigations of both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican adversary Trump. The Clinton investigation concerned "her emails," of course, and the Trump investigation involved his campaign's Russian connections.

What followed McGonigal's sudden ascent to power in the New York FBI office were two seemingly separate incidents, occurring days before the election, that had a fateful impact. On October 28, Comey sent a letter to the Congress publicly announcing that the bureau had resumed its investigation of Clinton due to the discovery of a laptop owned by former Rep. Anthony Weiner, whose spouse Huma Abedin was a top Clinton aide.

Months earlier the Justice Department months had cleared Clinton of any crime, but Comey violated Justice Department guidelines in accusing her of being neglectful about classified information, though it was later revealed that her emails contained no classified documents. (That means zero, zilch, nada, none, nothing.) But then Comey was driven to examine Clinton emails on the Weiner laptop.

Comey's announcement stopped the Clinton campaign's forward momentum and almost certainly cost her the election — even though the FBI director acknowledged on November 2, days before the election, that nearly all of the data on the Weiner laptop duplicated emails the FBI already had seen. None contained any damaging information. Just as Clinton was severely damaged among swing suburban voters, Trump's base voters were galvanized.

While Comey's broadside against Clinton stunned the nation, perhaps nobody should have been shocked. Trump crony Rudolph Giuliani —who for decades maintained a close relationship with Republican-leaning officials in the New York FBI office as the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York — had repeatedly hinted on Fox News in the weeks before the election that the bureau was sitting on a "big surprise" that would vault his candidate to victory.

Meanwhile, on October 31, 2016, the New York Times published a front-page story on that other FBI investigation, known internally as "Crossfire Hurricane," which unlike her emails had gotten no public attention (and inspired no leaks). The headline was declarative and conclusive: "Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia." That false story, exonerating Trump of Kremlin connections that we now know were extensive and incriminating, was pushed by Trump operatives and agents and clearly originated in the New York FBI counterintelligence division — which had played a key role in the beginning of Crossfire Hurricane. It quoted anonymous "law enforcement sources," which did not mean a local police lieutenant.

Before he moved on to other positions at FBI headquarters, McGonigal's career had begun in New York, where he worked closely with James Kallstrom — the right-wing ideologue who headed the New York office for decades. A bosom buddy of Giuliani and Trump, Kallstrom is suspected of leading the pressure campaign that induced Comey to reopen the Clinton investigation. The explicit threat of leaks by agents and former agents like Kallstrom, who reportedly hated Clinton, spurred Comey's disastrous decision and his public announcement, which again violated department policy against election interference.

Damning as those facts may seem, they only get us so far. There is much more to learn before we can understand the full story of 2016. The scrupulously nonpartisan presidential historian Michael Beschloss asked this week whether McGonigal's indictment will lead us closer to the truth. Will the prosecution of McGonigal reveal the details of his relationship with Deripaska, whom he had once investigated before becoming his corrupt stooge? Will Comey provide a full and honest accounting of what happened in the New York FBI office before the election? Will the New York Times examine — and disclose — how that misleading story about Trump and Russia appeared on its front page? Who briefed the Times for that bogus story?

With Trump seeking to return to the White House, the answers to those questions do not merely reckon with the past but are critical to democracy's future. The malign conspirators who first brought that would-be tyrant to power, both foreign and domestic, are still at large.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Reprinted with permission from Creators.

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Bill Clinton

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While Speaker Kevin McCarthy demands transparency from the Biden White House, he has concealed crucial facts from the American public ever since he forged the "corrupt bargain" that greased his ascension to the constitutional post he now holds. The details of the agreement that allowed McCarthy to scrape together the barest majority are said to be set down in a three-page memorandum, which remains hidden.

What we already know, however, is that McCarthy arranged for ordinary Americans to subsidize his sleazy deal with the far Right when he promised to withhold approval of a higher debt ceiling until Democrats agree to enormous budget reductions — including harsh cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Unless Senate Democrats and the White House surrender to those absurd demands, and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, too, House Republicans insist they will force the United States to repudiate its debts and wreck its credit.

Debt repudiation would have devastating consequences for the national economy, the global economy, and America's position in the world. The only beneficiaries would be the adversaries of the United States. That much is obvious. And if it is, then aren't those politicians who constantly proclaim their own patriotism but seek to drive the country into ruin shouldn't even contemplate such acts — unless they're not so patriotic after all?

The Republican crazies say these extreme measures reflect their deep concern about budget deficits and the national debt. Their worrying would be more plausible if they had bothered to speak up on any of several occasions during Donald Trump's presidency when Congress had to raise the debt ceiling as a matter of course. Not once did Democrats even whisper about blackmailing Trump over the debt increase. And not once did Republicans protest the Trump spending and tax policies that ballooned the debt by trillions.

Now, of course, Donald Trump is for welshing on the debt ceiling. This would not be the first time he has encouraged financial chicanery. Ask the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, Allen Weisselberg, who pleaded guilty to felonious fraud in Trump's service and is now taking up residence on Riker's Island.

It is especially obnoxious for Trump to encourage a debt ceiling default when so much of the debt was incurred during his presidency. A higher debt ceiling isn't needed to enable future spending, but to cover spending that already occurred. Legal scholars would add that repudiating the debt would violate the Constitution, which protects "the full faith and credit of the United States," and the 14th Amendment, which stipulates that "the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law... shall not be questioned."

Trump may believe a default wouldn't matter. After all, his deadbeat approach to business always involved shafting his creditors, walking away from his debts and escaping accountability through bankruptcy. That may be how life works for a small-time swindler, but it isn't what great nations do — and the price would be unacceptably high.

The Republicans always say they want to operate government more like business — but they didn't say they want to run it like Trump's crooked company.

For now, the Treasury can manage the debt ceiling by shuffling various accounts and delaying certain payments, even though the nation officially passed "Debt Ceiling Day" on January 19. Sometime in the next several months a reckoning will loom.

Appropriately enough, the renewal of the debt ceiling debate is coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the inauguration of Bill Clinton, the only president in living memory who actually reduced deficits and debt. He did the opposite of Trump, raising taxes on the rich and setting the country on a path toward budget surplus (until the Republicans returned to power and blew it all).

The last time congressional Republicans (including McCarthy) made menacing noises about the debt ceiling was in 2011. Clinton wisely urged President Barack Obama to stand firm — just as he did when congressional Republicans led by Speaker Newt Gingrich tried to kill Medicare and shut down the government. Ultimately even the impetuous Gingrich refrained from threatening a debt default, although Clinton knew that his nemesis had considered deploying that terror tactic.

"I think (the Gingrich Republicans) figured I'd be smart enough to explain to the American people that they were refusing to pay for the expenses they had voted for when Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were president," Clinton recalled in 2011. "And that would make them look bad."

"The Constitution is clear and this idea that the Congress gets to vote twice on whether to pay for [expenditures] it has appropriated is crazy," he added. "You can't say, 'Well, we won the last election, and we didn't vote for some of that stuff, so we're going to throw the whole country's credit into arrears."

Clinton took the measure of the extremists on Capitol Hill during his second term, facing them down during two government shutdowns. He wasn't impressed by their sudden enthusiasm for balanced budgets, and he knew that standing up to their bullying and lying was the only way forward. Biden should study and heed the example.

The urgency now may be even greater, with the current gang of Republican extremists even more reckless than their irresponsible predecessors.

Reprinted with permission from Creators.