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Trump’s Russia Problems Under Scrutiny Next Week

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

What happened to RussiaGate?

A month ago, the headlines were flowing. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had been fired for lying about his meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself because he lied, under oath, about what he knew of the meeting.

The House Intelligence Committee investigation was investigating possible connections between Russian officials and President Trump’s entourage, as well as Trump’s false March 4 Twitter blast claiming that President Obama had wiretapped him.

The partisan conflict grew more heated. Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R.-Calif.) denounced unnamed officials for criminally leaking classified information. Then he paid a late-night visit to the White House to review classified documents that he said confirmed Trump’s claim. Actually, they didn’t. Nunes’ antics were so egregious, he had to recuse himself from the probe. He was succeeded by Representative K. Michael Conaway (R-Texas) from whom little has been heard.

The Senate Intelligence Committee then launched its own investigation. In a “conspicuous display of bipartisanship,” chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) and ranking member Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) promised a thorough probe.

“This investigation’s scope will go wherever the intelligence leads,” Burr said during a rare joint news conference.

Radio Silence

A month later, the Russia investigation is generating mostly radio silence.

FBI director James Comey has gone mum. After shooting down Trump’s false wiretapping claim, he has reverted to “no comment” mode.

The Senate investigation has stalled, apparently because Burr won’t issue the subpoenas the Democrats want. Insiders describe a “standoff” between Republicans and Democrats on the committee.

But the fireworks may resume next week when former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates testifies to the Senate. Yates has let it be known she will contradict President Trump’s claim that he did not know Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his meetings with Kislyak.

The House investigation will also resume later this month. Yates, former CIA director John Brennan and director of National Intelligence James Clapper have been invited to testify. No date has been set for that hearing.

The steady drip, drip, drip of revelations that drives a real Washington scandal toward political consequences has slowed. But has it stopped?

Watergate or Whitewater?

Critics suggest that as scandals go, Trump’s dealings with Russia are more Whitewater than Watergate, more Benghazi than Iran-contra. They see investigation via innuendo that never leads to any real revelations of wrongdoing, only more “connecting of dots,” finding links and spinning of theories.

The Democrats who parse the story, writes J.M. Bernays in The Baffler, are mired in the “politics of melancholy“:

“[T]he dauntless pursuit of this crusade, despite a distinct lack of credible evidence, serves multiple purposes. It deflects blame for a historic, humiliating failure; since that failure is conveniently blamed squarely on foreign meddling, it provides a rationale to continue ignoring criticism from the political left….”

And yet: Even if the Russia investigation is a political excuse for Clinton’s loss, that doesn’t mean the Trump campaign did not collude with the Russians. Just because Clinton ran an inept campaign and wants to blame someone besides herself does not mean she’s wrong about Russian interference.

As Yates’ already-leaked testimony suggests, all the president’s men continue to dissemble. In the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, the official story mutated several times.

The White House first denied there were any substantive contacts between the Trump entourage and the Russians. Then the official story became: Yes, there were contacts, but they concerned logistics, not U.S. sanctions on Russia. Then: Well, yes, there were conversations about sanctions, but Flynn lied about them and we fired him as soon as we learned. And now, it seems, the White House knew Flynn lied and didn’t fire him, but—

While the pace of revelations has slowed, the unresolved fact pattern has only grown more incriminating as the White House posture has become more defensive.

Flynn, who is vulnerable to legal charges that he failed to comply with the Foreign Agents Registration Act, is now seeking immunity in exchange for speaking with investigators, raising the prospect that he could reveal other undisclosed contacts, or a broader conspiracy.

“General Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit,” Flynn’s lawyer told Evan Osnos of the New Yorker magazine.

The FBI investigation of Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and former foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, continues.

The possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and a foreign power is not a Clintonian invention, but a matter of accumulating facts.

Fact Pattern

Manafort’s dealings with the Russians are pregnant. He clearly arranged the revision of the Republican Party platform on Ukraine, bringing the GOP into rare agreement with the Obama administration that the U.S. should not escalate the conflict.

The FBI has also described Carter Page, in court filings, as having connections to Russian agents.

After distancing himself from Manafort and Page, Trump has taken to attacking Comey, a sure sign that the president is worried. The enduring question is whether there was a quid pro quo between the Russians and the Trump campaign.

The key is Manafort. He, much more than Flynn or Page, was Trump’s interlocutor with the Russians. As the Associated Press reported in March, Manafort signed a $10 million contract in 2006 with Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who was then a close Putin ally. Manafort pitched a plan to improve Putin’s image in the United States.

“We are now of the belief that this model can greatly benefit the Putin government if employed at the correct levels with the appropriate commitment to success,” he wrote to Deripaska.

Did Manafort offer his services to Putin a decade later as Trump’s bid for the presidency gained momentum? There’s no evidence he did, but it is not an unreasonable question, especially because there’s no evidence that the White House cares to answer it. The drip, drip, drip is not over.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

#EndorseThis: A Friendly Message From Putin In SNL Cold Open

The mainstream media mostly continues to “normalize” Trump — and minimize or even ignore the likelihood that the Kremlin installed our new president. But in its latest “cold open,” Saturday Night Live went there, with fearless gusto. The SNL opening sketch featured a well-deserved star turn by Beck Bennett, whose shirtless portrayal of Vladimir Putin has been overshadowed by Alec Baldwin’s brilliant Trump during this season.

“Relax, I got this,” smirks Putin, directly addressing the troubled American majority. “Putti is going to make everything OK. I promise that we will take care of America. It’s the most expensive thing we ever bought.” He offers a few pungent observations about his “friend” Donald Trump — whose stumbling ineptitude has clearly disappointed the former KGB boss,

It’s hilarious, in that chilling style to which we all must become accustomed in the new era. Bennett is joined briefly by Kate McKinnon who plays “Olya,” a shuffling figure summoned by Putin to offer a testimonial about how “happy” she is as a woman in his Russia. (She later doffs her babushka for a pink “pussy hat,” a deft nod to the dissident Moscow band Pussy Riot.)

The most penetrating news analysis comes from comedy writers these days. Maybe that was always true.


Clinton Blames Defeat On Comey Letter In Call To Top Donors

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Hillary Clinton blamed FBI director James Comey for her stunning defeat in Tuesday’s presidential election in a conference call with her top campaign funders on Saturday, according to two participants who were on the call.

Clinton was projected by nearly every national public opinion poll as the heavy favorite going into Tuesday’s race. Instead, Republican Donald Trump won the election, shocking many throughout the nation and prompting widespread protests.

Clinton has kept a low profile since her defeat after delivering her concession speech on Wednesday morning.

Clinton told her supporters on Saturday that her team had drafted a memo that looked at the changing opinion polls leading up to the election and that the letter from Comey proved to be a turning point. She said Comey’s decision to go public with the renewed examination of her email server had caused an erosion of support in the upper Midwest, according to three people familiar with the call.

Clinton told donors that Trump was able to seize on both of Comey’s announcements and use them to attack her, according to two participants on the call.

While the second letter cleared her of wrongdoing, Clinton said that it reinforced to Trump’s supporters that the system was rigged in her favor and motivated them to mobilize on Election Day.

The memo prepared by Clinton’s campaign, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, said voters who decided which candidate to support in the last week were more likely to support Trump than Clinton.

“In the end, late breaking developments in the race proved one hurdle too many for us to overcome,” the memo concludes.

A spokesperson for the FBI could not immediately be reached for comment.

On the phone call, Dennis Cheng, who served as Clinton’s finance chair, said her campaign and the national party had raised more than $900 million from more than 3 million individual donors, according to the two participants who spoke to Reuters.

 As Clinton gave her account to donors, Trump hunkered down at Trump Tower with members of the transition team announced on Friday and tasked with selecting the 15 Cabinet posts and thousands of political appointment jobs.

Kellyanne Conway, who served as his campaign manager, said on Saturday that the an announcement of a new chief of staff is “imminent.” Two candidates whose names have surfaced as contenders for the top White House job are campaign CEO Steve Bannon and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.

Trump will deliver a speech about his plans moving forward in the coming days and may undertake a national victory tour, Conway said, without providing further details. He will be sworn in on January 20.

The president-elect plans to keep his communication channels open. In an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that will air on Sunday, Trump said he isn’t ready to give up his Twitter account, where he routinely posted controversial statements during the campaign that unleashed harsh criticism.

“I’m going to be very restrained, if I use it at all, I’m going to be very restrained,” Trump said.

(Reporting by Ginger Gibson in Washington and Luciana Lopez in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler and Mary Milliken)

IMAGE: Hillary Clinton attends an event where she addressed her staff and supporters about the results of the U.S. election at a hotel in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., November 9, 2016.    REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The Great 2016 Campaign Mystery: Who’s In The Electorate?

Reprinted with permission by AlterNet

It’s often said that the 2016 presidential campaign is unlike any other, starting with the barrier-breaking gender of one candidate, and the use of misogyny and racism as positive brand-identifiers by the other. But there’s another factor that could spell a departure in the 2016 race from the presidential contests of 2012 and 2008, which will not be known until after the vote is in: just who will decide to vote?

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Saturday shows Clinton squeaking by Trump with a mere 2-point lead, a far different result from the 12-point Clinton lead the very same poll showed a mere five days before. The survey’s pollster says the sudden shift is more indicative of a changing view of who’s likely to turn out than of changes in the preferences of voters previously surveyed. Among them, a big bump up in the percentage of non-college-educated white women identifying as Trump voters, and a reluctance on the part of certain Democratic-leaning eligible voters to actually turn up at the polls.

As described by Gary Langer of Langer Research Associates, the firm that conducted the polling for the news outlets, according to an ABC News press release:

  • In one example, there are 6 points more Republicans and GOP-leaning independents showing up in the ranks of non-college white women. This group was broadly for Trump a few weeks ago, then less so; it’s now back, favoring him by 59-29 percent.
  • Loosely affiliated or reluctant Clinton supporters look less likely to vote, perhaps given their sense she can win without them—a supposition that looks less reliable today.

These surveys were taken before news broke of FBI director James Comey’s dark and vague letter to the chairmen of a number of congressional committees stating that new emails had been found on a laptop belonging to former congressman Anthony Weiner that may be pertinent to the FBI’s earlier investigation of emails hosted on Hillary Clinton’s private server while she was secretary of state. (Weiner is the estranged husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin; the FBI is currently investigating his lewd text messages sent to a 15-year-old girl. In short, he’s disgusting.)

While the Trump campaign is likely reveling in news that a growing segment of the electorate is inclined toward its candidate (those Trump-appreciative women who were not expected to vote in this election), Bloomberg News published an exclusive report on the Trump campaign’s attempts to actually depress voter turnout among certain segments of the potential electorate, through the use of marketing techniques. The voters they hope to keep home are from constituencies more naturally aligned with Clinton: young women, African Americans and “idealistic white liberals” (Trumpspeak, one imagines, for Bernie supporters).

Campaign staffers who talked to Bloomberg’s Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg said Trump’s publicity stunt in the hour before the second presidential debate, when he sat at a long table in a hotel conference room, flanked by women who accused former president Bill Clinton of assaulting them, was designed to depress turnout for Clinton among young women. More quietly, the Trump people are pushing to black audiences a line Hillary Clinton delivered in a 1996 speech in which she referred to members of violent gangs as “superpredators,” a remark Trump and his surrogates describe as a broad-brush characterization of black teenagers. (Clinton has repeatedly expressed regret for her use of the term, which was in vogue in that era.)

From the October 27 Bloomberg report:

On Oct. 24, Trump’s team began placing spots on select African American radio stations. In San Antonio, a young staffer showed off a South Park-style animation he’d created of Clinton delivering the “superpredator” line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook “dark posts”—nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as Parscale puts it, “only the people we want to see it, see it.” The aim is to depress Clinton’s vote total. “We know because we’ve modeled this,” says the official. “It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”

The Trump team’s effort to discourage young women by rolling out Clinton accusers and drive down black turnout in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood with targeted messages about the Clinton Foundation’s controversial operations in Haiti is an odd gambit.

The Bloomberg writers report that the Trump campaign’s organizing model, according to its data and marketing guru Brad Parscale, is a Facebook strategy which, if it doesn’t succeed in suppressing the more progressive segment of the vote, is destined to at least yield Trump a fat list of dedicated followers before it’s all over.

* * *

In the meantime, a group of purported political insiders who talk regularly to Politico are still expecting to see a “Bradley effect” in the final vote tallies that shows voters who talked to pollsters were reluctant to admit that they planned to vote for Trump. According to Politico:

Most Republican insiders don’t believe [the polls are] accurately capturing Trump’s true level of support.

That’s according to the Politico Caucus—a panel of activists, strategists and operatives in 11 key battleground states. More than seven-in-10 GOP insiders, 71 percent, say the polls understate Trump’s support because voters don’t want to admit to pollsters that they are backing the controversial Republican nominee.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s lead over Trump among women overall is looking to be epic. When FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten parsed the polls by gender on October 17, Clinton enjoyed a 20-point lead among women voters in FiveThirtyEight’s “average of the most recent live-interview polls from each pollster to test the race in October.”

Anecdotally, there is some evidence of Republican women choosing either to vote for Clinton or to vote only in down-ballot races, skipping the race for the presidency. The New York Times talked to several women leaders in the GOP, following Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich’s attempt to slut-shame Fox News Megyn Kelly when the host of “The Kelly Files” dared to bring up the Republican nominee’s alleged groping of women.

From the New York Times report by Trip Gabriel:

“I think we’ll see a lot of women walk away from the party over this,” said Katie Packer, who was Mr. Romney’s deputy campaign manager. “What you’re seeing is 20 years, 30 years of frustration coming together and really, really compounded in the last couple of weeks.”

In Marie Clarie, Lyz Lenz wrote of her friends in her nearly all-Republican evangelical community secretly vowing to vote for Clinton. Lenz interviews a friend:

“It’s just not worth the capital for me to support Clinton in a visible context,” she says. “But one on one, I try to convince people that there are other alternatives to Trump.”

For the most part, though, she’s content to “pass” as a Trump voter. “In a normal election cycle, most Evangelical Christians are assuming others are like them,” she says. “I don’t correct their assumption.”

* * *

In any election, evidence of the makeup of the electorate is delivered no sooner than election day. But this election may not even offer that if there are an appreciable number of “shy” Trump voters and “shy” Clinton voters. Would these people even tell exit pollsters the name of their candidate?

And this election is different from all those before in other ways: Facebook itself has changed, and the Trump campaign is taking advantage of those changes with its use of “dark posts” and other new features designed for marketers.

In every election cycle, the electorate changes, according to the cycles of life. People turn 18 and register for the first time; other people die. People move to other states, drop out of voting, or decide to vote after not having done so in a while. But in a chaotic cycle in which the Democratic Party has seen a primary battle between its liberal and progressive wings, and the Republican Party has been all but wrecked by a candidate whose few stated policies often diverge from the party’s stated policies (say, on tariffs and trade), a very different assemblage of people from past presidential years could turn up at the polls. Will a sizeable number of white women who did not go to college and who haven’t voted in a while turn up to vote for Trump? That latest Washington Post/ABC News poll suggests that could happen.

The trick for pollsters will be to find ways of measuring any such changes to the composition of the electorate. The trick for everybody else: understanding what it means for our politics.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet’s senior Washington editor, and a weekly columnist for The American Prospect. Follow her on Twitter @addiestan.

IMAGE: Trump supporters listen as U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan December 21, 2015. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook