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Danziger: Trumpian Transparency

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.com.

Why The FBI Investigated Carter Page, ‘Idiot’ Espionage Suspect

Let’s put it this way: if poor, abused Carter Page wasn’t a Russian agent back when Donald Trump plucked him from obscurity to advise his 2016 campaign, he’d definitely done all he could to look like one. Among the many bizarre aspects of Rep. Devin Nunes’ incompetent and dishonest “Top Secret” memo purporting to discredit the Mueller investigation, pushing this odd bird back into the spotlight ranks near the top.

Why did Trump pick Page in the first place? Publicly praising Vladimir Putin as a stronger, more decisive leader than President Obama surely had something to do with it. Trump loves him some Putin. Imprisoning political rivals gives him a thrill. That Putin opponents keep turning up dead in ambiguous circumstances only proves him a manly, decisive leader.

Then there was Page’s longstanding opposition to economic sanctions against Russia in reaction to its armed incursions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Getting those sanctions lifted was the biggest tangible result the Kremlin hoped to achieve from its cyber-attacks on the U.S. presidential election.So reliably did Carter Page parrot the Putin line during three years living in Moscow that FBI agents first interviewed him in 2013, warning that he appeared to be under recruitment as a Russian spy. Indeed, Time recently found a letter Page wrote to a publisher back then bragging: “Over the past half year, I have had the privilege to serve as an informal advisor to the staff of the Kremlin in preparation for their Presidency of the G-20 Summit next month.”

The privilege, mind you.

 Indeed FBI surveillance captured Russian spies talking about their attempts to recruit Page, despite characterizing him as an “idiot.”

“I also promised him a lot,” convicted Russian agent Victor Podobnyy said on an FBI intercept. “This is intelligence method to cheat, how else to work with foreigners? You promise a favor for a favor. You get the documents from him and tell him to go [bleep] himself.”

Page admitted providing the documents.

A Kremlin advisor, and then a Trump advisor. Makes sense to me, although I do wonder exactly who recommended him.

But an idiot? Anybody who watches his March 2, 2017 interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, during which Page first denies, next admits and then lamely tries to spin a meeting with Russian ambassador (and spymaster) Sergei Kislyak during the 2016 GOP convention will find it hard to disagree.

Among other liabilities, Carter Page is a terrible dissembler. The man giggles.

Later that month, Page nipped off to Moscow to speak at the prestigious New Economic School, where he basically stuck to the Putin party line about poor, misunderstood Vladimir’s excuses for military adventurism. Asked by Chris Hayes how many Kremlin bigshots and spies he’d encountered there, Page giggled.

He couldn’t be sure. They don’t wear ID badges, you know.

It was the Moscow junket that seemingly led to Page being asked to step down from the Trump campaign, following directly upon embarrassing news that campaign manager Paul Manafort had received more than $12 million cash from a Kremlin-linked Ukrainian political party.

So no wonder Trump press spokesman Sean Spicer got sent out to deny that the president even knew the guy. Which may even be true. Hence too, however, the sheer absurdity of Devin Nunes’s pronouncement on Fox & Friends that the FBI used tainted evidence “to get a warrant on an American citizen to spy on another campaign.”  

Earth to Nunes: Page resigned from the campaign two months before the FBI reopened its probe of his links to Russian intelligence. Hence the agency’s October 2016 FISA court application to place him under surveillance. To win approval, investigators needed to provide probable cause that he was “knowingly engaging in clandestine intelligence gathering activities for or on behalf of” Russia.

To maintain surveillance, FBI investigators then had to convince a federal judge that valuable new evidence had resulted every 90 days. Key words: “new evidence.” The surveillance continued for a full year, notes Asha Rangappa, a former FBI counter-espionage agent. 

“And then there are all the multiple approaches made by individuals connected to Russian intelligence to Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Jeff Sessions,” Rangappa writes. She adds bluntly but accurately: “Every one of them has lied when asked about their Russian contacts.”

Somebody who lied to the FBI was George Papadopoulos, another Trump campaign lightweight whose drunken boasts to an Australian diplomat about Russian hacking of Hillary Clinton’s emails jump-started the agency’s counter-intelligence investigation of the Trump campaign’s Kremlin connections in July 2016. The Nunes memo’s unwitting confirmation of this fact makes nonsense of all the rest.

Meanwhile, British dossier or no dossier—and it’s worth noticing that  Nunes memo makes no attempt to prove its contents false, merely attacks author Christopher Steele’s presumed motives—it would have been gross dereliction of duty for U.S. intelligence not to give Carter Page a long, hard look.

Danziger: Lock Him Up

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.com.

That Heavily Hyped Memo Is Utterly Underwhelming — But Still It Makes Noise

After far more drama and tension than should have been necessary, the infamous House intelligence committee memo on alleged surveillance abuses by the FBI against President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was released. And it was, predictably, a hilarious and self-defeating flop, but that fact won’t discourage Trump’s most slavish acolytes from claiming the Russia “hoax” has been exposed.

This was actually a bit sad for me. I was holding out an irrational hope that House intelligence chair Rep. Devin Nunes, in the course of his day-to-day duties of abusing the committee’s oversight role to shield the president from political damage, might have accidentally stumbled into some real FBI malfeasance. After all, the government has granted itself vast surveillance powers and shielded itself from public accountability through secrecy and classification, making it extraordinarily difficult to know if and when abuses of those powers occur.

But, alas, the memo was a bust. It didn’t really tell us anything that hadn’t already been leaked or guessed, and it actually undermined a critical point Donald Trump and his defenders hoped the memo would bolster.

Nunes’ document alleges that FBI investigators relied in part on a dossier compiled by ex-MI6 officer Christopher Steele to obtain a FISA warrant against former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, and that the government failed to “accurately provide an accounting of the relevant facts” about the dossier when applying for and reauthorizing the warrant. Those “relevant facts” do not have anything to do with the accuracy of the information contained within the dossier, which Nunes’ memo doesn’t address.

Rather, the memo complains that the government did not disclose the “political origins” of the dossier — specifically the fact that Democratic groups helped fund it and that Steele himself showed “clear evidence” of bias against Trump — when presenting its case before a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) judge. The memo doesn’t actually make any allegations, but it strongly implies that Justice Department officials deliberately withheld this information to illicitly obtain and reauthorize surveillance of Page.

None of us has any way of knowing how legally significant these claims of bias would have been, however, because Nunes’ memo doesn’t lay out the government’s case against Page in any detail. Nor does it provide the name of the FISC judge who heard the evidence. In fact, it doesn’t provide any information one would needto gauge the validity of its implications. Instead, the memo strongly suggests that the Steele dossier was the critical component to the case against Page (while it conveniently omits the fact that he was on the radar of counterintelligence officials as far back as 2013).

This is important because Trump and his defenders are heavily invested in the notion that the whole Russia investigation originated from the Steele dossier, which they loudly insist is discredited and total bunk. The memo, however, accidentally disproves that allegation. In a sloppy attempt to gild what is already an unimpressive lily, Nunes’ memo vaguely alleges bias by noting that investigators mentioned a different Trump associate, George Papadopoulos, in its warrant application for Page. “The Papadopoulos information triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016,” the memo notes, thus corroborating a New York Times report that the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign’s Russia contacts began with Papadopoulos, not the Steele dossier.

But all of this is immaterial to the people who had already decided what the memo would say before they even saw it. Nunes, with allies in the conservative media, mounted an effective PR campaign around this document while it was still under wraps and advertised it as an earth-shaking and world-historic revelation of anti-Trump corruption and bias at the highest levels of government. Sean Hannity (who is denying reports that he advised Trump to approve the memo’s release) hyped the memo earlier this week by saying “this makes Watergate like stealing a Snickers bar from a drug store.” Former Trump White House official Sebastian Gorka grandiloquently declared that the memo’s revelations would be “100 times bigger” than the abuses that precipitated the American Revolution.

The memo, of course, comes nowhere close to matching that absurd hyperbole; it’s impossible to assert that the memo even points to a minor scandal at this point. So, now, these same Trump lackeys will set about to loudly exaggerating or flat-out lying about the memo’s contents so that it fits their pre-formed conclusion. It’s already happening: right-wing pundits are saying the “devastating” memo undermines special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump. The same people who spent weeks loudly demanding that the memo be released won’t be bothered by what the memo actually says. All they’re interested in his how they can use it to discredit the intensifying federal investigation into the president and his associates.