With Trump behind presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in most polls, with unemployment worse than it's been since the Great Depression, and with almost 85,000 Americans dead and no sign of a let-up, Trump knows he's in trouble. Welcome "Obamagate," a scandal Trump says is "the biggest political crime in American history, by far!"
But even Trump cannot say what, exactly, the crime is. When asked by Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker, he said: "It's been going on for a long time. It's been going on from before I even got elected. And it's a disgrace that it happened." But when pressed to name an actual crime, all he could say was: "You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the papers, except yours."
The "scandal" generally seems to be an attempt to argue that Russia did not, in fact, attack our 2016 election, and that the efforts on the part of the FBI to investigate those attacks, and the connections between members of the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, were not legitimate attempts to protect our nation from attack. Instead, they were an effort to undermine first Trump's election and then his administration.
Here's what actually happened: On July 31, 2016, the FBI, then directed by James Comey, opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether people in Trump's campaign were coordinating, intentionally or by accident, with the Russian government. What sparked the investigation was information that campaign member George Papadopoulos had boasted that the Russians had damaging information on Trump's opponent Hillary Clinton.
At the same time, CIA Director John Brennan was bringing together officials from the FBI, CIA, and NSA to investigate Russian interference in the election.
The FBI investigation, named Crossfire Hurricane, focused on people with known ties to Russia or Russian oligarchs. That included former General Michael Flynn, who had worked as a consultant for Russian companies (as well as Turkish ones). Flynn had sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a formal dinner in Russia in December 2015, for which he was paid at least $45,000, but he skipped the clearance a retired military official should have had to do accept payment from a foreign government. Flynn began to advise the Trump campaign in February 2016, and at the Republican National Convention led the crowd in chants of "Lock Her Up!"
On November 10, President Barack Obama warned Trump against hiring Flynn for a sensitive position, but eight days later, Flynn became Trump's National Security Advisor. On December 29, Obama expelled 35 suspected Russian intelligence agents from the U.S. in retaliation for Russian interference in the 2016 election. That day, Flynn spoke on the phone with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, whom he had known since 2013. U.S. intelligence agencies routinely monitored Kislyak, and they briefed Obama administration officials, who thought the call sounded like Flynn and the Russians had a secret agreement.
The FBI interviewed Flynn on January 24, 2017. He lied about the content of the call. This sent acting Attorney General Sally Yates rushing to Trump's White House Counsel Don McGahn to warn him that Flynn was possibly open to blackmail by the Russians. On February 8, Flynn denied speaking to Kislyak about sanctions, but when intelligence officials indicated that he had, he claimed that "he couldn't be certain the topic never came up." Flynn resigned at Trump's request on February 13, 2017.
The next day, Trump met with Comey and asked him to drop the case against Flynn. Comey refused. Trump fired him, then told Kislyak "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off." Trump's Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from the case because he, too, had met with Kislyak. The Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (appointed by Trump) then appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller, former head of the FBI, to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, including whether Trump campaign officials had worked alongside them….
And, as our intelligence agencies had, Mueller concluded that yes, the Russians attacked our 2016 elections, and that members of the Trump campaign accepted their help, although his report did not go so far as to assert they were deliberately working in tandem.
So, too, did the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee, which is due to issue the fifth and final volume of its investigation in the next few weeks.
When Trump continued to insist that the Crossfire Hurricane Investigation was illegitimate, the inspector general of the Department of Justice, Michael Horowitz, investigated and concluded that it was indeed legitimate (although he excoriated the FBI for mistakes agents made in the reapplications of wiretapping authorizations for one of the people they were investigating, Carter Page).
In the midst of the Mueller investigation, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and after cooperating with the Mueller investigation, has been awaiting sentencing.
Last Thursday, the Justice Department, now under strong Trump supporter Attorney General William Barr, asked the judge to throw out Flynn's case, reiterating that the Russia investigation was not legitimate, and therefore that his lies were not material. This has led close to 2000 former DOJ officials to call for Barr's resignation.
The idea appears to be to turn the tables and claim that those investigating Russian interference were the criminals, while those caught in the investigation are victims. Thus Obama and Vice President Biden, along with the career intelligence and justice officials who tried to defend the country against foreign interference, are all part of a "Deep State" conspiracy to injure Trump.
Trump's appointees are helping him create this disinformation. His acting Director of National Intelligence, Richard Grenell, who has been vocal about his conviction that Russia did not attack us in 2016, recently declassified a list of U.S. officials who called for the "unmasking" of the individual mentioned in intelligence documents, the man who turned out to be Michael Flynn. Requests for such "unmasking" are common; names help officials understand the significance of the reports they are reading. Indeed, unmasking has increased dramatically in the Trump administration. But in Trump's narrative, the unmasking of Flynn was a "massive thing" that shows the unfairness of those investigating the Russian connections in 2016.
Today, three Republican Senators released the names of those who asked to unmask Flynn. The Senators are: Ron Johnson (R-WI), Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), and Rand Paul (R-KY). The list included more than three dozen Obama White House officials, including Biden, Comey, Brennan, and former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper. Paul has called for hearings on the matter, much like the many, many hearings Republicans held about Hillary Clinton's emails, and much like the investigation Trump wanted Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce.
While requests for unmasking are common, there is something interesting here: the requests are mainly from BEFORE Flynn's call with Kislyak, and come from Treasury, NATO, and intelligence officials. "If you want to be transparent and fair, show us the document that led all these senior authorized government officials to request this information, that freaked them out all at the same time," national security lawyer Mark Zaid commented to the Washington Post.
Still, today on the Fox News Channel, Trump said, "This was all Obama. This was all Biden. These people were corrupt. The whole thing was corrupt and we caught them. We caught them."
Then, tonight, we learned that the FBI served a search warrant on Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) for insider trading in stocks in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. A warrant for a senator would have had to be approved at the highest levels of the Department of Justice, where Barr holds sway. Burr is not the only senator who made exquisitely timed stock trades after hearing a private briefing for senators on the dangers of the coronavirus; Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) did, too, along with one or two others.
So why Burr? Remember I mentioned that the Senate Intelligence Committee agreed with the Mueller investigation, and that It was due to release the final volume of its report soon? Burr is the chairman of that key committee. If he is discredited enough to lose his chairmanship, McConnell will get to choose his replacement. And it's a pretty safe bet the committee will no longer support the conclusions of the Mueller Report.
Still, the game is not over. Judge Emmet G. Sullivan has appointed a former judge, John Gleeson, to oppose the request of the Justice Department to drop the case against Flynn and, in addition, to see whether Flynn has committed perjury. This might well rehash the evidence about Russian interference in our affairs that seems to have been pushed aside by the Ukraine scandal, impeachment, and now the pandemic.
In any case, it should help to combat the disinformation campaign intended to convince us that down is up and up is down, and that the Russia scandal belongs to anyone but Trump.
"We caught them."
Crossfire Hurricane IG report: https://www.justice.gov/storage/120919-examination.pdf