What If the President is a Victim in All This?

I know that by merely asking the question I’m going to get unmitigated hell on social media. But given what we know about Paul Manafort, I think it is a question that needs to be asked. Yes, let me concede up front that it then raises all sorts of other questions and concerns about the President, e.g. what’s it say about him that the Russians knew he was an easy mark.

But let’s consider the possibility anyway.

The Russians did not want Donald Trump elected. They just wanted to screw with our elections and make us hate each other. It worked. Their larger goal was to serve their own interests. They had a Podesta who could get close to Clinton, but they had a guy living in Trump Tower who could get even closer to the Republican nominee.

Yes, it does raise all sorts of other questions about the President, his team, etc., but I think we should be open to considering whether Manafort might have been working for Trump not for Trump’s interests, but for the interests of another of Manafort’s clients. Given the GOP weakening its position on Ukraine, etc., it seems like it would have been money well spent whether Trump won or lost.

And in the meantime, the Russians were able to sow lots of chaos and discord throughout the American political process.

Papadopolous Guilty Plea Is Bad News For Trump

With all the attention on Paul Manafort, the guilty plea of former Trump campaign advisor George Papadopolous has largely escaped notice, but it is Papadopolous that may prove to be a bigger threat to Donald Trump. The Papadopolous indictment, especially taken together with previous revelations about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian attorney, seems to indicate that at least some elements of the Trump campaign were actively seeking assistance from the Russians.

The indictment against Papadopolous alleges that the campaign advisor met with two Russian agents, the “Professor” and a Russian woman who Papadopolous believed to be Vladimir Putin’s niece. Per the indictment, Papadopolous had numerous contacts with the Russians and kept the campaign up to date with his outreach. In April 2016, the Professor told Papadopolous that the Russian government had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the firm of “thousands of emails.” This information was apparently passed along to the Trump campaign.

Many of the contacts involved a potential meeting between Donald Trump and the Russian government. The Trump campaign supervisor encouraged Papadopolous to make an unofficial visit to Russia, but the trip never took place.

The information in the indictment is not incriminating in and of itself. It isn’t illegal or unusual for a presidential campaign to be in contact with a foreign government. What is unusual and incriminating is for a member of a campaign to lie to FBI agents about such contacts. Yet, in the Trump Administration, there seems to have been mass amnesia about contacts with members of the Russian government.

Aside from the trail pointing toward the Trump campaign, Papadopolous’ guilty plea also indicates that he may have struck a deal with Robert Mueller. The bigger danger to Trump campaign officials is that Papadopolous may be providing information to Mueller’s team that will lead to more high-level indictments.

To be fair, the Russia amnesia seems to have spread across party lines. The Clinton campaign apparently paid for the infamous Trump dossier, at least part of which seemed to stem from Russian informants. At this point, it seems likely that both campaigns were attempting to to collude with the Russians with varying degrees of success.

For their part, the Russians seemed to be playing both sides. By summer of 2016, however, it was apparent that they were working against the Clinton campaign as emails stolen by Russian hackers were dumped online. It is possible that these emails were the same ones that the Professor offered to Papadopolous. With attempts made by Papadopolous, Donald Trump, Jr. and the candidate himself to get access to the stolen emails, if the Trump campaign did not collude with the Russian government, it was not for lack of trying.

Whether the collusion was successful and whether it rose to the level of criminality remains to be seen, but the smart bet is that Mueller has cards left to play. The arrests of Manafort, Gage and Papadopolous are likely only the beginning.

BREAKING: Another Trump Advisor Pleads Guilty To Making False Statements

Another indictment of a former Trump advisor has just been revealed. Reuters reports that George Papadopolous, an energy lawyer from Chicago who was an advisor to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, has pled guilty to making false statements to FBI agents.

Papadopolous pled guilty on Oct. 5, but the case was sealed until this morning. Details of the case are not yet available.

Papadopolous is the third Trump associate that is known to have been snared by the Mueller investigation. Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates surrendered on conspiracy and money laundering charges this morning.

BREAKING Reports: Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Ordered to Surrender to Feds

The New York Times just broke the story:

Paul Manafort and his former business associate Rick Gates were told to surrender to federal authorities Monday morning, the first charges in a special counsel investigation, according to a person involved in the case.

Neither Gates nor Manafort could be reached for comment. Therefore CNN is now safe from the axe–the indictments appear to be on the level. Or the leakers are now expanding to include the NYT’s Matt Apuzo.

My bet is that it’s real.

Claims Of Obama-Era Domestic Spying Are Overblown

As a conservative, it pains me to be perceived as defending Barack Obama. I was a strong and consistent opponent of Obama during his eight years in the White House and rarely, if ever, agreed with him on anything. Yet at times, the criticism and attacks on Obama went too far and I feel obliged to speak up. Such was the case when conservatives charged, against all evidence, that Obama was actually a native Kenyan and that he planned to declare martial law in Texas. It’s the case now with charges of rampant spying on political opponents by the Obama Administration. Objectively speaking, the evidence to support these claims is simply not there.

Such is the case with the recent op-ed by Sharyl Attkisson in The Hill. As with many on the right, Attkisson assumes recent revelations of the surveillance of Paul Manafort are really an attempt to spy on Donald Trump. That doesn’t seem to be the case. Like the others, Attkisson fails to mention that the surveillance started two years before Trump tapped Manafort to be his campaign manager. Attkisson also overlooks the fact that there were many valid reasons for Manafort to be under scrutiny after he closely worked with the party of Ukrainian dictator and Putin figurehead, Viktor Yanukovych.

If the CNN report on the monitoring of Manafort is to be believed, and Attkisson seems to think it does, Manafort was apparently not under surveillance while he was Trump’s campaign manager. The report states that the two FISA warrants that covered Manafort were active from 2014 through “some point” in 2016 and again through fall of 2016 to early 2017. This seems to exclude the period from March through August 2016 when Manafort worked for the Trump campaign and possibly the entire time that Trump has been president.

Other examples of surveillance of by Attkisson are similarly overblown and misinterpreted. She cites comments by former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates that “they, too, reviewed communications of political figures, secretly collected under President Obama.” When examined, the testimony in question deals primarily with Michael Flynn, the national security advisor who was fired for lying about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. Flynn’s case falls under incidental surveillance in which the Russian diplomat, not Flynn himself, was the person under surveillance. Spying on foreign diplomats is a legitimate role of the intelligence community.

Likewise, Attkisson’s claim that the Obama Administration spied on Congress is misleading. The Wall Street Journal article on which her claim is based makes clear that the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the surveillance target, not members of Congress. The article makes clear that the NSA did not intentionally monitor the congressmen, saying that the incidental collection of their conversations with the Netanyahu government led to an “Oh-s— moment” and very valid concerns that the Obama Administration was intentionally monitoring the legislative branch.

Attkisson also cites the example of Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.). In the 2012 article linked by Attkisson on Counterpunch.org, Harman was allegedly the subject of two NSA wiretaps in 2006 and 2009. Obama can obviously not be blamed for the first wiretap since George W. Bush was president in 2006. In any case, once again we see that the target of the surveillance was not Rep. Harman, but a suspected Israeli agent.

Attkisson’s example of Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) is another example of a congressman being snared by contact from suspected foreign agents. In Kucinich’s case, the government recorded a call made to his congressional office by Saif el-Islam Qaddafi, at the time a high-ranking official in Libya’s government and a son of the country’s ruler, Moammar Qaddafi.

While the Obama Administration did spy on Fox News journalist, James Rosen, it appears that it did so legally. The Department of Justice obtained a warrant to search Rosen’s emails in connection with an investigation into leaked classified information, says the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Likewise, the cyber spying on the Associated Press was “legal, as far as I can tell,” CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said at the time. “The administration isn’t violating the First Amendment. But they are certainly doing more than has ever been done before in pursuing the private information of journalists. And we’ll see if there’s any political check on them, because there doesn’t appear to be any legal check on what they’re doing.”

Attkisson’s claim that the Obama Administration spied on her is also unverified. The CBS News article describing the breach that Attkisson links to contains a disclaimer: “To be clear, the federal government has not been accused in the intrusion of Attkisson’s computer; CBS News is continuing to work to identify the responsible party.”

Attkisson sued the Obama Administration over the hacking in 2015. The suit is ongoing and she says that the Trump Administration is continuing to defend the case in court. She fails to explain why the Trump Administration would defend illegal actions by the Obama Administration, especially if Donald Trump was also a victim of Obama’s illicit surveillance.

In her closing argument, Attkisson cites alarming statistics about the increase in surveillance under Obama. Nevertheless she fails to point out that, per her source, in 2016, when Obama had supposedly increased surveillance at an alarming pace, only 336 US citizens were targeted by FISA warrants. Likewise, the same memo that Attkisson cites as evidence that the “intelligence community secretly expanded its authority in 2011 so it can monitor innocent U.S. citizens like you and me” actually says that the NSA realized that “its compliance and oversight infrastructure… had not kept pace” and “undertook significant steps to address these issues….”

Additionally, the alarmists fail to acknowledge that the first request for a FISA warrant on Trump campaign staffers was rejected in June 2016. This rejection seems to indicate that at least some intelligence officials under Obama took domestic surveillance protections seriously.

Likewise ignored is a statement in The New York Times from April 2017. Citing an unnamed official, the Times reported with respect to surveillance of Carter Page, another Trump campaign official, “The Justice Department considered direct surveillance of anyone tied to a political campaign as a line it did not want to cross.” This may explain the break in surveillance of Paul Manafort as well.

While there is a lack of evidence of systemic abuse of surveillance by the Obama Administration, there are legitimate concerns. For example, how did the recording of Kucinich’s phone conversation find its way into the hands of reporters four years later? The leaks of Michael Flynn’s conversations to the media were illegal, the lies Flynn told about them to Vice President Pence notwithstanding. The leakers have never been publicly identified or punished.

The unmasking of American subjects of incidental surveillance by Obama Administration officials is also problematic. Susan Rice appears to have been cleared of wrongdoing by House investigators, but Samantha Power still needs to explain her actions.

Finally, the revelations that the CIA inappropriately accessed Senate computers in 2014 shows the need for strict third-party oversight. Nevertheless, the fact that the breach was disclosed at all is encouraging. A subsequent review found that the incident was the result of an error and not intelligence officers acting in bad faith. More protections for journalists from surveillance would be an appropriate reform as well.

The claims of rampant Obama-era spying reflect many of the hallmarks of a classic conspiracy theory. For instance, the dots must be connected between many disparate events and rational explanations have to be ignored. A conspiracy by the Obama Administration to spy on political opponents would mean that virtually everyone in a leadership role in the intelligence community would be complicit, yet few have been fired by President Trump. When he did fire James Comey, illicit spying on Americans was not one of the reasons given.

Occam’s Razor holds that the simplest explanation is most often correct. In the case of Obama’s domestic surveillance, the simplest explanation is that there was probable cause for monitoring in most cases. That includes the cases of Paul Manafort and Carter Page. In other cases, some Americans were caught up in incidental surveillance of legitimate surveillance targets. Michael Flynn fell into this category. Donald Trump may have as well.

What Does The Surveillance of Paul Manafort Mean?

The big story these days is the breaking news that Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was under FBI surveillance. This has brought forth a flurry of claims that Trump was right about his charges of wiretapping, that the FBI only tracked Manafort to find out what Trump was doing and that Manafort was only guilty of talking to Russian diplomats.

The real story is that this news isn’t breaking news at all. The story broke during the campaign that there was an active FISA warrant for surveillance of members of the Trump campaign staff. A November 2016 article by Heat Street (which has since been acquired by MarketWatch) reported that a broad FISA warrant request in June 2016 included Donald Trump as a target. This request was denied, but a subsequent, more narrow request was granted in October.

This was confirmed by the BBC in a January 2017 article which described how the warrant was issued to investigate two Russian banks. The investigation stemmed from intelligence passed to the US by an unnamed Baltic nation in April 2016. The intelligence allegedly included a recorded conversation “about money from the Kremlin going into the US presidential campaign.” The BBC article mentioned, but did not name, “three of Mr. Trump’s associates were the subject of the inquiry.”

One of the three was Michael Flynn. Flynn was Trump’s first national security advisor. Flynn was fired early in the Trump Administration after it was revealed through leaked surveillance information that he had lied about conversations with the Russian ambassador. Flynn’s contacts with the Russians were apparently uncovered as an incidental target as the intelligence community monitored Russian diplomats. Flynn is still under investigation by both the Pentagon and Mueller’s task force.

In April 2017, the New York Times named a second target of the investigation. The report stated explicitly that Carter Page had been the target of a FISA warrant after he left the Trump campaign. “The Justice Department considered direct surveillance of anyone tied to a political campaign as a line it did not want to cross,” the report said, citing an unnamed official.

Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, was the third target of the investigation. Manafort had long had ties to the Putin government. He had worked as a consultant for the pro-Russian political party that controlled the Ukraine until it was toppled by a revolution in 2014. Manafort’s name was listed in the so-called “Black Ledger” that detailed secret payments by the Ukrainian ruling party. The ledger, which was discovered after the revolution, showed that Manafort received at least $1.2 million from the pro-Putin ruler of Ukraine per AP reports. Manafort was fired by Trump in August 2016 after the story of the Ukrainian payments broke.

The new story by CNN detailing Manafort’s surveillance says that Manafort was the subject of two FISA warrants. The first, centered on his work in the Ukraine, began in 2014 and “was discontinued at some point last year [2016] for lack of evidence, according to one of the sources.”

The dates for the second warrant are not known but it apparently began after “FBI interest deepened last fall because of intercepted communications between Manafort and suspected Russian operatives, and among the Russians themselves.” The warrant reportedly continued until early 2017. The dates suggest that Manafort was not monitored while he was an official part of the Trump campaign, although they do cover a period when he had discussions with President Trump. “It’s unclear whether Trump himself was picked up on the surveillance,” CNN notes.

Another report by the New York Times says that federal agents raided Manafort’s home in July 2017. Again, this was after his official role as a member of Donald Trump’s campaign staff was long over.

So was Donald Trump right when he claimed that Obama was “tapping” his phones? So far there is still no evidence of this. Surveillance of Trump’s associates is not the same as surveillance of Trump himself. This is especially true if the surveillance did not occur during the period when Trump’s associates were working on his campaign. This would also indicate that the surveillance was not to find out what the Trump campaign was up to.

Further, the surveillance of Paul Manafort was not the result of business-as-usual contacts with Russian diplomats. A FISA warrant was issued for Manafort because he was communicating with Russian agents. A FISA warrant is not proof of guilt, but it does require probable cause. The denial of the June 2016 warrant request is proof that warrants are not issued on a frivolous basis.

The investigation into Paul Manafort and the Russian interference in the 2016 campaign is not yet complete. In the weeks and months to come, we may learn exactly why Manafort was talking to the Russians and what was said. At this point, there is no smoking gun, but there are indications, such as the decision to threaten Manafort with indictment, that Special Counsel Mueller is building a strong case. Part of that case may be on incriminating evidence that resulted from surveillance under the FISA warrant.

This is Not What Hiring “The Best” Looks Like

Paul Manafort was always trouble. The Kremlin’s favorite American consultant, he was aligned with all the wrong people who had all the wrong intentions and all the wrong interests compared to the United States. He was brought into the Trump campaign, you will recall, to ensure no one could unseat Trump at the convention. He brought with him others, one of whom at least roughed up people at the convention.

Manafort’s dealings with nefarious Russians now may sink the Trump Presidency. The federal government, it turns out, has been watching Manafort. He has been under surveillance and now may be indicted. More particularly, it is possible Manafort will be indicted by the State of New York so that President Trump cannot pardon him.

We do not know that an actual crime took place and even then a prosecutor would have to prove it. But that he was under surveillance during the campaign is deeply troubling. President Trump’s supporters will take it as proof that Barack Obama had wiretapped the campaign. What they should take it as is that President Trump does not actually always hire the best people.

The two people he clung to loyally, Manafort and Mike Flynn, are now anchors to his Presidency. You would think that, in all of this, President Trump would realize the terrible optics of cozying up to the Russians or making kissy face with Vladimir Putin. But it does not seem so.

Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out that there is nothing there about President Trump. There are not yet any allegations outside the leftwing fever swamp about President Trump’s complicity in whatever it is Paul Manafort did. While it does not look good, appearance is not fact and there need to be facts tying any crime of Manafort’s to a knowing President.

Right now there are none. What there is, however, is another reminder that contrary to what President Trump says, he does not always hire the best people.

By the way, it is worth noting that the Daily Caller had this story long before major media outlets. That will get lost in the coming wave of narratives. But they deserve credit for breaking this story.

Paul Manafort, Call Scooter Libby, And I Mean Right Now

Always the bad news first. Paul Manafort needs to pick up the phone, and call Scooter Libby.

Libby was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 30 months in prison for making false statements about his conversations with a reporter from Time Magazine in the fallout after the Valerie Plame “outing” affair. Ironically, the only person jailed in the whole CIA leak investigation was New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Libby never served a day–President George W. Bush commuted his 30-month sentence essentially on the day he would have reported to prison, all appeals of his sentence having failed.

Manafort is very likely going to be indicted. The FBI had him under investigation since 2014, under a secret FISA warrant. At first, this was related to his work for Ukraine’s then-president and kleptocrat Viktor Yanukovych. In 2015, the investigation was shelved for lack of evidence. Then it began again at some point in 2016 with a new FISA warrant.

As streiff noted (and he has experience with these kinds of intelligence matters), FISA warrants cover all forms of surveillance. Phones, email, video are all permitted forms of data collection (a.k.a “wiretapping”) for the subject of the warrant. Also, there are no limitations of where the surveillance could or would be carried out. That means Trump Tower is certainly not off limits.

What does this mean?

The good news for Trump: he was right (sort of).

The FBI surveilled Manafort while he was running the Trump campaign. Whatever documents Rep. Devin Nunes saw at the White House SCIF were likely the real thing. The investigation, according to CNN extended “at least into early this year.”

That means after Trump was elected. It means potentially after Trump was president.

It’s inconceivable that then-President Obama didn’t know about surveillance carried out against the president-elect’s campaign staff. It’s inconceivable that Obama didn’t know that Trump’s offices very well could have been under surveillance before the election, or Trump’s conversations with Manafort could have been intercepted afterwards. This entire narrative ties into the classified Comey briefing at Trump Tower. It ties into Trump’s paranoia about wanting Comey to publicly announce that the president was not under investigation.

In March, Politifact published a “timeline of Donald Trump’s false wiretapping charge.” Looks more like Politifact got some of it wrong now–while the president was not the target of the surveillance, it was likely done in Trump Tower, under his nose, and in offices he owns. Trump can claim he is vindicated (if people believe it is a different story). That’s the good news.

In fact, all of this serves to boost Trump’s version of the story, while leaving Manafort in the position of….Scooter Libby. Bad news for poor Paul.

Brace for indictment

The New York Times called the FBI’s tactics against Manafort “shock and awe.” They picked the lock on his door. The FBI raided his home in the early hours of a July day while Manafort was still in bed. They took binders and papers, copied computer data, and photographed “expensive suits” as potential evidence. Then Robert Mueller called Manafort and told him to prepare for an indictment.

Given that President Trump likely knew that the FBI had surveillance on Manfort before Mueller’s appointment, he probably knew this was going to happen sooner or later. For Trump, sooner is better, to get the entire process behind him.

More bad news

We don’t know what Manafort might say to investigators after (if) he is indicted. He may be presented with evidence implicating other Trump campaign staffers, the president’s family, or the president himself. Manafort may “cut a deal” to avoid a state prosecution, immune from Trump’s pardon power. Mueller seems to have all his bases covered.

The only silver lining for Trump would be if he knew, for a fact, he said nothing or did nothing that could implicate himself. His children, on the other hand, may find themselves in a pickle.

Questions

We really don’t know all the facts yet, just that CNN reported some fairly stunning information, again unattributed to named sources.

Speculation here. But Trump’s a luddite. He doesn’t use email. He loves to use cell phones versus land lines. He uses confusing language. The man was born to befuddle investigators and spies. While it’s possible Manafort can take down Trump, I wouldn’t bet on it. If he could have, it would have been done before January 20th.

Also, the raid on Manafort’s home is not breaking news. The Washington Post reported it in August, and Daily Caller covered it also. The new “revelations” here are about the FISA warrant and the timeline of the surveillance.

Of course, not everyone’s convinced that Trump’s “wiretap” claims have any more merit than they did in March.

Obviously, this is an enormous can of worms that just got opened and we’ve barely baited one hook. The questions, at this point, outnumber the answers a thousand to one. What we do know is that Paul Manafort is in trouble–but we’ve always know he was trouble. We know that Trump has a blind spot (or a soft spot) for Russians–but we’ve always known that too.

Mostly, the news here is that Robert Mueller is Eliot Ness. He’s very likely to get his man. Paul Manafort really needs to call Scooter Libby, and the sooner the better.