Today’s expected big story—that U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentenced Roger Stone and Trump took to Twitter to attack the process and its outcome—has been overshadowed by another, bigger story. On February 13, an election security expert working for the acting Director of National Intelligence told Congress that Russia is already interfering in the 2020 election in favor of Trump. That briefing made Trump so mad he has replaced the acting Director of National Intelligence (who covered for him in the Ukraine Scandal) with an even more compliant director.
Of course, these two stories are related.
A jury found Stone guilty on seven counts of lying to Congress during the Russia investigation and tampering with a witness. It found that Stone had lied to the House Intelligence Committee about his central role in finding out for the Trump campaign what was in computer files hacked by Russian intelligence, the files being leaked by Wikileaks strategically to hurt Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Stone also threatened a witness to keep him from contradicting Stone’s story.
Stone is a long-time associate of the president, and Trump is deeply interested in discrediting his conviction. While the hearing was in progress, Trump complained about it and wondered why other people whom he claimed had lied to Congress—FBI Director James Comey, Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, and Hillary Clinton—were not in jail. (A grand jury decided not to indict McCabe because of a lack of evidence, and despite all the many investigations of Clinton, Republican investigators could not find a crime. While Trump has complained since 2018 that Comey lied before Congress, there is no evidence of that.) Trump suggested that he might pardon Stone if his conviction is not overturned on appeal.
As she handed down a sentence lighter than the 7 to 9 years the Department of Justice prosecutors originally asked for, Jackson pushed back against Trump’s carping, noting that Stone “was not prosecuted for standing up for the president; he was prosecuted for covering up for the president.” She sentenced Stone to 40 months in jail, although he will appeal. She took the chance to push back on the disinformation coming from Stone, Trump, and their Republican associates. “The truth still exists; the truth still matters,” Jackson said. “Roger Stone’s insistence that it doesn’t, his belligerence, his pride in his own lies are a threat to our most fundamental institutions, to the foundations of our democracy. If it goes unpunished, it will not be a victory for one party or another. Everyone loses.”
As troubling as is this story about Russia’s attack in 2016, it pales in comparison to the news that our Intelligence Community has proof that Russia is already at work trying to disrupt the Democratic primaries and then to throw the 2020 election to Trump. Even worse is that Trump is angry not at the attack on America, but that the Intelligence Community briefed the congressional intelligence committees about it. On February 13, the intelligence official in charge of election security, Shelby Pierson, warned the intelligence committees in a classified briefing that Russia is already working to reelect Trump in 2020.
Although Trump has frequently insisted that he cannot share classified information with Congress because Democrats will leak it to the press, it is worth noting that there was no Democratic leak to the press. Instead, one of his own people at the classified briefing, Devin Nunes (R-CA) told Trump about it. Nunes is the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, and we now know he talked to Lev Parnas in the period when Parnas was smearing the US Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, although he did not reveal his role in the scandal while the impeachment hearings were going on and he was trying to discredit them.
Although it is the job of the Intelligence Community to keep the congressional intelligence committees informed of threats to our nation, Trump was apparently furious that Adam Schiff (D-CA) received the information. Schiff is the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. He was also the lead impeachment manager for the House during the Senate trial of the president.
Trump apparently unloaded on the acting Director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire, who has been filling the role of acting DNI since August 16, for not telling him about the briefing before it happened. Trump denied that Russia is interfering, and insisted the intelligence community is getting “played,” according to an administration official. He claimed that the Democrats will use this information against him. Republicans on the committee apparently also took offense at the briefing, arguing that Trump has been tough on Russia so there is no reason Putin would want him elected.
It is important to remember that Maguire was perceived as a loyalist when Trump appointed him. He replaced Dan Coats, a former Republican Senator from Indiana, who irritated Trump by continuing to insist that Russia had attacked us in the 2016 election, and who told prosecutors that the president repeatedly urged him to deny any link between Russia and the Trump campaign. When Coates resigned, Trump passed over Coates’s deputy director, career CIA official Sue Gordon, who was strongly supported by senators of both parties, to take his job. The law said that Gordon should have become the acting director, but she resigned instead when Trump wanted Maguire.
As soon as he took office, Maguire had to deal with the whistleblower complaint over Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump asked for a “favor.” Maguire illegally withheld the complaint from congressional intelligence committees, and eventually had to broker a deal to hand it over.
Maguire’s acting appointment was about to come to an end and insiders expected Trump would appoint him to the job officially. Instead, Maguire is out as of today, and Trump is turning instead to a deep loyalist, Richard Grenell, who has been his Ambassador to Germany.
Grenell’s credentials for this post are thin at best, despite the fact that the law concerning the position requires that the director have “extensive national security expertise.” Grenell has never served in any U.S. intelligence agency, has never managed a large organization, and will not give up his ambassadorship to Germany—but he has been vocal about defending Trump on Twitter and the Fox News Channel. He is also personal friends with Trump’s children. Because he had to have Senate confirmation to take up the ambassadorship, he does not have to have another one to take over the acting DNI job. Like Maguire, he will simply be “acting,” which keeps him beholden to the president.
Nunes’s former top staffer, Kash Patel, who elbowed Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman aside at the National Security Council and worked to push the story that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that attacked us in 2016, will become a senior advisor to Grenell.
So where does this leave us? The person now in charge of our national intelligence has no experience in intelligence, and is supported by one of Devin Nunes’s staffers who has worked to discredit the intelligence community. The new DNI is a fervent supporter of the president, who insists—all evidence to the contrary—that Russia is not, and has not, interfered in our elections to put him in office.
This is not good.
It seems to me simple: if Republicans do not actively want Russia to interfere in the 2020 election, why do they simply keep trying to discredit our intelligence officers? Why don’t they say, “Okay, we don’t think this is happening, but we want to reassure everyone about the safety of our elections, so we’ll do everything possible to protect them?”
And yet they are not. Just this month, Senate Republicans blocked three election security bills that would explicitly require campaigns to alert the FBI and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) about foreign offers to help (such offers are already against election finance law), and that would ban voting machines from linking to the internet. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who blocked the bills, objected to them because she said they would take power from the states and give it to federal bureaucrats. At the same time, Trump has refused to make appointments to the FEC so it no longer has a quorum and cannot even meet, let alone protect our elections.
I would love to hear a believable explanation for all this that does not lead to the conclusion that Republicans are willing to invite Russia—or any foreign power-- into our elections, so long as it means they win.
Trump thinks Comey lied: https://www.vox.com/2018/12/9/18132883/trump-attacks-james-comey-public-transcript
Election security bills: https://thehill.com/homenews/house/482569-senate-gop-blocks-three-election-security-bills