September 22, 2020
“We assess that President Vladimir Putin and the senior most Russian officials are aware of and probably directing Russia’s influence operations aimed at denigrating the former U.S. Vice President, supporting the U.S. president and fueling public discord ahead of the U.S. election in November.”
Thus reads the first line of a top-secret CIA assessment, published on August 31 but reported today. The report details how Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach, who, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the U.S. Treasury Department is a Russian agent, is disseminating false stories about Democratic nominee Joe Biden through congressmembers, lobbyists, the media, and people close to the president. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani has been openly working with Derkach for several months.
The news stories that Trump denigrates as “Russia, Russia, Russia,” have been dropping steadily of late.
In his new book, veteran journalist Bob Woodward revealed that Trump’s former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who was the president’s top intelligence official from March 2017 to August 2019, could not overcome his “deep suspicions” that Putin “had something” on Trump. Coats could see “no other explanation” for the president’s behavior toward the Russian president, Woodward wrote.
Peter Strzok, who led the FBI’s Russia investigation, told journalist Natasha Bertrand at the beginning of September that it is crucial to examine Trump’s financial documents in order to see if he is compromised. Strzok wondered why Special Counsel Robert Mueller appeared not to look at them. “I personally don't see how they could have done [the counterintelligence investigation] because I don't know how you do that without getting tax records, financial records, and doing things that would become public,” Strzok said. “Had they done it, I would have expected to see litigation and screaming from Trump. And the absence of that makes me think it didn’t occur.”
It turned out Strzok was right. Reporter Michael Schmidt of the New York Times wrote in his own new book that former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein secretly limited what the FBI could look at when it was examining Trump's ties to Russia. Rosenstein limited Special Counsel Robert Mueller to a criminal investigation rather than allowing a counterintelligence operation, so the full scope of Trump’s personal and financial ties to Russia, developed over decades, has never been examined.
This limit was news to former acting FBI director McCabe who had been overseeing the case when Mueller took it over. "We opened this case in May 2017 because we had information that indicated a national security threat might exist, specifically a counterintelligence threat involving the president and Russia,” McCabe said. "I expected that issue and issues related to it would be fully examined by the special counsel team. If a decision was made not to investigate those issues, I am surprised and disappointed. I was not aware of that.”
In his own new book, Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen wrote that Trump believed Putin was investing in him. In 2008, a Russian oligarch bought Trump’s mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, for nearly twice what Trump paid for it. This let Trump pocket $50 million. According to Cohen, Trump believed Putin put up the money for the deal.
Prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, who worked on Mueller’s team, also has a book coming out. He details how the team shied away from rising Trump’s wrath out of fear he would shut the investigation down, making them avoid looking at his finances, although Weissmann did remind readers that the same account that Cohen used to pay off Stephanie Clifford (known as Stormy Daniels) also received $500,000 in payments from a company linked to a Russian oligarch.
Weissmann noted that Trump’s campaign chair Paul Manafort told investigators that his Ukrainian business partner, Konstantin V. Kilimnik, who has been identified by the Senate Intelligence Committee as a Russian operative, asked whether Trump would permit Russia to take over all of eastern Ukraine. But Manafort would say no more, leaving Weissmann wondering. “It would seem to require significant audacity — or else, leverage — for another nation to even put such a request before a presidential candidate,” Mr. Weissmann wrote. “This made what we didn’t know, and still don’t know to this day, monumentally disconcerting: Namely, why would Trump ever agree to this? Why would Trump ever agree to this Russian proposal if the candidate were not getting something from Russia in return?”
On September 14, The Atlantic published an interview with Alexander Vindman, who, in July 2019, was the National Security Council’s director for European affairs. A specialist in Russia and Ukraine, Vindman organized a call between Trump and newly elected Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky, and then listened to the conversation. Trump demand for an investigation into the Bidens before he would release badly needed money to Ukraine to enable it to resist Russian incursions so shocked Vindman that he reported it to the chief NSC lawyer John Eisenberg.
Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg asked Vindman if he thought Trump was working for Russia. “President Trump should be considered to be a useful idiot and a fellow traveler, which makes him an unwitting agent of Putin," Vindman said. "They may or may not have dirt on him, but they don’t have to use it. They have more effective and less risky ways to employ him. He has aspirations to be the kind of leader that Putin is, and so he admires him. He likes authoritarian strongmen who act with impunity, without checks and balances. So he’ll try to please Putin.”
Vindman told Goldberg: “In the Army we call this ‘free chicken,’ something you don’t have to work for—it just comes to you. This is what the Russians have in Trump: free chicken.”
Meanwhile, lawyers representing the United States at Julian Assange’s trial for extradition to the United States for publishing secret documents on WikiLeaks accepted his lawyers’ claim that Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) offered Assange a presidential pardon if he would help cover up Russia’s role in hacking the Democratic National Committee’s emails in 2016. U.S. lawyers said: “The position of the government is we don't contest these things were said. We obviously do not accept the truth of what was said by others.”
Ron Johnson is promising to release his committee’s investigation of Hunter Biden and Burisma, the Ukrainian company on whose board he sat, in the next week or so. Derkach sent material to Johnson directly, as well as sending it through Giuliani. Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee wanted to see what was going into the report, but the State Department refused to let it see the more than 16,000 pages of documents it had sent to Johnson’s committee until Eliot Engle (D-NY) threatened a subpoena and started contempt proceedings against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to see what got turned over.
Johnson has already announced his report will hurt Biden’s candidacy, and that assurance has even Republicans worried. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) said, “It is not the legitimate role of government, for Congress or for taxpayer expense, to be used in an effort to damage political opponents.” Engel said, “This ‘investigation’ is obviously designed to boost the president’s campaign and tear down his opponent, while our own intelligence community warns it is likely to amplify Russian disinformation.” “We’re going to make sure the American people see the whole picture, not just cherrypicked information aimed at breathing new life into debunked conspiracy theories.”
Meanwhile, Russia is trolling us. Today it released a deepfake of Trump, superimposing his face on another body while he talked as a special guest anchor on the government-controlled RT network. Using Trump’s own words, they showed him cheering on Russia. It was designed to irritate Americans and to demonstrate that America no longer commands respect.
And yet still Trump refuses to criticize Putin. Asked today who he thought poisoned Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, Trump replied: “Uhhhh ... we'll talk about that at another time.”