Conspiracy to Defraud the United States

Watching the fallout from yesterday’s shit-show has been fascinating. The White House’s official talking points are A) Trump has always thought Russia was behind the hack, and as proof they quote-mine his statements, B) Trump talked extensively about Russian election meddling with Putin, something we’ll never be sure of as he met with Putin alone for two hours, but seems to contradict what he said immediately afterwards to Sean Hannity as well as Putin and Lavrov‘s rosy assessments, and C) why dwell on the past?

That hasn’t gone over well; as I’m typing this, Trump has tried re-writing history and announced he said “would” when he meant to say “wouldn’t” in Helsinki, Finland, which is the opposite of convincing.

He didn’t come up with that on his own. Ditch the “would”/”wouldn’t” bit, switch “my campaign didn’t collude” to “there’s no proof it changed the outcome of the election,” and you’ve got a carbon copy of what Paul Ryan was spouting earlier in the day. Above all, what’s fascinating to me is how Republicans are reacting to Trump’s actions. Ryan, for instance, has plenty of criticism for Russia and yet completely omits Trump. Tom Cotton does the same, as does Mitch McConnell, while Trent Gowdy argues Trump is unable to detach criticism of the Kremlin from criticism of his election victory, which ignores Trump’s overtures to Putin before Trump was elected. There’s a bit of whataboutism from Warren Davidson and Tucker Carlson, in addition to old-fashioned question dodging from Devin Nunes. The other major line I’ve seen:

Mike Murphy – I’m furious R’s are cowardly about Trump. But here is what they say in private: 1.) Trump is a disgrace. 2.) I give fiery press conf tmmrw saying that. 3.) Nothing changes, Trump remains nuts and remains POTUS. 4.) A nut beats me in next primary. So how does my pol suicide help?

Jake Sherman – In playbook this am: what republicans are telling me on Russia: What the hell do you want us to do? They say they’ve done what’s been asked of them. They feel they can’t stop trump. They’ve opposed him at all times on Russia.

Kevin M. Kruse – Legislation is certainly needed, sir, but as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee you can also use your subpoena powers and convene public hearings to get to the bottom of the president’s relationship with Russia.

So the party with control of both the House and Senate, with Democrats eager to cooperate on this subject, is completely powerless to check the power of the President? No Republican is proposing a concrete action to censure Trump? John McCain may have had some very harsh words, for instance, but even he delegates any action to unnamed “Americans.” This is an extremely odd situation, and echos of it have been around since Trump was elected.

The most obvious explanation is that this is the “party of Trump:” he has a strong connection to the bigoted white voters and the billionaire elite they rely on to get elected, and he’s not afraid to publicly trash anyone who criticizes him, even allies, ergo they’re stuck following his whims.

This one is much less sturdy than it first appears, however. Remember the Roy Moore debacle? Two big-name Alabama Republicans received Trump’s endorsement, their Democrat opponent was heavily dissed by Trump, yet the Democrat won. Trump’s endorsements have done better since then, but I’d argue this is more to do with luck and caution. Take Michael Grimm vs. Dan Donnovan; polls showed Grimm up by ten points over the incumbent Donnovan, prior to Trump’s endorsement, but the final result saw Donnovan up by 30 points. What’s not mentioned is that there were only two polls conducted, one by the Democrats, the other three weeks and two debates before voting day. That’s not a lot of data to justify any Trump swing. Setting that aside, we’re left with Trump-endorsed Henry McMaster vs. John Warren, where McMaster won by less than expected. On top of that, in both races Trump sided with establishment figures and incumbents rather than Trump-style populists, contrary to Roy Moore in Alabama (but in line with Luther Strange). These don’t demonstrate much of a “Trump effect.”

For some reason, Americans have forgotten that Trump lost the popular vote by nearly three million. Trump isn’t popular outside of White Evangelical circles, and hasn’t made any effort to improve that. He has a zealous base, but there’s barely enough of them to put him in power and it takes quite a bit of voter suppression to maintain that edge. I don’t think Trump has a lot of electoral juice in him, and it’s not like Republicans need Trump to appeal to White Evangelicals.

No, a better explanation was submitted to a Federal court a few hours after Trump took the side of a foreign dictator.

3. Title 18 of the United States Code, section 371 (Conspiracy to Commit Offense or to Defraud United States), makes it a criminal offense for any person(s) to conspire together with one or more others either to commit an offense against the United States or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof, in any manner or for any purpose. […]

18. On or about March 24, 2015, BUTINA emailed U.S. Person 1 with the subject line of “The Second Pozner.”‘ The body of this email also contained a project proposal. BUTINA noted to U.S. Person 1 in the email that she was sending the “Google Translator text. Maybe I could translate it myself but it would take at least a day because the text is very specific.” She went on to note that she “will be happy to answer to any your questions [sic] and follow your recommendations before a [sic] finally send it.” The first line of the proposal reads, “Project Description ‘Diplomacy.”’ It goes on to state that a major US. political party [hereinafter “POLITICAL PARTY 1”], would likely obtain control over the US. government after the 2016 elections; that POLITICAL PARTY 1 is “traditionally associated with negative and aggressive foreign policy, particularly with regards to Russia. However, now with the right to negotiate seems best to build konstruktivnyh [sic] relationsf’ and that “[c]entral place and influence in the [POLITICAL PARTY 1] plays the [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION]. The [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION] [is] the largest sponsor of the elections to the US congress, as well as a sponsor of The CPAC conference and other events.”

19. The March 24, 2015 email further highlighted BUTINA’S relationship with the GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION’S leadership, including her attendance at events in the United States and BUTINA’s and the RUSSIAN OFFICIAL’S connections to officials of the GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION. BUTINA described recent visits to the United States, including references to instances when she was introduced to POLITICAL PARTY 1 leaders as a “representative of informal diplomacy” of the Russian Federation. BUTINA’S project proposal concluded by noting, “[t]he resulting status needs to be strengthened is in the current time interval, before the presidential election in 2016,” and requesting a budget of $125,000 for BUTINA to participate in “all upcoming major conferences” of POLITICAL PARTY 1.

I’ll confess I never paid much attention to the NRA/Kremlin collusion stories before, but after reading this affidavit against Mariia Butina I’ll be damn sure to change that.

31. On October 4, 2016, U.S. Person 1 sent an email to an acquaintance. The email covered a number of topics. Within the email, U.S. Person 1 stated, “Unrelated to specific presidential campaigns, I’ve been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key POLITICAL PARTY 1 leaders through, of all conduits, the [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION].” Based on my training, experience, and familiarity with this investigation, I believe that this email describes U.S. Person 1’s involvement in BUTINA’S efforts to establish a “back channel” communication for representatives of the Government of Russia. […]

33. During the October 5, 2016 Twitter direct communications, BUTINA and the RUSSIAN OFFICIAL also discussed other potential steps to take in the operation. The RUSSIAN OFFICIAL asked about how the “Russia—USA friendship society” looked at that time. BUTINA responded, “It’s not alive. We are currently ‘underground’ both here and there. Now, private clubs and quite [sic] influence on people making decisions is the trend. No publicity.” She continued, “Advisor — is the profession of the current day. Even a secret advisor. Right now the Administration here is flexible — and there is the idea, so that the right thoughts would dominate.” […]

37. On November 11, 2016, BUTINA sent the RUSSIAN OFFICIAL a direct message via Twitter, in which she predicted who might be named Secretary of State and asked the RUSSIAN OFFICIAL to find out how “our people” felt about that potential nomination. […]

46. On February 6, 2017, BUTINA emailed a National Prayer Breakfast organizer to thank him for “the gift of you [sic] precious time during the National Prayer Breakfast week — and for the very private meeting that followed. A new relationship between two countries always begins better when it begins in faith. Once you have a chance to rest after last week’s events, I have important information for you to further this new relationship. I would appreciate one brief additional meeting with you to explain these new developments. I remain in Washington, DC. pursuing my Master’s Degree at American University. My schedule is your schedule!” (emphasis added)

We know some of the names mentioned here. “U.S. Person 1” is almost certainly Paul Erickson, “RUSSIAN OFFICIAL” is likely Alexander Torshin, “GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION” is the National Rifle Association, which makes “POLITICAL PARTY 1” the Republicans. It’s not hard to add more plausibility; for instance, Grover Norquist hosted an interview with Butina two years ago, and there’s plenty of photos from when she took a number of Republicans to Russia. Hell, Paul Erickson is even inadvertently on the record as wanting to establish a Kremlin back channel. Butina appears to have freely moved in Republican circles, and had access to some of its most powerful members.

Maybe the real story here isn’t a conspiracy between Trump and the Kremlin, it’s a conspiracy between the Republican Party and the Kremlin.

Back in 2012, the Republican Party commissioned an autopsy of why they lost to Obama. It opens by pointing out “Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections,” by sticking to policies designed to appeal to white men while the US was becoming increasingly diverse. Unless they became more opening and welcome, “it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future.”

That didn’t happen. Instead, the Republicans have relied on gerrymandering and voter suppression to amplify the votes of White Evangelicals and throwing minorities under the bus. The demographic changes which are diversifying the USA have a tonne of momentum, however, so to stay ahead of it the Republicans need to resort to ever more extreme measures. Suppressing legal immigration from majority non-White countries? It’s fast becoming accepted Republican policy. Propaganda? Fox News has always been helpful there, but Republicans have long since branched out into generating websites which look like local newspapers but actually pump out fake news. They’re also working towards loosening restrictions on “robocalls,” which spread lies that help depress voter turnout.

Unfortunately, these actions have taken their toll. Court challenges have been issued, commissions have been formed, and activists have been active. On local soil, people can be held account for their actions. Foreigners are a different matter; the US government can collaborate with the EU to make things difficult for some Russians traveling abroad, but they can’t arrest them if they stay on Russian soil. It’s a lot tougher to investigate someone in a foreign country, especially where the rules or authorities may not take kindly to such things. Russia, like the US, has a long track record of meddling in the affairs of other countries (though results have been mixed). It’s also convenient that the far-Right has gained more control over the Republican party, at the same time that the Kremlin is trying to foster far-Right parties, so there’s a fair bit of ideological overlap.

As wild as this idea is, it makes sense of a number of otherwise bizarre actions. The day after Trump bowed and scraped to Putin, Republicans made it easier for the NRA and similar political groups to hide their funding sources, yet non-political charities still need to disclose their sources. The Obama administration approached the two key leaders of the Republican party and asked them to sign a bipartisan statement condemning foreign influence on elections. They refused to, because they said it would hurt the chance of Trump winning the election. It isn’t uncommon for the US to send a bipartisan delegation of Senators from the Foreign Affairs committee to visit Russia; it is uncommon to send a Republican-only delegation from the Finance committee to spend the Fourth of July on foreign soil. It’s common for them to meet with opposition leaders and ask probing questions; it’s not common to be cheered by Kremlin official and leave the Americans scrambling to offer conflicting accounts of what was said and done. The day Trump met with Putin, no less, Rand Paul dismissed allegations of Russian interference and said he was heading to Moscow within weeks. Paul Ryan was adamant a day ago that Russian interference didn’t affect the vote, but back in 2016 his SuperPAC was happy to use hacked emails to earn election victories. Tack on the Republican obsession with defanging the Special Council and destroying Congressional investigations, and what seemed like an impossibility is suddenly plausible.

Remember that time Paul Ryan tried to bury an assertion that Trump and a Congress-person were on Putin’s payroll, back in June 2016? The rest of the transcript raised my an eyebrow.

Cathy Rodgers: I went [to Ukraine] a year ago. It was like wow. These people are living… they’re on the front lines, They’re fighting for their freedom… it’s, uh,… their independence.

Paul Ryan: [the Ukrainian Prime Minister Vladi­mir Groysman] basically… He has this really interesting riff about… people have said that they have Ukraine fatigue, and it’s really Russian fatigue because what Russia is doing is doing to us, financing our populists. financing people in our governments to undo our governments, you know, messing with our oil and gas energy, all the things Russia does to basically blow up our country, they’re just going to roll right through us and go to the Baltics and everyone else.

Rodgers: Yes!

Ryan: So we should not have Ukraine fatigue. we should have Russian fatigue.

Rodgers: Yes! The propaganda… my big takeaway from that trip was just how sophisticated the propaganda…

Ryan: It’s very sophisticated.


Rodgers: Not just in Ukraine. They were once funding the NGOs in Europe. They attacked fracking.

Ryan: Correct.

Rodgers: Russia TV. I was not… you know… I hadn’t tuned into Russia TV until that trip. It’s, it’s frightening.

Ryan: So he’s saying they’re doing this throughout Europe. So, uh [Unintelligible] This is, this isn’t just about Ukraine.

Rodgers: So, yeah, it is a, um… [unintelligible]. a way… it’s really a messaging… you know… they are… it’s a propaganda war.

Ryan: Russia is trying to turn Ukraine against itself.

Rodgers: Yes. And that’s… it’s sophisticated and it’s, uh

Ryan: Maniacal.

Rodgers: Yes.

Ryan: And guess… guess who’s the only one taking a strong stand up against it? We are.

Rodgers: We‘re not… we’re not… but, we’re not…

If Ryan privately thinks the Kremlin are pros at creating divisions within countries, at mucking with governments, and they have ambitions beyond their borders, why is he so quick to dismiss the impact of their election meddling in America? The pro-Kremlin shift in the Republicans has been obvious for years, so either Ryan is engaging in hardcore denial or the classic political move of saying one thing and doing another. It’s tough to argue for denial when Republicans won’t defend their own soldiers from Kremlin meddling, however.

Compare and contrast that with the view from the Kremlin, in October of 2016.

BUTINA: Time will tell. We made our bet. I am following our game. I will be connecting the people from the prayer breakfast to this group. Most importantly, you get better. Everything else we will win.

RUSSIAN OFFICIAL: No doubt! Of course we will win, but I (you are right) need to beat the illness first and get out of the hospital (I made an attempt today — it didn’t work). And it is not about winning today’s fight (although we are striving for it) but to win the entire battle. This is the battle for the future, it cannot be lost! Or everyone will lose. […]

BUTINA: By your recommendation, I am setting up the groundwork here but I am really in need of mentoring. Or the energy might to towards the wrong direction. Yesterday’s diner showed that American society is broken in relation to Russia. This is now the dividing line of opinions, the crucial one in the election race. [POLITICAL PARTY I] are for us, [another major US. political party] — against — 50/50. Our move here is very important.” [sic]

If a politician is more concerned about votes than policies, they don’t deserve to be anywhere near the halls of power. If a political party is building alliances with foreign governments to help them win elections, then (and I can’t believe I’m typing this) maybe Trump and friends should be a secondary concern for Americans.

[HJH 2018-07-19] More arguments against denial. Paul Ryan talks a big game about Kremlin interference, but his actions say something entirely different.

House Republicans on Thursday approved a spending bill that excludes new money for election security grants to states, provoking a furious reaction from Democrats amid a national controversy over Russian election interference.

The spending bill passed 217-199. Democrats’ bid to add hundreds of millions more in election spending was rejected 182-232 — as Republicans were unmoved by Democrats floor speeches decrying the funding changes and chanting “USA! USA!”

At issue is a grants program overseen by the federal Election Assistance Commission and aimed at helping states administer their elections and improve voting systems; Democrats want to continue grant funding through 2019, while Republicans say the program already has been fully funded.

As leader of the House, Ryan could have easily stepped in and called for Republicans to support an increase in funding. Instead, even as the Director of National Intelligence says “the warning lights are blinking” as they did for 9/11, even in a year of midterm elections that could decide which political party controls the House, he and other Republicans are content with the status quo.

Likewise, the House Intelligence Committee has turned into a partisan shit-show, with Republicans denying Democrat requests to interview witnesses, share transcripts with Mueller to help smoke out any inconsistencies, and even denying Democrat’s normal access to free transcription services. Scroll to the end of the linked article, and you’ll learn Democrats wanted to interview Mariia Butina, but she refused. They could have subpeana’d her to testify, but Republicans refused that request. We may have learned why this morning.

Alex Wagner – Whoa: says that Dems on the House Intel Committee wanted to bring Maria Butina and Paul Erickson in for questioning — but were told not to by House Republicans, who were worried about “tarnishing” the NRA and President Trump.

Think about that: Republicans didn’t want to interview someone who’s credibly accused of being a Russian spy because it might tarnish Trump’s reputation. Really? Really?! Much more likely, they didn’t want to answer for events like this.

Much later, Trump’s campaign advisers would watch the video of this encounter and wonder about it. Steve Bannon raised it with RNC chair Reince Priebus. How was it that this Russian woman happened to be in Las Vegas for that event? And how was it that Trump happened to call on her? And Trump’s response? It was odd, Bannon thought, that Trump had a fully developed answer. Priebus agreed there was something strange about Butina. Whenever there were events held by conservative groups, she was always around, he told Bannon.