Political Animal

On Russia, Trump Was Just As Bad in 2015

Things have gotten ugly. How ugly? The U.S. ambassador to Russia is former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. His brother, Paul Huntsman, is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune. In an editorial published in today’s issue of The Salt Lake Tribune, Robert Gehrke says that Ambassador Huntsman needs to resign.

Ambassador Huntsman, you work for a pawn, not a president. It’s time to come home.

There is no other reasonable course of action to take after Monday’s disgraceful joint news conference with President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin…

…Ambassador Huntsman, you have two sons who wear the uniform of the U.S. Navy. How is it possible to entrust their future to such a cowardly, misguided commander in chief who has demonstrated time and again a fundamental disregard for U.S. security and our moral authority internationally?

This has to be the last straw. To remain silent and continue to serve this president would be complicity in the undoing of our nation and its status as a world leader.

Come home, Mr. Huntsman. Your country needs you.

I don’t know about you, but unless I got a pretty strong “go ahead,” I would not demand the resignation of our publisher’s brother and write that a failure to resign would amount to complicity in the undoing of our nation. Since Mr. Gehrke’s editorial appeared in print, it’s probably safe to assume that Paul Huntsman agrees that his brother ought to step down.

None of this was cleaned up by Trump’s non-apology and pathetic attempt to claim he misspoke. Trump is beholden to Vladimir Putin and only the willfully blind now fail to see this. He did not misspeak. He said the exact same things he’s been saying for three years now.

This seems like a good week to visit my archives, so to prove my point, let’s go back to March and look at a long excerpt from my piece: Trump’s Lies About Moscow Tower are Impeachable.

Trump spent the summer and fall of 2015 telling anyone who would listen that he had a great relationship with Vladimir Putin and that he was a great leader. He repeatedly suggested that he’d get along with Putin much better than President Obama had been able to and that this would be a positive for the country. Typical of this time period was an appearance Trump made on Bill O’Reilly’s show on September 29 where he said “I will tell you that I think in terms of leadership, [Putin] is getting an ‘A,’ and our president is not doing so well.”

“Putin is now taking over what we started and he’s going into Syria, and he frankly wants to fight ISIS, and I think that’s a wonderful thing,” Trump told Fox News Tuesday, after ending his boycott against the network. “If he wants to fight ISIS, let him fight ISIS. Why do we always have to do everything?”

What people didn’t know was that in this exact period of time, he had Cohen and Sater hammering out the details on a licensing agreement for this:

The tower — a sheer, glass-encased obelisk situated on a river — would have soared above every other building in Moscow, the architectural drawings show. And the sharply angled skyscraper would have climaxed in a diamond-shaped pinnacle emblazoned with the word “Trump,” putting his name atop the continent’s tallest structure.

As Putin ramped up Russia’s military commitment in Syria in an effort to bolster the regime of Bashir al-Assad, Trump kept approving of the move and suggesting his real motive was to attack ISIS, a sworn enemy of Assad. Here’s what he told the Guardian two weeks before he signed the letter of intent on a Moscow Tower:

“[Putin]’s going to want to bomb ISIS [in Syria] because he doesn’t want ISIS going into Russia and so he’s going to want to bomb ISIS. Vladimir Putin is going to want to really go after ISIS, and if he doesn’t it’ll be a big shock to everybody.”

From the outside, Trump’s behavior was bizarre and hard to understand. Being so friendly to Vladimir Putin didn’t seem consistent with U.S. foreign policy objectives and it certainly didn’t look like a coherent political strategy. Phillip Bump of the Washington Post noted this in December:

…Putin’s poll numbers among Americans are terrible. Globally, Russia is viewed very negatively, according to Pew Research, with two-thirds of Americans holding an unfavorable view of the country. Three-quartersof Americans have no confidence in Putin to do the right thing — which presumably includes offering political endorsements.

If Trump didn’t care about U.S. interests and his actions and words made no sense politically, why was he acting this way?

If people were suspicious before, their concerns were amped up to eleven by statements Trump made on December 18 and December 20. Appearing on Morning Joe on the 18th, Trump made news when he dismissed host Joe Scarborough’s observation that Putin kills journalists who don’t agree with him by saying, “Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too, Joe.” He followed that up on December 20 by telling George Stephanopoulos that there was no proof that Putin had killed anyone:

“…in all fairness to Putin, you’re saying he killed people. I haven’t’ seen that. I don’t know that he has. Have you been able to prove that? Do you know the names of the reporters that he’s killed? Because I’ve been — you know, you’ve been hearing this, but I haven’t seen the name. Now, I think it would be despicable if that took place, but I haven’t’ seen any evidence that he killed anybody in terms of reporters.”

There was a lot of outrage on both points. That Trump would deny that Putin kills journalists was curious and offensive, but that he’d assert that even if it were true it was no worse than what America does was seen as delusional and unpatriotic.

At that point, I think a lot of people began to seriously question whether Trump had some financial ties or interests in Russia that explained his behavior. And, of course, that’s exactly what was going on.

In 2015, Trump was realistically more interested in building Europe’s tallest building in Moscow than he was in becoming president of the United States. In 2018, he is still interested in something other than being president of the United States. Maybe that is just not getting caught. Maybe it’s worse than that. Regardless, Trump started out as a candidate denying that there is any moral difference between Putin’s Russia and America and he’s still doing it. Back in 2015, he dismissed reporting on Putin’s murder of journalists. Yesterday, he dismissed reporting on their intervention in our elections. People are acting shocked but there has not been a change of approach or behavior. It has been consistent throughout and it was just as suspicious in 2015 as it is now.

I’m glad people are being asked to resign, but it’s pretty late in the game for people to be figuring out that Donald Trump is captured by the Russians.

The Award For Trump’s Best Enabler Goes To…

Since Trump’s disastrous news conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki yesterday, a lot of Republicans have stepped forward to say things ranging from disappointment in the president to outright condemnation of his remarks (the latter came primarily from those who won’t have to face voters in an election). But the president can still count on some loyal enablers. Given that defending Trump after his performance yesterday seems unthinkable to most sentient beings, these folks deserve some recognition of their efforts.

Top prize for the most creative defense of Trump goes to Tucker Carlson.

Who knew that you could incorporate a white supremacist lie into a defense of this president’s capitulation to Russia? I’m not sure anyone but Carlson could accomplish that feat.

Jeanine Pirro gets the award for covering all the bases.

In that short one minute and forty-five seconds, Pirro includes seven excuses for Trump:

  1. He’s just trying to keep us safe
  2. His only options were to say what he did or take out a gun and shoot Putin
  3. The same intelligence community that says Russia interfered in the election said that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction
  4. He conceded that there was meddling (no mention of who did it)
  5. He got defensive because there is a conspiracy to take away his presidency
  6. When it comes to meddling in elections, everybody does it
  7. Russia’s efforts didn’t change one vote

Never mind that some of those contradict others, it’s your smorgasbord of excuses—just pick whatever one(s) you like.

The best concern-trolling award goes to Byron York, who wants us to feel Trump’s pain in having to admit that Russia interfered on his behalf.

So why did he do what he did? The answer has to do with the peculiar nature of the Russia investigation, and the peculiar nature of Donald Trump.

There have always been two parts to the Trump-Russia probe: the what-Russia-did part, which is the investigation into Russia’s actions during the campaign, and the get-Trump part, which is the effort to use the investigation to remove him from office.

Trump’s problem is that he has always refused, or been unable, to separate the two. One is about national security and international relations, while the other is about Donald Trump.

The president clearly believes if he gives an inch on the what-Russia-did part — if he concedes that Russia made an effort to disrupt the election — his adversaries, who want to discredit his election, undermine him, and force him from office, will take a mile on the get-Trump part. That’s consistent with how Trump approaches other problems; he doesn’t admit anything, because he knows his adversaries will never be satisfied and just demand more.

In order to buy that one, you have to believe that Robert Mueller isn’t investigating whether or not the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians to influence the election. Instead he is heading up an effort to remove Trump from office. The second point doesn’t speak very well for the president. York is suggesting that Trump can’t separate his own defense from national security concerns. That is precisely why so many of us believe that he is unfit for office.

Finally the White House gets a participation trophy for giving it their best shot. They issued talking points to their surrogates and friends in congress that basically said, “don’t believe what the president said yesterday, he’s admitted Russian interference on a couple of occasions in the past.” Bless their hearts, what they can’t say is that he’s never been able to do so in the presence of his puppet-master, Vladimir Putin.

The Russians Played the Long Game With the NRA

Looking carefully at the criminal complaint and affidavit on Maria Butina that the Department of Justice unsealed on Monday, I quickly realized that most of the information has been public for more than a year. In March 2017, Alex Altman and Elizabeth Dias published Moscow Cozies Up to the Right in Time magazine,  which detailed everything (up to that time) that the DOJ presented to the judge except the direct private communications between Butina and her boss Alexander Torshin.

What the two of them were doing was largely out in the open. They courted gun enthusiasts and conservative Christians in an effort to find allies in America who would encourage a less confrontational approach with Putin’s Russia.  They established relationships with Republican donors, strategists, and lawmakers for these purposes.  The only illegal part of these activities was the failure to register as agents or lobbyists of a foreign power.

Of course, the real issue here is the possibility that Russia funded the campaigns of Republican office-seekers (including the candidacy of Donald Trump) using Torshin’s relationship with the NRA as a cut-out and a cover.  That’s the kind of conspiracy that would make all their efforts to ingratiate themselves with the Right worthwhile.

And they did make quite an effort. You can see this clearly by looking at a timeline produced by Mother Jones. Maria Butina began her gun advocacy all the way back in 2011 when she was a twenty-one year old provincial from a remote Siberian town. That’s the year that she established the Right to Bear Arms special interest group to advocate for gun rights in Russia. It’s also the year that Torshin first attended an NRA conference and become a donor.

2011: Torshin, then a Russian senator, is introduced to NRA President David Keene through G. Kline Preston IV, a lawyer from Nashville, Tennessee, who had been doing business in Russia for years. Preston later tells the Washington Post, “The value system of Southern Christians and the value system of Russians are very much in line.”

2011: Maria Butina, in her early 20s, creates Right to Bear Arms, aiming to seed a gun rights movement in Russia.

2011: US gun manufacturer Arsenal Inc. sells 100 limited-edition AK-74s signed by Mikhail Kalashnikov—a personal friend of Torshin’s—with the anticipated $100,000 or more in proceeds to go to the NRA-ILA, the organization’s political lobbying arm.

Somewhere along the way, they convinced Paul Erickson to become their agent. Erickson is close to Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, and Jack Abramoff, all of whom he met during their time working with the College Republicans in the 1980s. It was Erickson who provided Butina with a list of influential conservatives she should meet and cultivate. Erickson helped her explain and justify her (their) strategy to her bosses back in Moscow.  Eventually, Erickson would reach out directly to the Trump campaign:

May 2016: In an email to Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn, with the subject line “Kremlin Connection,” Erickson says Russia is “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S.” and proposes using the NRA convention to set up “first contact” with the Trump team. According to a New York Times report, Erickson writes that he’s in a position to “slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin.” The email doesn’t name Torshin but appears to reference him as “President Putin’s emissary” who planned to attend a dinner hosted by conservative Christian activist Rick Clay. Meanwhile, Clay sends an email to Dearborn with the subject line “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite,” seeking a meeting between Trump and Torshin. Dearborn forwards Clay’s email to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who reportedly nixes the proposal.

In January, I explained in my piece Did a Russian Crime Boss Fund Trump Through the NRA? that there are plenty of reasons to disbelieve that Kushner actually nixed the proposal. If he really attempted to nix it, his decision was overridden. Donald Trump Jr. traveled to the May 19-20, 2016 NRA conference in Louisville and met privately with Torshin.

That meeting was the fruit of an operation that had begun five years prior.  If nothing else, we can gain some insight from this into the patience and flexibility and stamina the Russians demonstrate in their influence operations.

The first presidential target for Torshin and Butina was Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin.  An early favorite of political prognosticators, he seemed like a better investment than Donald Trump. The April 2015 NRA conference in Tennessee gave them a chance to court both candidates, although Trump didn’t formally launch his campaign until June 16, 2015.

March 2015: Butina announces on Facebook that she will attend the NRA’s upcoming convention in Nashville. She notes the importance of “paying attention to the politicians that we have more similarities than differences.”

April 2015: Butina posts about 200 pictures from Nashville, including one with Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who she says greeted her in Russian. She notes he’s “one of the possible future nominees for the post of US President,” and ponders the “beginning of a new dialogue between Russia and the US.” Donald Trump also attends, telling the crowd, “I promise you one thing, if I run for president and if I win, the Second Amendment will be totally protected, that I can tell you.” Torshin, also present, later tells Bloomberg that he had a “jovial exchange” with the future president.

Again, the key question in all of this is going to be whether or not the Russians funded Republican candidates using the NRA as a cut-out. If they did, the way they did was by spending five years cultivating close relationships with the leadership of the the National Rifle Association and influential members of the GOP.

So far, no prosecutor has filed any charges directly related to the NRA’s political activities in 2016. They have Ms. Butina is custody now and she’s facing about five years in prison. If she’s willing to do the time, I’m sure the Russian government will do their best to compensate her when she gets out, but she may be willing to talk in an effort to reduce her sentence. From the looks of things, there are a lot of Republicans who stand to lose if she opens her mouth.

The saddest part is that it was all a con:

November 14, 2017: “It appears the Russians…infiltrated the NRA,” Glenn Simpson, founder of the opposition research firm Fusion GPS, testifies to the House Intelligence Committee. “They targeted various conservative organizations, religious and otherwise, and they seem to have made a very concerted effort to get in with the NRA.” Referencing Torshin and Butina, he adds, “The most absurd [thing] about this is that, you know, Vladimir Putin is not in favor of universal gun ownership for Russians. And so it’s all a big charade, basically.”

And, don’t forget that Alexander Torshin has been described as “a vociferous Putin ally,” as well as a “mafia godfather.” The Spanish authorities have 33 audio recordings of phone conversations where Torshin is referred to as “boss” or “godfather.” These recordings also implicate Torshin in a vast money laundering scheme. So, that’s another reminder that in Russia, there’s often no distinction between the state, the intelligence services and organized crime.  The National Rifle Association was played and depending on what they actually did they could be crippled as a result.

Kim Jong-Un Isn’t the Only One Playing Donald Trump For a Sucker

In an article by Anton Troianovski, I was a bit surprised to read that “Putin has called on the United States to move forward on nuclear arms-control negotiations.” But recently, Trump has been using the need for cooperation on nuclear weapons as a reason why this country needs to improve our relationship with Russia. It might be helpful to put all of that talk in a little perspective.

Some people may remember that Barack Obama was very vocal about the nuclear threat when he was a student at Columbia. That’s probably why, less than two months into his presidency, he gave a speech in Prague in which he laid out an ambitious agenda on that front.

So today I am announcing a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years. We will set new standards, expand our cooperation with Russia, pursue new partnerships to lock down these sensitive materials.

Obama followed up on that speech by negotiating the New Start Treaty with Russia and initiating Global Summits on Nuclear Security every two years during his presidency. In the end, he didn’t reach the goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years, but significant progress was made.

The reason those efforts eventually stalled goes back to the election of Vladimir Putin as president of Russia in 2012. Almost immediately, Russia announced that it would not renew an agreement reached in 1991 on dismantling nuclear and chemical weapons and later announced that they would no longer participate in the Global Summit. In the meantime, here is what Putin has been up to:

The Russian leader said in May that his military would soon begin fielding a new generation of nuclear weapons, including a globe-circling ballistic missile that he previously said could fly over either the North or the South Pole to strike targets anywhere in the world with more powerful and more numerous warheads. Putin claimed it could evade any missile defense system.

Putin also has promoted Russia’s development of a nuclear-armed hypersonic vehicle that he said is more advanced than anything in the U.S. arsenal. Hypersonic flight equates to going Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound.

Do you see why I’d be surprised if Vladimir Putin was actually interested in “moving forward on nuclear arms-control negotiations?” What is more likely to be going on here is that Kim Jong-un isn’t the only one playing Donald Trump for a sucker when it comes to denuclearization.