Political Animal

Why Mueller Subpoenaed Steve Bannon

I’ve read a lot of speculation about why Steve Bannon was subpoenaed to appear before one of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s grand juries. It has been noted that Bannon is getting different treatment than other current and former senior administrative officials who have voluntarily spoken with the Department of Justice’s independent Russia investigation. Cooperating officials like Sean Spicer, Hope Hicks, and Reince Priebus were not compelled to testify and they did not have to face grand jurors. So, what’s different about Bannon?

A common idea is that this has something to do with the publication of Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury in which Bannon makes a series of accusations, including that Trump Jr., Manafort and Kushner engaged in treasonous behavior and that the administration would ultimately get nailed by Mueller for money laundering activities. Supposedly, these statements have piqued Mueller’s interest, but that would only explain why he wants to talk to Bannon and not why he would subpoena him. Others have speculated that Mueller wants to question Bannon before he can tell Congress what he knows because that will obviously leak back to the administration. But Bannon was scheduled to testify to Congress today, and it was only because the White House asked him not to cooperate that he didn’t provide his testimony. The House Intelligence Committee issued their own subpoena on the spot and presumably he will be compelled to talk to them very soon.

Now, it could be that Mueller is bringing Bannon in because of Wolff’s book or because he’s now being hauled before Congress, but I think the timing here is probably coincidental. Mueller wants to talk to Bannon about something else. He wants to talk to him about Cambridge Analytica.

To begin with, the things Bannon was quoted as saying in Wolff’s book aren’t of that much use to Mueller. Bannon wasn’t part of the campaign when Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort met with the Russians in Trump Tower. His knowledge of money laundering is probably indirect at best. He may have heard or learned things of interest of Mueller, but his firsthand knowledge of Trump’s business practices is probably nonexistent and he’s not a helpful witness to things that happened before he was hired to run the Trump campaign. Mueller wants Bannon to tell him things that can be used in court, and if he’s trying to build a collusion case then he wants Bannon to explain everything he knows about Cambridge Analytica.

Steve Bannon is a former vice president of Cambridge Analytica. Since at least May, Congress has been investigating the possibility that Cambridge Analytica colluded with Russia to help their trolls and bots target Americans for Trump’s best advantage in the election. FBI counterintelligence officers have been looking at this scenario since at least March.

As they dig into the viralizing of such stories, congressional investigations are probing not just Russia’s role but whether Moscow had help from the Trump campaign. Sources familiar with the investigations say they are probing two Trump-linked organizations: Cambridge Analytica, a data-analytics company hired by the campaign that is partly owned by deep-pocketed Trump backer Robert Mercer; and Breitbart News, the right-wing website formerly run by Trump’s top political adviser Stephen Bannon…

…In March, McClatchy newspapers reported that FBI counterintelligence investigators were probing whether far-right sites like Breitbart News and Infowars had coordinated with Russian botnets to blitz social media with anti-Clinton stories, mixing fact and fiction when Trump was doing poorly in the campaign.

There’s an obvious nexus here. Cambridge Analytica was founded by Robert Mercer. Robert Mercer became the most important funder of Breitbart News which was run by Steve Bannon. Steve Bannon became a vice-president of Cambridge Analytica. Bannon introduced Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix to the Trump campaign in May 2016. Jared Kushner hired Cambridge Analytica in June 2016. Mercer convinced Trump to hire Steve Bannon in August 2016.

More information has come to light already. There was the strange case of the longtime Republican operative Peter W. Smith who committed suicide shortly after confiding in a Wall Street Journal reporter that he had been working with Michael Flynn and his son to find hackers, including Russian hackers, who had obtained or who could obtain the emails that Hillary Clinton had deleted from her private server. Then Michael Flynn was forced to amend his financial disclosure statement to reveal that he’d been under contract to Cambridge Analytica.

Then this happened:

On October 25th, 2017, Julian Assange confirmed on Twitter that he had been approached by Cambridge Analytica, but said he had rejected its proposal. Assange’s tweet followed a story in The Daily Beast alleging that Cambridge Analytica chief executive Alexander Nix had proposed a collaboration with Wikileaks to find the 33,000 emails that had been deleted from Clinton’s private server. CNN said it had been told by several unnamed sources that Nix intended to turn the Clinton email archive released to the public by the State Department into a searchable database for the campaign or a pro-Trump political action committee.

It should not need to be said, but these efforts to obtain Clinton’s deleted emails were criminal in nature. The goods they were seeking were only obtainable by hacking into the computer server Hillary Clinton maintained while serving as our Secretary of State. By encouraging people to commit a cybercrime, including foreign nationals, against a U.S. government official, these folks were already engaged in an illegal conspiracy of massive proportions with potential national security implications. Peter W. Smith committed this crime. Michael Flynn and his son committed this crime. The CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, committed this crime. So, I think it shouldn’t be too hard to see why Steve Bannon should be questioned about all of this considering the intersection of his roles as CEO of Breitbart News, vice-president of Cambridge Analytica and campaign chairman of the Trump campaign.

I’ve already written about the Trump team’s strange obsession with the 33,000 emails Clinton deleted from her server and how it was probably based on a misunderstanding of what George Papadapoulos was told by his Kremlin handler, Prof. Joseph Mifsud.

One part of the puzzle I think is solved. The Trump folks knew the Russians had emails but they didn’t initially know that the source was the DNC and they wrongly assumed that they were from Clinton’s private server. Nonetheless, they eagerly sought to convince the Russians to deliver the damaging information, and that desire explains a lot of their behavior at the time.

Somehow, even after the DNC (and other) leaks started coming out, the belief that the 33,000 emails were out there somewhere never died. That’s why Michael Flynn and Peter W. Smith were still looking for them around Labor Day.

Mueller is definitely interested in that whole sad saga, but he’s more interested in examining the possibility that there was a firmer and more consequential kind of collusion. Did Cambridge Analytica help make Russia’s trolling more effective? Did they share information with the Russians and/or did the Russians share information with them?

The investigators have undoubtedly built a massive dossier on this aspect of the case. On December 15th, the Wall Street Journal reported that Mueller was coming after Cambridge Analytica with both barrels blasting:

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has requested that Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that worked for President Donald Trump’s campaign, turn over documents as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, according to people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Mueller asked the firm in the fall to turn over the emails of any Cambridge Analytica employees who worked on the Trump campaign, in a sign that the special counsel is probing the Trump campaign’s data operation.

So, it’s true that Bannon might have some information about the obstruction aspects of the case, like the firing of James Comey, but it’s the collusion area that has the most potential to end this presidency. And I’ll bet that Bannon has been subpoenaed to talk primarily about evidence that Mueller has collected from an examination of Cambridge Analytica’s role in the campaign.

One thing we learned from Michael Wolff’s book is that Bannon was pretty much alone in thinking that Trump might actually win. Perhaps he knew something others didn’t, and perhaps Mueller has enough evidence now to ask Bannon about it.

Quick Takes: Cory Booker Goes on a Tear

* Kirstjen Nielsen was confirmed as the DHS Secretary after the appointment of John Kelly to be chief of staff. She was present in the White House meeting last Thursday, but claims that she can’t recall whether the president referred to Africa, Haiti and El Salvador as shithole countries. Today she testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and faced some tough questioning from Democrats. But Sen. Cory Booker expressed what a lot of us have been feeling. I encourage you to take ten minutes and watch his entire remarks. But here is a clip:

* In another mark against her credibility, this also happened during Nielsen’s testimony.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy was questioning Nielsen about a meeting she attended in the Oval Office last week where President Donald Trump reportedly labeled Haiti and nations in Africa as “shithole” countries and said the U.S. should be bringing people from Norway to the U.S. instead. Trump’s comments have been widely derided as racist.

Leahy asked Nielsen whether Norway was a predominantly white country.

“I actually do not know that, sir,” she said during the meeting. “But I imagine that is the case.”

* Given the ongoing activities of Rep. Devin Nunes and the move last week by Sen. Grassley to refer Christopher Steele to the FBI for investigation, I have zero confidence in the congressional committees investigating the Trump/Russia connection. It all comes down to Mueller, who has just subpoenaed an interesting witness.

It has been a suboptimal month for Steve Bannon. First, the rabble-rousing populist and noted Art of War reader was booted from Breitbart, the website he made into a household name, after he ran his mouth off about President Trump’s family to Michael Wolff.

Now, Special Counsel Robert Mueller is on his trail.

The New York Times reports that last week, Mueller took the unusual step of issuing a subpoena to Bannon, directing him to testify before a grand jury. It’s the first time Mueller has employed this tactic to suss out information from a Trump adviser.

* Nothing captures the effects of Trumpism on human lives better than this video clip.

* Here’s some interesting twitter commentary on Trump and the media:

* One of the 2018 races I’ll be watching the closest is the Georgia gubernatorial contest. Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams was a guest on Full Frontal last week.

* Imagine this…

* Finally, she’s still got it!

The Story of an Erratic President and His Nativist Chief of Staff

The Washington Post adds some details to the accounts of what led up to the White House meeting in which Trump rejected the bipartisan proposal on DACA, followed by his shithole remarks.

The first is that Trump had been supportive of the negotiations undertaken by Senators Durbin and Graham in a phone call less than two hours before the meeting began.

When President Trump spoke by phone with Sen. Richard J. Durbin around 10:15 a.m. last Thursday, he expressed pleasure with Durbin’s outline of a bipartisan immigration pact and praised the high-ranking Illinois Democrat’s efforts, according to White House officials and congressional aides.

The president then asked if Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), his onetime foe turned ally, was on board, which Durbin affirmed. Trump invited the lawmakers to visit with him at noon, the people familiar with the call said.

But when they arrived at the Oval Office, the two senators were surprised to find that Trump was far from ready to finalize the agreement. He was “fired up” and surrounded by hard-line conservatives such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who seemed confident that the president was now aligned with them, according to one person with knowledge of the meeting.

That raises the question of what happened between 10:15 and noon. This is at least part of the answer:

In the late morning, before Durbin and Graham arrived, Kelly — who had already been briefed on the deal — talked to Trump to tell him that the proposal would probably not be good for his agenda, White House officials said. Kelly, a former secretary of homeland security, has taken an increasingly aggressive and influential role in the immigration negotiations, calling lawmakers and meeting with White House aides daily — more than he has on other topics. He has “very strong feelings,” in the words of one official.

Unlike Stephen Miller, Kelly might not be interested in sabotaging any deal on DACA, but he seems to have his own agenda.

White House officials say Kelly is determined to secure a deal on dreamers and border security and has told Trump that the southwestern border is worse than it was a few years ago — and that he can be the president to change the status quo.

For Kelly to make a case that “the southwestern border is worse than it was a few years ago,” he’ll have to account for this data:

Either Trump’s border patrols aren’t doing their job, or the number of people illegally crossing the border went down significantly in 2017.

There are two take-aways from this report that will be important to keep in mind going forward. The first is that it appears that the president is even more erratic than we have previously thought. Apparently the last person whispering in his ear (i.e., Kelly) can cause him to do a 180 degree about-face on an issue in less than two hours. In the process, Trump went from praising Senator Durbin to this:

It’s interesting that Trump referred to trust. One has to wonder how anyone can trust a president who turns on a dime so quickly and effortlessly.

The second take-away is something we’ve been watching develop. Obviously Stephen Miller isn’t the only remaining staff in the White House that harbors nativist views. He is joined in that by the former DHS Secretary and current Chief of Staff. Here is John Kelly’s developing case:

  1. He successfully implemented Trump’s “deport ’em all” policy as DHS Secretary.
  2. When questioned about his tactics by members of Congress who have responsibility for oversight, he told them to “shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.’’
  3. He lied about an African American congresswoman and called her an “empty barrel.” When the truth became public, he refused to apologize.
  4. He articulated the “lost cause” mythology about the Civil War, suggesting that there were “good people” on both sides and that the war was the result of a failure to compromise.

We can now add to the list the fact that Kelly talked Trump out of supporting a bipartisan agreement to protect the Dreamers due to some agenda he has about border security.

In closing, I’ll simply remind you that Josh Marshall once described John Kelly as “Trumpist ideology in a more disciplined, duty-focused, professional package.” Contrary to how he was originally billed, Kelly is never going to be the one who reigns in the worst of Trump. In this case, it looks like he actually threw gasoline on the fire.

The GOP Is Ill-prepared for a Government Shutdown

Looking at Nancy’s piece on the Republicans’ plan for preventing a blue wave midterm election, I noted that immigration will be a wedge issue. There are obviously different elements to immigration, and some have more political power than others. In general, however, these issues tend to divide the Republican caucus much more than the Democratic caucus.

There may be some Democratic lawmakers who are worried about how the DACA issue will play in their home districts, but they’re certainly not talking about their concerns. Overall, the American public strongly objects to the idea of deporting people who came here as young children and have proven themselves to be promising and productive members of our society. I’m unaware of any Democrats who publicly support funding Trump’s stupid border wall, but there are plenty of Republicans who think it’s a bad idea, a waste of money, and something that the Mexicans were supposed to pay for rather than the American taxpayers. The sanctuary city issue may be a more productive area for the Republicans to probe, but it’s also something that so far has been litigated in the courts, and not to the GOP’s advantage. It’s probably of limited value as a campaign issue, especially because the economy is humming and we’re closing in on full employment.

The other wedge issue mentioned in Nancy’s article is only tangentially related to immigration. The GOP wants to argue for stronger work requirements for welfare recipients. To get any political juice out of that argument the Republicans would have to set things up so that the Democrats were blocking them from enacting legislative changes to the law. For example, if they could get a government shutdown framed around welfare instead of DACA, they might actually win that battle at the voting booth. Maybe.

As things stand, though, the Republicans are facing a government shutdown framed around DACA and shithole countries. When you consider that the Republicans control both chambers of Congress and that they’re divided over DACA and immigration policy, their situation looks pretty catastrophic. They’ll argue that the Democrats are soft on defense and obstinate on immigration, but it will be their inability to compromise on solutions on those issues that causes the Democrats to withhold their votes.

The GOP has one idea for splitting Democrats in the next round of voting, and that is to use CHIP, the children’s health program, as a bargaining chip.

One option Republicans are strongly considering to win over Democrats, according to two aides familiar with the GOP’s planning, is attaching a long-term renewal of the Children’s Health Insurance Program to the stopgap. Republicans believe that many Democrats — especially senators seeking reelection this year — will have a tough time voting against the program, which they have called a top priority.

This is a sensible strategy, but it will probably work better on the campaign trail than in the whip count for the votes that are coming up on a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government in operation. The Democrats might consider trading long-term CHIP funding for a clean C.R., but the Republicans will lose too many of their own votes with that move. If you’re going to hold children’s health hostage, you should probably get more than an extra month of Obama-level government spending as your ransom. Still, in theory the CHIP issue could divide Democrats, which is something the Republican leaders in Congress are having a lot of troubling accomplishing at the moment.

The main opposition to a clean C.R. to avoid a government shutdown is coming from defense hawks on the right and DACA supporters on the left. In both cases, the Democrats have the upper hand. They’ll vote for more defense spending provided only that there are corresponding increases in domestic spending. The Republican defense hawks may not like that deal, but they’ll take it. On DACA, a large portion of the Republican caucus wants a deal on DACA and they’ll support something along the lines of the deal that Sens. Graham and Durbin brought to the White House last week. This faction will not want to defend a government shutdown over an issue on which they’re actually willing to make concessions.

What’s remarkable in all of this, to me, is that you’d think the immigration issue would scare and divide the Democrats after they saw how much power it had in the presidential election. But it’s really not scaring or dividing them at all. They support DACA, oppose the border wall, oppose the Muslim ban, oppose most of Trump’s proposed reforms on sanctuary cities, chain migration, etc., and they’re not at all concerned about a government shutdown that will highlight these issues.

These issues do have real power. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone get complacent about its political potency. It’s just that I don’t think the Republicans have set this up in a way in which they can press their advantages. The government shutdown is almost definitely going to do far more damage to their candidates than it does to the Democrats.