Pay Attention to the Putin-Trump Links

Huge marches and demonstrations have greeted President Trump's first weeks in office.
Huge marches and demonstrations have greeted President Trump’s first weeks in office.

SOMERSET, KY — Pay close attention to the Putin-Trump link. Like archaeologists wielding stiff brushes and dirt screens, investigators are uncovering and starting to assemble the dark bones and clay pottery shards of a momentous scandal. The president and his aides, mindful of the consequences, have sought evasions of every kind. They raised the red flag of fake news. They attacked U.S. intelligence agencies. They accused the news media of being the enemy of the American people. They fumed at leakers and lied about the contacts between top Trump aides and senior Russian intelligence officers.

Now President Trump is squealing. Really squealing. Reporters last week discovered the White House chief of staff contacted the FBI to kill the story — a story that the president and his aides contend is no story at all. The White House entreaties to the FBI look a lot like obstruction of justice and a cover-up. Even conservative Republican lawmakers are calling for an independent prosecutor and demanding that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Trump acolyte, recuse himself from all involvement.

In my experience working on big investigations in and outside Washington I’ve learned that when the squealing starts it is always – always – a measure of rising stress and culpability. This story is not going away. Every week invites a new disclosure. We already know that two narratives of conspiracy and secrecy influenced the 2016 election. One leads straight to the Kremlin. The other led to the Trump campaign. Mike Flynn, the deposed National Security Advisor, then tugged it into the White House.

Pretty soon now, with or without the assistance of Congressional investigators, the two threads will be tied together in the Oval Office. I remain more convinced of that than when I wrote this piece in December. And this one.

We know from the Edward Snowden leaks that U.S. intelligence agencies harbor profoundly powerful surveillance capacity. Intelligence agents, sworn to defend the United States from enemies foreign and domestic, have the data, tapes, communications, and transcripts that will show direct contact between Putin and Trump during the election. That disclosure may take some time. Trump is squealing. Soon he’ll be screaming because he knows that disclosure is on its way. Continue reading “Pay Attention to the Putin-Trump Links”

Trump Produces Collective National Trauma

Vladimir Putin (l), president of the Russian Federation, and Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil's chairman and Secretary of State nominee, will try to stabilize energy markets to aid oil prices.
Vladimir Putin (l), president of the Russian Federation, and Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil’s chairman and Secretary of State nominee, will try to stabilize energy markets to aid oil prices.

SOMERSET, KY — It’s been six weeks since Donald J. Trump’s surprise election. The final national count is in. He lost by almost 2.9 million votes. The electoral college votes this week to formalize his victory.

If this inspires personal vertigo you are not alone. Half the country is ecstatic. The other half has a headache and peptic distress. Ever brazen, and with scant control of his metaphorical filters, Trump bullies forward. One brash decision, purposely designed to gather support or prompt alarm, follows another instance of celebrity groping intended to calm the opposition. It’s like watching a magician perform in a school auditorium. The eyebrow and lip feints are as important as the arm waving.

Al Gore, among the planet’s prominent climate change activists, is invited to Trump’s New York transition office. The meeting comes at the same time as Scott Pruitt, the climate-denying energy-financed attorney general of Oklahoma, is nominated for EPA administrator. Rick Perry, former governor of Texas, is nominated to oversee the Energy Department.

The heads of Google, Amazon, and other tech companies are invited to New York. During the same time Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil chairman and longtime ally of Russian oil magnates and Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin, is nominated for Secretary of State.

The New York Times and the Washington Post said a few times after the election that “chaos” described the Trump transition planning. What a hoot. The president-elect looks like he knows exactly what he is doing.

One huge Trump goal is to rescue the fossil fuel industry from the powerful market, social, and ecological forces arrayed against it. With Perry, Tillerson, and Pruitt in the cabinet and Putin and the Koch brothers as aides-de-camp Trump has assembled a cross-continental development-investment-deregulatory oil sector brotherhood.

Jim Dulzo, my good friend and astute observer of the energy sector, reached this conclusion: “There seems to be something pretty fantastic emerging from the Putin/Trump thang…some incredibly dark cabal that runs along a fossil-fuel/Russian/Koch/climate-denial/Republican/Trump/Putin axis. Recall: Koch family’s historic business connection to USSR, Exxon’s Tillerson’s business with Russia. Trump wants him as secretary of state while ordering all employees who worked on climate science handing in their names to their new boss. This may well be a desperate and perhaps successful international criminal/industrial attempt to stop the move away from fossil fuel before it goes any further. I’m starting to think that this is actually going on.”

As a journalist, I look at global conditions, events that I’ve personally reported on and ask this: Can Trump’s fossil energy development gambit work? Is it possible for the Trump brotherhood to stave off stranding in the ground $trillions in unburnable assets? Based on what I’ve witnessed from around the nation and the world the last eight years, I don’t think so.

Opposing the wealth and influence of the fossil sector is a quartet of more powerful forces: Mother Earth pushing back hard now with storms, floods, droughts, quakes, and fire. Civic rebellions everywhere to stop mega energy projects. Market disruptions that are driving costs up and prices down. Cleaner, lower cost alternatives. Summed up, Trump and his brotherhood are standing against the gale of ecological, market, civic, and technological transition. The president-elect, Putin, and the Trump cabinet are sailing schooner captains desperate to survive in the age of steamships.

Trump and his allies also face another impediment. You remember Watergate? The bungled 1972 theft of documents from the Democratic National Committee to aid Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. The two seminal questions asked during that presidential scandal: What did Nixon know? When did he know it?

Continue reading “Trump Produces Collective National Trauma”

The Years of Fake and Fraud

The CIA says Russian intelligence and hacking assisted Donald Trump's election victory. The FBI says it ain't so. Another shocking body blow to the American republic from information manipulation.
The CIA says Russian intelligence and hacking assisted Donald Trump’s election victory. The FBI says it ain’t so. Another shocking body blow to the American republic from information manipulation.

SOMERSET, KY — The CIA has clear evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election to assist Donald Trump. That’s what the Washington Post reported last week.

Trump fired back. The assertion isn’t true, he said, and added that it comes from the same intelligence agency that got it all wrong about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Other skeptics of the Russian election interference noted with bottomless gravity that the disclosure was made by the same newspaper that missed so badly in understanding what was happening in the 2016 presidential race — along with the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and so many other prominent American newsrooms.

Do you feel, as I do, that we are playable and we are getting played? Do you feel, as I do, that the forces of darkness and power that are playing us with such insolence and skill do so knowing that they will succeed? In electing an odious surprise minority candidate to be president, likely with the help of Russian intelligence capacity, U.S. voters also cemented right wing power in the House, the Senate, and most enduringly, the Supreme Court.

Do you recognize similarities to other body blow shocks to the republic? So much of the turmoil that we’ve endured as Americans this century started with information manipulation.

Information Deviancy
Example 1: In August 2001 President George Bush tossed aside the accurate CIA-prepared national intelligence briefing — “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” After the memo proved murderously prophetic he relied on the same agency’s woefully wrong assessment of Iraqi WMD to start a war.

Example 2: Wall Street bankers bundled worthless mortgages with arcane names — alternative mortgage instruments, collateralized debt obligations — and sold them to investors who trusted that the Security Exchange Commission was doing its job. Bankers made billions in fees to inflate a housing bubble that burst. Six million people lost their homes. Eight million lost their jobs. One poor schmuck went to jail. All the rest of us paid out the ying-yang to stabilize the finance sector and the global economy so the bankers could make billions again financing bad stuff — like coal mines in the Philippines, oil wells in the Arctic, and pipelines across the Great Plains.

Example 3: In 2013 a young data and computer manager, Edward Snowden, left his National Security Agency posting in Hawaii with a trove of top secret files. The files revealed how the U.S., despite the sworn testimony of NSA chiefs who denied it, had developed the surveillance capacity to intercept, track, analyze, and store data from virtually every online and cell phone communication on Earth. Not only that but one digital communication company – Verizon — was court-ordered to share with the government the files of their customers. The U.S. wants to prosecute Snowden for stealing state secrets, although the government has no reticence about stealing ours. Much of America and the world considers him a hero.

Example 4: Snowden’s heroics have more relevance now. Here’s why. Given such surveillance capacity it’s logical to ask why the Obama government is having so much trouble making the case that Russia intervened to influence the 2016 election. The CIA says it’s true. The FBI says it ain’t so. That’s the very same FBI that produced another off-the-hook communications-related fraud and body blow. It intervened in the final weeks of the campaign to accuse Clinton of hiding more of those not- significant-at-all emails, and then rescinded the accusation. Clinton lost the election because 80,000 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin may have been sufficiently swayed by the FBI’s recklessness to either vote for Trump or stay home.

Election Makes Strange and Dangerous Sense

Example 5: The 2016 election results make more sense if Russia, WikiLeaks, the Alt-Right, the Trump campaign, or any of the other architects of fakery and fraud know that they can 1) digitally roam the email caches of Hillary Clinton and her colleagues, 2) steadily feed the chum of what they find to the frenzy of sharks in important newsrooms, 3) lie and exaggerate and deflect without consequences, and 4) know it will work.

In the age of fake news, diminished newsroom revenue, and money-generating clicks, a minor fuss (and easy-to-get story) about Clinton’s State Department emails turned into the signature criticism of her candidacy. Mainstream, online, and nonprofit newsroom reporters covering the campaign consumed time and screen space pondering the private correspondence of stolen emails and not nearly enough time discovering the thieves. If Woodward and Bernstein had deployed the same technique in the early 1970s, the Watergate scandal would never have reached the White House.

Fake news sites, meanwhile, used Facebook to churn out all manner of bullshit tales of Clinton misbehavior that Trump himself often cited and his supporters embraced as the truth.

So here we are, contending with yet another disastrous example of information manipulation that puts the republic in danger. The United States is about to swear in a president that one U.S. intelligence agency says was elected with the digital and intelligence assistance of a foreign nation, and another U.S. intelligence agency swears it isn’t so. The fake news sites celebrate the national information vertigo. The mainstream newsrooms challenge each other for the next disclosure, but what they report is neither airtight nor trustworthy. Those same newsrooms sustained systemic institutional collapses in 2016 by focusing on the unimportant and dismissing as immature and reckless the biggest blockbuster disclosure of the campaign, one that Trump himself was desperate for everyone to know: the election really was rigged.

— Keith Schneider

Encountering the DTs

Donald Trump and President Obama at te White House days after the election.
Donald Trump and President Obama at the White House days after the election.

NEW YORK – Happy Thanksgiving from a city aswarm with misgivings about Donald Trump. I’m spending time here trying to help people decipher the details. I find it fascinating almost beyond measure — the careful work of a drama queen trying to calm the turbulent waters of the left and keep faith with his supporters on the right.

Follow the steps Trump’s taken. They largely rely on appointing Steve Bannon as a White House advisor. That’s the “optics” signal to the “basket of deplorables” that played such an outsized role in getting him elected. Bannon’s appointment was early and visible. It also provided psychic cover for the backpedaling on campaign promises that followed — open minded view on climate change, no waterboarding, a leaky fence instead of a wall, pre-existing conditions in health insurance, no “lock her up” investigation on Hillary, friendlier relations with the NYT. Look at the appointments, especially Nikki Haley, Republican governor of South Carolina who was a vocal critic and who also removed the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds following the murder of nine African Americans in a Charleston AME church.

Trump stirred the worst of America’s cultural instincts to get himself elected. Now he has set in place another plan — to meet with detractors — think Mitt Romney as candidate for Secretary of State — and convince them to come aboard. It defies what we learned during the campaign about Trump’s immature determination to bury his critics. This is the friendlier, more sensible president-elect that appeared this week. Are we convinced? Are you? Or is this more of Trump’s mercurial nature, his passion to deceive?

Like all of my family and friends I live in two worlds that converge in a thickening fog of anxiety. Donald Trump’s election has darkened our lives. He’s thrown a new and dangerous veil of cultural animosity over progressive America. He may have brought to an end half a century of progress in delivering equity and justice to women, minoroities, immigrants, and gay men and women.

People are nervous. They are agitated. They look for ways to grip certainty where there is none.

As a journalist I’m prepared to gather the facts and draw them together to form a credible narrative. It’s early in the era of the DTs. During the campaign we saw a calculating man determined to do what was necessary to win regardless of how many lies, and how much derision, anger, and hate he sowed. As a study in targeted marketing, celebrity, and made-for-reality tv showmanship Trump’s performance was frightfully effective.

In the early days of the transition we see a another version of Trumpian calculation – conciliatory, friendly, extending warm hugs and handshakes to detractors.

In every phase Trump writes new rules of engagement. His capacity to control the agenda is uncanny. He never gives up the whole story. It unfolds in daily drama. The audience is transfixed by what the next day’s events will bring. Never have I been witness to a single individual’s capacity to command a nation’s attention for as long as Trump has. The great newsrooms of our day — the Times, the Post, the New Yorker, the Atlantic — tell us of the chaos, the clamor, the unpredictability of Trump’s transition.

From what I glean from the details, shorn of Times and Post reportorial proclivities, is that Trump and his aides have clear command of the narrative and the characters. At this early stage, though, where the story is taking us is not at all plain. Trump is breaking every convention and writing new rules of the game.

— Keith Schneider

The 2016 Election Endgame: Decisive or Dangerous?

The next president of the United States? Hillary Clinton is poised, adept, and on the verge of winning.
The next president of the United States? Hillary Clinton is on the verge of winning.

SOMERSET, KY — There aren’t too many redder places in this reddest of red southern states than Pulaski County. Mitt Romney beat President Obama in 2012 with 80 percent of the vote in this south central Kentucky county, and a nearly 16,000-vote margin — 20,714 to 4,976. Still, on my afternoon runs through the pleasant leafy neighborhoods of Somerset, the county seat, I haven’t seen one yard sign for Donald Trump. It’s as though in depriving Trump of public support people here are also displaying their private anguish.

Loathing Hillary Clinton is one thing. Trump’s desire to blow up American democracy is something else entirely. With their children dispatched to good public schools, and their late model vehicles parked in the tidy yards of right-sized homes, there is absolutely no sentiment expressed here that Somerset’s residents are prepared to scrap it all and start over.

It doesn’t look now as though they are going to have to. Clinton has a comfortable lead in most public polls by performing well during three presidential debates, and essentially saying little else over the last three weeks. That’s cleared the way for Trump to bluff and bully and shriek his way down a steep decline in support. Last night, signaling that’s he’s prepared to resume a career in reality television, Trump declared his resistance to accepting the results of the election. He is resolved to keep the country waiting for the next big provocation, the very same tactic that provided the $US billions in free media attention that made his improbable run to the Republican nomination possible.

There isn’t anything in the lives of any of us to compare to this ugly and unnerving election.

Hillary Clinton is reviled by critics on all sides for character traits, that if they were true, would have prevented her from accomplishing all that she has in her life. Few candidates for president have been as thoughtful, meticulous, intelligent, experienced and well prepared as she is.

The worst offenses her critics offer are:

1. The craven assessment that she is responsible for the death of a diplomat and several more Americans in an attack on US government facilities in Libya. She wasn’t. Republicans mounted a sham Congressional investigation anyway to elevate the attack into a political issue to harm Clinton this year. It’s important to note that Republicans had never before cared to lay the blame for any of the previous lethal terrorist attacks on US installations that occurred under Republican presidents.

2. The use of a private server that Clinton established to send and receive email while she was Secretary of State. The implication is she played fast and loose with state secrets, a charge that is not true.

3. Her decision to keep her family together after Bill Clinton’s sex romp with Monica Lewinsky in the late 1990s; assertions that she enabled Bill to build her own political prominence; and she was too tough in attacking the credibility of other women Bill may or may not have bedded.

Fortunately for the U.S. Hillary Clinton is durable, measured, and a grownup. She’s been pushed by Bernie Sanders to embrace progressive ideas she hadn’t grasped earlier — like free college tuition and stronger measures to cool the warming planet. She’s shown herself to be graceful and persistent under pressure. And she’s been tactically smart.

Knowing of Trump’s childish capacity to mindlessly strike back when criticized she baited a trap in the first debate on September 26. Hillary unearthed the cruel criticisms that Trump unleashed at a Miss Universe winner in the 1990s after she’d gained weight. Trump swallowed the chum whole, spent the pre-dawn hours afterwards tweeting more offensive comments, and kept up the assault for much of the following week. Continue reading “The 2016 Election Endgame: Decisive or Dangerous?”