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Winship writes: "These first weeks of the Trump White House have felt like one of those tennis ball machines run amok, volley after volley shooting at us in such rapid fire that often the only reaction is to grimace and duck ... All of this is confusing and distracting and of course, that's precisely what they want."

Vladimir Putin. (photo: Middle East Observer)
Vladimir Putin. (photo: Middle East Observer)


For America's Sake, We Need Answers About Russia. Now.

By Michael Winship, Moyers & Company

14 February 17

 

Donald Trump's embrace of Russia and Vladimir Putin and that country's interference with our election could drag democracy to an early grave.

(Note: I hardly had finished writing the following piece when Michael Flynn resigned, requiring a small revision. With this new development, the plot thickens, and getting to the truth about Russia and the Trump White House becomes even more important. And it raises the famous questions that so bedeviled Richard Nixon: What did Donald Trump know and when did he know it? mw)

hese first weeks of the Trump White House have felt like one of those tennis ball machines run amok, volley after volley shooting at us in such rapid fire that often the only reaction is to grimace and duck. Outrage after outrage, imperial pronouncement after pronouncement, lie after lie; it’s just one damned, fast and furious, flawed thing after another.

All of this is confusing and distracting and of course, that’s precisely what they want. As the old saying goes, if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit. It easily distracts us from the real issues, diverting our eyes from those important things that have to be closely examined and resolved if we’re to continue trying, at least, to behave like a free nation.

One of those burning issues is Russia, which largely seemed to go off the scope in the days immediately before and after Trump’s mini-inauguration, even though around the election and in the weeks after we heard a great deal about Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the release of emails aimed at defeating Hillary Clinton — allegations that were backed by the US intelligence community. With the FBI, those spy agencies also have been investigating intercepted communications from Russian intelligence. And then there’s that infamous “dossier,” compiled by ex-British spy Christopher Steele, filled with thus far unverified allegations about President Trump’s business dealings with Russia as well as certain salacious tales of his purported extracurricular activities there.

But with the resignation of Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn, in the wake of news reports about his December phone calls with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and word that US intelligence has confirmed some of the information in the Steele dossier, interest in Russia has rekindled, and a good thing, too.

On Thursday night, The Washington Post released the story that Flynn “privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials, current and former U.S. officials said.”

This was followed by Monday night’s breaking news from the Post: “The acting attorney general informed the Trump White House late last month that she believed Michael Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and warned that the national security adviser was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail, current and former U.S. officials said.” Within hours, Flynn was out.

What’s more, at week’s end, as the Flynn story was beginning to unfold,  CNN reported that investigators have now corroborated some of the less personal information in the Steele dossier, conversations among Russian officials: “The corroboration,” the network reported, “has given US intelligence and law enforcement ‘greater confidence’ in the credibility of some aspects of the dossier… Some of the individuals involved in the intercepted communications were known to the US intelligence community as ‘heavily involved’ in collecting information damaging to Hillary Clinton and helpful to Donald Trump, two of the officials tell CNN.”

These latest developments came on the heels of Trump’s astonishing remarks to Bill O’Reilly, in an interview pre-taped for Super Bowl Sunday, when Trump said he respected Putin and O’Reilly noted that the Russian leader is a killer: “There are a lot of killers,” Trump replied, sounding more like a two-bit Al Capone than the leader of the free world. “We have a lot of killers. You think our country is so innocent?”

This is way beyond troubling, so it merits noting some of the other news about Russia that has transpired in the last few weeks, news that might have flown under your radar while Trump’s fusillade of executive orders and tantrums was bombarding your every waking moment.

All of it is serious business, specifically when it comes to figuring out just why Trump is so deeply enamored of Vladimir Putin and how much Russia interfered with our election, and more broadly for what it says about Trump and his chief strategist Stephen Bannon’s vision, God help us, of a world divided and dominated by white nationalists.

For one, and speaking of killers, there’s the matter of the missing Russian intelligence men, all of whom may be connected to the Trump affair. Amy Knight, former Woodrow Wilson Fellow and author of Orders From Above: The Putin Regime and Political Murder, writes in The New York Review of Books, “… Since the US election, there has been an unprecedented, and perhaps still continuing shakeup of top officials in Putin’s main security agency, the FSB, and that a top former intelligence official in Putin’s entourage died recently in suspicious circumstances.”

She’s worth quoting at length:

“It appears that the Kremlin has been conducting an intensive hunt for moles within its security apparatus who might have leaked information about Russian efforts to influence the US presidential election. In mid-December 2016, following public assertions by leading US intelligence officials that Russia had intervened in the election, two high-level FSB officers, Sergei Mikhailov, deputy chief of the FSB’s Center for Information Security, which oversees cyberintelligence, and his subordinate, Dmitry Dokuchayev, were arrested. (Russian authorities reportedly took Mikhailov away from a meeting of the FSB top brass after placing a black bag on his head.) The two men — along with Ruslan Stoyanov, who headed the Kaspersky Lab, a private company that assists the FSB in internet security — were charged with state treason. Russian independent media reported that the men had been responsible for leaks to Western sources, including US intelligence, about Russian cyber attacks against the US and also about Russian covert efforts to blackmail Donald Trump…

“Also, the authoritative independent Russian business daily Kommersant reported two weeks ago that Andrei Gerasimov, chief of the FSB’s cyberintelligence department, and Mikhailov’s boss, would be fired, although Gerasimov’s dismissal has yet to be officially confirmed. According to Russian security expert Andrei Soldatov, the upheaval in the FSB amounts to a purge of the entire Russian state security team dealing with cyberintelligence and cybersecurity.”

Then there’s a former KGB and FSB general, Oleg Erovinkin, found dead in the back of his car in Moscow on Dec. 26, officially from a heart attack, but as Agatha Christie would say, foul play is suspected. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports:

“Erovinkin was a key aide to Igor Sechin, a former deputy prime minister. He has been described as a key liaison between Sechin and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Now head of the state-owned oil company Rosneft, Sechin is repeatedly named in the so-called Trump dossier… [Christopher] Steele wrote in the dossier, which was dated July 19, 2016, that much of the information it contained was provided by a source close to Sechin. That source was Erovinkin, according to Russia expert Christo Grozev of Risk Management Lab, a think-tank based in Bulgaria.”

Through their mutual love of petrochemicals and profits, Igor Sechin and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil are pals, and in fact Sechin complained that US sanctions against Russia kept him from coming to America to “ride the roads…on motorcycles with Tillerson.”

In December, Russia announced the sale of a 19.5 percent share of Rosneft, that massive government oil company run by Igor Sechin. He and Putin appeared on television to announce the deal, and Reuters reported that Putin “called it a sign of international faith in Russia, despite US and EU financial sanctions on Russian firms including Rosneft.”

Supposedly the transaction is a fairly straightforward joint venture between Qatar and Glencore, a Swiss firm, but as Reuters noted,

“Like many large deals, the Rosneft privatization uses a structure of shell companies owning shell companies, commonly referred to in Russia as a ‘matryoshka’, after the wooden nesting dolls that open to reveal a smaller doll inside. Following the trail of ownership leads to a Glencore UK subsidiary and a company that shares addresses with the Qatari Investment Authority, but also to a firm registered in the Cayman Islands, which does not require companies to record publicly who owns them.”

So who’s really behind the deal? Its convolutions may have the potential for a John Le Carre novel or Bourne movie. Some have even noted, as Amy Knight does, that coincidentally, “The Steele dossier… mentions that Carter Page, a member of Trump’s foreign policy team during his campaign, had a secret meeting with Sechin in Moscow in July 2016, in which the two reportedly discussed the possible lifting [of] US sanctions against Russia, in exchange for a 19 percent stake in Rosneft (It is not clear from the memo who would get the stake, but apparently it would have been the Trump campaign)” [Italics mine. mw]. She speculates that this, too, may have been another leak by the now-deceased Oleg Erovinkin.

A 19 percent stake in Rosneft, versus a 19.5 percent stake… admittedly, it’s a stretch, and probably nothing more than an odd coincidence, yet stranger things have happened, especially given the Bizarro World we now inhabit. But what’s not a stretch is that beyond the particulars, beyond whatever reasons, blackmail or otherwise, that Trump is so under Vladimir Putin’s spell, there is a global agenda both men share that’s the real danger.

Urged on by his American Rasputin, the ineffable Bannon, for all intents and purposes Trump is promoting white nationalism and what many call “traditionalism,” a worldview shared by Putin. It’s no coincidence that the Russian kleptocrat and his government also are supporting and being embraced by far-right political parties and leaders throughout Europe, including Marine LePen’s National Front in France, Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), Golden Dawn in Greece, the Ataka Party in Bulgaria and Hungary’s Jobbik Party.

In a 2013 speech at the Valdai conference in Russia, Putin warned, “We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.”

And here’s Trump consigliere Steve Bannon on the dangers of what he calls “jihadist Islamic fascism.” In 2014 he told a conference at the Vatican: “I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis… There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global… Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.”

Asked about support for Putin and Russia from France’s National Front and Britain’s United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP), Bannon replied, “One of the reasons is that they believe that at least Putin is standing up for traditional institutions, and he’s trying to do it in a form of nationalism — and I think that people, particularly in certain countries, want to see the sovereignty for their country, they want to see nationalism for their country. They don’t believe in this kind of pan-European Union or they don’t believe in the centralized government in the United States.”

Putin’s motives are pragmatic as well as ideological; distracting his people as he cracks down dissent at home while seeking destabilization in the West and hoping to prevent further expansion of the European Union and NATO. Bannon’s motives seem more messianic and, the greater the influence he exerts on Trump’s thinking (such as it is), dangerous.

In the current issue of The Atlantic, journalist Franklin Foer concludes:

“There is little empirical basis for the charge of civilizational rot. It speaks to an emotional state, one we should do our best to understand and even empathize with. But we know from history that premonitions of imminent barbarism serve to justify extreme countermeasures. These are the anxieties from which dictators rise. Admiring strongmen from a distance is the window-shopping that can end in the purchase of authoritarianism.”

And so it may go here in America. From a window-shopping distance, Trump admires Putin and his authoritarianism. This blind love, plus the lust that drove Trump to want the White House — and yes, perhaps extortion as well — may have allowed Russia not only to subvert our election but also to infiltrate Trump’s administration and erode if not destroy American democracy.

John R. Schindler at the Observer (the newspaper until recently owned by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner) writes, “Our Intelligence Community is so worried by the unprecedented problems of the Trump administration — not only do senior officials possess troubling ties to the Kremlin, there are nagging questions about basic competence regarding Team Trump — that it is beginning to withhold intelligence from a White House which our spies do not trust.” Democrats and even some Republicans are demanding answers, several congressional committees have announced probes, individual members like New York’s Jerry Nadler are searching for various maneuvers that will force Trump and the evidence of Russian intrusions into our government and politics out into the open.  But the crisis still cries out for a bipartisan independent investigation.

The bottom line is that Putin is far shrewder than Trump and capable of playing him like a balalaika. And despite the departure of security risk Michael Flynn, with the likes of foolhardy Bannon, dangerous professional twerp and presidential advisor Stephen Miller and others still egging Trump on — obsessed with a nightmarish hallucination about America and the world’s future — we live at one of the most dangerous moment in our republic’s history.

Unlike those days 50 years ago when Russia posed a different kind of ideological threat, one that had us building fallout shelters and teaching kids to duck and cover, this is not a drill.


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Comments   

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+6 # DongiC 2017-02-14 14:06
Scary indeed. Time to have some investigations and find out what is really going on. We need to be thorough.
 
 
+6 # drew 2017-02-14 14:39
Ultimately we have all the answers we need already. We know Russia hacked the election and we know they swung public opinion >1% (the margin of 'victory' for Trump in the 4 key swing states). Hillary won the popular vote by a solid margin and between Russia, Comey, voter suppression, blocked recounts in WI/MI/PA and the Electors' failure to save us from an unfit demagogue with foreign $ entanglements .... we know this was a stolen election! Trump's erratic, vile and utterly ignorant behaviour throughout the campaign and early Presidency and his already impeachable Constitutional violations only adds to the dangerous & shocking illegitimacy of this fool.
 
 
+1 # aljoschu 2017-02-15 05:50
Sorry drew,
but in my oppinion - with my perspective from Europe - this is all wishful thinking, all allegations and propaganda. There is still no proof that Russia actually interfered with the election and there is certainly no proof that even a single voter was actually manipulated.
Yes, Trump is erratic - but that is a different story and we must keep the two things apart.
 
 
+15 # harleysch 2017-02-14 15:08
If everyone is so focused on Russia, perhaps it would be helpful if RSN ran a commentary by Prof. Stephen Cohen, considered one of the leading experts on Russia. Cohen is NOT a neocon, so his expertise may be questioned by those who have convicted Putin of murdering his opponents, invading Ukraine and running the Trump administration.

There are reasonable voices out there who think talking with Russia is better than deploying troops to their borders, demeaning their leaders, putting sanctions on them, and threatening a "Moscow Spring", as John McCain has -- and he should know how to do it, given his full support of the regime running Ukraine today, which has bona fide Nazis in its security services and Defense Ministry.

The present "Washington consensus" on Putin and Russia is both dangerous and nonsensical, and is shaped by people in the intelligence community and related Deep State agencies who wish to see more wars and confrontations. Most posters on this site used to have contempt for these types, the neocons and their military sidekicks -- but that was before Hillary threw the election to Trump.
 
 
-4 # carytucker 2017-02-14 21:09
Quoting harleysch:
If everyone is so focused on Russia, perhaps it would be helpful if RSN ran a commentary by Prof. Stephen Cohen, considered one of the leading experts on Russia. Cohen is NOT a neocon, so his expertise may be questioned by those who have convicted Putin of murdering his opponents, invading Ukraine and running the Trump administration.

There are reasonable voices out there who think talking with Russia is better than deploying troops to their borders, demeaning their leaders, putting sanctions on them, and threatening a "Moscow Spring", as John McCain has -- and he should know how to do it, given his full support of the regime running Ukraine today, which has bona fide Nazis in its security services and Defense Ministry.

The present "Washington consensus" on Putin and Russia is both dangerous and nonsensical, and is shaped by people in the intelligence community and related Deep State agencies who wish to see more wars and confrontations. Most posters on this site used to have contempt for these types, the neocons and their military sidekicks -- but that was before Hillary threw the election to Trump.

It is neither dangerous nor nonsensical to be wary of the leader of a police state and a veteran of the First Directorate of the KGB. I would not wish to defend William Casey or his heirs, even were they to do something sensible from time to time.
 
 
+5 # aljoschu 2017-02-15 05:55
Dear harleysch,
I completely support your opinion from my European perspective - thanks for your courage and personal honesty in this vitriolic climate of hate and slander in the US today.
By the way, we have a very similar detrimental climate within public discussions here in Europe and in Germany specifically where it has become extremely risky to speak out your personal opinion openly in public or in commentary fora.
 
 
+10 # HowardMH 2017-02-14 15:21
If the news about Flynn had not been published by the Washington Post and others Trump would have DONE NOTHING about Flynn. Even THREE intelligence agencies telling Trump weeks ago what was going on with Flynn and Russia did not have any effect on the Orange Headed Idiot.

Way to go Washington Post and others for finally bringing this issue to the front!!

Now where is the sponges in the congress? When are they going to start doing their job, or it definitely should be THEIR LAST TERM!!!
 
 
+9 # angelfish 2017-02-14 15:41
The absolute Outrage here, is that, if this had been a Democratic Administration, they ALL would have been Impeached by now! WHY is Trump UN-touchable? He is a Notorious Liar, Cheat, and Scam-Artist of Low Intellect and Lower Character! The ReTHUGlicans have sunk to a NEW Low with their support thrown behind a man who sees NO problem with declaring himself Imperial and NOT to be Questioned or Scrutinized by ANYONE in the Judiciary Branch of our Government. He is a MADMAN who hasn't a Clue as to HOW this Government has been run and will, with ReTHUGlican Help, turn us into a Third World Gulag with NO freedom to do ANYTHING unless THEY say so! IMPEACH them ALL and Fumigate the White House and Oval Office thoroughly to remove his Toxic Stench! RESIST, PERSIST, and be RELENTLESS in doing WHATEVER it takes to get TrumpleThinSkin OUT of our Government before he takes us ALL down with him!
 
 
+5 # CurtW 2017-02-14 15:51
Great job; keep digging, but shy away from speculation. Facts, proof and circumstantial evidence as much as possible, please.
 
 
+14 # grandlakeguy 2017-02-14 16:10
At this point the entire Trump team should resign for the good of the country and new elections should be held.
We all know that in a fair contest Bernie Sanders would be the runaway winner!
 
 
-1 # carytucker 2017-02-14 21:13
Quoting grandlakeguy:
At this point the entire Trump team should resign for the good of the country and new elections should be held.
We all know that in a fair contest Bernie Sanders would be the runaway winner!

Just two questions: what evidence has any of the Trump team given that they're remotely interested in 'the good of the country'? Where in the U.S. Constitution do you find warrant for an election do-over? There was one shot to defeat Mr Trump and I remember many on this site unwilling to take it.
 
 
0 # Marshalldoc 2017-02-14 17:05
For America's sake we need people to stop obsessing about DNC/HRC-contriv ed 'Putin-did-it' plots and begin focusing on realities. This Russophobic fixation is approaching the degree of feitshism the alt-wrong lavishes on George Soros - I swear y'all daydream about your favorite scapegoat wearing Emperor Palpatine robes and controlling world events by mystical hand movements. Can we all just get real and deal with the world as it is and stop inventing excuses for our own shortcomings?
 
 
+2 # lfeuille 2017-02-14 20:56
Thanks for injecting some sanity. The problem with Flynn is Islamahobia. I don't care what he said to whoever about sanctions. They should have been imposed in the first place.
 
 
+9 # CDMR 2017-02-14 17:44
Just mindless. "that country's interference with our election could drag democracy to an early grave." I guess Winship is the last one to still believe this fake news.

what does he want? A new cold war with Russia? Why?
 
 
+4 # lfeuille 2017-02-14 20:59
Yes why? There seems to be a bi-partisan push for a new cold war. That is the real scandal. I wish someone would investigate the motivation. For some it is probably just a shorted sight attempt to damage Trump, but for others it may be more nefarious.
 
 
+9 # Roger Kotila 2017-02-14 21:24
Before everyone gets too hysterical about the supposed dangers of Putin and Russia, it might be wise to read Douglas Valentine's "The CIA As Organized Crime" (2017).

Why? It is highly likely that demonizing Putin is a Deep State tactic in order to maintain America in paranoia, and on the brink of more wars. "Regime change" is still very much in the air, and it is not coming from Russia; it is a neocon scheme that has brought a living hell to the Middle East.

The CIA's "Mighty Wurlitzer" (CIA media propaganda arm is working overtime to convince us that Putin/Russia is the "enemy." It's an elaborate hoax, but put to good use to keep the military/indust rial/covert operations complex in the big money, and to keep the US neocon/Israeli Zionist wet dream of Empire alive and dangerous.

That's why there was panic when Trump announced a plan for friendship with Russia to eliminate ISIS (a CIA/ Mossad/Saudi Arabia asset which started as al Qaeda and morphed into ISIS).
 
 
+2 # Charles3000 2017-02-14 22:42
I see it as a far simpler issue. Hillary and her neocons in the State Dept, did a number in the Ukraine on Putin. So Putin does one on Hillary in the election. Tit for tat! The mid east is a looming issue too. US hegemony is on the decline there while Russia is getting stronger. It seems, via Trump, the US might be willing to share hegemony there in exchange for keeping a piece of the energy commodities pie.
 
 
-2 # Allanfearn 2017-02-15 04:09
'Within hours Flynn was out'. But the antecedent date check is 'last month'. Wasn't it the acting Attorney-Genera l who was 'out' - and for alleged 'disloyalty'? A bit of Reader-Supporte d Reading might come in handy sometimes.
 
 
+5 # aljoschu 2017-02-15 05:29
Dear Michael,
America, your country, keeps interfering with elections in foreign countries all over the world - apparently you consider that to be a natural born right of your country. On the other hand, whether actually Russia should have meddled with your election is a CIA allegation, after all. No proof nowhere! Only smear campaigns.
Finally, I keep seriously wondering: Why should a friendly detente between your country and Russia be so frightening for you and the American Left? We have been criticizing the aggressive NATO policy - which has been an anachronistic reestablishment of Cold War in Europe - for years. Now, there is the opening of a window of opportunity for a new, more friendly start, however, the whole American Left is going completely beserk.
I also wonder: What would the rest of the world have had to expect after a successful election of Mme Clinton?
Foul is fair in the US - but not exclusively within the Trump administration!
 
 
+2 # aljoschu 2017-02-15 05:45
Dear Michael,
“We have a lot of killers. You think our country is so innocent?” - Hey, this is what the American Left has always been saying over the recent 50 years. Now it is said by a Donald Trump, the legitimately elected president of the USA, and it is causing the American Left to wack out completely and to declare it a security risk.
Yes, Putin may be by far shrewder than Trump, however Obama, Kerry and Clinton had been by far shrewder than Putin in Kiew, (remember "Fuck the EU!"). Didn't it ever occur to you that President Putin could have just been a very diligent student of his masters in the White House?
I am completely lost with the remaining American Left of today.
 
 
+6 # librarian1984 2017-02-15 08:23
There is not a monolithic American Left. Neoliberals are using the CIA's Russian fake news against Trump and to cover the real reasons for Clinton's loss. Their embrace of the CIA is astonishing.

Bernie Sanders' progressives are not part of this hysteria.
 
 
0 # HahliHohli 2017-02-15 10:09
THANK you aljoschu, thank you thank you.

TRUTH if I ever did hear it! The American masses have been so dumbed-down in so many ways as to have left so many incapable of clear thinking. Fluoride in the water and toothpaste and chemtrails in our skies, along with our "no child left behind" education, and the overt sexualization of our children. This country has been so badly abused by our masters.

BUT, thank Father-Mother God and the Power of Evolution, even the masses are waking up to the TRUTH of their lives, but it isn't pretty and it probably won't be for awhile; chaos everywhere.

BUT I do feel there is hope and am confident that a better world is coming for all.

BECAUSE "There is no problem that enough LOVE cannot solve." MMY [paraphrased(?) ]

AND we are all waking up to LOVE! on steroids as they say.
 

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