What Happened Today: May 16, 2023
Russiagate's final nail; Pence taps Reagan playbook; Rudy's big mouth
The Big Story
Four years in the making, Monday saw the release of John Durham’s scathing report into how the Department of Justice handled allegations linking Donald Trump to Russia during the 2016 presidential election. A former federal prosecutor appointed as a special counsel during the Trump administration, Durham, who continued to lead the investigation under the Biden administration, found that the FBI’s top officials suffered from a “confirmation bias” when they chose not to aggressively pursue evidence in two cases in which foreign nations were possibly seeking to sway the election in Hillary Clinton’s favor, though they swiftly opened a probe into links between Trump and Moscow, acting on a vague lead “based on raw, unanalyzed, and uncorroborated intelligence.” The report also found that the FBI “discounted or willfully ignored material information that did not support the narrative of a collusive relationship between Trump and Russia.”
On CNN, Jake Tapper noted that the report is “devastating to the FBI and, to a degree, it does exonerate Donald Trump.” Downplaying the conduct documented in the report as “missteps,” the FBI said in a statement on Monday that “the conduct in 2016 and 2017 that Special Counsel Durham examined was the reason that current FBI leadership already implemented dozens of corrective actions, which have now been in place for some time. Had those reforms been in place in 2016, the missteps identified in the report could have been prevented.”
Though the report’s release has been widely covered in the media and largely solidifies what had been disclosed in previous reviews of the FBI’s work, so far no media outlet that had substantiated collusion between the Trump administration and Russian officials has come forward to offer a correction. “Those who perpetrated this scandal on the nation are left to carry on making money on books, speeches, TV commentary and lectures about political or electoral ethics,” writes law professor Jonathan Turley. “The media, meanwhile, is offering little more than a shoulder-shrug and more spin.”
Read More: https://www.wsj.com/articles/fbi-faulted-for-its-probe-of-russian-meddling-in-2016-campaign-32287018
In The Back Pages: Here Comes the Limited Hangout
→ Polling poorly, and largely associated in the minds of most voters with his old boss Donald Trump, former vice president Mike Pence is set to roll out his long-shot campaign for the 2024 Republican nomination by arguing he’s the “classical conservative” choice.
Attempting to galvanize voters with his aggressive support of a federal abortion ban and free trade, Pence, his aides say, hopes to pave his way to the Oval Office by appealing to a base of evangelicals who would like a little less of Trump’s new right populism and more of the old Republican views that were once standard during the Reagan era.
It remains to be seen how exactly Pence will position himself as a stark alternative to Trump after spending four years as his mostly subdued yes-man.
Scott Reed, his campaign consultant who previously ran Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, thinks there’s an untapped Reagan coalition of national security hawks and fiscal conservatives ready to put Pence back into the White House. “People know Mike Pence,” Reed said. “They just don’t know him well.”
→ Quote of the Day:
Our waiting list is like 180 families right now. … The mental health infrastructure was never designed for this level of need.
That’s from Jonathan Dalton, a psychologist who runs the Center for Anxiety and Behavioral Change out of Maryland, which offers treatment for school avoidance, the condition of school-age children refusing to attend school that’s become a full-blown crisis since the COVID-19 pandemic, according to several mental-health experts speaking to USA TODAY. While kids disliking going to school is practically a rite of passage, the small number of students who for various reasons refuse to attend ballooned during the pandemic when virtual learning was introduced and, in many households, at least one parent began working remotely, which mental-health experts say makes it more enticing for reticent students to stay home.
Read More: https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/health/2023/05/15/school-avoidance-becomes-crisis-after-covid/11127563002/
→ On Tuesday the European Union put the final seal on new rules to regulate the crypto industry, a policy set to roll out in 2024 that will require firms to obtain a license before they can create and trade several forms of crypto assets. The new rules will also force firms to retain the names of those who send and receive the crypto assets by 2026, a level of oversight that will now put pressure on officials in Britain and the United States to follow suit. “We are wandering in the desert a bit,” Hester Peirce, a U.S. derivatives regulator, said last week while discussing how U.S. authorities are struggling to define how to oversee the crypto sphere.
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→ A YouTuber’s 2021 plane crash left him with incredible footage when he parachuted out of his aircraft and managed to float down to safety in the Los Padres National Forest in California. With several cameras outfitted around the plane, and a selfie stick to film the whole ordeal in real time, Trevor Daniel Jacob racked up major views of the crash on his YouTube channel. But that footage proved essential in the case federal prosecutors made against Jacob, who pled guilty on charges of faking the crash and obstructing authorities from investigating what really happened. Originally claiming that the engine failed and that he couldn’t remember where the crash occurred, Jacob had led a helicopter to the crash site, recovered the aircraft, and dismantled the plane into parts he deposited in various garbage bins around an airport. Already stripped of his pilot’s license after the investigation began, Jacob now faces up to 20 years in prison as he awaits his sentence.
→ It’s not so surprising these days to see another young, wealthy start-up founder with no publishing experience decide to buy a magazine. What’s eye-catching about the news that 28-year-old auto tech founder, Austin Russell, has bought a majority stake in Forbes is that the magazine is valued at nearly $800 million. With the ink still drying on the coverage that Vice Media Group (valued at $5.7 billion in 2017) has filed for bankruptcy and BuzzFeed News was shuttering its operation amid sagging ad revenue, the self-made billionaire says he’s not fazed by the headwinds in a news industry that’s largely been in decline over the past decade or more. “Forbes is something I had always looked up to as a brand and as a media empire,” Russell said. Taking an 82% stake in Forbes, Russell says he will largely keep out of the daily operations of the magazine that relies on events and advertising to turn a profit.
In a sprawling complaint filed on Monday in New York, a former employee of Rudy Guilani says her boss sexually assaulted her, held back wages, and regularly made “sexist, racist, and antisemitic remarks,” including: “Jews want to go through their freaking Passover all the time, man oh man. … Get over the Passover. It was like 3,000 years ago. The Red Sea parted, big deal. It’s not the first time that happened,” Guilani said according to the suit. Seeking $10 million in damages, Noelle Dunphy was hired by Donald Trump’s former personal attorney in 2019 to help him with legal work and then fired two years later. During that brief tenure, Dunphy says her old boss informed “her that he was selling pardons for $2 million, which he and President Trump would split.” In a statement from a representative, Giuliani “unequivocally denies the allegations.” It’s been a tough few years for Giuliani, who saw his New York law license suspended in 2022 after an appeals court found that he had made “demonstrably false and misleading” statements about election fraud. Currently, Giuliani remains the target of a criminal investigation in Georgia related to voter fraud in the 2020 election, with prosecutors set to file charges sometime this summer.
→ Surrounded by loved ones and 100 guests to celebrate his 31st birthday at his home in Coqueiros, a Portuguese village, Bobi, the world’s oldest dog, enjoyed extra helpings of local meat and fish before taking a nap. Owner Leonel Costa said the festivities were a “traditional” Portuguese celebration for the “very sociable” purebred Rafeiro do Alentejo, who has never been kept on a leash and has been allowed to roam as he wishes in the forests near Costa’s house.
→ In Colorado, a dog owner was perhaps asking too much of his pup when he was recently pulled over for speeding and failed to convince police that his dog was driving the vehicle. As Springfield Police Department officers explained in a written statement over the weekend, one officer watched the driver attempt to switch places with his dog before police came to ask him how much he had to drink. Fleeing on foot instead of responding, he was detained roughly 20 feet into his escape before being charged for driving while under the influence.
TODAY IN TABLET:
Adding Sikhs to the Curriculum by Maggie Phillips
From Utah to Mississippi, schools try to combat discrimination and bullying against a religious minority that is ‘highly visible’ but also ‘unknown to so many Americans’
We’re All Bored of Culture by William Deresiewicz
Anglo-Calvinist moralism has turned the American arts into something strenuously polite and deadly dull
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This piece was originally published in Tablet, December 2021
Here Comes the Limited Hangout
America’s Nixonian press corps takes a page from the Watergate playbook to try and cover up its active role in the criminal Russiagate hoax
By Lee Smith
Since Watergate, conventional Washington wisdom holds that the cover-up is worse than the crime. Richard Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) tasked former intelligence operatives to break into Democratic National Committee headquarters to wiretap the opposition. To cover up his involvement in the Watergate break-in, Nixon lied about what he knew and when he knew it, resulting in his resignation from office.
Whether Hillary Clinton was aware of the crimes committed between 2016 and 2020 to further her political ambitions is a question that may never be answered. What has been proved beyond any shadow of doubt by the U.S. Justice Department over the past few months is that top operatives in her 2016 campaign used concocted falsehoods to leverage active law enforcement officials who in turn used U.S. government programs and resources to spy on the Trump campaign—a violation of American political norms whose only real parallel is Watergate. We also know that under the pretext of “investigating collusion,” at least 40 Obama officials, including then-Vice President Joe Biden, spied on the Trump team. There is circumstantial evidence that Barack Obama knew what was going on, but since, miraculously, no one has ever publicly asked him about Russiagate, not even once, he hasn’t had the opportunity to either lie or come clean.
But with Trump now safely out of office, it appears that the cover-up is now cracking wide open. In September, John Durham, the special counsel investigating the origins of the FBI’s Russia probe, charged Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann with lying to the FBI. In September 2016, Sussmann, a former Justice Department official, passed reports to the bureau that were meant to incriminate the Trump circle by claiming evidence of links between the Trump organization and a Russian bank. Sussmann had told the FBI he was not acting on behalf of a client, but records Durham obtained from Sussmann’s law firm, Perkins Coie, showed he was billing the Clinton campaign for drawing up the reports and for the meeting itself.
Last month, charges were brought against Igor Danchenko, the former Brookings Institution analyst who was ostensibly the primary source for Christopher Steele’s notorious “dossier,” which served as the legal foundation for the Russiagate conspiracy theory within the FBI. Danchenko was indicted for lying to the FBI, on five counts, with a maximum sentence of five years for each count. According to Durham’s 39-page indictment, Danchenko lied to the bureau when he said that Washington, D.C., public relations executive Charles Dolan (identified in the indictment only as “PR Executive 1”) was not one of the sources for information that he passed on to Steele. In fact, Danchenko used several pieces of information provided to him upon request from Dolan, yet another figure in the Clinton orbit.
The four other charges brought against Danchenko are for lying to the FBI about the role played by Sergei Millian, a real estate broker and former chairman of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce. In a January 2017 interview with the FBI, Danchenko said that Millian was the source for some of the dossier’s central claims, like the story about the infamous “pee tape” and the allegation that there was a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Danchenko told his FBI interviewers that he obtained that information during a 15-minute phone conversation with an anonymous caller that Danchenko said he assumed was Millian. During three follow-up FBI interviews, Danchenko continued to insist Millian was one of his sources, even though there is no evidence that the two men ever spoke.
But just because Durham indicted Clinton contractors for making false statements to federal law enforcement doesn’t mean he sees the FBI team that ran the Trump investigation as impartial enforcers of the law. Durham now appears to be using well-documented and relatively easy cases to pressure Sussmann and Danchenko to give up accomplices one rung up, likely under the threat of jail time. The fact that even after dossier source Danchenko effectively confessed he’d made it all up, the FBI still obtained two more warrants to spy on Trump after he’d become president suggests that the agents who had him under surveillance may now also be under Durham’s scrutiny.
Now the media is scrambling to distance itself from the dossier, with the New York Times “explaining” that just because the prestige press poisoned the public sphere with Clinton-funded smears doesn’t mean that the larger Russiagate story they peddled is also fake. That is, the press has taken another page from the Watergate playbook. As that scandal started to unfold, Nixon’s White House aides discussed strategies to deal with the looming disaster. They talked about a standard spy service ploy called a “limited hangout.” When it’s no longer possible to sustain a phony cover story, dangle some partial truths in public and acknowledge some small, albeit honest, miscues in order to keep the most damning parts of the truth under wraps. Just as this strategy failed to protect Richard Nixon and his men, chances are it won’t help culpable reporters and news organizations avoid responsibility for their active role in the country’s biggest political crime of the past half-century. But it does show quite plainly what the American press has become.
A comparison of the media’s role in the two biggest political scandals of the past half-century is worth the time of anyone who cares about what the next decade or so of American public life is going to look and sound like. The Watergate story was broken by The Washington Post, which rightfully reaped bushels of glory for uncovering the criminal wrongdoing and malfeasance of President Nixon and his top aides. The Post’s top Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, became famous and rich, and were lionized in an Academy Award winning film, All the President’s Men.
In Russiagate, The Washington Post played the starring role in the cover-up. Congress’ hometown paper was the main venue through which U.S. officials illegally passed classified information to prosecute a campaign against a sitting president, validating a conspiracy theory that they helped to invent in part to cover their own flanks. Indeed, U.S. intelligence services used the Post to roll out the cover-up of their own illegal actions and malfeasance in a Dec. 9, 2016, story itself sourced to illegal leaks of classified information, titled “Secret CIA assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win White House.”
When the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded the Post, along with its chief rival The New York Times, the prize for its Trump-Russia work, it was an announcement that the kind of fearless investigative journalism that won the press the public’s admiration for three generations was finished. The profession was moving on. It had to—the rise of the internet had destroyed the financial model on which the great 20th-century newspapers and magazines were built, forcing them to spend down the cultural capital embodied in their memorable typefaces. The business of independent journalism, governed by professional editors who imagined themselves to be answerable to their peers, was replaced by monopoly speech platforms that were wholly owned by oligarchs, who called for their hired guns to run social media-driven internet campaigns against their enemies.
The job of these new media outlets was not to speak truth to the powerful men and women who owned their platforms and paid their bills. Rather, it was to serve as a megaphone for their power—to use the forms of journalism like “investigations” and “whistleblowers” and “inside sources” to protect and advance the interests of an increasingly ambitious oligarchy that employed the country’s corporate, political, academic, and cultural elites as their retainers and servants. In rewarding the country’s two most prestigious papers for partnering with intelligence services to shield criminals and attempting to undo the results of a presidential election, the Pulitzer committee announced that the American media had entered the post-dossier era.
The dossier was the centerpiece of Russiagate. Marketed by the press as a collection of highly confidential top-secret intelligence reports, it was in fact a slipshod anthology of fabrications, press articles, and Google search results prepared under the byline of British ex-spy Christopher Steele for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign in order to smear her Republican opponent as a Russian agent. The Clinton campaign’s lawyers hired Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, co-founders of the D.C. political communications firm Fusion GPS to distribute the dossier to the media.
After Steele’s ostensible primary source for the dossier was indicted for lying to the FBI last month, Fusion GPS’ media clients have been trying to put room between themselves and Steele’s counterfeit memos by arguing that the dossier never actually mattered. Nonetheless, the Russiagate faithful still maintain that the dossier’s wholesale untruthfulness doesn’t affect its essential underlying truth, which is ostensibly corroborated in endless numbers of other places—this type of logic is generally known as “cargo-culting.”
Cordoning off the dossier to preserve the collusion story is a standard part of the Russiagate playbook. Four years ago, when the narrative started to unravel once congressional investigators discovered the dossier had been funded by the Clinton campaign, The New York Times published a story by Sharon LaFraniere, Mark Mazzetti, and Matt Apuzzo on Dec. 30, 2017, (cited by the Pulitzer committee) showing that the Trump-Russia investigation wasn’t based on the dossier after all. Rather, the story claimed, the investigation had been opened in July 2016 because a foreign official told American law enforcement officials that a Trump aide had been told by another foreign national that the Russians had Clinton’s emails.
The press made the same move away from the dossier after the Justice Department’s inspector general released a report in December 2019 showing how Steele’s reporting had been improperly used by the FBI to put the Trump campaign under surveillance. The media’s argument then, as now, is that the dossier and Russiagate are separate issues—and that, even though the story outlined in the dossier is false, it is also true.
In reality, there is no Russiagate without the dossier. It was the main piece of evidence used by the FBI to obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to collect the electronic communications of Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Through Page’s communications, the FBI would have been able to sweep up the communications of virtually every Trump associate. Just like the Nixon campaign’s operatives jimmied their way into the DNC offices, the Clinton campaign passed the dossier on to the FBI so it could spy on the Trump campaign digitally.
Why did the Clinton campaign get involved in such skulduggery when it seemed the candidate’s victory was virtually a lock? The motivation seems pretty straightforward: Her team was worried that emails from her notably unsecured private server would go public. If the emails went live and contained problematic content, there would be no way to whitewash whatever is in them, so—like the lawyers they are—they decided to preemptively attack the delivery mechanism. Don’t look at the emails, look over here: The real crime is who stole Hillary’s emails, and who benefited from the theft. So among the scores of other competent intelligence services that likely have her emails, they hung it on Russia, and Trump.
But don’t take my word for it. CIA Director John Brennan explained in a late July 2016 meeting with Obama that Clinton had approved a plan concerning “Trump and Russian hackers hampering US elections as a means of distracting the public from her use of a private email server.” That’s pretty straightforward.
FBI documents show that the bureau sent an informant against a Trump adviser to get him to talk about Russia, Clinton emails, and an “October Surprise.” According to the 2019 inspector general’s report, the FBI edited the recording to implicate the adviser. It then used the doctored version as further evidence alongside the dossier to obtain the spy warrant.
The New York Times’ Bret Stephens came down hard on the FBI in a recent column cataloging what the Clinton-funded smear campaign cost the country: “years of high-level federal investigations, ponderous congressional hearings, pompous Adam Schiff soliloquies, and nonstop public furor,” writes Stephens. “But none of that would likely have happened if the F.B.I. had treated the dossier as the garbage that it was.” That’s a 180-degree turnaround from where Stephens was three years ago when he wrote in praise of the FBI’s Russia investigation and castigated the congressional investigators who first unearthed the evidence now corroborated by Durham’s investigation. When Tablet emailed Stephens for a comment on his change of heart, he replied: “When I get things wrong, as I sometimes do, I own—and own up to—it.”
In doing so, Stephens is a rare exception among his colleagues in blue chip media. Collusion dead-enders and stone-cold cultists like former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, and Mother Jones’ David Corn argue that just because the dossier was found to be a total fake doesn’t mean the rest of the Russiagate narrative is a hoax. On the contrary!
After Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple acknowledged in a recent column that press organizations, including some of his colleagues, got fooled by Steele and Danchenko, he contended, without evidence, that “there is far more to Russia-Trump than the dossier.” His Washington Postcolleague foreign affairs columnist Anne Applebaum concurs. A passionate Russiagater who embarrassingly devoted dozens of columns to hawking the Fusion GPS-driven fraud, Applebaum tweeted after the Danchenko indictments that “even if every single word in the Steele dossier was wrong, that would not change the fact that the Russians sought to manipulate the US election using hacked material and a disinformation campaign. Nor would it change the fact that the Trump family welcomed this intervention.”
Hear, hear! But who are these people? Of the journalists who spent several years of their lives shilling for a conspiracy theory that starts with a crudely pornographic account of prostitutes urinating on a Moscow hotel bed, some were part of the Clinton court, others saw the story as a career move and rode the collusion bandwagon to book deals, TV contracts, and lucrative public speaking gigs. But the real story of the dossier is not a tale of dimwitted writers who were duped by their sources or played along to advance their professional standing. It is about the role that elite media played in an intelligence operation to first spy on a presidential campaign and then discredit the results of a democratic election and undermine the legitimacy of a presidential administration.
Therefore the story of Sergei Millian, and how he was framed by the press, the Clinton campaign, and the FBI, is worth telling here in some detail.
Born in Belarus, Sergei Millian is a naturalized U.S. citizen who came to America in 2001. He settled in Atlanta and then moved to New York before leaving the United States for fear that corrupt law enforcement officials were going to destroy him. “If they could do what they did to a retired U.S. general like Michael Flynn,” Millian told me, “imagine what they’d do to me.” Millian and I have corresponded through social media, which is presumably an avenue available to the dozens of American reporters who published wildly destructive lies about him, and have not yet seen fit to apologize.
Millian didn’t know it at the time, but his problems began as far back as April 2016 when he gave an interview to Russian-language media about the U.S. presidential election and explained why he supported Donald Trump. He liked Trump’s pro-business attitude and said he’d met the candidate in Florida, where he’d arranged to assist in selling some units in a Trump property. Millian believes it was the Russian-language press article, and the accompanying picture showing him posing with Trump at a Florida racetrack, that caught the attention of Fusion GPS contractor and Russian-language specialist Nellie Ohr, who previously was a contractor for the CIA. And indeed, documents show that Ohr had zeroed in on Millian for a Fusion GPS opposition research document outlining the Trump team’s supposed ties to Russia.
That report must have been disseminated widely to the press, because Millian told me that lots of reporters started calling him in the summer of 2016. The first, says Millian, was ABC News producer Matthew Mosk. Simpson and Fritsch wrote in their 2019 book that Mosk was an old friend, and they told him to get Millian on camera for an interview.
Millian was flattered by Mosk’s invitation to be filmed with Brian Ross, then still at ABC. Millian believed the publicity would help his real estate business—how could he have imagined that the U.S. media, including a formerly reputable outfit like ABC News, was setting him up to be framed as a Russian spy?
During the July 2016 interview, Ross repeatedly asked him if he was a Russian spy. Millian was surprised and upset. In September, the network released parts of the interview on Good Morning America, heavily edited to make it seem as though Millian was confirming contemporary press reports (based on Fusion GPS opposition research files) that Trump was involved in shady business in Russia. Later that day, the Clinton team recycled snippets of the interview for a campaign video.
In other words, Clinton campaign operatives had picked someone with the word “Russia” in their biography and who was tangentially tied to Trump, and framed him—and then handed off the result to the press, which made it all look like legit journalism to aid the Clinton campaign.
Read the rest, here.
The Twitter files and the Durham Report have rendered the Pulitzer Prize awarded to the NYT a replica of the same awarded to Walter Duranty