By Karen Rubin, News & Photo Features
How many dots does it take to make a smoking gun?
By now it is irrefutable that Russia meddled, interfered and likely tilted the 2016 Presidential Election enough to cheat Hillary Clinton out of the presidency and hand it to Donald Trump. That should be enough to nullify the election, but, like the Republicans’ refusal to follow up on blatant impeachable offenses – conflicts of interest, self-dealing, violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, obstruction of justice (firing FBI Director James Comey in order to interrupt the Russia investigation, witness tampering by threatening to expose tapes, prodding other heads of intelligence agencies to end the Russia investigation or come out with some favorable statements; firing US Attorney Preet Bharara, who apparently was getting too close in his investigations into Trump financial dealings) – they are more interested in controlling every branch of government in order to have unimpeded path to fulfill their agenda, than they are in insuring the sanctity of the election process and our democracy.
But as the revelation by the NSA whistleblower Reality Leigh Winner, the 25-year-old Air Force veteran charged with mailing classified information to a news organization, showed, the Russian engagement with the election process was a lot greater than the government has revealed. In fact, Russian actors tampered with the election databases in 39 states. We are being led to believe that they did not alter votes or tabulations, but how do we really know that to be true, especially with the ease and vulnerability of “black-box voting”?
Now Trump is blaming Obama (what else is new?) for “allowing” the Russians to hack into election databases and “doing nothing” (not true) and after months of denying Russian interference altogether, now accuses Obama of “collusing” and “obstructing”. Comey, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and others have said that Russian attempts to meddle in elections is nothing new, but what was achieved in the 2016 election was way more intensive and more effective than ever before. What if they only tossed people off the rolls – in Wisconsin, where Trump “won” by about 23,000 votes, there were 200,000 votes suppressed.
And as Hillary Clinton (who has been proved right in all her claims) said, the Russians needed help – an enabler – to “weaponize” their hacking and their interference. They needed to know just which electoral districts they could penetrate in order to move an imperceptible number of votes for Trump to win. That’s why despite winning the national popular vote by 3 million, it took only a difference of a mere 70,000 votes across three states to give Trump the Electoral College.
So here’s my theory on the case: The Russians were hacking and having a fake news campaign designed to destabilize the election and engender mistrust in the democratic election process, and weaken Clinton’s presidency once she won. (Trump constantly claiming that the election would be “rigged” if he didn’t win, and inciting his followers to take 2nd Amendment remedies is what shut up the Obama Administration from going public and kept Democrats from screaming “foul” after the election). And Obama also feared that unleashing a counter cyber strategy, like shutting down their power grid, or some major sanctions, would cause Putin to cause more havoc in the election, since “black box voting” has so little security to begin with.
But at some point, either the Russians made Trump an offer he couldn’t refuse (because of what they had on him, financially and personally), or the Trump campaign actively partnered with the Russians to “weaponize” – that is pinpoint – where their cyber attacks, fake news and social media trolling could be most effective.
It is notable that while the Russians released hacked emails from the DNC in order to embarrass Clinton and discourage (suppress) voters, they also hacked into the RNC but did not release any of the information.
Russia could have used the threat of releasing the information to blackmail or extort support from the Trump campaign, in order to insure promises or force Trump campaign to more actively engage with the Russians. Evidence? The only change the Trump campaign demanded of the Republican platform was to soften its stance against Russia over the Ukraine and Crimea. In December, when Obama kicked out Russian diplomats from their two compounds (one in Glen Head) as punishment for the election meddling, Michael Flynn met with the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, apparently to give assurances that the sanctions would be lifted once Trump was inaugurated, which is likely why Putin didn’t counter with sanctions against US diplomats, and more importantly, reverse the economic sanctions that crippled the Russian petro economy (and would have paved the way for Exxon-Mobil’s $500 billion deal with Rosneft).
But let’s look at the web of ties between Trump, his campaign and Russia that go back a decade or more to business connections, and begin with financial ties:
The Trump boys boasted that they didn’t need money from American banks (which had stopped lending because of the string of bankruptcies), but had all they needed from Russian oligarchs. There were efforts to launch real estate ventures in Russia through Bayrock Associates, a shady Russian-connected outfit, which had partnered with Trump on at least four major but failed American projects: the Fort Lauderdale Trump Tower, the Trump Ocean Club in Fort Lauderdale, the SoHo condominium-hotel in New York, and a resort in Phoenix. (Trump claimed he didn’t know Felix Sater, the Russian-born managing director at Bayrock, who was convicted of fraud for running a $40 million penny stock fraud in collaboration with the New York and Russian Mafia, even though Sater resurfaces as an “adviser” to Trump campaign to try to “fix” a deal with Russia, has a business card that identifies him as an adviser, has an office in Trump Tower a floor below Trump’s and there are photos of them together.)
People are only looking at Russian collusion during the 2016 campaign – but what if it began even earlier. Like when that Russian oligarch paid double what Trump had spent on a Palm Beach mansion just two years earlier, handing Trump a $45 million windfall which Trump could use to fund his campaign. A big appeal for Trump supporters was that he was supposedly self-funding his campaign (nonsense), so that he could appear “independent” of “special interests” and “The Establishment.” This may well have been a ploy to funnel foreign donations into a campaign, evading legal restrictions.
One of the only banks to continue to capitalize Trump businesses was Deutsche Bank, which has been fined $425 million over laundering $10 billion for Russian oligarchs. Coincidence? Deutsche Bank also gave Jared Kushner’s business a $285 million loan just before the election, a loan which Kushner had to give a personal guarantee, but which Kushner failed to disclose on his financial and security forms (along with meetings with Russian Ambassador and the head of VEB, a state-run “bank” tied to Putin and Russian oligarchs, used purely to launder money whose CEO is an alum of Russia’s spy college; as well as Kushner’s talks with the Russian Ambassador over establishing a back-channel to Putin that would evade US surveillance.).
Jared Kushner was responsible for the Trump campaign data mining operation that pinpointed districts needing to be turned. And it was Robert Mercer, the billionaire who is Trump’s principal donor (and who chose many of his cabinet members and aides, including Michael Flynn), whose data operation, Cambridge Analytica, was used (Steve Bannon was VP) – that’s how the Russian hacking and fake-news operation may well have been “weaponized.” The purpose of the data-mining operation, as noted in Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s report, was to suppress voting by key pro-Clinton demographics: women, blacks and liberals. (See also: “Did Russians Target Democratic Voters, with Kushner’s Help?” Newsweek).
But I believe the key was Michael Flynn, who Trump was forced to remove as National Security Adviser, who had the contacts, knowledge, and motive as the former Director of Defense Intelligence Agency from which he was fired by Obama, plus had financial ties to Russia and Turkey which he failed to disclose or get authorization for, a criminal act, to marshal the Russian hacking campaign. That’s why Trump went to such lengths to try to get Comey to stop investigating Flynn.
More evidence of collusion? Paul Manafort, who Trump was forced to fire as his campaign manager, a decade ago had secretly worked for a Russian oligarch to advance the interests of Putin and proposed an ambitious political strategy to undermine anti-Russian opposition across former Soviet republics, according to The Associated Press, expertise and contacts he could have adapted to the Trump campaign. Roger Stone, whose dirty-tricks experience dates from the Nixon campaign and boasted of ties to Wikileaks, “predicted” when Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta’s emails would be released by Wikileaks; Nigel LeFarge, the British Brexit vote guy who became Trump’s ally, met with Wikileaks’ Julian Assange in London pretty much just as Trump, on the campaign trail, was delighting in the latest Wikileaks anti-Clinton leak and cheerleading Russia to hack into Clinton’s emails.
More contacts between Trump campaign and Russia: Jeffrey Sessions, now Attorney General; Erik Prince (formerly Blackwater), a major campaign donor (his sister is Betsy DeVos, now Education Secretary), met secretly to set up back-channel with Russians on Trump’s behalf; Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, who is being investigated as whether he discussed Russia’s hacking of Democratic National Committee emails with a Russian official in Prague (he denies it).
Trump’s campaign, and now his cabinet, is chock full of Russian connections: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, the Commerce Secretary, was on the board of the Cyprus Bank used by Russian oligarchs to launder illegally gotten cash (did Trump also use that bank); and Jared Kushner, plus Carter Page (who was actively being recruited as a Russian agent), Steve Miller and likely others. (For a more complete list, see Politico).
The hold over Trump goes way beyond the puppy love he has for the murderous dictator. It suggests he is fearful of what Putin can do to him, what Putin has on him and/or his family. The influence was first apparent during the Republican Convention when the only modification the Trump campaign made was to loosen the platform item against Russia for Ukraine. The impact has already been clear in Trump actions: bringing Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and the Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov into the Oval office, where he boasted about firing Comey and unmasked an Israeli spy; weakening NATO, pulling out of the Paris Climate Change agreement, isolating the US and ending US global leadership.. And of course, Trump has been dying to end sanctions and give back the Russian compounds.
It is also telling that while Trump is obsessed over the Russian investigation, he has done nothing at all to secure elections from cyber attacks by Russia or any other foreign government (except to blame Obama for everything and accuse Obama of “collusing” and “obstructing”).
Finally,Trump doth protest too much about the Russian investigation, and worked way too hard to protect Michael Flynn, the former National Security Advisor who Trump was forced to fire, who had the intelligence background (he was fired by Obama as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency) to make contacts with the Russian hackers. Why go overboard to protect Flynn? Likely because Flynn is the key to collusion with Russia, along with Paul Manafort who he was also forced to fire as campaign manager.
If there were no “there” there, Trump would want a thorough and speedy conclusion, rather than first firing US Attorney Preet Bharara, who apparently was getting too close in his investigations into Trump financial dealings; and then Comey.
The final evidence of collusion during the election and corruption now is that Trump and Sessions have done absolutely nothing to secure our elections from interference, while doing everything possible to appease Putin’s interests and obstruct the investigation.
Trumpers/Republicans keep moving the goal posts to what would have been prosecuted as obstruction of justice and collusion with adversarial foreign power to steal the election. Accused NSA leaker Reality Winner – bless her – shows that the government already has information that shows more aggressive interference with voting than the massive hacking and disinformation campaign designed to suppress turnout among those who might have otherwise voted for Clinton. It suggests that Russian agents may have gone so far as tampered with voting lists (perhaps contributing to the 200,000 fewer voters in Wisconsin, where Trump won by about 25,000) and even vote tabulations. The government may have more information about that that it is withholding from Congress and the American people, or has yet to pursue the investigation to its conclusion where it might demonstrate that to be true. It is very telling that Trump only won the battleground states that up until election day were polling in Clinton’s favor, by less than 1% – small shifts and tilts by Russian operatives, working in collusion with the Trump campaign (as Clinton noted, the Russians needed help to most effectively “weaponize” their campaign, to know which districts to focus on) indeed could have swung enough votes to secure the Electoral College.
So far, Trump keeps insisting there is no evidence of actively colluding to steal the election. But we don’t actually know if that is true, especially since the investigation is just unfolding despite everything being done to obstruct, slow and end the investigation, thanks to a free press (so far), we are learning more each day. If it is found that the Trump campaign in fact had ties to Russia, it would not be sufficient remedy to impeach Trump and leave Pence and Trump’s cabinet in place. There would be cause to nullify the election altogether, remove his entire administration (who are “fruit of a poison tree), and install Clinton who actually won.
Never happened before? Nothing like Trump and the Russian election tampering ever happened before either.
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