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Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Russians are coming

by digby

Well, a bunch of Russian lobbyists and business types anyway. I think what I find so interesting about all this is the low-rent nature of it all. But then, that describes everything about Donald Trump.

The leader of the delegation, central bank Deputy Chairman Alexander Torshin, a former senator who laughs off Spanish claims that he’s a crime boss, was even hoping to shake hands with Trump, an old acquaintance. But the White House nixed the meet-and-greet at the last minute without explanation, according to two Russians familiar with the matter.

The brief meeting Torshin was due to have with Trump was canceled after a White House aide realized the Russian had been suspected of being a mafia “godfather,” Yahoo News reported, citing five people it didn’t identify.

The White House said a meeting with Torshin at the National Prayer Breakfast was never on Trump’s agenda.

Torshin declined to elaborate on his trip, saying only that he’s been to the annual event 12 times. In an interview with Bloomberg last year, the gun enthusiast said he’s known Trump for five years and the two men last had a jovial exchange at the National Rifle Association convention in Tennessee in 2015, just before the future president announced his run for the White House.

“Trump said, ‘So, you’re from Russia -- when are you going to invade Latvia?”’ Torshin said in the interview, adding that he assured Trump that Putin had no such designs on the former Soviet republic, which is a member of both the European Union and the U.S.-led NATO military alliance.

The White House has a very different view, saying that Trump never had a meeting with Torshin and that no one recalls them having any encounter at all.

Torshin said in the interview he stayed clear of then-candidate Trump at last year’s N.R.A. event to avoid controversy, dining with Donald Trump Jr. instead.

A person familiar with the encounter disputed Torshin’s account, saying Trump Jr. recalls meeting a Russian that night but doesn’t recall if it was Torshin. When mutual acquaintances introduced the two men, the pair exchanged pleasantries, then the Russian sat at a table nearby, this person said.

As Bloomberg reported last August, a secret Spanish report about a probe that ended in 2013 alleged Torshin used his position as a senator to help Moscow mobsters launder funds through Spanish banks and properties, which he denies.

What was scheduled, though, was a private dinner for Torshin and his Russian colleagues that was hosted by Rockefeller heir George O’Neill Jr. and included Republican lawmakers Dana Rohrabacher of California and Thomas Massie of Kentucky, as well as a longtime lobbyist, a Hollywood director and editors from The National Interest and the American Conservative magazines.

O’Neill said Russians need to be reassured that “very serious” Americans understand the “obvious benefits” of better relations.

“One does not have to be a ‘useful idiot’ or a ‘Putin stooge’ to hold this view, nor does one have to approve of all of Russia’s or Putin’s actions, which can sometimes be problematic,” the conservative activist said in a written response to questions. “I plan to continue these private interactions.”

Rohrabacher, who’s visited Moscow several times, said he’s interested in “lowering the temperature” of U.S.-Russia relations and finding ways to cooperate in combating “our mutual, overarching enemy: radical Islamic terrorism.” Trump invited him for a private talk in the White House this week.

A spokeswoman for Massie, Rohrabacher’s congressional colleague, declined to comment on the dinner with the Russians aside from confirming his attendance.

Another interlocutor, Ronald Maxwell, who directed the 1993 Civil War film “Gettysburg” and wrote for Breitbart News when it was run by senior White House adviser Stephen Bannon, said the Americans urged their Russian guests to let the Kremlin know that Putin can help Trump by “being patient.”

“Trump needs to lock up some major domestic victories,” Maxwell said by phone. “Then he’ll be in a better position to do the things internationally he wants to do.”

In the meantime, Russian businesses are pushing ahead with projects to try to bring the two countries closer together.

Russia’s top lobbyist is organizing a road show for entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas to investors across America this summer. And the co-owner of a leading for-profit university, Synergy, plans to hire Mike Tyson to promote a business conference in New York in October, followed by one in Moscow in November.
It's a good thing Trump and his associates have such a reputation for being scrupulously honest or one might be tempted to doubt their accounts.

I don't have any problem with the two countries having "normal" relations, whatever that is. I'm not a fan of authoritarian kleptocratic regimes and I've never thought it was ok to meddle in other countries' elections when the US did it, so I'm not in favor of Russia doing it either. But it's certainly not a bad thing to want the US and Russia to operate with some degree of respect and trust with each other if only because they're both nuclear powers

But if these are the people offering rapprochement, let's just say I'm skeptical.

Meanwhile, the Guardian posted this today:

Britain’s spy agencies played a crucial role in alerting their counterparts in Washington to contacts between members of Donald Trump’s campaign team and Russian intelligence operatives, the Guardian has been told.

GCHQ first became aware in late 2015 of suspicious “interactions” between figures connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents, a source close to UK intelligence said. This intelligence was passed to the US as part of a routine exchange of information, they added.

Over the next six months, until summer 2016, a number of western agencies shared further information on contacts between Trump’s inner circle and Russians, sources said.

The European countries that passed on electronic intelligence – known as sigint – included Germany, Estonia and Poland. Australia, a member of the “Five Eyes” spying alliance that also includes the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, also relayed material, one source said.

Another source suggested the Dutch and the French spy agency, the General Directorate for External Security or DGSE, were contributors.

It is understood that GCHQ was at no point carrying out a targeted operation against Trump or his team or proactively seeking information. The alleged conversations were picked up by chance as part of routine surveillance of Russian intelligence assets. Over several months, different agencies targeting the same people began to see a pattern of connections that were flagged to intelligence officials in the US. 
The issue of GCHQ’s role in the FBI’s ongoing investigation into possible cooperation between the Trump campaign and Moscow is highly sensitive. In March Trump tweeted that Barack Obama had illegally “wiretapped” him in Trump Tower.

The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, falsely claimed the “British spying agency” GCHQ had carried out the bugging. Spicer cited an unsubstantiated report on Fox News. Fox later distanced itself from the report.

The erroneous claims prompted an extremely unusual rebuke from GCHQ, which generally refrains from commenting on all intelligence matters. The agency described the allegations first made by a former judge turned media commentator, Andrew Napolitano, as “nonsense”.

“They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored,” a spokesperson for GCHQ said.

Instead both US and UK intelligence sources acknowledge that GCHQ played an early, prominent role in kickstarting the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation, which began in late July 2016.

One source called the British eavesdropping agency the “principal whistleblower”.

The Guardian has been told the FBI and the CIA were slow to appreciate the extensive nature of contacts between Trump’s team and Moscow ahead of the US election. This was in part due to US law that prohibits US agencies from examining the private communications of American citizens without warrants. “They are trained not to do this,” the source stressed.

“It looks like the [US] agencies were asleep,” the source added. “They [the European agencies] were saying: ‘There are contacts going on between people close to Mr Trump and people we believe are Russian intelligence agents. You should be wary of this.’

“The message was: ‘Watch out. There’s something not right here.’”
According to this new piece from Buzzfeed, the information didn't penetrate:
No one from the Obama administration seems to remember when they figured out they were falling victim to one of the greatest intelligence operations in history.

"This was the kind of realization that came incrementally," a former senior State Department official told BuzzFeed News. "There wasn’t a moment where you realized that Pearl Harbor had been hit by kamikaze or that the World Trade Center has been hit."

Now, as two congressional committees and the FBI investigate Russia's role in the election, former Obama officials find themselves grappling with a new legacy, one that formed at the 11th hour of their time in power. As they looked toward a world where pariahs like Iran and Cuba were won over with diplomacy, they fell victim to a sneak attack by an old adversary. And they let it happen, offering up stern warnings and finger-wagging instead of adequately punishing Russia for achieving something that even the Soviet Union at the height of its power couldn’t manage: meddling in the US election and rattling Americans’ trust in their democracy.

Initially, news that Russia-backed hackers had infiltrated the email systems of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) split the Obama administration. White House staffers struggled to wrap their heads around the scale of what occurred and found themselves unsure of how to respond without appearing to give Hillary Clinton a boost. The State Department's staff were torn over how far to press the matter with Russia, given other priorities like struggling to find an endgame for the Syrian civil war. Across the Potomac, the Defense Department was pushing for a strong response against Russia. "The White House was more in listening mode," a former Defense Department official told BuzzFeed News.

The official described what ensued as "endless discussion after endless discussion."

“I think we didn’t fully understand — I didn’t — the degree to which the DNC hacks and the Podesta leaks ended up being a comprehensive campaign.”

After weeks of intense debate, the White House’s ambivalence won. On Oct. 7, a Friday afternoon, they released a carefully worded, three-paragraph statement, saying that the US intelligence community was "confident" that the Russian government was behind the hack. White House staffers thought publicly blaming Russia would draw the public’s attention and keep Moscow in line by making clear the US was willing to call them out. They also functioned under the assumption that Hillary Clinton would win and take a more robust approach down the line.

"When we rolled that out on Oct. 7, we thought this would get a huge amount of pickup and play and be a catalyzing moment for the country, when the United States government — the intelligence community and DHS — announced jointly that Russians were trying to hack our election," Ned Price, then the chief spokesperson for the National Security Council (NSC), told BuzzFeed News.

"A colleague of mine at another department was on the phone with a reporter, who was asking him questions about the statement," Price said. "My colleague then recalled hearing from the reporter, ‘Oh my god. I’ll have to call you back.'"

One hour after the statement dropped, the Washington Post published the 2005 "grab them by the pussy" tape. Less than half an hour later, WikiLeaks began dumping a new series of emails, this time hacked from the account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman.

The reporter never called back.

If I may just point out one more time. James Comey knew all about this. He was read in from the beginning. And he still decided to sabotage Clinton 10 days before the election, which we all knew was closer than we might have expected. And now we have a corrupt imbecile in the White House.

Just saying.