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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Baby steps for a few Republicans: Ok maybe there was some Russian "meddling"

by digby

My Salon column today:

Wednesday was one of those scandal detail overload days. It's one thing if there is a big blockbuster scoop that changes everything. We all run toward the light. But days like yesterday are filled with various emerging details of different aspects of the Trump scandals that are potentially important  (and in any other administration would cause bipartisan garment rending and calls for commissions, select committee investigations and special counsels) but are out of left field so don't really clarify anything.

Just to choose a couple of the news nuggets yesterday, we learned from the New Yorker that the person who leaked Michael Cohen's financial information was a law enforcement official who did so out of concern that some important reports seemed to have been removed from the central FBI and Treasury FINCEN databases. It's possible that it was walled off by the Special Prosecutor's office or someone else without nefarious intent but corruption is so rampant in this administration and much of the congressional majority so protective of Trump that government bureaucrats are concerned that documents are being destroyed.

Keep in mind that the woman who is about to be confirmed as CIA director destroyed video tapes of torture. We learned just this week that the EPA had buried a major study about contaminated drinking water throughout the US because it would be a "public relations nightmare." It's not really paranoid to wonder if there might be something hinky about Michael Cohen's financial records being incomplete or to figure your best bet was to give the info to an outside lawyer.

Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani told the Washington Post that the Special Prosecutors office had assured him that they planned to follow DOJ guidelines which say a sitting president cannot be indicted, sparking bold "breaking news" headlines. However, it later turned out that Giuuliani had heard this second hand from Trump's other lawyer Jay Sekulow and it wasn't clear at all exactly what had been said:

Then the New York Times posted a story late in the day about the early days of the Russia investigation which shows that contrary to the right wing narrative, the FBI and the DOJ went much easier on Trump than Clinton with parallel investigations into their respective campaigns. The NY Times even sort-of copped to their own culpability in flogging a story late in the campaign that the feds had found no link between Trump and Russia which was incomplete if not outright misleading. The full story of both the DOJ's decisions and the New York Times editorial choices has yet to be written, but this was a start.

But the big story of the day was the release of 2500 pages of transcripts of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's interviews regarding the Trump Tower meeting between Trump campaign staff and emissaries of the Russian government. We already knew much of what transpired but there were a few little tid-bits that hadn't been widely known before. For instance, as Yahoo News reported, the day after the meeting, which Trump ostensibly knew nothing about, Aras Agalarov,the influential oligarch who had been said to confer with the Russian "crown prosecutor" about dirt on Hillary Clinton, sought to deliver a large gift along with a personal note to Donald Trump for his birthday. That was very sweet of him.

Donald Trump Junior's answers were of particular interest since he's the one who agreed to meet. He was not particularly forthcoming. He claimed he never told his father about the meeting, which he admitted was set up to get "dirt" on Hillary Clinton, a wildly improbable statement particularly considering that Donald Trump went out and said this shortly after the meeting was set up:
“I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week, and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting. I wonder if the press will want to attend. Who knows?”
We are supposed to believe that announcement was unrelated to the anticipated meeting in which Trump Junior was to receive derogatory info on Clinton. That speech never took place but if the Russians were "dangling" (seeing if someone would take the bait) or gathering kompromat about Don Junior which could be used against him later, it was still a success. And, if nothing else, they made it known that their price for helping Trump in the election would be the lifting of sanctions which we know the Trump transition team and early administration set out to do almost immediately.

Junior also could not recall if the blocked phone number he rang immediately after the meeting was his father's blocked number and he said he never spoke to the president on Air Force One when they drafted the response to the NY Times' reporting about the meeting although he noted that his father might have helped "through Hope Hicks." And he seemed to have some serious memory problems for one so young. He said he couldn't recall what happened at least 54 times.

None of that changed our understanding of what happened in that meeting. What is new about all this is the fact that Senate Republicans on the committee agreed to release the transcripts with a summary that also endorsed the intelligence community findings that the Russian government had indeed interfered in the election on behalf of Donald Trump, which is in direct opposition to the House Intelligence Committee whitewash of the whole matter. (The House report stated that there were “significant intelligence tradecraft failings” in that assessment from the intelligence community.)

This is the first time that any congressional Republicans have stated unequivocally Russia sought to undermine American democratic processes to benefit Trump. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and James Langford (R-LA) both said they thought the Intelligence Community's assessment back in January 2017 was legitimate and even Senator John Cornyn (R-Tx) agreed that Russia "meddled" but said  there was no collusion, which may be a preview of the final report which is currently undergoing classification review. Hard right Trump loyalist Tom Cotton (R-AR) refused to comment indicating that there may still be some dissension on the committee.

It may seem strange that this is considered a big step considering everything we know. But Republicans have circled the wagons so tightly that stating the obvious is an act of patriotic courage. Perhaps this report is the first sign that the wagons are starting to come apart.