Saturday, March 04, 2017

DC Spy Novel Roundup: March 4 Edition

Do you ever feel like John Le Carre's writing a novel called "American Politics?" Because U.S. politics are looking seriously Le-Carre-ified right now. Let's try to catch up on the story so far, leading up to the President's Saturday-morning tweetstorm accusing Obama of illegally wiretapping Trump Tower. (Boy, does Jared Kushner have a surprise coming when he gets back on line tonight.) Okay, let's walk through the last few weeks of front-page counterespionage. 

1) Michael Flynn ousted as Nation Security Adviser after lying about meetings with Russian ambassador.

What's interesting about this is the way Flynn got caught in the lie. He got on the phone with the Russian ambassador, multiple times, and started talking about Russia sanctions. Why Flynn, who used to head the Defense Intelligence Agency, did not stop to think that US intelligence routinely records all of the Russian ambassador's calls is a mystery. I mean, of course they do.

The Russian ambassador to the United States is presumably involved in espionage against the United States, and American intelligence would be negligent not to presume that. So if American intelligence were not watching and listening to the Russian ambassador (just as Russian intelligence surveills our ambassador to Russia) it would be a dereliction of duty.

What interested me at the time, if Flynn was acting on Trump's orders, was how Trump would replace that line of communication to Russia.  Flynn got caught not because he was being watched, but because Kislyak was. The FBI caught the message boy because they were watching the mailbox. So anyone else Trump sent would also just get caught immediately. I did not realize that POTUS already had another problem:

2. Jeff Sessions gets caught lying about meeting Russian ambassador. Then Jared Kushner also turns out to have met with Flynn and Kislyak.

It turned out, of course, that more of Trump's inner circle had already met with Kislyak. And so when Flynn was burned, those people also had to know they were burned, for the same reason. US intelligence always watches the Russian ambassador. If he takes steps to avoid observation, they only get more interested. So US intelligence had seen everyone else from the Trump camp who'd met with the ambassador.

Jeff Sessions knew that American intelligence knew he'd met with Kislyak. And he knew he'd lied to Congress about those meetings. But he did not come clean. He waited for the story to hit the newspapers. Jared Kushner did basically the same thing. The not-coming-clean-when-you-know-they-have-you is interesting, and not fully explained yet.

What is clearer to me is why POTUS was so angry about "leaks" and so eager to denounce them around this time. He knew, by this point, that US intelligence had at least some information on his inner circle that it hadn't released yet. He wasn't worrying about what investigators might find out, or not just about that. He was worried about information that investigators already knew, but had not released yet.

3. How about that Jeff Sessions lie?

The strangest thing about Jeff Sessions's, errr, inaccurate testimony is, as others have mentioned, that he volunteered a dishonest response to a question he had not been asked. Al Franken asked what he would do if it turned out Trump campaign people had met with the Russian government, Sessions volunteered that he was part of the Trump campaign and had not met with anyone from the Russian government. No one had asked about him, actually.

What Sessions did is the equivalent of being asked, "If we make you sheriff, what will you do about the stalled investigation into Laura Palmer's murder?" and answering, "I want to make clear that I was absolutely not with Laura Palmer on the night she died." Not what you were asked, but potentially pretty illuminating, especially if proven inaccurate.

I can't explain Sessions's weird error and maybe no one, including Sessions, can. But one hypothetical way to read it is as a tell: Sessions may have been so anxious to fend off certain lines of questioning that he jumped to parry an attack that hadn't been made. It's strange.

4. Trump apparently gets angry over Sessions's recusal

Sessions recusing himself from any election-related investigation is obviously the absolute minimum concession required to call off the hounds, which even Republicans were calling for, and it's not clear that it will be enough. But it evidently, it was too much for Trump, who had publicly said that Sessions need not recuse himself a few hours before it happened, and who allegedly lost his temper at his own White House counsel yesterday over Sessions's decision.

This is really odd, because after the met-with-Kislyak shoe dropped, Sessions's recusal was basically the only play. Keeping him officially in charge of an investigation where he was now implicated would have brought worlds of hurt. That Trump has not grasped this suggests that he either has absolutely no sense of strategy or tactics here or that he feels that he's in serious jeopardy himself. It could be both. It's hard to tell.

That brings us to this morning, before breakfast:

5. President Trump tweets accusations that President Obama illegally wiretapped Trump Tower.

So much going on here. First of all, this play carries two major risks. One, it risks making the President of the United States look crazy and paranoid if it turns out no such wiretap existed. (That may sound like we've hit the proving-a-negative problem, but if there is no wiretap, there are actual people who do know that. They are called the FBI and the NSA.)

Second, and worse, it calls attention to the possibility that there may actually have been a legal "wiretap" approved by a FISA court based on real probable cause. That is basically the first thing Twitter thought of this morning, on the assumption that the President of the United States knew what he was talking about when he mentioned a wiretap. And Trump does not need people thinking about the kind of evidence that would convince a FISA judge, appointed by Chief Justice Roberts, that there was probable cause to treat Trump Tower as a threat to national security. Wow. Why would you bring that up, ever?

Now it turns out that the President did not learn about this alleged wiretap from sources inside the federal government, who report to him and actually know whether or not this happened, but from a highly speculative Breitbart News story. And here I'd like to pause to marvel at President Trump's relationship to the news media. Not his attacks on it, which is another story. What's odd is his attempt to use the news media as a source of news when he actually has better access to information than journalists do. The President of the United States doesn't watch CNN to find out what the FBI has been doing. He can just ask the FBI. Other Presidents watch the news to see how the coverage is being slanted, and to gauge exactly what reporters have or haven't learned. But on most things, the President is in the position of knowing more about the subject being covered than the reporters do. Taylor Swift doesn't read the tabloids to find out who she's dating. She knows. That a sitting president would look to a speculative Breitbart story as a source of information about secret government surveillance programs is very strange.

Now, the strategy here may simply be to go on the offensive. If Trump has accepted that the Russia story is going to keep coming, he may have decided that his best or only play is to try to turn the accusations around so that the investigation into his behavior itself is somehow the criminal act. That isn't going to persuade anyone in the corridors of DC power, but it gives his faithful a storyline to grab on to and maybe muddies the water for a bunch of low-information swing voters.

But Trump's decision also does something odd to any investigations into his Russia ties. Those investigations are mostly about pressuring smaller fish and flipping them into cooperating witnesses. And here's the weird part. There may never have been a wiretap. Maybe no FISA warrant was ever approved. Maybe, if one was approved, it had nothing to do with phones. (It may have been a warrant for information on ... wait for it ... an internet server in Trump Tower that communicated with two servers at a Russian bank.)

But even if there was no tap on the Trump Tower phones, Donald Trump just told everyone who might be questioned in the investigation that there WAS. If you get questioned by the FBI next week about the Trump/Russia thing, Trump just basically told you that the FBI already has you on tape. The feds don't even have to bluff anymore. Potential witnesses will come in the door pre-bluffed. I can't imagine that this is going to work out well for Trump.

But then, none of this is working out well for any of us.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog