White House Launches Incoherent Counterattack on Mueller Probe

Last week we found out that Michael Cohen, President Trump’s now-notorious fixer, had been working on that Trump Tower Moscow deal much longer than was previously known. According to Yahoo News, congressional investigators and prosecutors have emails and text messages showing that Cohen was still working the deal with Trump associate and government informant Felix Sater well into 2016, even as Trump was sewing up the Republican nomination. Sater is the one who famously sent Cohen the email in 2015 that said “I will get Putin on this program, and we will get Donald elected.” Cohen had insisted that the deal was scrapped at the end of 2015 and that turns out to be a lie. Shocking, I know.

Then there was the byzantine story of Michael Cohen and some Qatari investors in a basketball league, who were offering bribes and who may be involved in one of the Steele dossier’s most intriguing rumors: the one about a quid pro quo involving the Trump campaign and the multibillion-dollar sale of one-fifth of the Russian fossil fuel giant Rosneft to the Swiss trading firm Glencore and Qatar’s sovereign investment fund. Did I mention that it was byzantine? You can read all about it in this Slate article by Jeremy Stahl.

On Saturday the New York Times dropped a bombshell about yet another meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and some foreign agents offering to “help” with his dad’s presidential campaign, this one in August of 2016, three months before the election. The group that met at Trump Tower included George Nader, an emissary for two wealthy princes from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Israeli social media specialist Joel Zamel and former Blackwater owner Erik Prince. (Nader and Prince also attended that suspicious Seychelles meeting with Russian and UAE officials a week before the inauguration)

The Times reported that Donald Jr. “responded approvingly,” and Nader became a Trump intimate who subsequently met frequently with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn, the future (if short-lived) national security adviser. After the election, a company associated with Zamel gave Nader an “elaborate” presentation about how important social media had been to Trump’s win and Nader, for unclear reasons, paid Zamel “a large sum of money, described by one associate as up to $2 million.”

Everyone denies there was anything untoward about any of it, of course. They’re all as innocent as newborn babes. But all these overlapping chess moves might lead one to take a second look at Trump’s astonishing decision last summer to take sides against Qatar, a longtime US ally, in the dispute between that country and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Those were just three big new stories that hit last week, opening up a whole different line of inquiry about foreign interference in the 2016 election. And yet, despite all the guilty pleas, indictments, interviews and subpoenas, two (admittedly tainted) congressional investigations and mountains of press reports that indicate something extremely unusual happened in the Trump presidential campaign, the conservative media has embarked on a crusade from an alternate universe.

In the right wing’s alternative version of reality, none of these stories about Trump and his associates meeting with foreign actors eager to help him sabotage his rival’s campaign, or large sums of unaccounted-for foreign money being funneled to his personal fixer, or even the obvious conflicts of interest suggesting that flat-out corruption is the most reasonable explanation for Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy, even exist. In their reality, federal law enforcement intervened in the election to deny Donald Trump the presidency on behalf of Hillary Clinton. You may think they had a funny way of showing it, since they kept their investigation top secret while the FBI director went out of his way to sully Hillary Clinton’s reputation at the last minute. But that’s the conservative media’s story and they are sticking to it — at least for now.

The details in actual reality are pretty straightforward. The FBI had been keeping tabs on Paul Manafort and Carter Page for some time, well before they  signed on to the 2016 Trump campaign, because of their suspicious ties to the Kremlin and other high-level politicians in Moscow’s orbit. In Page’s case, he had been approached by Russian agents some years back, while Manafort was known to be engaging in financial crimes involved with Ukrainian oligarchs. It is not surprising that law enforcement antennae went up when people such as that joined a presidential campaign.

Then there was the hacking, the social media manipulation and the hiring of retired Gen. Michael Flynn, formerly the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who had been fired by President Obama and had a huge ax to grind. Then a young foreign policy guy, George Papadopoulos, got drunk in London and spilled to an Australian diplomat that he’d been approached by Russians who told him they had all kinds of dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The New York Times and the Washington Post reported over the weekend that all of this led the FBI in the summer of 2016 to engage a longtime Republican foreign policy expert who had operated as an informant in the past to approach Papadopoulos, Page and Flynn to see what he could find out. We don’t know whether this source he turned up anything, but investigating the possibility that campaign officials were being set up by foreign actors for blackmail or undue influence would be a standard counter-intelligence operation. Having an informant check it out is more discreet than sending in some G-men to interrogate the officials and, as I mentioned, the fact that the FBI never breathed a word of any of this during the campaign makes the suggestion that they were trying to help Hillary Clinton entirely absurd.

You will recall that Rudy Giuliani blabbed a while back that Team Trump was planning to “make a fuss” on the one-year anniversary of the Mueller investigation. This seems to be part of their coordinated extravaganza, with the president himself leading the charge:

This has been percolating for some time on the right, courtesy of House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who has been demanding that the name of this informant be released to him, and even threatening Attorney General Jeff Sessions with a contempt citation. The FBI and the Justice Department have refused, citing the usual danger to “sources and methods,” but the name has been circulating in right-wing media for days anyway and is now public. The stories in the New York Times and the Washington Post are likely heavily sourced by this coordinated “fuss.”

I’m not sure what was accomplished by this, or by the weird insistence among Trump supporters that this somehow proves the Mueller investigation is tainted. This argument by law professor Jonathan Turley seems to rest on the premise that the FBI was being unfair to the Trump campaign because, in keeping the investigation secret, it didn’t give the campaign the opportunity to let the public know that it was under investigation for possible conspiracy with a foreign adversary. Does that make sense?

On Sunday, Trump made his next move:

The Justice Department responded obediently that it had asked the inspector general to “expand the ongoing review … to include determining whether there was any impropriety or political motivation in how the FBI conducted its counterintelligence investigation” launched in 2016. Trump must feel very powerful.

This tweet on Sunday night by HUD official Lynne Patton perfectly illustrates how reality is perceived in the Trumpian alternate universe:

Someone needs to remind these people that they won the election. They seem to have forgotten.