So it's the time of the week where we review Friday's Trump/Russia news dump stories, and this week is no different. I asked a few days ago what Michael Flynn was doing in the Middle East when that story broke earlier this week, and now we have our answer and it's a doozy.
In the days leading up to Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, when his soon-to-be national security adviser Michael Flynn was reportedly pushing a multibillion-dollar deal to build nuclear reactors in Jordan and other Middle East nations, Flynn and two other top Trump advisers held a secret meeting with the king of Jordan.
The meeting — details of which have never been reported — is the latest in a series of secret, high-stakes contacts between Trump advisers and foreign governments that have raised concerns about how, in particular, Flynn and senior adviser Jared Kushner handled their personal business interests as they entered key positions of power. And the nuclear project raised additional security concerns about expanding nuclear technology in a tinderbox region of the world. One expert compared it to providing “a nuclear weapons starter kit.”
On the morning of Jan. 5, Flynn, Kushner, and former chief strategist Steve Bannon greeted King Abdullah II at the Four Seasons hotel in lower Manhattan, then took off in a fleet of SUVs and a sedan to a different location.
People close to the three Trump advisers say that the nuclear deal was not discussed. But a federal official with access to a document created by a law enforcement agency about the meeting said that the nuclear proposal, known as the Marshall Plan, was one of the topics the group talked about.
So yes, it's Flynn, Kushner and Bannon again, doing this before Donald Trump was president, meeting with a foreign leader to make a deal with him over nuclear technology, and failing to disclose the meeting.
But it gets worse, and we all know the reason why.
The Wall Street Journal reported that while Flynn’s White House disclosure forms state that he stopped working on the deal in December 2016, he in fact continued to push it even after he entered the White House. Flynn’s lawyer declined to comment on the claims in the Journal story.
The plan, for which Flynn was reportedly paid as a consultant, initially envisioned that the reactors would be built by US companies and security would be provided by the Russian state-owned firm Rosoboron, an arms exporter currently facing US sanctions. As the plan evolved, Russian involvement reportedly lessened, and it is not known whether Russia or its companies featured in the meeting with the Jordanian king. This week, Democratic members of the House Oversight Committee said they would turn over documents about the nuclear plan to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, contending that Flynn may have violated federal law by not disclosing foreign trips and meetings.
While it is not unusual for an incoming administration to meet with foreign dignitaries during the transition, Trump surrogates have repeatedly failed to acknowledge these contacts. Attorney General Jeff Sessions at first said he did not discuss campaign matters with Russian officials, only to later acknowledge at least two conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The United Arab Emirates set up a meeting between a military contractor close to the Trump administration and a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin. And this week, CNN reported that Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, visited with Flynn, Kushner, and Bannon without alerting the American government beforehand.
The meeting with the king of Jordan had extremely high stakes: a discussion with the head of a key American ally that might have included plans about spreading nuclear power to one of the world's least stable regions, possibly with the help of one of America's main geopolitical enemies, Russia. The revelation of the meeting comes as Abdullah plans to visit the United States next week and speak with Trump.
So here we have all this done on behalf of a US businessman deep in bed with the Russians, and his presumptive National Security Adviser breaking basically every national security rule in the book pitching Russian nuclear reactors to Jordan.
And speaking of side deals with the Russians, that brings us to Moscow's favorite GOP Congressman, Dana Rohrabacher,who is now is deep trouble of his own.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), an eccentric lawmaker known for his pro-Russia stances, proposed to the White House a pardon deal for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a Wednesday phone call Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Rohrabacher suggested to President Trump’s chief-of-staff, John Kelly, that the administration end Assange’s various legal problems in the U.S. In exchange, Assange would turn over a digital storage device that Rohrabacher said would clear Russia of allegations of interference in the 2016 election, according to the report.
The congressman told Kelly that if what Assange turned over was not the proof promised, “he would get nothing, obviously,” according to the report. Over the course of summer 2016, WikiLeaks published thousands of emails from Democratic officials believed to have been the target of a hacking campaign backed by the Russians.
Rohrabacher traveled to London last month to meet with Assange at the Ecuadorean embassy, where the WikiLeaks founder is avoiding extradition to the U.S. Once the meeting was reported, Rohrabacher indicated his plans to tell Trump what he heard from Assange. On Thursday, he told the Los Angeles Times he had “spoken to senior people at the White House about arranging a meeting” with the President.
A Trump administration official told the Wall Street Journal that Kelly did not deliver Rohrabacher’s message to Trump, and that the chief-of-staff instead told Rohrabacher his idea “was best directed to the intelligence community.”
Really? Julian Assange gets a full pardon for leaking damaging information on Trump's enemies, while every indication points to Assange working for Putin as his intel laundry shop? Is Rohrabacher stupid or what? Of course Kelly didn't want to touch this, nobody in their right mind believes Assange these days.
And speaking of Russian intel laundering, that brings us to story number three: We know Russian shell companies who wanted to influence the 2016 election bought hundreds of thousands in ads on Facebook and other social media sites, but now Team Mueller is asking if those companies had a little inside help from Trump's people.
Mapping the full Russian propaganda effort is important. Yet investigators in the House, Senate, and special counsel Robert Mueller’s office are equally focused on a more explosive question: did any Americans help target the memes and fake news to crucial swing districts and wavering voter demographics? “By Americans, you mean, like, the Trump campaign?” a source close to one of the investigations said with a dark laugh. Indeed: probers are intrigued by the role of Jared Kushner, the now-president’s son-in-law, who eagerly took credit for crafting the Trump campaign’s online efforts in a rare interview right after the 2016 election. “I called somebody who works for one of the technology companies that I work with, and I had them give me a tutorial on how to use Facebook micro-targeting,” Kushner told Steven Bertoni of Forbes. “We brought in Cambridge Analytica. I called some of my friends from Silicon Valley who were some of the best digital marketers in the world. And I asked them how to scale this stuff . . . We basically had to build a $400 million operation with 1,500 people operating in 50 states, in five months to then be taken apart. We started really from scratch.”
Kushner’s chat with Forbes has provided a veritable bakery’s worth of investigatory bread crumbs to follow. Brad Parscale, who Kushner hired to run the campaign’s San Antonio-based Internet operation, has agreed to be interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee.
And now House Intelligence Committee Democrats have questions too, particularly about Kushner, Bannon, and Kushner's "friends in Silicon Valley", the now infamous Cambridge Analytica.
Bigger questions, however, revolve around Cambridge Analytica. It is unclear how Kushner first became aware of the data-mining firm, but one of its major investors is billionaire Trump backer Robert Mercer. Mercer was also a principal patron of Breitbart News and Steve Bannon, who was a vice president of Cambridge Analytica until he joined the Trump campaign. “I think the Russians had help,” said Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “I’ve always wondered if Cambridge Analytica was part of that.” (Cambridge Analytica did not respond to a request for comment.)
Senator Martin Heinrich is leading the charge to update American election laws so that the origins of political ads on social media are at least as transparent as those on TV and in print. Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, is also part of the Senate Intelligence Committee that is tracing Russia’s 2016 tactics. “Paul Manafort made an awful lot of money coming up with a game plan for how Russian interests could be pushed in Western countries and Western elections,” Heinrich said, referring to a mid-2000s proposal Manafort pitched to a Russian oligarch. “Suddenly he finds himself in the middle of this campaign. If there is a person who I think is very sophisticated in this stuff, and runs in pretty dicey circles, that is the place where I would dig.”
No evidence has emerged to link Kushner, Cambridge Analytica, or Manafort to the Russian election-meddling enterprise; all have denied colluding with foreign agents. (Kushner’s representatives declined to comment for this article. Manafort’s spokesman could not be reached.) Yet analysts scoff at the notion that the Russians figured out how to target African-Americans and women in decisive precincts in Wisconsin and Michigan all by themselves. “Could they have hired a warehouse full of people in Moscow and had them read Nate Silver’s blog every morning and determine what messages to post to what demographics? Sure, theoretically that’s possible,” said Mike Carpenter, an Obama administration assistant defense secretary who specialized in Russia and Eastern Europe. “But that’s not how they do this. And it’s not surprising that it took Facebook this long to figure out the ad buys. The Russians are excellent at covering their tracks. They’ll subcontract people in Macedonia or Albania or Cyprus and pay them via the dark Web. They always use locals to craft the campaign appropriately. My only question about 2016 is who exactly was helping them here.”
As I said a few weeks ago, we had reached the end of the beginning of the Trump/Russia tale. Now we're seeing where the pieces fit and how they go together, and at every turn we see Russian involvement in assisting Trump in manipulating the election in exchange for helping to get Russian businesses (and Putin and his cadre of oligarchs that own them) involved in every aspect of MAGA, Inc.
The evidence is piling up. Mueller, House Democrats, and Senate Democrats (and even some Republicans, shockingly enough) are asking questions and conducting investigations. When Mueller's final report comes (and that may be a while as he continues to hire prosecutors that are experts in forensic accounting and money laundering cases suggesting there's a LOT of evidence to chew through still) it's going to be thorough and devastating to the Trump regime.
What happens after is going to be the real story, and the real future of America as a democracy or as something else.