Friday, March 31, 2017

Is this the White House or the Kremlin?

Wow, this Russia stuff is just getting crazier and crazier. Comparing it to Watergate is minimizing the whole thing. This is about the influence of an unfriendly foreign power in the White House!

This article at TPM will make you think. I recommend that you read all of it. But let me just excerpt one part about one of the players involved - a protege of Michael Flynn (yes, that Michael Flynn) who still has access to top secret information:
[Ezra] Cohen-Watnick is a 30 year old Mike Flynn protege from the Defense Intelligence Agency who was brought in by Flynn to serve as the NSC's senior director for intelligence programs. H.R. McMaster tried to remove Cohen-Watnick after McMaster replaced Flynn as National Security Advisor. In that goal, McMaster apparently had the strong backing of Mike Pompeo, the Director of Central Intelligence. But Cohen-Watnick appealed his ouster to Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. Bannon and Kushner went to Trump and Trump decided that Cohen-Watnick should stay in his position.

White House factional politics are not in themselves necessarily of great interest. But having two aides with no national security experience overrule the National Security Advisor on a key NSC personnel decision is rather remarkable - even more so when the person in question apparently had the job only due to the influence of the former national security advisor who resigned in disgrace and now is reportedly the target of multiple criminal and counter-intelligence probes.

That set of facts in itself raises a lot of alarm bells. Did Flynn's influence still extend into the White House's inner circle early this month, weeks after he was fired? Is Cohen-Watnick that important a loyalist that Bannon and Kushner would refuse to see him dismissed? Was he doing work at their behest? ...

In this latest turn of events, Cohen-Watnick apparently scanned through highly classified material looking for something to justify Trump's ridiculous wiretapping tweet. He then found a way to get that material to Devin Nunes when Nunes visited the White House in the middle of the night. Nunes then returned to the White House the next day to present the information to Trump. Again, it's not altogether clear to me whether Nunes or Trump actually realized that the material was of little real consequence and had no bearing on Trump's tweets. However that may be, at a minimum Cohen-Watnick was using his access to highly classified information to mount a political pushback campaign against the various Trump/Russia probes and quite likely breaking the law to do so.

But Bart Gellman, who has a very granular understanding of the modalities and rules tied to handling this kind of material, suggests an additional possibility: that Cohen-Watnick et al. had this material because they were using their privileged access to the nation's top secrets to keep tabs on the FBI's investigation of Trump and his top associates.

There are at least two parts of this that should worry us. The first is that the Trump White House seems ridiculously unconcerned with Russian connections to people with access to highly classified intelligence material - an issue that does worry the professionals at the CIA and NSC, apparently, but not the president or his political appointees.

But the second part is that Donald Trump and/or his political appointees seem to be trying to use those highly classified intelligence findings for political gain - or, rather, political cover. Trump keeps calling these people "whistleblowers," but that's not the correct word for people who are leaking information at the direction of the White House itself.

Whistleblowers leak information which the White House, or other governmental agencies, don't want released. When you're sifting through top secret documents looking for ways to defend your boss - or just trying to give him advanced warning of anything incriminating which might be uncovered by an investigation - that's not "whistleblowing."

Meanwhile, of course, Republican politicians couldn't care less about any of this, except for the possibility that it could damage them politically. So they're far less eager to investigate Trump than to cover for him and sweep it all under the rug.

(Admittedly, I'm sure that most of them would rather have Mike Pence as president. But impeaching Trump would leave a stink behind that other Republican politicians wouldn't exactly welcome. So who knows?)

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