Monday, February 18, 2019

Got Paranoia? Puppet Puppet

Via Truiceman.

We're hearing a lot about Andrew McCabe's story, as retailed on CBS Sixty Minutes, of Trump telling his intelligence briefers, "I believe Putin", which doesn't seem like news to me at all—he's been telling us all himself for at least a couple of years. But NPR's interview with McCabe helpfully laid out the context, from which I think we can learn something new, and possibly a whole lot: I think we can tell exactly when and where Putin could have told him this, on an extremely significant day, and in that way corroborate that the story is true and fill in some important details of the conspiracy hypothesis, if you'll follow along:
Exhibit A: an FBI briefing with Trump that had "gone completely off the rails from the very beginning."
McCabe said the topic was supposed to be how Russian intelligence officers were using diplomatic compounds inside the U.S. to gather intelligence on American spy agencies. Those compounds were closed as part of the long diplomatic chill between the two countries.
"Instead the president kind of went off on a diatribe," McCabe told NPR, explaining that Trump changed the subject to his belief that North Korea had not actually launched any missiles because Russian President Vladimir Putin told him that the U.S. intelligence assessment was wrong and that "it was all a hoax."
The diplomatic compounds, officially home-away-from-home dachas for Russian diplomats missing their own dachas, were closed on a very specific occasion, on 28 December 2016, as part of the new sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration as retribution for Russia's interference in the presidential election, along with the expulsion of 35 personnel.

Trump, then at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, appeared to disparage the Obama administration sanctions, telling reporters, “I think we ought to get on with our lives.” (Independent)
Which was the subject of the frantic phone calls between Mike Flynn and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak over the next couple of days, in which the Trump transition team succeeded in persuading the Russian government not to retaliate, to help the incoming Trump administration in its effort to get rid of all the sanctions on Russia as soon as possible—some (or most) of the calls, you'll recall, that Flynn lied to the FBI about, making him a convicted felon.

Discussion on the possible return of the compounds to the Russians began no later than 8 May 2017 (raised by deputy foreign minister Sergey Ryabkov in talks in New York with assistant secretary of state Thomas Shannon), and carried on through 10 May (the day after Comey was fired) in the White House meeting between secretary of state Rex Tillerson and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov that famously ended with Tillerson taking Lavrov and Kislyak to the Oval Office for an unscheduled meeting with the president himself, closed to the US press, but we know about it from Russian photos, and Russian reports that Trump had congratulated himself on getting rid of Comey and getting "this Russia thing" off his back (and don't forget that lagniappe of Israeli intelligence he passed on). And
In a news conference at the Russian Embassy after his meetings with Tillerson and Trump, Lavrov said of the compound closures, “Everyone, in particular the Trump administration, is aware that those actions were illegal.”
“The dialogue between Russia and the US is now free from the ideology that characterised it under the Barack Obama administration,” he said.

Regardless of what happened at that meeting, the issue wasn't resolved by the end of the month, when Russia had begun issuing formal complaints—
In Moscow on Wednesday [31 May], Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov said Russia was “taking into account the difficult internal political situation for the current administration,” but retained the option to reciprocate for what he called the “expropriation” of Russian property, “if these steps are not somehow adjusted by the US side,” the news outlet Sputnik reported.
It looks like congressmembers were exerting their own pressure on the White House not to turn the dachas over, with the understanding that a president accused of colluding with the Russians really didn't look good dropping sanctions on them for nothing in return.
The Senate last week passed a bill in a 98-2 vote that would impose additional sanctions on Russia for its election activities. The measure includes a provision requiring congressional approval over any move by the administration to return the compounds back to the Russians.
That was the bill Trump refused to sign for two months, and then only with a signing statement declaring it was unconstitutional, and still hadn't implemented in September 2018, when the White House put out an executive order authorizing it to be implemented.

And it's possible US intelligence was contributing by leaking stories like this one, from CBS, 23 June:
When U.S. officials entered shuttered Russian compounds in Maryland and New York last December, they found damaged materials that could have been used in intelligence gathering and that former officials say could have been useful in the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. 
It's to be presumed that Trump's off-the-rails FBI meeting was precisely about this intelligence, trying to convince Trump not to give the compounds back, because the Russians really had been using them for spy purposes.

Now, NPR doesn't report when that meeting took place, but the detail about the North Korean missiles allows us to say with some certainty that it was after 4 July, when the DPRK celebrated Independence Day by testing an ICBM that would be capable of hitting the US west coast, something much more powerful than they had ever tested before, but
The Russians, however, are maintaining that North Korea did not launch an ICBM at all, but something else entirely, based on data presumably collected by their own early warning radar systems.... [but] this could be political and diplomatic gamesmanship; Russia may be deliberately stalling action at the UN Security Council over the July 4 launch. This could be so for a variety of reasons, ranging from seeking a quid pro quo from the United States in other areas or out of an interest in seeing North Korea spared another round of condemnation at the Security Council. (The Diplomat)
Which enables us to say, in turn, when Trump heard from Putin about it: during his intensely secret two hours of meetings with Putin at the Hamburg G-20 meeting on 7 July (the meeting for which Trump is said to have taken away his interpreter's notes and ordered the interpreter not to discuss it with anybody for the first session, and not had any interpreter of his own for the second after-dinner get-together).

Which, of course, was the very day on which The New York Times asked the White House to comment on a curious set of emails it had obtained, between the music publicist Rob Goldstone and the president's son, for the story published 8 July, etc.

So we now know about three things that could have been discussed in Hamburg:

  • the North Korean ICBMs whose existence Putin denied
  • Russian demands to get their spy compounds back
  • the story The Times was about to run on the Trump Tower meeting of 9 June 2016

Which is a pretty interesting confluence of subjects, I'd say. It explains why Trump might have gone a little nuts at his FBI briefing a couple of days after that, and exactly what he would have been trying to deflect (they're telling him "Our intelligence says that the dachas were used for spying" and he's replying "Your fucking intelligence says North Korea has missiles that can hit Los Angeles and I know that's not true!" and they're like "Who told you that?" and he's like "Vladimir Putin!").

But what occurs to me, and this is more than a little nuts in its own right, is an idea of how The Times actually got that story of the Trump Tower meeting, ready to run on the last day of the Hamburg summit, and what it means: that the ultimate source of the Goldstone-Junior emails might be Russian intelligence, tactically letting out a bit of their kompromat info, to remind Trump that they own him and he'd better start keeping his promises—to ratchet up the pressure on him to lift sanctions in general, and give back the dachas in particular.

Hear me out: Russia isn't averse to allowing out stories that make it look as if Trump is their slave, in particular the TASS report of that Oval Office meeting, presumably because they don't care if Trump is hounded out of office as long as Vladimir Vladimirovich gets access to his sanctioned bank accounts and the GRU gets its hands on the dachas, and they don't look too far ahead. And then of all the kompromat they've got on him, stories about how Trump obeys Putin are the least damaging to them (better than the network of bribery and money laundering in which he has participated). These stories come out in the Russian press, or direct from the foreign ministry (readouts of meetings), and perhaps they get planted in respectable American organs as well. In this particular escalation, evidence that might send Junior to jail. And of course the GRU has the email exchange, through the Agalarovs or whoever, or imaginably Manafort. Who else, other than Goldstone and Junior himself, did?

Then, the timing: can it possibly be a coincidence that the correspondence was revealed the very day Trump was scheduled to have a meeting with Putin anyway? Then, the long meetings in which Emptywheel and others have speculated Putin taught Trump the cover story he was supposed to use to explain the Trump Tower get-together, suggesting that Putin was better prepared for the discussion than Trump was, suggesting that he had an idea the subject might come up before The Times did.

Had Putin been trying, ever since May, to clarify how much trouble Trump would be in if he didn't get Putin his stuff, and how willing he'd be to sacrifice his dotard accomplice? Even at the risk of going so far that he might lose it himself? And continuing to do it up through the secret meetings in Helsinki and in Buenos Aires? That's what that McCabe story suggests to me. Almost as if McCabe meant it to, as I almost started thinking last week. Now I'm starting to think about it for reals.

Update: Shockingly, Wonkette used the same GIF as I did and hooked with the same piece of McCabe interview. I thought they might be stealing from me but no such luck—they posted a lot earlier and also said something completely different.

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