Thursday, April 18, 2019

Steele yourself

"“Red Card,” about corruption involving FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, contains supporting roles for the former spy Christopher Steele and a number of Russian oligarchs and government officials." Simon and Schuster.

Can't help seeing this as a sign of how people in the White House are feeling about the release of the redacted Mueller report tomorrow morning:

The story to which he's referring goes back, in fact, to last August, when NBC was reporting that the FBI had released 70-odd heavily redacted pages of its correpondence with Steele, recording his service to the FBI as a Confidential Human Source over some  unspecified period of time—every single date is among the things redacted—including the fact that they'd given him or his firm some money for his troubles but obviously not revealing what they'd been paying him for or when.

Now it's been taken up by some of the usual suspects, notably Judicial Watch, the king of rightwing FOIA requests, darkly hinting at a connection to that same Underpants Gnomes story: Bruce Ohr must have been paying Steele to provide him with evidence that would enable him to tape Carter Page's phone calls so that if Trump unexpectedly got elected they could um do whatever it is you do with Carter Page tapes when you want to impeach the president. As you can see, the passage of time is not making this plan any more coherent.

But the thing is it's not at all difficult to guess when and where Steele got most of his payments from the FBI, because it's pretty much a matter of public record, and it had nothing to do with Carter Page of the Trump campaign; it was not long after he'd retired from MI6 and set up his own shop in 2009, and

Among Mr. Steele’s first clients was a group of wealthy individuals and corporations supporting England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup. The tournament hadn’t been held in England since 1966, and the country’s soccer-mad populace was desperate to do so again.... Over the next few months, Mr. Steele collected a growing pile of intelligence suggesting that Russian government officials and oligarchs close to Mr. Putin had been enlisted to push the effort, cutting shadowy gas deals with other countries in exchange for votes, offering expensive gifts of art to FIFA voters and even dispatching Roman Abramovich, the billionaire who owns the London-based Chelsea Football Club, to South Africa to pressure Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president. (A spokesman for Mr. Abramovich told The Sunday Times that there was nothing “untoward” in his involvement in the Russian bid.)
The retired spy handed his findings to his clients supporting the English bid, who had been swaggering through the campaign with blithe optimism and self-confidence. But in July 2010, five months before FIFA would hold its vote on where to host the 2018 World Cup, Mr. Steele also passed the information on to another party he thought might be interested in learning what Russia was up to: an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The F.B.I. didn’t much care whether England got the tournament, of course, but the agent, who supervised the F.B.I.’s Eurasian Organized Crime squad, had been looking for opportunities to chase down conspiracies emanating from Russia. After breaking the back of the Russian mob in New York, the squad had set its sights on border-crossing financial crimes involving oligarchs and mafia kingpins. Mr. Steele’s intelligence about Russian attempts to corrupt FIFA seemed to check all the boxes.
And that's when Steele worked for the FBI. Demonstrating, I might add, that he seems to know about how Russia rigs things when its rigging things.

Although we're now suddenly getting some spin suggesting in an underhdanded way that it wasn't such great work—
In 2010, Steele delivered information to the bureau’s Eurasian Organized Crime squad about corruption within the international soccer league FIFA, with links to Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, that led to the ouster of longtime FIFA president Sepp Blatter and the indictment of several FIFA officials.
The inspector general’s office has concluded that Steele inflated his worth to the bureau in that case, and did little more than introduce agents to a journalist who had obtained hacked documents, according to two people who were interviewed and briefed on the matter. For the FBI to have formalized its relationship with Steele — paying him an undisclosed amount beginning in 2013 — as a result of his FIFA role may therefore have been bad judgment, the inspector general’s team has intimated. Horowitz’s probe also appears set to cast doubt on the veracity of the information Steele provided about Page that the FBI included in its application for a FISA warrant. (Natasha Bertrand/Politico)
It's some extreme spin, which the inspector general has refused to confirm (though it's long been clear that at least some of the wiggier parts of the Carter Page stories in the dossier are problematic, likely disinformation supplied by Steele's Russian government informants, and it's also clear that the FBI had other sources that justified the FISC warrant). Nobody says that about what he did for his original British footie fan clients, though. Some people (like the Guardian reporter Luke Harding) are convinced he did very well for both, and more:
Steele discovered that Fifa corruption was global. It was a stunning conspiracy. He took the unusual step of briefing an American contact in Rome, the head of the FBI’s Eurasian serious crime division. This “lit the fuse”, as one friend put it, and led to a probe by US federal prosecutors. And to the arrest in 2015 of seven Fifa officials, allegedly connected to $150m (£114m) in kickbacks, paid on TV deals stretching from Latin America to the Caribbean. The US indicted 14 individuals.
In any case the main point, that the FBI did pay Steele over the FIFA investigation, an "undisclosed amount", remains undisputed, and there's just no reason to imagine that those "eleven payments" represent anything in any way sinister or even new.

What seems clear, to the contrary, is that there's a sudden push to discredit Steele starting today, including that shade picked up by Bertrand, timed along with premonitory denunciations of the Mueller report by Hannity and Ingraham on Fox News. As usual I find myself suspecting that the only person who will be seriously affected by any of this will be Donald Trump, who will feel for another 15 or 20 hours that he is safe, and maybe that's who the propaganda is aimed at. It won't last long, he'll be freaking out by afternoon, but the handlers will have had some hours of calm.

Which suggests in turn that there's some new confirmation of dossier stuff in the report we'll be allowed to see. And this new discrediting of Steele is meant to encourage us, or Trump, to discount that, and feel somewhat less agitated.

And one last thing, before I go to bed: Emptywheel is proposing a brand new theory on the obstruction case,
it may be that what Trump was obstructing was not criminal conduct, a knowingly engaged conspiracy, but stupid conduct, his failson saying all the words that amount to entering into a conspiracy, without realizing he was entering into one.
The reason Trump may have fired Mike Flynn and Jim Comey and pushed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress may be to hide that he got badly used by Putin’s envoys who appealed to Trump’s narcissism and greed to get him (in the form of his especially stupid son) to agree to sanctions relief.
I'm not seeing that at all. I don't think he fears being called stupid. (He obviously gets very pissed off when we call him stupid, but he won't recognize on his own that he has been.) I feel certain that he has a pretty good idea of where he's broken the law, and has done it here, though we may never get a proper judgment.

I too have a new hypothesis, though, about William Barr, to explain his awful misbehavior, which is that he's the one who's embarrassed at looking stupid. He's been blindsided by the Trump team into supposing he doesn't need to humiliate himself in public any more than he did on all those occasions in the G.H.W. Bush administration and his complex history with the Iran-Contra pardons,  obstructing justice (bonus Bill Safire column), and lying to Congress about the contents of a memo on whether the US could be allowed to kidnap Panama leader Manuel Noriega that resembles his current actions very uncomfortably closely

And has been forced to realize in recent weeks that it's much worse than it was when old GHW was president. I think it may have been dawning on him, gradually, since Mueller gave him his copy of the report and he began working his way through it, that it's much worse than he'd been expecting; much worse than it seemed when he was writing that four-page summary-not-a-summary, infinitely worse than it seemed when he was working his way through the confirmation hearings. I think he may be the first in the administration to have understood that Trump is really seriously guilty, and it's not what he signed up for, as a chuckleheaded Republican used to presidential foibles.

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