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Devin Nunes Is Playing a Familiar Republican Game Today

Mother Jones

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When a big story breaks while I’m at lunch, it can be a real pain in the ass. Instead of following it in real time, I have to rush around later trying to piece together what’s happened. On the other hand, sometimes this is a blessing, because by the time I get to the story it’s clearer what the real issue is. I think today is an example of the latter.

For starters, here’s a nutshell summary of what happened. Devin Nunes, the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, took the stage a few hours ago to declare himself “alarmed.” He believes that some of Donald Trump’s transition team might have been “incidentally” recorded during surveillance of foreign nationals. He won’t say who. Nor will he say who the foreign nationals were, other than “not Russian.” And as soon as he was done with his press conference, he trotted off to the White House to brief President Trump.

There are several problems here. First, Nunes didn’t share any of this with Democrats on the committee. Second, incidental collection is both routine and inevitable in foreign surveillance. Congress has had ample opportunity to rein it in if they wanted to, and they never have. Third, if this was part of a criminal investigation, Nunes may have jeopardized it by going public. Fourth, the chair of the Intelligence Committee isn’t supposed to be briefing the president on the status of an investigation into the president’s activities.

This is plenty to embarrass the great state of California, from which Nunes hails. But for what it’s worth, I don’t think any of this is the biggest issue. This one is:

He claims to have gotten the information personally from an unspecified source, and had not yet met with FBI Director James Comey to review the raw intelligence intercepts he was provided. Why would he go public without first consulting spies to see if what he had was actually worth sharing with the public?

Oh. This is one of those deals where the Republican chair of a committee gets some information; releases a tiny snippet that makes Republicans look good; and then eventually is forced to release the entire transcript, which turns out to be nothing at all like the snippet. We’ve seen this gong show a dozen times in the past few years.

My advice: ignore everything Nunes said. He’s obviously carrying water for Trump, hoping to drive headlines that vaguely suggest the Obama administration really was listening in on Trump’s phone calls. I gather that he’s succeeded on that score. For now, though, there’s no telling what this raw intel really says. Eventually the intelligence community will provide analysis, and committee Democrats will get to see the transcripts too. Then we’ll have a fighting chance of knowing whether it’s important or not. In the meantime, everything Nunes said is literally worthless. He’s not “probably right” or “probably wrong.” He’s nothing.

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Devin Nunes Is Playing a Familiar Republican Game Today

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The Republican in Charge of the Trump-Russia Probe Just Pulled a Crazy Political Stunt

Mother Jones

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Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the lawmaker overseeing one of the main investigations of the Trump-Russia scandal, went rogue on Wednesday when he told reporters that a source had provided him information that indicates that the US intelligence community collected intelligence on Trump associates—possibly Donald Trump himself—in the course of authorized surveillance aimed at other targets. Nunes, who chairs the House intelligence committee, said this happened during the transition period and was unrelated Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign or to Trump associates’ connections to Russia. Without revealing any real evidence of wrongdoing, Nunes suggested that something amiss had occurred when the identity of these Trump-related people were noted in reports disseminated in intelligence channels.

Nunes’ theatrical press conferences—not one but two!—indicated he was perhaps more concerned about politics than national security and the protection of civil liberties. At his first presser, held in the Capitol, Nunes described the materials he had been given as “normal incidental collection” and “all legally collected foreign intelligence.” Nonetheless, he said, he was “alarmed” by the fact that some of the Trump associates had been “unmasked” in the reports. (“Incidental collection” refers to Americans whose communications are monitored not because they are the target of the surveillance, but because the person they are communicating with is the target. The identities of these non-targeted Americans generally are supposed to remain hidden in intelligence reports, but there are rules that allow their identities to be unmasked in such reports when that provides needed context.)

Still, Nunes said he was rushing to the White House—without even having spoken to the Democratic members of his committee about this—to brief Trump immediately. “They need to see it,” Nunes told reporters before he dashed off to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

But when asked whether Trump was specifically and intentionally targeted—a sensational claim that would bolster Trump’s widely debunked March 4 tweets accusing former President Barack Obama of “wire tapping”—Nunes said he wasn’t sure. In fact, nothing Nunes said would back up Trump’s tweets. He was referring to legally authorized surveillance conducted under a court order that targeted a foreign intelligence source but that happened to also pick up Americans—not an uncommon occurrence.

At his White House press conference—following his meeting with Trump—a reporter asked, “But just to clarify, this is not intentional spying on Donald Trump?”

“I have no idea,” Nunes replied. “We won’t know that until we get to the bottom of: Did people ask for the unmasking of additional names within the president-elect’s transition team?”

This was a disingenuous response. Nunes had earlier acknowledged he was only referring to officially authorized surveillance, which could not be ordered by a president. (There’s a whole process through which the FBI and other intelligence agencies go to a special court to receive permission to conduct surveillance.) Yet here was Nunes slyly hinting that well, just maybe, this would back up Trump’s fact-free charge. This was the tell. If he were only concerned with the unmasking of Americans caught up in incidental collection, Nunes could have instructed his committee staff to examine the matter and worked with Democrats on the committee on how best to handle the matter. Instead, he ran to the White House to share his information with the fellow who is the subject of an investigation Nunes is overseeing. Nunes was pulling a political stunt to provide Trump some cover.

And Trump took the cover. After Nunes’ briefing, the president told reporters that he felt “somewhat” vindicated by what Nunes reported to the public on Wednesday. “I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found.” The revelations, though, don’t vindicate Trump at all; he accused President Obama of directing the phones in Trump Tower to be tapped in October. Nunes’ new information refers to incidental collection after the election. Trump compared the situation to “Nixon/Watergate,” and called Obama a “Bad (or sick) guy!” Nunes made clear the surveillance was legal. Trump suggested Obama had somehow broken the law.

Adding to the political nature of what Nunes did is the fact that he didn’t consult with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House committee, before he briefed Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, reporters (twice), and the White House.

“I’m going to be meeting with Mr. Schiff at some point to talk about where we go with this investigation,” Nunes told reporters when the issue came up after he briefed the president. “I had to brief the speaker first, then I had to talk to the CIA director, the NSA director, and I’m waiting to talk to the FBI director…Then I went and talked to all of you…and then I voted, and then I said I was coming here to brief the president, and then I’ll be glad to talk to others later.”

Schiff issued a statement Wednesday afternoon slamming Nunes’ actions.

“This information should have been shared with members of the committee, but it has not been,” Schiff said. “Indeed it appears that committee members only learned about this when Nunes discussed the matter this afternoon with the press. Nunes also shared this information with the White House before providing it to the committee, another profound irregularity, given that the matter is currently under investigation. I have expressed my grave concerns with Nunes that a credible investigation cannot be conducted this way.”

Schiff added that Nunes told him that most of the names within the intelligence reports were, in fact, masked, “but that he could still figure out the probable identity of the parties.” This means that the intelligence agencies followed the law, Schiff said, and “moreover, the unmasking of a US Person’s name is fully appropriate when it is necessary to understand the context of collected foreign intelligence information.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, (D-Ore.), accused Nunes of leaking classified information.

Jeremy Bash, who formerly served as chief counsel for the Democrats on the committee, said Wednesday that what Nunes did was unprecedented and very concerning.

“I don’t think in the 40 years of the committee’s existence, since the post-Watergate-era reforms, with the Church and Pike committees that emerged from those scandals, I have never heard of a chairman of an oversight committee going to brief the president of the United States about concerns he has about things he’s read in intelligence reports,” Bash told MSNBC Wednesday afternoon. “The job of the committee is to do oversight of the executive branch, not to bring them into their investigation or tip them off to things they may be looking at. I’ve got to believe that other members of the committee are horrified at what they just witnessed.”

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The Republican in Charge of the Trump-Russia Probe Just Pulled a Crazy Political Stunt

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Paul Manafort Tried to Help Russian Oligarch Suspected of Mob Ties Get a US Visa

Mother Jones

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On Wednesday morning, the Associated Press released a bombshell report revealing that Paul Manafort, who ran Donald Trump’s campaign for several months, had secretly worked for a Russian billionaire a decade ago to promote Russian leader Vladimir Putin. The news service noted that Manafort “proposed in a confidential strategy plan…that he would influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government.” Manafort pitched this idea to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally, and in 2006 signed a $10 million annual contract for the project. The AP’s report shows Trump’s campaign was managed by an operative who had received millions from a Putin crony to bolster the Russian leader’s image in the United States at a time when US-Russia relations were tense.

Manafort’s relationship with Deripaska began at least several years before they inked this contract when the Russian oligarch was banned from entering the United States due to his suspected connections to Russian organized crime. In the early 2000s, the aluminum magnate enlisted Manafort, a veteran lobbyist and fixer with a reputation for representing foreign despots and thugs, to help him secure a visa so he could travel to the United States, according to a source with knowledge of the arrangement,

In the late 1990s, the US State Department had refused to allow Deripaska (reportedly one of the richest men in Russia) visit the United States. As the Guardian reported in 2008:

A senior former State Department official said US officials who considered Deripaska’s case in 1998 believed he was associated with several Russians involved in organised crime, including Anton Malevsky, head of the notorious Ismailovskaya Brotherhood. Others believed by the US authorities to be his associates were involved in the so-called Aluminium Wars during the mid-1990s which resulted in dozens of killings. Deripaska has always strenuously denied any links to organised crime.

The State Department official said: “There are four grounds that are relevant in Deripaska’s case. Number three is, does this person have criminal associations and relationships? That’s the one that applied to Deripaska.”

In 2000, Deripaska, who was looking to list his company on the London Stock Exchange, hired former US Senator Bob Dole and the law and lobbying firm of Alston & Bird, where Dole worked, to bolster his image and lobby the State Department. Dole won permission for Deripaska to make a short trip to the United States in December 2000, and the oligarch delivered lectures at Harvard University and a Washington, DC think tank. But, according to the Guardian, Deripaska, during this visit, was “interviewed by the FBI, which led to a second ban on his entering the US.”

This is about the time when Manafort began assisting Deripaska on the visa issue, according to the source with knowledge of this deal. Manafort also retained a publicity expert to generate positive stories about Deripaska, this source said.

The Deripaska visa matter continued on for years, and Deripaska kept Dole and his firm on the payroll. In 2005, Alston & Bird was paid about $260,000 for its work on behalf of Deripaska. That year, the oligarch received a multi-entry visa, in part so he could talk to FBI investigators. But in July 2006, the visa was revoked. The Wall Street Journal reported this happened after “concerns were raised about the accuracy of statements he made in a meeting with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

In 2006, Manafort’s business partner at the time, Rick Davis, set up meetings overseas between Sen. John McCain, a harsh Putin critic, and Deripaska. A McCain aide later said these were just “social and incidental” contacts that occurred while McCain was traveling abroad on official business.

Deripaska did get into the United States in 2009—under unusual circumstances. The Journal reported that Deripaska, who was “barred entry to the US for years due to US government concerns about possible ties to organized crime” had “visited the country twice this year under secret arrangements made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” The newspaper noted:

Aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska met with FBI agents in August and earlier this month as part of a continuing criminal probe, according to two administration officials. The focus of that probe couldn’t be learned.

Mr. Deripaska used the opportunity of his recent US visits to meet with top executives of U.S. investment banks Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. The aluminum giant he controls, UC Rusal, is preparing for an initial public offering, a vital part of Mr. Deripaska’s efforts to save his debt-burdened business…

Mr. Deripaska’s recent visits were arranged outside of regular State Department visa procedures because the US. continues to have concerns about Mr. Deripaska’s business associations, according to administration officials. Instead, FBI officials arranged for a limited-entry permit from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as allowed in special cases related to sensitive matters, officials said.

Another person familiar with the case said there was some opposition from other US agencies to Mr. Deripaska’s visits, but that the FBI prevailed. The FBI had previously been at loggerheads with the State Department over Mr. Deripaska; FBI officials have said they were getting interesting information from him, this person said.

This did not ultimately resolve the issue. In 2010, Deripaska remained banned from regular travel to the United States, and the Russian foreign ministry retained another DC lobbying firm to work on this.

The AP reported that Manafort maintained a business relationship with Deripaska until at least 2009, though “they had a falling out laid bare in 2014 in a Cayman Islands bankruptcy court. The billionaire gave Manafort nearly $19 million to invest in a Ukrainian TV company called Black Sea Cable, according to legal filings by Deripaska’s representatives. It said that after taking the money, Manafort and his associates stopped responding to Deripaska’s queries about how the funds had been used.” The news service also noted that “Manafort did not disclose details about the lobbying work to the Justice Department during the period the contract was in place,” and it pointed out under “the Foreign Agents Registration Act, people who lobby in the US on behalf of foreign political leaders or political parties must provide detailed reports about their actions to the department. Willfully failing to register is a felony and can result in up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, though the government rarely files criminal charges.”

Manafort told AP, “I worked with Oleg Deripaska almost a decade ago representing him on business and personal matters in countries where he had investments. My work for Mr. Deripaska did not involve representing Russia’s political interests.” Manafort did not respond to a Mother Jones request for comment regarding his work for Deripaska on the visa issue.

A spokesman for Manafort did forward a general statement Manafort had sent to reporters: “I have always publicly acknowledged that I worked for Mr. Deripaska and his company, Rusal, to advance its interests. For example, one of the projects involved supporting a referendum in Montenegro that allowed that country to choose membership in the EU, a measure that Russia opposed. I did not work for the Russian government. Once again, smear and innuendo are being used to paint a false picture. I look forward to meeting with those conducting serious investigations of these issues to discuss the actual facts.”

Asked if Manafort would address his work for Deripaska on the travel visa, the spokesman replied, “I do not expect I will get an answer about something that happened 15 years ago. I apologize.”

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Paul Manafort Tried to Help Russian Oligarch Suspected of Mob Ties Get a US Visa

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Trump: Obama Tapped My Phone, He’s a Sick Guy

Mother Jones

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It’s Saturday. I figured I’d sleep in and eat breakfast before I checked in on the news. After all, how much can happen on a Saturday morn—

Oh FFS. Fine. Let’s hear the evidence:

Then, just to show how serious this is, an hour later Trump tweets about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “pathetic” ratings on Celebrity Apprentice. Then it’s off to the golf course.

So what’s going on? Did Obama really tapp Trump Tower during the sacred election process? I hope so! If he did, it would mean a judge had found probable cause that Trump had committed a crime of some kind.

Alternatively, it could mean that the FBI or the NSA was listening to a foreign phone call and Trump was on the other end. That would be great too.

Or, of course, Trump might be full of shit. Sadly, this is the most likely possibility. But you never know. Maybe there’s some real dirt here and Trump is trying to get ahead of it. When it leaks, he’ll try to convince everyone that the real issue is all the illegal leaks. Or the Nixonian/McCarthyite use of wiretaps. Or the fact that Obama is a sleaze, which is guaranteed to excite the base.

In any case, our next White House press briefing should be interesting, don’t you think?

UPDATE: Hmmph. Breitbart News ran a story yesterday summarizing a Mark Levin radio show that outlined a bunch of stuff that’s already been reported, including the fact that a FISA warrant was obtained to monitor the communications of some Trump aides:

In summary: the Obama administration sought, and eventually obtained, authorization to eavesdrop on the Trump campaign; continued monitoring the Trump team even when no evidence of wrongdoing was found; then relaxed the NSA rules to allow evidence to be shared widely within the government, virtually ensuring that the information, including the conversations of private citizens, would be leaked to the media.

Is that it? The Washington Post reports that the Breitbart story “has been circulating among Trump’s senior staff.” How boring.

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Trump: Obama Tapped My Phone, He’s a Sick Guy

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NYT: Trump Team Had "Repeated Contacts" With Russian Intelligence During the Presidential Campaign

Mother Jones

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ZOMG!

Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.

American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time that they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee….The intercepts alarmed American intelligence and law enforcement agencies, in part because of the amount of contact that was occurring while Mr. Trump was speaking glowingly about the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin….The officials said the intercepted communications were not limited to Trump campaign officials, and included other associates of Mr. Trump.

….Officials would not disclose many details, including what was discussed on the calls, which Russian intelligence officials were on the calls, and how many of Mr. Trump’s advisers were talking to the Russians.

This is from Michael Schmidt, Mark Mazzetti, and Matt Apuzzo at the New York Times. If Trump thought that firing Michael Flynn was going to stop the recent bloodletting, he thought wrong.

Just to make this clear: At the same time that Russian intelligence was hacking various email accounts in order to sabotage Hillary Clinton, multiple members of the Trump team had repeated phone calls with senior Russian intelligence officials. And during this entire time, Trump himself was endorsing a foreign policy that appeared almost as if it had been dictated to him by Vladimir Putin.

As a number of people have pointed out, the American intelligence community has all but declared war on Trump since his inauguration. I hardly need to spell out why this is dangerous. At the same time, it’s sure becoming a lot clearer why they’re so alarmed by the guy.

And by the way, I shouldn’t miss this chance to flog my favorite hobbyhorse again: FBI Director James Comey, who knew all about this, pushed hard not to make it public during the campaign. Instead he considered it more important to inform Congress that he had discovered additional copies of Hillary Clinton’s emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. Priorities.

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NYT: Trump Team Had "Repeated Contacts" With Russian Intelligence During the Presidential Campaign

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