Friday, March 31, 2017

Listen: Nunes and Flynn and Russia, oh my!

The chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes (R-CA), has been in the news a lot.  So has Mike Flynn, the former general who was briefly the National Security Advisor.  And unfortunately, there's way too much speculation accompanying most articles about both of these figures, so it's hard to know what's going on and how important it is.  Here's what we know, as best I can figure out.

If you don't have time to read this, here's my bottom line:

1. The House investigation of the Russian connections is a farce, and the Republican in charge has been exposed as working to help justify the president's unhinged accusations by deceiving to the press and public.  Seriously, this isn't being exaggerated: Nunes went way too far to help Trump.

2. Mike Flynn's request for immunity might indicate he did something wrong or knows someone who did, or not -- we just don't know.  Don't believe anyone's unfounded speculation.

Here we go:

Russia and Trump: background

To start with, it's been fairly well-established that Russian hacking teams tried to intervene in the 2016 election.  Every American intelligence service has endorsed a report to that effect.  A hacking group called "Fancy Bear" used a fairly simple phishing attack on a bunch of American politicians and staffers (both Republicans and Democrats) and then publicly released much of what they found.  And the way they released these hacked emails seemed designed to do maximum damage to the Democrats.

However, there is also a concern on the part of many Democrats (and some Republicans) that the Russian intervention went even further, and may have included some coordination with the Trump campaign.  Even if there were not some circumstantial evidence to this effect, such as longtime Trump advisor Roger Stone bragging about his connections to WikiLeaks (where the Russian hacks were released) or the fact that the solitary change that the Trump campaign made to the Republican platform was extremely friendly to Russia, the behavior of the Trump campaign itself probably would have invited scrutiny.  Numerous people on the Trump campaign and in the administration have been weirdly sympathetic to Russian interests.  An exhaustive listing is probably beyond my scope here, but there are several advisors and key staffers who have worked on behalf of Russian interests.  The two key ones are (1) Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager, was once a lobbyist in Europe and America on behalf of the Putin goverrnment, and (2) Trump National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, who gave paid speeches for Russian state media and seems to have gone behind the back of the Obama administration after the election to speak with the Russian ambassador about new policy (a revelation once denied by the White House, but that led to Flynn's resignation when discovered).


Okay!  So naturally, there was a lot of outcry over all of that nonsense.  The FBI Director, James Comey, confirmed publicly that the FBI is investigating Trump campaign staff and the administration That's pretty huge news, and there's no other way to spin it... it's never a good thing when the FBI is investigating White House staff or campaign officials.  There's no certainty they'll find anything, remember! -- but it's not good that they feel there's reason to take a look.

More than that, Congress feels obligated to investigate.  And both Democrats and Republicans have said they are looking into Russian interference in the election -- and also that they are investigating Trump's tweeted accusation that President Obama "wiretapped Trump Tower" before the election.  Unfortunately, it looks like not everyone wants to actually find the truth.

There doesn't seem to be any problem in the Senate.  The Democrat and Republican on the relevant intelligence committee are holding hearings, cooperating, and looking into it.  It's a very good sign that this Senate investigation isn't leaking or fighting -- it means everyone feels earnestly invested in a real search for the truth.

The House is another matter.  It's beginning to look like Devin Nunes (R-CA) is actively trying to hinder the investigation.  And that's a big deal.

Right now, the major event centers around something Nunes did more than a week ago: the mysterious night of the 21st.  Nunes was in an Uber when he got a call from a mysterious source, he says, and he diverted to the White House to meet with this person.  That's a strange thing to do, since he has an office in the Capitol and there's a secure room there, but Nunes said he needed special access to computer networks there at the White House.

Nunes then went to the president and briefed him on what he'd seen.  That's a very strange thing to do, since Nunes is supposed to be leading an investigation into the activities of the president's staff and he hadn't even shown these new documents to his own committee.  Indeed, it's the sort of thing that should disqualify him from leading that investigation, since it indicates that he is more interested in protecting a fellow Republican than finding the truth.

Nunes then went on to hold a press conference and announce that he'd just been shown secret information about how Trump officials were swept up in surveillance of other figures (known as "incidental" surveillance).  He refused to give any details or really be clear at all -- he seemed to be trying to be unclear, in fact -- but overall seemed to imply that the president had been correct in his accusation of wiretapping by Obama.

Well, we now know that this whole thing seems to have been artifice -- play-acting.  Nunes' secret sources were two White House officials.  Nunes directly lied to at least one reporter, Eli Lake, to try to hide that fact, and otherwise was clearly putting on a show for everyone else.  The real reason he had to rush to the White House was not any sort of secure computer connection, but because his sources were Trump officials -- Trump officials who appear to be disclosing extremely classified material in order to try to justify their boss' lunatic claims.

All of this happens at the same time that Nunes has canceled all hearings this past week, including that of former Acting Attorney-General Sally Yates -- who has said she will be giving pretty significant testimony.

No one, not even most Republican officials, can really now say that they expect Nunes to conduct a full and fair investigation.  Nunes is trying to protect Trump and the Trump administration, and cannot credibly claim to be working to discover the truth.  I am not exaggerating the evidence or circumstances: his behavior is bizarre and suspicious, and he has disqualified himself and the results of any report he might produce.


Tangentially related to this is the fact that Mike Flynn has now offered to testify to relevant committees, as long as he is granted immunity.  That means that he could not be convicted of a crime based on anything he said during his testimony.

That sounds terrible, but frankly, it doesn't mean much.  It is extremely common for anyone going to testify at these sorts of hearings to ask for immunity, out of fear that a mistake or small misdeed to which they admit while under oath could then be used against them.  If you remember, some of those people who testified about Hillary Clinton's email server or the Benghazi incident were also granted immunity.

In other words, the Flynn request (which so far no one has granted) doesn't really give us much new information.  He might have big bombshells that implicate others; he might be afraid of prosecution and is trying to get out ahead of it; he might have nothing and just wants to clear his name.  This isn't television, and the situation is not analogous to a small-time criminal offering to turn on another criminal.  Many innocent people have been perfectly justified in asking for immunity before testifying before Congress, and it does not indicate anything -- or even hint at anything.

At this point, incidentally, no one has taken up Flynn on his offer.  He does not have immunity.

So again, to sum up:

1. The House investigation of the Russian connections is a farce.

2. Mike Flynn's request for immunity tells us nothing.

And that's what you need to know, as far as I know.

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