What Did We Learn Today?

Judged by time, today’s House Intelligence Committee hearing was mainly an exercise in hypotheticals and ‘no comments’. For those who hadn’t gotten the full treatment until now, it was also an exposure to what we might term James Comey’s militant earnestness.

What did we learn?

Let’s start with the least mysterious: we learned today about as definitively as we are likely to learn that President Trump’s claim that President Obama wiretapped him in Trump Tower is false. Seeing this stated so clearly is significant. But mainly we knew this.

The big revelation is that there is an on-going investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and potential “coordination” between the Trump campaign and those Russian efforts.

This revelation is consequential enough to quote Comey verbatim: “I’ve been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI as part of our counterintelligence mission is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”

Comey said this investigation is on-going and that it began in “late July.”

To draw the very direct conclusion: the investigation continues and one of its key components is whether there was coordination between the Trump entourage and the Russian hacking effort. Ergo, it is false to suggest that that question has been settled in the negative. We have also heard from a number of people who are either disinterested or clearly unsympathetic to Trump that there is as yet no clear evidence of collusion or coordination. So that question remains open, at least as far as we know.

Let’s now look at the reference to the investigation starting in “late July.” This is highly significant since it appears to have well predated much of the public discussion of the Trump/Russia issue. Indeed, it came only weeks after Comey’s extraordinary public statement on the end of the probe of Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Back on July 23, I published a lengthy post on Trump and Russia (“Trump & Putin. Yes, It’s Really a Thing”), my first on the subject as far as I can remember. No, you can relax. I’m not going to claim my post triggered anything. What I do believe is that there were a series of developments coming together at right around that time which built up to a critical mass of intriguing and suspicious evidence that something was afoot. Things that had seemed a bit odd or weird began to seem like something more tangible and requiring of explanation. There were public developments I and others were reacting to. There were also others we did not know about at the time.

While my post was on July 23, I actually researched and wrote it in the few days preceding. The initial WikiLeaks leak of DNC emails was on July 22. In other words, this happened in the midst of the two or three days I was working on the post. The whole thing struck me as bizarre and improbable – too far-fetched to include in a discussion of what I considered quite tangible and probative information. So I didn’t include the emails because it wasn’t clear at the time, at least not to me, that there was any connection between that and Russian hacking, let alone Trump.

But consider what else had happened in July.

On July 7, Carter Page gave a speech in Moscow which was generally hostile to US policy vis a vis Russia. He may have had other meetings – there are various unproven claims. But the speech is a public fact. The visit was approved by Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s soon to be fired campaign manager, after being rejected by J.D. Gordon, Page’s supervisor on the campaign’s National Security Advisory Committee.

On July 11 and 12, there was the fiddling with the platform language dealing with Ukraine at the GOP convention. Gordon played into that, too, as the person who muted the language about “lethal aide” at the behest of the now-President.

On July 22, Wikileaks released the first batch of DNC emails allegedly purloined by Russian intelligence agents.

On July 27, now-President Trump made his infamous pronouncement asking Russia to do more hacking of Hillary Clinton. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you can find the 33,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

As you can see, quite a lot came up in rapid succession in July 2016. It’s hardly a surprise that that’s when the probe began. There are a few other developments to note in the month previous. Paul Manafort was put in charge of delegate management on March 28 but it was only on June 21st that he took over as campaign chief after Corey Lewandowski was fired. A few days earlier on June 17, The Washington Post published this story detailing the candidate Trump’s deep financial ties to Russia. Three days earlier, on June 14, the Post published the first account that claimed that the Russian government had penetrated the DNC computer networks and stole material. Also notable was this too little seen Bloomberg article detailing the scale of Trump’s indebtedness. That was published on July 19.

Here’s one more speculative possibility. We know from numerous published reports that Gen Mike Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Kislyak began before the Presidential election. How far back did they go? Flynn’s role in the Trump campaign solidified in the late Spring of 2016. If Flynn was having those contact before of the July, that likely would have figured into the decision to launch a probe. Significantly, the leadership of intelligence community would have known that soon after the convention Trump would receive his first intelligence briefings, likely along with Gen. Flynn.

As I said, a number of things fell into place in July 2016. Those came after other developments in June which weren’t so clear cut but may have raised more suspicious when see through the prism of events in July.

Here I would like to add what I think is another key part of the equation. As I argued early this month, the CIA and FBI almost certainly knew years before Trump became a presidential candidate that he had deep business ties to members of the Russian criminal underworld and significant reliance on money from the former Soviet Union to fund his business ventures. Before Trump became a possible President this probably didn’t matter all that much. He was flashy real estate developer and a reality tv star. He may have had some protection if he had some long-standing relationship with the FBI.

But all of this would have taken on greater significance as he made his improbable move from reality tv clown to possible president. I believe this is the backdrop through which we must see everything prior to the summer of 2016. By July, there was probably enough, probably more than enough to start an investigation. Remember, conspiracy theories aside, everyone involved – NSA, FBI, CIA, DOJ – likely would have been quite skittish about getting even close to the national election. At some time in July, there was enough smoke to overcome those concerns.

What we do not know is whether there were yet other developments, not known to the public, which also pushed things forward.

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