July 13, 2020
Media coverage of Trump’s commutation of his associate Roger Stone’s prison sentence has pushed the Russia bounty story out of the headlines. Knowing Trump’s skill at distraction, it’s hard to believe this is a coincidence.
It’s a big story. In late February, Trump’s Presidential Daily Brief (the “PDB”) informed him that Russia’s military intelligence unit, the GRU, had offered cash payments to Taliban-linked fighters to kill American and allied soldiers in Afghanistan. The willingness of a foreign power, with whom we are theoretically not at war, to pay to have our soldiers killed is a huge deal.
But instead of retaliating, Trump actually worked more closely with Russia after he learned of the bounties, issuing a joint statement with Russian President Vladimir Putin about cooperation between the nations, trading coronavirus supplies, and urging that Russia should be readmitted to the G7, from which it was excluded after it invaded Ukraine in 2014.
When the story leaked two weeks ago, Trump first called it a hoax, then said he had not been “briefed,”—apparently suggesting that the report had not been delivered orally, so as far as he was concerned he had not been told—then said the information had not been verified, then went on a hunt for the leakers. But what he hasn’t done in all this time is denounced Russia for putting a bounty on US soldiers.
On Sunday, Douglas London, a CIA veteran of 34 years who was the CIA chief for counterterrorism in south and southwest Asia from 2016-2018, wrote that Trump steadfastly refused to push back on Russian aggression in Afghanistan when London oversaw operations there. London noted that Trump retaliated against both Iran and Pakistan when they supported the Taliban… but he did nothing about reports that Russia was similarly involved.
“As any observer of Russia knows, neglecting aggression inevitably invites more of it — to expand Russian influence and power at American expense,” London wrote. “The president must explain to the American people, and especially to those who risk their lives for their country and our families, why he continues to abide Russian threats to our troops, our security and our democracy.”
London is not the only one worried about Trump’s defense of Russia. On Saturday, July 11, former Special Counsel Robert Mueller finally broke his silence about his investigation into the efforts of Russia to interfere in the 2016 election. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Mueller said he felt “compelled to respond both to broad claims that our investigation was illegitimate and our motives were improper, and to specific claims that Roger Stone was a victim of our office.”
These charges are coming primarily from Trump and his aides.
Mueller revisited the findings of the Mueller Report, which proved that Russia hacked and dumped emails from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign, as well as managing an on-line social media campaign to hurt Clinton and help Trump. It found that a number of officials from the Trump campaign—including Stone– had links to the Russian government. While it did not establish that the campaign conspired with Russian spies, it did conclude that the Russian government worked for a Trump victory. And the Trump campaign expected the stolen and leaked emails would help Trump win. (The actual report notes that if Mueller felt he could exonerate the Trump campaign from conspiring with the Russians, he would have.)
A jury later convicted Stone of lying to Congress. He lied about his contacts with an intermediary to Wikileaks, and lied when he denied telling the Trump campaign about the Wikileaks release of emails. Stone also demanded a witness lie to Congress. “Stone was prosecuted and convicted because he committed federal crimes,” Mueller explained. “He remains a convicted felon, and rightly so.”
Today, the judge in Stone’s case, US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, received the Justice Department’s documentation on Stone’s clemency. Trump’s commutation of his sentence not only wipes away his 40-month jail term, but also his two years of supervised release and his $20,000 fine. Stone told reporters today that he will do everything he can to get Trump reelected in November.
It feels like we are also seeing presidential distraction on the coronavirus pandemic. We learned today that 5.4 million Americans have lost their health insurance. At the same time, Trump has continued to insist that our spiking numbers of infections are due to more testing, and that guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) are “impractical” and “very tough & expensive.”
While undermining Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has been one of the administration’s key advisors on the pandemic, Trump today retweeted a post from game show host and commentator Chuck Woolery saying that “Everyone is lying…. The CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors, not all but most, that we are told to trust. I think it’s all about the election and keeping the economy from coming back, which is about the election. I’m sick of it.”
Not all Trump’s loyalists buy this: former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who has remained loyal to the president, said today the economy cannot recover until Covid-19 is under control, and that the country’s current testing abilities are “simply inexcusable.”
Today, after repeatedly changing instructions, officials from the Department of Health and Human Services finalized new data reporting protocols for hospitals. The new system will eliminate the CDC as a recipient of data. Instead, health-care institutions will report information about infections to a federal contractor or to their state, which will turn the information over to the federal government. The argument for the change is that the data has been faulty, but hospitals maintain they are delivering the best information they can as the government keeps changing the reporting system.
But there is another layer to this change, as well. The administration wants the states to call out the National Guard, sending troops to hospitals to help with data collection. Originally, the request was going to be a demand, but it got watered down over the weekend. HHS general counsel Robert P. Charrow opposed the decision. He wrote in emails to an HHS official, “I believe that using National Guard troops to gather these data would be counter-productive…. As a practical matter, I cannot imagine how the National Guard would be able to collect data at the hospital itself nor the number of Guards who would be exposed to COVID-19 in the process.”
President of the American Hospital Association Rick Pollack told Washington Post reporters Lena H. Sun and Amy Goldstein, “Given our track record of being cooperative to evolving data requests, it’s perplexing that the possibility of using the National Guard has been suggested…. It makes no sense. Certainly the expertise of the National Guard can be used in a more productive way.”
For my part, I am leery of any unprecedented move on the part of this administration to use troops around the country. Last Saturday night, federal agents from Homeland Security, dispatched to Portland, Oregon under Trump’s order to protect monuments, shot a protester who was standing alone, across the street from them, holding speaker above his head. According to his mother, the “less-than-lethal” munition fractured his skull and broke the bones in his face, requiring facial reconstruction surgery.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown (D) noted that Trump seems eager to escalate tensions. The deployment of federal officers to a US city is unusual, and it brings “unnecessary violence and confrontation.” Local rules in Portland prohibit tear gas or less-than-lethal rounds unless lives are in danger, and Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler (D), demanded that the agents begin abiding by those rules. City Commissioners note they did not ask for the officers and do not want them. Portland Deputy Police Chief Chris Davis said it complicates things to have the federal officers in town because they do not coordinate with local police.
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden (D) said: “Trump & Homeland Security must now answer why fed[era]l officers are acting like an occupying army.”
On a lighter note, Tucker Carlson tonight announced that he was going on a “long-planned” vacation, trout fishing. CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy noted that Carlson always seems to have long planned vacations in the middle of a scandal. Carlson is in trouble for the news that his senior writer, Blake Neff, had been posting racist, sexist, and homophobic posts on social media for years, and that the language of some of those posts made it onto Carlson’s show.
Neff stepped down, and now Carlson is going fishing.