Yves here. Gaius quotes Matt Taibbi’s line of thought that the relentless Trump investigations will eventually turn up something, most likely money laundering. However, it’s not clear that that can be pinned on Trump. For real estate transactions, it is the bank, not the property owner, that is responsible for anti-money-laundering checks. So unless Trump was accepting cash or other payment outside the banking system, it’s going to be hard to make that stick. The one area where he could be vulnerable is his casinos. However, if I read this history of his casinos correctly, Trump could have been pretty much out of that business since 1995 via putting the casinos in a public entity (although he could have continued to collect fees as a manager). Wikipedia hedges its bets and says Trump has been out of the picture since at least 2011. He only gets licensing fees and has nada to do with management and operations. So even if Trump got dirty money, and in particular dirty Russian money, it’s hard to see how that begins to translate into influence over his Presidency, particularly since any such shady activity took place before Trump was even semi-seriously considering a Presidential bid.
By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. GP article archive here. Originally published at DownWithTyranny
Start at 2:25. Chris Hayes to Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell: “How long are you allowed to go before you retroactively file as a foreign agent?” Note Swalwell’s carefully phrased non-answers, as well as Hayes’ seeming failure to know that not registering is a very common practice. (If video doesn’t play in your browser, go here and listen, again starting at 2:25.)
“And most pitiful of all that I heard was the voice of the daughter of Priam, of Cassandra”— Homer, The Odyssey, Book 11
PRIAM: What noise, what shriek is this?
TROILUS: ‘Tis our mad sister; I do know her voice. …
It is Cassandra.—Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act II, scene 2
“I’ll be your Cassandra this week.”—Yours truly
So much of this story is hidden from view, and so much of the past has to be erased to conform to what’s presently painted as true.
Example of the latter: Did you remember that Robert Mueller and Bush’s FBI were behind the highly suspicious (and likely covered-up) 2001 anthrax investigation — Robert Mueller, today’s man of absolute integrity? Did you remember that James Comey was the man behind the destruction of the mind of Jose Padilla, just so that Bush could have a terrorist he could point to having caught — James Comey, today’s man of doing always what’s right? If you forgot all that in the rush to canonize them, don’t count on the media to remind you — they have another purpose.
Yes, I’ll be your Cassandra this week, the one destined not to be believed. To what do I refer? Read on.
How Many Foreign Agents Register as Foreign Agents? A Number Far Smaller Than “All”
Today let’s look at one of the original sins pointed to by those trying to take down Trump, leaving entirely aside whether Trump needs taking down (which he does). That sin — Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort’s failing to register as “foreign agents” (of Turkey and Ukraine, respectively, not Russia) until very after the fact.
See the Chris Hayes video at the top for Hayes’ question to Rep. Eric Swalwell about that. Hayes to Swalwell: “How long are you allowed to go before you retroactively file as a foreign agent?” What Swalwell should have answered: “Almost forever by modern American practice.”
Jonathan Marshall, writing at investigative journalist Robert Parry’s Consortium News, has this to say about the current crop of unregistered foreign agents (my emphasis throughout):
The Open Secret of Foreign Lobbying
The alleged hacking of the Hillary Clinton campaign’s emails and the numerous contacts of Donald Trump’s circle with Russian officials, oligarchs and mobsters have triggered any number of investigations into Moscow’s alleged efforts to influence the 2016 election and the new administration….
In contrast, as journalist Robert Parry recently noted, American politicians and the media have been notably silent about other examples of foreign interference in U.S. national politics. In part that’s because supporters of more successful foreign pressure groups have enough clout to downplay or deny their very existence. In part it’s also because America’s political system is so riddled with big money that jaded insiders rarely question the status quo of influence peddling by other nations.
The subject of his discussion is the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Under the Act, failure to properly register carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and $10,000 in fines. Marshall notes that while the influence of foreign agents was of great national concern during World War I and World War II, very little is done today to require or enforce FARA registration:
Since the end of World War II, however, enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act has been notably lax. Its effectiveness has been stymied by political resistance from lobby supporters as well as by the law’s many loopholes — including Justice Department’s admission that FARA “does not authorize the government to inspect records of those not registered under the Act.”
A 2016 audit by the inspector general of the Department of Justice determined that half of FARA registrations and 62 percent of initial registrations were filed late, and 15 percent of registrants simply stopped filing for periods of six months or more. It also determined that the Department of Justice brought only seven criminal cases under FARA from 1966 to 2015, and filed no civil injunctions since 1991.
The result — almost no one registers who doesn’t want to.
Here’s Russia-savvy Matt Taibbi, who is looking at the whole Russia-Trump investigation and wonders what’s being investigated. Note his comments about FARA at the end of this quote:
When James Comey was fired … I didn’t know what to think, because so much of this story is still hidden from view.
Certainly firing an FBI director who has announced the existence of an investigation targeting your campaign is going to be improper in almost every case. And in his post-firing rants about tapes and loyalty, President Trump validated every criticism of him as an impetuous, unstable, unfit executive who additionally is ignorant of the law and lunges for authoritarian solutions in a crisis.
But it’s our job in the media to be bothered by little details, and the strange timeline of the Trump-Russia investigation qualifies as a conspicuous loose end.
[So] What exactly is the FBI investigating? Why was it kept secret from other intelligence chiefs, if that’s what happened? That matters, if we’re trying to gauge what happened last week.
Is it a FARA (Foreign Agent Registration Act) case involving former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn or a lower-level knucklehead like Carter Page?
Since FARA is violated more or less daily in Washington and largely ignored by authorities unless it involves someone without political connections (an awful lot of important people in Washington who appear to be making fortunes lobbying for foreign countries are merely engaged in “litigation support,” if you ask them), it would be somewhat anticlimactic to find out that this was the alleged crime underlying our current white-hot constitutional crisis.
Is it something more serious than a FARA case, like money-laundering for instance, involving someone higher up in the Trump campaign? That would indeed be disturbing, and it would surely be improper – possibly even impeachable, depending upon what exactly happened behind the scenes – for Trump to get in the way of such a case playing itself out.
But even a case like that would be very different from espionage and treason. Gutting a money-laundering case involving a campaign staffer would be more like garden-variety corruption than the cloak-and-dagger nightmares currently consuming the popular imagination.
Sticking narrowly with FARA for the moment, if this were just a FARA case, it would be more than “somewhat anticlimactic to find out that this was the alleged crime underlying our current white-hot constitutional crisis.” It would be, not to put to fine a point on it, highly indicative that something else is going on, that other hands are involved, just as the highly suspicious circumstances around the takedown of Eliot Spitzer indicate the presence of other hands and other actors.
My best guess, for what it’s worth, is that Trump-Russia will devolve into a money-laundering case, and if it does, Trump will likely survive it, since so many others in the big money world do the same thing. But let’s stick with unregistered foreign agents a bit longer.
John McCain, Randy Scheuneman and the Nation of Georgia
Do you remember the 2008 story about McCain advisor Randy Scheunemann, who claimed he no longer represented the nation of Georgia while advising the McCain campaign, even though his small (two-person) firm still retained their business?
In the current  crisis, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia fell into a Soviet trap by moving troops into the disputed territory of South Ossetia and raining artillery and rocket fire on the South Ossetian capital city of Tskhinvali, with a still undetermined loss of civilian life. As in 1956, the Soviets responded with overwhelming force and additional loss of life. Once again the United States could offer only words, not concrete aid to the Georgians.
It is difficult to believe that, like the Hungarians in 1956, the Georgians in 2008 could have taken such action without believing that they could expect support from the United States. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denies that the Bush administration was the agent provocateur in Georgia. To the contrary, a State Department source said that she explicitly warned President Saakashvili in July to avoid provoking Russia.
If this information is correct, then, by inference, John McCain emerges as the most likely suspect as agent provocateur. First, McCain had a unique and privileged pipeline to President Saakashvili (shown to the right in the photo to the right). McCain’s top foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, was a partner in a two-man firm that served as a paid lobbyist for the Georgian government. Scheunemann continued receiving compensation from the firm until the McCain campaign imposed new restrictions on lobbyists in mid-May. Scheunemann reportedly helped arrange a telephone conversation between McCain and Saakashvili on April 17 of this year, while he was still being paid by Georgia.,,,
McCain has benefited politically from the crisis in Georgia. … McCain’s swift and belligerent response to the Soviet actions in Georgia has bolstered his shaky standing with the right-wing of the Republican Party. McCain has also used the Georgian situation to assert his credentials as the hardened warrior ready to do battle against a resurgent Russia. He has pointedly contrasted his foreign policy experience with that of his Democratic opponent Barack Obama. Since the crisis erupted, McCain has focused like a laser on Georgia, to great effect. According to a Quinnipiac University National Poll released on August 19 he has gained four points on Obama since their last poll in mid-July and leads his rival by a two to one margin as the candidate best qualified to deal with Russia.
Was Scheunemann a paid lobbyist for Georgia at the time of these events? He says no. Others aren’t so sure:
Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal-leaning watchdog group, said Scheunemann still has a conflict of interest because his small firm continues to represent foreign clients. The records that show Scheunemann ceased representing foreign countries as of March 1 also show his partner, Michael Mitchell, remains registered to represent the three nations. Mitchell said Tuesday that Scheunemann no longer has any role with Orion Strategies but declined to say whether Scheunemann still is receiving income or profits from the firm.
If almost no one registers under FARA who doesn’t want to, what’s the crime if Flynn didn’t register? The answer seems to be, because he’s Trump appointee Michael Flynn, and FARA is a stick his enemies can beat him with, while they’re looking for something better.
The fact that FARA is a stick almost no one is beaten with, matters not at all, it seems. Not to Democratic politicians and appointees; and not to many journalists either.
An Investigation in Search of a Crime
Questioning the Michael Flynn investigation leads us (and Matt Taibbi) down a further rabbit hole, which includes two questions: what’s being investigated, and how did this investigation start?
Short answer to the first question — no one knows, since unlike the Watergate break-in, this whole effort didn’t start with a crime that needed investigating. It seems to have started with an investigation (how to get rid of Trump) in search of a crime. And one that still hasn’t found evidence of one.
Journalist Robert Parry, who himself was a key Iran-Contra investigator, makes the same point:
In Watergate, five burglars were caught inside the DNC offices on June 17, 1972, as they sought to plant more bugs on Democratic phones. (An earlier break-in in May had installed two bugs, but one didn’t work.) Nixon then proceeded to mount a cover-up of his 1972 campaign’s role in funding the break-in and other abuses of power.
In Iran-Contra, Reagan secretly authorized weapons sales to Iran, which was then designated a terrorist state, without informing Congress, a violation of the Arms Export Control Act. He also kept Congress in the dark about his belated signing of a related intelligence “finding.” And the creation of slush funds to finance the Nicaraguan Contras represented an evasion of the U.S. Constitution.
There was also the attendant Iran-Contra cover-up mounted both by the Reagan White House and later the George H.W. Bush White House, which culminated in Bush’s Christmas Eve 1992 pardons of six Iran-Contra defendants as special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh was zeroing in on possible indictment of Bush for withholding evidence.
By contrast, Russia-gate has been a “scandal” in search of a specific crime. President Barack Obama’s intelligence chieftains have alleged – without presenting any clear evidence – that the Russian government hacked into the emails of the Democratic National Committee and of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta and released those emails via WikiLeaks and other Internet sites. (The Russians and WikiLeaks have both denied the accusations.)
The DNC emails revealed that senior Democrats did not maintain their required independence regarding the primaries by seeking to hurt Sen. Bernie Sanders and help Clinton. The Podesta emails pulled back the curtain on Clinton’s paid speeches to Wall Street banks and on pay-to-play features of the Clinton Foundation.
Hacking into personal computers is a crime, but the U.S. government has yet to bring any formal charges against specific individuals supposedly responsible for the hacking of the Democratic emails. There also has been no evidence that Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russians in the hacking.
Lacking any precise evidence of this cyber-crime or of a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign, Obama’s Justice Department holdovers and now special prosecutor Robert Mueller have sought to build “process crimes,” around false statements to investigators and possible obstruction of justice.
I’ve yet to see actual evidence of an underlying crime — lots of smoke, which is fine as a starting point, but no fire, even after months of looking (and months of official leaking about every damning thing in sight). This makes the current investigation strongly reminiscent of the Whitewater investigation, another case of Alice (sorry, Ken Starr) jumping into every hole she could find looking for a route to Wonderland. Ken Starr finally found one, perjury about a blow job. Will Mueller find something more incriminating? He’s still looking too.
Note that none of this means Trump doesn’t deserve getting rid of. It just means that how he’s gotten rid of matters. (As you ponder this, consider what you think would be fair to do to a Democratic president. I guarantee what happens to Trump will be repeated.)
What Was the Sally Yates Accusation Against Flynn Really About?
Short answer to the second question of my two “further rabbit hole” questions — How did this investigation start? — may be the Sally Yates accusation that Flynn was someone who could be blackmailed.
Here’s Parry on that (same link):
In the case of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, acting Attorney General Sally Yates used the archaic Logan Act of 1799 to create a predicate for the FBI to interrogate Flynn about a Dec. 29, 2016 conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, i.e., after Trump’s election but before the Inauguration.
Green Party leader Jill Stein and retired Lt. General Michael Flynn attending a dinner marking the RT network’s 10-year anniversary in Moscow, December 2015, sitting at the same table as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Logan Act, which has never resulted in a prosecution in 218 years, was enacted during the period of the Alien and Sedition Acts to bar private citizens from negotiating on their own with foreign governments. It was never intended to apply to a national security adviser of an elected President, albeit before he was sworn in.
But it became the predicate for the FBI interrogation — and the FBI agents were armed with a transcript of the intercepted Kislyak-Flynn phone call so they could catch Flynn on any gaps in his recollection, which might have been made even hazier because he was on vacation in the Dominican Republic when Kislyak called.
Yates also concocted a bizarre argument that the discrepancies between Flynn’s account of the call and the transcript left him open to Russian blackmail although how that would work – since the Russians surely assumed that Kislyak’s calls would be monitored by U.S. intelligence and thus offered them no leverage with Flynn – was never explained.
Still, Flynn’s failure to recount the phone call precisely and the controversy stirred up around it became the basis for an obstruction of justice investigation of Flynn and led to President Trump’s firing Flynn on Feb. 13.
Do I need, Cassandra-like, to say this again? None of this means that Trump doesn’t deserve getting rid of. It just means that how he’s gotten rid of matters.
“So Much of the Story Is Still Hidden From View”
I’m not taking Robert Parry as the final word on this, but he’s one word on this, and his word isn’t nothing. If we were looking down rabbit holes for the source of this investigation, for where all this anti-Trump action started, I don’t think Yates’ concerns are where it begins.
I think this story starts well before Trump took office, a rabbit hole I don’t want to jump into yet, but one with John Brennan‘s and James Clapper‘s fingerprints — Obama’s CIA director, Obama’s DNI — all over it. Models of honesty all.
What’s down that hole? Who knows.
What I do know is that Manafort and Flynn not registering as foreign agents puts them squarely in the mainstream of Washington political practice. The fact that these are suddenly crimes of the century makes me just a tad suspicious that, in Matt Taibbi’s words, “so much of this story is still hidden from view.”
I warned you — I’ll be your Cassandra this week. crime