Calling for an independent commission to investigate Trump could be a terrible mistake

Philip Shenon writes: The drumbeat is heard—again. After every national tragedy, or in the wake of a major political scandal or economic crisis, there are calls across Washington for creation of an independent, blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission to investigate. After Pearl Harbor, there was the Roberts Commission, named for its chairman, Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts. After the Kennedy assassination, there was the Warren Commission, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren. After the 2001 terror attacks, the 9/11 Commission. After the 2008 financial meltdown, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

Now, Democratic leaders in Congress—and a handful of Republicans—are urging creation of an independent commission to investigate Russian tampering in the 2016 presidential election and, more specifically and explosively, whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow. The prospects of an independent investigation seemed to grow after this week’s announcement by FBI Director James Comey that the bureau has opened a counterintelligence investigation of Trump aides for their possible ties to the Russian hacking operation that targeted Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The calls for an outside inquiry were louder still after House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes’s stunning claim on Wednesday that some on the Trump transition team had been swept up in government surveillance of other targets.

In welcoming Comey’s disclosure, Adam Schiff of California, the House panel’s ranking Democrat, said that, beyond the inquiries in Congress and the FBI, it was time for creation of “an independent commission that can devote the staff and resources to this investigation that we do not have, and that can be completely removed from any political considerations.” Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly called for creation of a “9/11-style commission” to deal with allegations involving the Russians and the Trump campaign.

Having written histories of both the 9/11 Commission and the Warren Commission and after spending years poring over their long-secret archives, I think I speak with confidence in warning the Democrats to be careful what they wish for. Neither of those blue-ribbon investigations—especially the 9/11 Commission, most often cited by Schiff, Pelosi and their colleagues as a model for a Trump-Russia inquiry—offers much hope that an independent commission would accomplish the Democrats’ goals, at least not if those goals include getting to the bottom of this mess in a timely fashion and holding individuals accountable for their wrongdoing.

The 10-member 9/11 Commission, which was created by Congress over the initially fierce opposition of the Bush administration, is—accurately or not—held out as a gold standard for independent federal investigations. With its membership equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, it produced an elegantly written, unanimous report that documented the terrorist conspiracy behind the 2001 attacks and the larger history of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.

But it is worth remembering that the 9/11 Commission got started late and took a long time to finish—the investigation lasted 20 months, with its final report not issued until July 2004, more than two and a half years after the Twin Towers fell. The logistics of actually setting up that commission were akin to organizing a small federal agency from scratch, albeit one that required a staff of dozens of experts with the highest-level security clearances.

And the 9/11 Commission achieved bipartisan agreement only because the panel abandoned any attempt at individual accountability. [Continue reading…]

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Did Trump miss his vocation — as a truck driver?

The Washington Post reports: President Trump climbed into a big rig driver’s seat, but the Internet was at the wheel Thursday.

Seeking support for the House Republican health-care legislation, Trump invited members of the American Trucking Association to the White House on Thursday.

“As he greeted them, two large trucks were parked in front of the White House,” The Washington Post’s John Wagner reported. “After shaking hands of ATA members positioned in front of the trucks, the president hopped into the rig of one of the 18-wheelers and tooted the horn a couple of times, then closed the door and waved to the news media through the window.”

In the photos, he appeared to be having the time of his life. In one, he appeared to be screaming while clutching the steering wheel, as if speeding down a highway at breakneck speed. Another showed him clenching both hands into triumphant fists. [Continue reading…]

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Schiff: New evidence shows possible Trump-Russia collusion

CNN reports: The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee is claiming that he has been presented with new information on collusion between associates of President Donald Trump and Russia that would merit a grand jury investigation.

Rep. Adam Schiff told CNN Thursday that he had seen additional evidence, but would not specify what it was.

“We continue to get new information that, I think, paints a more complete picture of at least what we know at the outset of our investigation,” Schiff said.

Asked to explain his comments earlier in the week when he said there was more than just “circumstantial evidence of collusion,” Schiff said, “I do think that it’s appropriate to say that it’s the kind of evidence that you would submit to a grand jury at the beginning of an investigation.

“It’s not the kind of evidence that you take to a trial jury when you’re trying to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt. But we’re at the beginning of an investigation, and given the gravity of the subject matter, I think that the evidence certainly warrants us doing a thorough investigation.”

The California Democrat said it was “baffling” that his Republican counterpart on the committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, would not rule out that the information he disclosed Wednesday — the California Republican said communications of Trump and his associates may have been collected by intelligence agencies — came from the White House. [Continue reading…]

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Can Trump handle the truth?

Michael Scherer writes: Generations of American children have learned the apocryphal tale of young George Washington, bravely admitting to his father that he chopped down the cherry tree. The story sprang from a culture that wanted even its fables to serve the ideal of truth. By that standard, the House Intelligence Committee hearing on March 20 should have been a massive humiliation for the President, who followed Washington 228 years later. It is rare for such hearings to be unclassified–and thus televised–but FBI Director James Comey found the largest possible audience for his rebuke of the sitting President.

He had given Donald Trump nearly three weeks to walk back his incendiary tweets accusing President Obama of “wire tapping” Trump Tower during the campaign. If such surveillance had been done through legal channels, the FBI would have known; if done illegally, it was a scandal of historic proportions and the FBI should be digging into it. Either way, Trump’s accusation implicated the integrity of Comey’s bureau, which is why the former prosecutor felt compelled to push back as the cameras rolled. “I have no information that supports those tweets,” Comey said. “We have looked carefully inside the FBI. The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same.”

The statement was concise, direct and damning. The President of the United States had been marked as a fabulist by one of the top officials in government charged with finding the truth. And yet, for the man being called out, the rebuke was nothing of the sort. [Continue reading…]

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Trump aide says London attack by UK-born man justifies travel ban

The Guardian reports: A Trump administration official seized on the Westminster terror attack to justify the president’s blocked travel ban, which targets refugees and immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries, despite confirmation that the attacker was neither an immigrant nor a refugee.

Sebastian Gorka, a national security aide to the president and a former editor for the far-right news site Breitbart, told Fox News’s conservative talk show host Sean Hannity on Wednesday evening that the attack in Westminster, that left three people and the attacker dead, “should be a surprise to nobody”.

“The war is real and that’s why executive orders like president Trump’s travel moratorium are so important,” Gorka said.

Despite the official’s remarks it is almost certain that the British-born attacker, 52 year-old Khalid Masood, would not have been affected by Trump’s ban, which targets immigrants and refugees from a handful of countries. Further, the US would have already been entitled to block Masood from the country, given his extensive criminal record. [Continue reading…]

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Could Trump be convicted of treason?

Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza writes: On Monday, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey confirmed that the FBI is investigating the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Following Comey’s testimony, historian Douglas Brinkley declared, “There’s a smell of treason in the air.”

Between revelations about “longtime [President Donald] Trump confidant” Roger Stone and the controversies surrounding former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, it’s clear that key Trump campaign staff were in contact with Russia. Stone has admitted to being in contact with Guccifer 2.0, likely a front for the Russian government, and repeatedly gave advance notice of disclosures from WikiLeaks, which has been acting suspiciously like an agent of the Russian government. Stone is now on the hook with the Senate Intelligence Committee. And at Monday’s White House briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer conceded that Stone worked on the campaign, and that he and the president “had a long relationship going back years where [Stone] would provide counsel.”

Media outlets and social media are filled with accusations of collusion, calls for a special counsel, and queries about treason. Representative Maxine Waters tweeted simply, “Get ready for impeachment.”

If Trump participated in, facilitated, or encouraged a Russian cyber attack intended to overthrow the United States government by changing the outcome of the 2016 election — and then promoted Russia’s interests after assuming office — Waters may get her wish. Those acts could amount to an impeachable offense. They could even be treason. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. officials: Info suggests Trump associates may have coordinated with Russians

CNN reports: The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, US officials told CNN.

This is partly what FBI Director James Comey was referring to when he made a bombshell announcement Monday before Congress that the FBI is investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, according to one source.

The FBI is now reviewing that information, which includes human intelligence, travel, business and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings, according to those U.S. officials. The information is raising the suspicions of FBI counterintelligence investigators that the coordination may have taken place, though officials cautioned that the information was not conclusive and that the investigation is ongoing. [Continue reading…]

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Schiff: Trump-Russia evidence ‘more than circumstantial’

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Nunes tries to give Trump some cover on wiretap claim

Bloomberg reports: Almost two weeks after President Donald Trump’s tweets accusing his predecessor of wiretapping Trump Tower, the Republican head of the House Intelligence Committee tried to offer some support by saying that the president’s team was caught up in a U.S. surveillance net.

Representative Devin Nunes said Wednesday that the intelligence community collected multiple conversations involving members of Trump’s transition team during legal surveillance of foreign targets after he won election last year. Trump told reporters at the White House, “I somewhat do” feel vindicated by the latest development.

The intercepted communications weren’t captured through wiretaps — the president’s spokesmen had already abandoned that assertion — or through surveillance directed at Trump or his aides, Nunes told reporters at the Capitol before heading to the White House to brief Trump on his findings.

But Nunes said he was “alarmed” that the identities of Trump aides were revealed in intelligence community documents. “Details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value were widely disseminated in an intelligence community report,” he said, adding that he didn’t know if Trump’s “own communications were intercepted.”

Then Nunes headed to the White House to brief the president on what he had learned. “I very much appreciate the fact that they found what they found,” Trump said. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: “The chairman would not answer the question of whether anyone associated with the White House was the source of the new information.”

Nunes says the information he has seen was “widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting.”

In spite of Donald Trump’s lack of interest in receiving intelligence briefings, it seems likely that the White House was already well aware of what Nunes today “revealed.”

Indeed, it’s hard not to wonder whether this is a charade in which Trump leaked information to Nunes so that the Republican Congressman could then theatrically “brief” the president while glossing over the fact that none of this changes the fact that Trump was not the target of a wiretap.

I also wonder whether as events now unfold, the FBI may be gathering growing evidence of a Trump-led effort to subvert a criminal investigation.

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GOP takes up Russia-aligned attack on Soros

Politico reports: A group of congressional Republicans is teaming up with Russia-backed politicians in Eastern Europe with the shared goal of stopping a common enemy: billionaire financier George Soros.

Led by Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, the conservative lawmakers have signed on to a volley of letters accusing Soros of using his philanthropic spending to project his liberal sensibilities onto European politics. As Lee and other senators put it in a March 14 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Soros’ Open Society Foundations are trying “to push a progressive agenda and invigorate the political left.”

It’s an accusation that’s being fomented and championed by Moscow.

Soros, who survived the Nazi occupation of his native Hungary and fled after World War II when it was under Soviet control, has been long a bête noire of the Kremlin, which sees his funding for civil society groups in former Soviet satellite states as part of a plot to install pro-Western governments.

For years, those complaints had generally fallen on deaf ears in Washington.

While Republicans have long regarded Soros as a mortal enemy when it comes to domestic politics (where he has spent tens of millions of dollars backing Democratic candidates and liberal causes), their politics were more aligned on the international stage. Soros’ efforts to boost democracy and root out corruption in former Eastern Bloc countries dovetailed with traditional Republican foreign policy objectives.

But things may have started changing after Donald Trump’s stunning victory in a presidential campaign during which he emphasized nationalist themes. Politicians with nationalist constituencies in several former Eastern Bloc states have become increasingly aggressive in seeking international support for their crusade against Soros, and they seem to have found at least some takers in the GOP. [Continue reading…]

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Spicer denies Trump knew about Manafort’s Russian sugar daddy

The Daily Beast reports: The White House on Wednesday insisted that the president had no idea his former campaign chairman had worked to advance the interests of the Russian government when he was hired last year.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer dismissed “insane” suggestions that Trump might have known about Paul Manafort’s past work for a Kremlin-linked Russian oligarch—noting that his work in Russia was public record.

And it would have been, if Manafort filled out the proper forms. But he didn’t, and he’s now facing allegations of a federal crime as a result.

Spicer’s comments followed an Associated Press report revealing that Manafort worked for Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska. Under his $10 million annual contract, Manafort pursued policies to “greatly benefit” Putin’s government, according to the AP report.

Spicer insisted that the news has no bearing on an ongoing FBI investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to influence the 2016 election.

His comments came a day after he sought to downplay Manafort’s involvement with the 2016 campaign. On Tuesday, Spicer said the former campaign chairman “played a very limited role” on the campaign.

Spicer brushed aside questions on Wednesday about whether Trump should have known about Manafort’s past dealings with an adversarial foreign government, even as he described that work, and Manafort’s representation of other governments, as readily available information. [Continue reading…]

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Manafort had plan to benefit Putin government

The Associated Press reports: President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, secretly worked for a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago and proposed an ambitious political strategy to undermine anti-Russian opposition across former Soviet republics, The Associated Press has learned. The work appears to contradict assertions by the Trump administration and Manafort himself that he never worked for Russian interests.

Manafort proposed in a confidential strategy plan as early as June 2005 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, even as U.S.-Russia relations under Republican President George W. Bush grew worse. Manafort pitched the plans to Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally with whom Manafort eventually signed a $10 million annual contract beginning in 2006, according to interviews with several people familiar with payments to Manafort and business records obtained by the AP. Manafort and Deripaska maintained a business relationship until at least 2009, according to one person familiar with the work.

“We are now of the belief that this model can greatly benefit the Putin Government if employed at the correct levels with the appropriate commitment to success,” Manafort wrote in the 2005 memo to Deripaska. The effort, Manafort wrote, “will be offering a great service that can re-focus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government.”

Manafort’s plans were laid out in documents obtained by the AP that included strategy memoranda and records showing international wire transfers for millions of dollars. How much work Manafort performed under the contract was unclear. [Continue reading…]

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Rex Tillerson didn’t want to become Secretary of State — says his wife made him take the job

Steve Coll writes: ExonMobil’s global headquarters are situated on a campus in Irving, Texas, beside a man-made lake. Employees sometimes refer to the glass-and-granite building as the “Death Star,” because of the power that its executives project. During the eleven years that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson served as ExxonMobil’s chairman and chief executive, he had an office on the top floor, in a suite that employees called the “God Pod.” When I visited a few years ago, the building’s interior design eschewed the striving gaudiness of Trump properties; it was more like a Four Seasons untroubled by guests.

When Tillerson travelled, he rarely flew commercial. The corporation’s aviation-services division maintained a fleet of Gulfstream and Bombardier corporate jets at Dallas Love Field Airport, a short drive away. Whether Tillerson was flying to Washington, Abuja, Abu Dhabi, or Jakarta, he would typically be driven in a sedan to a waiting jet. He boarded with a meticulously outlined trip schedule and briefing books. He worked and slept aboard in private comfort, undisturbed by strangers, attended by corporate flight attendants.

During his years running ExxonMobil, Tillerson rarely gave interviews. (He declined my repeated requests for one when I was working on a book about the company, “Private Empire,” which came out in 2012, although he authorized some background interviews with other ExxonMobil executives.) Tillerson’s infrequent public appearances were usually controlled and scripted. [Continue reading…]

Erin McPike writes: hat seems to make Tillerson, with his Texas drawl, different from secretaries past is his relative disinterest in the pomp and circumstance that some seem to believe is part and parcel of the job.

When he deplaned in Tokyo on Wednesday night, he appeared ever so slightly uncomfortable to have to walk through the throng of media and others there to greet him.

At every one of his bilateral meetings over four days in East Asia, Tillerson shook hands and posed for cameras as part of the chore he knew he had to muddle through. He dutifully stood for photos in the Korean Demilitarized Zone but seemed to most enjoy several intense, close, face-to-face conversations with Army Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, Combined Forces Command, and United Nations Command.

So why, then, did he want the gig?

“I didn’t want this job. I didn’t seek this job.” He paused to let that sink in.

A beat or two passed before an aide piped up to ask him why he said yes.

“My wife told me I’m supposed to do this.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s ‘Muslim laptop ban’ makes little sense

Ishaan Tharoor writes: There are quite a few reasons to be both perplexed and skeptical about the new rules. Security experts interviewed by a number of outlets were bemused by the decision. Some doubted that placing laptops in cargo holds would be any safer than carrying them aboard. Journalists and researchers also feared that the measures would risk compromising sensitive information and sources once their laptops are no longer in their immediate possession.


“It’s weird, because it doesn’t match a conventional threat model,” said Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, in an interview with the Guardian. “If you assume the attacker is interested in turning a laptop into a bomb, it would work just as well in the cargo hold. If you’re worried about hacking, a cellphone is a computer.”

Saj Ahmad, the chief analyst at aviation consultancy firm StrategicAero Research in London, told Al Jazeera that the move seems to contradict the U.S. federal aviation authority’s own stated concerns over the presence of lithium batteries (which are found in laptops and other such devices) in a plane’s cargo hold. He also noted that the new edicts wouldn’t deter a terror attack launched from an airport in Paris or Brussels — European capitals where jihadist cells have already carried out deadly and spectacular attacks.

“It does nothing to prevent security [threats] from places like France that have suffered a lot of terrorism in recent years,” said Ahmad. “How would Homeland Security mitigate against a passenger from France with a device in the cabin in that situation?”

The answer, critics suggest, is that the electronics ban is not about security.

“Three of the airlines that have been targeted for these measures — Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways — have long been accused by their U.S. competitors of receiving massive effective subsidies from their governments,” wrote political scientists Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman. “These airlines have been quietly worried for months that President Trump was going to retaliate. This may be the retaliation.”

Farrell and Newman suggested Tuesday’s order is an example of the Trump administration “weaponizing interdependence” — using its leverage in a world where American airports are key “nodes” in global air travel to weaken competitors. My colleague Max Bearak detailed how this could be a part of Trump’s wider protectionist agenda. In February, President Trump met with executives of U.S. airlines and pledged that he would help them compete against foreign carriers that receive subsidies from their home governments. [Continue reading…]

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Why Steve Bannon wants you to believe in the Deep State

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon write: Like a George Lucas Death Star or one of those planet-eating monsters in Star Trek, the Deep State has crashed into the national consciousness. Suddenly, it’s not just an obsession of those who inhabit the fevered, conspiracy-laced dream world of Alex Jones or Breitbart, but also the subject of countless news stories and headlines of all stripes across the media spectrum—bigger than anything imaginable, undermining the elected president of the United States, threatening the fundaments of our democracy.

Like the Death Star, the American Deep State does not, of course, exist. An appropriation from countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and Algeria, where real networks of intelligence, defense and interior ministry officials exercise real power to drive policy, sideline elected officials and eliminate opponents, the American Deep State is nothing more than an invention of President Donald Trump and his allies—the convenient enemy from within that they blame for their frustrations. The leaks that undid former national security adviser Michael Flynn? That was the Deep State. Reports of extensive contacts between the Trump campaign and all manner of other smears? The Deep State. The president is said to be irate about this rear-guard action led by, in the words of White House press secretary Sean Spicer, Obama administration holdovers who have “burrowed in” and “continue to espouse the agenda of the previous administration.” Trump’s unshakable certainty that his Trump Tower phone has been tapped seems to be rooted—disingenuously or not—in this belief.

Many, including Loren DeJonge Schulman, Max Fisher and David Remnick, have written insightfully on the fatuousness of these charges, and there is plenty more to say: for example, that there may be only one Obama appointee left in the two premier Deep State institutions, the FBI and CIA. That’s FBI Director James Comey, whose unprecedented intervention in the presidential election would give Hillary Clinton a much better basis for complaining about the political manipulations of unelected officials than Trump. At the CIA, all four Obama appointees have left, and it is unlikely any Obama people remain at the National Security Agency and the passel of other intelligence agencies, where there were never more than a handful. The problems that plague Trump have nothing to do with former President Barack Obama, or some covert “opposition.” Like it or not, leaks abound when career people feel their agencies are being unfairly attacked, as they did after Trump accused the intelligence community of politicization and fabrication, or when they fear that an administration is dangerously undermining U.S. interests, a worry engendered by Trump’s denigration of traditional U.S. allies and lionization of Russian President Vladimir Putin. [Continue reading…]

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John Dean: White House is in a ‘cover up mode’

 

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