Resist normalizing criminal behavior in the age of Trump

This is not normal and should not be happening. Period. Full stop.

Today the FBI and intelligence agencies will provide a briefing in an ongoing criminal investigation of the Trump campaign’s “collusion” with Russia to Midnight Run Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee chairman who previously had to recuse himself from his own committee’s Russia investigation because he was caught conspiring with the Trump administration to fabricate the conspiracy theories that the Obama administration surveilled Trump Tower and inappropriately unmasked the identities of Trump campaign officials picked up on signal intelligence to undermine the Special Counsel’s investigation; and Trey “Benghazi!” Gowdy, who spent years promoting Benghazi conspiracy theories against Hillary Clinton that amounted to nothing according to the findings of his own committee reports. These are two of the least credible partisan members of Congress.

More importantly, this meeting is going to occur without the presence of their Democratic counterparts. This is entirely improper and unacceptable. Moreover, Trey Gowdy does not possess the necessary security clearance for this classified intelligence briefing (he is not a member of the Gang of Eight).

There is no doubt that this meeting is certain to result in Nunes and/or Gowdy selectively leaking cherry-picked classified intelligence (a crime) to FAUX News aka Trump TV as soon as today to support the new conspiracy theory of “Spygate,” a label that Trump and his propaganda machine have concocted in order to undermine the Special Counsel’s investigation. The Special Counsel should be considering charging them as accessories to Trump’s conspiracy to obstruct justice, which is what this briefing constitutes.

The Washington Post reports, After day of negotiations, Democrats and Republicans will be briefed on secret FBI source who aided Russia probe:

The first briefing, at noon, will be for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), according to the Justice Department and Ryan’s office.

The Justice Department said Chief of Staff John Kelly will attend both briefings — contradicting White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s assertion earlier this week that he would only broker the gathering.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein should not have authorized this. He knows this is obstruction of justice.

A suspect in a criminal investigation is not entitled to see the evidence, particularly classified evidence in a national security investigation, before charges, if any, have been filed by the prosecutor. This is not allowable, and there is no legitimate purpose to this special briefing for Trump partisans who have engaged in conspiracy theories to undermine the Special Counsel investigation.

The second briefing, at 2 p.m., will be for Gowdy and the Gang of Eight, which includes the top Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, as well as the top Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate Intelligence committees, the Justice Department said.

This second meeting is also improper. There is no basis for the Gang of Eight to meet regarding an ongoing criminal investigation by the Department of Justice. Their oversight function is at the conclusion of any criminal investigation involving national security.

This second briefing was agreed to only to give the imprimatur of legitimacy to these extraordinarily improper departures from Department of Justice rules and norms. The Gang of Eight must insist upon knowing exactly what has been divulged in the earlier meeting, and if the intelligence agency heads, Devin Nunes, Trey Gowdy and John Kelly are not forthcoming, everyone in the first briefing should be subject to investigation.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Thursday morning: “While it’s a good thing that the Gang of Eight will be briefed, the separate meeting with a known partisan whose only intent is to undermine the Mueller investigation makes no sense and should be called off. What is the point of the separate briefing if not to cause partisan trouble?” Schumer was apparently referring to Nunes as a “known partisan.”

Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, as well as other FBI and Justice Department briefers and staff, will provide information at the meetings, the Justice Department said.

The stakes are high. President Trump and his conservative allies have made the confidential source the focal point of their latest line of attack against the Russia probe, alleging that the FBI implanted a spy in the Trump campaign for political purposes. The source, Stefan A. Halper, a former University of Cambridge professor and veteran of past GOP administrations, had contacts with three advisers to the campaign who had contacts with the Russians when Trump was running for president to discuss foreign policy.

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At Trump’s request, the Justice Department asked its inspector general on Sunday to explore the allegation of political spying (also an improper interference with the independence of the Department of Justice by the suspect in a criminal investigation).

But that did little to allay the concerns of conservative lawmakers, who want to know more about Halper for themselves. Nunes, in particular, has been locked in a weeks-long battle with the Justice Department for materials on Halper. The department has so far been unwilling to turn over documents to Congress, citing concerns about Halper’s safety and worries about damaging the U.S.’s relationship with intelligence partners.

Trump could order the department to turn over documents, though some fear that could provoke a potentially catastrophic confrontation — with Justice Department leaders quitting in protest or refusing the order and forcing Trump to fire them. But in the past 24 hours, fears about the substance of the meeting have taken a back seat to political bickering about the guest list.

All of this is the result of Donald Trump and his propaganda machine concocting an entirely bogus conspiracy theory in an attempt to undermine the Special Counsel’s investigation (i.e., obstruction of justice). There is no evidence for ‘Spygate’ — but there is a reason Trump invented it:

“Spygate” made its debut on Wednesday morning during Trump’s “executive time,” the period during which he watches “Fox and Friends” before starting his official day. The term is a shorthand meant to refer to a scandal that Trump has insisted is potentially the worst in American history, easily eclipsing Watergate.

Not to damp his enthusiasm or anything, it’s also a scandal for which there’s no public evidence.

Trump’s claim is that the FBI put a “spy” in his campaign at the behest of Barack Obama’s White House as part of an effort to undercut his candidacy by alleging collusion with the Russians. It’s hard to square that claim with 1) Trump’s repeated insistence that the Russia investigation began only after he won as an excuse for the Democrats’ loss, and 2) the fact that America only learned about the investigation into Russian collusion after voting had already occurred. If Obama and the Democrats put a spy in his campaign to undercut his chances, they made a small strategic error by not mentioning anything publicly before votes were cast. But that’s the claim, because internal consistency is not a requirement for any conspiracy theory, much less this one.

As it stands, the evidence that there was a “spy” — or multiple “spies” — within his campaign is as follows:

  1. A professor based in Britain reached out to Trump campaign advisers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page before the election, apparently to evaluate any connections they might have had to Russian actors. The professor also had coffee once with senior adviser Sam Clovis, during which they discussed China.
  2. A former adviser, fired in the middle of the campaign, is telling people that he knows of another spy, but hasn’t offered any evidence to that effect.
  3. A “lot of people” are saying there were spies in the campaign, per Trump.

As always, When Trump says “a lot of people” he means people on FAUX News aka Trump TV, his state propaganda television network.

Trump’s case really comes down to the first point, that professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge who spoke with Trump staffers. His name, The Post reported this week, is Stefan Halper, and he did indeed contact both Page and Papadopoulos.

The argument that Halper was a spy planted in Trump’s campaign, though, early on suffers from two significant flaws.

The first, as we noted on Tuesday, is that Halper contacted Papadopoulos and Page only after they were already on the FBI’s radar. The FBI had interviewed Page in March; he met Halper in July, after he’d traveled to Moscow. The FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign began in July; Halper’s outreach to Papadopoulos began in September.

The second, of course, is that Halper was never embedded in the campaign. Nor is there any evidence he was ever spying on the campaign. His outreach was to three specific individuals, including Clovis — whose position in the campaign meant that he was a point of contact for both Page and Papadopoulos. It would be a bit like trying to take down the Mob by interviewing street hoods whom you thought you could convict on shoplifting charges.

So that’s all the public evidence, those meetings with a guy who was not in any sense part of Trump’s campaign.

* * *

This is also an administration that, early in 2017, invited Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to the White House complex to view classified documents that it believed would help bolster Trump’s off-the-cuff claim about phones at Trump Tower having been wiretapped during the campaign. That “spying” also did not occur, but the White House — or at least White House staffers — had few qualms about sharing material that might help prove it.

The “tapped phones” incident is a good reminder that we’ve seen this dance before: Trump whips up a conspiracy theory out of the ether and uses it to suggest that he is an unfair victim. He’s never been terribly worried about backing up his assertions with facts; his claims about seeing Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks come to mind. He learned from that incident that he could make a false claim and that his base would throw up enough scaffolding around it that it could stand on its own. It’s happened time and again, with Trump saying that something that didn’t happen actually did and his allies scrambling for scraps of evidence that suggest it might have.

So now it’s Spygate. As special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe advances toward its conclusion, whatever that might be, the urgency of having Spygates to offset the political risk posed by the Russia investigation increases. “Spygate” is no more robust a theory than “tapped phones”-gate, but it’s more important now because the political stakes are so much higher. Trump will stick with it for a while — unless something else pops up that might be a more effective foil for him or a better way to undercut the legitimacy of the FBI.

That’s really the game, of course: If the FBI is investigating him, then it’s necessary to present as much evidence as possible that the FBI is biased in doing so. Always that need to give people a reason to doubt the negative things being said about him, just like his attacks on the press:

CBS’s Leslie Stahl explained to PBS NewsHour‘s Judy Woodruff and the audience. “I said, you know that is getting tired, why are you doing this? You’re doing it over and over and it’s boring. … He said, ‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.’ He said that. So put that in your head for a minute.”

Trump can make “Spygate” happen. He has a sycophant constituency of people in his cult of personality who are willing to believe anything their “Dear Leader” says, and conservative media personalities who are willing and eager to spread baseless conspiracy theories and lies to make it happen.

This is how a democracy dies unless people stand up and fight back against the lies and propaganda, and refuse to go quietly into that dark night of fascism. The American people should be marching in the streets of Washington D.C. demanding that Putin’s puppet in the White House and his fellow travelers in the Republican Party be held accountable for their abuse of power and obstruction of justice under the law. And then kick every one of their disloyal and unpatriotic asses out of Congress this November for violating their oath of office to defend the Constitution against all enemies, both foreign and domestic.

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