Snakes on a Plane -- And Under the Capitol Dome

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, accompanied by Senators John Barrasso, John Thune, and Majority Whip John Cornyn, on April 25, 2017

To call Donald Trump and his administration corrupt and mendacious is to make the most obvious of statements. Too easy, really. Because if Trump and his boys have tread the path toward treason, so too has the entire Republican Party.

It was a busy Tuesday night. As the president’s son and capo bastone Donald Trump Jr. took to the airwaves to defend his meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer during the presidential campaign on the tantalizing possibility of gleaning opposition research on Hillary Clinton, word broke that the president and his team together crafted a false statement about the nature of that meeting, issued under Junior’s name and delivered to The New York Times. It was later revealed that the Rob Goldstone, the meeting’s broker, made clear in an email to Trump Jr., a prominent surrogate in the Trump campaign, that the oppo at hand was said to come from Russian intelligence services.

The statement-drafting session took place aboard Air Force One, on the president’s return trip from his meeting with world leaders at the G20 summit—one of those horror-comedy developments that have become all too familiar in the Age of Trump, this one evoking the title of the classic film, Snakes on a Plane. “Participants on the plane and back in the United States debated how transparent to be in the statement, according to people familiar with the discussions,” wrote Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman.

That done, the president took to Twitter to announce that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin would collaborate on a cybersecurity initiative—something he said he discussed with Putin during their extended visit on the sidelines of the global gathering. It was a bold move by a U.S. president who likely won his office thanks to the hacking prowess of Kremlin operatives—so audacious, in fact, that Trump had to walk back the proposition the same day.

As day broke on Wednesday, the Senate prepared for a hearing to confirm Trump’s appointment of Christopher Wray to head the Federal Bureau of Investigation, whose former director the president famously canned because he pursued an inquiry into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian operatives too vigorously. The day after his firing of James Comey, Trump gloated about it in an Oval Office meeting with the Russian ambassador and minister of foreign affairs, a meeting at which only Russian media were permitted.

 

IF MEMBERS OF THE MAJORITY party in the United States Congress possessed an ounce of allegiance to the country whose constitution they’ve sworn to protect and defend, there would be no hearing, at least not now, in the wake of the latest revelations. But the die was cast, one sees now in hindsight, the minute all those righteous Republicans decided not to oppose, in any meaningful way, the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Karoli Kuns reminded us on Twitter, nixed attempts by investigators in September to coax members of Congress to craft a bipartisan report that would alert the American people that the intelligence services of Putin had corrupted the U.S. presidential campaign with a hacking operation designed to damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. If any such report were to be issued, the patriot McConnell threatened to paint it as an attempt by then-President Barack Obama to tilt the election in Clinton’s favor.

In other words, McConnell knew that Putin, the head of state of a foreign adversary, was working to subvert the democratic process. And he was fine with that.

It appears that he still is. From Politico: “The investigation in the Senate's being handled by the Intelligence Committee, and I'm sure they'll get to the bottom of whatever happened,” McConnell told reporters.

Meanwhile, they have a new FBI director to confirm, presumably one the Russia-backed president expects to be more accommodating of misdeeds against the nation by members of his administration and campaign. 

 

THE JUNIOR MESS is a tricky one for Vice President Mike Pence, who arrived at his present position through the persuasive powers of Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign manager who was later dumped from that role when the Times revealed his work on behalf of Ukraine’s kleptocratic, Kremlin-backed former president, Viktor Yanukovych. Together with the president’s son and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Manafort met in Trump Tower with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a lawyer close to the Kremlin who has served as a lobbyist for the lifting of U.S. sanctions on the Russian government. The meeting was framed by the intermediary who arranged it as an offer of opposition research on Hillary Clinton conducted by Russian intelligence operatives. It appears that what was requested in exchange was a lifting of the sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

In the statement that Trump and his White House team crafted for Trump Jr., the meeting was described as a discussion about clearing the way for adoptions from Russia, which Putin barred after the U.S. imposed its sanctions. In other words, the meeting was likely a temperature-taker on the willingness of the Trump team to lift those sanctions were Trump to win the presidency.

Sanctions, you’ll recall, was also the topic that got former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in hot water when it was revealed that he had discussed the topic with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition period between administrations.

Revelations of discussions about sanctions with Kislyak also led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s ostensible recusal of himself from matters relating to Russian intervention in the election. (I say “ostensible,” because Sessions signed a memo urging the president to fire Comey, the former FBI director.)

The administration’s concerns over sanctions continued, days before news broke of Trump Jr.’s curious Trump Tower meeting, as evidenced by a visit to Capitol Hill, reported by CNN’s Jeremy Herb and Deirdre Walsh, by members of the Treasury and State Departments to express concerns over a bill before the Senate that would impose new sanctions on Russia, which the administration wants to reserve the right to loosen.

All that talk about sanctions is likely on the mind of the vice president, who is said to have annoyed his boss by distancing himself from Junior’s hijinks, issuing a statement saying it happened before he was on the ticket. In other words, before Manafort laid the gun and knife on the table before him, pricked his finger, and said, “We are all Family now.”

But it was Pence who led the Trump transition team when concerns were raised about the appointment of Flynn to the role of national security adviser. In November, Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland alerted Pence to problematic business dealings by Flynn with entities linked to the government of Turkey’s authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and knew that Flynn had traveled to Moscow in 2015 to celebrate the state-sponsored Russian cable network, RT, where he was seated next to Putin. Whether Pence knew of Flynn’s phone calls with Kislyak regarding those dang sanctions remains a mystery. Both men said Flynn failed to tell Pence that little detail before the vice president went on TV to deny that Trump campaign and transition-team figures had ever met with representatives of Russia. Once both Pence and Flynn agreed to that storyline, Flynn was fired, having served less than a month in the national security post.

During the early days of the administration, Pence was reported to be in frequent touch with Manafort, his champion, the man who managed to elbow out New Jersey Governor Chris Christie from consideration as Trump’s running-mate in favor of Pence. Now, with Pence and Manafort both lawyered up as the Russia investigation proceeds in the hands of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, Pence is likely cut off from his sponsor.

But the life of a made man isn’t an easy one. Omerta, that code of silence, is a tough one to keep when one has ambitions of one’s own. The limits of Pence’s loyalties will be tested—but likely not by his former Republican colleagues in Congress, who have shown little interest in protecting the republic from the racket now run out of the White House, which operates on a model crafted by the dons of organized crime. For the Republican majority, power trumps truth, and they’re all part of the racket.

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