Saturday, November 18, 2017
The backlash to the Republican tax agenda is already getting Democrats elected — in Oklahoma. On Tuesday night, 26-year-old mental-health counselor Allison Ikley-Freeman won election to the Sooner State’s Senate, in a district that backed Donald Trump by 40 points last November.
Ikley-Freeman did not win on the strength of her fundraising or political experience. She boasted little of the former and none of the latter. But like the three other Oklahoma Democrats who have evicted Republicans from state-house seats this year, Ikley-Freeman enjoyed one decisive advantage: She bore no responsibility for the regressive tax policies that had left the state in fiscal ruin.
Oklahoma was a low-tax state even before the 2010 GOP wave crashed over it. But tea-party Republican governor Mary Fallin and her conservative allies weren’t content with the low baseline they’d inherited. Like President Trump and congressional Republicans, Fallin believed that cutting taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses was the way to grow an economy, no matter what level those taxes were currently at, or how novel circumstances might change the government’s budgetary needs.
So, when global oil prices crashed in 2014, and took Oklahoma’s budget down with them, Fallin was unfazed. Faced with giant, annual revenue shortfalls, the governor didn’t just refuse to raise taxes — she cut them even further. Last year, the Sooner State found itself with a $1.3 billion budget gap — and Fallin responded by implementing a $147 million tax cut for Oklahoma’s highest earners, and preserving a $470 million tax break for oil companies that start new horizontal wells.
Instead of asking wealthy citizens and businesses to pay a bit more (or, in the former case, to pay as much as they had been previously), Fallin decided to strip resources from the state’s beleaguered public-school system. Between 2008 and 2015, Oklahoma had slashed its per-student education spending by 23.6 percent, more than any other state in the country. But Republicans felt there was still more fat to cut: While rich Sooners collected their tax breaks, Oklahoma schools suffered a 16.5 percent funding cut in the latter half of 2016. Many of the state’s school districts now make due with four-day weeks. Others struggle to find competent teachers, as the state’s refusal to pay competitive salaries has chased talented educators out of state or into other professions. Oklahoma’s health-care and criminal-justice systems are plagued by similarly draconian cuts. Bridges in the state are literally crumbling. Potholes litter roads.
But even this austerity has not been nearly enough to plug the state’s budget holes. Fallin and the GOP have become reliant on raiding emergency reserves to make up the rest. This has left Oklahoma profoundly vulnerable to the next recession.
This week, Republicans in Oklahoma’s House of Representatives passed an emergency budget bill in a special session. The legislation does increase taxes on oil production. But instead of raising taxes on the wealthy, or ending the state’s exemption for capital gains — as Oklahoma Democrats had proposed — Republicans opted to cut $60 million from state agencies, and drain another few million dollars from the state’s rainy-day funds.
Oklahoma’s overwhelmingly Republican voters do not like this idea. As polling by the (left-leaning) Oklahoma Policy Institute demonstrates, there is no majoritarian support for gutting public schools, so as to let rich people pay low taxes, even in the heart of red America.
That poll also found 74 percent of Oklahomans saying that increasing teacher pay should be a major priority for their government — and 64 percent saying that expanding health-care access should be one — compared to just 38 percent who said the same about “lowering taxes.” This goes a ways toward explaining why Democrats keep winning special elections in the state. . . . Now, the discrepancy between the GOP’s fiscal priorities, and its voters’ material needs, has become stark enough to challenge partisan loyalties.
In Washington, Republicans are working hard to make Oklahoma’s experience a national one. On Thursday, the House passed multitrillion-dollar tax cuts on corporations and the wealthy, even as exigent circumstances — among them, increasingly frequent hurricanes, the decay of long-neglected infrastructure, a drug-overdose epidemic, and the retirement of the baby-boomers — are making it more expensive for the federal government to meet its basic obligations to the American people.
[L]ike Kansas and Louisiana before it, Oklahoma has demonstrated that the Republican Party’s prescription for prosperity is a snake-oil tonic with life-threatening side effects.
And when “conservative” voters see what the trade-offs of small government actually are — bigger McMansions for the elite, four-day school weeks for the rabble — they start longing for a new deal.
Congressional Republicans don’t seem the least bit concerned by the abject failure of their economic model in these states. A Quinnipiac poll released this week found that only 16 percent of Americans believe President Trump’s tax plan will lower their taxes, while 59 percent say the plan will favor the wealthy over the middle class. These are shocking figures given how much money Republicans and conservative outside groups have devoted to propaganda for their bill.
Republican voters in deep-red states like Oklahoma may cling to their partisan identities tighter than most. But they also know the true costs of the GOP’s economic orthodoxy on a more visceral level than other Americans do. On Tuesday, that knowledge helped a 26-year-old, lesbian Democrat win a seat in the Oklahoma Senate. Someday, it just might turn large swathes of the American heartland purple — if Democratic donors decide to spend a bit less on pointless, pro-impeachment ad campaigns, and a lot more on liberating red states from reactionary rule.
On a fall evening two years ago, donors gathered during a conference at a Ritz-Carlton hotel near Washington to raise funds for a 31-year-old candidate for the Ohio legislature who was a rising star in evangelical politics.
Goodman, 33, abruptly resigned this week after state legislative leaders learned of what the House speaker called “inappropriate behavior related to his state office.” Local media outlets have reported the behavior involved a consensual sexual encounter with a male visitor in his legislative office.
The Oct. 18, 2015 incident involving Goodman was discreetly handled by Perkins, the council’s president and a prominent leader on the religious right. Goodman at the time was campaigning for office after an impressive run in Washington as a congressional aide who rose to managing director of a conservative coalition Perkins oversees.He worked for the Perkins-run network from February 2013 to March 2015
Goodman was close to the CNP as managing director of the Conservative Action Project, a group formed by CNP to counter President Obama’s agenda, including the Affordable Care Act.As president of the Family Research Council, which opposes same-sex marriage and abortion and calls homosexuality “unnatural,” Perkins supports traditional values in U.S. politics and wields considerable clout in his political endorsements. His endorsement of Trump in July 2016 helped evangelicals overcome doubts about the GOP nominee.
|Trump with evangelical "leaders"|
Many traditions in the history of Christianity have attempted to combat and correct the worship of three things: money, sex and power. Catholic orders have for centuries required “poverty, chastity, and obedience” as disciplines to counter these three idols. Other traditions, especially among Anabaptists in the Reformation, Pentecostals and revival movements down through the years have spoken the language of simplicity in living, integrity in relationships and servanthood in leadership. All of our church renewal traditions have tried to provide authentic and more life-giving alternatives to the worship of money, sex and power . . . .
PresidentTrump is an ultimate and consummate worshiper of money, sex and power. American Christians have not really reckoned with the climate he has created in our country and the spiritual obligation we have to repair it. As a result, the soul of our nation and the integrity of the Christian faith are at risk.
As Abraham Lincoln, a politician with a deep knowledge of Christianity, stated in his first inaugural address, political action can, undertaken rightly, appeal to the “better angels of our nature.” But political action undertaken badly, and reckless inaction, can mislead and dispirit us — and appeal to our worst demons, such as greed, fear, bigotry and resentment, which are never far below the surface.
Trump’s adulation of money and his love for lavish ostentation (he covers everything in gold) are the literal worship of wealth by someone who believes that his possessions belong only to himself, instead of that everything belongs to God and we are its stewards.
Lately, faith leaders have spoken out against the proposed Republican budgets and tax plans. The Circle of Protection , a group of leaders from all the major branches of Christianity, of which I am a part, said in a letter to Congress: “We care deeply about many issues facing our country and world, but ending persistent hunger and poverty is a top priority that we all share. These are biblical and gospel issues for us, not just political or partisan concerns. In Matthew 25, Jesus identified himself with those who are immigrants, poor, sick, homeless and imprisoned, and challenged his followers to welcome and care for them as we would care for Jesus himself.” . . . . And yet, much Christian support for Trump and his administration continues.
Then there’s sex. Before Trump, Republicans liked to suggest that theirs was a fairly Puritanical party of family values with high standards for its candidates (despite many embarrassing exceptions). But Trump’s boastful treatment of women . . . and his serial infidelity and adultery are clear evidence of his idolatrous worship of sex. And it no longer seems like his is a unique case.
[T]he polls showing that evangelical Christians in Alabama express the most support for Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore — even after seven women have accused him of unwanted advances when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s — may be the most damning testimony as to the politicized moral hypocrisy of white evangelicals. Or as Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore warned his fellow religionists this past week, “Christian, if you cannot say definitively, no matter what, that adults creeping on teenage girls is wrong, do not tell me how you stand against moral relativism.” And yet, according to a new poll, 72 percent of evangelicals now say that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life,” though only 30 percent thought so a mere six years ago .
Other responses to Roy Moore’s alleged behavior have been even worse than silence. . . . Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler even used a biblical story to legitimize Moore’s alleged offenses. “Take Joseph and Mary,” he said. “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”
When it comes to worshiping power, Republican Christians most obviously stray from scripture in their attitudes on race. When 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump despite his blatant and constant use of racial bigotry for his own political interest, it showed that the operative word in the phrase “white Christian” is “white” and not “Christian.”
Week after week, Trump reveals that his leadership is always and only about himself; not the people, the country or even his party — and certainly not about godliness. . . . . The conflicts between his money, power and governing are always resolved in the same way — by his selfishness; by whatever happens to appeal to him, and only him, in that moment.
Christians, rightly enough, have never expected perfect leaders — just those who can keep up their end of the moral struggle. But for Trump, there is no moral struggle. He is not immoral — knowing what is right and wrong, and choosing the wrong — he rather seems amoral: lacking any kind of moral compass for his personal or professional life. That’s why the Christian compromise with Trump and his ilk has put faithful Americans at such serious risk.
Central to the health of our society is for American Christians to rescue an authentic, compassionate and justice-oriented faith from the clutches of partisan abuse, and from the idolatry of money, sex and power. . . . . it also means “turning around” to equity and healing personally, and systemically in our institutions of policing and criminal justice, education, economics, voting rights, immigration and refugees, racial geography, housing, and more.
Friday, November 17, 2017
I spent part of my convalescence from a recent illness reading some of the comprehensive timelines of the Russia investigation (which indicates, I suppose, a sickness of another sort). One, compiled by Politico, runs to nearly 12,000 words — an almost book-length account of stupidity, cynicism, hubris and corruption at the highest levels of American politics.
The cumulative effect on the reader is a kind of nausea no pill can cure. Most recently, we learned about Donald Trump Jr.’s direct communications with WikiLeaks — which CIA Director Mike Pompeo has called “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia” — during its efforts to produce incriminating material on Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. But this is one sentence in an epic of corruption. There is the narrative of a campaign in which high-level operatives believed that Russian espionage could help secure the American presidency, and acted on that belief. There is the narrative of deception to conceal the nature and extent of Russian ties. And there is the narrative of a president attempting to prevent or shut down the investigation of those ties and soliciting others for help in that task.
In all of this, there is a spectacular accumulation of lies. Lies on disclosure forms. Lies at confirmation hearings. Lies on Twitter. Lies in the White House briefing room. Lies to the FBI. Self-protective lies by the attorney general. Blocking and tackling lies by Vice President Pence. This is, with a few exceptions, a group of people for whom truth, political honor, ethics and integrity mean nothing.
What are the implications? President Trump and others in his administration are about to be hit by a legal tidal wave. We look at the Russia scandal and see lies. A skilled prosecutor sees leverage. People caught in criminal violations make more cooperative witnesses. Robert S. Mueller III and his A-team of investigators have plenty of stupidity and venality to work with. They are investigating an administration riven by internal hatreds — also the prosecutor’s friend. And Trump has already alienated many potential allies in a public contest between himself and Mueller.
But the implications of all this are not only legal and political. We are witnessing what happens when right-wing politics becomes untethered from morality . . . . What does public life look like without the constraining internal force of character — without the firm ethical commitments.
It looks like a presidential campaign unable to determine right from wrong and loyalty from disloyalty. It looks like an administration engaged in a daily assault on truth and convinced that might makes right. It looks like the residual scum left from retreating political principle — the worship of money, power and self-promoted fame. The Trumpian trinity.
It looks like Breitbart News’s racial transgressiveness, providing permission and legitimacy to the alt-right. It looks like the cruelty and dehumanization practiced by Dinesh D’Souza, dismissing the tears and trauma of one Roy Moore accuser as a “performance.” And it looks like the Christian defense of Moore, which has ceased to be recognizably Christian.
This may be the greatest shame of a shameful time. . . . . A hint: It is the institution that is currently — in some visible expressions — overlooking, for political reasons, credible accusations of child molestation. Some religious leaders are willing to call good evil, and evil good, in service to a different faith — a faith defined by their political identity. This is heresy at best; idolatry at worst.
Many of the people who should be supplying the moral values required by self-government have corrupted themselves. The Trump administration will be remembered for many things. The widespread, infectious corruption of institutions and individuals may be its most damning legacy.
Jared Kushner received emails in September 2016 about WikiLeaks and about a “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite” and forwarded them to another campaign official, according to a letter to his attorney from the bipartisan leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Kushner failed to turn over the relevant documents when they asked for them last month.
In a section of the letter titled “Missing documents,” Grassley and Feinstein said Kushner had handed over some materials but omitted communications that mentioned some of the people connected to the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“If, as you suggest, Mr. Kushner was unaware of, for example, any attempts at Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, then presumably there would be few communications concerning many of the persons identified,” the lawmakers wrote.
Grassley and Feinstein also alluded to documents they received from other witnesses on which Kushner was copied.
“Other parties have produced September 2016 email communications to Mr. Kushner concerning WikiLeaks, which Mr. Kushner then forwarded to another campaign official,” they wrote. “Such documents should have been produced...but were not.
“Likewise,” the letter continued, “other parties have produced documents concerning a ‘Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite’ which Mr. Kushner also forwarded. And still others have produced communications with Sergei Millian, copied to Mr. Kushner. Again, these do not appear in Mr. Kushner’s production despite being responsive to the second request. You also have not produced any phone records that we presume exist and would relate to Mr. Kushner’s communications regarding several requests.”
They asked Kushner to turn over all responsive documents by Nov. 27.
According to the lawmakers, Kushner’s attorney suggested providing some documents might “implicate the president’s Executive Privilege.” In their letter, they asked Lowell to resolve those issues and produce the documents or create a “privilege log” to detail over which documents the president is asserting executive privilege.
Grassley and Feinstein also said Kushner declined to produce documents connected to his security clearance application, citing their confidentiality. The lawmakers said they intend to take Lowell up on a separate request to visit his office to review the documents in person, but they said the committee would not waive its request to obtain its own copies.
The committee is also seeking another broad group of documents about Kushner’s contacts with former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Grassley and Feinstein said they’d like all communications between Kushner and Flynn since Election Day 2016, as well as any communications that reference email hacking, Russia, the Magnitsky Act and other people or entities that have been implicated in the Russian interference scheme.
The lawmakers said they have yet to receive access to Kushner’s lengthy interview with the Senate Intelligence Committee and are seeking a copy of it from Lowell to determine “whether the transcript satisfies the needs of our investigation.”
Thursday, November 16, 2017
It turns out that electing President Trump was not the apex of Republicans’ political insanity. Since last November, consider the Trump GOP’s track record:
The GOP’s idea of health-care reform was trying to remove millions of people from health-care coverage while giving tax cuts to the super rich. Having learned their lesson (not), Senate Republicans now support a tax bill that will remove millions of people from health-care coverage while giving tax cuts to the super rich — and to big corporations. Its tax plan contains permanent, huge tax breaks for corporations (e.g. reducing the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent) and a new 25 percent rate for pass-throughs but temporary breaks for the middle class (e.g. the $300 “family flexibility” tax credit per filer).
The GOP’s environmental agenda includes climate-change denial (despite the government’s own confirmation that climate change is real and man-made), lifting the ban on importing elephant trophies (the first sons are avid big-game hunters and Christmas is around the corner) and trying in vain to save the coal industry. Trump’s GOP has made China look like a leader in global environmental issues.
The GOP president now embraces (literally, I think) autocrats like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, applauds autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a stolen election, barely if at all brings up human rights in China and Saudi Arabia, and has not a bad word to say about Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. The GOP now opposes multilateral trade deals (the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership) while China makes trade deals and the TPP countries forge a deal among themselves without the United States.
The GOP’s constitutional conservatism amounts to giving a totally unqualified nominee who hid a conflict of interest a lifetime federal court appointment. . . . . “Brett J. Talley, the young lawyer nominated by President Trump for a lifetime federal judgeship in Alabama . . . did not, however, identify any family members — including his wife, who is one of President Trump’s attorneys. . . . He’s actually one of four nominees rated “unqualified” by the American Bar Association.
The GOP president believes 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally based on no evidence whatsoever but doesn’t think the Russians meddled in our election despite the unanimous findings of our intelligence services.
The GOP-led Congress is content to tolerate Trump’s nepotism, massive conflicts of interest and possible receipt of foreign emoluments. It looks the other way as a president monetizes the office, hawking his properties at every opportunity.
This is not a party that can be described as coherent, sensible, respectful of the rule of law, dedicated to equal protection or grounded in reality — let alone conservative. Today’s GOP stands for a set of crackpot ideas, unworkable and unpopular policies and a president not remotely fit to remain in office. Some sunny optimists think the GOP can be saved. From our perspective, it’s not worth trying.
Moscow, summer 1991. Mikhail Gorbachev is in power. Official relations with the west have softened, but the KGB still assumes all western embassy workers are spooks. The KGB agents assigned to them are easy to spot. They have a method. Sometimes they pursue targets on foot, sometimes in cars. The officers charged with keeping tabs on western diplomats are never subtle.
One of their specialities is breaking into Moscow apartments. The owners are always away, of course. The KGB leave a series of clues – stolen shoes, women’s tights knotted together, cigarette butts stomped out and left demonstratively on the floor. Or a surprise turd in the toilet, waiting in grim ambush. The message, crudely put, is this: we are the masters here! We can do what the fuck we please!
Back then, the KGB kept watch on all foreigners, especially American and British ones. The UK mission in Moscow was under close observation. . . . One of those the KGB routinely surveilled was a 27-year-old diplomat, newly married to his wife, Laura, on his first foreign posting, and working as a second secretary in the chancery division. In this case, their suspicions were right.
The “diplomat” was a British intelligence officer. His workplace was a grand affair: chandeliers, mahogany-panelled reception rooms, gilt-framed portraits of the Queen and other royals hanging from the walls. His desk was in the embassy library, surrounded by ancient books. The young officer’s true employer was an invisible entity back in London – SIS, the Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6.
His name was Christopher Steele. Years later, he would be commissioned to undertake an astonishing secret investigation. It was an explosive assignment: to uncover the Kremlin’s innermost secrets with relation to Donald Trump. Steele’s findings, and the resulting dossier, would shake the American intelligence community and cause a political earthquake not seen since the dark days of Richard Nixon and Watergate.
It’s unclear who recruited Steele. Traditionally, certain Cambridge tutors were rumoured to identify promising MI6 candidates. Whatever the route, Steele’s timing was good. After three years at MI6, he was sent to the Soviet Union in April 1990, soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the communist bloc across eastern Europe.
It was a tumultuous time. Seventy years after the Bolshevik revolution, the red empire was crumbling. The Baltic states had revolted against Soviet power; their own national authorities were governing in parallel with Moscow. In June 1991, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic elected a democratic president, Boris Yeltsin. Food shortages were not uncommon.
The atmosphere was optimistic. It seemed to Steele that the country was shifting markedly in the right direction. Citizens once terrified of interacting with outsiders were ready to talk. The KGB, however, found nothing to celebrate in the USSR’s tilt towards freedom and reform. In August 1991, seven apparatchiks staged a coup while Gorbachev was vacationing in Crimea. Most of the British embassy was away.
The coup failed, and a weakened Gorbachev survived. The putschists – the leading group in all the main Soviet state and party institutions – were arrested. In the west, and in the US in particular, many concluded that Washington had won the cold war, and that, after decades of ideological struggle, liberal democracy had triumphed.
Steele knew better. Three days after the coup, surveillance on him resumed. His MI6 colleagues in Hungary and Czechoslovakia reported that after revolutions there the secret police vanished, never to come back. But here were the same KGB guys, with the same familiar faces. They went back to their old routines of bugging, break-ins and harassment.
The regime changed. The system didn’t.
One mid-ranking former KGB spy who was unhappy about this state of affairs was Vladimir Putin. Putin had been posted to Dresden in provincial East Germany in the mid-80s, and had missed perestroika and glasnost, Gorbachev’s reformist ideas. He had now returned to the newly renamed St Petersburg and was carving out a political career. He mourned the end of the USSR, and once called its disappearance “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.
A post-communist spy agency, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, had taken over the KGB’s main functions.
In 1999, a list of MI6 officers was leaked online. Steele was one of them. He appeared as “Christopher David Steele, 90 Moscow; dob 1964”. The breach wasn’t Steele’s fault, but it had unfortunate consequences. As an exposed British officer, he couldn’t go back to Russia.
In Moscow, the spies were staging a comeback. In 1998 Putin became FSB chief, then prime minister, and in 2000, president. By 2002, when Steele left Paris, Putin had consolidated his grip. Most of Russia’s genuine political opposition had been wiped out, from parliament as well as from public life and the evening news. The idea that Russia might slowly turn into a democracy had proved a late-century fantasy. Rather, the US’s traditional nuclear-armed adversary was moving in an authoritarian direction.
By 2006, Steele held a senior post at MI6’s Russia desk in London. There were ominous signs that Putin was taking Russia in an aggressive direction. The number of hostile Russian agents in the UK grew, surpassing cold war levels. Steele tracked a new campaign of subversion and covert influence.
And then two FSB assassins put a radioactive poison into the tea of Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer turned London-based dissident. It was an audacious operation, and a sign of things to come. MI6 picked Steele to investigate. . . . . He quickly concluded the Russian state had staged the execution.
Steele didn’t quite rise to the top, in what was a highly competitive service. Espionage might sound exciting, but the salary of a civil servant was ordinary. And in 2009 he had faced a personal tragedy, when his wife died at the age of 43 after a period of illness.
That same year, Steele left MI6 and set up his own business intelligence firm, Orbis, in partnership with another former British spy, Christopher Burrows. The transition from government to the private sector wasn’t easy. Steele and Burrows were pursuing the same intelligence matters as before, but without the support and peer review they had in their previous jobs. . . . . Steele and Burrows, by contrast, were out on their own, where success depended more on one’s own wits. There was no more internal challenge. The people they had to please were corporate clients. The pay was considerably better.
So how did Steele come to be commissioned to research Donald J Trump and produce his devastating dossier? . . . . His name was Glenn Simpson.
Simpson had been an illustrious Wall Street Journal correspondent. Based in Washington and Brussels, he had specialised in post-Soviet murk. He didn’t speak Russian or visit the Russian Federation. This was deemed too dangerous. Instead, from outside the country, he examined the dark intersection between organised crime and the Russian state.
By 2009, Simpson decided to quit journalism, at a time when the media industry was in all sorts of financial trouble. He co-founded his own commercial research and political intelligence firm, based in Washington DC. Its name was Fusion GPS.
Later that year, Steele embarked on a separate, sensitive new assignment that drew on his knowledge of covert Russian techniques – and of football. . . . Steele discovered that Fifa corruption was global. It was a stunning conspiracy. He took the unusual step of briefing an American contact in Rome, the head of the FBI’s Eurasian serious crime division. This “lit the fuse”, as one friend put it, and led to a probe by US federal prosecutors. And to the arrest in 2015 of seven Fifa officials, allegedly connected to $150m (£114m) in kickbacks, paid on TV deals stretching from Latin America to the Caribbean. The US indicted 14 individuals.
The episode burnished Steele’s reputation inside the US intelligence community and the FBI. Here was a pro, a well-connected Brit, who understood Russian espionage and its subterranean tricks. Steele was regarded as credible. Between 2014 and 2016, Steele authored more than 100 reports on Russia and Ukraine. These were written for a private client but shared widely within the US state department, and sent up to secretary of state John Kerry and assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland, who was in charge of the US response to Putin’s annexation of Crimea and covert invasion of eastern Ukraine. Many of Steele’s secret sources were the same people who would later supply information on Trump.
Trump’s political rise in the autumn of 2015 and the early months of 2016 was swift and irresistible. The candidate was a human wrecking ball who flattened everything in his path, including the Republican party’s aghast, frozen-to-the-spot establishment. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz – all were batted aside, taunted, crushed. . . . . During the primaries, a website funded by one of Trump’s wealthy Republican critics, [billionaire] Paul Singer, commissioned Fusion to investigate Trump.
After Trump became the presumptive nominee in May 2016, Singer’s involvement ended and senior Democrats seeking to elect Hillary Clinton took over the Trump contract.
Information on Trump was of no further use to Republicans, but it could be of value to Democrats, Trump’s next set of opponents.
Before this, in early spring 2016, Simpson approached Steele, his friend and colleague. Steele began to scrutinise Paul Manafort, who would soon become Trump’s new campaign manager. From April, Steele investigated Trump on behalf of the DNC, Fusion’s anonymous client. All Steele knew at first was that the client was a law firm. He had no idea what he would find. He later told David Corn, Washington editor of the magazine Mother Jones: “It started off as a fairly general inquiry.” Trump’s organisation owned luxury hotels around the world. Trump had, as far back as 1987, sought to do real estate deals in Moscow. One obvious question for him, Steele said, was: “Are there business ties to Russia?
Steele put out his Trump-Russia query and waited for answers. His sources started reporting back. The information was astonishing; “hair-raising”. As he told friends: “For anyone who reads it, this is a life-changing experience.”
Steele had stumbled upon a well-advanced conspiracy that went beyond anything he had discovered with Litvinenko or Fifa. It was the boldest plot yet. It involved the Kremlin and Trump. Their relationship, Steele’s sources claimed, went back a long way. For at least the past five years, Russian intelligence had been secretly cultivating Trump. This operation had succeeded beyond Moscow’s wildest expectations. Not only had Trump upended political debate in the US – raining chaos wherever he went and winning the nomination – but it was just possible that he might become the next president. This opened all sorts of intriguing options for Putin.
In June 2016, Steele typed up his first memo. He sent it to Fusion. It arrived via enciphered mail. The headline read: US Presidential Election: Republican Candidate Donald Trump’s Activities in Russia and Compromising Relationship with the Kremlin. Its text began: “Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in the western alliance.”
“So far TRUMP has declined various sweetener real estate business deals, offered him in Russia to further the Kremlin’s cultivation of him. However he and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.
“Former top Russian intelligence officer claims FSB has compromised TRUMP through his activities in Moscow sufficiently to be able to blackmail him. According to several knowledgeable sources, his conduct in Moscow has included perverted sexual acts which have been arranged/monitored by the FSB.“A dossier of compromising material on Hillary CLINTON has been collated by the Russian Intelligence Services over many years and mainly comprises bugged conversations she had on various visits to Russia and intercepted phone calls rather than any embarrassing conduct. The dossier is controlled by Kremlin spokesman, PESKOV, directly on Putin’s orders. However, it has not yet been distributed abroad, including to TRUMP. Russian intentions for its deployment still unclear.”
The memo was sensational. There would be others, 16 in all, sent to Fusion between June and early November 2016.
It got harder from late July, as Trump’s ties to Russia came under scrutiny. Finally, the lights went out. Amid a Kremlin cover-up, the sources went silent and information channels shut down.
If Steele’s reporting was to be believed, Trump had been colluding with Russia. This arrangement was transactional, with both sides trading favours. The report said Trump had turned down “various lucrative real estate development business deals in Russia”, especially in connection with the 2018 World Cup, hosted by Moscow. But he had been happy to accept a flow of Kremlin-sourced intelligence material, apparently delivered to him by his inner circle. That didn’t necessarily mean the candidate was a Russian agent. But it did signify that Russia’s leading spy agency had expended considerable effort in getting close to Trump – and, by extension, to his family, friends, close associates and business partners, not to mention his campaign manager and personal lawyer.
Steele’s collaborators offered salacious details. The memo said that Russian intelligence had sought to exploit “TRUMP’s personal obsessions and sexual perversion” during his 2013 stay at Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton hotel for the Miss Universe beauty pageant. The operation had allegedly worked. The tycoon had booked the presidential suite of the Ritz-Carlton hotel “where he knew President and Mrs OBAMA (whom he hated) had stayed on one of their official trips to Russia”.
There, the memo said, Trump had deliberately “defiled” the Obamas’ bed. A number of prostitutes “had performed a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show in front of him”. The memo also alleged: “The hotel was known to be under FSB control with microphones and concealed cameras in all the main rooms to record anything they wanted to.”
Steele’s sources offered one final devastating piece of information. They alleged that Trump’s team had co-ordinated with Russia on the hacking operation against Clinton. And that the Americans had secretly co-paid for it.
Steele wrote up his findings in MI6 house style. The memos read like CX reports – classified MI6 intelligence documents. They were marked “confidential/sensitive source”. The names of prominent individuals were in caps – TRUMP, PUTIN, CLINTON. The reports began with a summary. They offered supporting detail.
In late 2015 the British eavesdropping agency, GCHQ, was carrying out standard “collection” against Moscow targets. These were known Kremlin operatives already on the grid. Nothing unusual here – except that the Russians were talking to people associated with Trump. The precise nature of these exchanges has not been made public, but according to sources in the US and the UK, they formed a suspicious pattern. They continued through the first half of 2016. The intelligence was handed to the US as part of a routine sharing of information.
The FBI and the CIA were slow to appreciate the extensive nature of these contacts between Trump’s team and Moscow. This was in part due to institutional squeamishness – the law prohibits US agencies from examining the private communications of US citizens without a warrant.
But the electronic intelligence suggested Steele was right. According to one account, the US agencies looked as if they were asleep. “‘Wake up! There’s something not right here!’ – the BND [German intelligence], the Dutch, the French and SIS were all saying this,” one Washington-based source told me.
One of those who was aware of the dossier’s broad allegations was the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid, a Democrat. In August Reid, had written to Comey and asked for an inquiry into the “connections between the Russian government and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign”. In October, Reid wrote to Comey again. This time he framed his inquiry in scathing terms. In a clear reference to Steele, Reid wrote: “In my communications with you and other top officials in the national security community, it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors and the Russian government … The public has a right to know this information.”
But all this frantic activity came to nought. . . . In November, his dossier began circulating in the top national security echelons of the Obama administration. But it was too late.
On the margins of the Halifax conference, Wood briefed [John] McCain about Steele’s dossier – its contents, if true, had profound and obvious implications for the incoming Trump administration, for the Republican party, and for US democracy. The implications were alarming enough to lead McCain to dispatch a former senior US official to meet Steele and find out more.
McCain believed it was impossible to verify Steele’s claims without a proper investigation. He made a call and arranged a meeting with Comey. Their encounter on 8 December 2016 lasted five minutes. Not much was said. McCain gave Comey the dossier.
McCain’s intervention now made some kind of bureaucratic response inevitable. This was no longer just an FBI affair; it required co-ordination across the top levels of US intelligence. . . . The US’s most senior intelligence chiefs mulled what to do.
The dossier was on its way to the desk of the man who was still, for now, the world’s most powerful person: President Barack Obama.
It was also going to his successor, the next guy in the Oval Office. He wasn’t going to like it much.