GOP scrambles madly under Ukraine glare (Part 1)

Since the Whistleblower’s Complaint became known, Republicans have scrambled madly to find excuses for Trump. The only problem? The excuses make no sense and often contradict each other.

Remember when Trump’s call with Ukraine leader Zelensky was “perfect” with “no quid pro quo” except that his Chief of Staff said yes, there was a quid pro quo, it happens all the time and we all need to get over it?

While the Ukraine story that Trump is being impeached over remains a simple, over-confirmed one—that Trump held back military aid due to Ukraine in return for two “favors”, that they manufacture dirt against Biden, and exonerate Russia from the 2016 election attack—Republicans under the glare of scrutiny have twisted this way and that, scrambled to find one excuse after another, watched their excuses crumble, and scrambled to find new ones, even though they might contradict the old ones. None of it matters, because the idea is to create distraction: a lights-and-sounds show; a multitude of water-cannons shooting chaff across the air; sand thrown into every gear in sight. A circus, in other words.

Now I’m not much of a one for circuses. But I do like lists, and here’s my list of Republican excuses for Trump’s behavior.

Zelensky phone call was “perfect” [SEPT 20-24]

Before the Whistleblower’s Complaint went public, Trump’s allies actually urged him to release the transcript of his July 25 call with Zelensky, under the notion that nothing untoward actually happened and the transcript would show that. The article linked above does not name the “allies” in question, but some reporting suggested one of them was Mitch McConnell, and that AG Bill Barr also thought it was a good idea. Trump himself touted the notion that his call was “perfect”, “nice”, and “innocent”.

Of course the “perfection” of the phone call was belied by the actions of White House staff after it. Half a dozen people raised concerns immediately after the call, and alerted White House lawyer John Eisenberg. He, famously, chose to improperly bury the call record in a highly classified server and told officials to hush it up. They also chose to replace certain words and phrases with others or with ellipses to make it less incriminating.

Whistleblower’s Complaint is “hearsay” [SEPT 26-Oct 6]

Flailing wildly in the days after the complaint was released, the right-wing media, GOP electeds in Congress, and Trump shied away from addressing the substance of the complaint because, as the whistleblower himself acknowledged, he did not listen in to the July 25 Zelesky call as it was happening, but rather got information from a half a dozen staffers who did. Many senators were faintly dismissive, using the “hearsay” argument as a hook. “It strikes me as someone who doesn’t have personal knowledge of what he’s talking about,” John Cornyn (R-TX) said. The complaint was “second- and third-hand,” Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) even suggested that unknown staffer might not even count as a whistleblower and perhaps should not be given whistleblower protections. Trump himself called the complaint a “fraud” and the whistleblower a possible “leaker and a spy“.

Strangely, the best evidence that the Whistleblower’s Complaint was accurate came the day before it was publicly released, from the call summary, released by Trump himself. His own appointed DNI and IC Inspector General both found the complaint credible enough that both made criminal referrals and the IG informed Congress. By October 6, there was news of a whistleblower with first-hand knowledge troubled by the call. That ended the hearsay excuse.

The “secret gutting of the first-hand requirement” [Sept 27-30]

The Federalist, right-wing news site that often spreads misinformation (who funds the Federalist?), created a kerfuffle that lasted about four days when journalist Sean Davis suggested that an obscure Intelligence Community form that required whistleblowers to have first-hand knowledge had been changed very recently, right around the time of the Ukraine Whistleblower’s Complaint was filed. It spread like wildfire across the right-wing ecosystem. House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted about it. Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow pushed a conspiracy theory on Hannity’s show that this form was changed specifically in order to make the complaint permissible, suggesting that it was a Deep State coup. Trump himself tweeted out the Federalist article saying “WOW, they got caught!” and an all-caps “WHO CHANGED THE LONG-STANDING WHISTLEBLOWER RULES…”. His tweet was promoted by Russian propaganda website RT.

Within a day, the notion had been debunked by experts and journalists. The underlying rule had not changed since 2014. There isn’t, and has never been, a “first-hand requirement”. Within three days, the Trump-appointed Inspector General had felt the need to issue a statement to correct the misinformation, essentially putting the whole thing to bed.

“Adam Schiff wrote the whistleblower complaint” [Oct 2-Oct 4]

The way this story morphed from a journalistic report about a routine procedure into an inflamed accusation about COLLUSION! can offer a master-class to an aspiring propagandist.

On October 2nd, the New York Times reported that the whistleblower had approached Adam Schiff’s committee for advice after his initial report to the CIA’s head lawyer appeared to go nowhere. He received advice from an aide on how to file it without divulging what the underlying complaint was about.

Despite the original story stating clearly that the aide followed proper procedures on the advice, right-wing outlets (including our friend Sean Duffy from the Federalist) twisted it into headlines blaring that the whistleblower “colluded” with Democrats. From that to “orchestrating”, as GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested.

Rep. Stefalnik was pretty tame in contrast, calling it “reckless behavior” by the Chairman of House Intelligence Committee, on which she serves:

Trump went further, claiming that Adam Schiff “helped write it” in response to a question from Fox News. A Facebook post went even further, claiming that Pelosi and Schiff “devised” the complaint.

The debunking began right away. That Facebook post was flagged as “false” in concert with Politifact. Republican Senators Chuck Grassley and Richard Burr defended the whistleblower. Rachel Maddow, in her appearance on The View, calmly explained the unutterably routine nature of the contact between the whistleblower and Schiff’s committee:

Such contact between potential whistleblowers and Congressional Committees is utterly routine and happens two or three times a month, Maddow explained; and the procedures the committees suggested the whistleblower should follow were by the book.

“No Quid Pro Quo” [Sept 9-Oct 17]

The “No Collusion” mantra worked so well for Trump during the Mueller investigation that he was out early with the new version: “No Quid Pro Quo”. It got started when US Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor questioned the extortion of Zelensky, calling it “crazy”: Ambassador Gordon Sondland spoke to Trump before responding five hours later with the Trump-tutored tag-line: “no quid pro quos of any kind”.

This remained the mantra right out of the gate after the whistleblower complaint went public. Talking points given to the Republicans by the White House contained “no quid pro quo” prominently. Republicans from Chuck Grassley to Pat Toomey and Mark Meadows pushed it every chance they got. It could have been great! Simple, clean, consistent.

But the excuse crumbled quickly. Special Envoy Kurt Volker’s testimony released on Oct 3 clearly showed an attempt to extort Ukraine. Republican Senator Ron Johnson expressed concerns that the way Ambassador Sondland had put it in a conversation, it sure sounded like a quid pro quo. Even on Fox News, Republican member of the House Intelligence committee Chris Stewart was challenged on the no quid pro quo excuse based on the released texts.

Then, OMB head Mick Mulvaney held an hour-long press conference where he blew it all out of the water. He boasted that they did indeed hold back aid in return for Zelensky opening an investigation into 2016 US elections. He also informed us that this is how things are normally done and that we should get over it. To top it off, he also said that there were concerns that they were perhaps breaking the law. While he tried to back away from his own words later that evening, the “no quid pro quo” excuse never achieved the clear ring of a bell again.

“Quid Pro with No Quo” [Oct 23]

A variant of the “no quid pro quo” was the excuse that the Ukrainians didn’t know that military aid was withheld. How can you call it extortion if the party being extorted doesn’t know it is being extorted? Trump highlighted a statement from Rep Ratcliffe (at one point his choice for DNI) in a tweet:

Rep. Ratcliffe’s statement on Fox and Friends was itself a twisting of Ambassador Bill Taylor’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee in a closed door deposition. Bill Taylor reported that the Zelensky administration initially did not understand why their promised aid had not come through—not that they were unaware that aid was withheld. On the contrary, it was painfully clear to them that their military aid had not reached their coffers.

That excuse was killed in the crib by a New York Times article reporting that “word of the aid freeze had gotten to high-level Ukrainian officials by the first week in August”.

[The “process” excuse, the “coup” excuse, the “corruption” excuse…all coming next. Follow this blog to be notified.]

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Whistleblower, blow thy whistle

A cinematic treatment of the Whistleblower’s Complaint.

The Scene: Morning of July 25, situation room

Picture this, if you will: It is the morning of July 25. The US President is in the Situation Room speaking on the phone to the new leader of an allied nation. All is routine: a dozen staffers listen in. Transcripts will automatically be produced. That conversation will be treated as “policy” and distributed to the Cabinet and others. None of them suspect anything amiss. The conversation begins with pleasantries.

The allied nation is Ukraine. Volodomyr Zelenskyy has become President a scant two months prior. He used to be a comedian who played a President on TV. He got elected because he promised to drain the swamp of corruption.

Volodomyr Zelenskyy (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

The US President often speaks like a mob boss. He used to be a reality show star who played a successful CEO on TV. He hit upon the slogan “drain the swamp” by accident and milked it to become the President of the United States.

The call begins routinely. Congratulations and flattery are exchanged. The supplicant—Zelenskyy—is more flattering than congratulatory, since he is anticipating the sale of Javelin missiles and the release of an aid package of over $400 million. The man who holds the cards is Trump, and he is more congratulatory than flattering.

As the conversation proceeds, the staffers listening in (again, about a dozen) get increasingly uncomfortable. The President brings up seemingly random topics. He skewers his old enemy, Mueller, lately defused, by panning his performance on TV the day prior. He throws out “Crowdstrike” and “DNC servers”, which sounds for all the world like he is scratching off the scabs of the Russia investigation. He throws out the names of his private lawyer/fixer Rudy Giuliani, and his in-government lawyer/fixer AG Bill Barr (neither of whom have any role in matters of State), and demands that Zelenskyy work with them in opening an investigation into his political rival Biden’s son. Trump expresses a concern that Zelenskyy is surrounding himself with “those same people,” on which, more later.

I would like you to do us a favor, though,” Trump says, seeming to hold back the funds and missiles in return for—yes, it must be said—a personal favor for the President. He appears to be strong-arming the Ukrainian leader into joining a latter-day CREEP, the committee to re-elect the President.

Zelenskyy takes refuge in bland platitudes. Promising everything good in general and nothing that Trump wants in particular. Well, he does intimate that he is, as is required, spending money at Trump properties, and that yes, he will put out a call to Rudy Giuliani, but that is as is now routine. The call ends cordially.

That evening, Zelenskyy signals that he has understood Trump’s message. The elliptical statement put out by Ukraine says that they will indeed be able to “complete the investigation of corruption cases that have held back cooperation between Ukraine and the United States.”

A couple weeks later, the oblique reference to “Crowdstrike” is resolved by Trump himself: “I think Zelenskyy is going to work with Putin,” he says to reporters, “and he will be invited to the White House.” He is a reasonable guy, the President adds. So this clarifies: ‘working with Putin’ along with ‘DNC servers’ and ‘Crowdstrike’ means only one thing—ginning up fake evidence that Russia, after all, didn’t hack into the 2016 US elections.

It is after the call that alarm spreads. Probably several laws were broken in that call, perhaps even that singular Presidential one: abuse of office. No one is certain; call transcripts go out as usual to the selected State Dept and Intelligence staffers to inform policy. But White House Lawyers swoop in after the fact. In a perversion of their role, which is meant to protect the office of the Presidency, they turn to protecting this one singular President from the consequences of his law-breaking. In turn, they break a few of their own. The transcript is put under lockdown, in codeword secure servers that are reserved for covert action, akin to the Bin Laden raid. Other summaries, memos or notes are also snatched.

One of the Intelligence officials to receive the transcript is later to be known as: “the Whistleblower”, or if you prefer, following Josh Marshall, “Deep Whistle“. Deep Whistle does not work alone. Half a dozen other staffers rat out the boss and help Deep compile a well-structured complaint full of footnotes and enclosures. It is a tale of off-the-books foreign policy and extortion of a foreign leader for election interference. A couple weeks after the phone call, the complaint is made.

Deep attempts to blow the whistle twice. Both times, the complaint goes up to the very top of the agency, then sideways, into AG Barr and Trump’s domain, where it is then buried. But the final time, the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, Michael Atkinson, blows the whistle about the existence of the whistleblower, in a sort of relay race, into Congress’s ears. A couple weeks later, more than a month after the whistle is blown, it is finally heard.

Flashback to May: arm-twisting Zelenskyy:

By the time of the July 25 call, Zelenskyy and Trump had already had a months-long relationship. Zelenskyy had been facing increasing pressure from Trump to play ball. White House staffers were completely in the dark because the pressure had been exerted through Trump’s out-of-government fixer, Rudy Giuliani (it now appears that DC shitbird lawyer propagandist couple Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing were involved as well).

As soon as Zelenskyy became Ukraine’s new leader, Giuliani made plans to visit in person and ask Zelenskyy to intervene in the 2020 election. For every good reason in the world—among which, that Giuliani has no official United States role—Zelenskyy refused to entertain him.

The pressure ratcheted up. Vice President Pence was made to cancel his appearance at the inaugural. The hundreds of millions in aid passed by Congerss was held back, with no explanation given to anyone even within the administration, except that the President said so. Giuliani tweeted darkly that Zelenskyy was “still silent” on the desired investigation into Biden. All contact between Ukraine and US leaders was forbidden until Trump determined how Zelenskyy “chose to act”.

By U.S. Department of State – Marie L. Yovanovitch Ambassador, Public Domain

The fledgling Zelenskyy government understood from this what they could: that any future support from the United States depended on them coughing up 2020 election help and a cover story for Russia. They also understood that the United States, as it were, was acting as two separate entities. There was the official United States, represented by Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and State Dept official Kurt Volker. And there was President Trump, acting through Rudy Giuliani and AG Bill Barr.

Their messages were not unified.

The US State Dept’s message was much in line with what US policy had always been: shore up defenses against Russia, orient yourselves towards the West, fight corruption internally.

The Trump/Giuliani/Barr cabal had an opposite message: work with Putin, gin up evidence against Biden, gin up evidence against those who found the black ledger that listed illicit payments to Manafort, and create doubt that Russia hacked the 2016 US elections: despite all of IC and Mueller’s 25 indictments saying the opposite. Trump wanted Zelenskyy to do what he himself had done in Helsinki: capitulate to Putin wholly and entirely.

Flashback to March: Conveyor belt of Bullshit

The interview looks official. The Prosecutor General of Ukraine in the right panel, with the Ukrainian flag behind him, looks sober and speaks calmly. His name is Yuriy Lutsenko. The man in the left panel, heavy set with a receding hairline, wears a suit and asks probing questions.

The two are half a world apart—in Ukraine, and in the US—brought together over Skype. A voiceover translates Lutsenko’s words into English. All signs point to a substantive interview relating to the US’s relationship with Ukraine.

John Solomon/Yuriy Lutsenko (screenshot)

The only problem? The entire thing is bullshit. The Prosecutor General Lutsenko throws out wild accusations that are all later shown to be lies. Worse than lies—they are shown to turn reality on its head. He claims the US Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, prevented him from prosecuting crime: when in reality, she had brought pressure to bear on him to root out corruption. He claims that the people who exposed illicit payments to Manafort in the infamous “black ledger” were actually making it up for corrupt reasons of their own. He claims that Biden had a prosecutor removed to prevent him from investigating the energy company his son was on the board of—but the prosecutor in question, Shokin, was actually not investigating enough.

Lutsenko—a man who became Prosecutor General without a law degree, or any special expertise—is thoroughly distrusted by anti-corruption activists in his country. He has axes of his own to grind, and has clearly crafted a set of claims that he feels will help him find favor with the Trump administration.

The man on the left, John Solomon of the Hill, is a practiced conveyor of bullshit. From his perch at the Hill publication, he has pumped out fake news story after fake news story: all of which come with a polished enough veneer of reporting to seem plausible, and need serious treatment to debunk, as other outlets have done over and over. But, as with his prior conspiracy theories, this one speeds along on the conveyor belt of bullshit: from John Solomon, to Chuck Ross of the Daily Caller, to Hannity on Fox, Gateway Pundit and other right-wing outlets, to countless Facebook and Twitter feeds, to Trump’s Twitter.

It is this fake narrative, willed into being by John Solomon, attested to by Lutsenko, that is used later to turn the screws on Zelenskyy. He must surround himself with the “right people,” Trump says, by which is meant the people who have fed lies to John Solomon and Rudy Giuliani or are willing to do so. The “wrong people” are those like the US Ambassador Yovanovitch, and the people who discovered the black ledger of payments to Manafort, who refuse to join Trump’s CREEP.

By the time Lutsenko himself disavows his narrative, and by the time John Solomon leaves the Hill amid complaints by co-workers, the set of lies told by Lutsenko have achieved a life of their own, driving foreign policy between the US President and the new leader of Ukraine. It has led to the removal of the US Ambassador to Ukraine, and to the opening of an impeachment inquiry by House Democrats.

A few months later, Lutsenko disavows his lies completely in the Russian language press. He claims to have felt pressured by Giuliani to open an investigation into Biden’s doings in Ukraine even though no laws were broken.

So, this is what we can conclude: sitting behind the scenes of the conveyor belt of bullshit—loading items on it, as it were—is the bulge-eyed grinning face of Rudy Giuliani.

Flashback to 2018: Globe-trotting Fixers

Fruman and Parnas with Giuliani and Trump (source: OCCRP.ORG; credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP)

The shadow foreign policy efforts of Rudy Giuliani bore fruit in the John Solomon interviews, but had been ongoing for a while. In fact, he was practically running a shadow State Department, with two Florida businessmen named Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman acting as shadow diplomats.

Their names may be unfamiliar, but their profile should be a familiar one: fraudster “businessmen” with energy interests in Eastern Europe, plenty of dodgy ex-Soviet connections, immersed in the dodgy business world of New York and Florida. Each month, it seems, we find a new character enmeshed in the Trump-Russia nexus with exactly the same profile.

Rudy and his “diplomats” led a whirlwind of shadow diplomacy. As the OCCRP/Buzzfeed investigation quoted by Deep Whistle reveals, they held meetings with top people in Ukraine across five countries; introduced Rudy to three disgruntled Ukrainian prosecutors; donated half a million dollars to Republican coffers; dined with Trump himself; breakfasted with Don Trump Jr; hobnobbed with insiders at the Trump International Hotel in DC; lobbied to have the US Ambassador to Ukraine fired—and succeeded; and spun up a number of conspiracy theories with the goal of digging up dirt on Biden and his son.

These were the theories that later showed up on John Solomon’s conveyor belt of bullshit—and still later, on Trump’s call with Zelenskyy.

Shadow diplomats Parnas and Fruman were certainly not representing the interests of the United States on their globetrotting adventures. Rather, it was the interests of the firm they own: Global Energy Producers LLC, that is in the business of selling LNG to Ukraine. Rudy Giuliani has often claimed that he works for Trump pro bono; he was able to do so because Global Energy Producers are his actual clients. Congratulations, America: your foreign policy was being run for the benefit of two hucksters who run a company formed just months ago, and can’t even put together a website.

Back to the Present

Months later it was revealed that the US State Dept had essentially become the wholly owned subsidiary of the Shadow State Dept run by Rudy Giuliani, the President’s unpaid lawyer/fixer. A manila envelope of the Collected Works of Parnas and Fruman showed up at the Congressional hearing of the State Dept IG: this envelope was given to the US State Dept as matters to “investigate”. It contained documents detailing the conspiracy theories spun up by Parnas and Fruman, separated into sections by folders marked with Trump International Hotel logos.

As if that weren’t absurd enough, someone had taken a great deal of trouble to mark the envelopes with “White House” return addresses in elaborate calligraphy. It was almost as if a Shadow White House had hijacked the real White House and held it hostage; and was sending missives in its place.

The envelope containing conspiracy theories that was sent to the State Dept (source: NYT)

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Some useful links:

NameNationalityBackground
Volodomyr ZelenskyyUkrainianUkraine’s 6th President
Andriy YermakUkrainianZelenskyy’s personal friend and chief aide; Rudy Giuliani’s chief negotiator
Serhiy LeshchenkoUkrainianJournalist and politician; dug up Manafort’s black ledger that contained illicit payments; became enemy #1 for Manafort/Trump/Giuliani
Viktor ShokinUkainianFormer Prosecutor General; known to be corrupt; US/Western governments wanted removed; Biden at forefront of that effort
Yuriy LutsenkoUkrainianFormer Prosecutor General; was interviewed by John Solomon; lied about Biden and Ambassador Yovanovitch, later repudiated those lies
Marie YovanovitchAmericanFormer US Ambassador to Ukraine. She held the line against the Shadow Foreign Policy shakedown by Giuliani; thus was removed from her post
Kurt VolkerAmericanState Dept special envoy to Ukraine. Attempted to help Zelenskyy navigate Trump’s demands. Later resigned and provided all texts to Congress
Gordon SondlandAmericanUS Ambassador to EU. Major Trump donor. Represented Trump’s viewpoint in negotiations with Zelenskyy
John SolomonAmericanRight-wing conspiracy theorist; used to be at The Hill; spread debunked conspiracies about Uranium One
Lev Parnas and Igor Frumanex-Soviet, Amercian“Energy” businessmen who hired Giuliani and spent months digging up dirt against Biden in Ukraine and other countries

Follow me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry and on Facebook at The Odd Post.

(Featured image credit: Craig Whitehead/Unsplash)