Russians and Hearings and Wiretaps, Oh My! All You Need to Know About Thursday’s Political News Day

Clint Watts

The cloud around the Trump Administration grew a bit darker on Thursday as multiple news stories dropped, implicating associates and officials in sketchy actions that cast more shade on those currently or previously involved with the President of the United States.

Whether any of it holds water, we’ll just have to wait and see, but with so much news in one day, the tsunami of information made it difficult to find the basic facts and the most important details.

Let’s walk through it piece by piece.

Michael Flynn

Former National Security Advisor to the Trump Administration, Michael Flynn is in negotiations with the FBI and Senate Intelligence Committee to testify and share information that he has related to Russian investigations.

His lawyer stated in a press release that Flynn “has a story to tell” but would not submit to questioning in “such a highly politicized, witch hunt environment without assurances against unfair prosecution.”

Michael Flynn Statement 3-30-17

It was only a few days ago that reports came out stating Flynn had “flipped” and was in talks with the FBI. Currently, he has not reached a deal to reveal information with either the FBI or Senate Intelligence Committee. He has not been in talks with the House Intelligence Committee.

In a September 2016 interview, Flynn said of Hillary Clinton’s associates, “When you are given immunity, that means you have probably committed a crime.”

House Intelligence Chair Rep. Devin Nunes

Devin Nunes

White House Counsel Donald McGahn wrote a letter to the heads of the House and Senate intelligence committees on Thursday, inviting them to the White House to read the documents previously presented to Chairman Nunes.

A Senate committee spokesman rejected the administration’s invite to the White House in a statement Thursday evening. “In response to the White House letter, the Committee has asked the White House to direct the agencies that own the intelligence documents in question to immediately provide them directly to the Committee,” the spokesman said.

The letter came after New York Times broke a story stating that, according to sources, two White House officials, senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council Ezra Cohen-Wathick and White House Counsel lawyer Michael Ellis, gave Rep. Nunes the information before his infamous press conference on wiretapping of the Trump transition team.

A second report from the Washington Post added another name, John Eisenberg, the top lawyer at the National Security Counsel. According to their report, findings by Cohen from intelligence reports were brought to the attention of Eisenberg.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer would not confirm or deny the report during his daily press briefing, and a spokesman for Rep. Nunes stated that the chairman would not confirm or deny the allegations either.

Cohen-Watnick joined the administration through former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and although Flynn’s replacement, Lt. General H. R. McMaster, wanted to replace him, Trump administration officials intervened to keep him in place.

Michael Ellis was General Counsel for the House Intelligence Committee under Rep. Nunes before joining the White House.

Senate Intelligence Committee Hearing

The Senate Intelligence Committee held a public hearing on Thursday as part of their investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference. Most of the information contained details about how the Russian operation works, but there were some interesting statements made.

From the start, Senators from both sides of the aisle expressed concern about Russian interference, warning that it could happen in 2018 and that they were committed to a bipartisan investigation that takes the threat of Russian political interference seriously. Intelligence Committee Chairman Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice Chairman Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) made it clear that their goal is to conduct an in-depth investigation and work together to find the answers the American public deserves.

One of the most interesting testimonies of the hearing was that of former FBI agent Clint Watts. Watts was a U.S. Army infantry officer who later served as an FBI Special Agent on a Joint Terrorism Task Force and as the Executive Officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. He was also a consultant to the FBI’s Counter Terrorism Division and National Security Branch. Watts is currently a fellow on national security and the Middle East at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a senior fellow at the Center For Cyber and Homeland Security at The George Washington University.

Speaking as a counterterrorism expert, Watts revealed that the Russians targeted not just the Clinton campaign during the presidential election but also the primary campaigns of Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Lindsey Graham, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Speaking during the hearing, Senator Marco Rubio confirmed that his campaign was attacked by hackers during the primaries and as recently as Wednesday.

When discussing the effectiveness of the Russian operation during the 2016 campaign, Watts pointed his finger partially at President Trump. “The Commander-in-Chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents,” Watts said.

Going further, he pointed out Trump’s relationship with fake news. “He denies the intel from the United States about Russia. He claimed that the election could be rigged. That was the number one theme pushed by RT [Russia Today] Sputnik news. So part of the reason active measures works, and it does today in terms of Trump Tower being wiretapped, is because they parrot the same lines.” According to Watts, Russian-linked Twitter accounts tweet a Trump “when they know he’s online and they push conspiracy theories” that Trump sometimes disseminates. The former FBI agent also discussed the recent deaths of Russians, even in Western countries, and had a big tip to investigators: “follow the dead bodies” and the money.

“There have been more dead Russians in the past three months that are tied to this investigation, who have assets in banks all over the world,” Watts told the committee.

Another witness was Eugene Rumer, the Director of Russian and Eurasia program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Rumer warned that the tactics seen during the 2016 election were not new nor would they change: “Deception and active measures have long been and will remain a staple of Russian dealings with the outside world for the foreseeable future.”

“That Russian effort is before us in plain sight, in state-sponsored propaganda broadcasts on RT–in countless internet trolls, for or distorted news spread by fake news services,” Rumer went on to say, warning that the threat went beyond the United States, impacting allies such as France and Germany.

Getting into detail about the specifics of the 2016 attacks, Thomas Rid, King’s College London professor in the Department of War Studies, discussed leaks during the election. He stated he was confident that Guccifer 2.0 was a Russian, but he would not indicate whether or not WikiLeaks was a willing or incidental Russian asset, instead stating that they were effective either way.

Rid also gave details about hacking used against the Democratic Party. On the attempts to hack Clinton staffers, he stated that “between 10 March and 7 April, GRU [Main Intelligence Agency, the Russian foreign military intelligence agency] targeted at least 109 Clinton campaign staffers with 214 individual phishing emails, with eight more attempts on 12 and 13 May.” Regarding the hack of the Democratic National Committee, Rid said, “The military intelligence agency also targeted DNC staffers with 16 emails between 15 March and 11 April, and 3 DNC staffers were tricked into clicking the treacherous “reset password” button on 6 April 2016.”

Kevin Mandia, Chief Executive Officer of the cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc., testified about the toolkits Russians used. Mandia warned that they were seeking ways to bypass two-factor authentication, a security measure by which users verify their phone number and password to access their account. 

The full hearing is worth a watch. See the videos below.

Part I

Part II

Remember the Story About the Supposed Crimea “Peace Plan”?

The Ukranian-born millionaire who reportedly set up a Ukraine peace plan meeting between President Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen, Ukranian politician Andrii Artemenko, and long-time Trump business associate Felix Sater died in early March according to a report by the Independent

Alex Oronov, a 69-year-old naturalized American citizen, was said to be a key player in initiating the scandal that infuriated the Ukrainian government and found Cohen admitting to the meeting, though he denied placing a peace plan in the hands of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. 

Andrii Artemenko took to Facebook to lament Mr. Oronov’s death, blaming it on “overexertion, the nerves, from injustice, from suspicion, from sorrow of misunderstanding.”

With counterterrorism expert Clint Watts’ testimony regarding deaths surrounding the Russian investigation on Thursday, this seems worth mentioning, even if it may be unrelated.

So, About James Woolsey’s Claims Regarding Michael Flynn and Turkey…

James Woolsey, former CIA head and Trump national security advisor during the campaign, is now involved in his own scandal as board member of Imperial Pacific International Holdings Ltd., which received a visit from the FBI on Thursday.

The company runs Best Sunshine Live casino on the island of Saipan, and since opening in 2015, the casino has been a huge success, at least according to its financial records. 

Bloomberg reports that the casino “has posted per-table revenues far greater than those at the largest resorts in Macau, Asia’s gambling capital,” an unlikely feat that has set off alarm bells regarding money laundering, especially since the traffic to the casino is, well, a fraction of what it should be for that kind of profit.

The buck doesn’t stop at Woolsey, however. Also involved in the company are chairman Mark Brown, a former executive with Donald Trump’s Atlantic City casinos, and advisory committee members Louis Freeh, former FBI director; board Ed Rendell, former Pennsylvania governor and DNC chair; and Haley Barbour, former Mississippi governor and RNC chair. 

Woolsey recently told news outlets that in September 2016 he witnessed a discussion between Michael Flynn and Turkish government officials regarding the covert removal of the Turkish President’s enemy Fetullah Gulen from the United States.

A Flynn spokesperson denied the claim.

After all of this, there’s only one thing you can say: There’s never a dull day!

Krista Johnson

Krista's a freelance proofreader and writer with a focus on medical editing and teen story-based games. She also makes a few bucks with photography. When she's not working with words, she's spoiling her English bulldog and trying new things in the kitchen.

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