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Saturday, October 28, 2017

How Long Has the GOP Been Working with Russia?

We really have forgotten so much about the Bush years, but we can't let them drain permanently through the memory hole. So much of what happened there was a precursor to the horrorshow we're currently experiencing. #TrumpRussia? How about #BushRussia? Stay with me here...

Going into Election Night 2016, I had not given much thought to the Russian-Trump relationship. I did believe that Putin wanted Trump to win; it did seem like Trump had done him a favor by pulling anti-Russia language vis-à-vis Ukraine from the 2016 Republican platform.

The Trump campaign worked behind the scenes last week to make sure the new Republican platform won’t call for giving weapons to Ukraine to fight Russian and rebel forces, contradicting the view of almost all Republican foreign policy leaders in Washington.

I thought this explained it:

Throughout the campaign, Trump has been dismissive of calls for supporting the Ukraine government as it fights an ongoing Russian-led intervention. Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, worked as a lobbyist for the Russian-backed former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych for more than a decade.

I'd believed that Trump had brought Manafort in to do some very specific things that he had experience doing, like whipping delegates at the Republican National Convention. It was pretty clear that Manafort had ties to the Ukranian autocrat Viktor Yanukovich, and it seemed like Manafort was doing a favor for Yanukovich. That was certainly corrupt, but hell, what about Trump wasn't corrupt?.

I did also note that Manafort used a past campaign tactic to start the calls of "Lock Her Up!" that began around the same time:

It was March 2013, and the former U.S. congressman had traveled to Ukraine to persuade President Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, to free Yanukovych’s arch rival from prison. The statuette came with a hopeful message: You, Slattery told the president, could be the Lincoln of Ukraine—a leader who binds up the nation’s wounds.
What Slattery didn’t know was that another American operative was helping the president defend the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko, an act widely condemned in the Western world.

I was outraged by this, but attributed it to Trump's openness to the tactics of dictators, and Manafort feeding him one that had worked for him in the past. It was offensive, even in the context of 2016, but Trump had done so much worse to that point and it was just another item on the list of things that Trump had gotten away with.

I started to suspect *something* when WikiLeaks dropped the Podesta e-mails and we found out WikiLeaks had gotten them from Russia, but thought that between Clinton's better campaign and the Billy Bush tape (not to mention shooting himself in the foot over Russia) had buried Trump for good and decided that dealing with Russia could wait until after Hillary's inauguration. But I dismissed other stories like the Alfa Bank server as mere crankery.

As for Trump's own passion for Putin, I chalked that up to pandering to his base. White supremacists and other conservative Republicans loved Putin, and I figured that he was just trying to make sure he kept their votes. From 2007, even before the election of Obama, whom Republicans compared negatively to Putin:

As Preston Wiginton, a white supremacist from Texas, stepped forward to address thousands of Russian nationalists at a rally Sunday in Moscow, he lifted his black cowboy hat high in the air.
"I'm taking my hat off as a sign of respect for your strong identity in ethnicity, nation and race," he said, exposing his close-cropped head to a freezing drizzle.
"Glory to Russia," Wiginton, 43, said in broken Russian, as the crowd of mostly young Russian men raised their right hands in a Nazi salute and chanted "white power!" in English.
Of course, I was wrong. So wrong. The facts that have come out on #TrumpRussia continue to surprise me --the whole Trump team was both brazen and stupid. But the volume of Trump/Russian activity that happened in 2015-2016 is not the only thing that has thrown me; it's how far back this all appears to go.

It took me until after the election before I started putting even the 2015-2016 parts of this together... but now I find myself going further. Much further:

I'm not following the JFK document dump story at all, but if it were to come out that the Soviets were in some way linked to the assassination, we would need to basically rewrite the through line of American history... These two bookends would likely change our entire view of the last 60-odd years, with Russia affecting nearly everything that's happened in world affairs in one way or another during that time.

Perhaps extreme, but let's follow this back a bit. I don't need to cover 2010 to now; people like Jacki Schechner's have done that really well.

But now we know that at the very least, Putin's attempts to undermine our democracy started a bit earlier than that.

As I mentioned the other might, we found out in May in Newsweek that in 2008, Russians hacked both the Obama and McCain campaigns -- to what extent, I don't know. But Putin's hackers at least proved to them that they could do it.

Anyone who was liberal and politically aware in 2001 remembers when Bush met with Putin and reported back: "We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul. He's a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country and I appreciate very much the frank dialogue and that's the beginning of a very constructive relationship." We made fun of this and pointed out that Bush was probably a terrible judge of character, but it never went further than that.

I'd never read this article from 2001, but this post from the BBC may indicate that there was a lot more than that:

Bush and Putin 'best of buddies'
Just before President Vladimir Putin's arrival here on Wednesday, a large crowd had gathered in the dot on the Texas map known as Crawford.
They were there to catch a glimpse of the Russian's arrival.
Among them was a tall man with cowboy boots and hat, a real local.
Asked what he thought about the visit he paused for a second and then said he was "real excited" and that the two presidents "seemed like real good buddies". 

That attitude didn't start in 2001. From the same BBC piece:

As a candidate, Mr Bush had strongly criticised his predecessor Bill Clinton for his close relationship with Boris Yeltsin.
The US should have a policy towards Russia the country, the Bush campaign argued, not its leaders.

I don't know what there is on a presidential level in the following period, though weird things happened in the 2000 and 2004 elections. (Just sayin'). I'll leave it to the readers to help me fill in the blanks; I'm just providing the outline.

But moving on from the top of the government totem pole to a Congressman who was mostly irrelevant before the Russia story heated up -- Congressperson Dana Rohrabacher (R-Moscow), who is widely known as "Putin's favorite Congressman." How far back does Putin's relationship with Rohrabacher go? Could he have gotten flipped at some point of fighting against them in Afghanistan? It seems to me that perhaps the reason why Rohrabacher didn't do anything a few years ago when the FBI warned him the Russians might be recruiting him:
Four years prior to the hearing, Rohrabacher was taken into a quiet room in Congress and warned by FBI agents that Russian intelligence operatives were trying to recruit him as an asset.
If he took the warning seriously, it certainly didn’t stop him from spending time with figures linked closely to the Russian state apparatus.

... is because they'd already successfully absorbed him long ago?

The revelations of the last year have shone a spotlight on this, from Mother Jones in 2010:

In the aftermath of the attacks, Rohrabacher was in demand. In meetings with Rice, as well as Pentagon and CIA officials, he says, he argued that the Northern Alliance and a small US team should oust the Taliban—the more heavy-handed operation favored by some military leaders wouldn’t work. Rohrabacher’s aides, meanwhile, worked the phones with their Afghan contacts, gathering intelligence on the Taliban’s movements. “I had everybody’s sat-phone number,” says Al Santoli, a former foreign policy aide to Rohrabacher. “I spent as much time at the Pentagon as I did in the congressional office.”

Santoli is talking a 2001-2002 timeframe here, and Rohrabacher was in Afghanistan as far back as 1988.

He started out as a Reagan-endorsed Republican:

But during his time in Afghanistan, Rohrabacher developed a level of attraction that gave him a hard-on for Russia:

It started with a promise he made to Afghan fighters in the late 1980s when he was a special assistant to President Reagan, helping to arm the Afghani mujahedin during their battle with the Soviet Union. He vowed to one day fight alongside them.
Following his 1988 election to represent coastal Orange County in Congress, Rohrabacher joined the Afghan civil war, signing up for a week with a unit wielding AK-47s and grenade launchers. The mission: take out a Soviet position outside Jalalabad.
“I think, since that moment, I have realized that I was fighting communism all that time, but I wasn’t fighting Russians,” Rohrabacher said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office.
The Soviet Union would soon break apart, and Rohrabacher grew to respect his onetime enemies and champion their attempt at democracy. Two decades ago, he got to know Vladimir Putin while drunkenly arm-wrestling the then-deputy-mayor of St. Petersburg over who actually won the Cold War. (Putin won the matchup, and quickly, Rohrabacher notes.) [JASON NOTE (10/29/2017 9:29 AM): Rohrabacher also probably said that Putin had 18 holes-in-one that day.]

And what happened between 1988 and the 2010s? A lot. During the Bush I administration, in 1991, Rohrabacher claimed he could influence the Communist government in Vietnam:

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said Saturday that he will urge that all U.S talks with the Vietnamese government be severed unless two Cypress ministers, believed to have been arrested in Vietnam for distributing Bibles, are released.
Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach) told family members who met at the Cypress home of one of the ministers that the U.S government has made return of the men a top priority.
He said the continued detention of the Revs. Nhi Van Ho and Tuan Phuc Ma, who were taken into custody on July 2, will have "severe policy implications."
"This is a step backward for Vietnam," he said. "If they expect the American government to establish better relations, then they will have to stop oppressing not only our citizens but their own people as well."
Rohrabacher said he will travel to Vietnam in early August if the two ministers have not been released, and will "pound on the desks of the communists bosses and on the jailhouse door."

There are a lot of ways to take that, but at the very least, it's safe to say that Dana Rohrabacher was involved in U.S foreign policy from his first days on Capitol Hill.

Later in the '90s, he was a thorn in Bill Clinton's side as Clinton was trying to end ethnic cleansing by Slobodan Milosevic (whom Putin supported). After that, in 2001, he blamed the Clinton administration for the rise of the Taliban.

I also flashed a crowdsource beacon on Twitter last night, and Lisa Jocko came through for me (and I looked like an idiot):

She could be right. Rohrabacher may have done a favor for Putin in 2008. Some background on this: Russia bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics in 2000. They ended up in Beijing. They were SO important to Putin that not only did he pull out all the stops on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, he's already likely to bid for 2028.

In 2007, Rohrabacher called for a boycott of the Olympics in Beijing to protest its "human rights abuses." This from the guy supporting Russia. Isn't it more likely that he was just helping Putin gum up the works for his adversary who was hosting the Olympics that he believed should be his?

People who have followed the news closely the last few years have known that Rohrabacher was probably in the employ of someone powerful in the former Soviet Union, potentially Putin himself. But 1. Americans have been conditioned by the "both siders" to think that everyone in Congress is in someone's pocket (HINT: Many are, but they're overwhelmingly Republican!), and 2. what kind of real impact could one pro-Russian Congressman have among a caucus of well over 200? It just wasn't that big a story until we actually saw our democracy undermined by the people pulling that Congressman's strings. Though, even today, Rohrabacher is still mostly getting away with his pro-Kremlin activities. Mostly.

This all has me thinking -- we've all used clichés about history repeating itself, or not rhyming, or whatever. And of course the one about if we don't remember history are doomed to repeat it. But what if we (and I mean, even the most studied of us) are missing major swathes of cause and effect in history? Isn't it just as important to understand the "whys" of history as the "whats?"

2015 Me would think 2017 Me was a crank a la Glenn Beck or Alex Jones. 2019 me might just see 2017 me as hopelessly naïve, though I have essentially no predictions for what 2019 looks like, other than to say that it could feature anything from a Trump dictatorship to a Clinton presidency.

I remain scared but hopeful. #Scopeful. Monday is a big day.

P.S.: I just ordered this book; I'm curious how far back its stories go. I'll keep you posted.

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