ELLIOT D. COHEN FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
In one of those rare occasions when politicians think no one is listening, we may hear what the proverbially fly on the wall hears. During such a candid camera moment, Paul Ryan and other Republican Party leaders have recently given us insight into what they really think about how the Russians are seeking to undermine the stability of democratic nations. What emerges is a picture of an intricate Russian game of political chess in which governments are turned against themselves in bloodless, invisible coups. What is most chilling is that Paul Ryan and company are willing to silently acquiesce as it happens in the United States.
On June 15, 2016, one month before Trump officially became the Republican presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Majority Whip Steve Scalise, and Republican Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris Rodgers were recorded speaking after Ryan and McCarthy had come from a meeting with Ukraine Prime Minister Vladimir Groysman. "He has this very interesting riff," said Ryan, referring to Groyman,"people have said they have Ukraine fatigue and its really Russia fatigue because what Russia is doing is doing to us, financing our populists, financing people in our governments to undo our governments, you know, messing with our oil and gas energy, all the things Russia does to basically blow up our country, they're just going to roll right through us and go to the Baltics and everyone else."
The conversation then shifted to how Russian interference was, in fact, happening elsewhere besides Ukraine, including the United States. McCarthy stated, "there's two people, I think, Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump...[laughter]…swear to God." Ryan then swore the group to secrecy: "This is an off the record…No leaks…alright?!" While there was background laughter heard when McCarthy made his statement, he was clearly dead serious (In response to the laughter, he said, "swear to God"). And Ryan was also not kidding when he swore the group to secrecy. In fact, Ryan's and McCarthy's offices at first emphatically denied the conversation ever took place when the Washington Post confronted them. When the Post informed them that it had a recording of the conversation, they then said McCarthy was kidding. But this was no joke.
In fact, there are signs that Russia has implemented the strategy of "financing people in our governments to undo our governments," not merely in Ukraine but in the United States. In 2015-16, Leonard Blavatnik, a Ukraine born Oligarch with ties to the Kremlin, made contributions of $6.35 million to GOP political action committees, including to top Republican leaders Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham. This was in sharp contrast to Blavatnik's previous contributions, which tended to be bipartisan and only in the six figure range.
And there are also signs that it's working. The Republican leadership, including Ryan himself as well as McConnell have thus far walked lockstep with the Trump agenda, even when this meant supporting actions that may have jeopardized national security. One salient instance is Ryan's recent support of declassifying the Republican Russia memo despite pleas from FBI Director Christopher Wray that releasing it could jeopardize national security.
The Republican memo addressed the FISA warrant secured by the FBI through the FIS court to surveil Carter Page, an advisor to the Trump campaign team. According to the controversial Christopher Steel Dossier, Carter Page held secret meetings in Moscow in July 2016, with Igor Sechin and senior Kremlin Internal Affairs official, Divyekin (a meeting that Page himself has subsequently confirmed). According to the dossier sources, these meeting concerned the lifting of sanctions against Russia as well as "a dossier of 'kompromat'[compromising material] the Kremlin possessed on…Hillary Clinton, and its possible release to the Republican's campaign team." In June 2016, approximately one month earlier, we know that Donald Trump Jr. along with Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort met with Kremlin-connected attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, who offered to provide kompromat on Clinton in exchange for lifting Russian sanctions.
It figures, therefore, why Trump and the Republican leadership were unabashedly set on releasing the Republican Russia memo. The memo tried to show that the FISA warrants issued on Carter Page were part of a Democratic conspiracy against the Trump campaign because they were based on the Steel dossier, which was part of opposition researched financed by the Democrats. However, Page was already under investigation by the FBI since 2013 as a possible target of a Russian recruitment effort; and the FISA warrants issued on Page were based on other information besides the Steel dossier sufficient to convince a FIS court that Page may be acting as an agent of a foreign government. A more consistent explanation was that Carter Page had served as the messenger between Trump and the Kremlin, for delivering kompromat on Clinton. So, the memo sought to muddy the waters.
In an October 2017 interview with MSNBC's Chris Hayes, Page stated, "When the truth comes out, when Speaker Paul Ryan says the FISA warrant, the details about the dodgy dossier, and what happened and all the documents around that is going to be released, that's what I'm really excited about and I think the truth will set a lot of people free." Was this uncanny anticipation of the Republican Russia memo a true prophesy? Or, perhaps Page was already privy to a plan by the Kremlin in which Paul Ryan would approve release of a memo to muddy the waters enough to create "plausible denial," another tactic often used by the Kremlin.
On December 29, 2016, before Trump assumed office, his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, secretly called Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to say that the Trump administration would be withdrawing Russian sanctions. Seeing this phone call in light of the larger picture painted by the foregoing events suggests that Flynn was cooperating with the Russians in exchange for kompromat on Hillary Clinton. This would suggest a complete cycle of Trump – Kremlin collusion paving the way for the Mueller investigation's determination of whether criminal acts were committed.
Predictably, Trump has recently refused to implement new sanctions against the Russians for meddling in the 2016 presidential election, despite the passage of a new law by congress requiring it. The Trump administration alleges that the threat of levying sanctions is enough of a deterrent. However, the law was aimed at punishing the Russians, not simply deterring them. Further, a law that is not implemented is a paper dragon and no deterrent against future meddling in U.S. elections.
And there is unequivocal cause for concern about future meddling. We now know the Russians successfully penetrated the voting systems of several states prior to the 2016 presidential elections. Inasmuch as the Trump administration has not taken any measures to harden these systems against cyber attacks, the prospects for free, democratic midterm elections in 2018 looks bleak.
But breaking down a system of checks and balances in the free world would not be complete without eviscerating the court system. Trump is also reshaping the judicial branch by nominating and installing federal judges at an unprecedented rate. These judges are mostly white ultraconservative men. In one instance Trump unsuccessfully tried to appoint Brett J. Talley to the bench in Alabama, a novice who had never tried a single case. Tally failed to disclose that his wife, Ann Donaldson, served as the Chief of Staff to the White House Counsel Donald McGahn. Donaldson had also been a witness in the Mueller Russia probe, and was interviewed by Mueller's team about her conversations with McGahn concerningTrump's firing of former FBI Director James Comey. Here, the scent of Russian kompromat was once again in the air: the appointment of a judge subject to blackmail.
Trump has also branded the press as "the enemy of the American people," an adaptation of a term used by Stalin against anyone he considered a dissident. Still, the use of a term coined by a Russian despot gives pause when seen in the grander view of a well articulated plan to crush any dissent. The choice of words might well have been Putin's rather than Trump's, especially if the former was calling the shots.
Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, Cathy Rodgers, and Steve Scalise acknowledge the Russian game plan of "financing people in our governments to undo our governments." They are aware of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and Russian hacking of the DNC and state voting systems. They appear to perceive this grander Russian scheme in which congress, press, courts, and chief executive can be "rolled right through" by the Kremlin. Yet they remain loyal foot soldiers, keeping it under wraps, while these democratic institutions are assaulted. Unfortunately, Paul Ryan is the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse. As Speaker of the House, he holds the reigns of impeachment. That too fits into a well devised Russian checkmate.