Thursday, September 3, 2020

Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and Jeff Sessions help give devastating Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Russia a distinct, and ugly, Alabama flavor

Paul Manafort

If you are reading a published report on GOP corruption, you can almost bet it will include references to politicos with ties to Alabama. The recently released Senate Intelligence Committee Report (SICR) on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election is no exception.

In fact, we find at least three Alabama-connected politicos in the SICR narrative. One of them hits close to home for Legal Schnauzer. One hits close to home for a Birmingham-based investigative blog we have spotlighted in numerous recent posts. And a third is, well, the chief evil-doer in the almost 1,000-page SICR. Let's take a look at how this bombshell report connects to Alabama's toxic political culture:

1. Is Roger Stone a hill worth dying on?

The following might be the SICR's single biggest takeaway, as described at Rolling Stone (RS) :

The Senate report directly contradicts a key piece of President Trump’s written testimony as part of Special Counsel Mueller’s criminal investigation.

In his responses to Mueller’s question, Trump claimed he didn’t recall discussing WikiLeaks with his former political adviser Roger Stone and wasn’t aware of Stone having mentioned WikiLeaks. Trump went on to say that he had “no recollection of the specifics of any conversations I had with Mr. Stone between June 1, 2016 and November 8, 2016.”

The Senate’s report flatly contradicts this. “The Committee assesses that Trump did, in fact, speak with Stone about WikiLeaks and with members of his Campaign about Stone’s access to WikiLeaks on multiple occasions,” it states.

Did Trump lie to Mueller, likely committing a federal crime, to protect Roger Stone, a self-described "dirty trickster"? The SICR suggests the answer is yes, per RS:

Trump’s failure to recall any interactions with Stone during the height of the 2016 campaign is also belied by various contacts between Stone and the Trump campaign documented in the Senate report. The report says the Trump campaign learned about the release of the now-infamous Access Hollywood tape an hour before its release. During that time, the report says, Stone told an associate of his, right-wing writer and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, to tell WikiLeaks to “drop the Podesta emails immediately,” referring to a trove of emails stolen by Russia from the personal account of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. WikiLeaks published the Podesta emails only half an hour after the Access Hollywood tape was published.

The report also shows that Stone even helped draft pro-Russia tweets for Trump to use in the summer of 2016. On July 31, 2016, the report says, “Stone then emailed Jessica Macchia, one of Trump’s assistants, eight draft tweets for Trump, under the subject line ‘Tweets Mr. Trump requested last night.’ Many of the draft tweets attacked Clinton for her adversarial posture toward Russia and mentioned a new peace deal with Putin, such as ‘I want a new detente with Russia under Putin.'”

This is the same Roger Stone who used fake Facebook accounts to orchestrate a cyber harassment campaign  against Legal Schnauzer. And yet, the SICR suggests few people were more intimately involved in the effort to help Russia help Trump get elected. How in the world did Stone find time to mess with us?

2. Jeff Sessions says, "Gimme, gimme

If you needed two words to explain Alabama's toxic political culture, "Jeff Sessions" would be a good bet. He's probably done more than any other living human to give the state a "justice system" that is one of the nation's worst. Sessions was Trump's original attorney general and a member of his campaign team, so it was no surprise to see his name appear in the SICR, per this report from CNN:

The Senate report released Tuesday is inconclusive on whether Stone secretly received details from WikiLeaks about planned release. The committee noted top advisers Trump Jr., Kushner, Manafort, Michael Flynn, Corey Lewandowski, Jeff Sessions and Sam Clovis also expressed interest in obtaining the stolen Democratic emails.

This helps explain the importance of, which has caused a stir in the Birmingham legal community by reporting on a string of integrity-challenged actions by the Balch Bingham law firm, long one of Sessions' strongest allies and financial boosters.

3. Paul Manafort: a grave risk to national security

Manafort, former Trump campaign chair, is not from Alabama, but he long has held ties to Jeff Sessions and Russian oligarchs, which might help explain his leading role in the SICR, as described by CNN:

Arguing over whether the report proves collusion (or doesn't) may actually be something of a red herring, however. Especially when you consider that what the report makes very clear is that Trump's campaign chairman was a) working with a Russian intelligence officer b) seeking to share proprietary campaign data with him and c) attempted to sway public opinion about which country actually had meddled in the US election. And that Stone, whose prison sentence was commuted by Trump last month, was designated by the campaign to find out what he could about the information that had been hacked by the Russians and when WikiLeaks planned to release it. And that the two Russians from the infamous Trump Tower meeting had more ties to Russian intelligence than we previously knew. And that Russia continued through this year to muddy the waters about its interference in the 2016 election.

That is most certainly not a "hoax," to borrow the preferred nomenclature of the president. And regardless of whether his campaign actually formally colluded with the Russians, the behavior documented in the Senate Intelligence Committee's report should be deeply, deeply troubling to any Americans -- particularly as we near another national election with a president who continues to downplay the threat of foreign election interference.

That is not the sort of thing that should be overlooked or underplayed, even in a moment when we continue to struggle to get our arms around a pandemic and the Democratic Party formally nominates its national ticket. The integrity of the coming election is at stake and every sign points to the likelihood that Russia is, again, seeking to put its thumb on the scale.

What about Manafort's longstanding ties to Sessions and Russia? We wrote about those in an October 2017 post:

Revelations last week that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort has $60 million of financial connections to a Russian oligarch could shine light on corruption involving some of the biggest names in Alabama politics, according to a prominent whistle blower and opposition researcher.

That's because Alabama GOP luminaries such as Jeff Sessions (Trump attorney general and former U.S. senator), Bob Riley (former governor), and Bill Canary (head of the Business Council of Alabama) have worked with Manafort on a $40 billion-dollar Air Force refueling-tanker deal that was to include the oligarch, Jill Simpson says.

If Special Counsel Robert Mueller digs deeply on the ties between Manafort and Oleg Deripaska, it could lead to Jeff Sessions' office -- and from there to any number of individuals connected to Bill Canary and Bob Riley, Simpson says. Canary already has fallen out of favor with a number of business elites, including executives from Alabama Power, so any ties to the Trump-Russia scandal are not likely to help his standing.

Simpson, who testified before Congress about a Republican plan to conduct a political prosecution against former Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman, said Manafort worked closely with Alabama officials on a proposal that called for the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. (EADS) to build the Air Force tanker, in part, at a planned construction facility in Mobile, Alabama. Deripaska, a billionaire, is part owner of a company that was to provide aluminum for the project.

The Pentagon wound up choosing U.S.-based Boeing over EADS, perhaps in part because of EADS' ties to seedy characters, including the Gaddafi family in Libya and individuals tied to Vladimir Putin in Russia.

Did Manafort's Russia-related problems start with greed and money? We can think of 60 million reasons to say yes.

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