While Republicans Push Debunked Ukraine Conspiracy Theory, Putin Takes A Victory Lap

As Republicans and their conservative cohorts spread a discredited conspiracy theory about the 2016 election, Vladimir Putin smiles at yet another victory.

As Republicans in Congress and the conservative media in the blogosphere and on Fox News Channel continue to spread the largely debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine was the nation that interfered in the 2016 campaign rather than Russia, Vladimir Putin is taking a victory lap:

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin says he’s pleased that the “political battles” in Washington have put on the back-burner accusations that Russia interfered in U.S. elections.

“Thank God,” he told an economic forum in the Russian capital on Wednesday, “no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore; now they’re accusing Ukraine.”

Some Republicans have used the public hearings to tout a discredited conspiracy theory that blames Ukraine, not Russia, for interfering in the U.S.’s 2016 presidential election.

This statement from the leader of Russia came at virtually the same time that Fiona Hill, a Russia and Ukraine expert who formerly served on the National Security Council was testifying before the House Intelligence Committee regarding the Ukraine scandal and the impeachment inquiry. In her opening statement, Hill addressed the Ukraine conspiracy that Republicans were addressing:

Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country—and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.
The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016. This is the public conclusion of our intelligence agencies, confirmed in bipartisan Congressional reports. It is beyond dispute, even if some of the underlying details must remain classified.

The impact of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today. Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career foreign service is being undermined.U.S. support for Ukraine—which continues to face armed Russian aggression—has been politicized.

The Russian government’s goal is to weaken our country—to diminish America’s global role and to neutralize a perceived U.S. threat to Russian interests. President Putin and the Russian security services aim to counter U.S. foreign policy objectives in Europe, including in Ukraine, where Moscow wishes to reassert political and economic dominance.

I say this not as an alarmist, but as a realist. I do not think long-term

As Republicans and Democrats have agreed for decades, Ukraine is a valued partner of the United States, and it plays an important role in our national security. And as I told this Committee last month, I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine—not Russia—attacked us in 2016.

What Hill is making clear here, of course, is confirmed in Putin’s remarks regarding the ongoing impeachment proceedings and the fact that the President and his willing acolytes on Capitol Hill and in conservative media online and on Fox News Channel have completely bought into a conspiracy theory that is, quite simply, too ridiculous to be believed. According to this theory, perhaps best summarized by Byron York in a piece at the Washington Examiner, foreign interference in the election came not from Russia and its efforts to sow chaos in the United States, in part by working hand in glove with Wikileaks with respect to the hacking and leaking of emails stolen from the server of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton supporter Tony Podesta. T

This claim, as Hill noted, is one that Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have been pushing ever since Russia’s role in seeking to disrupt the election was revealed by American intelligence agencies and by the investigation conducted by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller. It’s a claim that soon found its way into the fever swamps of Reddit, 4Chan, and 8Chan, and from there made its way to Alex Jones, other far-right conspiracy sites, and finally Fox News Channel. From there, it was just a matter of time before it became what amounts to the primary defense to allegations of collusion being advanced by the President, and from there that they became linked to American policy toward Ukraine, with the President demanding an investigation into the allegations as a part of the price for releasing military aid and progress in U.S./Ukrainian relations.

In addition to Hill’s statement, The New York Times reports that U.S. intelligence officials have been advising officials on Capitol Hill and the White House that Russia has been pushing the Ukrainian conspiracy theory:

Republicans have sought for weeks amid the impeachment inquiry to shift attention to President Trump’s demands that Ukraine investigate any 2016 election meddling, defending it as a legitimate concern while Democrats accuse Mr. Trump of pursuing fringe theories for his benefit.

The Republican defense of Mr. Trump became central to the impeachment proceedings when Fiona Hill, a respected Russia scholar and former senior White House official, added a harsh critique during testimony on Thursday. She told some of Mr. Trump’s fiercest defenders in Congress that they were repeating “a fictional narrative.” She said that it likely came from a disinformation campaign by Russian security services, which also propagated it.

In a briefing that closely aligned with Dr. Hill’s testimony, American intelligence officials informed senators and their aides in recent weeks that Russia had engaged in a yearslong campaign to essentially frame Ukraine as responsible for Moscow’s own hacking of the 2016 election, according to three American officials. The briefing came as Republicans stepped up their defenses of Mr. Trump in the Ukraine affair.

The revelations demonstrate Russia’s persistence in trying to sow discord among its adversaries — and show that the Kremlin apparently succeeded, as unfounded claims about Ukrainian interference seeped into Republican talking points. American intelligence agencies believe Moscow is likely to redouble its efforts as the 2020 presidential campaign intensifies. The classified briefing for senators also focused on Russia’s evolving influence tactics, including its growing ability to better disguise operations.

Russia has engaged in a “long pattern of deflection” to pin blame for its malevolent acts on other countries, Dr. Hill said, not least Ukraine, a former Soviet republic. Since Ukraine won independence in 1991, Russia has tried to reassert influence there, meddling in its politics, maligning pro-Western leaders and accusing Ukrainian critics of Moscow of fascist leanings.

“The Russians have a particular vested interest in putting Ukraine, Ukrainian leaders in a very bad light,” she told lawmakers.

But the campaign by Russian intelligence in recent years has been even more complex as Moscow tries not only to undermine the government in Kyiv but also to use a disinformation campaign there to influence the American political debate.

The accusations of a Ukrainian influence campaign center on actions by a handful of Ukrainians who openly criticized or sought to damage Mr. Trump’s candidacy in 2016. They were scattershot efforts that were far from a replica of Moscow’s interference, when President Vladimir V. Putin ordered military and intelligence operatives to mount a broad campaign to sabotage the American election. The Russians in 2016 conducted covert operations to hack Democratic computers and to use social media to exploit divisions among Americans.

This time, Russian intelligence operatives deployed a network of agents to blame Ukraine for its 2016 interference. Starting at least in 2017, the operatives peddled a mixture of now-debunked conspiracy theories along with established facts to leave an impression that the government in Kyiv, not Moscow, was responsible for the hackings of Democrats and its other interference efforts in 2016, senior intelligence officials said.

The Russian intelligence officers conveyed the information to prominent Russians and Ukrainians who then used a range of intermediaries, like oligarchs, businessmen and their associates, to pass the material to American political figures and even some journalists, who were likely unaware of its origin, the officials said.

That muddy brew worked its way into American information ecosystems, sloshing around until parts of it reached Mr. Trump, who has also spoken with Mr. Putin about allegations of Ukrainian interference. Mr. Trump also brought up the assertions of Ukrainian meddling in his July 25 call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, which is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry into whether he abused his power by asking for a public commitment to investigations he stood to gain from personally.

What this means, of course, is that when Republicans and their cohorts who are pushing this discredited theory are essentially doing the bidding of Vladimir Putin, and that Russia is once against succeeding in sowing chaos and dividing Americans against each other for the investment of what likely involves a small number of operatives and a small amount of money. Indeed, it may rank up there as one of the most successful disinformation campaigns in history. And we’ve got an entire political party, and a cable news channel, that are dedicated to helping to spread it around as gospel truth. No wonder Putin is smiling.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Donald Trump, Impeachment, National Security, Politicians, Russia, Ukraine, US Politics, Vladimir Putin
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. DrDaveT says:

    The most pressing analytical challenge within the Russian intelligence community is now trying to determine whether GOP politicians are really stupid enough to believe the disinformation about how it was really Ukraine’s fault, or merely corrupt enough to stick to that story publicly. It matters a lot for their future planning…

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  2. Mikey says:

    @DrDaveT: At this point, being a Republican means one is either a useful idiot or actively supporting Russia’s attack on America. Given all that we know now, there can be no middle ground.

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  3. Kit says:

    Whenever Trump leaves office, Putin should claim that every charge against Trump was true, and back it up with the sort of evidence that only a major state could fabricate (if needed). I reckon there’s a substantial chance that the US would crumble under the shock.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    @Kit: The Trumpskyites would dismiss it as fake news. Trump was harder on Russia than anyone. He said so himself.

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  5. gVOR08 says:

    Cyber interference seems impossible to defend against. That leaves deterrence, Mutual Assured Destruction. I don’t know what the cyber equivalent of a bloody horse head in your bed would be, but I’ve long thought we need to do it to Putin. Maybe strip a couple of his bank accounts. Maybe photoshopped video of him having sex with his horse. And now I know who President Warren should put in charge of such a project, Fiona Hill.

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  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    The governing party has surrendered to Russia

  7. DrDaveT says:

    Here’s an interesting white paper describing an NBC News analysis using graph algorithms and social network theory to identify and characterize the Russian troll activity leading up to the 2016 election.

    The trolls left lots of footprints. Legitimate Twitter users often tweet from their phones, but the investigators discovered a disproportionately high number of tweets from the Twitter web client.

  8. Gustopher says:

    Trump promised the voters a better relationship with Russia, and here we are — a client state.

    I’d say that he delivered on that promise.

    Also, “No puppet. You’re the puppet.” Not sure he was entirely truthful there, but I suppose there is lots of wiggle room between puppets, marionettes, dolls and action figures.

  9. JKB says:

    Russian interference does not refute Ukrainian interference.

    It includes public professions of support for Clinton and opposition to Trump by Ukrainian officials. It includes acknowledgments by Ukrainian investigators that their Obama administration counterparts encouraged them to investigate Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Bolstering this theory is the fact that Ukrainian officials leaked information damaging to Manafort (a ledger of payments, possibly fabricated) that forced Manafort’s ouster from the Trump campaign, triggering waves of negative publicity for the campaign. A Ukrainian court, in late 2018, concluded that two Ukrainian officials meddled in the election. And in 2018 House testimony, Nellie Ohr — who worked for Fusion GPS, the Clinton campaign opposition research firm that produced the lurid and discredited Steele dossier — conceded that a pro-Clinton Ukrainian legislator was a Fusion informant. When Republicans and most Trump supporters refer to evidence of Ukrainian collusion in the 2016 election, it is this collusion theory that they are speaking about.

    –Andrew McCarthy

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  10. grumpy realist says:

    @JKB: So you’re passing on a comment made by an American teen actor as being more believable than reports from the FBI?

    Who’s your back-up provider of evidence, ZeroHedge?

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  11. JKB says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Amusing. The Andrew McCarthy I quoted is a former Asst. US. Attorney who prosecuted the World Trade Center bombers.

    See the source in the NY Post

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  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    So glad to see that it’s only taken you three fucking years to acknowledge Russian interference.

    At this point you’ve retreated from one defensive line to another to another to another to another to another to another… Abandoning each tissue-thin lie as your cult leader blurted imbecilities that blew up lie after lie after lie after lie after lie…

    You’ve embraced every lie. You’ve regurgitated every lie. You’ve never apologized for lying. You’re still lying. You’ll always lie. You have no choice, you’re a cultie.

    Trump was elected because of Putin, and he serves Putin. Like I’ve said from the beginning.

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  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    @grumpy realist:
    The NY Post. Another piece in the Murdoch Bullshit For Morons machine.

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  14. Nightcrawler says:

    Go directly to the apocalypse! Do not pass GO, do not turn the lights off on the way out the door.

  15. David M says:

    @JKB:

    It includes public professions of support for Clinton and opposition to Trump by Ukrainian officials

    Well sure, Trump was a jackass who had long publicly insinuated he would side with Russia against Ukraine. Public statements opposing that are normal, and not election interference.

    It includes acknowledgments by Ukrainian investigators that their Obama administration counterparts encouraged them to investigate Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Bolstering this theory is the fact that Ukrainian officials leaked information damaging to Manafort (a ledger of payments, possibly fabricated) that forced Manafort’s ouster from the Trump campaign, triggering waves of negative publicity for the campaign.

    The ledger is not fabricated and Manafort is in prison. He’s genuinely evil and worked for Russian oligarchs against the interests of the United States and Ukraine.

    A Ukrainian court, in late 2018, concluded that two Ukrainian officials meddled in the election.

    This was reversed in 2019.

    So in sum, you would be more informed by listening to the actor, rather than this miserable hack intentionally spreading disinformation for people asking to be lied to, such as yourself.

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  16. JohnSF says:

    @JKB:
    Considering that Ukraine faces a grave, potentially existential, threat from Putin’s Russia, it would astonish me that if Ukrainians believed Trump to be sympathetic to Putin they would not favour Trump’s opponent.

    I would also think that the given his post as Trump’s campaign manager, the association of Paul Manafort with both Viktor Yanukovych and “former” GRU officer Konstantin Kilimnik would give both American and Ukrainian good cause to conduct investigations.
    In fact, they would have been guilty of culpable negligence had they not.

    A Ukrainian legislator was one of Steele’s informants?
    What on earth is supposed to be so surprising about that?
    As Steele was investigating possible links of Trump and his associates to the Putin networks, Ukrainians with knowledge of their activities would be an obvious source.

    This seems to be little more than a grab-bag of the obvious, tied up with a ribbon of conspiracy theory and waved about while yelling: “Look! Ukraine diddit! Trump defence vindicated!”

    I’m sorry, but this is feeble at best.

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  17. Kurtz says:

    @gVOR08:

    Maybe photoshopped video of him having sex with his horse.

    Nah, gotta be the horse that killed Catherine the Great. Why stop at beastiality? Add necrophilia as well.

    (yes, i know the Cath story is apocryphal.)

  18. Kurtz says:

    @JKB:

    Two things:

    1.) it is full on irony for you to argue that the Obama officials acted improperly. a.) they didn’t coerce the Ukranians by withholding aid appropriated by Congress (a violation of the separation of powers); b.) they went through proper channels, not Obama’s batshit, incestuous personal attorney; and c.) Manafort has long worked for oligarchs and dictators often against US foreign policy goals and US law, and then laundered the money he earned.

    2.) the National Review is bullshit now. Say what you will about Kristol, at least The Weekly Standard went out of business instead of avandoning their principles.

    You’re burnt toast, bruh.

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  19. David M says:

    A reminder that the Ukrainian meddling is a Russian operation. It benefits no one but them. Well done JKB, well done

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/22/us/politics/ukraine-russia-interference.html

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  20. Jax says:

    @JKB: I bet you could take a global poll of heads of state and their staff all across the world and each of them probably at one point voiced a preference for one candidate over the other. That does not constitute “interference”. All Manafort had to do was not do illegal shit, and all Trump had to do was not hire Manafort, they’ve got nobody but themselves to blame for that. You may have noticed that he does not, in fact, hire the best people. All of Trump’s troubles can be traced back directly to himself, his ignorance, ego and narcissism make him his own worst enemy. The rest of it is the GOP making mountains out of mole hills in an effort to distract from the very real, illegal stuff Trump has done, that we probably only know the smallest percentage of.

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  21. Kathy says:

    I guess there’s nothing deplorable in admiring a man who voluntarily has made himself Putin’s bitch.

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  22. Mikey says:

    @JKB: See here. Which are you?

  23. grumpy realist says:

    OT, but if anyone wants to see a delicious piece of U.K. political snippiness, take a look at who’s got thebrexitparty.com. (Hint–it ain’t Nigel Farage.)

    I usually don’t approve of cybersquatting, but this was such a piece of dimwittedness on the part of Nigel that I can’t but applaud.

  24. Teve says:

    JKB is a recursive acronym that stands for JKB’s Kremlin’s Bitch

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  25. Stormy Dragon says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Research also shows that russian bots don’t understand conditional statistics and think P(A|B) equals P(B|A).

  26. I have updated the post to include a report published this afternoon in The New York Times that American intelligence officials have been advising legislators of the origins of the Ukraine election meddling hoax.

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  27. Scott O says:

    @JKB: In that opinion piece McCarthy also implies that Trump is nuts.

    “To be sure, President Trump is largely to blame for propagating the discredited Ukraine theory. It holds that, somehow, it was Ukraine, rather than Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election by cyber-espionage against Democratic email accounts.

    This is such a loopy theory, it defies clear explanation. Suffice it to say that it involves suspicions that a hacked DNC server is hidden in Ukraine. Perhaps, the speculation runs, it was Ukrainian operatives, not Russian ones, who were the culprits.

    It is a fringe theory. No one who has closely followed the collusion caper puts any stock in it. Regrettably, the president is a hospitable audience for frivolous theories that cast doubt on Russia’s culpability, which he wrongly fears casts doubt on his legitimacy.”

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  28. Steve V says:

    @JKB: Hahaha, how *dare* they prefer the candidate whose campaign is not being run by Paul Manafort, the guy who did Russia’s bidding in Ukraine?

    (As others have noted, many other countries have a preferred horse in the race and Ukraine was no different – indeed, the Ukraine example illustrates why other countries can have such a keen interest in who gets elected U.S. President.)

    BTW McCarthy’s lost his mind just like the rest of them have. The man wrote a book advocating for Obama to be impeached, and I believe was among the people who said that there would be immediate grounds for impeachment of Hillary Clinton the moment she took office without even taking any presidential actions.

  29. de stijl says:

    Trump’s foreign policy decisions and diplomatic considerations appear to be very Putin friendly.

    Anti-NATO, anti-Ukraine, Northern Syria abandonment. However it has happened, Trump is functionally Putin’s bitch, and Republican tribalism and party-over-country has made them follow Trump down that path.

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  30. motopilot says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    The governing party has surrendered to Russia

    The governing party seems to want to be like Russia.

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  31. Scott says:

    @JKB: Let’s remember the Steele Dossier was initiated by the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news site.

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  32. Guarneri says:

    Clinesmith is screwed. Defend that wild conspiracy theory counselor.

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  33. Moosebreath says:

    Speaking of debunked conspiracy theories, the Trump Justice Department found that the FBI acted properly in launching the Russia probe during the 2016 election:

    “The investigation on the effort to obtain warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act on Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, is expected to conclude that the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation was properly predicated, and that there were a series of mistakes and improper handling of the Page FISA application by lower-level employees.

    (snip)

    People familiar with the report told the Times that while it characterizes the pursuit of the FISA request as careless and slapdash, the report discredits major conspiracy theories that Trump has advanced about the investigation — finding, for example, that the FBI met the legal evidence threshold to open the probe.

    Notably, the people said that Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz did not find evidence of politically motivated actions by former FBI Director Jim Comey, subsequent acting Director Andrew McCabe — now a CNN analyst — or former senior official Peter Strzok, who was removed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team after an internal investigation revealed text exchanges that could be read as exhibiting political bias.”

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  34. Moosebreath says:

    And if even Chris Cilizza thinks you are going off the deep end with false conspiracy theories, it may be time to check the dosage of your meds:

    “To be clear (again): None of those things is true. And yet, from Donald Trump to California Rep. Devin Nunes (R) and back, Republicans acted as though their conspiracies were of equal value to the facts established by the nine witnesses (and affirmed by the Democratic questioners on the committee.)

    The result of this facts vs. conspiracy theories approach to the week’s public impeachment hearings was a reinforcing of this fact: In the age of Trump, tribalism rules Republicans. Facts are less important than desperately clinging to a disproven conspiracy theory that keeps Trump happy.”

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  35. Jax says:

    @Guarneri: Clinesmith is….who? One low level employee that nobody has ever heard of got referred for criminal charges, and that proves what?

    After further research, I have never heard you mention Clinesmith, either. Do you know who wasn’t referred for criminal charges? Comey, McCabe, or Strzok.

    You promised heads would roll, Drew, get with it already!

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  36. @Guarneri: Impressively pathetic.

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  37. de stijl says:

    @Guarneri:

    If Clinesmith acted unprofessionally or inappropriately or criminally, I fully support the investigation of his actions and appropriate punishment. Fully and unconditionally, for *all* of the bad actors in this situation.

    Can you say the same?

    You seem to be implying that this is somehow a get-out-of-jail-free card for Trump and his henchmen.

    It isn’t.

    I think we differ on what justice means.

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  38. An Interested Party says:

    In that opinion piece McCarthy also implies that Trump is nuts.

    And yet he still supports Trump…compromises can’t be made with such people…

    The governing party seems to want to be like Russia.

    Dictator envy is so ugly…

    Impressively pathetic.

    Hey, at least he’s consistent…

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  39. gVOR08 says:

    @Moosebreath:

    or former senior official Peter Strzok, who was removed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team after an internal investigation revealed text exchanges that could be read as exhibiting political bias.”

    I see that in so many contexts with so many people. I realize it’s a waste of time to suggest it, but perhaps Trumpskyites could take minute and contemplate why so many educated, knowledgeable people show bias against Trump.

  40. de stijl says:

    Per CNN, Parnas (aka Badger) is saying through his lawyer that Rep. Nunes met with Shokin (so-called anti-corruption prosecutor ousted in 2016) in Vienna last December.

    Who could have predicted that Nunes was neck deep in this given his past behavior?

    It seems that Badger does not want to go to prison for Trump. He has a lot of tea he apparently wants to spill.

    Allegation so far with no proof offered other than the assertion by Parnas, so accept it for what it is.

    I’m truly bummed that Skinny Pete (aka Fruman) was not involved. Those guys work best as a team.

  41. de stijl says:

    Remember the scene in Office Space when the three dudes looked up “money laundering” in the dictionary?

    This is that.

    A bunch of morons who believe they are too smart to get caught at the most obvious of crimes.

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  42. Steve V says:

    @Guarneri: The wild conspiracy theory is that Obama, Brennan and a cast of thousands set Trump up, and you’ve indicated in the past that you believe it.

  43. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JKB: You’re in for the duration, I take it?

    Note to self: Another set of posts I don’t have to read any more.

  44. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Guarneri: Squirrel!!!!

  45. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: On the other side of the whole impressive patheticness that is Guarneri these days, I do have to admit that the comments are so oblique that I have to look up key words in order to follow what he’s trying to say.

    Now if he’d refer me to key words that would show something worth knowing, he’d be onto something. (Maybe that’s what he thought zerohedge.com would do for him. Hmmmm…)

  46. mattbernius says:

    @Guarneri:

    Clinesmith is screwed.

    Your are right. If he did what he is accused of, he is rightfully screwed. And he should be.

    I will also note that the current DoJ … i.e. Trump’s DoJ run by Barr … appears to have found that Cliensmith’s rouge actions didn’t ultimately taint the overall case with bias and that the Warren’s were legal.

    So you kinda buried the lede there…

    We will all know for sure when the report is released.

  47. de stijl says:

    I am picturing Barr with a blushing pink rouge.

    No worries.

    Rogue always gets autocorrected to rouge. Autocorrect does not get context.