Folks in DC used to talk about F.O.B., Friends of Bill. President Bill Clinton. Now it’s F.O.R., Friends of Russia. And President Donald Trump.
There’s a reason Special Counsel Robert Mueller has fifteen attorneys and countless staff working on this. Because everywhere you look you can find ties to the Russians. An odd strain here; a connection there. So, in all humility, this single chronicler will do the best he/she can to point you in the right direction and help you figure some of this out.
Let’s begin with a simple declaration. I’m not going to be the one to tell you Russia picked Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. But the combined intelligence services of our government will. The de-classified version of “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections” clearly states: “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.”
I’m not going to tell you Paul Manafort was a Russian agent. That Putin and Russian Intelligence Services recruited Manafort some years ago and used him to help destabilize the United States and the 2016 election process.
Because you wouldn’t believe me. You’d toss the very idea in your Fantastic, Unbelievable Conspiracy Bucket and go about your business.
But what if Jeremy Bash told you? Jeremy Bash, the former chief of staff at CIA and the Defense Department, told MSNBC: “It’s possible that Russia actually sent and dispatched Paul Manafort to the Trump campaign … Or at least that once Paul Manafort attached himself to the Trump campaign, the Russians said, okay, now our agent is inside.” Bash then took it beyond the DNI Assessment, suggesting the Russians might have “manipulated the campaign not just through propaganda … but also through agents of influence.”
Nicole Wallace of MSNBC was incredulous and couldn’t help but interrupt Bash: “Wait, wait, wait … Are you saying it’s possible that [Mueller] wants to find out if Manafort was a Russian plant?”
“Absolutely,” Bash replied. “They’re going to want to know if there were ties between Paul Manafort and Russia, whether they were financial or otherwise, that caused him to in effect do Russia’s bidding. The ultimate question is whether or not Trump himself knew about it … and once he found out that the bureau was investigating them, why did he try to shut down that investigation?”
Anyway, there are so many Fs.O.R. that I am going to have to do this in several installments.
The folks I know care about Russia. They’re concerned that in February 2014, Russia orchestrated an invasion of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea by “pro-Moscow forces.” This, after a popular revolt in Kiev forced out the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych (remember this name) who promptly fled to Russia.
They care because they believe Putin and the Russian oligarchs yearn to restore Russian hegemony and their former empire and hobble ours. (To be fair and possibly complicate matters, Crimea, despite its inclusion since 1991 as part of Ukrainian independence, has a majority Russian-speaking population and was considered part of Russia until Ukrainian-born Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954.)
Much of what has happened recently can be connected to Russia’s actions, our responses, the more than century long battle for dominance between the U.S. and Russia, power and, of course, money. Putin’s money. The money of the Russian oligarchs. The money Trump lacked and yearned for. The money Exxon was making in and with Russia. Money, money, money.
And the Obama administration’s response to Russia was ultimately about money: economic sanctions.
So, let’s start with someone few are concentrating on. And the most stable member of the cast. Whose relation to Russia was just your old-fashioned, traditional market-based tie. These days when most Americans hear the name “Rex Tillerson” they think of the cabinet secretary who called our President “a moron” or maybe “an eff-ing moron.”
But Dexter Filkins’ recent New Yorker portrait of our Secretary of State and former head of ExxonMobil puts some of the focus back on Russia and reminds us about the massive amounts of money the comes your way if you’re a F.O.R. “Tillerson’s work in Russia began in the early nineties, when Exxon, in partnership with Rosneft, a state-owned oil firm, won a multibillion-dollar contract to develop a natural-gas field off Sakhalin Island, in the country’s remote eastern territory. At the time, Tillerson was in charge of Exxon’s operations in Russia and in the Caspian Sea.” (Emphasis mine.)
Their relationship was both appreciated and acknowledged. Filkins: “In 2013, at a ceremony in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin affixed a small blue pin to Tillerson’s lapel, signifying his membership in Russia’s Order of Friendship. For Tillerson, it was evidence of a connection that he had spent nearly two decades establishing. In Tillerson’s talk at the University of Texas, he noted that he had a “very close” relationship with Putin. “I don’t agree with everything he’s doing,” he said. “But he understands that I’m a businessman.”
A year later and we’re onto the invasion of Crimea and the Obama Administration’s sanctions. Filkins tell us: “Among these was a ban on oil exploration, which meant that Exxon had to shut down its operations in the Kara Sea. Exxon lobbied against the sanctions; public records show that Tillerson visited the White House five times in 2013 and 2014, twice to see Obama. ‘Of all the companies we dealt with, Exxon was by far the most resistant to sanctions,’ a former American official who worked on the issue said. ‘They were used to people caving in …’” (Emphasis mine.)
Money makes the world go ’round and Exxon had a history of helping to grease the wheels. Filkins provides some evidence: “In 2002, a year after Congress passed the Patriot Act, a group of Senate investigators wanted to determine whether American banks were complying with the law’s restrictions against money laundering. One of them was Riggs Bank, in Washington, D.C. When the investigators began looking into Riggs’s books, they discovered several accounts, containing hundreds of millions of dollars, linked to Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the dictator of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny African nation with enormous gas and oil reserves. Some of the accounts were receiving deposits from ExxonMobil, which maintained large operations in the country. At the time, Tillerson was Exxon’s senior vice-president …
“In some cases, the Senate investigators found, Exxon wired money directly to offshore bank accounts that Obiang controlled. In others, money was carried to the bank in suitcases containing millions of dollars in shrink-wrapped bundles … Exxon officials told the investigators that the payments were made not to acquire oil concessions but to pay for a variety of services, such as security and catering, that Exxon needed in order to operate in Equatorial Guinea.” Let’s hear it for the caterers.
Anyway, these abuses prompted some in Congress to suggest requiring U.S. companies to disclose their payments to foreign governments, and Rule 1504 was attached to the Dodd-Frank legislation aimed at reforming banks and other large financial institutions.
Filkins: “Tillerson, as the C.E.O. of Exxon, went to Capitol Hill to argue against the rule, and met with one of the senators who supported it. According to a source with knowledge of the meeting, Tillerson said that if Exxon had to disclose payments to foreign governments it would make many of those governments unhappy — especially that of Russia, where Exxon was involved in multibillion-dollar projects … (Emphasis mine.)
“After years of wrangling, Rule 1504 was approved, and scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2017. Following Trump’s election, however, the Republican-controlled Congress singled out a number of regulations for repeal, Rule 1504 among them. But Congress waited until after Tillerson’s confirmation hearing to include the rule in repeal legislation; Tillerson was not asked about it at the hearing. On February 1st, with Exxon lobbyists on the Hill to push Congress, the House voted to rescind Rule 1504, and the Senate quickly did the same. Almost exactly an hour later, Tillerson was confirmed as Secretary of State.”
Filkins treats us to a most revelatory February 2017 conversation in between the newly-confirmed Secretary of State and his new President: “He visited the Oval Office to introduce the President to a potential deputy, but Trump had something else on his mind. He began fulminating about federal laws that prohibit American businesses from bribing officials overseas; the businesses, he said, were being unfairly penalized.” (Emphasis mine.)
In this instance Tillerson headed for the higher ground. According to Filkins, “Tillerson disagreed. When he was an executive with Exxon, he told Trump, he once met with senior officials in Yemen to discuss a deal. At the meeting, Yemen’s oil minister handed him his business card. On the back was written an account number at a Swiss bank. ‘Five million dollars,’ the minister told him.
“ ‘I don’t do that,’ Tillerson said. ‘Exxon doesn’t do that.’ If the Yemenis wanted Exxon on the deal, he said, they’d have to play straight. A month later, the Yemenis assented. ‘Tillerson told Trump that America didn’t need to pay bribes — that we could bring the world up to our own standards,” a source with knowledge of the exchange told me.’ ”
The fact that Trump and his campaign made clear their desire to walk back sanctions on Russia, coupled with their intent to de-emphasize alternative energy, repeal environmental regulations, and increase support for fossil fuel development certainly provides some additional insight into why Tillerson (and ExxonMobil) decided to join the administration. And why Tillerson still remains beside the man who humiliates him. The long game.
Whether Tillerson is there at State to see the happy day when sanctions are lifted and relations between Russia and the U.S. flourish once more remains to be seen. Because the fallout from his moron remarks still reverberates. Trump is loath to admit his Secretary of State was so unnerved by his failings that he couldn’t help but blurt out what so many know but won’t say, yet he can’t help but respond. Trying first, as the folks at Forbes reports from their recent exclusive interview, to cast doubt that Tillerson actually said what he hasn’t exactly denied saying, then going for a hard right to the head: “He counterpunches: ‘I think it’s fake news, but if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.’ ”It’s time for the required simple reminder how difficult it is for all us, including the press, to reach firm conclusions. As the National Intelligence Council puts it: “The Intelligence Community rarely can publicly reveal the full extent of its knowledge or the precise bases for its assessments, as the release of such information would reveal sensitive sources or methods and imperil the ability to collect critical foreign intelligence in the future.” Reminding us that “The mission of the Intelligence Community is to seek to reduce the uncertainty surrounding foreign activities, capabilities, or leaders’ intentions. This objective is difficult to achieve when seeking to understand complex issues on which foreign actors go to extraordinary lengths to hide or obfuscate their activities.”
Some pundits say that even if the Russians no longer trusted Hillary and preferred The Donald, no votes were affected. So, what’s the big deal? Well, I’m not going to say that the Russians might have given us a President. Because you wouldn’t believe me.
But how about James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence? “Our intelligence community assessment did serve to cast doubt on the legitimacy of his [Trump’s] victory in the election,” Clapper told CNN on September 22, 2017. About Trump’s recent actions, Clapper continued: “I think that, above all else, is what concerned him, and I think that transcends, unfortunately, the real concern here, which is Russian interference in our political process which, by the way, is going to continue,” Clapper said.
Next time: Michael Flynn
This series of articles is dedicated to the memory of investigative reporter and our neighbor Scott Christianson who was working on this very story.
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Just in case you think I’m making this stuff up:
Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections:
Ex-CIA chief stuns Nicole Wallace: It’s ‘absolutely’ possible Russia ‘dispatched Manafort to the Trump campaign’:
“JAMES CLAPPER: US intelligence assessment of Russia’s election interference ‘cast doubt on the legitimacy’ of Trump’s victory”:
“The Breaking Point: Will Donald Trump let Rex Tillerson do his job?”:
Dexter Filkins, October 6, 2017, The New Yorker
“Inside Trump’s Head: An Exclusive Interview With the President, And The Single Theory That Explains Everything”:
Forbes Staff and Ronald Lane, October 10, 2017
“Hackers breach dozens of voting machines brought to conference”:
By Joe Uchill, July 29, 2017, The Hill
“Hackers at DefCon conference exploit vulnerabilities in voting machines”:
Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY July 30, 2017
“Hacker study: Russia could get into U.S. voting machines”:
By Edward-Isaac Dover, Politico, October 9, 2017