Tom Philpott passes along a bit of news about Donald Trump that flew under the radar yesterday:

Amid the furor surrounding allegations of covert ties with Russian intelligence figures as well as his first press conference since winning the election, President-elect Donald Trump found time in his hectic Wednesday schedule to meet with two towering figures in the agriculture world, reports Fox Business Daily....The meeting involved German chemical giant Bayer's $66 billion buyout of US seed/agrichemical giant Monsanto—a deal that will have to pass antitrust muster with Trump's Department of Justice.

....Fox reports that Bayer CEO Werner Baumann and his Monsanto counterpart Hugh Grant met with the incoming president at Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan to promote the merger. In an email to the news organization, a Monsanto spokesperson confirmed that the two execs "had a productive meeting with President-Elect Trump and his team to share their views on the future of the agriculture industry and its need for innovation."

Is this...appropriate? I know that's sort of a silly question when it comes to Donald Trump, but is the president supposed to meet with people who have business pending with the Department of Justice? This is an antitrust review, not a criminal case, but it still seems wrong.

Am I off base? Does this kind of thing happen all the time?

UPDATE: And there's this, which I missed earlier:

Gee, I wonder what they talked about? Is Trump planning to become the single point of approval for all merger and antitrust matters?

The BBC's Paul Wood provides yet more detail on allegations that the Russians have possession of blackmail tapes on Donald Trump:

Claims about a Russian blackmail tape were made in one of a series of reports written by a former British intelligence agent. As a member of MI6, he had been posted to the UK's embassy in Moscow and now runs a consultancy giving advice on doing business in Russia. He spoke to a number of his old contacts in the FSB, the successor to the KGB, paying some of them for information.

....The former MI6 agent is not the only source for the claim about Russian kompromat on the president-elect. Back in August, a retired spy told me he had been informed of its existence by "the head of an East European intelligence agency".

Later, I used an intermediary to pass some questions to active duty CIA officers dealing with the case file — they would not speak to me directly. I got a message back that there was "more than one tape", "audio and video", on "more than one date", in "more than one place" — in the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow and also in St Petersburg — and that the material was "of a sexual nature". The claims of Russian kompromat on Mr Trump were "credible", the CIA believed.

....Last April, the CIA director was shown intelligence that worried him. It was — allegedly — a tape recording of a conversation about money from the Kremlin going into the US presidential campaign.

It was passed to the US by an intelligence agency of one of the Baltic States. The CIA cannot act domestically against American citizens so a joint counter-intelligence taskforce was created....A lawyer — outside the Department of Justice but familiar with the case — told me that three of Mr Trump's associates were the subject of the inquiry. "But it's clear this is about Trump," he said.

That's four sources, though obviously we don't know if they're all getting their information from the same place. Nor do we know if any of this is true. It might still all be baseless innuendo.

Still, four sources. This Paul Wood fellow is either a world-class crank or a helluva reporter. And we never would have known any of this if BuzzFeed hadn't gone ahead and published that dossier.

Has anyone written a definitive profile of Kellyanne Conway? I seem to vaguely recall seeing her on cable news over the years, and she always seemed pretty normal. Conservative, of course, but not crazy or especially mendacious.

Not anymore, though. She goes on TV and routinely lies, tosses out endless chum, makes groundless allegations, and just generally does everything she can to mislead the audience and attack all of her enemies, real and imagined. In other words, she's just like Donald Trump.

Ditto for Sean Spicer, Corey Lewandowski, Hope Hicks, Scottie Nell Hughes, Katrina Pierson, and a cast of Trumpian thousands. But I'd never seen any of those folks before they became Trumpistas, so maybe they were that way all along. Conway is the only one I've ever seen before.

Does Trump train people to "act like Trump"? Does it just happen naturally if you hang around the guy for a while? Will we soon have an entire administration full of mini-Trumps? It's a scary prospect. In the meantime, though, I'll settle for the straight dope on Kellyanne Conway. What's her deal?

Yahoo News provides some further information about the man behind the Trump-Russia dossier, reporting that he is a former MI-6 officer who:

had worked as a consultant for the FBI’s Eurasian organized crime section, helping to develop information about ties between suspected Russian gangsters and FIFA, said one of the sources, who is directly familiar with Steele’s work.

....U.S. officials said his allegations were not easily dismissed, in part because Steele was a known quantity who had produced reliable information about Russia in the past. "He’s a meticulous professional, and there are no questions about his integrity,” said one U.S. official... "The information he provided me [about Russia] was valuable and useful.”

And the BBC's Paul Wood claims that former MI-6 officer isn't the only source for these allegations anyway:

Most of the stuff in the dossier is nonetheless probably wrong. The question is, is any of it right?

Last night, BuzzFeed decided to publish a dossier of raw intelligence put together by a British former MI6 officer. Like most reports of this kind, it contains lots of tittle-tattle, and there's a good chance that much of it is untrue. So should BuzzFeed have published? Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan makes the case against:

It’s never been acceptable to publish rumor and innuendo. And none of the circumstances surrounding this episode — not CNN’s story, not Trump’s dubious history with Russia, not the fact that the intelligence community made a report on it — should change that ethical rule.

Quite so, and virtually every mainstream media reporter seems to agree. And yet, I'm not so sure. Several things happened in the past couple of days that make this a trickier question:

  • The intelligence community briefed Obama, Trump, and several members of Congress about the contents of the dossier.
  • CNN reported that "US intelligence agencies have now checked out the former British intelligence operative and his vast network throughout Europe and find him and his sources to be credible enough to include some of the information in the presentations to the President and President-elect a few days ago."
  • The Guardian reported that the FBI took these allegations seriously enough to apply for a wiretap warrant on several of Trump's aides.

This is still a judgment call. But it's not a judgment call about some random celebrity. It's a judgment call about the soon-to-be president of the United States. And it's about allegations that the intelligence community is taking very seriously.

What's more, this dossier has apparently been seen or discussed by practically everyone in Washington DC. It has long annoyed me that things like this can circulate endlessly among the plugged-in, where it clearly informs their reporting unbeknownst to all the rest of us. At some point, the rest of us deserve to know what's going on.

Put all that together—president, credibility among the intelligence community, and widespread dissemination—and I'm not at all sure that BuzzFeed did the wrong thing. Maybe this will all turn out to be the worst kind of made-up gossip, but at some point there's enough reporting around it that it's time to stop the tap dancing and let us know just what it is that has everyone so hot and bothered.

Health Update

Nothing much to report this month. After four straight months of my M-protein level holding stable at exactly 0.58, I was hoping to extend the streak to five. But no: this month it's at 0.51. That's down a bit, so it's good news. Everything else is stable and normal too (for me, that is). Take that, cancer.

On the other hand, this damn cold really needs to go away. Apparently everyone has it. Even my oncologist has it. And I'm pretty tired of coughing my lungs out every night. But maybe there was a bit less of that last night than usual. Maybe.

 

So what was the actual news from Trump's press conference? Here it is:

  • He will introduce legislation (or a plan or something) to both repeal and replace Obamacare within a few weeks.
  • He now believes Russia was probably behind the election hacking.
  • He has chosen a nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin.

The rest was mostly general whining about the press and various and sundry other Trump bugaboos.

The nomination of David Shulkin as Secretary of Veterans Affairs was certainly unexpected. After months of (mostly false) blather about how the VA was a failing organization and the current management was incompetent, Trump nominates...a member of the current management. In fact, he's the member of management who runs the Veterans Health Administration, the very organization that Trump has been so scathing about. This is very strange indeed.

NOTE: This liveblogging of Donald Trump's press conference would have worked a lot better if I'd actually published it instead of keeping it as a draft for the entire time. Sigh. Can I plead sickness? Anyway, here's what I wrote in real time.


12:16 pm - It would be nice if more reporters would ask specific questions about what Trump plans to do in office. But it's too late. The press conference is over.

12:15 pm - With Trump in office, Russia will no longer do any hacking. That's because Putin respects Trump.

12:14 pm - Trump is once again moaning and groaning about leaks.

12:13 pm - Once again, Trump says the Republican National Committee wasn't hacked. That does not appear to be true. Russia did hack Republicans, but didn't release anything they got.

12:09 pm - The press is terrible blah blah blah. We need more honest reporters.

12:07 pm - BuzzFeed is a "failing pile of garbage." CNN sucks too.

12:04 pm - Mexico is great. They've been so nice. But no more taking advantage of the US. He will announce a replacement for Scalia in a couple of weeks after the "signings." On Monday and Tuesday he will be doing a bunch of very nice "signings."

12:02 pm - Now we're back to the border tax. If you move your factory to Mexico, you will pay the price. No more of the Obama-esque shilly-shallying. Move to Mexico and you're not selling anything to America. Capiche?

11:59 am - I guess that's it for health care.

11:57 am - Obamacare is a complete and total disaster. It's imploding. 2017 will be catastrophic. But Trump won't allow that. Soon he will introduce repeal and replace, very complicated stuff, all at the same time. Within the same day, or the same week, or even the same hour. We are doing the Democrats a great service. It will be far less expensive and far better.

11:54 am -  Back to Trump: "We have one of the great cabinets that's ever been put together."

11:52 am - Dillon is now saying that paying for a hotel room is not an "emolument." But because this is the kind of guy he is, Trump plans to donate all his hotel profits to charity if they come from a foreign government. Or something. I didn't entirely follow that.

11:45 am - Trump lost "millions of dollars" by canceling all ongoing deals. Poor guy. There will be no new foreign deals. New domestic deals will be allowed, but only under the tightest possible ethical standards. All Trump Organization social media accounts will be banned from mentioning the presidency.

11:43 am - Dillon: Trump businesses will all be put in a trust. Management of trust will be in the hands of Don Jr. and Eric Trump. An ethics advisor will be appointed to the management team. Everyone is committed to making sure Trump businesses are "beyond approach."

11:41 am - Trump attorney Sheri Dillon is now going on and on about how conflict-of-interest laws don't apply to the president.

11:35 am - Trump says he has no relationship with Russia, period. No deals, no loans, no nothing. He turned down a $2 billion deal in Dubai just this weekend! He could have taken it, he says, since presidents can't have conflicts of interest. Plus, he could be president and run his company if he wanted to. He's the only person who could do such a thing. But, you know, that looks bad, doesn't it? In any case, no, he's not going to release his tax returns.

11:29 am - For the first time, Trump says the hacking of the DNC was "probably Russia."

11:22 am - Now Trump is rambling about multiple subjects: Fiat Chrysler, the high cost of drugs, the F-35, Jack Ma. The inauguration will have "tremendous talent." It will be a very elegant day. Massive crowds. A movement like the world has never seen. Oh, and speaking of veterans, he's appointed a new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin. Shulkin is currently Under Secretary for Health in the VA. Sounds like a guy who's really going to shake things up.

11:20 am - Trump says he stopped giving news conferences because there had been so much inaccurate news. But now he's back—and he's thanking the news media for not writing about the horrible, terrible, despicable raw intelligence report that CNN reported on. This is obviously an attempt to shame reporters into not asking about it. Will it work? We'll see.

11:18 am - Pence follows up Sean Spicer's blast against BuzzFeed with a stern warning that the news media needs to stop being mean to Trump.

11:16 am - Mike Pence? We don't want Mike Pence. We want Trump.

Over at Vox today, a trio of researchers takes a broad look at the evidence that FBI Director James Comey affected the election. Their conclusion:

The evidence is clear, and consistent, regarding the Comey effect. The timing of the shift both at the state and national levels lines up very neatly with the publication of the letter, as does the predominance of the story in the media coverage from the final week of the campaign. With an unusually large number of undecided voters late in the campaign, the letter hugely increased the salience of what was the defining critique of Clinton during the campaign at its most critical moment.

The appeal of big-picture narratives about demographics, along with anecdotal evidence of big mistakes by the Clinton campaign in certain key states, makes it easy to point fingers. But looking specifically at the three “Rustbelt” blue states mentioned at the beginning of the article, no unifying picture emerges. Most stories mention Michigan, where Clinton didn’t campaign, rather than Pennsylvania, where she campaigned intensely. Indeed, these three Midwestern states (Wisconsin being the third) provide essentially an A/B/C test of different campaign strategies — and in each state she came up just short.

If it weren't for Comey, Hillary Clinton would have won the popular vote by about 6 points and the Electoral College by 70 or more. And that might have turned into control of the Senate as well, though that's a little more speculative.

Democrats clearly need to focus attention on state and local races, where they have done steadily worse throughout the Obama years. But at the national level, they should resolutely avoid the circular firing squad. They didn't lose because their message was unpopular or because they're out of touch or because they're insufficiently centrist or insufficiently leftist. That just wasn't the problem. The Democratic message was fine; Democrats are perfectly well in touch with their constituencies; and they weren't perceived as too unwilling to shake things up. Even with eight years of Democratic rule acting as a headwind, Hillary Clinton's default performance was a substantial win.

The only reason it didn't happen is because James Comey basically decided to call her a liar and a crook—based on absolutely no new evidence and with everyone in the world advising him not to—with 12 days left in the election. That was something she couldn't overcome, and it has nothing to do with the basic Democratic message.

Needless to say, this is why Democratic senators were stunned yesterday when they asked Comey if the FBI was investigating Trump over his Russia ties, and Comey replied, "I would never comment on investigations — whether we have one or not — in an open forum like this, so I really can't answer one way or another."

In the definition of chutzpah, this might have to replace the murderous children who beg for mercy because they're orphans. I try to maintain a relatively level tone around here, but I have to say it's getting harder and harder these days. WTF IS GOING ON IN OUR COUNTRY?

We now know that the FBI considered the evidence of ties between Russia and the Trump team to be credible enough to investigate. Julian Borger reports on where this led:

The Guardian has learned that the FBI applied for a warrant from the foreign intelligence surveillance (Fisa) court over the summer in order to monitor four members of the Trump team suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials. The Fisa court turned down the application asking FBI counter-intelligence investigators to narrow its focus. According to one report, the FBI was finally granted a warrant in October, but that has not been confirmed, and it is not clear whether any warrant led to a full investigation.

The Twitter reaction to this has mostly been: Oh, so now the FISA court finally turns down a warrant request. Yeesh.

And sure, this is sort of ironic considering the FISA court's 99 percent rate of approving warrants. But there's also a serious point to be made here. This was a warrant targeting four specific people, so the court treated it like a normal warrant. That meant rejecting it if it didn't provide enough evidence to form probable cause. However, when a warrant is broad-based and applies to thousands or millions of people, the FISA court seems to adopt an entirely different standard. Just demonstrate a vague national security need and you're good to go.

That's the irony. The more people that are targeted in a warrant, the less seriously the FISA court seems to take it.

And while we're on the topic of Trump and Russia, it's worth pointing out that the original reporting of the dossier on Russian ties to Trump noted that there were some errors in it. Since then, we've learned of at least one more error. That's perfectly normal. This is very, very raw human intelligence, and even if it comes from a reliable source it wouldn't be surprising if two-thirds of it was wrong. That's why raw intel is never released publicly. The job of the intelligence community is to figure out which third of it—if any—is right, and then to pursue it further.

So don't worry about the fact that several parts of the report have been debunked and more will be in the future. What we're waiting for is to find out if any parts of the report are true. It's probably going to be a good long time before we know that for sure.