The House speaker finds himself fighting a two-front war on the most politically treacherous issue in GOP politics.
Donald Trump proved himself a terrible gift-giver last month when all he got wife Melania for her 48th birthday was … a card. He’s done Robert S. Mueller III much better, spraying him indirectly with a pair of “no collusion” tweets as the first anniversary of the special counsel’s appointment passed. Mueller didn’t give his anniversary partner anything in return, although a piece of paper—a subpoena to testify, perhaps—would have been keeping with tradition.
What Trump wants, of course, is an end to the relationship. Instead, Mueller seems more committed than ever to preserving the relationship as he continues excavating into Russian monkeying with the 2016 election. Without leaks or fanfare, he’s gone deeper and wider, rolling up guilty pleas among intimates and hangers-on in President Donald Trump’s orbit, getting people to flip, and sent his first perp to jail. This week, for example, he persuaded the son-in-law of the multiply-indicted Paul Manafort to cut a plea deal and cooperate in the investigation.
“Contrary to the president’s repeated assertions of a ‘witch hunt,’ the validity of the investigation has gotten more solid with every passing month,” writes my former boss, Garrett M. Graff, this week in Wired. As Graff points out, you can credit Mueller’s probe for wrecking K.T. McFarland’s nomination to the Singapore ambassadorship, zapping Sam Clovis’ appointment to the Department of Agriculture, and diluting Jared Kushner’s security clearance. Presidential fixer Michael Cohen owes his suppurating wound (you know, the one he carries around the streets of Manhattan as he walks from cigar bar to cigar bar) to Mueller’s team, which uncovered that he accepted more than $1 million from an American company connected to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. It will take some creative explaining—or a tidy lie—for Cohen to explain all the strange money flowing into his account. How much of this mess will the fixer be able to fix?
Although our information about Mueller’s investigation is imperfect—he runs a ship of tight lips—he seems to have perfected the art of catching suspects who lie to investigators and then using that violation to get smaller fish like Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, George Papadopoulos and Alexander van der Zwaan (now in jail) to confess and cooperate. If we’re allowed to review the Mueller performance before it has concluded, the first act seems to be about squeezing Manafort—until he rats out other Trump campaign members in return for leniency—while lining up subsidiary crimes of money laundering, obstruction of justice, cyber trespasses and campaign finance violations that bring him potentially closer to the Trump-Russia nexus.
Who else in the Trump orbit can we expect to knot a noose with their own words? Donald Trump Jr.’s complete testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, all 249 pages of it released this week, stands as a study in obfuscation if not creative lying. I suspect he has The Complete Book of Knots on his bookshelf. Junior told the committee he never told his father of the impending Trump Tower meeting that promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. But then why did his father promise “very informative and very, very interesting” information on Clinton at a campaign rally in June 2016 after Junior learned of the “dirt” offer but before the meeting took place? “I have no idea,” a slightly twisted Junior told the committee.
How about those three blocked number phone calls Junior made, before and after the meeting? Asked, Junior said couldn’t remember whether he had directed any of them to his father, even after a congressional investigator nudged him in that direction. In his testimony before the committee, Rob Goldstone—publicist and go-between for Aras Agalarov, a Russian oligarch, and his singer son Emin—said that Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner got all “agitated” at the Trump Tower meeting when the Russians palavered on but didn’t spread any of the promised dirt. Was the meeting secret? investigators asked Goldstone. “Well, I checked in for it on Facebook, so not really,” he answered.
Running down the list of other Trumpers who had campaign or transition contacts with Russians, we find Michael Cohen, Roger Stone, Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner, all of whom seem ripe subjects for interrogation and potential contradiction based on their records. (Sessions and Kushner have been interviewed, Cohen and Stone have not yet had the privilege but are expected to.) Will these men suffer from automatic amnesia when it comes to discussing their contacts with Russians?
In a stunning piece this week sourced to interviews, emails, text messages, testimony, and other documents, BuzzFeed reported that Cohen and Felix Sater, Trump intimate, ex-felon, and international man of mystery, were still working to build a Trump Tower in Moscow well into the 2016 campaign—contradicting Trump’s claim that he had nothing cooking in Russia. The piece also claims Cohen and Sater were coordinating a prospective Trump-Putin meeting. The tower plans were not abandoned until July 2016, BuzzFeed continues. This directly contradicts Cohen’s January 11, 2017, appearance on the Fox News Channel, where he told Sean Hannity, “The last time that there was any activity between the Trump Organization—actually, wasn’t even really the Trump Organization, it was the  Miss Universe pageant, it was held in Moscow.”
About his Russian interests, Trump held a calendar in one hand and crossed the fingers on his other when he deflected the Russia question in an interview with CBS4 Miami’s Jim Defede on July 27, 2016, saying, “I have nothing to do with Russia.”
The week also brought the back story from the New York Times of “Crossfire Hurricane,” the Rolling Stones-derived code name the FBI assigned to his original and wide-ranging investigation about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Opened on July 31, 2016, it stemmed from a tip from an Australian diplomat that Trump advisor Papadopoulos was bragging about his knowledge of Russian meddling in the election. The story portrays the FBI as hyper-aware of the political sensitivity of the investigation, that if made public could tip the presidential election. “Agents considered, then rejected, interviewing key Trump associates, which might have sped up the investigation but risked revealing the existence of the case,” the Times reports. The FBI so concealed the investigation from Congress and the press that when the Times attempted to measure its scope for a story on October 31, 2016, the government downplayed the probe, leading to the now-controversial headline, “Investigating Donald Trump, FBI Sees No Clear Link to Russia.”
Participating in the fantastical-sounding operation along with the FBI, said fleeting Trump attorney Joseph diGenova on Fox News Thursday night, were senior members of the Department of Justice, former CIA director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and former FBI Director James Comey. The diGenova accusation, which host Tucker Carlson swallowed, has yet to be seconded by Trump. But he’s on the same page. On the morning of diGenova’s appearance, the president tweeted that President Barack Obama’s FBI had embedded an informant inside Trump 2016 campaign, sourcing an article in National Review, which in turn cited a piece by Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly A. Strassel.
DiGenova left his phaser set at “giggle” with his final words, saying “criminal referrals have already been made” and advising John Brennan to get a good criminal attorney. If true, we’re going to need a bigger jail. U.S. officials denied to CNN that an FBI informant was ever placed in the Trump campaign.
The former U.S. attorney made former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani look like a paragon of reason as he blitzed his way through the media secondary in an attempt to score for his president. Appearing on CNN, Giuliani made grand claims there were two “embedded” people in the Trump campaign. But he had no proof. “That’s what we were told,” he said. But, Giuliani rowed back, saying that the embedded people cleared the president. The crazy thing about the diGenova-Giuliani reality dual is that the guy who isn’t Trump’s attorney is claiming to know more about the case than the guy who is.
According to tradition, the second anniversary is supposed to be celebrated with cotton. Here’s predicting that you buy some to stuff your ears before that date arrives.
When President Donald Trump meets with Kim Jong Un in Singapore next month, he will have a perfect opportunity to confront the North Korean leader about his country’s aggressive hacking strategy and the emerging risk it poses to the United States.
But the summit’s intense focus on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions may leave the cyber threat unaddressed, something some lawmakers say could be a missed opportunity.
Kim’s isolated country has marshaled its limited resources to become a notable cyber power, launching online bank robberies, ransomware attacks and strikes such as the 2014 trashing of Sony Pictures. That makes North Korea one of the United States’ top digital adversaries, along with Russia, China and Iran — leading some experts to press the president to address it during the leaders’ planned summit June 12.
“I hope it’s not just a summit to turn a blind eye to other malign activities of North Korea,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who chairs a subcommittee overseeing East Asia and international cybersecurity, and sponsored a 2016 law providing economic penalties for the regime’s online attacks. “I think you’ve got an opportunity to do some good things here.”
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned against assuming that even a hard-won nuclear deal means “you’ve solved the problem, when [Kim] can switch to an alternate form of conflict, moving from nuclear missile technology to sophisticated cyber.”
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he would expect the topic to come up at the summit. “I’ve got to believe that’s going to be one of the things they talk about,” he told POLITICO.
The White House has not spelled out the full range of topics Trump plans to discuss with Kim. A National Security Council spokesperson said the council did not want to “get ahead of the president on the summit.”
Cyber diplomacy has worked before with the United States’ digital adversaries, most famously in the 2015 agreement that then-President Barack Obama struck with Chinese President Xi Jinping in which the two countries agreed to end the hacking of private companies for commercial gain. At the time, tensions on cyber issues between the two global powers ran high, with researchers estimating that Chinese theft of American intellectual property was costing the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars each year.
In the months following the agreement, China’s digital pilfering noticeably dipped, according to observers. And while both government and private sector researchers say the activity hasn’t completely ceased, the arrangement allowed the two sides to end a yearslong freeze on any discussions of cyber norms.
Then again, China is not North Korea, and Obama and Xi hadn’t been exchanging threats of nuclear war when they formed their cyber pact.
Some security experts were skeptical of broadening the Trump-Kim summit to include hacking, saying a deal on denuclearizing the Korean peninsula is a fraught enough topic all by itself.
“We’re talking about nuclear weapons here, and someone wants Trump to talk about Sony or [the Bangladesh bank hack]?” said Jason Healey, a cyber conflict researcher at Columbia University who served in the George W. Bush administration as the head of cyber infrastructure protection. “Please, those are issues we can manage with so many other tools at our disposal, whereas dealing with nuclear issues has pretty much either negotiation or death, perhaps of millions.”
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) likewise warned against bogging down the summit’s to-do list with issues like cybersecurity.
“I’m not opposed to it going on the agenda,” he told POLITICO. “The question is, how many things can you ask them to eliminate in one negotiation?”
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said in a statement that the summit’s “primary focus must be North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.”
“But yes, I do hope the full range of the regime’s dangerous activities will be addressed.”
Before 2014, businesses and government officials were not concerned about North Korea’s digital army. The country exists largely off the grid — it has nearly 25,000 people for every internet connection, compared with neighboring South Korea, where each person averages two internet connections.
But in recent years, Pyongyang’s online warriors have pulled off a remarkable string of digital hits.
It started with the devastating 2014 breach at Sony, which spilled more than a terabyte of the studio’s most valuable secrets and dominated discussions on Capitol Hill for weeks. The FBI swiftly blamed the hack on North Korea, marking the first time the U.S. had blamed a foreign government for a major cyberattack.
Since then, Pyongyang’s cyber army has become infamous for a steady stream of digital heists and extortion schemes designed to fill the reclusive government’s coffers and blunt the impact of punishing international sanctions.
Most notably, government leaders blamed North Korea for the WannaCry ransomware virus, which raced around the world in May 2017, holding tens of thousands of computer systems hostage in least 150 countries. Britain’s health system was briefly paralyzed. FedEx, Maersk, the Russian interior ministry and Spanish telecom and natural gas companies were also hit. Although the virus was designed to extort victims into paying to regain access to their digital files, the malware appeared to have been released prematurely and only netted the country tens of thousands of dollars.
Far more lucratively, Kim’s hackers are believed to be responsible for a brazen digital theft that exploited an international payment transfer system to swipe $81 million from the Bangladesh central bank in February 2016. Pyongyang also appears to have used its hacking prowess to create a stockpile of virtual coins, hijacking foreign computers to mine cryptocurrency and shuttle it back to North Korea, as well as breaking into cryptocurrency exchanges to steal hundreds of millions of dollars in digital money.
Separately, security researchers have blamed North Korea for hacking banks in Taiwan and the Philippines. And last February, cyber firm Symantec said that Pyongyang was likely behind a string of cyberattacks on major banks in 31 countries.
“North Korea has acted especially badly, largely unchecked, for more than a decade,” said Tom Bossert, then the White House homeland security adviser, when pinning the WannaCry attack on Pyongyang. “Its malicious behavior is growing more egregious.”
Congress has so far held been largely silent in pushing for any of this to be on the agenda when Trump and Kim meet, in part because the administration was without a top diplomat after the president fired former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. But in April the Senate confirmed Tillerson’s replacement, ex-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who subsequently flew to North Korea to meet with Kim this month and secured the release of three American prisoners, in a dramatic diplomatic victory for Trump.
The president’s poll numbers on his handling of the North Korea issue have risen, and the White House is promising he’ll pursue “tough negotiations” if the summit happens — despite recent threats by Kim’s government to cancel the meeting.
Still, some cyber watchers aren’t holding out too much hope for a significant U.S.-North Korea hacking deal.
Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA senior analyst focused on Korea, predicted that Trump and his team will address hacking with Kim “in a general sense.”
“They’ll bring it up, but it’s not going to be part of any kind of a deal,” said Terry, who is now a senior fellow for Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
She also echoed other experts in expressing skepticism: Even if the president’s team makes it clear the U.S. is monitoring North Korea’s cyber activities, Terry said, it probably won’t change Pyongyang’s online behavior.
“They’re going to do what they’re going to do,” she said.
Democrats hoping to wrest congressional seats away from diehard repeal-and-replace Republicans are campaigning on an unlikely issue for Texas — single-payer health care.
Across the country, many Democrats are trying to minimize internal battles on health care. But Democrats in this deep red state have also watched closely races where single-payer advocates have upset centrist primary opponents. And some believe that moving left on health care will mobilize new voters in primaries —and offer a shot at winning come November.
More than half the 22 Democratic House candidates competing in the Texas primary runoff next Tuesday openly tout their support for single-payer health care. On the Senate side, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who handily won his March primary, will face Sen. Ted Cruz. Cruz built his reputation on shutting down down the government in a failed bid to stop Obamacare in 2013. O’Rourke says he supports strengthening the Affordable Care Act now but starting on a path to an eventual single-payer health system.
“One of the things that exists for us is a large, very large number of people who are progressive who are not participating in the ballot box,” said Wendy Davis, a Texas Democrat who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2014. “I’ve heard the analogy before that we aren’t trying to get people to convert from Catholicism to Baptism, but trying to get people who are Baptist to come to church.”
Pulling up Texas’ entrenched Republican roots is a tough task for Democrats, and the state is unlikely to lean left anytime soon. Still, the state’s Democrats face a very different political climate in 2018. For starters, GOP attacks on the Affordable Care Act resonate less with voters.
“The Republican Party in Texas took a position that was more extreme than others, vilifying anything associated with the term Obamacare,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. “It’s less and less effective, every year that passes from the Obama administration.”
For the first time in 25 years, Democratic candidates are running in every congressional race in Texas. Many of them, like Democrats across the country, have made health care their central campaign issue.
But Democrats in Texas believe that talking about health care gives them an even greater advantage. The state has the highest uninsured rate in the country. Its Republican attorney general is once again suing to overturn Obamacare.
And while the state remains one of 19 that hasn’t expanded Medicaid, 95 percent of Democratic primary voters in March replied yes to a non-binding proposition asking if everyone in Texas should have a right to health care.
“Health care is one of our number one issues this election,” said Tariq Thowfeek, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party. “Our platform is far more progressive” than the national Democratic party’s, he said.
Still, the issue of whether to support single-payer vs. the less provocative goal of expanding existing ACA protections has become divisive in the handful of races where Democrats believe they have a shot at flipping Republican seats.
That includes the 7th Congressional District, just west of Houston, which backed Hillary Clinton for president over Donald Trump. It has been represented by Republican Rep. John Culberson since 2001 and is home to many health care workers at the Texas Medical Center.
Primary voters winnowed the crowded Democratic field to Laura Moser, who embraces single-payer health care, and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, who supports building on ACA coverage gains. They will face off again on Tuesday.
Fletcher, an attorney, believes that single-payer is too extreme a position for voters in the district.
“This is a traditionally Republican district that doesn’t think government is the solution to everything,” Fletcher said.
The DCCC published opposition research on Moser ahead of the March primary, arguing that she carries too much baggage to win the general election — and in the process drawing national attention for its attack on the more liberal candidate. Moser, described on her website as a “working mom turned progressive activist turned candidate,” promised that if she prevails on Tuesday she won’t back away from single-payer.
“I hate it when Democrats use Republican talking points,” she said. “Obviously we aren’t going to wake up tomorrow with single-payer, but we have to stake out our position unapologetically.”
Elsewhere in Texas the divide is more muddled.
In the 21st Congressional District, where Republican Rep. Lamar Smith is retiring after more than three decades, the Democratic primary runoff pits progressive Mary Street Wilson against the more centrist Joseph Kopser, an Army veteran and former Republican favored by the national Democrats.
Kopser told POLITICO that he would support a single-payer health system if he had to vote on a bill. But he doesn’t talk about it on the campaign trail. Nor does he tout specific ideas like “Medicare-for-all” that could alienate conservative voters in the district, which stretches from Austin to San Antonio and west into the Texas Hill Country.
On the other hand, Wilson — a pastor and former math teacher whose first-place March finish was among the biggest primary surprises in the state — has been touting her support for a Medicare-for-all bill, believing it will appeal to older voters who dominate the district.
“I’m not just a bleeding-heart liberal saying everyone should have health care,” said Wilson. “I believe it’s a practical solution.”
But the polling power of single-payer is unclear. More than half the Democratic challengers who won the first round of primary voting outright include single-payer health care in their campaign platforms. None of the nine Democratic incumbents do. (Democrats currently hold 11 seats in the Texas delegation to the GOP’s 24, with last month’s resignation of Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold leaving one vacancy.)
In the general election campaign, Republicans are sure to argue that support for single-payer amounts to a tax hike — anathema to conservative Texans.
Even in blue California, single-payer has stalled in the state Legislature amid cost projections and worries about new taxes.
Still, a fire has been lit in Texas. Talk of single-payer health care won’t die down even if progressive candidates lose, said Jim Hightower, head of Our Revolution Texas, which is building on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign message. Hightower is kicking off a 12-city tour this summer aimed at rallying support to introduce a Medicare-for-All bill in the 2019 state legislative session.
He admits that many single-payer-supporting candidates face tough odds in Texas, but believes this election is a key opportunity to build long term support.
“As my buddy Willie Nelson says,” said Hightower, “The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”
HOUSTON — Laura Moser was at the center of a Democratic civil war in March, after the DCCC derided her as a D.C. carpetbagger and furious activists leaped to her defense ahead of Texas’ primary.
But two months later, the heat has dissipated. Moser and fellow Democrat Lizzie Pannill Fletcher are still competing for the Democratic nomination to face Republican Rep. John Culberson this fall. But Tuesday’s primary runoff has been so collegial that the moderator at a recent forum felt the need to interject 20 minutes in: “How are you different?”
The question brings out more on political style and strategy than ideology for this pair, with the fiery Moser a believer that Democrats can flip longtime GOP districts by motivating a dormant base and Fletcher more focused on reaching out to former Republican voters. On policy, Moser and Fletcher both noted that they are largely on the same page — though with a few major exceptions, like Moser’s support for single-payer health care and a speedy impeachment of President Donald Trump.
“A lot of people don’t know the difference between us because we’re both women whose names begin with ‘L,’” Moser said in an interview with POLITICO. Fletcher, in another interview, added, “We’re both Democrats, after all.”
But where they disagree most strongly — on how to go about winning traditionally red districts in the Trump era — is emblematic of tensions playing out among Democrats across the country, as they work to flip 23 House seats and retake the majority.
Moser believes in expanding the electorate, activating non-voters with a progressive pitch including support for Medicare-for-all. She said she’s “focused on bringing in new people to the process,” by deploying 2,000 volunteers to find them, while Fletcher wants Republicans to “cross over.”
“They think that if you get the person who looks most like the [incumbent] that that’s how you win, but it doesn’t fool people,” Moser said. “It doesn’t motivate the base and Republican aren’t dumb, and they’re going to vote for a Republican.”
Fletcher, meanwhile, said she “won’t take Democrats for granted,” but “there are a lot of persuadable people in this district, the people who voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, 33,000 of them.”
“I think it’s incredibly hard to just bring in a whole lot of new people into the process,” Fletcher said, as she waited to greet voters at the polls last week.
The same disagreement is flaring in primaries across the country, as more activist candidates butt heads with more mainstream ones. Greg Edwards, a Bernie Sanders-backed candidate who lost a House primary in Pennsylvania last Tuesday, said the “momentum” isn’t with “Republican-lite or a Democrat-lite [candidates].” Former Rep. Brad Ashford, a Blue Dog Democrat who lost his Nebraska primary to Kara Eastman, told The Wall Street Journal that Eastman would “have to convince the voters that even though she may be more liberal than the district that it doesn’t really matter.”
When the DCCC posted research on Moser — a journalist and activist who grew up in Houston, then moved home from Washington in the last year — calling her a carpet-bagging opportunist who “begrudgingly moved” back to run for office, it turned Moser into a national cause. She harnessed backlash to the party’s move, raising money online and airing TV ads that urged voters to “[reject] the system where Washington party bosses tell us who to choose.”
But the gush of online money has slowed, and it didn’t translate into long-term financial edge, as Fletcher entered the runoff with four times more campaign cash on hand than Moser.
“I have no idea — if I win — if they will continue to freeze me out, but probably,” Moser said, trailing off. “Sending out that stuff — I’m damaged, and if I do win, it’s going to be harder because [Republicans] can say, ‘oh, her own party thinks she’s extremist.’”
A party strategist said that if Moser won the runoff, Texas’s 7th District “would become a less winnable district” and “investments in the race would have to be reevaluated.”
Fletcher, meanwhile, picked up an early endorsement from EMILY’s List, a powerhouse Washington-based group that spent $250,000 on her behalf in the March primary. After the primary, Fletcher received donations from House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer’s campaign committee and his leadership PAC.
Moser and Fletcher both insist that they don’t hear much from voters about the party’s intervention in the race. But several voters at candidate events and early voting stations expressed frustration at the party’s ham-handedness.
“The DCCC’s Streisand effect played into my vote because that made me take notice,” said Phil Koltko, a 53-year-old Moser supporter who showed up at an early voting station in Montrose. “Part of their message was, ‘[Moser] is too progressive,’ and when I hear ‘too progressive,’ that perks my ears up.”
“What happened to Laura was horrible,” said Scott Sawyer, a 61-year-old ophthalmologist who voted for Fletcher on Tuesday morning. “It’s just none of their business.”
But some Democrats worry that Moser’s approach could alienate unaffiliated voters.
“Laura’s instinct is to lead with her chin, and push things from a purely partisan standpoint, that I think will ultimately help Culberson,” said a Democratic strategist based in Texas. “That’s a highly educated district with a lot of thoughtful voters who are willing to step away from party, but you have to give them a reason to do it. But if you play to type, then so will the voters, which is defaulting to Republicans.”
And Fletcher frequently emphasizes her “years as John Culberson’s constituent,” an implicit shot at Moser, who recently moved back to the district.
That local connection is resonating with some voters.
“Lizzie can talk to everyone because she’s been so active in the Houston community, and it takes some with that kind of regional knowledge to get Republicans to support you,” said Ann May, a 75-year-old voter who attended a neighborhood candidate forum at a private school in western Houston. “I’m leaning toward Lizzie because of that.”
In the fall of 2012, for reasons that remain mysterious to me, it became clear that my family and I were being followed. I had been in Moscow as ambassador then for less than a year. As I wrote to the head of our security team on October 7, “My guards informed me that I was followed today while attending my son’s soccer game. And they then kept with us as we went to McDonald’s.” My head of security replied that if we saw them, it was because they wanted us to see them.
A few weeks later, agents from Russia’s security service FSB, or so we assumed, sat in the pew behind us in church, which truly unnerved my wife. They followed us on the streets, and closely tailed our Cadillac. On one occasion, one of my drivers overreacted to being followed. With my family in the car, he began driving faster and more erratically, weaving through Russia’s crazy traffic until I finally intervened and urged him to relax. After all, our situation was not like in the movies. We could never lose them for good. They knew where we lived.
The car chase episode scared me, as it illustrated that the Russian intelligence officers were succeeding in getting under our collective skin. It also was getting dangerous.
During my first year as ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration, the Russian authorities conducted a ground campaign of harassment against my colleagues at the embassy, myself and, from time to time, even my family. I was the architect of the Reset plan to improve relations between the United States and Russia, and here I was, witnessing firsthand just how deeply and how quickly the relationship was deteriorating—and how little anyone could do to stop it.
In my first week in Moscow, Nashi, the Kremlin-created “youth group” that sometimes acted as stunt journalists or street protesters in the government’s service, threatened to organize a demonstration outside our residence. As the regional security officer circulated emails in red ink urging embassy employees to stay away from my new home, Spaso House, I wondered what I was supposed to do, as my family was at the residence at the time and I was at the embassy. The red-letter email turned out to be a false alarm. All we saw were some grandmothers walking their dogs in the park in front of our house. The experience, however, kept us on alert that day and for the rest of our time in Moscow, just as our hosts desired.
Outside the American Embassy, the Russian government authorities also made their presence known. Formally, the Russian police officers posted at the gates of our compound were deployed to protect us, even though we had our own Marine guard just inside the gates. In reality, the Russian officers’ main assignment in this new era of confrontation was to harass and subject to surveillance everyone entering the embassy. Even our American employees often had to stand helplessly in the cold, waiting for the Russian officers to take and then inspect their passports and record their data before being allowed to proceed. They even detained my wife from time to time. As one embassy report on harassment in the spring of 2012 documented, “January 27: Donna Norton, the Ambassador’s spouse. Harassed and held by police at South Gate in sub-zero weather.” Surely Russian intelligence was good enough to know who my wife was and that she was from Southern California!
This level of police harassment at the American Embassy and Spaso House was new. No one could remember a time even during the Soviet era when our hosts were so aggressive. More than once, we delivered formal letters of complaint to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the behavior, noting that we did not station police outside the Russian Embassy in Washington. Nothing changed.
When we could have used these Russian guards, however, they suddenly seemed unable to act. One day early in my tenure, on February 10, 2012, a group of several hundred demonstrators strangely attired in white plastic lay down on the street in front of the main embassy gate, blocking all traffic from leaving or entering the compound. (I’m assuming the plastic jumpsuits were to protect the demonstrators’ clothing.) My car pulled up to the embassy just after the group arrived; it was a strange feeling being denied access to the American Embassy, which is sovereign territory of the United States. I also worried about the embassy children, including two of my own, who were on their way back home from school at the time. Were they going to have to sit on the bus outside the gates of the compound, where their homes were located? We asked the police at our gate to clear the street, but they pleaded that they had no authority to break up a public demonstration. Of course, the irony was that Russian law made it illegal to convene a public demonstration without a permit, but the Russian authorities didn’t seem too anxious to enforce their laws against these particular demonstrators.
Our security cameras later revealed that Nashi leader Tikhon Chumakov had organized the demonstration. Chumakov and his Kremlin-backed comrades were above the law. One of my very frustrated embassy colleagues suggested that the demonstration violated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. If so, the convention wasn’t doing us much good that afternoon. Eventually the protesters dispersed, but the exposed feeling we all endured that day lingered long thereafter. What if they had tried to enter our compound? The low brick wall surrounding our embassy office buildings and townhouses, after all, was easily scalable. What would we do then? Our security team started making contingency plans. None of our options provided much reassurance.
Not long afterward, I encountered Chumakov face-to-face during a visit to the CEO of Rusnano, Anatoly Chubais, at his company’s headquarters. It was a routine courtesy call. Rusnano is a giant state-owned Russian company that invests in high-tech companies all over the world, including in the United States. Why Nashi operatives would want to harass me outside this office building was unclear. As I opened my car door, they sprang—Chumakov and two or three others with video cameras. My meeting with Chubais was not a public event, so it was clear they had obtained access to my calendar—perhaps electronically, perhaps from a Russian informant working at the embassy. They bombarded me with questions about supporting the opposition—a widespread rumor that Nashi and other state-aligned activist groups, often posing as journalists, had been spreading about me since the beginning of my time as ambassador. Against the judgment of my bodyguards, I decided to answer, in Russian.
I reconfirmed that the United States provided no financial support to the Russian opposition. After a short exchange, I finally recognized Chumakov. I recalled that he had previously been assigned to follow and harass the former British ambassador, Anthony Brenton. Nashi encounters with Ambassador Brenton were aggressive and sometimes violent; he had even been attacked in the driveway of his residence. During out chat outside of Rusnano, Chumakov threatened me with similar treatment, promising that his group would chase me out of the country just as they had with Brenton. How pleasant, I thought. Welcome to Moscow!
My run-in with these Nashi agents at Rusnano ended uneventfully. None of the tape from the “interview” ever aired, because I hadn’t said anything useful to them. And my bodyguards thankfully avoided physical contact with these “youth leaders” (yes, that’s polite diplospeak), even though they were quite aggressive with me. But the event reminded me that I was under constant surveillance. How did Chumakov know that I was coming to Rusnano that day? Who was helping him obtain such information? Should I expect such a greeting party everywhere I visited?
We eventually learned to expect them. The Nashi posse did not meet me at the entrance of every meeting I attended. They never showed up, for instance, outside the gates of the Kremlin or in the parking lot at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But they showed up frequently enough that we planned for encounters.
As per guidance from our security team, I also had to assume that every phone call I made, every email I sent (on the unclassified system), every website I visited, every conversation I had, and even every movement I made inside Spaso House was being monitored by the Russian government. All the large apartment buildings next to Spaso House in downtown Moscow had for rent signs hanging in them, yet no one ever moved in. In our first security briefing upon arrival, Donna and I were told that we should use one of our secure rooms at the embassy if we ever needed to have a serious argument. (Thankfully, we never needed to use that service!) The technological advances in cyber surveillance over the last decade, as well as voice and video monitoring, are mind-boggling. We had to operate in Russia as if we were being monitored all the time. I had adjusted to a life with minimal privacy as a White House official. Living in Russia, I had no privacy at all.
Harassment was not limited to my immediate security team and me. Anyone who worked at the embassy could become a target. They slashed the tires of one of my junior staffers. They broke into the homes of embassy employees, oftentimes just rearranging the furniture or turning on all the lights to let people know that they were vulnerable. During my second year on the job, the State Department’s Office of Inspector General did a comprehensive review of all activities at the embassy. On security, their final unclassified report noted, “Across Mission Russia, employees face intensified pressure by the Russian security services at a level not seen since the days of the Cold War.”
Russian officials also regularly interrogated our Russian employees, pressuring them to report on us. My Russian bodyguards were brought in for questioning. We assumed that some of our Russian employees were informants for Russian intelligence.
The FSB, Russia’s state security agency, also aggressively recruited informants among our American staff, offering large sums of money for sensitive information, just like one sees in the movies. And “honey traps” —the deployment of beautiful young women and men to lure American employees into doing things that could make them vulnerable to blackmail—occasionally work. One of the hardest parts of the job as ambassador was signing papers to curtail someone’s assignment in Moscow because they had become a counterintelligence risk.
These harassment techniques were not new, but the number of incidents spiked noticeably in the winter of 2012. A memo prepared by my regional security officer and his team counted “nearly 500 additional instances of harassment against U.S. Mission personnel” between January 17 and March 30, 2012. Even during the Soviet era, no one on our staff could remember a period of harassment so intense.
The worst form of harassment, however, was when my children were followed. One day, in the spring of 2013, my security team reported that a car was following my kids’ vehicle to school, an activity we verified through a proper investigation. It wasn’t hard to confirm that my kids’ car had been followed. Whoever was responsible wanted us to know.
Then it happened again. On May 6, 2013, one of my senior staff members reported to me that another car had been observed following my sons to school. I concurred with the plan to issue another note of complaint to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but also added, “I do not want us to assume that we know this car is the FSB. We should also keep open the possibility that this is a security threat to my children.” There were many people in Russia who didn’t like me or the United States. Anyone could have been driving that car.
We did push back with the Russian government regarding these family-related incidents. Through various government-to-government channels, we presented evidence of harassment to our Russian hosts. Even President Obama got involved a couple of times, asking both President Medvedev and later President Putin to stop harassing “his guy” in Russia. We could never really tell if these pushbacks worked. The harassment, especially the overt surveillance, would come and go. We could never detect a clear pattern related to my activities as ambassador or developments in U.S.-Russia relations. And maybe that was the plan.
I mostly stayed calm, but once, under such constant pressure, I cracked and made a mistake. On March 29, 2012, as a crowd of Kremlin-aligned activists gathered outside a meeting—which, again, was not publicly announced—I decided to stop and talk with the crowd. When they asked if they could interview me on other topics, I agreed, but requested they go through my press office instead of stopping me on the street in the cold when I had no coat on. As they kept pressing me, however, I became agitated, and stated that Russia was a dikaya strana (“wild country”) for tracking and harassing diplomats the way it did.
Some opposition leaders who later watched the exchange on video on social media loved it. Alexei Navalny, for instance, tweeted that I should have punched the agitators, being that I had diplomatic immunity. Russian officialdom had a very different reaction, and I agreed with them. I had wanted to say that the behavior of those Nashi activists was inconsistent with international norms. American political groups do not obtain the Russian ambassador’s calendar and then follow him wherever he goes. And Nashi and NTV were instruments of the Russian regime, so their treatment of me was a Russian government operation. But in the heat of the moment, those words had not come to me. Of course, after the “dikaya strana” clip aired I apologized immediately on Twitter, tweeting, “Just watched NTV. I misspoke in bad Russian. Did not mean to say ‘wild country.’ Meant to say NTV actions ‘wild.’ I greatly respect Russia.” But the tape of that sound bite would loop a long time.
I reached out to some friends of mine at the White House to apologize for letting “the boss” down. Obama, I was reminded, had made his share of inappropriate remarks. Still, I was disappointed in myself. Of course, the Russian government was behaving wildly at the time. It was doing things that normal governments simply don’t do, both to their own citizens and to me. And wilder stuff was yet to come. But diplomats should not say such things in public, and I was now a diplomat. The Nashi strategy of constant harassment had generated dividends for the government that day.
The Kremlin had pivoted on us, portraying the United States as Russia’s enemy. The Kremlin was the one rolling back the Reset, not the U.S. administration. Its attacks on me were part of this larger campaign. It felt personal at times, but it wasn’t only personal. I eventually came to understand that these negative trends in our relationship were much bigger than myself. I was not a cause of the problems, but my troubles as ambassador were a symptom of larger forces over which I had little, if any, control.
Excerpted from FROM COLD WAR TO HOT PEACE: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia by Michael McFaul. Copyright © 2018 by Michael McFaul. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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