Trial by Fury: 14 Questions About Trump's Impeachment

We've never impeached an actual criminal. Nixon never made it this far. What should we expect?

WHEN RICHARD M. NIXON resigned the presidency on 9 August 1974, he effectively impeached and removed himself—cockblocking Congress. His subsequent pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford, ensured that Tricky Dick would forever avoid any meaningful repercussions for his actions. He was free to fade into a cushy private life, where he was exploited by the devious likes of Dimitri Simes. Thus did Nixon bequeath a template to future Oval Office criminals: How to Get Away With Abuse of Power.

The flip side is, Nixon denied future lawmakers a precedent for how to impeach and remove a brazenly corrupt POTUS. And in the long annals of the United States, Nixon remains the lone example of an outright crook. Yes, I know—Bill Clinton was impeached. But the charges against him pale in comparison to what Nixon did, and certainly to what Donald John Trump has done. Clinton lied under oath to cover up the affair he was having with a subordinate; he took “deny ‘til you die” to such an extreme that he perjured himself. This is odious behavior, to be sure, and unlawful, but unworthy of the disproportionate and highly partisan response. Clinton was not—and is not, despite what some QAnon zealots might say—a longtime money launderer for the Russian mafiya. He did not extort a key strategic ally to benefit his own campaign materially. He did not involve Al Gore, Madeleine Albright, Hazel O’Leary, and Robert S. Bennett in the execution of that abuse of power. He did not have goons track the movements of Ambassador William Green Miller to menace him, nor did he engage in a smear campaign against him. He did not appear at rallies, at which he yowled falsehoods and impugned Newt Gingrich and Kenneth Starr. Learning about Trump’s impeachment from Bill Clinton’s is like trying to learn Hebrew from watching a few episodes of Shtisel. It’s a bowl of apples versus a warehouse full of oranges.

Thus, as the impeachment trial looms in the Senate, we really don’t know what will happen. And by “we,” I mean literally anybody. Not me, not you, not Adam Schiff or Nancy Pelosi, not Mitch McConnell or John Roberts, not Donald John Trump or Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. We may as well forecast who will win the World Series in 2025. As Chris Berman used to say on NFL Primetime: “That’s why they play the games.”

So I will resist the urge to make any predictions. Instead, I will present 14 impeachment questions I’m curious to have answered:

1. Will Mitch McConnell agree to the Clinton rules for the trial?

The biggest wild card in the impeachment process is that the Senate Majority Leader will come up with some crafty way to avoid having a fair trial. Few politicos are more cunning than the Turtle—but his hands may be tied. The poll numbers show strong support for a fair trial. The American people have learned from two decades of Law & Order and similar shows what fair trials are supposed to look like. And the Lev Parnas documents and interview on the eve of the Senatorial swearing in make it impossible to insist on Trump’s innocence. The music has stopped, Pelosi is sitting comfortably on her throne, and Mitch can’t find a chair.

2. How will the Democrats present the case?

Per the Clinton rules, the House impeachment managers have 24 hours to present their case. There are plenty of ways this might be done, and while some are probably better than others, I have the fullest confidence in Adam Schiff to make the right call. Sam Smith once wrote of Michael Jordan that he was better at basketball than anyone else was at anything else. I think this applies in this context to Schiff. There is not a single human (other than maybe Kamala Harris, who as a Senator is a juror and must be mum) who I would rather have in charge of this.

3. Who will stand up to defend Trump, and how on earth will he (it will likely be a “he”) do so?

The Clinton rules also allow 24 hours for a defense. And, like, who is going to fall on the grenade this time? And what on earth will he say? Trump is so clearly guilty that even the blowhards in the House—Devin Nunes, Jim Jordan, Doug Collins, Elise Stefanik, and so on—did not even attempt to defend what he did. They just bleated and brayed and attacked the process. How can the GOP attack and control the process? My guess is they will talk about Hunter Biden for 23.95 of those 24 hours, but I am interested to see what else these dimwits come up with.

4. How much of an impact will the Chief Justice have on the trial?

Like many justices, John Roberts has made some good decisions and some atrocious ones. He is conservative, but he’s also more in tune with popular opinion than others on the bench. He is very, very smart. And he is not a Trumpist hack. The Constitution allows him to “preside” over the proceedings. Most experts assume he will be aloof, like William Rehnquist during the Clinton trial. But no one really knows. If Mitch McConnell pulls some shit, would it really be ridiculous to expect Roberts to shut it down? After all, it’s not just the fate of the republic on the line here—Roberts’s own legacy is also at stake. For all we know, the ghost of Roger B. Taney came to him in a dream.

5. Will any of the GOP Senators be compelled to recuse?

Val Demmings, one of the House impeachment managers, has already demanded that McConnell do so, as he has been impartial. But I would be shocked if this actually happened. This seems like a way to make Mitch seem like more of a Trumpist collaborator, to give the press something to write about, to push that narrative.

6. How will the new revelations from Lev Parnas be integrated into the trial?

Parnas is a middling mobster who exchanged text messages about what looks like an assassination attempt on the ambassador to Ukraine. He’s only singing now because the feds have him dead to rights. And yet, he is a compelling witness, and wow is he dropping bombs. Will Schiff reveal more than what has previously been reported? Because he certainly knows stuff, and this would be the perfect opportunity.

7. What antics will Mitch McConnell pull to scuttle a fair trial?

McConnell is the Bill Belichick of the Senate. He knows the rules better than anyone, he knows the loopholes, and he knows how best to exploit them. Scuttling the trial while not damaging GOP control of the Senate comprises his greatest challenge (cut to Merrick Garland smiling sadly). He will try to shoot the moon.

8. Will witnesses be called? If so, which ones?

Will the Republicans call Joe Biden and Hunter Biden? Will the Bidens appear if called? Will Roberts overrule and not allow them to? What about the “Three Amigos” and the other Trump minions? Rudy Giuliani? Lev Parnas? Heck, can President Zelensky testify?

9. If Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence, Rudy Giuliani, or Rick Perry appear as witnesses, will they take the Fifth?

Because they are all clearly complicit. And, as Trump likes to point out, only criminals take the Fifth.

10. Is John Bolton a red herring? A hostile witness? A complete lunatic? All of the above?

Bolton seems like an egomaniacal madman, and while he may know things, I’m not sure his testimony will move the needle. The opposite might be true, of course. But I guess there’s only one way to find out.

11. Will any Republican Senators vote to remove, or will it be a party-line vote, as in the House?

The odds are still on the Senate voting along party lines to acquit Trump, as it acquitted Clinton and Andrew Johnson, the first president to be impeached. But impeachment is ultimately a political process, and if the American people overwhelmingly want Trump gone, even some GOP Senators will have to vote to remove him, or risk losing re-election. So while acquittal is highly likely, it’s hardly carved in stone. Even if the Senate does not remove him, every GOP Senator who votes to excuse the criminal in the White House will have his or her name in the history books as a collaborator and traitor—for as long as the nation survives.

12. Will any Democrats vote to acquit…or just vote “present?”

Lookin’ at you, Bernie.

13. Will Trump appear?

Bill Clinton did not, but he did appear before a grand jury, and that testimony was used in the impeachment trial. Trump gave some written answers to questions posed by Mueller, but he has not testified at all about Ukraine, which is the basis for the charges against him—nor has he allowed any of his subordinates to testify. Doesn’t he have to appear? And if he does, won’t it be the most watched TV event of all time?

Furthermore: will he want to? In his fantasy, Trump would show up heroically, defend himself using all his best words, and immediately be exonerated. The problem is, that’s not what will happen. Once he enters the Senate chamber and takes the stand, he loses control of the narrative forever. Schiff and his team will eviscerate him—and do so completely and totally, and in the most public way possible. It will be Trump’s greatest humiliation in a lifetime full of them. And deep down, he knows it. Which brings us to the final question:

14. Will Trump resign?

I’ve been saying for years now that Trump will eventually resign. If faced with certain humiliation, and public loss of narrative and esteem, he will do what he has always done in his 70 years on earth—run away and play the victim. Trump is, above all else, a coward. Resignation is the coward’s way out. I expect him to take it—but I’ve been wrong before.

Bern After Reading: I Recognize the Sanders Active Measure Because I Fell for the Snowden Active Measure

We are all Useful Idiots, sometimes.

AS I TYPE THIS, the Russians are, once again, promoting and amplifying the quixotic presidential campaign of Bernard Sanders, the longtime Soviet apologist and anti-capitalist scold—and, once again, millions of well-meaning Americans are falling for it. This happened in 2016, to such a preposterous and obvious degree that the Office of the Special Counsel indicted 13 Russian nationals working for a company called the Internet Research Agency for, in part, artificially bolstering Bernie’s social media presence to sow division and help weaken Hillary Clinton:

This is not some out-there piece of speculation I found on Reddit. This is from Mueller!

Apart from his other glaring weaknesses—age, infirmity, egomania, misogyny, ineptitude, and inelectability in the general, to name six—Bernie Sanders being the Democratic candidate of choice of both Vladimir Putin and Donald John Trump should be a giant red flag, waving us to a more viable (if “centrist”) choice. But no. It is happening again, and as in 2016, real people—smart, compassionate Americans who care deeply for the country—have been duped by what Mueller determined is a Russian active measure.

Rather than lecture from on high on how Sanders’ supporters are gullible marks who have been fooled (although it must be said that “Bernie bros” seem to have a weakness for ivory-tower lecture, if their candidate’s favorite method of communication is any indication), I will offer instead, as an object lesson, my own history with Russian active measures. For I, too, have been a dupe, a mark, a fool. I was manipulated for years by powerful forces I did not understand, just like Bernie supporters.

There is no shame in falling for military-grade psy-ops. The danger lies in not waking up before it’s too late.

Edward Snowden played me. So did Glenn Greenwald. Julian Assange, too. All three of them, working in concert, convinced me to believe, and believe passionately, in what turned out to be an active measure propagated by Moscow.

Oh, Snowden said all the right things. The government is spying on us, he said. Our right to privacy is under attack, he said. The cogence of his argument was so compelling. He seemed so smart, so brave—a brilliant young man, risking his extremely cushy life to blow the whistle on our increasingly despotic government.

This is from a piece called “PRISM: Privacy Revoked In Security Measure,” which I published on 2 July 2013:

When The Guardian and The Washington Post broke the story about the secret NSA mass surveillance program, courtesy of Edward Snowden, one of the government’s erstwhile spies, it had the makings of the sort of scandal that ruins presidencies. PRISM was Watergate, it seemed, but bigger, and with a much broader reach. Heads surely would roll.

“I don’t want public attention because I don’t want the story to be about me,” Snowden told The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald a month ago. “I want it to be about what the U.S. government is doing.”

This has not really come to pass. The Snowden story has devolved into hacks questioning the news judgment of real journalists, cloak-and-dagger reports of the ex-Booz Allen employee eluding a phalanx of hapless correspondents at a Moscow airport, Ecuadorian extradition treaties, and heartfelt proclamations on the hotness of his girlfriend. The potential elevation of Greenwald from relatively obscure civil liberties columnist to this generation’s Bob Woodward is a good thing, especially considering that the actual Bob Woodward turned his back on true investigative journalism decades ago. But the rest of it is noise. Colorful copy, sure, but noise.

As “cringe” as that is, it only gets worse:

Edward Snowden is either going to be remembered as a pioneer of privacy rights or another Winston Smith crushed by his invasive and omnipotent government. Which way it plays out depends entirely on how much stink We the People make. That the President blithely alluded to Nineteen Eighty-Four at a press conference does not change the fact that Big Brother is watching us.

“In the end the Obama administration is not afraid of whistleblowers like me, Bradley Manning or Thomas Drake,” Snowden wrote yesterday, his first public statement in over a week. “We are stateless, imprisoned, or powerless. No, the Obama administration is afraid of you. It is afraid of an informed, angry public demanding the constitutional government it was promised — and it should be.”

I did not yet know what “deza,” or disinformation, meant. It never occurred to me that Snowden was spreading calculated, FSB-manufactured falsehoods. And worse—that by endorsing his mendacious narrative, so was I.

The Snowden-as-heroic-whistleblower active measure proved very sticky. As late as 30 November 2016, in an otherwise-up-to-snuff piece called “Help Us, Barack Obama. You’re Our Only Hope,” I advocated for a full presidential pardon for someone I now know is a traitor. Even after I read Louise Mensch’s “Mr. Putin, Let’s Play Chess” piece in January of 2017, I held on to the idea that Snowden was a pawn, a “Useful Idiot” who did not know he was being manipulated—that he was simultaneously a hero and a dupe. I didn’t want to believe John Schindler, a national security expert who worked for the NSA, who point-blank wrote that “the real Ed Snowden is a patsy, a fraud and a Kremlin-controlled pawn,” which does not leave much room for equivocation:

I insisted from the outset that Snowden was not the whistleblower he claimed to be, rather an attention-seeking narcissist, and that certainly once he landed in Moscow on June 23, 2013—and quite possibly before—he was in bed with Russian intelligence. Moreover, Snowden’s 1.5 million stolen documents were nearly all about NSA foreign intelligence and Pentagon military matters—not domestic surveillance. In short, the Snowden saga as presented to the public by Ed and his media enablers was a fantasy.

In that same piece, Schindler includes quotes from both the HPSCI Chair (pre-Kremlin Devin Nunes) and Ranking Member (Adam Schiff), who were of one mind on Snowden’s treachery:

Edward Snowden is no hero—he’s a traitor who willfully betrayed his colleagues and his country. He put our servicemembers and the American people at risk after perceived slights by his superiors. In light of his long list of exaggerations and outright fabrications detailed in this report, no one should take him at his word. (Nunes)

Snowden has long portrayed himself as a truth-seeking whistleblower whose actions were designed solely to defend privacy, and whose disclosures did no harm to the country’s security. The Committee’s Review—a product of two years of extensive research—shows his claims to be self-serving and false, and the damage done to our national security to be profound. (Schiff)

And, of course, Obama steadfastly refused to even consider a pardon for Ed Snowden, even as he commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning. This obduracy should have spoken volumes.

Part of my reluctance to open my eyes was that I liked Snowden. But part of it, probably an even bigger part, is that I didn’t want to admit that I was wrong.

In my defense, I did not arrive at these conclusions out of the blue. Glenn Greenwald, a journalist with the Guardian who I’d come to greatly admire during the Bush II years, felt strongly enough about Snowden that he risked criminal charges to stand by him. If you are unfamiliar with the Greenwald of seven years ago, Janet Reitman of Rolling Stone described him thus, in her December 2013 piece on the mass surveillance story:

Greenwald is a former litigator whose messianic defense of civil liberties has made him a hero of left-libertarian circles, though he has alienated elites across the political spectrum. Famously combative, he “lives to piss people off,” as one colleague says. And in the past eight years he has done an excellent job: taking on Presidents Bush and Obama, Congress, the Democratic Party, the Tea Party, the Republicans, the “liberal establishment” and, notably, the mainstream media, which he accuses—often while being interviewed by those same mainstream, liberal-establishment journalists—of cozying up to power. “I crave the hatred of those people,” Greenwald says about the small, somewhat incestuous community of Beltway pundits, government officials, think-tank experts and other opinion-makers he targets routinely. “If you’re not provoking that reaction in people, you’re not provoking or challenging anyone, which means you’re pointless.”

This perspective has earned Greenwald tremendous support, especially among young, idealistic readers hungry for an uncompromised voice. “There are few writers out there who are as passionate about communicating uncomfortable truths,” Snowden, who was one of Greenwald’s longtime readers, tells me in an email. “Glenn tells the truth no matter the cost, and that matters.”

At the time, I was unquestionably one of those young, idealistic readers. I loved Glenn Greenwald. He was far and away my favorite columnist. To me, his word was Gospel. And Snowden, he told Reitman,

“…had no power, no prestige, he grew up in a lower-middle-class family, totally obscure, totally ordinary. He didn’t even have a high school diploma. But he was going to change the world—and I knew that.” And, Greenwald also believed, so would he. “In all kinds of ways, my whole life has been in preparation for this moment,” he says.

If he felt this passionately about Snowden, well, that was enough of an endorsement for me. And so I held on for far longer than I should have.

By the end of January 2017, I had finally come around. All else aside, the whirlwind tale of Snowden’s Great Escape simply would not have happened without Putin’s say-so. It requires enormous suspension of disbelief to think otherwise. Consider: The self-styled “whistleblower” holed up for 40 days (how Biblical!) at Sheremetyevo International Airport, which, according to Robert L. Friedman’s Red Mafiya, is controlled lock-stock-and-vodka-barrel by Semion Mogilevich, the head of the Russian mob. His travel papers were arranged by Julian Assange of Wikileaks, a cut-out of Russian intelligence. And he wound up being welcomed to Russia by Vladimir Putin.

In the jaded retrospect of January 2020, of course, it all seems crystal clear. Isn’t it fishy that Snowden wound up in Moscow, of all places? Was this really a story about an American hero making good? Or a made Russian asset defecting?

By March 2017 I was actively working the Trump/Russia beat, writing the pieces that would form the basis for Dirty Rubles: An Introduction to Trump/Russia. But not everyone saw things so clearly in the spring of 2017—including, puzzlingly, my onetime journalistic hero. As I recalled in my book:

Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept, who’d built his career railing against the totalitarian state, nevertheless adopted Kremlin talking points in his lazy condemnations of Trump/Russia, muddying the waters for those of us on the left. On 17 March 2017, three days before the Comey hearing, Greenwald denounced the whole Trump/Russia affair: “Many Democrats have reached the classic stage of deranged conspiracists where evidence that disproves the theory is viewed as further proof of its existence, and those pointing to it are instantly deemed suspect.” He concluded that “given the way these Russia conspiracies have drowned out other critical issues being virtually ignored under the Trump presidency”—this assertion was flat-out false, at least in the mainstream press, which had hardly Woodward-and-Bernstein’d the Trump/Russia story—“it’s vital that everything be done now to make clear what is based in evidence and what is based in partisan delusions. And most of what the Democratic base has been fed for the last six months by their unhinged stable of media, online, and party leaders has decisively fallen into the latter category.” This followed a previous piece in which he denounced [Louise] Mensch and anyone else writing independently about Trump/Russia (like me!) as a “charlatan.”

I remember being both surprised and extremely disappointed that Greenwald had chosen to “debunk” Trump/Russia, rather than accept and disseminate the truth. And he was not shy about going after anyone who might disagree:

Now: If Snowden was a Kremlin-controlled traitor—as John Schindler, Barack Obama, Adam Schiff, Devin Nunes, and the whole of the intelligence community insisted—then my one-time hero Greenwald was either an extremely Useful Idiot, an unwitting accomplice to the active measure—or he, too, was on the make. I still hold out hope that it’s the former and not the latter; old habits die hard.

And that brings us to Bernie.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders was the progressive answer to Hillary Clinton, who to some benighted people was the embodiment of “corporatism,” “centrism,” and other nasty words Bernie bros call me on Twitter. He had a certain progressive purity—he would not bow to the corporate interests he attacked relentlessly on the campaign trail. Universal healthcare! Living wages! Tax the rich! Break up the banks! He was like Unfrozen Caveman New Deal Politician.

Good stuff! But then, active measures like this work so effectively because the narratives they sell are appealing.

The Bernie narrative turned out to be an act, alas. A closer look at Bernie Sanders revealed misogyny, Soviet boosterism, egomania, and a clear alliance with the NRA, among other flaws. His candidacy was never fully vetted—Hillary went easy on him, to avoid turning off his more obnoxious supporters—and his zealots began to insist on patent falsehoods.

“The DNC was rigged” was a common refrain, as if “rigging” accounted for the many millions of registered Democrats who preferred Hillary to him. In November 2016, Edward Snowden showed a video on how easy it would be to hack a voter machine for a total budget of $30. That video, propagating the “rigged vote” narrative, was a straight-up Russian op, designed to sow mistrust in our elections. Um…why were Ed and the Bernie bros making the same specious argument?

Sanders’ zealots made noise at the Convention, and Bernie himself kept on campaigning long after he was mathematically eliminated. He acknowledged Russian aid, but walked back from that acknowledgement, and never lifted a finger to stop it.

Twenty-twenty is different. This time around, the Sanders campaign has no reason to exist. For better or worse, HRC is not running. And voters who demand a progressive agenda above all have another, infinitely more viable option: Elizabeth Warren—younger, healthier, almost as progressive, and, unlike Bernie, actually capable of getting shit done. (To be clear: Warren is not my choice, but at least she’s not a pawn of the Kremlin. Bonus: she combs her hair).

So, like, why is Bernie running? Seriously: why? The guy will turn 79 in September, and he just had a heart attack. Why is he doing this? What’s the point? If he wins the nomination, he picks some divisive running mate (Tulsi? AOC? Eugene V. Debs?), the GOP open the treasure trove of oppo research on him, Trump skates to re-election, and the republic falls. The guy already fucked up the 2016 election. Why does he risk fucking up an even more important one? Seriously: why? Is it ego? Delusions of grandeur? Or is the sudden millionaire more than just a Useful Idiot for Putin?

This is the part where Bernie bots accuse me of hating poor people, being a secret Republican, being a centrist, wanting to deprive Americans of healthcare, shilling for Wall Street, trying to sell books, not deserving my blue checkmark, and, above all, of “making everything about Russia.” But, like, I didn’t invent the idea that Bernie’s campaign was helped by Moscow—it’s in the fucking Mueller Report. Just because one did not read the Mueller Report doesn’t mean that the findings therein are somehow invalid.

It’s very simple: Bernie Sanders either didn’t realize Russia was helping him, which makes him an idiot, or he knew and did nothing, which makes him a traitor. There is no third way. Like Snowden, and like Glenn Greenwald, Bernie Sanders is either an unwitting accomplice, an extremely Useful Idiot—or he’s compromised. In 2016, I believe he was the former. In 2020, I’m not so sure.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. Edward Snowden speaking at the 2015 International Students for Liberty Conference at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Don't You (Forget About): Jason "iPhone" Chaffetz

The HRC-obsessed Oversight chair Bill Barr'd the Comey letter.

IT WAS OVER SO QUICK. On 19 April 2017, Jason Chaffetz of Utah, the chair of the House Oversight Committee and one of the more recognizable Republicans on Capitol Hill, announced that he would not run for re-election in 2020. A week later, he took a leave of absence from Congress to recover from foot surgery. And then, on 18 May 2017, the 50-year-old gave notice, resigning from the House on 30 June—just six months into his two-year term. Good morning, good afternoon, goodnight, as they say in baseball.

All of this was strange, to say the least. As Amber Phillips wrote in the Washington Post at the time, “Chairmen of House committees don't just leave for no reason.” Like then-Speaker Paul Ryan, who followed a similar course, Chaffetz was relatively young and incredibly ambitious, even by Washington standards. Unlike Paul Ryan, he represented one of the most staunchly Republican districts in the country, and his re-election was a near lock. Why leave? Phillips can only come up with one possible reason: boredom. “His job as chairman of the oversight panel is to investigate the government, and it probably would have been a lot more fun for this tea party-leaning Republican to investigate Hillary Clinton's government than President Trump’s.” But she doesn’t seem convinced. Indeed, his abrupt resignation had the look of a made outlaw getting out of Dodge.

There is speculation that Chaffetz may run for Senate in 2020. But, as Phillips points out, he “could certainly run for the governor’s mansion from Congress, but maybe he just decided that his name recognition was high enough to do it from the private sector (where in-the-know members of Congress can make millions) than a so-so job. Also, he was bored.”

That analysis made more sense in April 2017, when it was written, than on 1 July 2017, his first day as a private citizen, when Chaffetz joined FOX News as a contributor. This is like resigning as head coach of the Jets four games into the season and taking a studio gig on one of the pre-game shows, to angle for a job next year coaching the Patriots. It makes zero sense. No one is that bored.

It could be that Chaffetz chafed at well-deserved criticism from his constituents. On 10 February 2017, he held a town hall at which pissed-off residents of his district turned up in droves to demand answers, angrily chanting DO YOUR JOB. He chalked up this “bullying” to paid protesters from beyond Utah, which he certainly knew was a Trumptastical lie. A month later, he uttered one of the stupidest and most tone-deaf sentences in recent Congressional history, when he tried futilely to justify the GOP dismantling the ACA, telling CNN’s Alisyn Camerota:

Well we’re getting rid of the individual mandate. We’re getting rid of those things that people said they don’t want. And you know what? Americans have choices. And they've got to make a choice. And so, maybe rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on, maybe they should invest it in their own health care. They’ve got to make those decisions for themselves.

This unforgivable gaffe, combined with the jarring unpleasantness of the town hall, may have convinced Chaffetz that he would be more comfortable in the Impenetrable Fortress of Stupid that is FOX News, where he could safely ignore his constituents, than in his current gig. But the easier solution to that pesky problem is to do as most Republicans have done, and suspend town halls altogether. Is the uber-ambitious Chaffetz such a snowflake soy-boy cuck that he would rather take his ball and go home than keep playing the game? Well, his was one of the first high-profile accounts to block me on Twitter, so it’s certainly possible.

In the event, much like a Trump-appointed cabinet member, Chaffetz was not particularly interested in the committee he headed up. The tireless Benghazi Truther wasted untold millions in taxpayer money on charade investigations the GOP admitted were purely political…but once an inveterate enemy of the United States had sabotaged our election in order to elect a compromised and corrupt Donald John Trump? Crikketz. 

WaPo’s Dana Milbank summed it up nicely:

Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has offered a bevy of excuses: He doesn’t need to probe the Flynn affair because “it’s taking care of itself”; other panels could better protect “sources and methods”; he didn’t want to pry into the “private systems of a political party”; and he won’t “personally target the president.” As for Russian hacking, Chaffetz echoed a Chris Farley skit on “Saturday Night Live”: “It could be everything from a guy in a van down by the river down to a nation-state.

Another possibility is that, as Phillips suggests, Chaffetz wanted to provide oversight only on Hillary Clinton, whom he relentlessly pursued like some combination of Javert chasing Jean Valjean, Captain Ahab hunting Moby-Dick, and Borat stalking Pamela Anderson. There was something almost lustful about his obsession with Clinton—and certainly futile. One would not be surprised to learn that the fantasy of her capture and capitulation formed the fodder of his masturbatory fantasies. “Every Breath You Take” might as well have been written about Chaffetz’s relationship with the former Secretary of State. I mean, look at this photo, which he proudly posted on his Insta like a lovelorn fanboy:

So pleased she is not the President. I thanked her for her service and wished her luck. The investigation continues.
January 20, 2017

Dude, she’s just not that into you.

While Chaffetz scuttled any attempt to investigate Trump at Oversight just as alacritously as Devin Nunes did at HPSCI, the rodentine Republican will go down in the history books as a leaker. For it was Jason Chaffetz who leaked the infamous Comey memo to the press, adding his own disingenuous and misleading spin for good measure:

The “case,” such as it was, was not “reopened.” Chaffetz created and helped drive that deza narrative, making a mountain of a molehill of duplicate emails. In this subtle, sneaky, mendacious way, he Bill Barr’d the Comey memo and helped defeat his nemesis, Hillary Clinton.

And maybe after that singular triumph, Chaffetz felt that his work was done. Maybe he really did want to move to broadcasting, in the way that fired football coaches come to prefer the cozy studio to the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. Fox News is notorious for hiring pretty blondes to sit behind the desk, but their male talking heads are allowed to look like woodland creatures, which is to Chaffetz’s benefit. He has been guest-hosting Sean Hannity’s show, and maybe he will take it over when the feds finally come for that bosom friend of Paul Manafort, Julian Assange, Michael Cohen, and Donald John Trump. A few terms in the House can be good experience for a successful news-show host—ask Joe Scarborough. Maybe Jason in the House determined that he could make more of an impact as Jason in the FOX hole.

Whatever the case, we should never forget the critical role that Jason Chaffetz played in the election of 2016—or stop asking why he left as abruptly as he did, like a thief in the night.

Photo: Michael Jolley.

52 Pick-Up: Trump the Destroyer

“It is easier to destroy than to build."

IN MARCH OF 2001, the Taliban destroyed two of the cultural sites that remained in war-torn Afghanistan: the twin statues of Buddha at Bamiyan. Carved into the side of a cliff in the sixth century, the sculptures, 115 and 174 feet tall respectively, stood for 1500 years. They survived Genghis Khan, the British, the Soviets, and countless other invasions, only to be blown to bits by the Taliban, who saw them, idiotically, as false idols.

This was the subject of one of the first columns I wrote for LARGEREGO, my original blog:

It’s like a scene from a Jerry Bruckheimer summer blockbuster: turbaned terrorists in military get-ups train anti-aircraft missiles on two colossal stone Buddhas, mutter praises to Allah, and blow the centuries-old statues to smithereens.

Only it’s happening not in Hollywood, but in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. And it’s quite real.

The destruction of the aforementioned statues, as well as thousands of smaller ones not hewn into rock, is a direct order from Taliban Supreme Commander Mullah Mohammed Omar, who makes Saddam Hussein look like an art therapist.

“We are not against culture,” the foreign minister of a government that prohibits literature, film, photography, television, dance, theater, painting, and now, emphatically, sculpture, told The Associated Press, “but we don't believe in these things. They are against Islam.”

The mandate prompted an international outcry. UNESCO condemned the Taliban and sent an emissary to stay the razing. Buddhist monks led vocal rallies (!) in India and Nepal in protest. Even leaders in such bastions of religious and cultural tolerance as Iran and Cambodia criticized Mullah’s decree.

Taliban’s Minister of Culture and Information, who we presume focuses more on the latter, told the world that the Taliban was making quick work of the two statues. “It is easier to destroy than to build,” he assured the New York Times.

More recently, a different radical Islamic sect laid waste to another important cultural heritage site, this time at Palmyra, Syria—capital of the Palmyrene Empire, which broke from the Roman Empire in the fourth century under the leadership of the Empress Zenobia. In 2015, ISIS there destroyed the Temple of Bal, the Roman Theater, and the Lion of Al-lāt.

In both cases, the civilized world loudly, uniformly, and rightly condemned the wanton destruction. One simply does not go around blowing up cultural heritage sites for no good reason. Even the Nazis drew the line there.

It is profoundly disturbing to witness destruction of this kind. There is a reason that the fire at Notre Dame inspired more donations than more consequential and destructive conflagrations elsewhere. These sites speak across the centuries to the wonder, and to the frailty, of humankind.

Enter Donald John Trump. To the surprise of no one who has seen pictures of the “Habsburg Walmart” decor of Mar-a-Lago, Trump has zero appreciation of culture. He lacks even a modicum of artistic sensibility. To him, art is only about ostentation, because ostentation, in his myopic view, signifies money. This is what made his threat to target Iranian cultural heritage sites so upsetting:

It is one thing to kill a nefarious and psychotic enemy of the United States and the Western world. It is quite another to double down on this by expressly targeting mosques, museums, and temples. Even for a soulless buffoon like Donald John Trump, however, this was a bridge too far. Because there’s no question that, were it up to him, he’d do it. Insofar as he’s capable of imagination, Trump sees himself as Titus, commanding officer of the Roman Siege of Jerusalem, laying waste to the Second Temple.

Reality check: Titus was the son of the all-powerful and very bad-ass emperor, Vespasian, and had authority to do whatever the fuck he wanted; Judaea was a Roman province in open revolt. Whatever his kingly delusions, Trump is a duly elected (with Russian help) president of a democracy, and does not enjoy carte blanche. Iran is not an American colony. The targeting of cultural heritage sites is a war crime. Our military commanders will not follow an illegal order.

This is not going to happen. These threats are just more of the usual Trumpian bluster—empty, craven, desperate, and above all provocative, intended to get us all talking about something, anything else but his impeachment and his seditious crimes. Although, given the impossibly high stakes, we are right to sound the alarm bells.

That Donald John Trump is being increasingly reckless should be no surprise. He has another year and change before he is indicted by the State of New York immediately upon his exit from the White House, if he lasts that long. He once predicted that Barack Obama would start a war with Iran to assure re-election—that was, as with all offensive Trump tweets, pure projection.

Shed no tears for Qasem Soleimani, a bloodthirsty butcher with a handsome and well-trimmed beard. Indeed, the hit may well go down as the sole positive accomplishment of this odious administration. Give credit where it’s due. But his death has let the figurative djini out of the bottle. Unsurprisingly, MAGA Nation loved the flex—but the possibility of backfire here is enormous. The historian Heather Cox Richardson summed it up best in this morning’s “Letter from an American:”

Once again, Trump knows his base, which has rallied around him, cheering on the death of a man almost none of them had heard of before the attack, dismissing concerns about the way in which Trump went about the attack and what the future might bring…

But here’s where things suddenly get tricky.

In America, Trump could pull off this manipulation of reality by narrative, because there have so far been few repercussions of his fantasies that regular Americans could see clearly. Even the tariffs that have hurt the nation so badly have made little headway in the media, as Trump has continued to drive the headlines with his own erratic actions. And he could get away with it with our allies who, until recently, humored him. But Iran and Iraq, and China and Russia, are not going to enable Trump; they are forcing Trump’s narrative to deal with reality. The attack on Soleimani has sown confusion here at home as that reality threatens to burst the bubble Trump has constructed.

This time, it’s pretty hard to deny that the would-be Emperor is buck naked.

Know Your KGB Propaganda: An Interview with Zarina Zabrisky

On Putin, "spetz," and Russian active measures

Zarina Zabrisky is an award-winning American novelist, short story writer, spoken word artist, translator, and expert on Soviet combat propaganda. Born in Russia, she now lives in the Bay Area of California.

We chatted about Soviet propaganda, Putin, corruption, Pussy Riot, and much, much more:

GREG OLEAR: Let’s start at the beginning. You were born and raised in St. Petersburg, which at the time was still called Leningrad and the second-largest city in the Soviet Union. You studied at St. Petersburg State University—the alma mater of Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, former prime minister Dmitri Medvedev, and their current boss, Vladimir Putin. 

ZARINA ZABRISKY: True, but the university was called Leningrad State University at the time. Sechin studied at the same department, called Philological Faculty, specializing in Portuguese and Spanish languages. Dmitry Kiselev, Putin’s favorite journalist and Kremlin propagandist-in-chief, also was a student there, specializing in Scandinavian languages. I studied the English language, with a focus on literature, at a later time but during the same era. All linguists had to take a special course in combat (“spetz”) propaganda.

GO: Combat propaganda? What’s THAT all about?

ZZ: It had many names: combat or military, or, in Russian, “spetz,” propaganda, “Special propaganda among the troops and the population of the enemy” (Code VUS 6021) was a military science, developed in the USSR and taught at elite universities, such as Moscow State University (MGU)’s Department of Journalism, and Leningrad State University (LGU, currently St. Petersburg State University)’s Department of Philology. 

GO: So propaganda and mind control really were part of the Soviet higher-education curriculum.

ZZ: Yes, but only for a few. These were, and are, elite universities. Most people did not know anything about these departments.

GO: What was the underlying theory?

ZZ: To change mass behavior, spetz propagandists—currently called “political technologists”—influenced the mass consciousness by purposefully incepting artificially engineered concepts inorganic to the population with the goal of “formation of the mass consciousness of the whole society” and “influencing global policies,” as described in military textbooks that can be found online these days. 

GO: We have a name for that here, too: fake news. This is what Mueller’s indictment of the “13 Russians” was all about. And, long before that, the KGB originated the conspiracy theory that the CIA assassinated JFK.

ZZ: I think the main differences between fake news and combat propaganda are the centralized approach and military nature of the latter. The better equivalent is psy-op. During the Cold War, the Soviets conducted over 10,000 disinformation operations. The fabrication and dissemination of conspiracy theories about FBI and CIA involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy was just one of them. The US government inventing the AIDS virus was another one. At the height of the Cold War, up to 15,000 KGB officers are said to have worked on psychological and disinformation warfare, which they learnt in a special “active measures” course created by then-KGB head Yuri Andropov.

GO: Back then, this was all top secret, I assume?

ZZ: Everything was classified. The entrance to the military department was restricted, and nothing could be taken off the premises so there were no textbooks. At the time, there was no “online” information so no open-source material existed.

GO: Like a SCIF.

ZZ: An anecdote that I have shared quite a bit: we had notebooks that we had to pierce with giant shoemakers’ needles, tie together with ropes, number every page and seal with the 19th century-like wax at the end of the day. The notebooks then were stored in a vault. The pages were counted every time and if a page went missing (here comes the cherry on top in this story; we did not have toilet paper in the USSR and the pages DID go missing), the officer teaching us how to write pamphlets would not shy away from looking for the missing state secrets in the toilet. 

GO: What was in the pamphlets, that they guarded them so closely?

ZZ: The pamphlets themselves were pretty ridiculous. A classic example I remember is “American soldier, surrender, you are surrounded.” However, they taught us the tactics and the basics of psychology—and that works really well, as we now see.

GO: Is there an example of something happening now that connects with what you learned about propaganda back then?

ZZ: Yes, definitely. This is how I first discovered they were at it, in March 2015.  On March 10, a friend saw a photograph of Putin hugging a cuddly koala bear in front of the main medical school in San Francisco. The caption read: “PUTIN IS YOUR FRIEND.” Next to it there were posters “WALL STREET IS FINISHED,” “IMPEACH OBAMA,” American flags, and a poster explaining that the Russian president was framed in the recent assassination of an opposition leader. She took a photo of it:

GO: Oh my God, it cites Lyndon LaRouche, one of the original left-wing wackadoodles.

ZZ: Well, Lyndon LaRouche movement is supported by the Kremlin. In Russia, Lyndon LaRouche is presented as a “ well-known American economist, a leading scholar,” martyr, hero and a victim of the US injustice on the main channel of Russian TV. In January 2017, right before Trump’s inauguration, I photographed La Rouche recruiters in front of the Russian Orthodox church in San Francisco

GO: I remember on 9/11, as I walked downtown from Rockefeller Center, some lunatic had set up a LaRouche table on Second Avenue and was furiously handing out pamphlets. But enough about him…what’s with the koala bear?

ZZ: Using images of cute animals is one of the classic methods. I wrote about it in May 2016.

GO: Anyone who’s watched The Mandalorian can confirm that half the reason that show is so successful is the cuteness of—how shall I say this so as not to spoil it?— “the asset.”

ZZ: Here is my analysis of a text spinned by the Kremlin trolls. And here is a very recent example, freshly delivered last week:

GO: That looks like one of the bullshit Facebook posts that are microtargeted.

ZZ: They are written by the same “political technologists.” I wish I was a more diligent student of propaganda so I can report everything they were teaching us but—alas!—I was only interested in literature (I still am.) Unfortunately, I had to undust this course after I realized that my former classmates are at it and waging a hybrid war on the West using the tactics and strategies taught in this course. I have written many articles on the subject and gave a few lectures available on YouTube.

GO: I know they are older than you, but did you form any impression of Putin or Medvedev from university?

ZZ: I was fortunate enough to never study with them even though they did go to the same university. In addition to being older they attended a different department, the law department. It is a big university. Putin, it is important to understand, did not get into LGU on merit. He got there as an athlete and as a protégé of his coach, Leonid Usvyatsov, a Leningrad mafia boss.

GO: Putin’s mob ties are less obvious than, say, Trump’s.

ZZ: Not for people from the former Soviet Union and Russia now. It is a well-known fact that Putin is a mobster. He and his cronies go back to what was called the “wild 90s.” I have written about it many times. I once translated an excellent article by one of Russia’s leading investigative journalists documenting Putinism. His works are banned in Russia, and he publishes under the pseudonym Artyom Kruglov. No one knows his identity or location. There were many good documentaries on the BBC and PBS, as well. 

GO: Tell me about Leonid Usvyatsov. I’ve never heard of him.

ZZ: Most people have never heard about him, because he was a small crook from Leningrad and had no role in history other than being Putin’s mentor.  A colorful figure, Usvyatsov coached martial arts, worked as a stuntman and started one of the main organized crime group in Leningrad, the Tambov OCG, of which his student later became a part of. An excellent investigative journalist and blogger whose work I have just mentioned, Artyom Kruglov, writes about it at length here. Usvyatsov did not leave any space to doubt his mafia status. His gravestone proudly depicts his own “poem”: “I am dead but the mafia is alive.”

Anyway, this is how Putin managed to get into a prestigious university.

GO: That is also how Donald Trump got into Penn, more or less.

ZZ: Well, not really. Trump comes from a rich family. Putin grew up in squalor; his father was a factory watchman and his mother was a cleaning lady. (His grandfather cooked for Stalin at party dachas, but that is a different story). Putin grew up in a city that was still recovering from the Siege. There was nothing privileged about Putin, but he also didn’t make it to the top by working hard or by being brilliant. He got to the top because he is a crook and a thief. He got into university because he hung out with bandits and he then climbed all the way up the ladder because he worked for the KGB. 

GO: Did you meet anyone at university who was a big wheel in Soviet politics?

ZZ: I did know a “young communist” leader who made it to the top. Anton Gubankov, who once shamed and threatened to kick me out of school for being friends with a girl who dared to marry an American. He served all the way up to the Director of the Department of Culture in the Russian Ministry of Defense. He was credited with the invention of a euphemism “polite little people” for the Russian soldiers invading Crimea in 2014. He was also an author of some horrid Russian military rap songs. He died in a plane crash on December 26, 2016, along with many young men from the military choir on the way from Ukraine to Syria. A horrible life matched by a horrible death.

GO: After leaving the KGB, Vladimir Putin served as foreign affairs advisor to Anatoly Sobchak, who was the mayor of Leningrad, from 1990-96. What were your impressions of him at that time, if you had any?

ZZ: In 1995, I briefly worked for Putin’s predecessor at the Mayor’s office. It was the only time in my life that I worked for a Russian employer. Ilya Baskin was a founder/owner of several major companies in St. Petersburg at that time (Garant, Technochim, Port-Invest, Ust-Luga Port [currently partially owned by Putin’s ally Timchenko and his company Gunvor], etc.), General Director of the Union of Entrepreneurs and Tenants of the USSR and the RSFSR. In 1993, Baskin was elected People Deputy of RF and in 1992-1994, he was on the Board of the Russian President Entrepreneurship Committee and a member of the RF Government Council on Industrial Politics. My official position was the Director of Foreign Relationship of Consortium Europe-America 500, and Baskin promised to fund my idea for an educational business—but in reality, I was just translating for him. Consortium started as the first private, commercial spaceflight launched by a Russian rocket-building company, by the way. In 1992, Baskin literally launched a spaceship to America. 

GO: A spaceship?

ZZ: Like many stories of the “wild 90s”, this one is insane. There is even a Wikipedia entry on this.

The spaceshift was blessed by a Russian Orthodox priest. The guy with moustache to the left of the lady is Ilya Baskin.

So in 1991, Baskin was assigned by Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg, to work in the capacity of a Deputy Chairman of Food Supplies Committee. At the time of the deal, the Soviet Union had just collapsed, and the city had food shortages due to the poor economy and dysfunctional distribution system. I suffered the crisis of 1991-1992 first hand while working at the Grand Hotel Europe. We had ration stamps for meat and butter, and had to stand in two hour-long lines for bread. This situation was psychologically traumatic for my city, in particular, due to the Siege during World War II. 

GO: Sure. The Siege is notoriously awful.

ZZ: Most people, including my family, lost their relatives. I was raised by a grandmother who lost her whole family to starvation. That is why the lack of bread in the stores in the 90s hit us hard. The cynicism of our government was yet harder to take.

A big scandal regarding this situation shook St. Petersburg in 1992. It involved Baskin, Putin (who also worked for Sobchak), and Petr Aven (of Alfa Bank and Letter One, currently). A committee of People’s Deputies accused Baskin of administrative misdemeanors and requested the mayor to fire him in 1991, but Sobchak refused to proceed, supposedly because he was in on the deals.

GO: Hmm. This all sounds extremely Trumpy.

ZZ: It does, especially because there was at least one person who is involved in both crises. Here’s what happened in St. Petersburg: The deputies submitted documents citing Baskin’s multiple crimes and misdemeanors, including fraud, financial machinations, and appropriation of state property, dated November 1991. A barter deal for exchanging Russian raw materials for the Western food supplies required issuing licenses to export companies. The Deputies objected against Baskin being in charge of export licensing for oil products, timber and lumber, metals, ammonia and concrete for the whole sum of 122 million dollars. 

Most of the records with Baskin’s name have disappeared but there is an article from 1992, reporting that Baskin was accused by the People Deputies of intentions to export the raw products without importing the food supplies. Putin, acting in the capacity of Chairman of the Committee for External Relations of the City Hall, at the time argued that products could be bought at lower prices. Putin mentioned, for example, the possibility of buying meat in the CIS republics but he refused to give details, citing the fact that these opportunities were only being worked out. 

As the investigation continued, it turned out that various businesses received a total of $122 million for their exports, but the city never received any foreign food imports. Marina Salie, a former chairwoman of the St. Petersburg food committee (1990-1993), alleged that Sobchak, Putin, Aven, Baskin and the city government entered into contracts with dubious businesses and shell companies and appropriated the money. According to Salie, Putin signed export licenses, despite lacking the proper authority to do so, and Aven, the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Economic Relations of the RSFSR at the time and currently co-owner of Alfa Bank and Letter One, covered up for him. Putin denied the existence of these licenses despite the existing copies of the licenses bearing his signature. Now check this out: Petr Aven and Mikhail Fridman of Alfa Bank have multiple connections to Trump and the 2016 US election.

GO: Right, because of course they do.

ZZ: Also, in 2014, Alfa Bank formed a partnership program with Amway, a company owned by DeVos family. In 2016, Alfa Bank was involved in the scandal with Trump’s server. In April 2016, Richard Burt, a former member of the senior advisory board of Alfa Bank and currently a Board member of Letter One, helped to draft Trump’s first policy speech at The National Interest. From 2002 to 2007, Burt was an Executive Chairman of Diligence LLC, a Washington-based private global intelligence firm, in which Nathaniel Rothschild, Deripaska’s business partner, owns a stake. In 2007, Diligence LLC was charged over allegations of corporate espionage in a case that involved Alfa Group Consortium. Peter Aven of Alfa-Bank was a sponsor of the New Economic School that paid for Carter Page’s visit to Moscow in July 2016. Robert Mercer’s funds bought US-listed shares of two Russian telecommunications firms with significant operations in Russia and Ukraine, including VimpelCom (VIP), an affiliate of Alfa Bank, founded by Fridman and Aven. Robert Mercer, the co-CEO of Renaissance Technologies LLC, invested about $5 million in Cambridge Analytica and owns 90% of Cambridge Analytica.

(More here).

GO: So Putin and his cronies—which now include Trump and his cronies—has always been a thief.

ZZ: Yes. In fact, in 2018, a group of the world's leading experts gathered in New York for a conference called PutinCon, basically dedicated to the fact that Putin is a thief and criminal. I reported live from it and covered it in detail, as the world really needs to pay attention.

GO: This piece of shit criminal, this profiteer who exploited a food shortagewho stole food from babies to make himself money—is who now controls Donald Trump.

ZZ: But back in 1992, in St.Petersburg—and this is what is important—the scandal was silenced. After Putin came to power in 1999, the documents disappeared from the archives. However, Marina Sale, who lived in a distant village in solitude after Putin’s rise, gave several interviews in 2010 and after her suspicious death in 2012, the copies of the documents were published on her Facebook account (where they can be found.) Some of these documents are signed by my family friend, and a neighbor, People’s Deputy at the time.

The files testify to the responsibility of Putin and his deputy Alexander Anikin for exporting raw materials at a low price and without paying customs taxes. In addition, the documents contain inquiries to government agencies about the actual whereabouts of this raw material in the warehouses of St. Petersburg: 750,000 cubic meters of timber, 150,000 tons of petroleum products, 14 tons of rare-earth metals, etc. There is one document with Baskin’s name. There is also a reference to Baskin’s suing Salie for defamation. 

This story resurfaced in 2012, and many people believed that it had the potential to sink Putin but it never went anywhere. A few people were killed, and the journalist researching this story, Vladimir Ivanidze, had to leave the country. Most people are afraid to openly deal with it and for good reasons. You perhaps know what happened to Paul Khlebnikov, Anna Politkovskaya, etc. I helped an activist-friend to escape Russia a few years ago after he was arrested twice and physically attacked in front of his building in Moscow.

GO: Yes, I have Anna Politkovskaya’s book. It’s gruesome.

ZZ: There is another story involving Baskin that explains how the agents of influence were recruited by the former Soviet operators. My last—and most dramatic—experience with Baskin was a thriller material. Literally. I translated at his one-on-one negotiations at luxury Kempinski hotel in Moscow where he offered the EU Ambassador to Moscow, Michael Emerson, a consultant job with a three-year contract and a salary of 70,000 dollars in exchange for giving the right to distribute TACIS—EU monetary aide funds—in Russia.

GO: I’m not familiar with TACIS.

ZZ: TACIS is an abbreviation of “Technical Assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States,” a foreign and technical assistance program implemented by the European Commission to help members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (as well as Mongolia), in their transition to democratic market-oriented economies. TACIS is now subsumed in the EuropeAid programme. Launched by the EC in 1991, the TACIS provides grant-financed technical assistance to 12 countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

GO: Okay, so you’re there with Baskin and Emerson…

ZZ: I was shocked when the EU Ambassador accepted the offer and bargained for more money, claiming that he had a wife and three kids, including two college-age daughters. 

Immediately after the meeting, I asked Baskin for a resignation. By 1995 ,we had even more murders and knowing that much was extremely dangerous. Baskin had two armed bodyguards, and I know that they threatened opponents. He agreed to let me go, and I had to keep my mouth shut, which I did for over 20 years. I was always grateful to him for letting me go. He could have had me killed. So, Baskin hired another translator (also a graduate of my university) who had an affair with the EU Ambassador and ran away with him. Her American engineer husband hacked her emails and discovered the correspondence with Baskin, and bribes were involved. He forwarded the correspondence to the Western press and there was a scandal. Here is an article in the Washington Post that reads like a bad movie. I lived that movie. By the way, the femme fatale wasn’t a bombshell at all; she was quite an average-looking woman, but apparently she could manipulate men very well. She was married to a Soviet diplomat before (who died under suspicious circumstances). The EU Ambassador was investigated and attempted to resign… and not much happened to him, really. Last time I checked he lived in Brussels happily, ran a consulting business and was still married to that interpreter.

GO: And Baskin?

ZZ: Baskin, however, stayed under water for about ten years since 1998 and he had good reasons for it. As of 2017, he had about 300 lawsuits against him but he seemed to be still prospering in St. Petersburg—but staying out of politics. As of 2000, his wealth was estimated at $100 million. This story, though, is a good illustration on how the Russian mafia and KGB turned people of influence into their assets. Bribes, women, and blackmail (I have stories about that, too.) I didn’t talk about it for twenty years but then I wrote a short story about it in 2012, and it is included into Explosion, my short story collection. 

It is still a bit scary.

GO: You participated in protests in support of Pussy Riot in 2012. That seems to have been your political awakening. Why did you decide to participate, how did you participate, and what effect did it have on you going forward?

ZZ: Yes, it was the first protest I ever went to ever, and I also organized it. Actually, I did go to the protest in August 1991, during the coup, when the Communists tried to capture the power and restore the USSR but it really doesn’t count because we were celebrating my friend’s birthday and would be out anyway! And also, everyone was out because the tanks were coming and we definitely did not want to go back to the Soviet system. So anyway, I could really understand the young women of Pussy Riot when they could not take Putin’s regime. Like many other people, I was devastated to hear that they had to go to prison for a few minutes of performance. I contacted the world protest organizers and they said that there was no protest in San Francisco. So I set it up… and protested a few more times during the course of their trial. As a writer, I felt it was important to educate Americans about Putin’s totalitarian system and it was also fun to explain Pussy Riot’s aesthetics and philosophy. They had a sophisticated code language, and the linguist in me really enjoyed breaking it down. I was not intending to continue writing about politics, but Putin’s regime committed outrageous crimes on a daily basis and I felt that I could at least support the opposition. And after Russia occupied Crimea, there was no way back for me. I spent every summer in Crimea as a child, and some of the time in Odessa, Ukraine, and I love Ukraine dearly. All my best childhood memories are from there. And even if they were not, what Russia was doing to this country and its people was (and is) beyond despicable. So I wrote and participated in rallies and performing arts protest in front of the Russian Consulate since 2014.

GO: Vive la Resistance!

Photo credits:

From a reading in New York, Poets House, 2015, Photo credits: Nina D'Alessandro.

From a performance at San Francisco Litquake Festival 2016, October 15 (a month before the election.) I am a co-founder of the Arts Resistance collective; we then won not to vote for Trump. Photo credits: Fima Gelman.

Pussy Riot Protest, August 2012. In front of the Russian Consulate in SF (closed now.) I am in a yellow dress and a blue face mask.

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