Are they or aren’t they? Good luck trying to get a consistent answer from President Donald Trump. Over the past week, he’s struggled to reassure the nation that his government can handle any and all threats from Russia. But with Trump often denying that the Russian government poses any problem to the U.S., he’s only managed to strengthen worries that our own White House has been compromised by the Kremlin.
And on top of all that, we have some weird local connections to the ever burgeoning Trump-Russia scandal. Come on down with me as we try to make sense of it all.
Remember that person I caught on camera at FreedomFest? She’s an even bigger deal now.
On Monday I saw the news alert, dug through my extensive archive of campaign coverage, and realized I was sitting on the key to unlock the curious case of Maria Butina. In July 2015, both she and then-candidate Donald Trump were here in Las Vegas for the libertarian FreedomFest conference. That’s when she asked him about America’s relationship with Russia, and when he responded, “I believe I would get along very nicely with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”
Since then, we’ve learned more about Butina’s agenda in America. Federal prosecutors dropped a new court filing yesterday that alleges Butina was bankrolled by an oligarch with close ties to Putin, and bankrolled further by a Republican operative believed to be Paul Erickson. While Butina allegedly pursued a sexual relationship with Erickson, she was also using him to infiltrate various wings of the contemporary Republican coalition, including the gun lobby and the religious right. Butina was apparently reporting to Russian politician and Putin ally Alexander Torshin, and she was in regular communication with Russian intelligence officials.
I asked this on Monday, and I’ll ask it again today: Why wasn’t anyone paying attention to any of the warning signs here? Not only did I fail to realize what was happening at FreedomFest three years ago, but neither were FreedomFest organizers. And considering Russia’s track record on democracy and human rights, it baffles me that someone like Butina was able to work that crowd and attract little or no pushback from a group who’s supposed to be all about individual liberty and freedom of choice.
Fake news, coming to the Nevada Legislature in 2019?
This probably won’t be the last time we discuss the strange case of Maria Butina, and this certainly isn’t the first time we’ve talk about the ongoing proliferation of fake news. More than most anything else, Russian-tainted fake news came to define the 2016 election cycle along with the candidate who benefited the most from it (Donald Trump). Long story short the Russian government grew a troll army to comment all over the internet, developed its own media empire to appeal to Americans across the ideological spectrum, and used social media networks like Facebook to spread propaganda even further.
This week, Buzzfeed News published a bombshell report on a potential Russian connection to a operation that involved teenagers and young men in Macedonia who ran over 100 websites that published fake stories to promote Trump during the 2016 election. Progressive watchdog group Media Matters then connected some more dots and found a close working relationship between Trajche Arsov, an attorney who took part in the Macedonian fake news operation, and Paris Wade, one of the creators of the fake news peddling Liberty Writers News.
If Paris Wade sounds familiar, he should: He’s now running as a Republican for the Nevada Legislature in Assembly District 41, which covers parts of Henderson and the Southwest Las Vegas Valley. Now that Liberty Writers News is no more and the larger Russian-influenced fake news universe is facing more scrutiny from the real news media, Wade is running against Assembly Member Sandra Jauregui (D-Henderson) as he accuses Facebook of “attacking my first amendment rights as an American” by shutting down the Liberty Writers News Facebook page. It’s unclear why Wade decided to run against Jauregui, but we’ll probably know where to look should any mysterious troll armies emerge to attack her on social media.
What the Heller is he actually saying?
This week Republicans have privately, and occasionally even publicly, voiced their dismay over President Donald Trump’s rebukes of America’s traditional NATO allies and continuing coziness with Vladimir Putin. And yet, it remains to be seen what, if anything, the current Republican-controlled Congress will do about it.
Case in point: Nevada’s own Senator Dean Heller (R). Just days after he implied Trump was wrong to trust Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies, Heller did one of his signature backflips and complained that the Mueller investigation has taken too long during a tele-townhall on Tuesday. Heller also stated he was “pleased” with Trump’s “sincere” vacillating on whether or not Trump believes his own country’s intelligence community on the Russian government’s meddling in American politics during that tele-townhall. Even as Trump continues to attack the real news media as “fake news”, parrot pro-Putin talking points while expressing hope for another closed-door summit with the Russian President, Heller alternates between staying mum and making wishy-washy statements that accomplish the same purpose.
This week, conservative thought leaders George Will and Max Boot asked whether other Republicans will stand with Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) in denouncing Trump’s never-ending obsequience to Putin. If Heller’s ongoing mealy-mouthed flip-flopping serves as any indication, they’ll probably have to keep asking this question. And really, between Trump’s bromance with Putin and Republican politicians like Heller refusing to call it out for what it is, I think I better understand why Maria Butina came to Las Vegas three years ago to attend FreedomFest… And that really scares me to my core.