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Consider the following alternate reality.
Imagine that it is now summer 2024. A 78-year-old lame-duck President Trump is winding down his second term, basking in positive polls. His dutiful vice president in waiting, Mike Pence, is at last getting his chance to run for president. Imagine also that Pence is a shoo-in, facing long-shot, hard-leftist, and octogenarian Senator Bernie Sanders. Polls show an impending Pence landslide.
Team Trump is nevertheless horrified about the slight chance that the nation could conceivably elect an ossified, self-proclaimed socialist. It accuses Sanders of wanting to turn upside down free-market capitalism, and to nullify the entire eight-year Trump agenda.
Allies abroad in 2024 are especially worried about the neutralist Sanders, who has promised to recalibrate all of America’s alliances.
Worrisome to lame-duck President Trump are also the supposed machinations of the Iranian theocracy. Furious over Trump’s prior cancellation of the Iran deal in 2018, eager to have crippling sanctions at last lifted, and hoping that a Sanders presidency might restore Obama-era détente, Iranian operatives are reportedly not shy about their preference for a Sanders presidency.
The Iranians are rumored to have hired operatives to hack into various Republican email accounts in efforts to embarrass the Pence candidacy—and to have facilitated third parties to release the embarrassing email exchanges.
The 2024 Pence campaign in response is furious that throughout the campaign cycle, such leaks have disseminated information that Pence aides had rigged the rules of the Republican Party’s nominating process to eliminate Republican primary rivals. They are worried that the hacked emails will reveal that debate questions were given to Pence in advance by a sympathetic Fox news analyst and later Republican National Committee head. And the leaked emails reveal that conservative journalists were sending their stories in advance to be checked by Pence officials. The Iranians insist that they have not hacked any Republican-related email accounts.
As a reaction to such unproven rumors of Iranian collusion, a sympathetic Trump administration decides to intervene to thwart a supposed clear and present danger to U.S. national security.
Team Trump will later deny that it had any intention of harming the Sanders campaign. Nonetheless, during the 2024 campaign various members and appointees of the Trump administration order the following:
The Trump FBI implants at least one informant into the Sanders campaign to investigate whether any of Sanders’ minor campaign staff have met with Iranian officials. As part of its rationale, the FBI claims that a number of U.S. officials—ex-Secretary of State John Kerry in particular—in the past had routinely met with Iranian elites in efforts to undermine the crippling Trump embargos. The FBI does not inform candidate Sanders that it is surveilling his campaign staffers “for his own good,” and supposedly to protect him from Iranian subterfuge. The informant’s allegations are leaked to the media.
The head of the Trump FBI, Christopher Wray, and members of the Trump Department of Justice, seek Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) court orders to obtain electronic surveillance on occasional low-level, part-time Sanders campaign aides, again supposedly to learn whether Sanders knowingly has been colluding with the Iranians.
During these electronic sweeps, a number of Sanders’s aides, and perhaps Sanders himself, are monitored electronically by accident or through reverse targeting by the Trump intelligence services. The names of those caught up in the surveillance are then requested to be unmasked by the Trump national security team, including National Security Advisor John Bolton, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley (who makes over 250 unmasking requests in 2024 alone), CIA Director Gina Haspel, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. The unmasked names of Sanders’s associates caught up in federal surveillance are then mysteriously leaked to the media during the 2024 campaign. The leaked names buttress rumors that the U.S. government itself is now investigating whether the Sanders campaign has been compromised by the Iranian theocracy. As media leaks about Iranian-Sanders collusion intensify, Vice President Pence on the stump begins to attack Sanders as an Iranian stooge who does the bidding of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
The Pence campaign has hired an ex-Israeli intelligence operative said to be experienced with Iranian intelligence to pursue rumors of Sanders’s pro-Iranian behavior, especially reports that in the distant past Sanders had visited Tehran and was blackmailed by the Iranian government.
The operative gathers and pays for gossip and rumor about Sanders’s personal life from Iranian sources, some of them lurid and bizarre, as it compiles an anti-Sanders dossier. The Pence campaign then seeks to institutionalize its purchased opposition research file by passing it on through third parties to a number of Trump-controlled agencies, including Mike Pompeo’s State Department, as well as the Wray’s FBI and Gina Haspel’s CIA. The Trump Justice Department and FBI then use the unsubstantiated file as their chief source of evidence to obtain FISA-ordered surveillance of Sanders’s campaign personnel.
But the Trump agencies deliberately do not tell the court that the dossier’s evidence is unsubstantiated, that they have severed relations with the Israeli ex-agent who compiled the dossier on grounds he had violated prior agreements, that they have corroborated the dossier only by citing in circular fashion news accounts based on leaks from it, or that Mike Pence’s campaign paid for the dossier. It is also not disclosed that a Justice Department official met with the author of the dossier, or that the official’s spouse was employed by the Pence campaign to help on the dossier in compiling Iranian sources.
During the 2024 campaign a number of FBI agents, two of whom are conducting a stealth affair, communicate about the negative repercussions of a possible Sanders win, and cynically remark that the Trump White House will control the ultimate direction of FBI investigations. They meet informally and text each other incessantly about ways in which to thwart the idea of a supposedly disastrous Sanders presidency, examining avenues of redress, from meeting a FISA judge socially to referencing the dossier as an “insurance policy” that could make otherwise impossible the unlikely event of a Sanders presidency. One of the agents has been instrumental in conducting investigations related to the 2024 campaign.
The Trump FBI in 2024 also investigates allegations that Vice President Pence in the past had used an unlawful private email server to circumvent normal government memorialization of his communications. When Pence’s use of a private server comes to light, he quickly destroys 30,000 of his subpoenaed emails on grounds that they related only to private affairs such as his daughter’s wedding and his recent pursuit of yoga. He hires a tech company to “bleach” any trace of the deleted emails. He has an aide physically smash the hard drives of his communication devices.
FBI Director Wray on three occasions holds press conferences to update the nation on the Pence email scandal. He has the unusual role of being both prosecuting federal attorney and chief investigator because Attorney General Jeff Sessions was caught meeting secretly with Mike Pence’s wife, as their respective jets met on an airport tarmac, causing Sessions to disassociate himself from the Pence investigation. Sessions and Pence’s spouse claim they discussed only personal matters such as their grandchildren. Later it is revealed that Sessions had ordered Wray not to use the word “investigation” in relation to the Pence email scandal.
Wray finds that although candidate Pence likely broke the law about the improper transmission of classified materials and government protocols about state communications, he did not mean to, and therefore is exonerated. Wray then soon reverses himself and says new information may require a reopening of the investigation—only a few days later before the election to return to his original verdict that Pence did nothing legally wrong, given his own quixotic assertion that Pence’s lack of intent to break the law justifies exoneration.
Still later, Wray will concede that his investigation of Pence was predicated on the fact that he felt Pence would be president and needed such official exoneration, and that he had written his conclusions before he actually interviewed Pence. Wray does not disclose that President Trump, despite denials of knowing about the Pence illegal private server, had communicated over it with Pence on numerous occasions.
Wray’s deputy, directly in charge of the Pence email investigation, does not disclose that Pence-related political action committees had earlier given nearly $700,000 to his spouse’s Indiana state senate campaign.
In stunning fashion, and despite a huge lead in the polls, Pence loses the election to Sanders, after wrongly assuming that Texas, Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama were safe red states, could never be flipped, and thus were not worth campaigning in during the last weeks of the campaign. Immediately, the furious loser Pence alleges that Sanders used the Iranians to throw the election by interfering in the 2024 campaign.
During the Sanders presidential transition, rumors of “Iranian collusion” dominate conservative media coverage. Right-wing groups take to the streets, alleging that the Iranians stole the election to put a “traitorous” Sanders in power, a veritable “agent” in-service to Tehran’s interests. A fired John Bolton becomes a Fox News analyst to accuse Sanders of being an Iranian stooge. Republican congressional leaders, Fox News, and popular protests demand that now president Sanders appoint a special counsel to investigate his own ties with the Iranian government.
For the next two years, Democratic congressional committee leaders, the New York Times and the Washington Post discover that while there is little evidence of Iranian-Sanders collusion, there is increasing reason to believe that members of the Trump team had conspired in 2024 to thwart the Sanders candidacy and had interfered in a U.S. election. Many of those in the Trump administration who had alleged Iranian-Sanders collusion were the same officials who had sought FISA warrants to monitor the Sanders campaign, who sought unmasking of the names of Sanders campaign officials, and who were knowledgeable of an informant in the Sanders campaign. Trump holdover appointments in the Sanders administration FBI and Justice Departments constantly stymie congressional Democrats’ requests for documents relating to Trump administration surveillance of the Sanders campaign.
In a furor over the conduct of holdovers from the Trump FBI, Sanders finally fires FBI Director Wray. Outraged Republicans insist that Sanders’s new attorney general, Valerie Jarrett, recuse herself, given she had not disclosed a meeting with the Iranian ambassador. In her absence, a special counsel is chosen. Sanders’s acting Attorney General, a Trump administration holdover Deputy Attorney General Jay Sekulow, selects a friend of Wray, former FBI Director Robert Mueller who previously had found that Vice President Pence had done nothing wrong in allowing Iranian purchases of U.S. owned uranium holdings, despite the fact that Iranians had given millions of dollars to the Pence Foundation, and hired Mrs. Pence to give a lecture in Tehran for $500,000.
Mueller is widely praised by Republicans as a professional non-partisan special counsel but selects a team almost entirely composed of pro-Trump and pro-Pence Republicans, including donors to the Pence campaign and former defense attorneys of Pence campaign officials caught up in the Pence email and other scandals. Fox News hails the Mueller selections as the “All-Stars” and “Dream Team,” and forecasts likely indictments of Sanders’s staffers and perhaps Sanders himself.
A now-fired and disgruntled Wray discloses that he had leaked to the media memos recording his own confidential meetings with President Sanders about the Pence oppositional dossier—which he did not disclose to the president had been paid for by the Pence campaign. Wray admits he leaked his memos, some of which were classified, to the media to prompt a special counsel to investigate President Sanders—leading to the appointment of his friend Mueller.
Former CIA Director Haspel and former Director of National Intelligence Coats both become Fox news analysts and op-ed writers, blasting President Sanders as a disgrace to the office of presidency, for suggesting that their own Trump administration intelligence agencies were weaponized against Sanders, for Sanders’ firing of FBI Director Wray and his Deputy, and for Sanders causing intelligence agencies legitimate worries over Iranian collusion. Wray goes on a book tour, claiming his “higher duty” was to expose the dangers of a Sanders presidency.
If the above and much more like it happens in 2024, who will be outraged?
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