Did Sanders Fire Strategist for Testifying Against Manafort? What We Know about Bernie's Love Affair with Putin.

This week has been a busy news week, not least because of Donald Trump's former fixer Michael Cohen's blockbuster public testimony yesterday in front of the House Oversight Committee. Perhaps because of how much oxygen the Cohen hearing sucked out of the room, a few important headlines from earlier in the week seems to have fallen out of the limelight: First, in a CNN Town Hall on Monday night, Sanders refused to call Venezuelan dictator Maduro a, well... dictator, and pointedly refused to say that Maduro should leave. Second, one of the key architects of Sanders' 2016 campaign - and the producer of his 2020 launch video - abruptly left his campaign on Tuesday, citing "creative differences."

The strategist, Tad Devine, was so prominent in Bernie Sanders' circle that he was referred to as Bernie's Karl Rove. Devine is a veteran of pre-Obama Democratic campaigns going back to Carter in 1980, but it is what happened around and after 2008 with Tad Devine that is of most interest.

Tad Devine had been an advisor to pro-Putin Ukrainian politician Viktor Yanukovych since at least 2005, and Yanukovych hired Devine to work on his successful presidential campaign in 2010. In that campaign, Devine worked with one Paul Manafort. Yanukovych did actually lock up his former presidential opponent two years later, around the same time Devine left. Two years after that, the Ukrainian parliament ousted Yanukovych from power and freed his jailed opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko. Yanukovych fled to Russia and into Putin's arms.

Now that Russian money had dried up in Ukraine after the ouster of Putin's favorite puppet (up until the point Donald Trump was elected president in the United States), both Manafort and Devine were back home and looking for work. Curiously, both ended up working for insurgent presidential campaigns that were favored by Russia and its agents on Wikileaks, the Internet Research Agency and TV channels like RT. Devine went to work for his long time political patron, Bernie Sanders. Manafort found a new patron in Donald Trump.

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both lost to Hillary Clinton by millions of popular votes, but a slave-era institution known as the electoral college meant that roughly 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin decided that the loser in the general election popular vote would actually become president.

Donald Trump, though, was too stupid for his own good, and his arrogance quickly led to the appointment of Special Counsel Bob Mueller to investigate the Trump-Russia scandal. Mueller prosecuted and convicted Manafort of multiple charges, and Manafort then pleaded guilty to several other charges, among them conspiracy against the United States.

In Manafort's trial in Virginia in the latter half of 2018 - where he was convicted - a key witness to Mueller's case was none other than Tad Devine. In fact, Devine was the first witness Mueller's prosecutors called. Devine seemed impressed - even enamoured - by Manafort's political skills, but ultimately his testimony that Manafort, not his underling Rick Gates, was in charge of operations in Ukraine, was key to convicting Manafort of the financial fraud (in the aftermath of Yanukovych's ouster) he was charged with.

Manafort's subsequent pretend-cooperation blew up in his face, and this month, the Special Counsel recommended to two federal courts that he be locked away forever, the last of those recommendations coming on Saturday, February 23.

It is a little suspect that Devine, who supposedly produced Bernie's 2020 campaign announcement video after the Manafort trials, was let go from the campaign less than a week after the final Manafort sentencing memo was in. It is a well-known intelligence fact that Bernie Sanders benefited immensely from Putin's election-invasion and the hacking of DNC emails, and it is not far fetched to believe that Sanders at the very least has a soft spot for the Russian despot, and in a broader sense, to Russian despotism.

Couldn't it be, though, that Sanders actually cut ties with Devine because Devine was involved with a Putin-friendly dictator and his political fixer Manafort and everyone's favorite grandpa just wouldn't have it? Couldn't it at least be that Bernie Sanders doesn't want to have to answer questions about his connections to Russia with Devine taking center stage?

While the second explanation is more likely than the first, both are weak. Bernie Sanders and Tad Devine have been friends since the 1990s, and Sanders hired Devine's firm in 2016 fully aware of his history of working with Manafort and in Ukraine. The only thing - the only thing- that has changed since 2016 with respect to Devine's Russia connection is that his testimony got Manafort convicted. One would think that Devine's presence in the Sanders campaign in 2020 would therefore be a story of anti-Trump heroic redemption. It could certainly be sold that way.

Secondly, and more importantly, Bernie Sanders does not exactly appear interested in extricating from any and all possible ties to Russia and Putin. He chose Nina Turner, who's spent an entire year after Trump's election trashing the importance of the Russia investigations, as a national campaign co-chair. Many of Bernie Sander's staunchest media backers, including David Sirota and Glenn Greenwald, continue doing so to this day.

Turner, who was caught on video campaigning in 2016 for Green Party's Jill Stein, became president of Sanders 2016 campaign offshoot, Our Revolution, after having done so. Stein, of course, is infamous for being so close to Putin that she sat at Putin's table along with disgraced former Trump National Security Advisor and convicted criminal Mike Flynn (someone President Obama had fired) in December 2015 for a dinner honoring a channel that is now registered in the US as a foreign agent.

Nina Turner and her buddies in the Green Party aren't the only people on the supposed Left that don't think Russian attack on our democracy is a big deal. Sanders has been known to downplay its importance in electing Trump on occasion himself. Bernie Sanders is not looking to disassociate from Putin.

Which brings us back to the beginning of this essay, Bernie's stunning unwillingness call Venezuela's Maduro a dictator, let alone call for his ouster. For all the people about to swoop in and call me an interventionist corporatist military-industrial-complex-shill war monger, I note that support for US military action is not required for, and is a separate issue from, the opinion that Maduro is illegitimate and should go. One can disagree on the method of how he should go without disagreeing that he should, in fact, go.

Maduro is not the lone Latin American dictator close to Putin and Russia that gets a pass from Bernie, either. In 2011, in the midst of the Obama presidency, Sanders wrote a press release stating that "These days, the American dream is more apt to be realized in ... Venezuela [than in the United States]." At the time, another close friend of Putin's, Hugo Chavez, was the Venezuelan president.

During the 2016 campaign, a scantly noticed video clip emerged from 1985, in which Bernie Sanders effusively praises the Soviet-allied (former) Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. But the surfacing of the video did not rattle 2016-Bernie one bit, who as late as three years ago refused to disavow Castro and the Cuban Revolution. In fact, he credited the authoritarian system in Cuba for producing physicians who work in poor countries. While Cuban doctors do positive work in poverty stricken parts of the world, Bernie Sanders willfully hid its true purpose. The program, in fact, is a tool for the Cuban regime to get around international sanctions.

The evidence suggests that Bernie Sanders' love affair with Soviet Russia, present-day Russia and Putinism is worthy of at least an explanation. Sanders' predisposition to supporting Russian-allied dictators and to dismissing Putin's effect in the 2016 spans beyond isolated coincidence. The evidence points to an ideological alignment at the least, and a willingness to be Putin's puppet at worst.

At the very, very minimum, these questions deserve to be raised, and to be answered as Sanders sets his sight at the White House once more.

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