The Red Pelican


(published with the permission of The Bayou Brief)

In June of 2014, as a part of their fact-finding tour of America and after coordinating with a political operative from Texas, Aleksandra Krylova and Anna Bogacheva, both Russian nationals, made a stop in Louisiana, according to the allegations listed in an indictment handed down by Special Counsel Robert Mueller this February.

Mueller hasn’t yet specified where or with whom the women visited while in the Bayou State, but clearly, they weren’t here to party on Bourbon Street. They were allegedly in Louisiana to collect “intelligence” in advance of the 2016 presidential election.

Aside from New York, no other state in the country is more intimately connected to the Mueller investigation than Louisiana.

A month after Mueller issued the indictments against Krylova and Bogacheva (along with eleven other Russians and three affiliated Russian companies), Rep. Steve Scalise, the House Majority Whip and a Republican from Louisiana’s first district, called for the appointment of a second special counsel tasked with investigating the FBI.

Two months later, Eric Dubelier, an attorney originally from New Orleans (with three degrees from Tulane and a notorious record in the 1980s as a prosecutor under former Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick, Sr.), plunged headfirst into the footnotes of American history: He decided to represent Concord Management and Consulting LLC, one of the three Russian-linked companies charged in Mueller’s indictment (and the only company with American legal counsel).

Two days after Dubelier’s involvement made news, Sen. John Neely Kennedy, also a Republican from Louisiana, demanded that Mueller end his investigation completely because it “distracts in time, energy and taxpayer money.” (This year, by the way, Sen. Kennedy spent the Fourth of July in Russia, ostensibly to help lay the diplomatic groundwork for what ended up being a disastrous meeting in Helsinki between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump).

Six Degrees of Louisiana is a game I play on practically every story, and I also know that practically every story about a conspiracy between Russia and President Trump carries with it a stocked arsenal of ancillary conspiracies.

Still, it’s impossible to ignore the multiple connections between Louisiana, a state of only 4.7 million people, and the elaborate infrastructure allegedly established by the Russian government to help elect Donald Trump as President. The real question is: Why Louisiana?

During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and in the heyday of disaster capitalism, the Republican Party effectively controlled Louisiana, and at the time, it appeared they would remain in control for a least a generation.

The turnaround was astonishing: The GOP had resurrected itself from obscurity in the 1970s to complete dominance in the state only thirty years later, despite the fact that the majority of voters in Louisiana remained registered Democrats.

Historians may note that in 1979 Dave Treen became the first Republican governor of Louisiana since Reconstruction and that governors Buddy Roemer and Mike Foster also defected to the Republican Party. But Roemer was never elected as a Republican, and Foster switched parties shortly before qualifying as a candidate. It’s also worth noting that Dave Treen’s brother, John, lost the most consequential election in modern Louisiana history when a fellow Republican defeated him for a seat in the state house, despite entreaties from both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

John Treen is now 92, and when I spoke with him a couple of years ago, the only word I knew to use to describe him was “gentleman.” He should have won that election in 1989, but instead, David Duke won. And, as a result and despite the fact that he ultimately proved himself to be an unrelenting bigot and unapologetic criminal, David Duke has remained at the epicenter of Louisiana politics ever since.

Consider this: Eight days after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President, a bizarre spectacle that involved paid actors and a theatrical ride down an escalator, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal launched his campaign. Jindal, of course, never broke through as a candidate and dropped out of the race only seven months later, but David Duke, the former klansman who had cultivated a following among the far-right in Russia- of all places, somehow became relevant again.

We do not yet know why, exactly, Aleksandra Krylova and Anna Bogacheva decided to make a pit stop in Louisiana.

The state’s media largely ignored this detail from the Mueller indictment, though at least one reporter speculated that there could be a connection between their visit in June of 2014 and the false story, apparently peddled by one of their Russian associates, of a chemical plant explosion in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana three months later.

That’s a tidy explanation, but I seriously doubt the disinformation campaign about a phony chemical plant explosion had anything to do with the reason the two Russian women tied to the Kremlin visited Louisiana.

According to the indictment, they were on a mission to collect intelligence on how to manipulate the 2016 elections, not on how to scare up people in rural Cajun Country about a disaster that almost instantly proved to have never occurred, and it is much more responsible to take the indictment at face value than to wildly speculate about alternative explanations.

The indictment strongly suggests these two women deliberately traveled here to meet with like-minded political operatives, and in my opinion, the most fascinating question in Louisiana politics is: Who were those operatives?

The second most fascinating question is: What relationships do those operatives have with elected officials in Louisiana?

It is a small state, and the universe of conservative political operatives is even smaller. But rest assured, no one mined David Duke for “intelligence” in 2014, and even though the alleged Russian spy and so-called Red Sparrow Maria Butina tried to troll Bobby Jindal, no one from Russia flew to Louisiana to meet with any of his team.

More likely than not, the people from Louisiana who met with Krylova and Bogacheva had no idea what they were doing at the time, though the picture has since probably come into full view.

 ENLARGE

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When conservative Rob Maness ran for U.S. Senate in 2016, Warrior PAC, which was affiliated with members of his campaign, spent $480,000 with Cambridge Analytica to support Maness and to also support fellow Republicans Clay Higgins and Mike Johnson.

Cambridge Analytica is the firm accused of exploiting the personal data of millions of Facebook users in order to target them with disinformation.

“It might be the worst half-million dollars ever spent on a Louisiana campaign,” said John Mathis, Maness’s former campaign manager. Maness, of course, lost his race, but Higgins and Johnson are now both members of Congress.

In November of 2017, three months prior to Mueller’s indictment, Elizabeth Crisp of The Advocate dug through the more than 2,500 phony Twitter accounts that had been identified by Congress as the creation of the Russian company Internet Research Agency and found two accounts that specifically and prolifically targeted Louisiana voters during the 2016 elections. Both accounts were uniquely supportive of candidate Clay Higgins.

Later, one of the accounts even favorably shared Higgins’ offensive video tour of Auschwitz.

Perhaps all of this was ultimately inconsequential, nothing more than white noise. As someone who dealt directly with the Higgins campaign during the 2016 election, I would find it absolutely astonishing if they were even remotely aware that resources were being spent by the Russian government to support the candidacy of a viral video star who still refers to himself as “captain.”

But in this case, regardless of the intentionality, ignorance cannot be conflated with bliss, nor can it be used as an excuse for commonsense.

Two things should be certain: First, when any politician benefits at all from investments made by a foreign government (whether one wants to call it “collusion” or “meddling” or “treason” or just plain dumb luck), voters should be suspicious of any effort to shut down an investigation into those benefits.

And second, when Aleksandra Krylova and Anna Bogacheva landed at Louis Armstrong International Airport in late June of 2014, they likely didn’t rent a car and drive 100 miles to surveil a chemical plant.

More than likely, they never had to leave the confines of Jefferson Parish.

Clarification: The title of this story, “The Red Pelican,” was not intended to be a coy reference to Red Pelican Strategies, a Baton Rouge-based political consulting firm founded by a former staffer for Sen. David Vitter and Americans for Prosperity. 

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