Sunday, January 28, 2018

Alternative Reality

The real political constellation surrounding that bright star Donald Trump is emerging from the mists.  Michael Wolff's book, Fire and Fury, which I have dipped into (focusing on the latter parts), makes it clear that Trump does not have an organized cadre around him in the White House, but rather a relatively unorganized gaggle of individuals and factions, of whom John Kelly, his Chief of Staff, and his daughter and son-in-law Ivanka Trump (who was careful not to discard the family brand!) and Jared Kushner seem to be the most important.  Trump, the books clear, will always be erratic and unpredictable because he can't bear having anyone outshine him, he always wants to respond to attacks,and he loves surprises.  Thus those around him--including his lawyers--will always be struggling to keep up.

Meanwhile, as I have written before, Trump has struck up an alliance the Koch brothers' network, which in turn dominates the Republicans in Congress and particularly in the House.  The fruits of that alliance are the tax cut, the rollback of EPA regulations, and, most recently, the tariff on solar panels, which will make it harder for our growing domestic solar industry to compete with fuels.  The tax cuts have probably brought a good deal of corporate America on board as well, because they will allow corporations to bring so much money back into the United States.  And the economic boom, as long as it lasts, sill significantly strengthen Trump's position in much of the country.

The threat to the Administration, of course, is Robert Mueller's investigation and what it might reveal about Russian influence on the election and on Trump.  And Trump's new allies in Congress are not taking a hands-off attitude towards tose proceedings. Led by Devin Nunes of the House Intelligence Committee--who showed himself to be a Trump lackey in a much-publicized incident last summer--they are standing this investigation on its head.   Increasingly they and their allies in the media--especially Fox News--are arguing that the whole Russia imbroglio is an FBI conspiracy hatched out of hostility to Trump.

Devin Nunes, apparently, has written a four-page memo, still classified, alleging that rogue FBI agents abused the FISA program to put taps on Trump aids during the campaign.  The details of the accusation have not yet emerged, but this may refer to taps on Carter Page, Paul Manafort, or both of them that the Bureau might have undertaken to uncover Russian connections even before those men became involved in the Trump campaign.  Nunes and others are also arguing that pro-Clinton, anti-Trump FBI agents--whose biases, they claim, are revealed in their text messages--fixed the investigation of Clinton's emails to exonerate her and started the investigation of the Trump campaign to discredit him.  I doubt that Nunez or any of the others in Congress or at Fox really know much about the career of Joe McCarthy, but this technique is very reminiscent of his own.  McCarthy tended to make irresponsible accusations of Communist influence, and then dismiss anyone who complained about them as a witting or unwitting dupe of the Communist conspiracy.  Nunez and Trump are trying to turn any evidence of Russian connections to hm or his campaign as evidence of an FBI conspiracy against him.

A new and very important aspect of the story emerged this week.  In 2016, the Dallas Morning News reports, "Donald Trump and the political action committees for Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Lindsey Graham, John Kasich and John McCain accepted $7.35 million in contributions from a Ukrainian-born oligarch who is the business partner of two of Russian president Vladimir Putin's favorite oligarchs and a Russian government bank."  In a notorious mid-2016 meeting of Congressional bigwigs that leaked to the public, Republican House whip Kevin McCarthy commented that there were only two people whom he thought Vladimir Putin "owned:" Donald Trump and Representative Dana Rohrabacher.  But with so much at stake for the Russian government in the lifting of American sanctions, an organized effort to buy more influence in the Congress would not be in the least surprising.  Mueller may almost singlehandedly be contenting with a very broad and successful foreign campaign to build up influence in two branches of the government--as well as with those like the Kochs who find themselves allied with Trump for other reasons.

The economy is definitely playing as a winning issue for Trump at this point, and a deal on DACA would fwork powerfully in his favor as well.  Mueller's investigation will however remain a serious threat.  For that reason, Republican cries of an FBI conspiracy will get louder.  This will be a very difficult problem to deal with, since we do not, as we did during Watergate, have any media outlets that a clear majority of the public trusts.  Nor do we have a readily available mechanism to rid ourselves of foreign influence.  It has emerged as a real threat to our democracy.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Note to readers

I have been delay
ed this week by a sudden crush of work relating to a new book and a computer crash. I hope to have something up tomorrow.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The western imperial project

Formal imperialism became unpopular during the first half of twentieth century and nearly disappeared during the second half.  The great empires of the British, French, and eventually the Portuguese were given their independence.  The Soviet Union still included plenty of non-Russian territory that was in effect ruled imperially, but after 1989 it too became independent.  By 2000 western intellectuals had become obsessed, consciously or unconsciously, with the virtues of third world nations and peoples, which served as a counterpoint to the nations of Western Europe and North America, increasingly viewed as bastions of racism.

Imperialism seemed to be unnecessary, as well as unjust, in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, since democracy and capitalism were spreading further and further around the world.  But the George W. Bush administration introduced a new form of imperialism to world politics after 2001, claiming the right to overturn any government that assisted terrorism or that sought weapons that the United States government did not think it should have. Both the Obama and Trump Administrations have endorsed that policy, declaring respectively that Iran and North Korea must not be allowed to have nuclear weapons.  Meanwhile, a different kind of imperialism was emerging among western governments in North America and in Eastern Europe.  Essentially, it seems to me, it is attempting to take advantage of the global economic order to impose certain western political and cultural values on other parts of the world.

The new imperialism is on display today in the European Community, which is trying to force one of its newer members to fall into line.  That nation is Poland, which was welcomed into the EC in the 1990s but whose politics, like those of Hungary, have taken a sharp turn to the right.  Its Law and Justice party won a majority in 2015, a very rare event in European nations today, and it has reformed its judicial system to allow the government to purge it and bring it into line.   The EU has now sent Poland a warning about these developments, carrying with it a threat of actual economic sanctions.  22 of the EC's 28 member states, as it happens, would have to agree to impose real sanctions, which has never been done.  The EC has also criticized Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic for refusing to accept any refugees.  Mainstream western liberalism not only believes in an independent judiciary, but seems to feel that advanced nations need to open their borders to threatened people from other parts of the world.  But these views are not universally shared, even within their own societies.

The attempt to impose western values also shows up in sanctions against Russia and particular Russians for human rights violations.  It has also manifested itself in the demand that President Hafez Assad step down in Syria, and the earlier demand for the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.  That was part of the movement begun by the George W. Bush administration to spread democracy through the Middle East, but within two years, the Obama administration had effectively reversed itself and effectively blessed the return of military rule in Egypt.  European liberalism also favors stronger action against Israel to withdraw from occupied territories and allow for a Palestinian state, but the United States government has for the time being moved in a completely different direction. 

The backlash against this movement is growing.  Two other world powers, Russia and China, specifically reject western political and cultural models and maintain authoritarian states.  They also have rejected the western tolerance for homosexuality, which is unpopular in much of the third world as well.  Turkey, which had gone further in the direction of the West than any Muslim nation during the twentieth century, is now ruled by an intolerant, authoritarian state as well. 

The values of democracy, the rule of law, equal rights for citizens, and broader social tolerance remain precious gifts which western democracies bestowed upon the world.  Yet the assumption that some Hegelian momentum is inevitably driving them forward is hurting, not helping the effort to keep them alive.  The changes of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries did not happen automatically, but because millions of people believed in them and made them work.  They always encountered vigorous opposition, most notably in the Second World War--and that war was hardly an unmitigated triumph for liberalism.  The belief in citizenship and equal rights, in my opinion, very powerful emotionally, but so is tribalism in both its older and newer forms. To prevail, the ideas of citizenship and equal rights must be renewed through effective collective action.  Those values also turned out to be the best counterweight to economic inequality--the natural result of capitalism--when nations had to mobilize their resources to fight depression and foreign enemies.  For the moment, the people of the United States, in particular, lack any unifying vision that could renew these values.

History does not move automatically in the right direction, and western leaders and NGOs cannot make it do so simply by telling the rest of the world how to behave.  Throughout modern history nations have led by example.  If the best values of modern history are to maintain their influence, teh western nations must act them out at home.  They must also recognize once again that other parts of the world may not share them.  That will become the challenge of statesmanship and diplomacy in the decades to come.


Thursday, January 04, 2018

Thr Russians aren't coming--they've arrived

Over the past week I have read the new book, Collusion, by the journalist Luke Harding, which attempts to unravel the connections between Russia on the one hand, and Donald Trump and many of those who worked for his election on the other.  Despite the title, the book has relatively little to say about the Clinton hacked emails and the Russian role in the election itself. It is about something more important, a network of relations between Russians and Americans.  It is a jaunty, but not an easy read.  I am going to summarize the most important things that I learned from it, to try to fill in the picture in a couple of places myself, and to ask, as I always do, exactly what the broader significance of all this is.  The easiest way to do this is by talking about some of the major players in the story

Carter Page, born in 1971, is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.  Although he does not seem to have been born to great wealth, a Naval Academy classmate told Harding that he had lavish spending habits as a student.  The Navy apparently sent him to Georgetown University to earn an M.A.  After serving his statutory five years on active duty, he went to work for Merrill Lynch, specifically in their Moscow office.  He left their employ in 2008 and founded his own energy firm in New York, but that firm does not seem to have any other employees or any business. How Page earned his living since 2008, thus, is something of a mystery.  Meanwhile, he became known as an admirer of Vladimir Putin and an opponent of the Obama Administration's anti-Russian policies, especially after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Then, in March 2016, as Trump became the favorite to win the Repubican nomination, Trump named Page as one of his five foreign policy advisers.  That July, the Russians invited him to Moscow to give a commencement address.  That address featured extensive criticism of US attempts to spread democracy in the former Soviet Union.

According to the Steele dossier, Page actually traveled to Moscow in July to meet Igor Sechin, one of Putin's closest aides.  Two years earlier, Page had written a fawning blog post about Sechin, protesting the sanctions that had been imposed upon him.  According to Steele, Sechin offered a deal. If the Trump Administration listed sanctions on Russia, joint ventures in the energy sphere might proceed. As it happened, a large venture involving Exxon in drilling in the Arctic had been put on hold by sanctions.  Sechin also dangled a large brokerage fee before Page.

Steele also reported that Page had a later meeting with a another high Russian official, Igor Diveykin.  Divekin told him that the Russians possessed damaging information about Hillary Clinton, but also about Trump--something that Trump should keep in mind.  After returning to the US, Page was one of several Trump aides to meet with Soviet Ambassador Kislyak at the Republican convention.  By this time, as it happened, the FBI had become sufficiently concerned about Page's many Russian contacts and his pro-Russian attitudes to ask for, and receive, a FISA warrant to tap his electronic communications.  US intelligence also briefed senior Congressional leaders about Page, and Harry Reed made a public comment about the briefings. In September 2016, the Trump campaign dropped and disavowed him.

Just two months ago, Page testified before the House Intelligence Committee--too late for the appearance to figure  in Harding's book.  He confirmed that he had fully reported on his Moscow trip to various Trump campaign officials, including Jeff Sessions.  He denied meeting with Sechin but admitted to meetings with two other high Russian officials.  This forced some of the Trump campaign officials to refresh their memories about having heard about Page's trip.  Robert Mueller's office will presumably get its hands on Page's contemporary reports of his meetings.

Born in 1949 in New Britain, Connecticut--where his father became Mayor--Paul Manafort holds a B.A. and a law degree from Georgetown University.  He was active in the Ford and Reagan campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s,worked in the Reagan White House, and worked in the George H. W. Bush and Robert Dole campaigns as well. Meanwhile, Manafort's lobbying firms signed lucrative contracts with a number of foreign leaders.  He might easily have been the model for the parallel career of the Doonesbury character Duke.  His clients included the American client in the Angolan civil war, Jonas Savimbi; Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines; President Mobutu of the Congo; and many other governments as well.  During the 1990s he also received $700,000 that came from Pakistan's Interservice Intelligence Agency, or ISI, for lobbying activities and a documentary film production designed to improve the image of the Pakistani government.

During the 00s Manafort had a long and lucrative relationship with the Ukrainian politician (and eventually President) Victor Yanukovych, whose image he remade after Yanukovych was driven from power by the Orange revolution of 2004, after he had tried to steal the election.  Manafort helped get Yanukovych into power as Prime Minister just two years later, assuring anyone who asked (including Harding, who interviewed him at length) that Yanukovch was now a changed man and a friend of the West.

Around 2005, Manafort also entered into a relationship with Oleg Deripaska, a Russian aluminum magnate who cannot travel to the US because of suspected ties to organized crime.  The Associated Press has reported that Deripaska paid him $10 million a year [sic] to improve Russia's image in the West.  Shortly after signing that contract, Manafort bought a $3.6 million apartment in Trump Tower in New York.  With Manafort's help, Yanukovych was elected Ukrainian President in 2009 (the supposedly democratic and pro-west regime had proven ineffective and corrupt), and began eliminating his opposition.   The Maidan protests five years later drove him out of office and out of Ukraine. Putin's annexation of the Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine followed.

Manafort had signed Trump as a lobbing client in the early 1980s.  In March 2016, he approached Trump through a mutual friend, Thomas Barrack, who introduced him to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.  On March 29, 2016, Trump announced his appointment as campaign manager.  Manfort immediately began trying to do for Trump what he had down for Yanukovych--telling anyone who would listen that Trump was simply indulging in campaign rhetoric and would be a different man in office.  The Washington Post credited Manafort with securing the nomination of Mike Pence as Vice President.  But in mid-August, a story broke that a secret ledger discovered in post-revolutionary Ukraine showing that Yanukovych's right wing nationalist Party of Regions had paid Manafort $12.7 million in cash between 2007 and 2012.  Both Manafort and Trump claimed the ledger was phony and denied the story, but he left the campaign, and Steve Bannon replaced him.  Much later, in mid-2017, when Manafort tried to register retroactively as a foreign agent, he admitted to receving $17 million from the Party of Regions in 2012-14.

It has been reported that Manafort, like Page, had been wiretapped by American intelligence before the 2016 election.  Mueller's team eventually raided his home, and he has now been indicted for conspiracy against the United States, money laundering, and failing to register as a foreign agent. Just this week he has sued to block the indictment, claiming that Mueller's charge did not allow the prosecutor to deal with these matters.  It seems rather striking that while endless hours of cable television have been wasted on the issue of "collusion" regarding Democratic emails, hardly anyone ever says bluntly that Donald Trump's campaign apparently featured a director and a leading foreign policy adviser who were both suspected of being foreign agents for Russia and Russian clients in Ukraine, respectively.

Then there is the case of Michael Flynn, who rose to the rank of Lt. General in the US Army  In 2012, Flynn had been appointed head of the Defense Intelligence Agency by President Obama--in whom Flynn had no confidence whatever.  In 2013, Flynn received a mysterious, unprecedented invitation to speak at the headquarters of the GRU, Russian military intelligence, in Moscow, on leadership.  He returned saying he had enjoyed the trip very much.  In 2014 he was forced to leave his position early and retired.  He was informed that he had to report any income from foreign sources.

Flynn formed a consulting firm and co-authored a book with neoconservative Michael Ledeen.  It was very anti-Obama, and in August 2015, Flynn met Trump.   In December of that year he was invited to a 10th anniversary party for the Russian television network RT in Moscow, and sat next to Vladimir Putin. He received, but did not report, nearly $34,000 for the trip.  In March 2016 Flynn, along with Page, was named as one of Trump's foreign policy advisers, and he became an avid campaigner for Trump, declaring at the Repubican convention that Hillary Clinton should be locked up. In August, Michael Steele claimed that he received a report that Putin was very happy with the progress of his campaign to influence the American election. Visits to Moscow from a delegation of supporters of Lyndon Larouche, of Jill Stein of the Green Party, and of Carter Page and Michael Flynn had had good outcomes for the Russians, and even if Clinton won, she would be too weakened by domestic divisions to make much trouble for Russia. And just before the election, Flynn signed a $600,000 lobbying contract with a firm linked to the Turkish government--and failed to report it. (Jill Stein's Russian connection is reportedly under investigation by Robert Mueller. She drew significant numbers of votes in the states that decided the election.)

Flynn was, of course, appointed National Security adviser by Trump. Meanwhile, he was having conversations with Russian Ambassador Kislyak, including a meeting at Trump Tower with Kushner and Ivanka Trump. FBI surveillance picked some of them up.  The Obama Administration had just imposed new sanctions on Russia in retaliation for the intervention in the election, and although we do not yet have all the data, it seems that Flynn may have been discussing the lifting or easing of these and other sanctions--Putin's primary goal.  In any case, he, like Manafort and Page, was now heard by US intelligence surveillance.  He denied, to Vice President Pence and the FBI, that he had had certain conversations with Kislyak. The Justice Department informed the White House that he ws lying.  Flynn was forced out, and has now pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is cooperating with Mueller. It has occurred to me that the appointment of Rex Tillerson, who as CEO of Exxon had negotiated a big oil exploration deal with Russia that had to be canceled as a result of sanctions--and who has argued repeatedly that human rights considerations should not control US foreign policy--could have been designed in part to make the lifting of sanctions easier, as well.

The reader will note that I have managed so far to avoid discussing the Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump, Jr., Manafort, and two Russians, the well-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, and the former Soviet intelligence officer Rinat Akhmetshin, now a lobbyist and US citizen.  They had promised derogatory information about Hillary Clinton. Their goal was the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, named after a dissident Russian citizen who had died in custody, which barred Russians guilty of specific human rights abuses from the US.  Indeed, apparently some of the derogatory information they brought involved links between William Browder, Magnitsky's partner, and the Clinton foundation.  This was, clearly, just one of a number of channels that the Russians had developed to persuade a possible Trump administration to lift sanctions.  Donald Trump Jr. had been to Moscow several times himself, and the approach that led to the meeting came from contacts he had developed there, in the same way that Page, Manafort and Flynn had developed contracts of their own.  Jeff Sessions clearly knew about a lot of this, and had spoken to Kislyak himself. When Al Franken asked him about contacts between the campaign and the Russians in his confirmation hearing, he simply lied.  It is shocking that his tenure has survived the subsequent revelations.

And last, but hardly least--what about Donald Trump himself?

The President, it turns out, has sold many apartments in his properties to Russians going back to the 1980s, including some linked to Russian organized crime.  He has had Russian-American partners in deals who have been involved in criminal activity.  Ample evidence, reported at length by Harding, shows that Russians have invested in Trump properties to launder money.  And US Attorney Preet Bharara, of the Southern District of New York, used wiretaps to catch a Russian mobster running a gambling ring out of his suite in Trump tower.  Bharara, of course, lost his job shortly after Trump became President.  (This episode could be the origin of Trump's famous tweet accusing the government of wiretapping Trump Tower.)  Harding discusses other connections as well, including the remarkable sale of a Florida property to a Russian oligarch for about a 100% profit at the height of the financial crisis. But what struck me as potentially critical to the whole story was the role of Deutsche Bank in Donald Trump's career.

Trump's career as a developer has been marked by repeated failures to meet expectations, resulting in several bankruptcies.  When his Atlantic City casinos collapsed, his creditors, sadly, decided to allow him to keep operating because they thought they would be worth more with his name associated with them. However, American bankers, according to many accounts, had finally learned their lesson by the early 2000s and wouldn't lend to him again.The Deutsche Bank stepped in, apparently, to fill the gap.  Trump personally guaranteed a $640 million loan from Deutsche Bank to build Trump Tower in Chicago.  When the financial crisis struck, Trump stopped paying, with $340 million left to go.  When the bank sued to get their money, he counter sued for $3 billion, blaming them and the other big banks (correctly) for the financial crisis. A judge threw out the suit.


Amazingly, in 2010, Trump settled the matter with the help of a new series of loans from another office of Deutsche Bank, their private wealth sector.  Bloomberg estimated that by 2017 Trump owed the bank about $300 million, due in 2023 and 2024.  Meanwhile, beginning in 2005, Deutsche Bank had been involved in huge money-laundering deals with Russian interests.  Their Moscow office had developed close ties to leading Russian officials.  It does not seem at all impossible to me that the Russians had encouraged Deutsche Bank to bail Trump out in 2010 partly to secure leverage over him. Reading this part of the story, I was reminded of a recent interview in which John LeCarre described the similarity he saw between Trump and his own father, a lifelong con man, whom he described length in his novel A Perfect Spy.  LeCarre voiced his suspicion that Trump--like his father--actually has no real assets at all. I began to wonder, once again, if that might be true.

Jared Kushner is also deeply involved with Deutsche Bank, which lent him $285 million in October 2016 to pay off an earlier loan on the old New York Times building, which he had purchased from a Russian.  And in early December, Kushner met with Russian Ambassador Kislyak to propose setting up a secure communications channel, using Russian facilities, between the Trump transition team and the Kremlin.  He denied, when this was discovered, that lifting sanctions was discussed.

Where, then, does all this leave us?

The Trump campaign, from the moment that it first seemed likely to get the Repubican nomination, hired or involved three men--Carter Page, Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn--who had close personal and business ties to the Russian government and wanted to advance its interests, specifically by loosening or ending the sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration.  At least two of them were benefiting financially from that connection.  To judge from his many friendly statements about Putin--which continued after he took office--Trump would have been delighted to improve relations as well.  That proved impossible, as it turned out, because the whole effort became so obvious.  After Manafort, and then Flynn, had to leave the campaign and the Administration, Congress passed a new and tougher sanctions law tying Trump's hands.  One reason Tillerson has fallen out of favor may be that he could no longer play the role some had envisioned for him.

Manafort and Flynn face serious legal problems as a result of their Russian connections.  The real question is whether the President of the United States, Donald Trump, is bound to the Russian government by indirect financial obligations, compromising information developed during his trip to Moscow, money laundering deals over a period of years, or something else.  That would be a very proper subject for an impeachment inquiry, but I see no possibility that the House of Representatives will undertake one any time soon. They too are in thrall of oligarchs--though not, for the most part Russian ones. I have no idea how much of the story Robert Mueller will be able to uncover. I am afraid that the real story is much too complicated and intricate for our news media, as they are now configured, to convey to the American people. I have done what I can to do so today.

As I mentioned last week, Europe in the late 16th and early 17th century was ruled by oligarchs, largely independent of state authority.  Today much of the world is ruled that way--including, increasingly, the United States.  Within the Trump campaign, when Manafort had to go because his Russian patronage was exposed, he was replaced by Steve Bannon, a creature of an American oligarch, the hedge fund manager Robert Mercer.  The Koch brothers have just rammed the tax bill through Congress. Other oligarchs are influential within the Democratic Party.  Our President and the people around him are tied to the Russian oligarchy through Deutsche Bank and perhaps in other ways.  This is the world we live in, and it still would be, even if Donald Trump were to die tomorrow of natural causes.  I do not know what it would take to change it fundamentally and I don't expect that to happen any time soon.

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