Monday, January 14, 2019

Eighteen is Enough

In the U.S. we now live with a world of Team Trump-Putin or you may more accurately call it Team Putin-Trump. Either way, the reality is that there are two sides:
1) Team Putin-Trump
2) All others
This reality is quite clear to any rational observer, but much of our traditional media views this reality as so incredibly shocking and extreme, that we must be very very very sure this is our reality in order to acknowledge it and face it. (That was three very's. The actual number of very's is equal to the number of Trump documented lies before they stop counting lies and start to stop listening to Trump lies.)

Unfortunately, the "both sides" model of traditional political reporting dictates that there are two equal and opposite sides, that those two sides are the "Democrats" and the "Republicans". So any "Republican" who abandons Team Putin-Trump is "really" a Democrat and maybe always was a "Democrat". And if Trump is a problem, then "Democrats" need to fix it. Traditional journalism, embodied in the intransigent New York Times, helped create this dichotomy by imposing their artificial binary worldview on their stories and then treat the result as a fait accompli totally unrelated to their behavior. So the NYT often refers to "these polarized times" or our "deeply polarized country."

Max Boot is one of those political conservatives who has gone over to the "other side". His article in WaPo is quite effective at identifying red flags in Trump's behavior. Instead of counting thousands of lies in some vain attempt to convince true belivers in Trump who will not budge no matter the lie count, Boot says, when it comes to red flags, eighteen is enough : "Here are 18 reasons Trump could be a Russian asset."

My one quibble with Boot is his weak closing remarks: "This is hardly a “beyond a reasonable doubt” case that Trump is a Russian agent — certainly not in the way that Robert Hanssen or Aldrich Ames were. " Actually, that's not true. There are many more than 18 reasons to believe precisely beyond a reasonable doubt that Trump is guilty, guilty, guilty. The only reason that reasonable people express any doubt is that the reality is so horrible - that the and was so vulnerable to ignominious defeat at the hands of a weak and corrupt foreign power and only needed the aid of a willing weak and corrupt American agent.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Marshall Law

In America, the president has enormous power. Trump will use those powers not only for personal financial gain at home and abroad, but to stifle opposition to his regime. The chief opposition to Trump is law enforcement because Trump, his family and their associates have committed serious felonies before the election of 2016, during the transition, and following his inauguration.

The mainstream press has focused on the Mueller investigation as the single potential solution to the problem of Trump. Under this interpretation, no matter what else goes wrong in the U.S., so long as the Mueller investigation continues and his investigation's magical report may be issued - the U.S. is not in an existential crisis.

But it is. The Wall Street Journal report on continuing Russian cyberattacks reminds us that the U.S. is made extremely vulnerable because we have a president who can not be trusted to act in America's interests, but can be trusted by Putin to act in Putin's interests. Our mainstream press has no journalistic standard that allows them to consider the president as anything other than the chief player on one side of a binary functioning democratic system with two equal and opposite sides, both of which act in the interests of the U.S. , but who have different political philosophies that are equally valid in all circumstances. Under that lens, a president who acts solely in his personal financial interests, and who is happy to commit crimes can not exist in nature. It just can not be.

Trump's incrementalism is plain for all to see. He began his term in office by appointing a mix of family members, campaign loyalists, people with Russian ties, and a smattering of generals and traditional Republican party operatives. The generals were there for a combination of optics and as a test of loyalty - could the generals be counted on to maintain loyalty throughout the military when push comes to shove? Meanwhile, the Republican party operatives were mostly there for window dressing - no way would Sean Spicer and Reince Preibus last long. But they, too, were window dressing - see, this is only a little different from a normal Republican administration. Meanwhile, there was no question that the long arm of the law would head towards team Trump. That meant the greatest threats - the Justice Department and FBI needed to be wrestled to the ground. In short order, Trump was able to eliminate or sideline some of the FBI's most effective leaders in Comey, McCabe, Strzok, and Bruce Ohr. (And no coincidence that this plays into Russia's goal of eliminating the U.S. ability to withstand their cyberattacks.)

As now Trump has succeeded in consolidating power within his administration. Only lackeys and sycophants remain. Predictably, a leader who can only remain in power by authoritarian means in a democracy will need to impose marshall law at some point to avoid removal by the normal operationo of the legislature and the courts. But the imposition of marshall law requires a reason, or at least an the claim that there is an emergency, such as a flood of enemies massed at the southern border trying to enter illegally to cause harm.

Today it is a false claim of a national emergency. But tomorrow the national emergency will be any attempt by the legislature - or the people -to remove the president by legal means. If a false emergency can be declared, nothing would stop this president from signing a declaration that suspends the 2020 elections. One way or another, Trump's incremental approach to consolidating power will lead to a state of marshall law in the U.S., whether or not that is the term he uses.

This is not to argue that Trump's incrementalism is a carefully calculated and orchestrated approach - that he thinks to himself - "I see where this is going and will have to declare martial law someday, but what do I need to do today to get there?" Or, "I see where this is going and I will have to suspend elections in 2020. What do I need to do today to get there?" Rather, it is a matter of Trump doing whatever works for him today, personally, and without regard to any future consequences whatsoever,  based on the assumption that his next step will be regarded as only incremental and not as part of a developing scenario - by Republicans in Congress and the mainstream press alike.  And those two players - Republicans in Congress and the mainstream press are both setting up America for a complete breakdown of our basic governmental systems and processes, just as Trump is doing. Trump is actually the only player among those three who is behaving strategically, in the sense that he knows that his short term thinking approach has always worked to his personal advantage in the long run, no matter what else happens. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress and the mainstream press have willingly locked themselves into a system that is designed to protect Trump in all circumstances. That is, unless the magical "Mueller report" transforms America and saves us all.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Not a Wall, Not a Wall

The fight over the wall has nothing to do with the wall. It's all about power. If Trump had really wanted the wall, he would have used his considerable leverage to get his wall when Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate. Trump is asserting his absolute power - if he wants to, he can declare a national emergency, even as a whim, sending a message to Pelosi and the Democratic House - "don't get too excited about your new have no power."

For decades now, ever since Newt Gingrich and House Republicans tried to force their Contract on America through Congress, a series of federal govenment shutdowns have illustrated the stark asymmetry between the two main political parties. Republicans are willing to impose shutdowns because they are basically opposed to the federal government with the sole exception of the military and federal law enforcement. In game theory terms, Republicans only care about the effects of a shutdown on the next election, which tend to be quite limited. For Trump, who is unpopular and conducts himself as the president of his base rather than the nation, the shutdown affords a perfect opportunity to assert his absolute dominance over national politics. And Mitch McConnell is more than willing to assist. The added benefit for Trump in this case is that strangling the federal government eventually hurts the special counsel investigations into his presidential campaign, the transition, and the conduct of the president and members of his administration.

Speaking of strangling the important work of the federal government:

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Follow the Money Laundering

The Trump - Russia story had three separate phases:
1) Cultivation of Trump as an asset. Started in the 1980's(?). Gained head of steam circa 2008 after legitimate bankers stopped lending to the serial bankuptcist. Casinos and real estate offer two great opportunities for money laundering. Of course, that does not prove anything. Maybe they were all just friends.
2) Cultivation of Trump as a candidate for president and agent of influence in the Republican party.
3) Cultivation of President Trump as an agent of influence - revolutionizing American foreign policy, destruction of NATO, elimination of sanctions against Russians, create political upheaval in the U.S. by dismantling the American system insofar as possible, and provide U.S. intelligence to Moscow.

How does Natalia Veselnitskaya fit into this?

Veselnitskaya become known in the U.S. as an attendee at the famous June 2016 Trump tower meeting about which Don Jr. claimed he expected "dirt on Hillary Clinton", but Veselnitskaya "only"wanted to talk about "Russian adoptions".

Yesterday's news on Veselnitskaya : Russian lawyer at Trump Tower meeting charged in separate case:

"A Russian lawyer whose role in a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower has come under scrutiny from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was charged Tuesday with obstructing justice in a separate money-laundering investigation."

But how separate are the two cases? Isn't it an odd coincidence that a Russian lawyer, who was in NYC June 16, 2016 for a scheduled court appearance in the Prevezon Holdings Case that relates to money laundering happened to appear at a Trump Tower meeting regarding "dirt on Hillary Clinton"?

Team Trump lies all the time about everything. So do Putin, his oligarchs, and their representatives. But they tell us where to seek the truth with their denials and deflections. If Don Jr. (aka Individual-1 Jr. ) invokes "adoptions" as a deflection, what does that tell us? Well, Veselnitskaya represents the interests of the Katsyvs in the Prevezon money laundering case. Publicly, Veselnitskaya has registered a non-profit to work Russian adoptions in the U.S. that would presumably resume if and when sanctions are lifted. But sanctions against Russia are targeted at the oligarchs. The oligarchs who desperately want to move their wealth out of Russia to places like the U.S. and the U.K. No, this wasn't a meeting about adoptions and not just about dirt on Clinton. Topic 1 was money laundering through real estate - removing sanctions to ease restrictions on money laundering -and possibly other types of  transactions. That meant that Jared Kushner's attendance was important - hence the necessity to deny that Kushner was even there or spent much time at the meeting.

As to the dirt on Hillary Clinton, the original stories omitted the attendance of Rinat Akhmetshin.
As reported,
"Mr. Akhmetshin, a Washington resident, has told reporters that he just happened to be lunching with Ms. Veselnitskaya in Manhattan that day when she spontaneously invited him to the meeting with the president’s son, son-in-law Jared Kushner and Mr. Manafort. He did not explain why she wanted him there."

That's a clear case of deflection - tells us Akhmetshin's participation was critical. My guess is that Akhmetshin (the Russian-American lobbyist and former Soviet intelligence officer per Wikipedia) was there with the news of "dirt on Hillary Clinton". Why would Jr. claim it was Veselnitskaya? To distract attention from the money laundering that would resume when sanctions were lifted on the oligarchs.And that money laundering would include handsome payoffs  - not just for money laundering services, but for the president who, by the way,  has been extremely reluctant to impose sanctions on the oligarchs and anxious to remove those sanctions as quickly as possible. The Treasury Dept. announced just before Christmas, the lifting of sanctions on Oleg Deripaska's Rusal and EN+Group while allegedly keeping sanctions in place on Deripaska, Paul Manafort's boss for many years.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Safe Place

In America, political journalists in the business of objective news reporting pull themselves to the safe place of "both sides" reporting as a purported best practice in their field. When you play the "both sides" game you innoculate yourself from criticism of bias.

Reporting "both sides" is not always wrong or inaccurate, but forcing all political reporting into a "both sides" box is one of the great journalistic failures of 2016. And it continues.

On MSNBC this morning, Craig Melvin announced in his lead-in:
"A disrupter in Congress...
How Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio Cortez draws the right's outrage and forces members on the left to look over their shoulders all at the same time.

Take a look at the subject and the predicate. Ocasio-Cortes just is a maverick - is that now that John McCain is no longer with us? Is that why - just to fulfill the press's need for a maverick?

And what action did she take to draw the right's outrage? Is it really outrage at some action? More likely she represents a threat or an opportunity. A threat if she is well liked, or an opportunity if she lets certain conservatives check all the boxes of their antagonism - a) female, b) outspoken, c) latina, and d) young. After her election, a Washington Examiner reporter tweeted a picture of her taken from behind, challenging her personal story by claiming her being too well dressed to be poor. That also gave him the excuse he needed to take a photo of her butt. More recently, an old video of her joyfully dancing with friends at Boston University was tweeted in an apparent effort to discredit her for being what? Young, attractive, energetic, and happy? That most recent episode demonstrates that something peculiar is going on here with the urgent attempts to take her down. Ordinarily a freshman member of Congress has very little power - one vote among 435. So the rapid fire attacks on AOC demonstrate that Republicans feel a need to make the story about her. It's a tell - something about the Republicans. Not AOC. That is the real news. The Republicans want AOC to be their spokesperson for the Democrats. And for that story, let's keep "the left" out of it. Don't bring in "the left" to force the appearance of balance. Just tell the real story.

"How conservative operatives jumped on the election of AOC to attract attention and foment anger and resentment of this new member of Congress as a way to distract from serious policy discussion"

Not perfect. But would be much better. Much closer to the truth.

Melvin made it worse after he came back from the "break."
"Love her or hate her Congress youngest member AOC has become a lightning rod for Republicans 
She has also become a darling of the left."

There he goes again. Both sides. You can't say anything about one side without invoking an equal and opposite statement about the other "side" That may seem harmless enough, but that approach has made it almost impossible to state the obvious as plain fact or even as the most likely set of facts in any situation where "both sides" leads to fallacy.

The presumption that both sides are always the same is a fallacy that flies in the face of the reality we have faced over the past two years. A man is president of the U.S. who did certain things and did not do certain things.

He never ran for or served in any government office or as a general in the military.
He never functioned in business in any way similar to ANY business leaders in the U.S. He just is not Rex Tillerson, let alone Jamie Dimon, Bill Gates, or anyone else.

He ran beauty pageants.
He ran casinos.
He traded in real estate, such as condos and office buildings. Much of his real estate was sold to Russian oligarchs and criminals.

And so on. Ignoring that stark asymmetry  with a both sides approach guarantees that reporting will distort the truth about Trump. Which is why we are where we are today. And failure of major news organizations to recognize that problem with their reporting guarantees that 2020 will be a replay of 2018.

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Selling of U.S. Foreign Policy

In "A Telling Reveal", Josh Marshall's take on Trump's response to a question on how the U.S. withdrawal from Syria will impact Israel winds up thus:

"The Saudis and the Israelis have been the pillars of a regional alliance that Trump has backed fulsomely. But reading the tea leaves here strongly suggests it’s the Saudis driving Trump’s policies in the region, with the Turks and the Russians playing a more contingent second role. Trump’s aggressive/defensive response to this question, and implicitly to Netanyahu, is quite telling."

But that is not quite accurate. Understanding Trump foreign policy in the traditional sense - separate from his personal financial interest - is a flawed approach. So discussing his policy " in the region" is always going to be off. He doesn't have a policy for "the region". He has a policy for "the family".

Trump's foreign policy caters first to those willing to pay - the oligarchs who have the power to confiscate wealth in their own countries - Putin and bin Salman (allied with UAE crown prince) - and who are not subject to the whims of an electorate. Erdogan, still consolidating power and not in the same category of excess wealth, is necessarily driven to a back seat. A second circle.

So the inner circle of corrupt exercise of power remains - Trump, bin Salman, Putin. That is the Triangular Alliance to watch. The strong alliance of bin Salman with UAE, reflected in their ability to act as surrogates for each other at meetings of the secret Trump alliances, counts those two as a single entity for this analysis.

Outside the inner circle, those jockeying for influence, often with success are Israel and Turkey.
Qatar, of course, qualifies as a player in Trump world because they have money to spend. But Qatar, as a rival of Saudi/UAE seems to have lost the battle for influence with Trump. Another big loser in this is Iran because the ascendance of the Saudis and the apparent decision by Putin to cut Iran loose to bolster Russian power and influence elsewhere in the Middle East as permitted by Trump.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Triangular Trade

The Daily Beast reports: Get Ready for Mueller's Phase Two: The Middle East Connection:

In court filings that are set to drop in early 2019, prosecutors will begin to unveil Middle Eastern countries’ attempts to influence American politics, three sources familiar with this side of the probe told The Daily Beast.

In other words, the “Russia investigation” is set to go global.

But the items Mueller is investigating have long been in the public domain, waiting for investigative journalists to connect the dots and ask questions.

"While one part of the Mueller team has indicted Russian spies and troll-masters, another cadre has been spending its time focusing on how Middle Eastern countries pushed cash to Washington politicos in an attempt to sway policy under President Trump’s administration."

OK, but from the moment Jared Kushner was appointed to seek "peace in the Middle East", questions should have been raised about team Trump's motivation. Jared Kushner was heavily in debt at the time and needed money. News accounts at the time generally ridiculed the selection of Kushner as Middle East envoy, but what if that was just a cover for doing family business in the region? The family Trump only cares about money, not the United States.

"Various witnesses affiliated with the Trump campaign have been questioned about their conversations with deeply connected individuals from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, according to people familiar with the probe. Topics in those meetings ranged from the use of social-media manipulation to help install Trump in the White House to the overthrow of the regime in Iran."

The article mentions Flynn's role working for Trump, meeting representatives of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

But then the article steps back slightly, before proceeding,

"Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute, said it is unclear if Mueller’s team will unveil nefarious foreign activity beyond what normally occurs in Washington."

See what they did there? That's how balance works. Take two steps forward, then one step back. But treating Trump and his family as anything close to normal is actually irresponsible, given the extraordinary evidence of likely extreme wrongdoing. If Trump is so unlike any other president, why is it necessary to compare him with other presidents or "Washington" when sifting through the evidence?

The Daily Beast article mentions certain operatives - Zamel of Israel, and George Nader with ties to the Middle East,

"Mueller has also probed Nader’s role in the January 2017 Seychelles meeting between Prince and Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund. In his House testimony, Prince said the meeting was a chance encounter and the two met to talk about trade and mineral wealth. But prosecutors this year received evidence that showed the meeting was premeditated. Communications reviewed by The Daily Beast reflect that narrative.

A memo shows the two spoke about a range of topics, including peace between Ukraine and Russia, military operations in Syria, investment in the Midwest, and nuclear weapons. Although RDIF is under U.S. sanctions, it was and is still legal for U.S. individuals to meet with Dmitriev, and, in some circumstances, do business with the fund."

The most telling evidence is the denials about the meetings. The famous Trump tower meeting of June 9, 2016 was supposedly about "Russian adoptions" according to Don Jr., Adoptions probably were mentioned because it was the least important topic discussed as part of removing U.S. sanctions in exchange for release of the emails and other favors.

And the January 2017 Seychelles meeting was initially described, in part, as a chance encounter. Look at the  attendees, per Vox:
Eric Prince
MBZ, or Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of the UAE
George Nader
Kirill Dmitriev, manager of a $10 billion sovereign wealth fund

So, common sense tells you the meeting, held in the Seychelles just as Trump is assuming the presidency, takes place in the most remote possible place on earth because secrecy is paramount. The Russian representative is there to offer cash. The UAE representative (and Saudi ally) is there to offer cash. And Prince is there to accept cash for services.

This is just one of several "mysterious" meetings involving a representative of team Trump and representatives of at least two other countries with cash to give.

What better way to hide Trump's foreign policy for cash trades than to use multiple conduits - multiple countries - to conceal the transactions.

Trump has been so anxious to limit the Mueller probe to Russia. Not only has Trump traded foreign policy favors for cash from Russia. Not only has he traded with Saudi Arabia/UAE, playing them off against Qatar, but team Trump has conspired with Russia and Saudi Arabia (and possibly others) in concert.  His team has forged secret multi-state alliances of the U.S. with other countries that no other U.S. persons other than his family members know about.

Another interesting link between Russia and Saudi Arabia is Dimitry Rybolovlev.
Rybolovlev bought a Trump Florida estate for $95 million as the real estate market teetered that Trump had bought in 2004 for $41 million.
Ryboloblev bought the Davini for $125 million and sold it to a proxy for bin Salman for $450 million.  It had been appraised at about $100 million though doubts about its authenticity persist.

What better way to launder money than right there in the open. Would that Mueller or other authorities would investigate the "second" bidder who helped drive up the price of the Salvator Mundi at auction.

Then there is the other Trump tower meeting that is often overlooked. As reported by Seth Abramson  in Newsweek,
"A second area of inquiry involves spring 2018 reporting from the New York Times that on August 3, 2016, Donald Trump Jr. met in Trump Tower with George Nader, an emissary from the Crown Princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; Erik Prince, a Trump national security adviser and later an envoy from Trump to a top Russian oligarch; and Joel Zamel, an Israeli business intelligence expert with ties to both Russian oligarchs and Israeli intelligence officers. At the meeting, both Nader and Zamel offered collusive assistance to Trump’s campaign; according to the Times, Trump Jr. reacted favorably to both offers. Zamel, who had in the past attempted to recruit Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn into his intelligence-gathering outfit, offered Trump Jr. a clandestine propaganda and domestic disinformation campaign that mirrored the one Russian trolls ultimately delivered in the final three months of the general election."

George Nader and Erik Prince involved yet again. This time, Joel Zamel, a veteran of Israeli intelligence is there, but the Russian connections are represented by proxy - through Nader and Zamel.

Abramson continues:

"If the Steele dossier and relevant reporting since its January 2017 publication are to be believed, Kushner personally benefited from this collusion in the form of hundreds of millions in Qatari Investment Authority-backed loans. This means that not only Trump’s historically pro-Russia foreign policy, but also certain policy decisions Trump made in 2017 and 2018 that were favorable to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel must be investigated."

By all appearances, the secret triangular alliance among Trump/Putin?Saudi(with UAE) is supplemented by active measures to join by Israel and Turkey (more to come on that). The losers in all of this are the traditional U.S. partners in NATO, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and, by the way, the United States of America.

And don't forget that Trump found a way to eliminate the most experienced FBI investigators during the past two years: Comey, McCabe, and Strzok and has applied enormous pressure on the employment of Bruce Ohr.