Friday, 18 January 2019

It was always about Russia and money

It was always about Russia and money

On the evening of Thursday 17 January, BuzzFeed News dropped the following bombshell: “President Trump Directed His Attorney To Lie To Congress About The Moscow Tower Project”.  The story, assuming the reporting by Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier is corroborated by others and turns out to be true, explains the details of the Trump-Russia connection during his campaign and presidency, and why the acts that flow from that connection are serious crimes.  The following is a lightly edited and glossed discussion of the importance of this story, taken straight from Lawfare.

This story is a big deal because of what it says about the president’s conduct in office. It’s a big deal because of what it says about the reality of Trump’s relationship with Russia during his campaign. And it’s a big deal because the story appears to be based on a serious law enforcement leak.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

The stench of corruption

Michael Cohen’s plea deal and subsequent filings have filled in many of the gaps in the previously reported timeline of Trump-Russia connections in the 18 months prior to Trump being elected.  With the help of the Washington Post’s latest reporting and timeline (which I’ve borrowed for this post) and the older timelines I previously compiled, here is a condensed chronology of the Trump-Russia connections actually during the election campaign that we can be reasonably sure about now, and some of their implications (in red).  

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Brexit in Chaos

On the significance of the recent resignations of the main Brexiteers.

Somewhat overshadowed by England’s improbable World Cup run, this past week may turn-out to be a key moment in the ongoing saga of Brexit – Britain’s purported exit from the European Union.  So far, the two sides have agreed on a draft withdrawal plan that includes an “implementation period”—from exit on March 29, 2019, to Dec. 30, 2020—during which much of the status quo will be maintained, though the U.K. will no longer be involved in E.U. decision-making procedures.  But Britain’s actual relationship to the E.U. after that is still somewhat ill-defined, and in a bid to clarify exact what the British want their relationship to be, the British Prime Minister Teresa May forced the issue at a weekend meeting of her Cabinet at Chequers, the PM’s official country house.  That meeting led to a stunning round of resignations.

David Davis, the United Kingdom’s secretary of state for the exiting of the European Union (the “Brexit” secretary), resigned from office and was replaced by Dominic Raab, the former housing minister. Davis was joined by one of his deputy ministers, Steve Baker, who cited the same reasons Davis had for leaving. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson resigned the next day, calling the government’s Brexit negotiation stance tantamount to sending the U.K. toward “the status of a colony.”  Two of the Conservative Party’s vice-chairs, Maria Caulfield and Ben Bradley, also resigned their posts.  The resulting Cabinet reshuffle has put former health secretary Jeremy Hunt in as foreign secretary.  Matt Hancock, former secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, becomes health secretary.  Attorney General Jeremy Wright becomes the digital secretary, and Geoffrey Cox is to be attorney general.

These resignations were all the result, purportedly, of the “Chequers memo,” a draft of Brexit negotiating terms reached during the meeting.  Today the government published a 98 page white paper outlining the details of that negotiating stance.  But earlier this week, the U.K. got a taste of the controversial memo through a three-page summary that showed plans for a significantly “softer” Brexit than Theresa May’s government had previously discussed.
What proved so controversial about the memo was that it included creating a combined customs territory between the European Union and the U.K.  The U.K. would be obligated to police the traffic of goods to the E.U. and to apply E.U. tariffs when goods are destined for E.U. shipment.  It would also abide by a common rulebook for all goods crossing the border in order to promote harmonization. The document also proposed splitting jurisdiction for some matters: a “joint institutional framework” would interpret agreements between the U.K. and the E.U., but British and European courts would handle cases and interpretation of their laws in their respective jurisdictions.  Having previously committed to a full exit from the single market and a separation from E.U. jurisdiction (a “hard” Brexit), the terms that emerged from Chequers were an affront to hard-line Brexiteers in May’s government.  To Davis and Johnson, these compromises were a betrayal of the spirit of Brexit.

The implications of this shake-up are bigger than who was moved in the cabinet reshuffle. They are bigger than the question of whether May will contest a no-confidence vote from her party (should one be held, sooner or later). These resignations, happening more than one year into Brexit negotiations, suggest something more fundamental: that May and her advisors, despite their ridiculous claims that “Brexit means Brexit”, have come to the realization that Brexit cannot after all be a clean break; that a “soft” Brexit – a situation in which there are still some economic and political ties to the E.U. – is the only practical option.

Despite the agreed-on transition period, both sides in the negotiations are under pressure to finalize a deal—including both the withdrawal agreement and the terms of a future relationship—before October, when the European Council is supposed to review the draft deal and push toward ratification. The next step in scheduled negotiations is to begin next week. The official Conservative Party stance—that is, until the Chequers memo—was to negotiate a “hard Brexit”: including leaving the E.U. customs union, leaving the single market and emancipating the U.K. from the jurisdiction of E.U. law. The government white paper explaining the details of the much softer proposal will likely surface more discontent; even before the white paper was released to the public there were reports of profound cabinet minister dissatisfaction. Considering that the Chequers meeting and the three-page teaser alone led to two Cabinet resignations, what follows is bound to be dramatic for May and her government.  Boris Johnson’s resignation letter suggest the tenor of other critiques to come:

Brexit should be about opportunity and hope. It should be a chance to do things differently, to be more nimble and dynamic, and to maximize the particular advantages of the UK as an open, outward-looking global economy.

But for Johnson, the Chequers “agreement” suggests that dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.

May’s response was straightforward: “I am sorry—and a little surprised—to receive [your resignation] after the productive discussions we had at Chequers on Friday, and the comprehensive and detailed proposal which we agreed as a Cabinet.”

The evident internal dissent suggests that May’s government is in danger, but the prospect of another leadership upheaval over Brexit, especially at the late stages of negotiations, is not something either the Tories and their E.U. counterparts really want or need (not that it might not happen anyway, given our current era of provocateurs creating chaos).
Right now, the U.K. finds itself halfway toward the deadline of Brexit negotiations, with a draft withdrawal plan but no final agreements signed, while simultaneously sorting through another domestic government upheaval.  Despite this, the E.U. chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has said that 80 percent of the Brexit deal is done. This contrasts starkly with previous E.U. statements and with the political upheaval in the U.K.  But the E.U. has reason to encourage Britain’s new Brexit minister, Raab, to come to the table next week with the diluted terms; Barnier himself has said, “It will be clear, crystal clear at the end of this negotiation that the best situation, the best relationship with the E.U., will be to remain a member.”

That suggests the E.U.’s end game is still to restore the status quo, while the U.K.’s is still to break away from it.  These goals are incompatible, and the British government is struggling with its internal incoherence concerning them.  Over the course of a year, the Tories have been unable to cobble together a coherent solution to some threshold questions: What will happen to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland?  What does a mutually agreeable future trade deal look like?  

And now to add misery to this company, Donald Trump comes to town fresh from throwing verbal bombs at the NATO summit.  His visit is to Britain is already controversial: Trump is mostly avoiding London because of long-planned protests and instead will meet with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle and with Prime Minister May at Chequers.  He has joked that his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, happening the following Monday, will be the “easiest of all” his upcoming meetings, including his visit with May.  Trump will undoubtedly further complicate the U.K. domestic picture.  He has been notoriously supportive of Brexit, lauding it in 2016 as a “great victory.”

Trump’s visit might invigorate the hard Brexiteers and fill the press with hardline rhetoric, but when members of May’s own government lament the softening of negotiation terms but do not present reasonable alternatives, what is she to do but replace them with more pragmatic conservatives?  And when her party questions her ability to lead in light of Chequers and the resignations, they are simultaneously considering the difficulty of rebuilding a government that can take on the enormous task of Brexit, within current deadlines, while also maintaining stability amid other pressing geopolitical matters.

Avoiding a patrolled border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will require a customs and trade compromise. And despite Johnson’s suggestion that a soft Brexit portends colonization, the United Kingdom has legitimate economic and social interests in being a part of the single market; frictionless commerce and movement with the E.U. is beneficial to the U.K.  A Norwegian-style model with a membership of the single market is technically possible, but it does include a painful democratic deficit that would be hard to swallow.  Norway is a member of the E.U. single market and accordingly has to abide by all the rules that define this market, ranging from the minutiae to the massively important.  But it’s the E.U. member states that decide the rules on the single market that Norway must follow. In fact, May seems to be seeking a semi-Norway solution for U.K. goods.  But the E.U. is likely to want to go full-Norway.  The irony is that, in actualizing the will of the people as manifested by a vote ostensibly distilling it, the government has run into a wall: What the people “wanted” may not be what’s best for them.  Indeed, the British right-wing press is already claiming that “the people” have been sold out by the “elites”.

There is still the possibility that proponents of a hard Brexit will win this fight.  If May is ousted, she might be replaced by a more dogmatic Tory Brexiteer.  If that happens, negotiations will almost certainly be extended or the United Kingdom will be cast out of the E.U. with no deal at all, facing whatever barriers to trade and association that the E.U. can muster.  But it seems to me that it is just as likely that the recent resignation chaos is an indication that the Brexit principle is finally giving way to pragmatism. Boris et al are throwing up their hands and crying “betrayal” because all the bluster and, frankly, reckless lies of the Brexiteers, are finally hitting the reality of what the path of “taking back control” means; because the hard Brexiteers never had a real plan for the future at all.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Performative cruelty and the history of migration across the US southern border

Performative cruelty and the history of migration across the US southern border

If we separate the policies pursued by the Republicans independently of Trump -- the massive tax cut and the attempt to kill Obamacare -- Trump's own 'policies' since becoming president have largely been more symbolic than substantive solutions to real issues.  The ban on visits from predominantly Muslim countries; trade tariffs on friends and adversaries alike; the disdain for multilateral agreements; the proposed wall on the southern border; 'zero tolerance' for illegal entry to the US with its separation of children from their parents, all of these policies might be termed 'performative cruelty' -- ruthless provisions designed to appeal to the prejudices of most Trump supporters.  Each has real-world, often devastatingly tragic consequences, but none of them are rationally thought-out policies that will solve the very real problems the USA faces.  These policies, at least in the short term, predominantly impact 'others' rather than US citizens, and affect especially the 'others' that Trump has scapegoated as the cause of America's problems.

Tackling immigration, legal and illegal, has been perhaps the most popular rallying-call amongst Trump's base, and it is the issue that Trump has recently doubled-down on as the 'winning' issue for the November midterm elections.  The single issue that Trump and his remaining hardliners believe will retain the GOP hold of Congress -- and not incidentally protect Trump from impeachment or prosecution.  

The rhetoric frequently used by the Trump administration is that the current 'immigration crisis' was caused by Democrats and progressives wanting completely 'open' borders.  Indeed, Trump has tweeted that the Democrats, "don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country."  Beyond noting the dehumanizing language, it is worth pausing to consider how and why the southern border became such an issue.  It requires understanding some history.  (The following is adapted and lightly edited from the analysis prepared by Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson.)

Trump began his presidential campaign by calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said that the new policy of separating children from their parents would deter illegal immigrants.  Regardless of the inaccuracy, incipient racism and immorality of these claims, both have confused America's long history of Mexican immigration with a new, startling trend of refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and then cynically blaming Democrats for coddling criminals.
Problems with Mexican immigration stem not from Democratic softness on crime, but from a bipartisan 1965 law that reworked America's immigration laws.  The law in 1965 was the first comprehensive reform of the immigration regime that prevailed since 1924. In the 1920s US immigration law limited immigration according to quotas assigned to each country.  Those countries were heavily weighted toward western Europe, virtually prohibiting immigration from Asia and Africa, and dramatically curtailing it from southern Europe.

The 1924 law did not monitor immigration from Latin America at all, for the simple reason that from the time the current border was set in 1848 until the 1930s, people moved back and forth across it without restrictions. Laborers, especially, came from Mexico to work on the huge American farms that came to dominate the US agricultural sector, especially after 1907, when the Japanese workers who had been taking over those jobs were (unofficially) kept out of the country.  The US government actively encouraged that immigration during WWI, to help increase production.

The 1930s Great Depression coupled with the disaster of the western plains Dust Bowl made destitute westerners turn on Mexican migrants, (as well as on their poor white neighbors, as John Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath). The government rounded up Mexicans and shipped them back over the border.

But World War II made migrant laborers vital again, and to regularize the system, the US government in 1942 started a guest worker policy called the "Bracero" Program.  It was supposed to guarantee that migrant workers were well treated, paid, and housed adequately.  But employers happily hired illegal as well as legal workers, and American workers and their trade unions complained.  President Eisenhower returned about a million illegal workers in 1954 under "Operation Wetback," only to have officials readmit most of them as braceros.  It was President Kennedy who initiated the process that ended the Bracero program in 1964.

The end of that system coincided with congressional reworking of the 1924 immigration act.  In the midst of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, Congress wanted to end the racial quota system of immigration and replace it with one that did not so obviously discriminate against Asia and Africa.  The 1965 Hart-Celler Act opened immigration to all nations, setting a general cap on total immigration levels.  But southern congressmen, appalled at the idea of black immigration, introduced a provision that privileged family migration, arguing that "family unification" should be the nation's top priority.  They expected that old-stock immigrants from western Europe would use the provision to bring over their relatives, which would keep the effect of the 1924 law without the statute.  But their provision had the opposite effect.  It was new immigrants who wanted to bring their families; not old ones.  So immigration began to skew heavily toward Asia and Latin America.

At the same time, Hart-Celler put a cap on Latin American immigration for the first time, just as the guest worker program ended.  The cap was low: 20,000, although 50,000 workers were coming annually at that point.  And American agribusiness depended on migrant labor.  Workers continued to come as they always had, and to be employed (and exploited), as always.  But now their presence was illegal.  In 1986, Congress tried to fix the problem by offering amnesty to 2.3 million Mexicans who were living in the United States and by cracking down on employers who hired undocumented workers.  But rather than ending the problem of undocumented workers, the new law exacerbated it by beginning the process of guarding and militarizing the border.  Until then, migrants into the United States had been offset by an equal number leaving at the end of the season. Once the border became heavily guarded, Mexican migrants quite understandably refused to take the chance of leaving and not being able to re-enter.

Since 1986, US politicians have refused to deal with this disconnect, which grew in the 1990s when NAFTA flooded Mexico with US corn and drove Mexican farmers to find work, largely in the American Southeast.  But this 'problem' is hardly either new nor suddenly catastrophic.  While it is estimated that about 6 million undocumented Mexicans currently live in the United States, most of them -- 78% -- are long-term residents, resident in the USA more than ten years.  Only 7% have lived in the USA less than five years. (This is a much more stable ratio than undocumented immigrants from any other country.)  And since 2007, the number of Mexicans living illegally in the United States has declined by more than a million.  The Mexican economy is good enough that more Mexicans are leaving America these days than coming.  Undocumented Mexican "criminals and rapists" are not really the issue at hand.

What is happening right now at America's southern border is thus not really about Mexicans at all.  It is a relatively new issue, which began around 2014. The people now arriving at the US southern border, where children are separated from their parents, are generally from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, countries with warlike levels of violence that are creating masses of refugees.  (And longstanding US support of rightwing regimes in those states is in no small part a reason why that violence has become endemic.)  Those people now arriving in Mexico from those countries are not sneaking over the border for work or to commit crime; they are refugees applying for asylum, which is legal in the United States.  And while the Trump administrations is trying to stop them by taking their children, researchers say that, while it is possible to discourage economic migrants -- like most Mexicans -- no deterrent will stop migrant refugees, for they are fleeing potential death.

But all of this history is irrelevant to Trump.  Whether refugees, economic migrants or actual criminals, people wanting to enter the US from the southern border are all a 'national security' problem.  And taking a 'tough' stance against these 'enemies' plays well with his supporters.  Don't expect that attitude to change, regardless of the facts.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Trump's lasting damage to the US political system

The overt corruption of the American presidency is happening more or less in plain sight. 

This past week news broke about a number of recent deals involving Trump, his family, hangers-on and his enablers, that show that the worst fears about Trump’s potential conflicts of interest expressed prior to his election were entirely justified.  Last year’s efforts by Michael Cohen to enrich himself based on his closeness to Trump pale in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars that Trump’s family is raking-in through the patriarch’s political position.  The dealings of the Trump Organization, now under the notional management of Trump’s two adult sons, but still owned by the President, are prime examples of the corrupt self-dealing enrichment evidently going on. The China and the Lido City project in Indonesia is a good example – Trump promising to save jobs in, wait for it, China, and disregarding his own administration’s concerns about cybersecurity lifting sanctions against ZTE in the process – and in apparent return, receiving Chinese financial backing for his next mega development in Indonesia.  

Saturday, 17 March 2018

The Politics of McCabe's Dismissal

On the firing of Andrew McCabe

The Deputy Director of the FBI, Andy McCabe was fired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday evening, 16 March, 26 hours before McCabe was due to retire with a full pension.  While the public has no way to judge whether the cause for dismissal stipulated by Sessions was justified, the timing of this decision and the broader context to it, suggest that even if McCabe was guilty of some misconduct, this whole episode reeks of the extreme Trumpian politicization of the institutions of justice in the USA. 

Sessions statement indicated:

After an extensive and fair investigation and according to Department of Justice procedure, the Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) provided its report on allegations of misconduct by Andrew McCabe to the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR).
The FBI’s OPR then reviewed the report and underlying documents and issued a disciplinary proposal recommending the dismissal of Mr. McCabe.  Both the OIG and FBI OPR reports concluded that Mr. McCabe had made an unauthorized disclosure to the news media and lacked candor—including under oath—on multiple occasions.

The FBI expects every employee to adhere to the highest standards of honesty, integrity, and accountability.  As the OPR proposal stated, “all FBI employees know that lacking candor under oath results in dismissal and that our integrity is our brand.”
Pursuant to Department Order 1202, and based on the report of the Inspector General, the findings of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility, and the recommendation of the Department’s senior career official, I have terminated the employment of Andrew McCabe effective immediately.

The public has no way to judge the validity or justice of this statement.  The reports on which the decision was taken are not public and won’t be for some time.  McCabe may well have committed misconduct deserving of dismissal. The FBI ostensibly takes telling the truth extremely seriously: “lack of candor” from employees is a fireable offense—and agents have been fired for it.  It also needs to be noted that career Justice Department and FBI officials – rather than political appointees selected by Trump – ran the investigation against McCabe.  The charges against McCabe arose out of the broader Justice Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigation into the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email investigation.  The current head of that office, Michael Horowitz, was an Obama appointee and is himself a former career Justice Department lawyer. As Jack Goldsmith has written, the inspector general has statutory independence, and Horowitz used that independence in his highly critical 2012 report into the Justice Department’s “Fast and Furious” program. So this investigation into McCabe should not be dismissed out of hand as politically motivated.  We should reserve judgment on that.  

A representative for McCabe stated that the deputy director learned of his firing from the press release, though the Justice Department disputes this. McCabe was dismissed for “lacking candor” when speaking to investigators on the matter of an “unauthorized disclosure to the news media.” McCabe denies these allegations. In his statement released to the media after his firing, McCabe wrote:

The investigation by the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has to be understood in the context of the attacks on my credibility. The investigation flows from my attempt to explain the FBI's involvement and my supervision of investigations involving Hillary Clinton. I was being portrayed in the media over and over as a political partisan, accused of closing down investigations under political pressure. The FBI was portrayed as caving under that pressure, and making decisions for political rather than law enforcement purposes. Nothing was further from the truth. In fact, this entire investigation stems from my efforts, fully authorized under FBI rules, to set the record straight on behalf of the Bureau, and to make clear that we were continuing an investigation that people in DOJ opposed.

The OIG investigation has focused on information I chose to share with a reporter through my public affairs officer and a legal counselor. As Deputy Director, I was one of only a few people who had the authority to do that. It was not a secret, it took place over several days, and others, including the Director, were aware of the interaction with the reporter. It was the type of exchange with the media that the Deputy Director oversees several times per week. In fact, it was the same type of work that I continued to do under Director Wray, at his request. The investigation subsequently focused on who I talked to, when I talked to them, and so forth. During these inquiries, I answered questions truthfully and as accurately as I could amidst the chaos that surrounded me. And when I thought my answers were misunderstood, I contacted investigators to correct them.

The report on the Clinton email investigation is to be released later this spring. Without seeing the report, it’s impossible to know whose story reflects the truth here.  But even if McCabe’s conduct was bad enough to warrant dismissal, the timing and the expedited nature of the process is rancid in its overt political overtones.

Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general who is representing McCabe, described how the process against McCabe was uniquely prejudicial.  As he describes it:

The investigation described in the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report was cleaved off from the larger investigation of which it was a part, its completion expedited, and the disciplinary process completed in a little over a week. Mr. McCabe and his counsel were given limited access to a draft of the OIG report late last month, did not see the final report and the evidence on which it is based until a week ago, and were receiving relevant exculpatory evidence as recently as two days ago. We were given only four days to review a voluminous amount of relevant evidence, prepare a response, and make presentations to the Office of the Deputy Attorney General. With so much at stake, this process has fallen far short of what Mr. McCabe deserved.

Now Bromwich may well be exaggerating to a degree: lawyers do. But the haste with which the proceedings against McCabe were conducted do seem to fit with McCabe’s own perspective on the events provided in his statement after his firing:

The release of this report was accelerated only after my testimony to the House Intelligence Committee revealed that I would corroborate former Director Comey's accounts of his discussions with the President. The OIG's focus on me and this report became a part of an unprecedented effort by the Administration, driven by the President himself, to remove me from my position, destroy my reputation, and possibly strip me of a pension that I worked 21 years to earn. The accelerated release of the report, and the punitive actions taken in response, make sense only when viewed through this lens.

Moreover, in an interview with the New York Times, McCabe said directly that his dismissal “is part of an effort to discredit me as a witness.”

The irregular timing also has to be seen in the broader context of McCabe being in Trump’s crosshairs since the firing of FBI director James Comey. Trump has publicly demanded his firing on multiple occasions, he developed a conspiracy theory about McCabe’s wife, whom he told McCabe was a “loser.”  He demanded to know whom McCabe had voted for.  According to James Comey’s testimony before the Senate intelligence committee, Trump attempted to use what he believed to be McCabe’s corruption as some kind of a bargaining chip against Comey, informing the director that he had not brought up “the McCabe thing” because Comey had told him that McCabe was honorable.  Trump has relentlessly attacked McCabe’s integrity and reputation as part of his attacks on the FBI and DOJ.  And to make matters worse, the firing occurred when Jeff Sessions’s own job is clearly on the line. Sessions may well be serving-up  McCabe in an effort to appease Trump.

Even if the case against McCabe justifies his dismissal, who is going to believe – in the face of overt presidential demands for a corrupt Justice Department – that a Justice Department that gives the president what he wants is anything less than the lackey he asks for?  Regardless if McCabe committed a fireable offense or this is a political attack on McCabe the politicization of law enforcement takes place regardless. It is the consequence of the relentless attempts to politicize the federal justice system that have been a hallmark of the Trump era.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Trump’s cabinet of sycophants

Trump is moving towards the administration cast he is comfortable with.  And that is a problem.

At the very beginning of the Trump administration I, and many others, expected there would be a ‘house cleaning purge’ of key government departments.  Although the early White House was home to some of the ideologues that had flocked to Trump during the campaign, the administration was actually divided into a number of often competing power centres.   
But in addition to the first year’s historic cabinet turnover, over the past couple of weeks, Trump has lost his economic adviser, Gary Cohn, who resigned over the imposition of steel and aluminum tariffs; he fired his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, over Twitter, essentially for occasionally speaking is actual mind; and he is reportedly planning on moving his national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, out of the White House and back into a military position as a four-star general.  McMaster – whose removal has been rumored for months – would be gone already, except the White House is apparently concerned about the optics of losing yet another cabinet member

Cohn has been replaced by Larry Kudlow, a cable news pundit; Tillerson by Mike Pompeo, the opportunist and extreme hawk CIA director. The leading candidates to replace McMaster are John Bolton, the GOP hawk who has publicly pushed the United States to make a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, and Fox & Friends co-host Pete Hegseth – although the latter is more likely to become secretary of veterans affairs. 

These changes suggest that Trump is now fully breaking free of the modest restraints that were erected around him early on in his presidency by GOP advisors to protect against his erratic instincts.  While scandal, chaos and incompetence have forced Trump to remake his cabinet, by now filling it with hawks and cable news pundits, he is turning it into a reflection of his own image.  

While fears of the inherent corruption of his own family members such as Kushner failed attempt to secure a loan from Qatar and subsequent Kushner green-lighting of the Saudi/UAE blockade of Qatar have been proved correct, the incomplete revelations of Russia investigation and scandal have caused the sideling of most of the familial wing of the White House.  Two White House aides who were close to the pair resigned. (Hicks and Kushner press aide Josh Raffel).  Kushner’s access to classified information has been curtailed.  Javanka” appears to be having fairly limited influence in Trump’s Washington.
The establishment GOP wing of the White House is also now basically defunct.  Far right ideologues like Steve Bannon and Seb Gorka are gone, but the extreme conservative views advocated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House senior adviser Stephen Miller — such as attempting to limit legal immigration — have become the policies of the administration. While Trump constantly complains about Sessions, arguing that the attorney general should not have recused himself in the Russia investigation, Sessions looks like he is staying, probably because Sessions acts on many of Trump’s other long-held views, including rolling back Obama-era measures to more closely scrutinize police departments and making enforcement of immigration laws a top priority of the Department of Justice. For all the drama about Sessions’ role, he is now leading the Trump administration in filing a lawsuit against California, the nation’s largest state, over immigration law.

And while the “economic nationalism” that was also central to Bannon’s ideology had been largely sidelined by Trump in his working with the GOP on lowering taxes, his decision to push forward tariffs on aluminum and steel imports, a policy backed by White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, is a return to the position he and Bannon advocated as a candidate.
Meanwhile, social conservatives within the administration have either convinced Trump of their own agenda, Trump already agreed with it or they are just doing what they want while the president isn’t paying attention. DeVos, Pruitt and other agency leaders in the Trump administration are rolling back regulations at an aggressive pace with little interference from the White House. The administration has either tried to enact or actually adopted a number of limits to abortion, a priority of Vice President Mike Pence’s. In fact, it’s hard to think of many major decisions Trump has made that break with the ideology of his vice president.  It is for this reason, that no matter what he has said over the past weeks it seems very unlikely that Trump will move in any meaningful way towards gun control.

And now the so-called “adults in the room” Tillerson, McMaster, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have been removed or neutralized, and Chief of Staff Kelly has shown himself to be more Trumpian than many had anticipated.  All in all, Trump is moving towards creating the cabinet and White House that he wants: one that either shares key Trump views, channels the views of his socially conservative base, or won’t stand up to him in any meaningful way.  

Changes at the cabinet level mirror those that have been made in various key government departments.  On 15 March 2018, the ranking Democrats on the House of Representatives Government Reform Oversight committee and Committee on Foreign Affairs sent a letter to the Trump Administration demanding a response to the claims made by a whistleblower that systematic ‘cleansing’ of career staffers not thought ‘loyal’ enough to Trump.  The letter builds on reporting going back over a year of political interference in the staffing of non-political positions in various departments.  Taking political considerations into account in hiring, or in other personnel decisions, for career positions is illegal under US law.  This is a core principle that reinforces the independence and professionalism of career government employees found in all mature democracies.  But independence and professionalism are concepts not just lost on Trump the bullshit artist, but are completely at odds with his notion of the government as a private business run to his whim and direction.

There is no reason to think that such political interference has been limited to the State Department.  Not only did Trump and his advisors likely run afoul of US federal law in that chaotic period from the transition to the leaving of Reince Priebus, but the quality of the hacks, hangers-on, and supplicants involved suggests they weren’t even aware of the boundaries they were running up against – a combination of malfeasance and cluelessness that sets up perfectly for politically motivated decisions not just in the State Department but across the government. 

All this suggests that despite the normalization of the administrative chaos of Trumpocracy, there has been a slow but steady movement towards the kind of supporting cast of sycophants that Trump was used to in his business.  This is absolutely not a good development.  

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

George Nader's Cooperation Suggest a World of Trouble for Trump World

Why the George Nader story is potentially so significant

Over the past few days a number of details have emerged about the Mueller-led “Russia” investigation’s interest in the Trump campaign’s dealings in the middle-east, most particularly with the United Arab Emirates.  What does the UAE have to do with the Russia investigation?  Potentially quite a bit.  The direct tie is due to one George Nader, a Lebanese-American member of the Trump circus who seems to have been a quite active arranger for Trump and his family, particularly, Jared Kushner.  

According to New York Times reporting, Nader was returning to the US on 17 January, 2018, when he was met by FBI agents at Dulles airport with search warrants and a subpoena.  Nader was in transit to Florida for the celebration of Trump’s first year in office at Mar-a-Largo.  But he was stopped by the FBI, who confiscated all his electronics, questioned him at length and almost immediately turned him into a cooperating witness for the Mueller investigation.  He’s already made at least one appearance before Mueller’s grand jury.

The fact that the FBI apparently presented him with evidence against him serious enough to compel immediate cooperation suggests that Mueller’s team were not merely looking for further leads in their investigation.  Why might he be important enough to warrant such attention?   As both the Times and CNN have explained, Nader was a participant and perhaps even the convener of the Trump Transition team’s meeting in the Seychelles which brought together a representative of President Trump (Erik Prince) with representatives of both Russian President Putin and the government of the United Arab Emirates.  He continued to have on-going contact with the Trump White House.  Most importantly appears to have been an interlocutor with Jared Kushner in Kushner’s dealings with Gulf states, which connect up with Kushner family’s failed attempt to secure a loan from Qatar and subsequent Kushner green-lighting of the Saudi/UAE blockade of Qatar.  While the other Gulf states had their own clear motives for punishing Qatar, the fact the Kushner backed Qatar’s diplomatic isolation after failing to get money from its sovereign investment fund to bail-out his own family’s real estate debts, suggests a level of potential criminal corruption within the White House that is clearly legally actionable.  And Nader may well be a key witness in this particular focus of the investigation.  Mueller’s investigators are also reportedly examining whether Nader helped facilitate illegal transfers of foreign funds to the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.

The Nader story suggests that:

1. all those observers who have been saying that Mueller appears to be mainly pursuing an obstruction investigation against Trump rather than a collusion (or more accurately, a conspiracy against the United States) investigation are wrong.  Mueller seems to be pursuing very serious investigations into alleged crimes which have nothing to do with obstruction of justice on the part the President.  He is likely to be pursuing the obstruction angle as well, but those expressed fears/hopes that there was evidence of a pattern of obstruction but no evidence of the crimes that the obstruction was meant to hide, seem to me to be wrong.  Mueller is investigating both serious crimes and the subsequent conspiracy to hide them. 

2.  there are clearly sovereign actors involved in addition to Russia.  The UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey may all be involved, if not as primary actors than as targets or collateral damage – Qatar for instance, which Kushner tried to shakedown for a half billion or more to save his family business and the subsequent blockade by the rest of the Gulf states.  And Michael Flynn’s story is as tied to Turkey as it is Russia.  Thereare indications here that the Trump administrations actions in the Middle East,which we’ve known to involve Kushner’s money begging, are connected with Russia’s efforts to cultivate the Trump syndicate as well as interfere in the 2016 election.  Personally, I’ve been very skeptical of the maximal interpretations of the Qatar story which connects Kushner’s money troubles with Russia and the Steele Dossier.  But maybe there is something there: Mueller’s recent tack in the investigation suggests there might be.  

3.  Jared Kushner’s finances and activities are as much a part of this as Donald Trump’s and may go places even Trump did not.  Losing his security clearance might be the least of Kushner’s worries.

Friday, 16 February 2018

A thought about Mueller's Indictment of Russian interference in the American Election

The depth of detail in the indictment filed today by Mueller's Russian investigation team is quite amazing and should put to rest all but the most deluded conspiracy theorists about Russia's active interference campaign.  Its important to note that this indictment makes no claims about the impact of the campaign nor does it identify Americans as willing co-conspirators.  But the sheer amount of detail, and the fact that it is unlikely that the much of the evidence collected by Mueller's team is in this charge document, should make Trump and his gang even more nervous.  Because although this document might show "no collusion" there are plenty of indications within the indictment that the other shoe might well be dropping down the road.  As there is little chance that any of the named conspirators in the indictment will ever face US justice, this is a 'speaking indictment': it sets out a narrative of events onto which later pieces of the investigation will be mapped.  It provides a base to which other bad actors can be connected.

But clearly details are included or not included in this indictment for reasons we cannot know.  For instance, take a look at Item 81 in the indictment  (see below).  This item is part of a detailed chronology of events, and yet it doesn't quite fit.

Page 29
[The passage was highlighted and annotated by Josh Marshall in his column on Talking Points Memo].

What is described here is the updating of a list of US residents with who the defendants have been in contact and are working with Russian operatives (knowingly or not).  The inference is clear that it was created at some point in the past, and likely updated many times, possibly after this date.  But why is this update included in this very precise indictment?  Why is this important enough to be noted?

What else was happening in the Trump campaign around 24 August 2016?  Well a week before, Trump named Steve Bannon campaign CEO and Kellyanne Conway campaign manager. Bannon and Conway are close allies of Robert Mercer and Rebekah Mercer, who encouraged the use of the company Cambridge Analytica to micro-target political data on social media.  Also on 17 August, Trump received his first classified national security briefing from the US intelligence community.  The same day, Roger Stone famously tweeted: “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the barrel. #CrookedHillary.” Then on Aug. 21 Guccifer 2.0 posted hacked DCCC documents on Pennsylvania’s congressional primaries.  The next day Guccifer 2.0 uploaded almost 2.5 gigabytes of stolen documents — including the Democratic Party’s get-out-the-vote strategy for Florida.  In an interview with Breitbart Radio on 26 Aug. Roger Stone said “I’m almost confident Mr. Assange has virtually every one of the emails that the Clinton henchwomen, Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills, thought that they had deleted, and I suspect that he’s going to drop them at strategic times in the run-up to the rest of this race.” On 31 Aug. Guccifer 2.0 posted documents hacked from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s personal computer.    

So no obvious, direct, connections but a critical and busy point in the campaign, with some suggestive possible connections. I don't think the inclusion of this notice of an update of a list of Americans contacted to assist the Russian campaign in the indictment is of no consequence.  The Mueller investigators know a lot more than they are currently saying.  I expect that some of the people on that list will be important when Mueller's other shoe drops in the months to come.