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Sessions’ Testimony Smells Increasingly Fishy

[ 148 ] July 21, 2017 |

The Washington Post just published a story—although one based on the accounts of unnamed U.S. Officials—which you really need to go read. Here’s how it starts:

Russia’s ambassador to Washington told his superiors in Moscow that he discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow, with Jeff Sessions during the 2016 presidential race, contrary to public assertions by the embattled attorney general, according to current and former U.S. officials.

Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s accounts of two conversations with Sessions — then a top foreign policy adviser to Republican candidate Donald Trump — were intercepted by U.S. spy agencies, which monitor the communications of senior Russian officials both in the United States and in Russia. Sessions initially failed to disclose his contacts with Kislyak and then said that the meetings were not about the Trump campaign.

One U.S. official said that Sessions — who testified that he has no recollection of an April encounter — has provided “misleading” statements that are “contradicted by other evidence.” A former official said that the intelligence indicates that Sessions and Kislyak had “substantive” discussions on matters including Trump’s positions on Russia-related issues and prospects for U.S.-Russia relations in a Trump administration.

Sessions has said repeatedly that he never discussed campaign-related issues with Russian officials and that it was only in his capacity as a U.S. Senator that he met with Kislyak.

By the time this saga plays out, the number of dropped shoes will likely exceed the size of Imelda Marcos’ collection. Recall that Sessions actively volunteered in his confirmation hearings that he’d had no campaign-related contact with Russian officials.

Now, in of itself, discussing your campaign’s positions on a country with its ambassador doesn’t strike me as particularly problematic. The context, though… the context.

Although it remains unclear how involved Kislyak was in the covert Russian campaign to aid Trump, his superiors in Moscow were eager for updates about the candidate’s positions, particularly regarding U.S. sanctions on Russia and long-standing disputes with the Obama administration over conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

What did Sessions know. And when did he know it?

UPDATE: Apparently, those of you speculating that Trump’s behind this leak aren’t alone.

If true, it would fit a pattern of Trump’s complete inability to think strategically. The leak suggests that Trump knew the extent that his Attorney General had perjured himself; it provides additional evidence of questionable linkages between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Vindictive? Shortsighted? Sure. Why not?

Image by JonnyBrazil at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Global Kleptocracy and Luxury Real Estate: the World of Donald Trump

[ 3 ] July 15, 2017 |

Given recent developments in Trumpland, I decided to interview my friend and sometimes collaborator, Alex Cooley, for an episode of Foreign Entanglements. We discuss matters related to his recent co-authored bookDictators without Borders: Power and Money and Central Asia. These shed light on Trump’s business dealings, Trump-Russia connections, and some of the concerns that experts have about how Trump’s administration could damage the rule of law—not just in the United States, but globally.

I really encourage you to watch it, or listen to it in the background. Alex really knows what he’s talking about.

Where There’s Trump Smoke, There’s Likely Dumpster Fire

[ 50 ] July 13, 2017 |

 

To add context to my post from yesterday about Trump and corruption, go read Seva Gunitsky’s commentary on Twitter. It’s occasioned by a letter that Democratic House Judiciary members sent to Jeff Sessions, which demands to know why the Department of Justice suddenly—and unexpectedly—settled a Russian money-laundering case. A very quick summary:

Democratic congressmen on the House Judiciary Committee want to know why Attorney General Jeff Sessions abruptly settled a money laundering case in May involving the same Russian attorney who met with Donald Trump Jr. during the presidential election to offer “dirt” on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

The civil forfeiture case was filed in 2013 by Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York — who was fired by Trump in March. The case alleged that 11 companies were involved in a tax fraud in Russia and then laundered a portion of the $230 million they got into Manhattan real estate.

The forfeiture case was heralded at the time as “a significant step towards uncovering and unwinding a complex money laundering scheme arising from a notorious foreign fraud,” Bharara said. “As alleged, a Russian criminal enterprise sought to launder some of its billions in ill-gotten rubles through the purchase of pricey Manhattan real estate.”

But Instead of proceeding with the trial as scheduled, the Trump Justice Department settled the case two days before it was due to begin. By then, Bharara had already been axed by the president. Bharara’s assistant did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Seva’s thread contains links to article with more details, including the defense lawyer’s account of the surprise settlement as too good to refuse. It starts here:

We’ve spent decades being flooded by pseudo-scandals driven by right-wing media and politicians. We’ve seen the GOP base become convinced that the Obama Administration—which will likely be recognized as the cleanest administration in modern American history—was a wretched hive of scum and villainy. There’s reason to believe that the left is increasingly vulnerable to hucksters and conspiracy theorists when it comes to the Trump Administration. So I think we need to be careful about getting ahead of what we actually know, or can reasonably surmise.

But as Scott’s post reminds us, even what we know is all kinds of awful. There’s basically no way to game out the possibilities that doesn’t lead to a barrel of bad. And so it’s hard to ignore as set of dots here, and a set of dots there, connect up.

The revelations of the past few days put to rest any doubt about whether there’s fire within the smoke. Three senior members of the Trump campaign attempted to collude against Clinton with someone they believed to be brokering for the Russian government, and then lied about. The sequence of events makes it very hard to believe that the President didn’t know, and hasn’t been aggressive deceiving Americans, since during the campaign. More recently, the Trump White House concocted the cover story for Jr., and Trump approved it.  So the only question is how broad and how deep the blaze.

The trick now is not losing our minds.* Welcome to post-truth America.

*Well, okay. The real trick is how to prevent the destruction of American democracy, the gutting of social insurance, an accelerating transfer of wealth to the rich, foreign-policy disasters of various magnitudes, ethnocratic policies targeting vulnerable minorities, the rollback of LGBTQ and women’s rights, ecological collapse…. but not losing one’s mind is important too.

Image by NPS photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Trump told us exactly who he was

[ 84 ] July 12, 2017 |

Today CNN released a video footage of Donald Trump having dinner with some of the key players implicated in the latest iteration of the Trump-Russia collusion scandal.

The video shows the future President Donald Trump attending a dinner with an Azerbaijani-Russian family who became Trump’s business partners in Las Vegas in June 2013. It also shows their publicist, Rob Goldstone, who would later send Donald Trump Jr. the emails that have brought the eldest Trump son to the center of the controversy over possible collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russia.

It concludes:

Scott Balber, an attorney for the Agalarovs, also did not deny the closeness of the relationship between the Trumps and Agalarovs, instead raising a question about Goldstone’s credibility.

It’s simply fiction that this was some effort to create a conduit for information from the Russian federal prosecutors to the Trump campaign,” Balber said on CNN’s “New Day.” “It’s just fantasy world because the reality is if there was something important that Mr. Agalarov wanted to communicate to the Trump campaign, I suspect he could have called Mr. Trump directly as opposed to having his son’s pop music publicist be the intermediary.”

The video complicates, but does not actually disprove, Donald Jr.’s characterization of his relationship with Goldstone. But it is a graphic reminder of a basic fact: the GOP nominated, and then America elected, a shady, corrupt, marginally capable businessman for President of the United States.

Much of Trump’s career played out amongst mafia ties. It involved, at best, skirting the law, and rampant acts of legal and quasi-legal fraud. He wasn’t very good at it either. So when he went bankrupt and his dad’s money was no longer available to bail him out, he turned increasingly to corrupt, shady oligarchs in places like the former Soviet Union. This is a world of money laundering, rampant bribery, and collusion with kleptocratic government officials.

The thing is, Trump basically told us that he was corrupt. Repeatedly. It was part of his pitch for how he was an outsider with the inside knowledge to clean up “the swamp.”

Of course, it was pretty obvious to anyone not blinded by partisanship or Clinton-rage that Trump wouldn’t clean up Washington—that Trump would bring more, not less, corruption to the White House. Still, I think it is difficult for many Americans to wrap their minds around—or even really conceive of—the kinds of business practices and dealings Trump brings with him. My offline and online friends include many academics, journalists, and researchers with deep knowledge of the former Soviet Union, as well as other deeply corrupt parts of the world. They recognized Trump’s type, and what that implied for the United States.

I should try to put this in perspective. The United States suffers its share of corruption these days, especially in certain sectors in specific places. Yes, the political system is rigged in favor of the wealthy. Large donors get special influence in Washington. The United States has its share of corruption scandals large and small. But, generally speaking, Americans don’t have to pay bribes for normal, everyday transactions with the government or in the private sector. You can give loads of money to Harvard in exchange for admitting your under-qualified son, but that’s not how most people get into college.

Hilary Clinton’s speaking fees damaged her candidacy, but more through the impression that they ‘must have been after something’, when that something was likely, at worst, a bit of access. Whether in this context, or that of the Clinton Foundation, critics had to drum up an enormous amount of noise, and sometimes outright disinformation, to even create the sense of a possible quid pro quo. In many of the areas of the world that Trump and his clan scramble for money, and the circles they run in, such deals would be very well, and just the way that things are done.

In other words, Trump was already, by American standards, not exactly an ethical businessman. But then he plugged himself into an international web of financial crime, kleptocracy, and corruption. The campaign was full of people who shared those networks—or even spent a lot of time trying to break into them. Trump’s campaign wasn’t a magnet for these sorts because it lacked experience and because  the GOP policy bench shunned it, although that certainly contributed. It attracted them because they were in the same extended networks, and because the people at the heart of the campaign—most notably Trump himself—were cut from the same cloth.

So, in a sense, I’d like to believe that part of the problem is that most Americans simply lack any reference point. They think Washington is corrupt, but they have no idea what real kleptocracy actually looks like. And, every day, the Trump Administration further effaces the lines between governance and personal enrichment.

Even if Trump-Russia collusion amounted to nothing more than #fakenews, this is a hell of a lot of damage that Trump’s enablers in the right-wing media and in congress are inflicting upon the United States. It’s also the broader context for understanding what’s actually at stake when Ivanka Trump sits in for her father.

But, ultimately, we can’t separate this facet of Trumpism from the Russia collusion story. For one thing, the overtures and connections flowed from, and through, the business networks. For another, all of this—from Trump’s public statements about Russia during the campaign, to his firing of Comey, to his contempt for democratic norms and a free press—come from the same mentality.

The United States, Russia, and the 2016 Election

[ 289 ] June 23, 2017 |

The Washington Post has a comprehensive report on Russian electoral interference and the Obama Administration’s attempt to handle it without unduly interfering with the US election.

In political terms, Russia’s interference was the crime of the century, an unprecedented and largely successful destabilizing attack on American democracy. It was a case that took almost no time to solve, traced to the Kremlin through cyber-forensics and intelligence on Putin’s involvement. And yet, because of the divergent ways Obama and Trump have handled the matter, Moscow appears unlikely to face proportionate consequences.

Those closest to Obama defend the administration’s response to Russia’s meddling. They note that by August it was too late to prevent the transfer to WikiLeaks and other groups of the troves of emails that would spill out in the ensuing months. They believe that a series of warnings — including one that Obama delivered to Putin in September — prompted Moscow to abandon any plans of further aggression, such as sabotage of U.S. voting systems.

Denis McDonough, who served as Obama’s chief of staff, said that the administration regarded Russia’s interference as an attack on the “heart of our system.”

“We set out from a first-order principle that required us to defend the integrity of the vote,” McDonough said in an interview. “Importantly, we did that. It’s also important to establish what happened and what they attempted to do so as to ensure that we take the steps necessary to stop it from happening again.”

But other administration officials look back on the Russia period with remorse.

“It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend,” said a former senior Obama administration official involved in White House deliberations on Russia. “I feel like we sort of choked.”

You need to read the report now. And then take a look at Thomas Rid’s series of Tweets on the cyber side of the equation.


To the extent that the report is accurate, it reinforces a number of important domestic and international political themes.

First, Moscow clearly believed that electing Trump, or at least weakening Clinton and faith in the US electoral system, served Russian interests. Of course, we already know this. But the length’s that Moscow was willing to, including tampering with the mechanics of the election process, should remove any doubts about the seriousness of the situation. For scholars and analysts, this means waking up to the degree that power politics are about far more than military and economic interests. But in terms of immediate US national interests, it highlights just how damaging Trump’s dispositions are to American security.

The reasons why Moscow preferred Trump over Clinton, and saw even a continuation of Obama foreign policy as a threat, are rooted in a desire to destabilize institutions and arrangements that have overall served the United States, and its allies, very well. It’s easy to dismiss the #neverTrump wing of the Republican foreign-policy establishment as neoconservatives overly prone to military adventures—because it’s generally true. But where neoconservatives, liberal hawks, and progressives should agree is in the desirability of the basic infrastructure—however in need of reform—of the liberal order.

Second, it should not require much elaboration to note the insanity of far-right fantasies concerning the Obama administration’s willingness to manipulate the political process in ways that undermine democracy. Ample evidence, even before the details of this story (again, if true), suggests that Obama and his advisors were far too cautious—and too concerned wth not putting their thumbs on the scale.

Third, we are facing a national emergency when it comes to the electoral process. The Obama Administration believes that it deterred much worse than classic information warfare. What will a Trump administration do? So far, they are attempting to weaken the sanctions voted on by the Senate. This should not bring comfort.

This goes far beyond coercive diplomacy. We can’t ‘slow walk’ the investigation into electoral meddling, and we need to throw serious resources behind electoral integrity measures designed, first and foremost, to secure the voting system. My gut instinct: this requires moving to paper ballots and rethinking how we secure voter rolls.

The second concern is how to cope with Russian information warfare. Here, the GOP is stuck in a political, but not a moral, vise. The marriage between right-wing media and foreign information warfare—both in form and content—serves Republican interests. It helped, at least at the margins, elect Donald Trump. But don’t think that the left doesn’t—or won’t—face a similar problem. We already saw this surrounding the Clinton-Sanders primary battle. In an era of intense political polarization, it’s going to be very hard to push back against disinformation that proves electorally useful. Over twenty years of embracing domestic disinformation laid the groundwork for extreme vulnerability.

Fourth, what does this mean for progressive policy toward Russia? I’ve spent many years trying to navigate between, on the one hand, a clear-eyed assessment of the clash between American and Russian interests and, on the other hand, a strong desire to avoid a new “Cold War.” When I volunteered as part of the unofficial Sanders foreign-policy cell, the course seemed clear: our bright line should be NATO allies. Regardless of whether NATO expansion was a good idea, the United States has an overriding interest in the security of our NATO partners. Ukraine, for its part, required a balancing act. Again, regardless of American mistakes, we needed a calibrated approach that did not recognize the legitimacy of, or facilitate, Russian efforts in Ukraine while also keeping in mind that Ukraine is not worth war with Russia. So, when it looked like Clinton would win the election, this meant progressives needed to prepare themselves for criticizing overly aggressive moves by a future Clinton administration.

Now, I just don’t know. I still worry about the risks of pushing the geostrategic relationship in overly confrontational ways. Indeed, the Trump administration seems to be sleepwalking into very dangerous territory in Syria, behaving schizophrenically toward NATO, and sending rather mixed signals about the overall relationship, This lack of obvious policy coordination at work here—and overall ambiguity it creates in the relationship—might prove the most dangerous of the possible approaches. It creates very significant risks of miscalculation. But it’s clear that the default position among too many progressives—of dismissing attention to Russia’s role in 2016 as ‘McCarthyism’, or seeing it purely through the lens of left-liberal policy fights—is hopelessly naïve.

I hate to be that person, but this is my bottom line: it’s all bad.

Foreign Entanglements: Russia Edition

[ 21 ] April 1, 2017 |

I’m sorry that I haven’t been posting lately. Lots of travel and work. But I do have a shiny new episode of Foreign Entanglements—yes, I’ve joined the masthead there and thereby moved forward Rob’s plans for total LGM domination—in which I talk with Yuval Weber about Russia, Trump, and Syria. And yes, I can’t figure out how to embed the new video player.

Bonus: the roundtable that led me to ask Yuval to be my first guest on the channel.

…Update by Rob: Here we go!

Area Man, Come Undone by Trump’s Election, Accuses Democrats of Coming Undone by Trump’s Election. And by “Area Man,” I mean “Glenn Greenwald”

[ 271 ] March 9, 2017 |

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I’ve been a member of the Lawyers, Guns and Money team for some months now, and yet I believe that I’ve written only one post criticizing Glenn Greenwald. As I’m clearly not meeting my quota, I need to say a few word about this particular monstrosity that he offered up on Monday.

One of the most bizarre aspects of the all-consuming Russia frenzy is the Democrats’ fixation on changes to the RNC platform concerning U.S. arming of Ukraine. The controversy began in July when the Washington Post reported that “the Trump campaign worked behind the scenes last week to make sure the new Republican platform won’t call for giving weapons to Ukraine to fight Russian and rebel forces.”

Ever since then, Democrats have used this language change as evidence that Trump and his key advisers have sinister connections to Russians and corruptly do their bidding at the expense of American interests. Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke for many in his party when he lambasted the RNC change in a July letter to the New York Times, castigating it as “dangerous thinking” that shows Trump is controlled, or at least manipulated, by the Kremlin. Democrats resurrected this line of attack this weekend when Trump advisers acknowledged that campaign officials were behind the platform change.

This attempt to equate Trump’s opposition to arming Ukraine with some sort of treasonous allegiance to Putin masks a rather critical fact: namely, that the refusal to arm Ukraine with lethal weapons was one of Barack Obama’s most steadfastly held policies.

I can’t wait until Greenwald writes a column explaining how hypocritical and bizarre it is that the same people who want legal marijuana have a problem with murderous drug cartels making a profit from selling it.

I’m not a Greenwald fan. Still,  I never realized he has so much contempt for the intelligence of his readers. I imagine—although I don’t know, and neither does Greenwald—that the majority of Democrats supported Obama’s caution in providing lethal aid to Ukraine. I also imagine that most Democrats are outraged because we don’t think presidential candidates should trade important national-security decisions for favorable electoral interference from foreign dictators. This really isn’t a tough one.

But wait, there’s more….

In short order, Greenwald quotes a Politico story quoting an un-named “disaffected” Obama appointment who draws a comparison between Obama’s Reset and Trump foreign policy. He writes:

In other words, Democrats are now waging war on, and are depicting as treasonous, one of Barack Obama’s central and most steadfastly held foreign policy positions, one that he clung to despite attacks from leading members of both parties as well as the DC National Security Community. That’s not Noam Chomsky drawing that comparison; it’s an Obama appointee.

As luck would have it, I’m taking part in a panel on the Reset tomorrow in New York. This is hogwash. Obama never intended to pursue a ‘grand bargain’ at the expense of NATO and the liberal order. The Reset never envisioned a grand ideological war against Islam in which the US and Russia worked as close partners. Nor did the Obama Administration want to ‘turn’ Russia to pursue hostilities with China. I think the chances of the Trump Administration accomplishing either of these thing are slim, but they reflect a radically different geostrategic outlook and understanding of US-Russian relations.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not terribly hawkish on Russia. But I am capable of updating my priors in light of new information. This isn’t crass partisanship. It’s what human beings who care about facts and stuff do. Anyway, whatever the ultimate cause of their behavior, Moscow has found a mechanism—information warfare deployed in electoral politics—for undermining liberal democracy in the Euro-Atlantic zone. Democrats need to take that fact very seriously when considering Russia policy. What we can’t do is, per Greenwald, reduce the debate to a choice between ‘American warmongering hawks’ and ‘apologists for Russian imperialism.’ If you think my characterization is too strong, read this:

Put another way, establishment Democrats – with a largely political impetus but now as a matter of conviction – have completely abandoned Obama’s accommodationist approach to Russia and have fully embraced the belligerent, hawkish mentality of John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Bill Kristol, the CIA and Evan McMullin. It should thus come as no surprise that a bill proposed by supreme warmonger Lindsey Graham to bar Trump from removing sanctions against Russia has more Democratic co-sponsors than Republican ones.

Do you feel that? That’s the feeling of whiplash. This bill prevents Trump from unilaterally lifting sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration as part of its response to, first, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and, second, Moscow’s interference in the US election. But wait, you say, didn’t Greenwald open by arguing that Democrats have gone insane because they don’t support Obama policies toward Russia? Why yes. Yes he did.

I can’t help thinking that we’re watching Greenwald’s own psychodrama play out at The Intercept. He knows that he did his part, no matter how small, to help elect Trump. He knows that he’s been carrying water—I assume unintentionally—for authoritarian regimes. And, indeed, it doesn’t take long to see the effects in action:

This is why it’s so notable that Democrats, in the name of “resistance,” have aligned with neocons, CIA operatives and former Bush officials: not because coalitions should be avoided with the ideologically impure, but because it reveals much about the political and policy mindset they’ve adopted in the name of stopping Trump. They’re not “resisting” Trump from the left or with populist appeals – by, for instance, devoting themselves to protection of Wall Street and environmental regulations under attack, or supporting the revocation of jobs-killing free trade agreements, or demanding that Yemini civilians not be massacred.

The fact that Greenwald can’t be bothered to pay attention to what the vast majority of actual Democratic politicians are doing, or how they’re voting, when it comes to these issues is no excuse for stupid. The fact that Greenwald has clearly never been to a rally where liberals and left-wingers join together to protest Trump’s Islamophobic  policies, his assault on the environment, and his pro-corporate policies is no excuse for stupid. The fact that virtually all of these regulatory changes—or proposed policy changes—are things that Hillary Clinton would’ve prevented is no excuse for stupid. The fact that the Democratic party moved in a protectionist direction during this election, and that Greenwald is objectively wrong about the likely economic consequences of revoking existing trade deals, is no excuse for stupid. And hey, is it remotely possible that opposition to Trump might make a difference with respect to US policy toward Yemen? Maybe, maybe not. But it is certainly the case that, back in September, over half the Democratic members of the Senate supplied almost all of the votes against a large military aid package to Saudi Arabia.

Back to the ratcheting rhetorical fervor:

Instead, they’re attacking him on the grounds of insufficient nationalism, militarism, and aggression: equating a desire to avoid confrontation with Moscow as a form of treason (just like they did when they were the leading Cold Warriors). This is why they’re finding such common cause with the nation’s most bloodthirsty militarists – not because it’s an alliance of convenience but rather one of shared convictions (indeed, long before Trump, neocons were planning a re-alignment with Democrats under a Clinton presidency). And the most ironic – and over-looked – aspect of this whole volatile spectacle is how much Democrats have to repudiate and demonize one of Obama’s core foreign policy legacies while pretending that they’re not doing that.

Say what you want about neoconservatives, but they recognized three things about Trump.

  • That he is completely unqualified to be President.
  • That he would undermine national security by doing stupid, and often racist, stuff.
  • That he poses an existential threat to not only the US, but the western democratic order.

This is pretty important stuff. And while Greenwald is busy positioning himself to the left of Noam Chomsky, I just want to point out that Trump does not, in fact, promise less militarism than the Clinton wing of the Democratic party. He just would like to pursue more war-crime-y and more crypto-fascist-y militarism.

In conclusion, we all make mistakes. I think Greenwald would be happier, and a good deal less ridiculous, if he just owned his.

The Trump Administration: Restoring Integritude to the White House

[ 51 ] February 23, 2017 |

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On the plus side, the FBI rejected the request. On the massively minus side, the White House violated long-standing restrictions designed to protect ongoing investigations.

The FBI rejected a recent White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump’s associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign, multiple US officials briefed on the matter tell CNN.

But a White House official said late Thursday that the request was only made after the FBI indicated to the White House it did not believe the reporting to be accurate White House officials had sought the help of the bureau and other agencies investigating the Russia matter to say that the reports were wrong and that there had been no contacts, the officials said. The reports of the contacts were first published by The New York Times and CNN on February 14.

It gets better:

The White House initially disputed that account, saying that McCabe called Priebus early that morning and said The New York Times story vastly overstates what the FBI knows about the contacts. But a White House official later corrected their version of events to confirm what the law enforcement official described. The same White House official said that Priebus later reached out again to McCabe and to FBI Director James Comey asking for the FBI to at least talk to reporters on background to dispute the stories. A law enforcement official says McCabe didn’t discuss aspects of the case but wouldn’t say exactly what McCabe told Priebus

No, of course we don’t need to worry about the ghost of Richard Nixon haunting the White House. Why would you ask?

Extra special bonus: listen to Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka make an unhinged phone call to Michael S. Smith II (via Pejman Yousefzadeh). Really, listen to all twenty-some minutes. It isn’t just that Gorka’s an unqualified hack and a charlatan, it’s also his pseudo-academic bluster. Gorka sounds like someone trying really, really hard to come across as a Deep Thinker™️ and scholar in an attempt an intellectual dominance. He fails.

The National Security Council as Canary in the White House

[ 56 ] February 18, 2017 |

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If you’re on Twitter, you should be following Colin Kahl’s feed. Not only was Colin the Deputy National Security Advisor under Obama—and therefore knows stuff—but he was also involved in the transition process, which gives him insights into the workings of this rather opaque and unusual White House.

This morning—as I learned from Cheryl Rofer— he tweeted about Russia, the National Security Council (NSC), and Bannon’s “Strategic Initiatives Group.

As Colin points out, none of this is likely. None of it makes much sense. Russia can’t do much to help counterbalance China. Putin’s unlikely to make concessions of the kind that would make any of this remotely worthwhile. What he doesn’t mention is that it is far from obvious whether Moscow can credibly commit to uphold any grand bargain. It would take enormous skill and planning to proceed in a way that doesn’t set the United States up for massive failure.

Yet here we are, with Trump defaulting back to his campaign rhetoric on Russia and standing by while Putin probes American resolve by buzzing our naval vessels and making a push in Ukraine. .

Colin goes on to lay out two possible reasons for the Trump Administration’s continued folly.

On the one hand, the preferences of the American ethno-nationalist right—particularly its opposition to the European Union and liberal order—align with Russia’s. We might call this the “elective affinity” story. It’s been my default understanding of why elements within the Trump Administration seem determined to undermine US power and influence.

On the other hand, this all amounts to  a “quid pro quo” for Russian assistance in the election. Such a scenario also raises questions of kompromat and other, more complicated, explanations. Regardless of how far down the rabbit hole one prefers to go, it seems increasingly likely that we’re looking at, if nothing else, tacit collusion between members of the Trump campaign and Russian agents.

Of course, neither is exclusive. Some kind of elective affinity—or, at least, shared interests—helps makes sense of why Moscow sought to influence the election in the first place.

Setting aside the “why” for a moment, the possibility of a parallel decision-making structure—let alone one headed by Bannon—making policy should worry everyone. It creates serious concerns about accountability. And it suggests that other national-security principals on the NSC—such as Secretary of Defense Mattis—may prove unable to counterbalance Bannon, Miller, and other ideologues.

Indeed, the evidence suggests that—at least for now—there’s little hope that any “adults” are going to come in and really limit the damage. I still have difficult wrapping my head around the extent of the calamity we now face. The last time someone used American foreign policy as a demonstration of dubious ideological beliefs, the United States invaded Iraq. Hundreds of thousands died. The fallout continues to rock the Middle East. Yet, somehow, the infrastructure of American security survived. Now we have a cabal of white nationalist bloggers intent on correcting that state of affairs.

There is, of course, another possible outcome. Faced with mounting political pressure at home, the Trump Administration swings to a hardline stance on Moscow. Even if it doesn’t overcompensate in dangerous ways—which I think not unlikely—I can imagine of all kinds of reasons why such radically inconsistent signals would prove destabilizing.

McCain can give all the speeches he wants to. The President enjoys enormous discretion on foreign policy and national security, and it requires a very committed legislative branch to put a dent in that discretion. So here we are.

No, it Really is that Bad

[ 208 ] February 16, 2017 |

Crisis

My default blogging mode is pretty snarky. I guess, in that respect, I’m an old-school academic blogger. The common approach now seems to be professional and scholarly. But sometimes it’s appropriate to set aside the snark—not in favor of scholarly detachment, but to articulate warranted fears.

The United States is facing a major institutional crisis.

While at least some of the leaks we’re seeing about the Trump Administration emanate from factions within the White House, others are coming from the professional civil service—most notably the intelligence community. All of these leaks suggest a White House plagued by incompetence, insularity, and paranoia.

People are searching for scapegoats. But the Cossacks work for the Czar and a fish rots from it’s head down. Trump, as E.J. Dionne wrote yesterday, is simply “unfit to serve.” It’s not just the leaks that suggest this. It’s what we witnessed, through the eyes of patrons paying for access, at Mar-a-Lago. It’s the unhinged Tweets through which Trump riles up his supporters, disrupts diplomacy, and showcases his authoritarian dispositions. It’s a senior White House advisor channeling Carl Schmitt while he reads from cue cards on national television.

But the leaks are, in fact, at the heart of the current crisis. Various conservatives claim that this is a war of the “deep state” against a ‘change agent.’ Some argue that that the revelations about Flynn were a dead-hand effort by the Obama Administration to save the Iran nuclear-weapons deal. This is a profound misreading of many things, including what an actual deep state looks like. But it’s how dysfunction and civil-service blowback play out in a highly polarized environment.

Indeed, some GOP officials are doing their best to avoid serious oversight. Representative Jason Chaffetz has signaled a preference for going after those leaking information. The House GOP voted against even closed-door evaluations of Trump’s tax returns. Because, GOP officials claimed, it would create a slippery slope.

This may be the “standard playbook” with unified government, but nothing is “standard” about the current moment.

Democrats, in general, see the leaks as the only way to get to the truth given Republican and White House intransigence. Many key disclosures have come in the wake of Trump administration falsehoods, or attacks on the intelligence community. The difficulty here is simple. There’s nothing “good” about the status quo. Members of the civil service should not be at war with a new administration. Members of the civil service should not have to be at war with a new administration. And recall that Trump played a major role in starting this conflict by making clear that his priors—and need to avoid cognitive dissonance—take precedence over US intelligence findings.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that Trump wants to put a completely unqualified loyalist in charge of a “review” of the intelligence community.

Bringing Mr. Feinberg into the administration to conduct the review is seen as a way of injecting a Trump loyalist into a world the White House views with suspicion. But top intelligence officials fear that Mr. Feinberg is being groomed for a high position in one of the intelligence agencies.

Mr. Bannon and Mr. Kushner, according to current and former intelligence officials and Republican lawmakers, had at one point considered Mr. Feinberg for either director of national intelligence or chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine service, a role that is normally reserved for career intelligence officers, not friends of the president. Mr. Feinberg’s only experience with national security matters is his firm’s stakes in a private security company and two gun makers.

This kind of action would look strange—even foolish—in normal times. In the Trump administration, it seems downright sinister. Multiple press outlets report that long-standing communication between Trump advisors and Russian agents goes well beyond Flynn. While defenders focus on the lack of evidence of active collusion, this is a bit of a red herring, especially. but not only, given that Trump publicly called for Russia to help defeat Clinton.

Beyond that, we have many reasons to believe that Trump’s business interests are becoming intertwined with the Presidency. Not simply in the form of crass moves to “cash in,” such as hiking the price of Mar-a-Lago membership or trying to assist Ivanka Trump’s line of apparel, but in the kind of ways that affect US national security.

These operations reflect a serious breakdown in the long-standing faith in the direction of American policy by some of the country’s most important allies. Worse, the United States is now in a situation that may be unprecedented—where European governments know more about what is going on in the executive branch than any elected American official. To date, the Republican-controlled Congress has declined to conduct hearings to investigate the links between Trump’s overseas business partners and foreign governments, or the activities between Russia and officials in the Trump campaign and administration—the very areas being examined by the intelligence services of at least two American allies.

Some details about Trump’s business partners were passed to the American government months ago. For example, long before the president’s inauguration, German electronic surveillance determined that the father of Trump’s Azerbaijani business partner is a government official who laundered money for the Iranian military; that information was shared with the CIA, according to a European source with direct knowledge of the situation.

Of equal concern to our allies is Trump’s business partner in the Philippines, who is also the special representative to Washington of that country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte. This government official, Jose E.B. Antonio, is the head of Century Properties, which in turn is a partner with the president’s business in the construction of Trump Tower at Century City in Makati, Philippines. According to people with direct knowledge of the situation, a European intelligence service has obtained the contracts and other legal documents in the deal between the Trump Organization and Antonio. That deal has already resulted in large payments to Trump’s business, with millions of dollars more on the way—all coming from an agent of the Philippine president.

The financial relationship between an American president and the Philippine government comes at a time when the historic alliance between the West and the Southeast Asian country is under great stress. Since the election last year of Duterte, a campaign of slaughter has gripped the Philippines, with death squads murdering thousands of suspected drug users in the streets. The carnage, which intelligence officials have concluded is being conducted with Duterte’s involvement, has been condemned throughout the Western world; the Parliament of the European Union and two United Nations human rights experts have urged Duterte to end the massacre.

There are a number of directions all of this could go. Consider three broad possibilities.

In the first, things worsen. The damage to the United States—at home and abroad—proves profound. One scenario: continued disruption and paralysis, while Trump enriches himself. This results, whether in 2018 or 2020, in sufficient Democratic victories for deadlock, investigations, and other forms of ‘harm mitigation.’ Another possibility is a slide toward soft authoritarianism, starting with the eviscerating of the intelligence community and spreading into other branches of the civil service. As we jump from shock to shock, Trump, as well as Bannon, Miller, and other loyalists, ratchets up the threat level—for example, they scapegoat Muslim Americans, engage in diversionary uses of force, launch investigations against their opponents—until we reach an inflection point. Then, who knows?

In the second, things get better’ Adults take firm control over the National Security Council. Eventually, Trump’s inner circle decides that they need seasoned hands to oversee the White House. We get an increasingly normal Republican administration, albeit with a Justice Department more committed than any before to rolling back civil and voting rights. Perhaps the economy is doing well enough that Trump wins a second term, and the GOP becomes increasingly “Trumpist”—but that Trumpism looks not all that different from where the GOP was in the first place.

The third looks like the second, but is really a variation of the first. That is, the adults solve the day-to-day competency problem, but can’t ameliorate the fundamental dispositions of Trump and his inner circle. So we get kleptocracy, ethno-nationalist governance, and much greater democratic backsliding—but with trappings that make it possible to attract a stable plurality, or majority, of support.

Regardless of how we look back at this period in four years, we should not forget that, right now, on Day 26 of the Trump administration, American democratic institutions are in crisis. We need to mobilize, and organize, to defend them. We must demand oversight, and we must demand that the public learn to what degree this smoke hides raging fires.

The “Burn Our Own House Down” Grand Strategy

[ 80 ] January 22, 2017 |

By MSgt Christopher DeWitt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I have a piece in today’s Newsday on the swirling fog around Trump foreign policy. LGM regulars won’t see much new in it, but I do talk briefly about states that might be more optimistic about changes in U.S. foreign relation.

Only moderately less worrisome for U.S. allies is the proposition that Trump and his national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, intend a geopolitical diplomatic revolution — one in which the United States leaves NATO to twist in the wind while it pursues a grand bargain with Moscow. Trump articulates a substantially different understanding of U.S. partnerships — as short-term transactions — than has dominated thinking among both mainstream Republicans and Democrats for decades. He seems to view long-standing democratic allies mostly as trade rivals, while flirting with less stable, less democratic regimes.

You can find similar themes in a recent article by Stan Sloan in the Diplomatic Courier.

Speaking of which, there’s a bill in Congress to withdraw from the United Nations. I doubt that it makes it out of the House, let alone the Senate, and I’m skeptical that even the Trump Administration would sign it. But the chances that something like will succeed are higher than they’ve been in decades.

Paul Musgrave has a good series of tweets running through the issue.

 


Anyway, you can go read the rest yourself. Definitely worth your time.

Trump Endorses American Geopolitical Suicide

[ 335 ] January 15, 2017 |

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Apparently Donald Trump wants to destroy reorganize the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), sees the European Union (EU) as a competitor, and thinks that Germany is an enemy of the United States:

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump called NATO obsolete, predicted that other European Union members would follow the U.K. in leaving the bloc and threatened BMW with import duties over a planned plant in Mexico, according to an interview with Germany’s Bild newspaper that will raise concerns in Berlin over trans-Atlantic relations.

Quoted in German from a conversation held in English, Trump predicted Britain’s exit from the EU will be a success and portrayed the EU as an instrument of German domination with the purpose of beating the U.S. in international trade. For that reason, Trump said, he’s fairly indifferent whether the EU breaks up or stays together, according to Bild.

Trump’s reported comments leave little doubt that he will stick to campaign positions and may in some cases upend decades of U.S. foreign policy, putting him fundamentally at odds with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on issues from free trade and refugees to security and the EU’s role in the world. On Russia, he suggested he might use economic sanctions imposed for Vladimir Putin’s encroachment on Ukraine as leverage in nuclear-arms reduction talks, while NATO, he said, “has problems.”

“It’s obsolete, first because it was designed many, many years ago,” Trump was quoted as saying about the trans-Atlantic military alliance. “Secondly, countries aren’t paying what they should” and NATO “didn’t deal with terrorism.”

Garry Kasparov sums this up rather succinctly:

 

And, as we all know, there’s never a better time to disrupt long-standing alliances and institutions than while deliberately increasing tensions with your only potential peer competitor.

Just to keep track, Trump has now gone from saying that the US should expand its nuclear arsenal to suggesting that he would use a nuclear arms-control agreement as a pretext for lifting sanctions on Russia economic sanctions on Russia as a ‘lever’ for a nuclear arms-control agreement. Mattis and Tillerson both pledged support for NATO and condemned Russian efforts to attack the liberal order; a few days later our soon-to-be President went back to bashing the alliance and promising to make nice with Russia. Even if you believe that the inertia of alliances, the so-called ‘deep state’, and cooler heads will prevail, this is all extremely dangerous stuff. The incoming Trump administration is sending radically inconsistent signals on the American commitment to defend allies. This creates significant risks of miscalculation and escalation.

And what if the United States does nothing in the face of such a probe?

 

 

Beyond these concerns, what Trump proposes is, per the title, geopolitical suicide: trade conflicts with one of our most important allies, attempting to facilitate the dissolution of the European Union—which Russia views as a competitor for influence and a threatening force for political liberalization—and assaulting a critical American alliance already facing difficult challenges. Make no mistake: you should be very worried right now.

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