Tag: Russia

Back channels

Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and key adviser, is reported to have tried to set up a secret “back channel” with the Russians, using Russian communications and circumventing US intelligence agencies and the National Security Council. Is there something wrong with that?

Not necessarily. The president can set up pretty much any channel he wants. President Obama set up a secret channel with Cuba in preparation for normalizing diplomatic relations. He also set up a secret channel with Iran in preparation for the nuclear deal. Both these were kept hidden not only from the American people, but also from most of the bureaucracy, in particular much of the State Department. I don’t know about the intelligence agencies. It’s not smart to try to keep anything from them, as they may well pick up traces of it and blow a back channel the president values.

First problem: Trump wasn’t yet president when Kushner’s effort allegedly took place in early December. That makes it more analogous to the allegations against Ronald Reagan, who some allege encouraged the Iranians via a back channel to hold on to the American hostages captured in 1979 until he took the oath of office in January 1980. Those allegations have not been proven.

Second problem: It is illegal for US citizens to negotiate with foreign powers in a dispute with the United States, but the 1799 Logan Act has only once led to an indictment and no one has been successfully prosecuted. So that is an unlikely legal course of action, especially as the Russians seem to have rejected Kushner’s overture, unless the overture itself is regarded as the opening of a negotiation.

Third problem: A lot will depend on what Kushner wanted to use the channel for. Many of us–I count myself in this category–are coming to believe that both Kushner’s companies and Trump’s are heavily dependent on Russian investment in, and purchases of, real estate. I’m no lawyer, but my understanding is that American companies are required to do due diligence on investors and purchasers to ensure that their assets are not derived from criminal activity. Clean Russian assets of the size Trump needed after his bankruptcies, and that Kushner needed for his big deals, have got to be pretty rare.

So questions become: was the due diligence adequate? If not, were the Russians blackmailing Kushner or Trump, thus making a secret communications channel desirable even before January 20? Was the back channel being set up to negotiate improved conditions for Kushner or Trump companies, perhaps in exchange for support for Russian ambitions in Ukraine or Syria once Trump was in office? There are many other possibilities, but few of them are savory and some of them are downright malevolent. All are speculative and unproven at this point.

Fourth problem: Now that a serious Special Counsel has been appointed, we can expect the FBI to examine Trump’s and Kushner’s personal and campaign finances with a fine tooth comb. Trump will react to that angrily, obfuscating where he can and trying to disrupt and divert the investigation by throwing in other issues, in particular the leaks that Trump seems unable to stop despite his many threats. The effort at coverup may turn out to be just as important as the intended uses of the back channel. That’s certainly what happened in the Watergate case: the break-in was a problem, but the cover-up was a full-blown crisis that would have led to impeachment, hence Nixon’s resignation.

Nothing can lead to impeachment so long as the House Republicans remain loyal to a president they dislike and even despise. There is no telling how long that will last, but the smart money is betting at least through the 2018 election. It is just impossible to predict which straw will break the camel’s back. In Bill Clinton’s case, it was lying about Monica Lewinski, after years of far more serious allegations (none of which panned out). Trump has already survived far more than anyone would have predicted. He may well survive much more.

Or not. No telling. But Kushner’s back channel isn’t going away any time soon.



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It’s not going to be easy

Iran Friday re-elected President Rouhani, who pressed for and got a nuclear deal with the P5+1 (that’s the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany, aka the EU3+3), with approval from the Supreme Leader. During his electoral campaign, Rouhani prioritized market reforms, negotiation of further sanctions relief, attracting foreign investment, and an enhanced regional and international presence for Iran.

Rouhani’s chief opponent was hard-nosed conservative Ebrahim Raisi, who wanted to close off Iran from further cooperation with the international community and build its “resistance” economy. Adopting a populist tone, he promised an increase in welfare benefits and subsidies. Implicated in the 1988 mass execution of thousands of prisoners, Raisi is “the true face of the Islamic Republic,” according to Elliot Abrams.

Iranians rejected that true face: Raisi lost by 19 percentage points, in an election that reportedly drew 70% turnout. Though far from free and fair, since candidates were vetted and many eliminated by the Guardian Council, that’s a definitive result, especially as there were two additional candidates. The Supreme Leader may be delighted that Iranians returned to the polls and did not boycott or otherwise protest too much, as they did in 2009. He may even be satisfied with Rouhani, who is no liberal but rather a stalwart of the regime who attracted support from would-be reformers because of the nuclear deal and the opening to the international community. But Iranians are clearly dissatisfied with clerical domination and isolation from the rest of the world.

Should Americans be happy with the election result or not?

Elliot preferred Raisi, as the human rights situation in Iran has not improved during Rouhani’s presidency and Tehran has become bolder in intervening in the region. The interventions in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have not been a big strain. Iranians would have been far more likely to rebel against Raisi than Rouhani, and the international community far more ready to act. President Trump aligned with that view during his visit to Riyadh, when he backed the Saudis and their effort to organize the Sunni world to counter not only terrorism but also Iran. Confrontation, not Obama’s rapprochement, is now American policy.

Others think Iran is drifting in a more liberal, less religiously conservative direction that should be encouraged, not discouraged. Confrontation will make moderation less likely. Iranians seem to want pretty much what people in the West want: equality of opportunity, transparency, fairness, and rule of law. They oppose the corruption and cronyism that have become endemic in finance and the bureaucracy. Sharia has evaporated. The ideology of the Islamic Republic is fading. Few women are wearing even the hijab.

Of course both views can be correct: the hard core of the regime remains very much in place. Rouhani likely does have a better chance of extending its life than a hardliner like Raisi. But if the people of Iran see only hostile words and new sanctions, how likely are they to warm to the West?

Russia is the alternative, one with which Tehran has been developing stronger ties, especially in Syria. The Iranians like what they have seen of Russian weapons, even if the Russians think the Iranians militarily inept. Their marriage is one of convenience, not a real alliance, but effective enough on the battlefield in Syria. No divorce is likely. New sanctions on Iran, which Congress is contemplating, would not only drive Iranians towards Moscow but also split the Europeans from the US, as they want to continue doing business in Iran.

Iran’s growing power projection capabilities complicate the issue for Washington. Tehran has developed longer-range missiles (up to 4000 km) but has not yet much improved their accuracy. Intended primarily for use against Israel, the missiles can frighten a civilian population but cannot reliably hit military targets. Iran’s Shia militia proxies have strengthened over the past five years, including not only Lebanese Hizbollah but also Popular Mobilization Forces from Iraq and other groups from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Having been attacked by Stuxnet, Iran has quickly acquired cyber warfare and drone capabilities. All these capabilities are relatively inexpensive, difficult to counter, and readily deployed.

Like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Trump has gone from a diehard opponent of the nuclear deal to its de facto strong supporter. The Trump Administration would like to renegotiate it so that the restraints on Iran’s nuclear program do not expire. It is not, however, clear what the Administration is prepared to offer in return, or even what would be attractive to Tehran. Trump would have to do more to open US financial markets to the Iranians, or somehow get the Europeans to join in new sanctions, in order to get the better nuclear deal he promised during his campaign. What are the odds of that?

The bottom line: Washington needs to learn to do more than one thing at a time: keep the nuclear deal in place (or even extend it), counter Iranian trouble-making in the region, and encourage the Iranian people to moderate their Republic’s commitment to exporting revolution using its unconventional but economical capabilities. It’s not going to be easy.

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All presidential visits are shows. Host governments do their best to demonstrate to their visitor the best they have to offer, which may or may not correspond to what the president appreciates. The Italians thought the perfect show for Bush 41 would be a performance of Rigoletto, but he declined. That left lots of seats for Embassy Rome, which occupied them happily.

The Saudis have read President Trump far better than the Italians read 41. His face was plastered on the facade of his hotel, King Salman gave him a gold medal right off, and he even appears to have half-enjoyed the all male dancing:

The Kingdom’s unelected rulers are delighted to welcome a president who won’t bug them about democracy or human rights, governs with a tight coterie of family members, and will sell mountains of arms without asking a lot of questions about how they will be used in Yemen. It’s not the America I know and love, but it is definitely one an absolute monarchy can understand and appreciate.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Trump’s administration is enmired in House, Senate and FBI investigations of what is proving to be an extensive network of connections to Russia. He himself confirmed to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov that he fired FBI Director Comey in order to relieve pressure from those investigations. That is as close to the dictionary definition of obstruction of justice as anyone would want to get.

Now it is believed his son-in-law Jared Kushner is a person of interest in the FBI investigation. I really am old enough to remember when Libya loaned money to Billy Carter, President Carter’s brother. The President then said:

I am deeply concerned that Billy has received funds from Libya and that he may be under obligation to Libya. These facts will govern my relationship with Billy as long as I am president. Billy has had no influence on U.S. policy or actions concerning Libya in the past, and he will have no influence in the future.

That’s a standard we might expect all future presidents to meet when it comes to the activities of their family members. But there is no sign whatsoever that Trump will even go a millimeter in that direction. Kushner’s sister has been cashing in on her White House connection in selling real estate to Chinese who get green cards in return. Will Jared Kushner himself turn up as heavily engaged with Russian real estate purchasers and financiers? How many of those will have used investments in the US to launder ill-gotten gains? And how much will Trump’s own company gain from his friendliness to the Kingdom?

Of course he wasn’t always so buddy-buddy with the Saudis, whom he criticized mercilessly during his campaign because they don’t pay for American military protection and, he claimed, they push gays off buildings. All that is forgotten now that he is in office. He settled instead for a smaller than Obama arms deal, with no burdensharing or human rights concessions. Blingplomacy is just that: shiny and worth less than it appears.

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Outrageous and incredibly stupid

Here’s an interview I did Thursday for Alexander Gupta of UATV (Ukrainian government English-language service). 

I didn’t know yet that President Trump had played down his personal concern about Ukraine in his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, saying that “American critics” cared about it. The Russians will have read this as approving their invasion of Crimea and thinly veiled occupation of Luhansk and Donetsk, not to mention their shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane. It is difficult to imagine what I might have said about this, but here I’ll just say it is outrageous and incredibly stupid.  

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Shared goals, not collusion

President Trump is denouncing the Special Counsel appointed yesterday to investigate Russian influence on the US election as the worst “witch hunt” in American history. A master of the false superlative, he claims to be the worst-treated politician in history.

He is also denying any collusion between himself and the Russians. Oddly, I think this may be true. The search for a smoking gun that proves they were in it together may well be a mistake. Trump and Putin shared goals: they wanted to defeat Hillary Clinton, they wanted to improve relations between Washington and Moscow, they wanted to end American commitments to democratization abroad, to limit freedom at home, to fight “violent Islamic extremism,” and to make a lot of money while enjoying public office. There really is no need for collusion when two people understand each other so well. Look at these photographs and videos of Trump with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak in the Oval Office (all made available by the Russians, as the American press wasn’t allowed in).

These are men who are genuinely enjoying each other and their common enterprise, not people colluding. It should be no surprise that Trump shared with his Russian pals classified information. Why not, as he said later?

That is the problem: shared goals, not collusion. I witnessed a good deal of this in Wednesday’s hearing on the Balkans. The chair of the committee I testified to is California Republican Rohrabacher, who made it clear repeatedly that he saw nothing wrong with Russian behavior in the Balkans or elsewhere. Why shouldn’t they seek influence, he asked? We claim they interfere in the Balkans, but don’t we?

The answer is no, there is no comparison between Russian behavior and American democratization/rule of law funding through the National Endowment for Democracy or the International Republican and National Democratic Institutes. Russia’s interference has lately included organizing a coup attempt in Montenegro, flooding the Balkans media with blatant disinformation generated by Russia Today and Sputnik News, as well as financing paramilitary groups, renting mobs, and disrupting parliament in Macedonia.

Warned long ago by the FBI that he was the target of Russian intelligence recruitment efforts, Rohrabacher is the congressman whom a colleague cited, jokingly or not is unclear, as receiving payments from Moscow, along with Trump. As for Rohrabacher, I doubt there is any need for payments: he seems sincerely committed to Russia’s perspective on the world and genuinely appreciative of Moscow’s interests.

I have no evidence to confirm or deny the allegation with respect to Trump, only the sense from reading too much about Trump’s real estate transactions that Moscow knows how to reward people without leaving much of a trail. It would be remarkably easy, and illegal, for a foreign government to put money into an American politician’s campaign funds by using a US citizen cut-out, or to ensure that she gets higher than market value for property she sells. Allegations against Trump along those lines are not difficult to find.

Newly appointed Special Counsel Mueller knows these things and can be relied upon to investigate thoroughly. But I hope he doesn’t waste much time looking for the smoking gun that demonstrates collusion. Trump as a candidate and president has not hidden his appreciation for Moscow and its help during the election campaign, when he appealed for the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. The key here is common objectives. People can avoid collusion easily if they share goals.

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“He’s finished”

That was the slogan of the protesters who sought, and eventually achieved, the removal of Slobodan Milosevic from power in Serbia. He provided the opportunity himself, by calling early elections that he lost. The demonstrations that brought him down were in support of the election result.

“He’s finished” would also be a good slogan for Americans seeking to unseat President Trump, who is likewise prone to self-inflicted wounds. Our system doesn’t allow early elections, but certainly Trump’s firing of FBI Director Comey in hope of stymieing the investigation of the president’s campaign’s ties to Russia fits in that category. We also know Trump specifically hoped Comey would can the investigation of former National Security Adviser Flynn’s connections to the Russians. The firing has guaranteed that the investigation will continue, now conducted by an impeccably professional Special Counsel.

The scandal over the President’s revelation of highly classified material to the Russian Foreign Minister has made things much worse. I confess it is not clear what precisely he said that was so highly classified. The US government had already blocked computers and tablets from flights originating in the Middle East. So it was obvious we had some intelligence about that. Government officials have also been talking openly about the Islamic State plotting operations against the US in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa, which US-backed Kurdish and Arab forces are investing. What more than this the President might have revealed is unclear.

But that he revealed anything off the cuff and without proper preparation is mind boggling. For good reasons, the intelligence community is extraordinarily jealous of the information it makes available, and it already has ample reason to resent this president. The implications of revealing highly classified information are manifold: they could affect not only the source of the information, but all America’s liasion relationships with intelligence services abroad. The FBI is no less proprietary and has responded to his threat to blackmail Comey with tapes of their conversations by making known the contents of contemporary memoranda recounting. Touché, mon ami.

It could still take months, if not years, to remove this grossly incompetent and ill-prepared president from office. Republicans, who control the Congress, are just beginning to distance themselves and will want much more documentary evidence of his malfeasance before embarking on the perilous course of either impeaching him for “high crimes and misdemeanors” or alternatively removing him from office for inability to discharge its powers and duties, as provided for in the 25th amendment to the constitution. But one of those outcomes is starting to look inevitable.

In the meanwhile though he is planning a trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican, to start this weekend. The first two stops are pretty much the friendliest on earth to Trump. Netanyahu and King Salman share the hope he will focus on doing in Iran, even as Trump issues a waiver to allow the suspension of Iran sanctions to continue because of Tehran’s faithful implementation of the nuclear deal he threatened to tear up on his first day in office. The contradictions are head spinning. So too is the notion that the good Pope Francis will do anything but ream out Trump, gently but expertly, for his indifference to the poor and favoring of the rich.

It would be a miracle if this President got through a foreign trip without a major gaffe. He might do better to stay home and try to mend his relations with the Congress and his broken White House, but he is instead complaining that no president has ever been treated as badly as he has been. His paranoia will increase far from home.

He’s finished. The question is how much more damage he will do before he is gone.

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