Tag: Ukraine

Putin’s pet president

He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times….Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that…And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.
Why would anyone, never mind the President of the United States, doubt that the Russians meddled in the US election, after ample evidence has become public that they purchased on-line ads and collected and published emails embarrassing to the Democrats?
One explanation is obvious: Trump is concerned that talk of Russian meddling will delegitimize his election, which rests on the shaky foundation of an electoral college victory and a smashing popular vote loss. Nothing bothers this president more than personal slight. His narcissism is his most evident personal characteristic. He can’t admit the obvious, if it reflects badly on himself.
But there is another Trump vice: his passion for money. Trump’s real estate empire is tottering. It depends heavily on Russian money from dubious sources. Putin no doubt controls many of Trump’s Russian investors. Were Moscow to signal, even quietly, that it no longer wanted Russian money flowing to Trump or Kushner real estate, the results would be devastating. To me, this is a much more compelling explanation of Trump’s Russophilia than his concern about legitimacy.
The consequences of Trump’s subservience to Putin include allowing Moscow free rein in Syria, not doing much to push back in Ukraine, and begging for Putin’s help on North Korea. Putin is enjoying his clout: Russian military action in Syria is constrained only by the presence of US troops in the northeast, Russian-supported insurgents in Ukraine remain in control of an important slice of the country, and Putin has made common cause with China on North Korea by asking for the US to suspend its military exercises with South Korea and Japan. I might even think that last idea is a good one if it brings a suspension of North Korean nuclear and missile tests, but so far the Pentagon has prevailed and prevented Trump from giving in.
Trump seems determined to pursue his ill-conceived rapprochement with Putin no matter what. Fortunately there are Republicans in Congress who don’t like that idea and are prepared to make it difficult. The Administration is dragging its feet on implementing sanctions the Congress passed overwhelmingly, but apart from Dana Rohrabacher and a few other members the Russians haven’t yet penetrated deep into the House and very little in the Senate. Influence in the Congress is expensive, compared to Facebook. At $55 dollar per barrel oil, the Russian government doesn’t have deep pockets, even if Putin’s friends are enjoying the luxuries of Trump real estate.
Trump is Putin’s pet president. I can’t wait to see what new tricks he teaches The Donald. This “I believe” one is getting old.
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The noose is tightening

The charges unsealed today against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort fulfill many expectations. He was a key adviser to Russian President Putin’s favored president of Ukraine, he was known to have moved a lot of money around the world, and he had failed to register as an agent of a foreign government. His financial sidekick Rick Gates has also been charged. The charges relate in particular to undeclared, laundered income of more than $18 million from the Putin-friendly government of Ukraine

How all this relates to collusion with Russia during the campaign is however not yet clear. At the least, it suggests that Donald Trump was incautious to a fault in making Manafort his campaign chair, just as he was foolhardy in naming Michael Flynn as his national security adviser. But stupidity is not the same as perfidy. Special Counsel Mueller’s job is to nail the highest levels of illegal behavior, not to prove how dumb people are.

The charges against Manafort and Gates will help. Both will presumably be willing to exchange information for lesser charges or at least lesser sentences. But it is not clear how much information they have on perfidy by Kushner or the Trumps, both of whom are involved in what appear to be shady real estate deals in the US and abroad. Were they also laundering money or failing to declare it as income? Have the Russians blackmailed key administration officials by threatening to withdraw their investments or stop their real estate purchases? Trump is always keen to deny having any projects in Russia, but he has not denied having Russian financing in his projects in the US and elsewhere.

Mueller still has a long way to go to get to anyone important still in the Administration. He has however been savvy in these first indictments: Trump isn’t likely to risk pardoning Manafort and Gates, to whom he presumably owes nothing at this point. The only conceivable reason to do so would be to prevent them from talking, which would pretty much confirm Trump’s own malfeasance. Nor can Manafort be described as small fry, or his alleged crimes pooh-poohed by an administration that claims to be serious about law enforcement.

Trump can still try to fire Mueller, but that too would be a de facto admission of guilt. Trump will squirm, but I doubt he can escape. The noose is tightening.

PS: The guilty plea of George Papadopoulos, also made public today, relates much more directly to collusion with the Russians than the charges against Manafort and Gates. The noose is tightening more.

 

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Incoherence is poison

The United States is objectively no less powerful than it was seven months ago. Its military forces, its economy, even its political system are virtually unchanged in that short period. Only the presidency has changed hands, with all that entails in terms of personnel and policy.

But American capacity to effect the changes Washington wants to see in the world are diminished: it is unable to rally support from China and Russia for strict sanctions on North Korea, it has made no progress in countering Russian aggression in Ukraine (not to mention Moldova and Georgia), the squabble among Gulf countries has limited its ability to push back against expanded Iranian presence and influence in the region, and neither Palestinians nor Israelis are inclined to pay the Americans much mind. Adversaries are defiant, allies are nervous, and those in between are hedging.

This weakness is largely the result of incoherence. It is a rare day that President Trump, Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson, National Security Adviser McMaster, and UN Ambassador Haley are even close to being tuned to the same wave length. Far more often they each go their own way, pushing or denying military options, pursuing or dropping diplomatic initiatives, befriending or criticizing dictators.

Why they say what they do is rarely clear, and when clear often illogical. Why refuse to certify that Iran is complying with a nuclear deal that everyone else in the world (including the professionals who staff the State and Defense Departments as well as the US intelligence agencies) says it is complying with? Is that because there is some unwritten “spirit” of the agreement? Or is it just to have an excuse to go to war? Or maybe it’s just a way of fulfilling an election campaign pledge but shedding responsibility for real action to the Congress, as with the elimination of DACA (Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals)? No one knows.

Worse: it has become unknowable. The President disdains logic as much as he does facts. What is the logic of threatening the free trade agreement with South Korea when he needs Seoul on board for whatever he wants to do about North Korea? He reacts, based on instinct, and often in different ways on different days, or even different hours. There is really nothing wrong with instinct, or to put it more accurately with heuristics, rules of thumb based on experience. We all use them, including the wisest among us, despite their well-documented distortions. The trouble is the President has no relevant experience. Nor has he read or studied enough to substitute for his inexperience.

This matters as much in politics as it does in foreign policy. Senator McConnell and Speaker Ryan have now been sandbagged (in governmentese that means being surprised by an unexpected and often gratuitous move) more than once by this President. Yesterday, he cut a deal with the Democrats on the budget and hurricane relief that the Republican leadership had publicly stated they would not accept. McConnell and Ryan have thus far not responded in kind. I wouldn’t expect that to last. What goes around comes around.

The one subject on which Washington has reached some limited degree of coherence is, ironically, Russia. Congress reacted to the President’s illogical and seemingly unmotivated affection for Vladimir Putin with sanctions that are coherent and difficult to remove. But that limited coherence of course amplifies the greater incoherence. We still have a president hankering for improved relations with Russia even as the State Department closes down its consulate in San Francisco and orders its diplomats out of the US, in retaliation for a draconian cut Putin ordered in staffing of the US embassy in Moscow.

We’ve also got a President who tells DACA kids how much he loves them and will do something ill-defined for them if Congress doesn’t, while he lets an Attorney General who openly advocates limiting immigration on racial and religious grounds announce that DACA is kaput. Not to mention the presidential pardon for a sheriff who physically abused immigrants, often without regard to whether they were documented or not.

America will be weaker still if Jeff Sessions gets his way and begins to deport those 800,000 productive non-citizens who have spent most of their lives, and careers, in the US. Incoherence is not just dissonance. It will sap America’s strength and render a country founded on admirable principles, but unable to implement them effectively, great only in retrospect. Incoherence is poison. We need to get it out of our system.

 

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It’s not fine

Ari Fleischer, onetime press secretary to George W, tweeted today:

This wasn’t handled perfectly by the WH, but it is not a scandal and a short chat after dinner is fine. Please calm down.

Let me count the ways he is wrong:

  1. It wasn’t a short chat, or a “pull-aside” as they say in the trade. It lasted according to everyone but the White House close to an hour, seated.
  2. The President got up from his place at the dinner next to the Japanese Prime Minister Abe to go talk with Putin. I needn’t speculate on how Abe felt about that.
  3. He did this in front of leaders of the rest of the G20, thus signaling to all that he was far more interested in talking with an American adversary than an American ally, even after already having met with Putin for more than 2 hours the same day.
  4. Trump failed to arrange for another American to be present, even a translator, thus raising the suspicion that he didn’t want his own staff to know the content of the conversation. Staff is usually readily accessible during such a dinner in a neighboring room.
  5. The conversation took place during an uproar about collusion with the Russians. What more blatant indication of collusion could there be than a long, private talk with Putin that the White House failed to brief to the press?
  6. The uproar and the Special Counsel investigation are increasingly (and in my view wisely) focusing on financial ties between the Russians and Trump’s real estate ventures. As the President makes no distinction between his public functions and his private business interests, wouldn’t it be reasonable to imagine that a Trump/Putin conversation with no other American present involved Trump’s private business interests?
  7. I’ll go a step further: if those business interests depend on Russian financing, what would make a reasonable person assume that Putin would not use the threat of withdrawing support, or perhaps the incentive of additional support, to get his way on Syria, Ukraine or other issues?

So maybe it is not (yet) a scandal, but it isn’t fine either. It’s an egregious example of the President’s extraordinarily poor judgment.

Not that we lack other examples: his continued interest in throwing away the Iran nuclear deal without an alternative, his failure to even pretend to hold Putin accountable for interference in the American election, his support for a Republican health bill that would have gutted promises he made as a candidate, his continuing effort to badmouth Obamacare into oblivion (even without a replacement): this presidency is a disaster already and will likely cause catastrophe in the future.

No one should calm down so long as this menace remains in office.

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Vučić@Pence

I am getting inquiries about Serbian President Vučić’s meeting yesterday with Vice President Pence. The White House readout is short but includes some detail:

Vice President Mike Pence met today with President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić. The leaders agreed on the importance of the bilateral relationship and expressed the desire to deepen the partnership between the United States and Serbia. The Vice President expressed U.S. support for Serbia’s efforts to join the European Union, the need for continued reforms, and further progress in normalizing the relationship with Kosovo. The leaders discussed the Vice President’s upcoming trip to Podgorica, Montenegro, where he will participate in an Adriatic Charter Summit with leaders from across the Western Balkans region. The Vice President also announced that the United States will provide an additional $10 million contribution to the Regional Housing  Program, an internationally funded, joint initiative by Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro that provides housing to those displaced during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Vučić has emphasized establishment of a direct channel with the Vice President.

None of this is particularly new or interesting. It is easy enough for the US to support Serbia’s EU prospects, the necessary reforms, and the dialogue with Pristina. A “direct channel” can mean many things: Washington has direct telecommunications links (that bypass the State Department and Foreign Ministries) with a number of countries, but it could also just mean a commitment to answer the phone.

Likely more interesting is what Belgrade and Washington haven’t yet said. There is the specific issue of the three Kosovar American Bytyqi brothers, apparently murdered by Serb police after the war in Kosovo. Vučić long ago promised prosecutions of those responsible but hasn’t delivered. Did Pence raise this case? There is also the general issue of Belgrade’s relationship with Moscow, which has included establishment of a Russian logistics base in Nis, exercises with the Russian military, free Russian arms transfers, and refusal of Serbia to go along with EU sanctions levied because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While President Trump himself is soft on Russia, for many Americans Serbia’s behavior towards Moscow raises questions about its suitability as a US partner.

The most important aspect of this meeting is likely that it occurred at all. No doubt Vučić sought it now primarily because Pence is heading for Montenegro in early August for a multilateral meeting at which Serbia will only be an observer. No Serbian president would want to be upstaged, least of all by Belgrade’s erstwhile junior partner. The Americans likely saw reason in making it clear they want a good relationship with Serbia as well.

But it is also significant that the meeting was with Pence. The Trump Administration apparently wants to continue Obama’s habit of keeping the Vice President out front on Balkans issues, leaving the President to more important tasks. Plus ça change…

PS: Whether or not the White House is interested in the Russia connection, the House of Representatives is. It is requiring the Pentagon to report on Russia/Serbia military cooperation.

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A compromised president

The White House is vaunting the President’s positive chemistry with Russian President Putin at their meeting yesterday in Hamburg, on the margins of the G20. Secretary of State Tillerson says Trump raised allegations of Moscow interfering in the US election, but Foreign Minister Lavrov says Trump accepted Putin’s denials. The meeting lasted far longer than planned.

This is precisely the outcome Putin wanted: a “clean slate” with Washington, which acknowledges Moscow as a major world power. Sad!

What might a stronger and more capable president have achieved? He would first off have reminded Putin that the US has not and will not accept the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian intervention against the moderate opposition in Syria, the constant harassment of NATO allies and non-NATO friends by Russian war planes and ships, the attempted coup in Montenegro, and above all hacking intended to affect the outcome of US elections. Only then, if Putin pressed, would my hypothetical president (or imagine pretty much any of those who have served since World War II) have consented to discuss cooperation in Syria, provided that Putin was prepared to acknowledge that a political transition there is necessary and desirable.

Trump can’t do that. First, because he likes Putin. Witness their open mic joking about offensive journalists. Trump either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that dozens of them have been murdered in Putin’s Russia. I would argue our President has even incited violence against American journalists who are critical of him. Putin is the kind of strongman that Trump aspires to be: autocratic, nationalist, and narcissistic.

More important: I suspect there is ample Russian investment in Trump’s real estate ventures in the US and elsewhere. Trump has never denied this. He keeps his denials to property and ventures inside Russia. After his Atlantic City bankruptcy, Trump was on the financial ropes. No one would loan him money. Deutsche Bank is believed to have stepped in.

My guess is that Moscow did too, with hot money that needed laundering. Accepting investment of ill-gotten gains is a violation of US law as I understand it, but Trump never seems to have done the due diligence required. He and the Kushner companies just don’t worry about money laundering.

Trump has made it absolutely clear that he intends for his companies to make lots of money while he is president. This is the likely reason he has refused to make his tax returns public. They would show, far more clearly than the financial disclosure forms all US Government employees fill out, the sources of his wealth. Challenging Putin would have been a sure formula for drying up “hot” Russian oligarch purchases of real estate.

Fortunately, this is the kind of illicit activity that Special Counsel Mueller is particularly well-equipped to handle, not least because he is hiring lawyers experienced in financial crime, as well as related cover-ups. But there is no telling how long it will take for the sleuths to get to the bottom of Trump’s massively complex business arrangements. Even then it will take time to build a case that will hold up in court. Documents and witnesses will be hard to come by, especially on the Russian end of any shady deals.

In my view, the Russians have what they need to ensure, as Tillerson put it, that Trump would not “relitigate” the past: компромат. Compromising material–financial I imagine rather than sexual–will keep Trump emphasizing the positive with Russia. Thus it is that a declining regional power with an economy the size of Spain’s and severe financial pressure due to lower oil and gas prices, puts the President of the United States in a subordinate and compromised position. I thought I would never see the day. But it has arrived.

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