Tag Archives: Donald Trump

My thoughts on that memo

So, the long anticipated ‘memo’ detailing how the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) managed to get the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to endorse secret surveillance of one-time, very marginal, Trump foreign affairs advisor Carter Page, has been released. The key allegations are:

  • The DOJ and FBI based their application to the court on the so-called ‘dossier’ of salacious allegations about Trump assembled by former British spy Christopher Steele.
  • The dossier was commissioned by the Trump’s opponents in the Democratic party, and the person who put it together, Steele, admitted to being ‘passionate’ about preventing Trump being elected.
  • The DOJ and FBI failed to tell the court about the political motivations of those who commissioned and wrote the dossier.
  • The DOJ and FBI provided evidence which they said corroborated the dossier, but that evidence in fact also came from Steele – so, it wasn’t corroborating evidence at all.
  • Steele was in contact with the DOJ through a senior official, Bruce Ohr. Ohr’s wife worked for the company which commissioned Steele and which was engaged in the ‘cultivation of opposition research on Trump’.
  • The FBI eventually assessed the Steele dossier as ‘only minimally corroborated’.

What should we make of all this?

First, complaints by Democratic politicians and the FBI that releasing the memo somehow threatens national security have been shown to be entirely wrong. There is nothing in this which does anything other than threaten the reputation of the DOJ and FBI and indicate that the Trump collusion story originates in a decidedly dubious document.

Second, Republican hopes that this would be the big thing that brought the Russia investigation to an end have not been justified. There’s nothing here which is so enormously outrageous and so totally discredits the investigation that Trump will be able to stop it.

Third, the justification for spying on Page provided to the court by the DOJ and FBI appears to be the result of sloppy intelligence work. The fourth point above is a clear example of what is called ‘circular reporting’ – i.e. corroborating information by citing evidence which in fact comes from the same source as the supposed information.

Fourth, the credence given to the dossier was also poor intelligence work. A lot of the claims in it were quite extraordinary and in any case implied that Steele, a man who hadn’t even been to Russia for 20 years, somehow had access to the innermost secrets of the Kremlin. A greater degree of scepticism was warranted. The fact that such scepticism was lacking suggests either a) once again, sloppiness, or b) bias. Neither is good, though the first is probably preferable since the latter would imply that a decision to spy on what appears to be an entirely innocent American citizen was founded on political motives.

Fifth, the connections between Ohr, his wife, Steele, and opposition research suggest a rather too cozy relationship between DOJ and those seeking to undermine Trump. At the very least, there was what could be perceived as a conflict of interest.

Sixth, in the end I don’t think that any of the above will matter. Peddlers of the collusion story will no doubt shake this off, pointing out that the memo is the work of Republican politicians and claiming that it is therefore biased and misleading. They will say that it leaves out important information, such as other reasons why the court may have given permission to spy on Page (I’m guessing that the so-called ‘Australian connection’ will be raised in this regard – i.e. information supposedly provided  by Trump aide George Papadopoulos to an Australian diplomat, even though as the memo says, there was no connection between Page and Papadopoulos)

Given all that, I imagine that i) those believing that the Trump collusion story is made-up nonsense, and the President is a victim of a conspiracy of Democrats and their allies in the ‘deep state’ will feel vindicated; while ii) supporters of the collusion theory will see the release as further evidence that Republicans are just trying to divert attention because they have something to hide. The primary result, therefore, will simply be a hardening of positions on both sides and an accentuation of the already sharp divisions in American politics. In short, the show will go on.

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Collusion

The investigation into suspected collusion between US President Donald Trump and the Russian government has claimed its first three victims: one (Paul Manafort) for completely unconnected money laundering charges, and two (George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn) for lying to investigators about things which were not themselves criminal, and which are therefore crimes which would never have happened had there never been an investigation. To date, the evidence of direct collusion between Trump and the Russians is looking a little thin, to say the least. Now, into this maelstrom steps Guardian reporter Luke Harding with his book Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russian Helped Donald Trump Win.

Collusion spends over 300 pages insinuating that Trump is a long-standing agent of the Russian secret services, and hinting, without ever providing any firm evidence, that Trump and his team acted on orders from the Kremlin to subvert American democracy. I’ll be honest, and admit that I picked this book up expecting it to be a series of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, and to be utterly unbalanced in its analysis, and in that sense I’m not an unbiased reader. At the same time, I was interested to see if Harding had come up with anything that everybody else had not, and was willing to give him a chance. I needn’t have bothered. For alas, my worst suspicions proved to be true, and then some.

collusion

Continue reading Collusion

First arrest in Russia scandal – for being an ‘unregistered agent’ of Ukraine!

The rumours, it appears, were true. Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate alleged Russian interference in the US election, has brought charges against former Trump adviser Paul Manafort for conspiracy to launder money.

It seems bad for Trump, you might think. But, stop! Money laundering has nothing to do with Russian interference. Moreover, who was Manafort working for when he committed his alleged crime? Not Russia. No. Ukraine! For sure, it wasn’t the current Ukrainian government, but that of the supposed (but in reality not at all) ‘pro-Russian’ president, Viktor Yanukovich. But still, there’s no Russian connection here.

Maybe, the conspiracy theorists might claim, but Manafort will now surely spill the beans on Trump, the Russians, and all their his evil doings. As the BBC says, ‘Mr Manafort will be under growing pressure to co-operate with the Mueller investigation. If he offers up useful information about his time during the campaign, this could be just the first domino to fall.’ But if Manafort actually had any relevant information about Russian interference in the election, he’d have offered it up by now. In the past weeks, reports have suggested that Mueller was pressuring Manafort to tell all in return for some deal, but Manafort told Mueller that he couldn’t cut a deal because he didn’t know anything.

Having not seen the charge sheet, I can’t say for sure where the evidence to indict Manafort came from, but it seems likely to have been the data about payments from Yanukovich to Manafort provided by the current Ukrainian authorities during the US presidential campaign, data which led to Manafort resignation from Trump’s team at that time. In short, it derived from Ukrainian interference in the US election.

Russia-wise, it appears that so far Mueller has drawn a blank. All he’s managed to come up with is charging someone for being an ‘unregistered agent’ of the Ukrainian government. Perhaps everybody has been chasing the wrong target.

UPDATE: You can read the charge sheet against Manafort and co-defendant Richard Gates here. I found paragraph 19 interesting. It says:

MANAFORT and GATES engaged in a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign in the United States at the direction of Yanukovich, the Party of Regions, and the Government and Ukraine. MANAFORT and GATES did so without registering and providing the disclosures required by law.

It’s an interesting outcome from an investigation set up to examine Russian interference in US politics.

Reinforcing failure

So, now we know what Donald Trump intends to do about Afghanistan. He intends to reinforce failure, sending additional troops to that country (believed to amount to 1,000 soldiers and 3,000 military contractors, although Trump didn’t specify)  in an effort to defeat the Taleban. Quite how this miniscule increase in military power is meant to achieve that objective isn’t at all clear, especially given that the United States was unable to achieve it when it had 10 times as many troops in Afghanistan. With Steve Bannon out of the White House, we are led to believe that national security policy is now in the hands of the ‘grown-ups’, serious military men like H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, who understand strategy. But reading Trump’s speech on the subject it’s hard to see any sign of strategy. It is, quite frankly, a confusing mess.

On the one hand, Trump declared that he intends to ‘win’ the war in Afghanistan. ‘We will always win’, he said. But how will the US win? By avoiding all that touchy-feely nation building stuff, allowing more permissive rules of engagement, and permitting the US military to kill more bad guys, Trump seemed to say. ‘We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists,’ he declared, adding that, ‘we will no longer use American might to construct democracies in faraway lands … Those days are now over.’ But how many more ‘terrorists’ is another 4,000 people going to manage to kill, and what’s to say that more of them won’t just pop up in their place? Trump doesn’t have an answer. Indeed, he contradicted himself by saying that, ‘Military power alone will not bring peace to Afghanistan or stop the terrorist threat arising in that country. But strategically applied force aims to create the conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace’.

Ah! So the aim isn’t after all to ‘win’, but to ‘create the conditions for a political process.’ But what is this process? Trump didn’t tell us, no doubt because he hasn’t got a clue what it might be. All he could say was:

Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.

So, the strategy is to use military power to create the conditions for a political settlement with the Taleban, even though it has so far utterly failed to achieve that, and even though ‘nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.’ And this is what constitutes ‘grown-up’ thinking? At the end of the day, Trump’s announcement amounts merely to a statement that withdrawing will bring untold disaster, and therefore we have to persist, because, well, you know, it will be bad if we don’t. There is nothing in this announcement which suggests how Trump or his advisors imagine that this war will end. They are as clueless as Obama and  Bush before them, and so are just carrying on doing the same thing over and over.

Why do they do this? The answer is that the financial costs of the war are dispersed over a vast number of people, so that nobody actually notices them, while the human costs are concentrated in a small segment of the population – the military – which the rest of the people can safely ignore (and at the current tempo of operations, the number of Americans dying in Afghanistan is quite low). Politically speaking, continuing the war is relatively cost-free. But should America withdraw, and something then goes wrong, Trump and those around him will be held to blame. It is better therefore to cover their backsides and keep things bubbling along as they are until the problem can be passed onto somebody else. This is a solution in terms of domestic politics, but it’s not a solution in terms of the actual problem.

By coincidence, today I got more news about Afghanistan, in the form of the latest missive from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). This relates to a review of ‘USAID-funded initiatives to implement an electronic payment system for the collection of customs duties in Afghanistan.’ Like most Western-backed initiatives in Afghanistan, this one (managed by the company Chemonics) hasn’t gone according to plan. According to SIGAR, ‘Chemonics and USAID significantly revised the revenue generation targets downward for the first three quarters of program year four because the program failed to achieve any of the revenue generation targets established for year three.’ Beyond that, says SIGAR:

As of December 2016, there was little evidence to show that the project would come anywhere close to achieving the 75 percent target, however, USAID and Chemonics have not altered project targets to account for the reality of the situation, and instead continue to invest in an endeavor that appears to have no chance of achieving its intended outcome. [my underlining]

That pretty much sums it up.

Nonsense news

I have mentioned before my belief in the Biblical maxim about the mote and the beam, and I have repeatedly emphasized on this blog, including my last post, the need for greater self-awareness and greater humility. An editorial in yesterday’s New York Times reveals this need very clearly.

The editorial used former FBI chief James Comey’s testimony to Congress to lambast Donald Trump for his lack of integrity, describing Trump as a ‘venal, self-interested politician who does not recognize, let alone uphold’ the ‘legal principles at the foundation of American democracy.’ The headline made the editorial’s point very clear. ‘Mr Comey and All the President’s Lies’, it said. Telling the truth, it seems, is something that the New York Times values highly.

Or maybe not.

What the editorial didn’t tell readers was that the transcript of Comey’s testimony contains the following exchange between Comey and Senator Jim Risch:

RISCH:  I remember, you — you talked with us shortly after February 14th, when the New York Times wrote an article that suggested that the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians. This is not factual. Do you recall that?

COMEY: Yes.

RISCH: OK. So — so, again, so the American people can understand this, that report by the New York Times was not true. Is that a fair statement?

COMEY: In — in the main, it was not true. And, again, all of you know this, maybe the American people don’t. The challenge — and I’m not picking on reporters about writing stories about classified information, is that people talking about it often don’t really know what’s going on. … I mentioned to the chairman the nonsense around what influenced me to make the July 5th statement. Nonsense, but I can’t go explaining how it’s nonsense.

Later, Senator Tom Cotton returned to this subject.

COTTON: On February 14th, the New York Times published a story, the headline of which was, “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence.”

You were asked earlier if that was an inaccurate story, and you said, in the main. Would it be fair to characterize that story as almost entirely wrong?

COMEY: Yes.

The New York Times has done a lot to stoke the accusations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, going so far on one occasion as to publish an op-ed by Louise Mensch. But while refusing to address the issue of collusion directly, Comey nevertheless poured cold water on it, as seen by the following exchanges with Senators Burr and Cotton:

BURR: Director, the term we hear most often is “collusion.” When people are describing possible links between Americans and Russian government entities related to the interference in our election, would you say that it’s normal for foreign governments to reach out to members of an incoming administration?

COMEY: Yes.

COTTON: Let’s turn our attention to the underlying activity at issue here: Russia’s hacking into those e-mails and releasing them, and the allegations of collusion. Do you believe Donald Trump colluded with Russia?

COMEY: That’s a question I don’t think I should answer in an open setting. As I said, that — we didn’t — that (ph) when I left, we did not have an investigation focused on President Trump.

So, let’s get this straight. James Comey in effect says that he doesn’t think Trump colluded with Russia (‘we didn’t’, as he says above), and denounces the New York Times for publishing ‘nonsense’, in a story about alleged collusion which was ‘almost entirely wrong’. Yet, the response of the New York Times is not to apologize, and indeed not even to mention the matter, but instead to publish an editorial saying that Donald Trump is a liar.

Perhaps he is, but another maxim comes to mind: one about stones and people in glass houses. Recent research indicates that ‘public trust in the media [is] at all time low’. I wonder why.