Tag Archives: Donald Trump

Worst secret agent ever

For the past couple of years, Donald Trump’s enemies have been waiting with bated breath for the moment when Special Counsel Robert Mueller issues what they are confident will be a damning report revealing the multiple terrible sins committed by Trump in his role as a Kremlin agent. Of late, though, there have been hints that they’re likely to be disappointed. Most recently, ABC correspondent Jonathan Karl warned that,

People who are closest to what Mueller has been doing, interacting with the special counsel, caution me that this report is almost certain to be anti-climatic. … We have seen nothing from Mueller on the central question of, was there any coordination, collusion, with the Russians in the effort to meddle in the election? Or was there even any knowledge on the part of the president or anybody in his campaign with [sic] what the Russians were doing, there’s been no indication of that.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Despite the best efforts of a major part of the American press corps, nobody has yet managed to come up with any concrete evidence of collusion. This, however, has not dampened the spirits of the serried ranks of true believers who remain convinced that proof of Trump’s guilt has never been closer. Indeed, even as Mr Karl was cautioning against such expectations, American political commentators ramped up the rhetoric to a whole new level. The excuse was Trump’s response to the revelation that the FBI had investigated him for being a Russian agent after he fired FBI director James Comey. Asked whether he worked for Russia, Trump called the idea ‘insulting’. It was, he said, ‘the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked’. But, commentators noted, this response wasn’t strictly speaking a denial. ‘What more proof of Trump’s guilt is needed?’, they pronounced, ‘He doesn’t even deny it.’

And so it was that in the past week, commentary passed on from mere accusations that Trump is a Russian spy to statements of near certainty that this is the case. Reading the Globe and Mail over my toast and marmalade this morning, I came across a typical example of this genre by Jared Yates Sexton, a professor at Georgia Southern University, with the title ‘No longer a wild conspiracy theory: the possibility of Trump as Russian agent.’ Mr Sexton declares:

For too long we’ve given Mr Trump and his associates the benefit of the doubt and the cover of incredulousness. For too long we’ve been in denial of the real possibility. …. The possibility that the President of the United States is working for Russia is now real … We simply cannot afford to look away any longer.

I have to say that I don’t know who Mr Sexton is addressing here, who these mysterious people are, who apparently have been giving Trump ‘the benefit of the doubt’ and have been in ‘denial’ about the possibility that he’s a Russian agent. As far as I can tell, the problem hasn’t been one of denial at all – it’s not like there’s exactly been a shortage of politicians and political commentators accusing Trump of being a Russian spy during the past couple of years. But maybe Sexton hasn’t been watching CNN or reading the Washington Post, and has somehow missed all this stuff.

The Washington Post has been banging the ‘Trump is a Russian agent’ drum incessantly, and was at it again this week, with an article by that well-known bastion of common sense and accurate analysis, Max Boot, entitled ‘Here are 18 reasons Trump could be a Russian agent’. Boot’s article doesn’t actually provide any evidence concretely linking Trump with the Russian intelligence agencies, but that’s pretty much par for the course. Boot ends with the words:

Now that we’ve listed 18 reasons Trump could be a Russian assets, let’s look at the exculpatory evidence:

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I can’t think of anything that would exonerate Trump aside from the difficulty of grapsing what once would have seemed unimaginable: that a president of the United States could actually have been compromised by a hostile foreign power. … If Trump isn’t actually a Russian agent, he is doing a pretty good imitation of one.

So what does a ‘pretty good imitation’ of a Russian agent look like in real life? To answer that we have to find examples of the Trump adminstration’s policies towards Russia, and fortunately the international press has just provided us with a good example. The German paper Bild am Sonntag reported on Sunday that the American ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, sent letters to companies participating in the North Stream 2 gas pipeline project in which he told them that, ‘We emphasize that companies involved in Russian energy exports are taking part in something that could prompt a significant risk of sanctions.’ A spokesman for Grenell subsequently clarified the Ambassador’s letter by saying that it was not a threat, just a ‘clear message of US policy’, though I have to say that the distinction is lost on me. Grenell’s letter didn’t come out of the blue. The United States has long been doing all it can to sabotage North Stream 2. And Trump himself is fully signed up to the policy. At a meeting with the presidents of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia last year, the US president declared his opposition to North Stream 2, declaring:

Germany hooks up a pipeline into Russia, where Germany is going to be paying billions of dollars for energy into Russia. And I’m saying, ‘What’s going on with that? How come Germany is paying vast amounts of money to Russia when they hook up a pipeline?’ That’s not right.

This is indeed a ‘pretty good imitation’ of a Russian agent. There’s no doubt about it – Trump is working for the Russians. Why else would he doing his damnedest to destroy one of the Russian Federation’s most valuable international trade projects? Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me. If Donald Trump is indeed a Russian agent, I have to conclude that he’s got to be the worst secret agent ever.

The Peace President

And another bus heaves into view…

I think that the first time I came across James Mattis was when reading Chris Mackey’s 2004 memoir The Interrogators, in which Mackey (a sergeant in the US army) described his experiences interrogating Al Qaeda and Taleban prisoners in Afghanistan in the early 2000s. According to Mackey, at one point, then Marine Corps Major General James Mattis turned up at his interrogation centre near Kandahar one day and made a speech which went roughly like this:

You are helping us to kill the enemy. Let’s not make any mistakes about this. Let’s not try to sugarcoat it. You are assisting my marines to kill evil. To bayonet it, to grenade it, to shoot, it with machine guns, to cut its eyes out and shit in the sockets. And you can take pride in that. You can take pride in knowing that you had a hand in gouging out the eyes and cutting out the tongue of evil.

As somebody who was trained as a military interrogator, I found this more than a little disturbing. This isn’t the sort of language you want to use if you want your interrogators to treat their prisoners with the respect required by the laws of war. Suffice it to say that after reading this, subsequent scandals such as Abu Ghraib didn’t come as a big surprise.

No doubt Mattis is a formidable soldier. But I’ve never understood why people think that generals are suitable political leaders. Leading men in combat and making judgments about the nature of the international order, threats to national security, national strategy, and the like are entire separate things, and to be frank Mattis never showed himself to have particularly good judgement on any of the latter. Instead he stood out as a proponent of ever expanding defence expenditure and the prolongation of wars for which he offered no obvious path to victory. Quite how America benefited from the policies he supported, I cannot fathom.

So it is that I can’t share the general belief that his resignation yesterday is a severe loss for the United States. Moreover, I think that the reaction to his resignation and to the event which provoked it reveals something rather disturbing about the American attitude to war and peace.

As a candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump took a lot of provocative positions. There were very few of them which a good Western liberal like myself could support. But two did make sense: that it was in America’s interests to improve its relations with Russia; and that America’s endless wars in the Middle East and Central Asia were harming the United States without bringing any benefits, and so ought to be ended. To my mind, both of these propositions are blindingly obvious, but in the odd atmosphere of American politics, they were viewed as downright dangerous. Trump’s support of better relations with Russia has resulted in him being denounced as a traitor, a paid agent of the Kremlin. And his idea that America ought to bring its wars to an end has seen him being condemned as foolish and irresponsible.

Once elected, Trump rapidly turned his back on these views. His government imposed more and more sanctions on Russia, and Trump filled his cabinet with hawks like Mattis, Pompeo, and Bolton, and then proceeded to pursue reckless policies such as ripping up the nuclear deal with Iran. Those who hoped that Trump would bring peace were cruelly disappointed.

Until this week, when Trump suddenly declared victory in Syria and announced that he was ordering American troops to leave that country and return home. One might imagine that this would be a cause for celebration. American interference in Syria has had catastrophic consequences. On the assumption that the government of Bashar al-Assad was doomed, the United States funnelled weapons and money to a range of opposition groups who in some cases ended up fighting themselves, and in other cases defected to join ISIS, taking their American weapons with them. They failed to overthrow Assad, but did weaken him enough to open the way for ISIS to spread across a large part of Syria. Only after the Russian intervention in Syria began in late 2015 did ISIS finally begin to retreat. Now with ISIS largely defeated, any pretence that there is a legitimate reason for American troops to be in Syria has disappeared. Trump’s decision to get out is entirely warranted.

Yet it has led to howls of protest. Leading Republicans responded to the announcements of the troop withdrawal and Mattis’s resignation by saying that, ‘we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation,’ and that they were ‘legitimately frightened for the country’, as if ISIS were now going to be suddenly landing its troops on Roanoke Island. But it isn’t only Republicans who have been complaining. The reaction among Democrats has been equally outraged. Democratic Senator Mark Warner, for instance, described the situation as ‘scary’, while CNN (not noted for its love of the Republican Party) declared that Washington was ‘shaken, saddened, scared’, and the New York Times ran headlines such as ‘US Exit (from Syria) Seen as Betrayal of the Kurds, and a Boon for ISIS.’

There was a time when going to war was seen as a measure to be taken only in extremis. Unfortunately, lacking serious military competitors following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western powers decided to use the ‘unipolar moment’ to flex their muscles, with the result that they got mired in a series of apparently never-ending wars. Instead of discrediting the idea of war, these had the opposite effect – they habituated the political classes to it, so that now waging war has become normal and making peace is seen as ‘scary’. Conventional judgements about the national interest, international law, and the ethics of war have been turned on their head.

There’s not much to like about Trump, but the one (actually very significant) thing in his favour is that he professes a desire to put a stop to all this. It would be wrong to say that Trump has been a ‘peace president’. He has, after all, continued American involvement in wars such as that in Yemen. But, to date he has yet to start a new one. This is actually quite remarkable. Barack Obama launched a war against Libya and got American involved in the wars in Yemen and Syria. His predecessor, George W. Bush, invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Before Bush, Bill Clinton bombed Yugoslavia, and before him George H.W. Bush fought the first Gulf War. And of course, Bush Senior’s predecessor Ronald Reagan invaded Panama and Grenada. One has go to back 40 years to Jimmy Carter to find a president who didn’t start a war. So, despite what I said above, by American standards Trump is indeed a peace president and, if he keeps it up, far more deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize than Obama ever was.  The fact that so many find this worrisome indicates that something has gone seriously wrong not only with our understanding of the world but also with our moral compass.

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.

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.