Trump, Russia and a shadowy business partnership

Timothy L. O’Brien writes: Trump has repeatedly labeled Comey’s and Mueller’s investigations “witch hunts,” and his lawyers have said that the last decade of his tax returns (which the president has declined to release) would show that he had no income or loans from Russian sources. In May, Trump told NBC that he has no property or investments in Russia. “I am not involved in Russia,” he said.

But that doesn’t address national security and other problems that might arise for the president if Russia is involved in Trump, either through potentially compromising U.S. business relationships or through funds that flowed into his wallet years ago. In that context, a troubling history of Trump’s dealings with Russians exists outside of Russia: in a dormant real-estate development firm, the Bayrock Group, which once operated just two floors beneath the president’s own office in Trump Tower.

Bayrock partnered with the future president and his two eldest children, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, on a series of real-estate deals between 2002 and about 2011, the most prominent being the troubled Trump Soho hotel and condominium in Manhattan.

During the years that Bayrock and Trump did deals together, the company was also a bridge between murky European funding and a number of projects in the U.S. to which the president once leant his name in exchange for handsome fees. Icelandic banks that dealt with Bayrock, for example, were easy marks for money launderers and foreign influence, according to interviews with government investigators, legislators, and others in Reykjavik, Brussels, Paris and London. Trump testified under oath in a 2007 deposition that Bayrock brought Russian investors to his Trump Tower office to discuss deals in Moscow, and said he was pondering investing there.

“It’s ridiculous that I wouldn’t be investing in Russia,” Trump said in that deposition. “Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment.” [Continue reading…]

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Forced displacement worldwide at its highest in decades

UNHCR reports: War, violence and persecution have uprooted more men, women and children around the world than at any time in the seven-decade history of UNHCR according to a report published today.

The UN Refugee Agency’s annual Global Trends study found that 65.6 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide at the end of 2016 – a total bigger than the population of the United Kingdom and about 300,000 more than last year.

It noted that the pace at which people are becoming displaced remains very high. On average, 20 people were driven from their homes every minute last year, or one every three seconds – less than the time it takes to read this sentence. [Continue reading…]

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The growing U.S.-Iran proxy fight in Syria

Mohamad Bazzi writes: On Sunday evening, a U.S. warplane shot down a Syrian jet after it bombed American-backed rebels in northern Syria. This marked the first time the United States has downed a Syrian warplane since the start of the country’s civil war in 2011. On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that the United States had shot down an Iranian-made drone in the country’s southeast, where American personnel have been training anti-Islamic State fighters.

Since President Donald Trump took office, the U.S. military has struck the Syrian regime or its allies at least five times, in most cases to protect U.S.-backed rebels and their American advisers. Even if the Pentagon may not want to directly engage Syrian forces or their Russian and Iranian-backed allies, there’s a danger of accidental escalation, especially as various forces continue to converge on eastern and southern Syria to reclaim strategic territory from ISIS. Russia, for its part, angrily condemned the U.S. action and threatened on Monday to treat all coalition planes in Syria as potential targets.

But the dangers are perhaps particularly acute when it comes to Iran, which made dramatic battlefield moves of its own on Sunday, when it launched several missiles from inside Iran against ISIS targets in eastern Syria. Officially, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said the volley of missiles fired at Deir Ezzor province was a response to a pair of attacks by ISIS in Tehran on June 7, which killed 18 people and wounded dozens; the attacks marked the first time that ISIS had struck inside Iran. But the Iranian regime had several less-dramatic means to exact revenge against ISIS targets in Syria—after all, there’s no shortage of Iranian allies operating in the war-ravaged country.

Instead, Iran’s fiery act of vengeance seemed to be a message aimed at both the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia. (The six ballistic missiles used by Tehran against ISIS, with a range of 700 kilometers, could reach major Saudi cities.) The kingdom has become emboldened regionally and escalated its anti-Iran rhetoric thanks, in part, to Trump’s message of seemingly unconditional support. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: An American F-15E fighter jet shot down an Iranian-made armed drone over southeast Syria on Tuesday that was flying toward American-backed Syrian fighters and their advisers, Pentagon officials said.

The episode was a fresh indication that the air war between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the American military is likely to continue, and perhaps even escalate, even as the United States has sought to keep its focus on defeating the Islamic State militants operating in Syria and Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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Syria troops position themselves at heart of war on ISIS

The Associated Press reports: Syrian government troops and their allies have steadily positioned themselves in key areas on the flanks of the U.S.-led coalition battle for the Islamic State’s self-declared capital of Raqqa.

They are attempting to become an indispensable player in uprooting the extremists from Syria entirely.

That presents a major challenge for the coalition, which so far has shunned any cooperation with President Bashar Assad and has partnered instead with local Kurdish-led forces.

As the U.S. has intensified its fight against IS in Syria, Assad and his trusted allies of Russia and Iran are increasingly asserting themselves. A Syrian military offensive has unfolded on several fronts, coupled with Russian airstrikes and a show of force by Iran, which fired ballistic missiles on an IS stronghold this week and pushed militias that it sponsors deeper into the battlefield.

Damascus and its allies have long argued that they are the essential partner to any international effort in Syria, portraying all opposition forces as terrorist groups.

A close look at the map shows that pro-Assad troops have placed themselves in key locations in the anti-IS battle, while staying close to the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces who lead the ground offensive. The Syrian government forces and their allies have placed themselves south of Raqqa and on the outskirts of Deir el-Zour, the IS militants’ last refuge.

While government troops may be far from in control of that area and are unlikely to go after the city of Raqqa, Syria expert Sam Heller of the Century Foundation said the forces “have done enough to insert themselves that they’re now a fact on the ground.” [Continue reading…]

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America in retreat, Europe en marche

Sylvie Kauffmann writes: As British conservatives licked their wounds a week ago, and French voters were electing hundreds of rookies to Parliament to strengthen the hand of President Emmanuel Macron, Ukrainians at last had a reason to celebrate — and they did, partying by the thousands in Kiev. For them, June 11 was the dawn of the long-awaited era of visa-free travel to Europe. One local magazine called it “Ukraine’s Berlin Wall moment.”

This event, little noticed in the midst of so many political upheavals, is a fresh sign that Europe is moving forward. Giving some 45 million Ukrainians the right to travel freely through the 26 countries of the Schengen area is something of an achievement at a time when, across the European Union, the word “immigration” sounds like a recipe for electoral disaster.

Don’t expect European Union leaders to boast about it; that is not something they are good at. Yet a new mood is taking hold in Brussels and other European capitals these days, a wind of hope and optimism rarely felt in the last two decades.

After so many existential crises, believers in the European Union are suddenly waking up to realize that the reports of its death were greatly exaggerated. The eurozone has not collapsed. Britain’s exit, which shocked and destabilized the union a year ago, is now perceived as an opportunity for the 27 remaining members to regroup. [Continue reading…]

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America’s cultural divide runs deep

The Washington Post reports: The political divide between rural and urban America is more cultural than it is economic, rooted in rural residents’ deep misgivings about the nation’s rapidly changing demographics, their sense that Christianity is under siege and their perception that the federal government caters most to the needs of people in big cities, according to a wide-ranging poll that examines cultural attitudes across the United States.

The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey of nearly 1,700 Americans — including more than 1,000 adults living in rural areas and small towns — finds deep-seated kinship in rural America, coupled with a stark sense of estrangement from people who live in urban areas. Nearly 7 in 10 rural residents say their values differ from those of people who live in big cities, including about 4 in 10 who say their values are “very different.”

That divide is felt more extensively in rural America than in cities: About half of urban residents say their values differ from rural people, with less than 20 percent of urbanites saying rural values are “very different.”

Alongside a strong rural social identity, the survey shows that disagreements between rural and urban America ultimately center on fairness: Who wins and loses in the new American economy, who deserves the most help in society and whether the federal government shows preferential treatment to certain types of people. President Trump’s contentious, anti-immigrant rhetoric, for example, touched on many of the frustrations felt most acutely by rural Americans.

The Post-Kaiser survey focused on rural and small-town areas that are home to nearly one-quarter of the U.S. population. [Continue reading…]

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The White House press briefing is slowly dying

Rosie Gray writes: Over the course of the Trump administration, the White House’s daily press briefings have been pared progressively further back; they are now shorter, less frequent, and routinely held off-camera.

The daily briefing is a venerable Washington tradition, though one that has often been a target of criticism. Media critic Jay Rosen has called for media outlets to “send the interns,” arguing that the briefing is a largely useless exercise in grandstanding. President Trump himself has publicly mused about canceling them, tweeting “Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future “press briefings” and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???”

But instead of canceling them entirely, the White House has appeared to embrace a different strategy: simply downgrading them bit by bit, from “briefings” to “gaggles,” and from on-camera to off-camera. Guidance for the briefings have begun to include a note that audio from them cannot be used. Additionally, though Trump has held short press conferences when foreign leaders visit, he has not held a full press conference since February. [Continue reading…]

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Michael Flynn, Russia and a grand scheme to build nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world

Jeff Stein reports: By the time Michael Flynn was fired as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser in February, he had made a lot of bad decisions. One was taking money from the Russians (and failing to disclose it); another was taking money under the table from the Turks. But an overlooked line in his financial disclosure form, which he was forced to amend to detail those foreign payments, reveals he was also involved in one of the most audacious—and some say harebrained—schemes in recent memory: a plan to build scores of U.S. nuclear power plants in the Middle East. As a safety measure.

In 2015 and 2016, according to his filing, Flynn was an adviser to X-Co Dynamics Inc./Iron Bridge Group, which at first glance looks like just another Pentagon consultancy that ex-military officers use to fatten their wallets. Its chairman and CEO was retired Admiral Michael Hewitt; another retired admiral, Frank “Skip” Bowman, who oversaw the Navy’s nuclear programs, was an adviser. Other top guns associated with it were former National Security Agency boss Keith Alexander and retired Marine Corps General James “Hoss” Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff whose stellar career was marred when he was prosecuted last year for lying to the FBI during a leak investigation.

In June 2015, knowledgeable sources tell Newsweek, Flynn flew to Egypt and Israel on behalf of X-Co/Iron Bridge. His mission: to gauge attitudes in Cairo and Jerusalem toward a plan for a joint U.S.-Russian (and Saudi-financed) program to get control over the Arab world’s rush to acquire nuclear power. At the core of their concern was a fear that states in the volatile Middle East would have inadequate security for the plants and safeguards for their radioactive waste—the stuff of nuclear bombs.

But no less a concern for Flynn and his partners was the moribund U.S. nuclear industry, which was losing out to Russian and even South Korean contractors in the region. Or, as Stuart Solomon, a top executive along with Hewitt at his new venture, IP3 (International Peace, Power and Prosperity), put it in a recent speech to industry executives, “We find ourselves…standing on the sidelines and watching the competition pass us by.” [Continue reading…]

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Donald Trump’s Deep State

As the term Deep State is typically used these days, it conjures up intelligence agencies and other elements of institutional power that are supposedly intent on undermining the operation of the Trump presidency.

But like other forms of Trump propaganda, Deep State is a notion that is employed to conceal the very thing it describes.

It’s a way of directing attention towards a Deep State we cannot see, so that we don’t notice the one right before our eyes.

The Washington Post reports: The Senate bill to scale back the health-care law known as Obamacare is being written in secret by a single senator, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and a clutch of his senior aides.

Officials at numerous agencies of the Trump administration have stonewalled friendly Republicans in Congress — not to mention Democrats — by declining to share internal documents on sensitive matters or refusing to answer questions.

President Trump, meanwhile, is still forbidding the release of his tax returns, his aides have stopped releasing logs of visitors to the White House and his media aides have started banning cameras at otherwise routine news briefings, as happened Monday.

Trump even refuses to acknowledge to the public that he plays golf during his frequent weekend visits to his private golf courses.

More and more in the Trump era, business in Washington is happening behind closed doors. The federal government’s leaders are hiding from public scrutiny — and their penchant for secrecy represents a stark departure from the campaign promises of Trump and his fellow Republicans to usher in newfound transparency. [Continue reading…]

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Outside Britain, the mood in the EU is on the upswing

Natalie Nougayrède writes: That Helmut Kohl, the man who oversaw the reunification of Germany and was for so long a giant on the European stage, should die on the eve of negotiations leading to Britain’s withdrawal from the EU seems symbolic. The former German chancellor made the best of the extraordinary circumstances and public mood that followed the collapse of communism and the opening up of eastern Europe.

Today’s European leaders are, by contrast, confronted with an especially adverse set of circumstances. Trump, Putin, Erdoğan, terrorism, unprecedented flows of migration, unemployment, the rise of populism and, of course, Brexit. But, just as Kohl and his French contemporary François Mitterrand relaunched the European project in the early 1990s, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron are, as Britain prepares to leave, readying their ambitions and vision for the continent.

At stake is no less than Europe’s role in defending liberal democratic values and a rules-based international order at a time when – as one former Obama administration official put it to me recently – Trump’s America is “missing in action and the UK is disappearing into oblivion”. The words may be harsh, but they underscore that Britain’s central weakness lies not only in its internal political confusion – but also with a dangerous ignorance of what its European neighbours are setting their sights on.

The Franco-German engine is not focusing on Brexit but rather on consolidating the 60-year-old European project through further integration and cooperation. At the heart of this stands an emerging Macron-Merkel deal, intended to act as Europe’s new powerhouse. On 15 May, the French and German leaders met and spoke of a new “roadmap” for the EU. The thinking goes like this: in the next two to three years, as France carries out structural economic reforms to boost its credibility, Germany will step up much-needed European financial solidarity and investment mechanisms, and embrace a new role on foreign policy, security and defence. [Continue reading…]

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Power causes brain damage

Jerry Useem writes: If power were a prescription drug, it would come with a long list of known side effects. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can even make Henry Kissinger believe that he’s sexually magnetic. But can it cause brain damage?

When various lawmakers lit into John Stumpf at a congressional hearing last fall, each seemed to find a fresh way to flay the now-former CEO of Wells Fargo for failing to stop some 5,000 employees from setting up phony accounts for customers. But it was Stumpf’s performance that stood out. Here was a man who had risen to the top of the world’s most valuable bank, yet he seemed utterly unable to read a room. Although he apologized, he didn’t appear chastened or remorseful. Nor did he seem defiant or smug or even insincere. He looked disoriented, like a jet-lagged space traveler just arrived from Planet Stumpf, where deference to him is a natural law and 5,000 a commendably small number. Even the most direct barbs—“You have got to be kidding me” (Sean Duffy of Wisconsin); “I can’t believe some of what I’m hearing here” (Gregory Meeks of New York)—failed to shake him awake.

What was going through Stumpf’s head? New research suggests that the better question may be: What wasn’t going through it?

The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place. [Continue reading…]

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Tillerson’s latest blow in his on-going assault on the State Dept targets minorities and women

The Washington Post reports: Dozens of young minority and female State Department recruits received startling and unwelcome news last week: They would not be able to soon join the Foreign Service despite having been promised that opportunity. Their saga is just the latest sign that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s rush to slash the size of the State Department without a plan is harming diplomacy and having negative unintended effects.

The recruits, who are part of the State Department’s Rangel and Pickering fellowship programs, have already completed two years of graduate-level education at U.S. taxpayers’ expense plus an internship, often in a foreign country. The deal they struck with the federal government was that after completing their educations they would be given an inside track to become full-fledged U.S. diplomats abroad if they also satisfied medical and security requirements. In turn, they promised to commit at least five years to the Foreign Service.

These minority and female candidates already went through a competitive application process, meaning they are some of the best and brightest young graduates around. It also means they have other options. Young stars don’t join the State Department for the money or the glory; they want to serve and represent their country and are willing to make sacrifices to do it.

Many were shocked when they received a letter telling them they had one week to decide if they wanted to take a much less appealing job — stamping passports in a foreign embassy for two years — with the prospect but no guarantee of becoming a Foreign Service officer even after that.

“This is no way to treat our next generation,” one Foreign Service officer serving overseas told me. [Continue reading…]

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Memo shows Watergate prosecutors had evidence Nixon White House plotted violent attack on peaceful protesters

NBC News reports: Watergate prosecutors had evidence that operatives for then-President Richard Nixon planned an assault on anti-war demonstrators in 1972, including potentially physically attacking Vietnam whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, according to a never-before-published memo obtained by NBC News.

The document, an 18-page 1973 investigative memorandum from the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, sheds new light on how prosecutors were investigating attempts at domestic political violence by Nixon aides, an extremely serious charge.

NBC News is publishing the memo, and an accompanying memo about an interview prosecutors conducted with GOP operative Roger Stone, as part of special coverage for the 45th anniversary of the Watergate break-in.

A plot to physically attack Ellsberg is notable because the former Pentagon official has long alleged that Nixon operatives did more than steal his medical files, the most well-known effort to discredit him. [Continue reading…]

 

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The return of famine as a weapon of war

Alex de Waal writes: In its primary use, the verb ‘to starve’ is transitive: it’s something people do to one another, like torture or murder. Mass starvation as a consequence of the weather has very nearly disappeared: today’s famines are all caused by political decisions, yet journalists still use the phrase ‘man-made famine’ as if such events were unusual.

Over the last half-century, famines have become rarer and less lethal. Last year I came close to thinking that they might have come to an end. But this year, it’s possible that four or five famines will occur simultaneously. ‘We stand at a critical point in history,’ the head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the former Tory MP Stephen O’Brien, told the Security Council in March, in one of his last statements before stepping down: ‘Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations.’ It’s a ‘critical’ point, I’d argue, not because it is the worst crisis in our lifetime, but because a long decline – lasting seven decades – in mass death from starvation has come to an end; in fact it has been reversed.

O’Brien had no illusions about the causes of the four famines, actual or imminent, that he singled out in north-eastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. In each case, the main culprits are wars that result in the destruction of farms, livestock herds and markets, and ‘explicit’ decisions by the military to block humanitarian aid. In Nigeria, villages in the path of the war between Boko Haram and the army have been stripped of assets, income and food. As the army slowly reduces the areas under Boko Haram control, they are finding small towns where thousands starved to death last year. The counter-insurgency grinds on, and the specialists who compile the data fed into the blandly named ‘integrated food security phase classification’ (IPC) system, worry that in this year’s ‘hungry season’, approximately June to October, communities in the war zones will again move up the IPC scale: from level four (‘humanitarian emergency’) to five (‘famine’). Last year in Nigeria, the UN and relief agencies could say that they didn’t appreciate the full extent of the crisis. This year we have been given due warning.

In South Sudan, the government and the rebel armies have fought much less against each other than against the civilian population. In the summer of 2016, evidence from aid agencies showed nutrition and death rates in the region that met the UN criteria for determining that a food crisis has reached famine levels. Fearing that declaring famine would antagonise the South Sudanese government, already paranoid and cracking down on international aid agencies (aid workers were being robbed, raped and murdered), the UN prevaricated. By February, even veterans of South Sudan’s horrendous famines of the 1980s were saying that this was as bad as anything in their experience, perhaps worse. The UN duly declared a famine.

Yemen, however, is the biggest impending disaster. Don’t be fooled by pictures showing hungry people in arid landscapes: the weather had nothing to do with the famine. More than seven million people in Yemen are hungry; far more are likely to die of starvation and disease than in battles and air raids. The military intervention led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has strangled the country’s economy. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s lawyer clear as mud about whether he wants us to think his client is or is not under investigation

 

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How Michael Flynn’s disdain for limits led to a legal quagmire

The New York Times reports: Michael T. Flynn was a man seething and thwarted. In the summer of 2014, after repeatedly clashing with other Obama administration officials over his management of the Defense Intelligence Agency — and what he saw as his unheeded warnings about the rising power of Islamic militants — Mr. Flynn was fired, bringing his military career to an abrupt end.

Mr. Flynn decided that the military’s loss would be his gain: He would parlay his contacts, his disdain for conventional bureaucracy, and his intelligence career battling Al Qaeda into a lucrative business advising cybersecurity firms and other government contractors. Over the next two years he would sign on as a consultant to nearly two dozen companies, while carving out a niche as a sought-after author and speaker — and ultimately becoming a top adviser to President Trump.

“I’ve always had that entrepreneurial spirit,” Mr. Flynn said in an interview in October 2015. In the military, he added, “I learned that following the way you’re supposed to do things isn’t always the way to accomplish a task.”

But instead of lofting him into the upper ranks of Beltway bandits, where some other top soldiers have landed, his foray into consulting has become a legal and political quagmire, driven by the same disdain for boundaries that once propelled his rise in the military. His business ties are now the subject of a broad inquiry by a special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with Trump associates. That investigation now includes work Mr. Flynn did for Russian clients and for a Turkish businessman with ties to that country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. [Continue reading…]

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