Once again, Pence pleads ignorance — this time about Trump Jr. WikiLeaks contacts

Politico reports: Vice President Mike Pence was not aware of communications between WikiLeaks and President Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., during the 2016 campaign, his office said in a statement on Monday.

Trump Jr. exchanged messages with WikiLeaks during the fall of 2016, and alerted top campaign officials of the contacts, The Atlantic reported on Monday. Trump Jr. later confirmed on Twitter that he had exchanged direct messages with the organization.

“The Vice President was never aware of anyone associated with the campaign being in contact with Wikileaks,” said Pence’s press secretary, Alyssa Farah, in a statement. “He first learned of this news from a published report earlier tonight.”

Pence was asked in October 2016 if the Trump campaign was “in cahoots” with WikiLeaks as it released droves of damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Pence responded at the time. [Continue reading…]

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Trump can’t believe both Putin and his own intelligence agencies

Ryan Goodman and John Sipher write: When asked on Saturday about his conversation with Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific economic summit in Vietnam, President Donald Trump reported that the Russian president denied interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That, of course, directly contradicts the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community. “Every time [Putin] sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump said. The next day, in confusing fashion, he walked back parts of his earlier statement, saying he believes “in our intel agencies.” (Regarding what, exactly, he left unclear). But he also seemingly doubled down on his previous assertion. “I believe that [Putin] feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election,” Trump said.

Trump went on to say he hopes to cooperate with Russia to solve global problems like North Korea and Syria. But if he does in fact seek such help, based on the false premise of Putin’s sincerity, that’s bad news. Putin is a world-class liar—indeed, he’s professionally trained in the art of deception. He grew up in the Soviet KGB, ran Russia’s brutal internal security service, and has remade the government into a personal fiefdom. He now serves as an unchallenged autocrat. Analysts assess that he is one of the wealthiest individuals in the world, despite his modest claim that his official salary is less than $200,000 a year.

Inside Russia, truth and falsehood are purposely clouded so that Putin can create facts serving his own interests and those of his coterie. Truth is only what he says it is, at the time of his choosing. The same truth may well be denied the following day. And conveyers of real truth, including dissidents and reporters, are eliminated.

Putin seems to regard his capacity to assert obvious lies as truth as an exertion of his power. Immediately following the shoot-down of a Malaysian airliner in which 298 civilians were killed, he lied about the circumstances that led to their murder. He denied the illegal use of chemical weapons by his allies in Syria. He lied about the Russian invasion of Crimea and the use of Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine, and he covered up the secret state-sponsored doping of Russian athletes. In each case, his deceit has been revealed. Yet he has doubled down on his rendering of the truth, remaining steadfast no matter how ridiculous he appears. [Continue reading…]

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Trump distances himself from his own remarks on Putin over election meddling

Reuters reports: U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday attempted to clear up confusion over whether he accepts Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of meddling in the U.S. election last year.

At a news conference in Vietnam, Trump distanced himself from remarks he made on Saturday in which he suggested he believed Putin when he said there had been no Russian meddling in the election that took him to the White House.

The comments had drawn criticism at home because U.S. intelligence agencies have long since concluded there was Russian meddling.

“As to whether I believe it or not, I’m with our agencies, especially as currently constituted,” Trump said at a news conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang.

“As currently led, by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies.”

He was careful to make clear he sided with the intelligence agencies under his own leadership.

Former U.S. intelligence director James Clapper had told Reuters: “The fact the president of the United States would take Putin at his word over that of the intelligence community is quite simply unconscionable.” [Continue reading…]

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Russian crime bosses and their ties to Putin

ProPublica reports: Among the wealthy sophisticates who came and went from their seaside villas on the Spanish island of Mallorca, there was something that didn’t quite fit about the Russian who lived in a neoclassical mansion on the Avenida Portals Vells. Tall and powerfully built, with a flattened nose and graying, short-cropped hair, he looked more like an aging boxer than an international businessman. Most days, dressed in a t-shirt and sweat pants, he would drive over to a local marina in his older-model Mercedes—he saved the Bentley for rides with his wife—and stop in at a favorite restaurant. Taking a table by the water’s edge, he would order a tapa and watch the boats, murmuring into his cell phone in a hoarse, Slavic whisper.

It wasn’t long before police began to wonder about Gennady Petrov. He and his family were clearly Russian, but their passports were Greek. They seemed to have a lot of money, and to spend it in unusual ways. A real estate agent reported that Petrov had paid a contractor to build a tunnel down to the sea from another home he had owned in the area. Then there was an incident involving two Russians who were arrested as they prowled outside an upscale shopping center. The suspects wouldn’t talk, even after the police found a bomb in their car. But detectives eventually determined that the men were hoodlums who had flown in from Frankfurt to track another Russian—a businessman who was apparently involved in a dispute with Petrov.

The authorities soon discovered that Petrov was indeed a former boxer—and reputedly a high-ranking figure in one of Russia’s most powerful criminal organizations, the Tambovskaya. In Spain alone, he had amassed at least $50 million in properties and businesses. Beyond his island refuge, he was said to control a global network of legitimate and illicit activities, ranging from jewelry stores and extortion rings to the gray-market sale of Soviet MiG-29 fighter jets. But even the scope of Petrov’s enterprises did not prepare Spanish investigators for what they heard when they began to listen in on his telephone calls.

At one point, Petrov called a senior justice official in Moscow to complain that a Russian shipyard had fallen behind on construction of a new yacht Petrov had ordered. According to a confidential Spanish report of the conversation, the Russian official promised to go see the shipbuilder with some of “his boys,” and show him “a lot of affection.” Days later, another Spanish wiretap caught two of Petrov’s associates laughing about how agents of the Russian security forces had left the shipbuilder terrified. The yacht was back on schedule.

In hundreds of telephone calls intercepted during the year before Petrov’s arrest in 2008, Spanish investigators listened as the mob boss chatted with powerful businessmen, notorious criminals and high-level officials in the government of Vladimir Putin. During one trip to Russia, Petrov called his son to say he had just met with a man who turned out to be the Russian defense minister—and to report that they had sorted out a land deal, the sale of some airplanes, and a scheme to invest in Russian energy companies.

“Will you join the government?” a fellow mob boss joked with Petrov in another conversation monitored by Spanish investigators. “I bought a suitcase to store all the bribes you’ll get.” Petrov seemed to enjoy the irony, but said he was quite satisfied with Putin’s continued political control.

At a time when Russian intelligence and criminal activities have become an urgent concern in the United States and Europe, the Spanish investigations of Petrov and other Russians offer a remarkable view of the way that some of the most powerful mafia bosses have operated, both in Russia and abroad. Building on ties that sometimes date to the last years of the Soviet Union, more sophisticated mob leaders have survived gang wars and crackdowns to amass extraordinary wealth and influence, while remaining almost as deferential to Putin’s government as the oligarchs he helped create. Rather than simply bribing police officials to facilitate their activities, bosses like Petrov have established themselves as business partners, money launderers, and investment scouts for high-ranking officials who have amassed sizable fortunes themselves, Western security officials say. Those relationships, in turn, have enabled crime bosses to expand their involvement in legitimate business and political activities that are linked to the Russian government. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. embassy in Moscow hires security firm of former Russian spy who worked with Putin

The Telegraph reports: The US embassy in Moscow is to be guarded by a company owned by a former head of KGB counter-intelligence who worked with British double agent Kim Philby and young Vladimir Putin, after cuts to US staff demanded by Russia.

Elite Security Holdings was awarded a $2.83 million contract to provide “local guard services for US mission Russia,” which includes the Moscow embassy and consulates in St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok, according to a post on a US state procurement website.

The contract and background of the firm came to light in a Kommersant newspaper report on Friday.

Elite Security, a private company and the oldest part of the eponymous holding, was founded in 1997 by Viktor Budanov and his son Dmitry, according to a Russian business registry.

A 2002 article posted on the site of Russia’s foreign intelligence service identified Mr Budanov as a major general in the agency who became a Soviet spy in 1966 and retired a year after the collapse of the USSR.

His long work in Soviet and Russian intelligence could raise questions about whether the guard services contract poses a security or intelligence risk to the US mission. [Continue reading…]

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Papadopoulos’s ‘extremely limited’ involvement in campaign included editing a major foreign policy speech for Trump

The New York Times reports: Publicly, Mr. Trump and former campaign officials have tried to distance themselves from [George] Papadopoulos. Although he once praised him as an “excellent guy,” Mr. Trump posted on Twitter that “few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar.” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, said his involvement in the campaign was “extremely limited.”

But records and interviews show that in spring 2016, Mr. Papadopoulos was welcomed into the thinly-staffed campaign as a “surrogate” who could articulate the candidate’s views. He even helped edit a major foreign policy speech that Mr. Trump gave in Washington in late April, records indicate.

The day before he learned about the hacked emails, Mr. Papadopoulos emailed Mr. Miller, then a senior policy adviser to the campaign, saying Mr. Trump had an “open invitation” from Mr. Putin to visit Russia. The day after, he wrote Mr. Miller that he had “some interesting messages coming in from Moscow about a trip when the time is right.” [Continue reading…]

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How Flynn — and the Russia scandal — landed in the West Wing

Politico reports: Michael Flynn wasn’t even on the shortlist of potential national security advisers.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the early transition chief for a newly elected Donald Trump, and his team had deep reservations about Flynn, fearing the retired three-star Army general who had been ousted from the Obama administration suffered from poor judgment and espoused far-out ideas on foreign policy.

Instead, their list for the NSA slot included marquee military leaders such as now-Secretary of Defense James Mattis; General Peter Pace, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush; and Admiral William McRaven, who oversaw the Osama bin Laden raid, according to two people familiar with the transition.

But when Christie was fired from his transition perch on Nov. 11 — replaced by soon-to-be Vice President Mike Pence — Flynn and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon celebrated by tossing binders full of potential personnel picks, carefully culled by Christie’s team, into trash bins with a sense of ceremonial glee.

They did this before an audience of other transition officials, according to the two people close to the transition and a campaign official — though another former transition official disputed the idea that the binders and picks were not considered by the Pence-led transition team.

Ultimately it was Trump himself who made the decision to ditch Christie’s recommendation against hiring Flynn for national security adviser, according to two former transition officials, rewarding one of his most loyal campaign surrogates. [Continue reading…]

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Boris Johnson met ‘London professor’ linked to FBI’s Russia investigation

The Guardian reports: Boris Johnson is facing questions about the government’s links to key individuals named by the FBI in its Trump-Russia investigation, following the emergence of a photo of him with Joseph Mifsud, the “London professor” with high-level Kremlin contacts.

The foreign secretary is facing accusations of a potential security breach following the emergence of the photo of him with Mifsud, whose identity emerged as part of investigations into alleged links between Donald Trump’s election campaign and Russia.

This development comes less than a week after Johnson denied meeting the professor, and at a time when concern is growing about possible Russian interference in the Brexit campaign, in which the foreign secretary played a crucial role.

Although the FBI had known about Mifsud’s role as a high-level go-between linking the Trump campaign and the Russian government since at least July, it appears British intelligence did not warn the foreign secretary about the potential embarrassment or security implications before he attended a fundraising dinner with Mifsud on 19 October. [Continue reading…]

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Collusion: Trump sides with Putin on issue of election meddling by Russia

CNN reports: President Donald Trump suggested on Saturday he’s done confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin over his country’s election meddling since it’s insulting to the Russian leader.

Trump said he took Putin at his word that Russia did not seek to interfere in the US presidential election last year, despite a finding from US intelligence agencies that it did. The fraught relations between the two leaders was underscored anew when Putin’s spokesman said election meddling did not come up when they spoke, even though Trump said it did.

And he stressed that bigger issues persist between the United States and Russia that require the two leaders to move on.

“He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One as he flew from Da Nang to Hanoi in Vietnam. Trump spoke to Putin three times on the sidelines of summit here, where the Russia meddling issue arose.

“Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,'” Trump said. “And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.”

“I think he is very insulted by it,” Trump added.

His remarks, which came near the end of Trump’s marathon swing through Asia, amounted to the clearest statement yet of Trump’s views about last year’s election meddling issue. [Continue reading…]

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A London meeting of an unlikely group: How a Trump adviser came to learn of Clinton ‘dirt’

The New York Times reports: At midday on March 24, 2016, an improbable group gathered in a London cafe to discuss setting up a meeting between Donald J. Trump, then a candidate, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

There was George Papadopoulos, a 28-year-old from Chicago with an inflated résumé who just days earlier had been publicly named as a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Trump’s campaign. There was Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese academic in his mid-50s with a faltering career who boasted of having high-level contacts in the Russian government.

And, perhaps most mysteriously, there was Olga Polonskaya, a 30-year-old Russian from St. Petersburg and the former manager of a wine distribution company. Mr. Mifsud introduced her to Mr. Papadopoulos as Mr. Putin’s niece, according to court papers. Mr. Putin has no niece.

The interactions between the three players and a fourth man with contacts inside Russia’s Foreign Ministry have become a central part of the inquiry by the special prosecutor, Robert S. Mueller III, into the Kremlin’s efforts to interfere with the presidential election. Recently released court documents suggest that the F.B.I. suspected that some of the people who showed interest in Mr. Papadopoulos were participants in a Russian intelligence operation. [Continue reading…]

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How Putin is using Hungary to destroy Europe

Anna Nemtsova reports: Russian President Vladimir Putin has some key allies in the European Union. In some countries, they are outliers, even fringe elements. In some, like France and the Netherlands, they made impressive bids for power before, finally, they failed. But in Hungary, a nation of about 10 million people east of Austria, west of Ukraine, and north of the Balkans, Putin’s soulmate is the prime minister, Viktor Orban.

As with so many Putin allies and apologists (including in the United States) Orban made the fight against immigration a centerpiece of his agenda. And he then went one better by identifying another Hungarian as the personification of evil “liberalism.”

Last month Hungary hosted a unique conference for persecuted Christians. Orban opened the conference by scolding Europe for, “denying its Christian roots” and for allowing in “dangerous extremists.”

The billionaire George Soros, once a supporter of Orban, is now identified publicly and ubiquitously as his number one enemy. In a recent public statement Orban called the world’s biggest philanthropist “Satan,” claiming that the developer of one of the best Hungarian universities wants to destroy Europe by letting in Muslim immigrants.

That statement made many alt-right supporters happy, both in Hungary and in Russia. One of the eminences grises of the Kremlin, Vladislav Surkov, wrote in his column on Monday: “Things that acquire a national scale in the United States become a global trend outside its borders.” [Continue reading…]

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Syria, Russia slammed at chemical weapons watchdog meeting

The Associated Press reports: Syria and its close ally Russia faced harsh criticism on Thursday at a meeting of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons following an investigation that blamed Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime for a sarin attack that killed about 100 people in April.

At a closed-doors meeting of the chemical weapons watchdog’s executive council, U.S. representative Kenneth D. Ward said that Russia “continues to deny the truth and, instead, collaborates with the Assad regime in a deplorable attempt to discredit” the joint U.N.-OPCW investigation.

The text of Ward’s statement was posted on the OPCW website.

Russia has denounced the results of the investigation into the attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. It also vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution to renew the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, known as the JIM, which expires this month. [Continue reading…]

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Trump is part of the Saudi story

Anne Applebaum writes: There are countries in which you are accused of an act of corruption and then you are arrested. And then there are countries in which someone decides to arrest you and only then are you called corrupt.

Saudi Arabia belongs to that second category. Last week, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, used the excuse of “corruption” to arrest several dozen people, including close members of his family, and to lock them up in the posh confines of the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh.

Nobody took the charges at face value. “Corruption” — theft from the state — is not easily defined in Saudi Arabia, a place where the ruling family is the state, and vice versa.

Instead, those who know the country have argued that these arrests are part of a major political transition, an assault on the country’s sclerotic, traditional power structure. The crown prince appears to be “deliberately dismantling the traditional governance system in Saudi Arabia,” wrote The Post’s David Ignatius. The arrests were preceded by other changes: Talk of social modernization, for example — one of the world’s most misogynistic societies will soon allow women to drive — as well as of the diversification of an economy almost entirely dependent on oil.

But if those are the goals, these arrests also represent another setback for U.S. leadership in the era of President Trump, and a major blow to the prestige of a very different model of modernization and political transition. Most European countries were once monarchies like Saudi Arabia, but they handed over power to parliaments. The United States once denied women many rights, but it slowly enfranchised them. That Western model — to expand rights and freedom, to establish the rule of law and independent courts, to pass sovereignty from an aristocracy to a broader group of citizens — was long promoted by Americans as a matter of course. During what is remembered as the “Third Wave” of democratization, from the 1970s to the 1990s, dozens of countries in Latin America, Asia and central Europe sought to emulate this tradition and carry out this kind of reform.

Now that model is in retreat. Instead of following a Western model of modernization and reform, the crown prince has taken the path of China and Russia, where “political transition” means that power is retained by a tiny, very wealthy elite. [Continue reading…]

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Russia Twitter trolls deflected Trump bad news

The Associated Press reports: Disguised Russian agents on Twitter rushed to deflect scandalous news about Donald Trump just before last year’s presidential election while straining to refocus criticism on the mainstream media and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, according to an Associated Press analysis of since-deleted accounts.

Tweets by Russia-backed accounts such as “America_1st_” and “BatonRougeVoice” on Oct. 7, 2016, actively pivoted away from news of an audio recording in which Trump made crude comments about groping women, and instead touted damaging emails hacked from Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta.

Since early this year, the extent of Russian intrusion to help Trump and hurt Clinton in the election has been the subject of both congressional scrutiny and a criminal investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. In particular, those investigations are looking into the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

AP’s analysis illuminates the obvious strategy behind the Russian cyber meddling: swiftly react, distort and distract attention from any negative Trump news. [Continue reading…]

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Kiev is buzzing about the Manafort indictment

Politico reports: Last week, as the news of Paul Manafort’s indictment on 12 counts of money laundering, tax evasion and lobbying violations rocketed through Washington D.C., a small group quietly celebrated in a nondescript Soviet-era building near the Dnieper River in the Ukrainian capital.

“It showed we’re on the right track,” Serhiy Gorbatyuk, head of a special investigations unit in the Ukrainian general prosecutor’s office, told POLITICO. Gorbatyuk and his team are tasked with digging into alleged illegal, under-the-table payments by Ukraine’s pro-Russian former president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was deposed in a pro-Western revolution three years ago. Manafort, whose work as political advisor to Yanukovych for nearly a decade provided the bulk of material for the U.S. indictment, figures in two of their Ukrainian investigations.

The first, referred to locally as the “black ledgers” case, concerns some $2 billion of allegedly off-the-books disbursements by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. Last year the New York Times revealed that Manafort’s name appeared 22 times among the hundreds of pages of handwritten entries, for alleged payments totaling $12.7 million. (Though Manafort denied receiving the money, the revelations contributed to his resignation as Trump’s campaign manager in August 2016.) [Continue reading…]

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Academic at heart of Clinton ‘dirt’ claim vanishes, leaving trail of questions

CNN reports: Joseph Mifsud, the Maltese academic suspected of being a link between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, was once a regular on the foreign policy circuit, attending conferences the world over.

Now, after being identified as a key figure in the US special counsel investigation into Russian influence over the 2016 US presidential election, Mifsud has gone to ground.

Last Thursday he disappeared from the private university in Rome where he teaches. Repeated attempts to reach him since have been unsuccessful, though he appears to have read some messages from CNN.

But more details are emerging of the background and contacts of the man who emerged last week as “Foreign Contact 1” in court filings relating to charges brought against former Trump aide George Papadopoulos. [Continue reading…]

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A leaked defence document reveals Germany’s worries about the breakup of the global order

Paul Mason writes: The German defence ministry set out its worst-case scenario for the year 2040 in a secret document that was leaked to Der Spiegel last week: “EU enlargement has been largely abandoned, and more states have left the community … the increasingly disorderly, sometimes chaotic and conflict-prone, world has dramatically changed the security environment.”

The 120-page-long paper, entitled Strategic Perspective 2040, is a federal government policy document – and the scenarios it imagines are grimly realistic: an east-west conflict in which some EU states join the Russian side or a “multipolar” Europe, where some states adopt the Russian economic and political model in defiance of the Lisbon treaty.

That the document exists at all is a sign of the increased tension in the global system. The German military’s tradition of rigorous logistical planning for every eventuality began with the celebrated German field marshal Moltke in the 1850s and has three times paid off with initial success: in 1871 against France, in 1914 and 1939 against the rest of Europe. In the post-cold war era, as Der Spiegel puts it, allowing German generals to make statements about the future was “too risky”. That changed with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Despite the alarmist headlines it has generated, the leaked document is, if anything, overoptimistic. In three out of the six scenarios, things go so well that Europe resembles the Biedermeier era – 1815-1848 – of domestic bliss and military boredom. Its negative scenarios – which see the US struggling to avoid isolationism and China locked in a cultural war with the west – were written before Donald Trump came to power and before Xi Jinping’s strategy of creating a politicised Chinese infrastructure across Asia. [Continue reading…]

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