Monday, June 12, 2017

The Trump-Russia Imbroglio

The trouble with our time can be summed up in the shorthand used in text messaging: TMI—too much information. We are besieged and overwhelmed with news stories and scandals and tweets and government outrages that bleed into each other to the point that we can hardly keep them straight—even those of us who would like to. This is the case with the Trump-Russia scandal. Most of us know the basics: the Russians hacked into the DNC and somehow interfered with our recent presidential election; Trump seems to have a liking for Russians in general (he’s married to one) and Russian premier Vladimir Putin in particular; and several of his associates, such as Paul Manafort (former Trump campaign chair), Carter Page (Trump campaign adviser), General Mike Flynn (Trump appointee as National Security Chief until he had to be fired for lying about contacts with Russians), Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner (now a target of the FBI inquiry), and even Jefferson Sessions, Trump’s Attorney General (who neglected, under oath, to reveal his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak), seem to have had dealings or ties with Russian businessmen or politicians. But aside from these basics, most Americans are easy prey to the Republican and administration denials: all of this is coincidence, partisan lies, and fake news, with no real substance, no smoking gun.
            But if one really looks into all this, at the pattern of events both before and after the election, things really begin to take ominous shape. We begin to see not only patterns, but also motives for the Trump administration’s inclination and need to cozy up to the Russians, even to the point of risking illegality. And it all comes down to basically two lines of evidence:
1) Trump’s dealings with Russian oligarchs in the years before the election, especially after he went bankrupt six or more times in the 1990s and, with banks refusing to lend to him, in desperate need of an alternate source of cash to promote his continuing real estate projects; and 2) Trump’s zeal to pave the way for a 2014 Arctic oil-drilling deal between Exxon Mobil (and its then-CEO, Rex Tillerson) and Russia’s big ‘privatized’ oil company, Rosneft. In short, aside from other sleazy doings we surely do not know about, Donald Trump was in debt to, and hence liable to ‘influence’ by Russian oligarchs (read ‘criminals’) who had made off with the cream of Russia’s state-owned enterprises and so were flush with cash; and through them to Vladimir Putin (no one, apparently, became a rich oligarch without Putin’s approval), zealous to get back to enriching his nation and himself with oil revenues. Both these reasons feed into each other, and pulling on threads from one always has the possibility of leading the ‘puller’ back to the criminal stench in the other. Hence Trump’s eagerness to short-circuit any investigation into his finances (no tax returns), and equally, to short-circuit any investigation into Russian influence on the American election and/or his closest associates like Mike Flynn. Trump didn’t intervene in the FBI investigation by James Comey into the Flynn case because he’s a ‘nice guy’ protecting a loyal supporter. No No. The investigation into Flynn’s dealings with Russia was toxic on its own (cooperating with Russian influence on an election), and also for what it might reveal about Trump and his obligations to the Russians even before the election.
            What one needs to make sense of this is both reviews of the timeline of events leading Trump into the White House, and some articles and documentaries showing clearly how Donald Trump’s projects (Trump Soho, Trump Tower, and various other Trump-named enterprises around the world) are shot through with Russian financiers and Russian tenants and paper companies that hide their assets behind phony names and addresses. For the first, I am grateful to Frank Vyan Walton, whose June 10 article on the Daily Kos, “Testifying Under Oath Could Absolutely End Trump’s Presidency,” with its key detailed timeline, really nails the pattern down as nothing else could. And second, the documentary “The Dubious Friends of Donald Trump,” made by the Dutch company Zembla, which reveals chapter and verse about the truly criminal characters with whom Donald Trump and his enterprises are deeply entwined. Yet another documentary is a similar but shorter film by BBC Newsnight, “Donald Trump’s Business Links to the Mob.” All you have to do to get the odor of Donald Trump’s criminality (and, since the BBC doc was run on March 4, 2016, every American could have been informed of this before voting) is google and watch either one.
            What each does in its turn is to introduce us to the shady characters (and outright criminals like Felix Sater and cement king Tony Salerno) Trump has been associating with in business for many years. One might dismiss these dealings by consigning them to the past, but Mr. Sater’s name has come up as recently as February 19, 2017. On that date, the New York Times reported in a piece titled “A Back-Channel Plan for Ukraine and Russia, Courtesy of Trump Associates” that Sater, along with Trump’s personal lawyer Michael D. Cohen and a shady Ukrainian character named Artemenko (and originally including the now-departed Gen. Michael Flynn), had proposed a way for the Trump administration to get sanctions against Russia lifted (these Russian sanctions, both the ones imposed in 2014 during the Ukraine crisis, and the later ones imposed by President Obama in December 2016 after American intelligence agencies confirmed that the hackers in the American election were definitely Russian, play a significant role in all the shenanigans the Trump Administration is now trying to cover up, so keep them in mind). The proposal obviously wasn’t successful, but it’s important both for its brazenness, and for its resuscitation (or perhaps reappearance) of Sater—whom Trump has insisted he hardly knew and wouldn’t recognize if he saw him. But clearly Sater is still active, and that means that Trump’s connection to the mob and the Russians (Sater, born in Russia, operated as a mobster in New York, served jail time for stock manipulation, was a partner in Bayrock—the firm that Trump partnered with to finance Trump Soho, among other things—and became part of the FBI’s witness-protection program to stay out of jail) is still active as well. Which figures. You don’t simply walk away from mobsters, and my best guess is that Trump is still beholden to them via kompromat or blackmail—as the explosive dossier that came from former British intelligence officer and head of MI6’s Russia desk, Christopher Steele, alleges.)
            Now the mountains that Trump has moved to discredit the Russian investigation begin to make more sense, for if it were all just ‘fake news,’ why worry? Clearly, though, something BIG is at stake. Something very big. And it’s not just Trump’s constant contacts with mobsters, though, for a U.S. President, that’s big enough. It’s not even Trump’s compromising activities in Russia (where the alleged “golden showers” took place—though Trump’s puzzling comment to James Comey about “no hookers” perhaps gives that scurrilous allegation more weight than it might otherwise have.) No, it’s time to get back to the money. There’s a very weighty deal at stake, one that Russian President Putin has a keen, almost desperate interest in. It’s a deal that first made the headlines on April 18, 2012, when Reuters reported: “Exxon, Rosneft Unveil $500 billion offshore venture.” And what that deal between Russia’s Rosneft (allegations have been made that Trump bought into this company as well) and America’s ExxonMobil involved was an “offshore exploration partnership…that could invest upward of $500 billion in developing Russia’s vast energy reserves in the Arctic and Black Sea.” That is a big deal, both for Exxon—which has been keen to find new reserves before the oil industry goes bust—and Rosneft, which Putin is desperate to get going to reignite Russia’s key oil income. Joe Romm of ThinkProgress put it succinctly in his headline article on Jan. 8: “Did Putin help elect Trump to restore $500 billion Exxon oil deal killed by sanctions?” Romm says this in his article:

The top priority for Putin and the kleptocrats who benefit from his rule is enriching the Kremlin’s coffers and their own, which have been hurt by the sanctions. And Trump’s election already appears to have delivered $11 billion to the Kremlin through sale of a 19.5 percent stake in Rosneft, “confounding expectations that the Kremlin’s standoff with the West would scare off major investors,” as Fortune has reported in a must-read piece. Indeed, if Trump and Tillerson instead end the sanctions that are blocking the Exxon-Rossneft deal, it is going to look suspiciously like a half trillion dollar quid pro quo for Putin’s help getting elected.

End the sanctions in return for election help: that’s a pretty big quid pro quo. But Romm adds something else to consider: the other element blocking the Arctic deal was the Paris accords agreed to by President Obama. Indeed, though President Trump has been, as yet, unable to get the Russia sanctions lifted (more about that below), he has already sold out the entire planet by withdrawing the United States from the Paris accords—so that his and Rex Tillerson’s deal to drill in the Arctic Ocean (itself made possible by global warming’s melting ice in the Arctic) and make untold trillions in profit, can go ahead as planned. If only he can get those damned sanctions on Russia lifted.
            So that’s the deal so often promised by the great “dealmaker.” And the back-channel contacts to make this happen started well before the election season, started at least as early (and probably earlier) as December 1, 2016, when, we now know, General Flynn and Jared Kushner met with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, and suggested a back channel of communications using Russian facilities that could avoid (Kushner stupidly thought) the security apparatus of the United States. That’s about a year before the election and Trump people are already trying to set up secure communications with the Russians. When President Obama on December 29, 2016 increases sanctions on the Russians for election meddling, Putin stays calm but Gen. Flynn actually calls Kislyak and tells him not to worry; which comes to fruition the first day Trump is in office, January 21, 2017, when State Department officials record alarm at the heavy pressure put on them by Trump officials to drop all Russia sanctions. Flynn, of course, denies to the FBI any contact with the Russians, not knowing that they already have records of his contacts. Within days, on January 26, acting AG Sally Yates goes to the White House to warn Trump that General Flynn, by now his National Security Chief, has been compromised and may be vulnerable to Russian blackmail. The Trumpster rejects this several times, while, on January 27, he orders his Muslim Travel Ban and also invites FBI director James Comey to dinner and asks him for a pledge of loyalty—which Comey refuses. Comey also decides he’d better start keeping detailed notes. When Sally Yates orders the Justice Department not to enforce the travel ban, which she deems unconstitutional, she is summarily fired on January 31. Then on February 7, Trump is stymied by his own Congress, when Senators Ben Cardin and Lindsey Graham, having been alerted by State Department officials of the President’s attempts to cancel the Russia sanctions, draft legislation requiring the approval of Congress for any removal of those sanctions. Then the heat turns up on the Russia scandal, and by February 13, General Flynn becomes too hot to handle because of his lying about contacts with the Russians, and he’s fired too.
            Now Trump’s main efforts shift to containing the damage generated by the Russian queries, mainly by trying to ensure that he himself is not under investigation, and by trying to get FBI director Comey to go easy on the now-compromised and -fired General Flynn. This takes place in the now-famous meeting between Trump and Comey, one for which Comey has memo notes, and which Trump of course denies. This line continues, with a recorded nine meetings Trump has with Comey, all of which, one way or the other, are designed to influence the FBI director to go easy on the Russia investigation (and to keep Flynn from talking). This does not mean the sanctions strand was let go; for on March 17, Trump members of the National Security Agency email the State Department again asking for removal of the sanctions so the Rosneft oil deal could go through. State responds that this would be a bad move, not least because lifting the sanctions should require the Russians to give something in return. Trump’s attempts to get officials to influence the Russian investigation continue, but on May 8, Sally Yates publicly testifies to the Senate Intelligence Committee that she went to the White House because of her deep concern that Flynn was compromised. The next day, May 9, the President fires FBI Director James Comey, allegedly because of his unprofessional investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. But that excuse falls apart the day after that, when Trump, meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and the now-infamous Ambassador Kislyak in the White House, calls Comey a “nut job,” but also says his worry over the “Russia pressure” will now go away. Despite the fact that numerous members of the administration have supported the Clinton pretext for the firing, the rug is pulled out from under them on May 11, when White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders confirms that FBI director Comey was fired to “bring the Russia matter to a conclusion,” which Trump himself confirms later that day in a CBS interview with Lester Holt. Trump adds that he would have fired Comey regardless of the DOJ recommendation because it was the “made up Russia story” that did it. Then, on May 31, though he can’t manage to get the sanctions on Russia lifted, Trump signals that he will give back to Russia the two isolated compounds (one in eastern Maryland, the other on Long Island) that President Obama has confiscated in December as part of the punishment for election meddling. Obama had asserted that the two estates were being used for “intelligence-related purposes,” (i.e spying) and expelled at least 35 intelligence operatives working there. President Trump disagreed and, signaling that he was apparently better disposed towards Putin than Obama, vowed to give them back.
            To be sure, there are other niceties and details that I have left out (for example, the new FBI director Trump has chosen, Christopher Wray, works for a law firm with an office in Moscow, and ties to Russian oil companies Rosneft and Gazprom.) and still more that will emerge in the weeks and months to come. But this is the gist of it. The panic in the Trump White House over the investigations into Russia meddling and Russia contacts clearly comes down to the President’s fear of getting caught making a deal with the Russian leader and/or his minions for one of two reasons: either to keep the dirty money and dirty behavior he has always engaged in secret, or to keep secret the quid pro quo of Russian help winning the presidency in exchange for lifting sanctions and facilitating the Rosneft oil deal in the Arctic. Is either one (or both) sufficient to impel an American president to commit what comes as close to treason as we have ever seen? Trump’s past behavior indicates that it does. He has been an “operator” as long as he’s been in business. Like a psychopath, he seems to have no feeling at all for those he hurts or destroys—be it his loyal appointees or the entire planet. He’s been in bed with criminals for most of his career, and certainly since his sleazy financial disasters in the 1990s. And has always managed to find the money for new ventures and bully or buy his way out of criminal indictment. But the post of President of the United States carries with it a different set of accountabilities, not to say responsibilities. That, it seems to me, is what Donald Trump has run aground on: the persistent microscope that focuses on the thoughts, behaviors, tics, and secrets of the most powerful person in the world. It all, sooner or later, comes into view. So if someone like myself can look at the timeline and the materials that are already in the public domain and come to the conclusions that seem obvious, it would seem a slam dunk for a Special Counsel like Former FBI-director Robert Mueller, with all the investigative instruments at his disposal, to come to even more damaging conclusions. The only question is: how much time will it take. Because time for Donald Trump to continue the damage—both to this country and to the world—that he’s already started, is what we can ill afford. Still, it seems clearer than ever, especially after the testimony of James Comey last week, that time is running out for the liar-in-chief. For this observer, it can’t run out too soon.

Lawrence DiStasi