Friday, 28 July 2017

Who now is the hand of the king?





The infighting within Trump’s White House reached a crescendo this week, with the addition to the menagerie of mini-me-Trump Anthony Scaramucci and the subsequent and connected ousting of the buffoonish Sean Spicer and stalwart Republican insider Reince Priebus. 


Friday, 21 July 2017

The new Trump offensive



I think we should expect a ramping-up of accusations against Trump’s critics in the coming days.

Trump’s interview with the New York Times on Wednesday 19 July, and the subsequent reporting in the Washington Post on Trump’s querying of the extent of his own powers of pardon signal, I suspect, the start of new offensive on the part of the Trump White House against those tasked with both usual legal oversight of the US government and the extra-ordinary Russia investigation.


Monday, 10 July 2017

What do the latest Trump-Russia revelations actually amount to?

Gunshot sounds, smoking gun, and bullet holes, but no forensically matched bullets...yet.
 
Last year Trump very publicly called on "Russia, if you're listening" to help him find Clinton's missing emails.  Over the past week two major stories have been reported that indicate there were more active, behind the scenes, efforts on the part of the Trump campaign to get damaging information on the Clinton campaign.  The Wall Street Journal  and now the New York Times have reported active Trump campaign contacts with Russian agents or intermediaries toward the goal of obtaining negative information about Clinton.  And Donald Trump Jr. has now publicly confirmed that the campaign communicated directly with a Russia foreign national connected with the Putin regime in the bid for that material damaging to their election opponents.  Why is this significant?  Simply, these are the first clear examples of the Trump team deliberately "colluding" with Russians in the 2016 election.


American experts have pointed to the legal problems a presidential candidate would face if they received “substantial assistance” from or were “aided and abetted” by a foreign national in an effort to influence an election.  Plenty of evidence has been accumulating on the public record of this happening in “plain sight” -- including Mr. Trump's own comments during the campaign.  These have been brushed off as rhetorical flourishes.  Now there is the first evidence of the intent and willingness to have direct Russian assistance, and the actions undertaken to obtain it.

The Wall Street Journal story outlined the activities of a Trump-campaign supporter, Peter W. Smith, who assembled a team dedicated to locating Clinton's deleted emails, and who put out the word that they were interested in what hackers could find.  Smith's contact with the Trump team was supposedly Mike Flynn.  We don't know whether Flynn had direct contact with Smith; Flynn isn't saying and Smith is now dead (note, not likely a conspiracy, he was in his 80s). The Trump campaign has not, however, denied Flynn's involvement, saying only that “if Flynn coordinated with [Smith] in any way, it would have been in his capacity as a private individual.”  Yet, Smith and one of his associates apparently indicated to others the belief that Flynn was their connection to the Trump campaign. This is all being investigated, no doubt.
 
Then this weekend the New York Times reported that Donald Trump Jr., along with Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort (Trump Campaign Chair at the time), met last June with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.  The latter is a person with close ties to the Kremlin, who for years has been advocating for repeal of the Magnitsky Act: an American law from 2012 that blacklists suspected Russian human rights abusers.  Putin was reportedly so angry at the law he retaliated by halting American adoptions of Russian children.  Veselnitskaya has been at the forefront of campaigning against the law ever since, including, attempts to discredit its namesake, Sergei L. Magnitsky, a lawyer and auditor who died in a Russian prison in 2009, in dubious and never fully explained circumstances, after exposing one of the biggest corruption scandals during Mr. Putin’s rule.  We also learned in a second story based on sources from within the Whitehouse itself that Trump Jr., took the meeting because he was promised that he would receive damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

Trump, Jr. has changed his story on this meeting at least twice (first denying it, then saying it was about something else), but he now acknowledges it was about getting dirt on Clinton but claims the meeting was disappointing because “It quickly became clear that she [the Russia lawyer] had no meaningful information.”  He now says her claim to have had this material as mere “pretext” for the meeting.  And more evidence is emerging that Trump Jr., and others, knew that the Russians were willing to help them.  Moreover, the President’s son is admitting that the campaign arranged the meeting solely to get information on Clinton.

Trump Jr claims in his defence that all campaigns look for dirt on their opponents (true enough), and that he did not know of Veselnitskaya's Russian connection (this should be treated as highly dubious - what campaign would send its top people to such a sensitive meeting without first finding out who they were meeting with?).  Trump Jr. claims when he invited Kushner and Manafort to join the meeting he did not know that Veselnitskaya was a Russian lawyer; nor did any of them seem to care. That strains credulity, but if there is any truth to it, ignorance of whom they were dealing with will likely be seen as “willful blindness” by those investigating the Trump team -- that won't help their legal position.
  
The Times reports that they got the information from “three advisers to the White House briefed on the meeting and two others with knowledge of it.” Those sources apparently talked after the release of the first story.  Advisors to the White House are not in the business of taking highly damaging stories and volunteering new information which makes them catastrophically more damaging.  The inference to be drawn here, it seems to me, is that the President’s allies were trying to get ahead of something much more damaging or get a first crack at shaping the public understanding of something much more damaging. We don’t know yet what drove them to volunteer such highly damaging information, but five of them did it, so it wasn’t a rogue whistleblower.

May, June and July 2016 are critical months in the Russia story.  A large amount of stuff of consequence happened just in July [see the timeline here]. There are already suggestions, as yet unproven, that a top Trump associate was offered caches of email in the months or weeks just prior to the first Wikileaks release on July 22nd, 2016.  This story sounds quite similar, or at least the opening gambit to such an offer.  We have a growing number of stories like these, each seemingly damning but which we are told are mere coincidences and misunderstandings with no connection to any of the other stories.  As the coincidences pile up, the credibility of claims they are just unconnected coincidences wears thinner and thinner.

All this new information adds considerably to the potential criminal violation of the federal law that prohibits “substantial assistance” to foreign nationals seeking to influence a federal election.  Donald Trump can’t very well sustain his position that in calling for the Russians to find the missing email, he was merely joking. His campaign was working behind closed doors to fulfill the objective that the candidate was “jokingly” about.  If confirmed and further developed in the Mueller investigation, these facts also bolster the campaign’s exposure to “aiding and abetting” liability for a campaign finance violation.

A question clearly raised by the new information is whether the Trump campaign’s public and private communications about the hacked emails constituted a request or suggestion that funds be spent to acquire the stolen emails. The candidate certainly requested this assistance in his public remarks. Now, in a meeting scheduled with a Russian national with ties to the Putin regime, the campaign made clear that it was actively interested in having this kind of information.  Press reporting suggests that a) the campaign was interested in the emails, because the candidate had said so, and supporters like Smith was engaged in a concerted effort to find them; and b) both the campaign and Smith were dealing with Russian nationals in the search for negative information on Clinton. 

It would hardly be unreasonable for the Russians to infer that the campaign was very much in the market for this information.  By suggesting that she had such information, Veselnitskaya was able obtain an audience with intimate associates of the candidate.  The  Russians could not mistake the intensity of the campaign’s interest.  The very scheduling of the meeting–and the status of the attendees–was sufficient to get the campaign’s point across about what it highly valued and was prepared to take from a foreign source.  And if they had any doubt, it would have been resolved by the President’s public call, six weeks later, for the Russians, “if you’re listening,” to find the emails.

We still don't have the direct connections necessary to judge if Trump and his campaign committed campaign finance violations in soliciting and receiving support from Russia, and assisting the Russians in their plan to influence the 2016 presidential election. But there is now little doubt that there is such a case to be investigated.  

What is becoming increasingly clear is that Mr. Trump and his campaign were open to whatever help the Russians would provide: they made that clear to the Russians, and took specific actions to invite and receive this foreign national assistance.  In response to the latest disclosure of Russian contacts, the campaign’s defense seems to be that it never checked whether the people from whom they were soliciting stolen emails and other negative information were Russians, much less connected to the Kremlin.  That may beggar belief; some may even find the claim perversely amusing.  But under campaign finance law, it is no joke, its a crime.


BUT, just as we seem to be getting somewhere...

MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow has raised the alarm that credible news outlets may be getting sent fake documents on the Russia investigation from sources trying to scuttle media credibility on the issue.  After being sent doctored “Top Secret” NSA documents claiming coordination between a named member of the Trump campaign and Russia, Maddow noted a possible link to recent sourcing problems with stories at CNN and Vice both led to their retraction and in one instance the resignation of several journalists. 

Clearly there will be more smoke ahead. 


Monday, 26 June 2017

A database of the normalization of autocracy


Those who have studied authoritarianism, both historical and contemporary, have argued for the importance of recogonizing how authoritarian governments take hold — often with incremental changes that seem shocking at first but quickly become normalized.   

Amy Siskind took this heart and has, since Trump's inauguration, documented every small change to American political norms she's observed and put them in weekly medium posts.  Each post begins with: “Experts in authoritarianism advise to keep a list of things subtly changing around you, so you’ll remember.”  Now, in Week 32, every item has a source link, and rather than just a few items, there are dozens.  Siskind is not alone.  On Twitter, for example, designer Laura Olin created @_rememberbot, where frequent tweets begin with the words “It is not normal” and catalogue the oddities of TrumpWorld. (“It is not normal for U.S. presidents to criticize federal judges.”)  But Siskind is most likely the most systematic.  
Here is a searchable database of all her lists.  

It makes sobering reading for how much things have changed incrementally and how much has become normalized.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Conspiracies to the left of us, conspiracies to the right, and Russia….in the middle?


Recent political campaigns, particularly the 2016 British Brexit vote, the 2016 US and 2017 French Presidential elections, are now all under scrutiny for potential meddling by Russia operatives and allies.  In all three cases an influence and propaganda campaign has been detected, with operatives directed by or sympathetic to Russia trying to manipulate social media and release hacked information thought damaging to the party not favoured by Russian interests.  Russian interference has led to a multitude of conspiracy theories about Russian influence, on both the left and right of the political spectrum, on social media manipulation by shady elites, on the rise of ‘alternative’ media outlets with Russian connections or pro-Russian views, and rapidly proliferating fake news about fake news. 

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

We are Approaching a Dangerous Moment in the Trump Presidency

Right now, Trump still has too many powerful defenders for him to face a political or legal reckoning, but he is getting seriously frustrated with the political crisis he has himself wrought, and wants desperately to ‘change the channel’ to distract attention from his manifest troubles.  And when he is on the defensive, Trump lashes out.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Trump throws out some red meat to his base


While everyone is (rightly) obsessed with the Comey firing... Trump appoints another white nationalist ideologue to lead his dangerous “election commission”.

Yesterday (May 10), just before basically conceding the White House lines on the Comey firing over the past 48 hours were fabrications, Trump launched a long-promised commission on “election integrity,” rekindling a controversy over the prevalence of voter fraud at US polls.  The commission, established by executive order, is the upshot of Trump’s unsubstantiated claim shortly after taking office that more than 3 million undocumented immigrants illegally voted in November’s election.  The new commission includes Republicans Connie Lawson, the secretary of state of Indiana, and Kenneth Blackwell, who formerly held that post in Ohio; Democratic election officials William M. Gardner of New Hampshire and Matthew Dunlap of Maine.  Christy McCormick, a Republican member of the nonpartisan US Election Assistance Commission appointed by President Barack Obama, has also been selected to serve on the panel.  All these officials seem entirely reasonable choices, but he has appointed Kris Kobach to co-lead (along with Vice President Mike Pence) this commission and its investigation.  Kobach is a white nationalist, anti-immigrant ideologue with a long and notorious career of voter suppression efforts.  The new commission is unlikely to find much evidence of real voter fraud, but with Kobach’s guidance, it could entrench voter suppression measures nonetheless.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Comey's Firing: A Moment of Truth for America


A Key Turning Point for Trumpism and Democracy

James Comey’s firing by Trump was lawful, and for some legal experts even overdue, but the now former FBI Director's role in leading the Trump-Russia investigation means that Trump’s action has brought his presidency to a turning point moment – a very dangerous moment for American democracy.  It really all depends on whom Trump nominates to succeed Comey.  If he tries to nominate a loyal stooge, then a constitutional crisis, or worse, the slide into authoritarianism, lies ahead.  If he nominates a credible, independent replacement (or a special prosecutor), or if the Republican controlled Senate insists on an independent replacement, then this will eventually blow over and Trump’s shambolic presidency will limp on. 

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Grand Jury Investigations into the Russian Connection


Are there Grand Juries already investigating the Trump-Russian connection?

A number of Washington insiders certainly think so.  And FBI Director Comey’s comments to the Senate on Wednesday seem to indirectly confirm such suspicions.

Friday, 5 May 2017

The Ruin of the Twentieth Century Returns: Exclusionary nationalism and Brexit


Brexit, Nationalism and the International Far Right


This is the lightly edited text of a talk I gave at Hamilton Third Age Learning on exclusionary nationalism and Brexit. It's a long, illustrated, post explaining the connections between the far right, the rise of nationalism and Brexit, Trump and anti-EU movements in Europe today.

Brexit refers to the referendum held on 23 June 2016 regarding Britain’s continuing membership in the European Union.  A relatively simple question was asked:

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” 
Voters had two choices:

1. “Remain a member of the European Union” 

2. “Leave the European Union”  

The Result:  17,410,742 voted to leave; 16,141,241 voted to remain. 

The leave campaign thus earned 51.9% of the 33.5 million votes cast – a turn out of 72% of the 45 million people eligible to vote.  Thus, 37% of the total eligible electorate cast a vote to leave the European Union [or EU].  This result was widely seen as surprising.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Trump by the numbers: The First 100 Days



A selection of his ‘achievements’ with some sources.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Come Sail Away


Trump’s Administration produces chaos even for the US military 


 
Remember 10 days ago when the US administration raised global anxieties (at least those following the news) because it claimed that Trump had ordered a carrier strike group to head towards North Korea in advance of that regime’s sabre-rattling missile tests?  Well it turns out the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its supporting ships were actually conducting exercises off the coast of Australia, a US defense official acknowledged today. Indeed it was actually traveling in the opposite direction — towards the Indian Ocean, not to the northwestern Pacific — as recently as four days ago.  Trump and his spokespeople thus either lied or were totally confused about the warships’ whereabouts.  Given the track record and general ignorance of Trump and his proxies, either likelihood seems possible; both are laughably ridiculous if the brinkmanship deployed by Trump in this episode wasn’t so frightening. 

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Behold Trump, Bringer of War




Trump has reversed his pre-election non-interventionism and seemingly embraced Republican foreign policy hawkishness. 
Is this a good thing?  No.
Even before the missile strikes in Syria, Trump’s unknowledgeable, unpredictable and combative approach to foreign relations raised alarm amongst foreign policy experts about the possibility of armed conflict with Iran, China or North Korea.  After the Syria missile strikes and the unleashing of the unprecedented use of the MOAB weapon in Afghanistan, those worst fears are now nearer to being realized.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Syria



Trump, Syria and Distraction
Last night, Thursday 6 April, Trump flip-flopped on a major campaign plank and intervened directly in the Syrian civil-war quagmire by ordering a missile strike on the air base understood to be the launch point of the Syrian air force’s chemical weapon strike against its own civilian population earlier this week.  While ostensibly reacting to the most recent atrocity and war crime of Assad’s regime, I think there are good reasons to be sceptical about the purpose and ongoing commitment of Trump’s apparent turn of heart.  There is also reason to be extremely anxious about this impetuous and instinctual use of American military might by Trump.  In several ways, this action – even though it is directed at a murderous, criminal regime fully deserving of punitive treatment – confirms some of the worst fears expressed before the election about handing to a man like Trump the keys to the world’s most powerful arsenal.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Russia Again (updated to April 30)



 The Russian Connection, revisited, and a timeline of the links
You may have heard about reports that indicate that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is trying to cut a deal with the FBI, copping a plea in exchange for telling everything he knows about Donald Trump’s team and Russia, including possible collusion in that country’s interference with the 2016 election.  The Wall Street Journal reports that Flynn has offered to be interviewed by the agency and the congressional intelligence committees in exchange for immunity, “but has so far found no takers.” His lawyer told Bloomberg that, “Gen. Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit.”  As many have noted, this is somewhat ironic since Flynn told Meet the Press last September, “When you are given immunity, that means you probably committed a crime.”

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Trump's Ideologues 4: Bannon and Miller and Islamaphobia


Trump's advisors and Islamaphobia



Islamaphobic ideologues now hold some of the most powerful positions in American government.  As a group, these figures understand the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims entirely through the lens of its most extreme outliers.  In an oft cited and telling analogy, its akin to suggesting Christianity should be understood by taking the views of the Klu Klux Klan as the norm.  Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller’s anti-immigration views, as I outlined in my previous blog, stem from a concentration of far-right views that have also viewed Muslims as a particular threat to the far-right’s peculiar understanding of Christian Western Civilization.  In this blog I’ll be outlining some of the sources and implications of their views on Islam.  

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Trump’s Ideologues 3: Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller on Immigration


Trump’s Ideologues 3:  Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller on Immigration
Stephen K. Bannon is acknowledged as the chief ideologue in Trump’s inner circle even if, as FiveThirtyEight has detailed, there maybe as many as eight potential power centres within the Trump administration and they all have different perspectives and (in part competing) agendas.  But as his chief advisor (and, significantly, an outsider to the Washington establishment) Bannon is the most important of the ideologues at this moment.  His young and aggressive protégé, Stephen Miller, is also an ideologue, but Miller’s views parallel Bannon’s so it makes sense to look at them together.  (To put another way familiar to historians: If Bannon were Robiespierre then Miller would be St. Just.) 
Looking at his overall worldview, it is apparent that Bannon seeks to influence Trump under four broad headings: restricting immigration, Islamaphobia, economic nationalism, and the destruction of the political establishment.  Although all four headings are related in Bannon and Miller’s worldview, I’ll be devoting a separate blog post to each heading, ending with how they all fit together.  This first post will set out the place of restricting immigration to the United States since this has been a priority acted on during Trump’s first 50 days.