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After Years of Squealing about “FISA Abuse,” Trump’s DNI Nominee Won’t Rule Out Warrantless Wiretapping

As I noted earlier, in his confirmation hearing to be Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe made it crystal clear he will lie to protect Trump by stating that he believed Trump has always accurately conveyed the threat of COVID-19.

Ratcliffe made some other alarming comments. For example:

  • He repeatedly said that Russia had not changed any votes in 2016. The Intelligence Community did not review that issue and Ratcliffe has no basis to make that claim.
  • Ratcliffe also repeatedly refused to back SSCI’s unanimous conclusion that Russia intervened to help Trump.
  • He dodged when Warner asked him to promise to brief the committee even if Russia were trying to help Trump.
  • When asked whether he supported Inspectors General, Ratcliffe said that he supported Michael Horowitz when others attacked him but then suggested he disagreed with Horowitz’ “opinion,” making it clear he does not accept Horowitz’ conclusions that he found no evidence that bias affected the investigation into Trump’s flunkies.
  • Ratcliffe claimed he didn’t have enough information to address Michael Atkinson’s firing.
  • When Dianne Feinstein read his quotes about the Ukraine whistleblower to him, Ratcliffe pretended those quotes were about something they weren’t.
  • He might not provide intelligence on COVID-19 that showed how Trump blew it off.
  • He suggested that if only the IC had reviewed open source data, they might have warned of the dangers of COVID-19, which they did warn of using both OSINT and classified intelligence.
  • He refused to answer whether he thought there was a Deep State in the IC, and later suggested a few members of the IC were Deep State.
  • Ratcliffe refused to agree to release a report showing that Mohammed bin Salman had Jamal Khashoggi executed and chopped into bits, as required by last year’s Defense Authorization. He suggested that it might have been properly classified; as DNI, he would be the Original Classification Authority to make that decision.
  • He refused to answer clearly on whether Trump’s policies on North Korea and Iran have worked.
  • He later suggested he might not share intelligence if it were too sensitive, again ignoring that as OCA he gets to decide whether it’s really classified.
  • After saying he would appear for a Global Threats hearing, he then dodged when later asked whether he would appear before the committee generally.

Ratcliffe made several comments to make it clear he would side with expansive Unitary Executive interpretations holding that:

  • There are limits to whistleblower protection.
  • If torture were deemed legal it would okay to do it.
  • The executive can use warrantless wiretapping.

There were a few additional hints about stuff going on right now:

  • Mark Warner said that intelligence professionals have been pressured to limit information they share with Congress.
  • Warner also said that Ric Grenell was undermining the IC’s election security group.
  • Both Warner and Richard Burr seemed concerned that the DNI would not declassify their 1000-page Volume V of their Report on Russia’s 2016 election interference (I’m not sure whether this assess the Steele dossier or lays out whether and how Trump “colluded” during 2016).
  • Martin Heinrich made it clear that Grenell is reorganizing the IC, without any consultation or approval from Congress.

It’s not just unqualified, he’s a sycophant. But it seems like there’s so much that Grenell is already screwing up, Republicans on the committee, at least, prefer Ratcliffe.

Update: Here are Ratcliffe’s Questions for the Record. They’re particularly troubling on sharing with Congress.

He twice refused to say that he wouldn’t impose loyalty tests.

QUESTION 39: Personnel decisions can affect analytic integrity and objectivity. A. Would you consider an individual’s personal political preferences, to include “loyalty” to the President, in making a decision to hire, fire, or promote an individual?

Answer: Personnel decisions should be based on qualifications, skills, merit, and other standards which demonstrate the ability, dedication and integrity required to support the central IC mission of providing unvarnished intelligence to policymakers.

B. Do you commit to exclusively consider professional qualifications in IC personnel decisions, without consideration of partisan or political factors?

Answer: Personnel decisions should be based on qualifications, skills, merit, and other standards that demonstrate the ability, dedication and integrity required to support the central IC mission of providing unvarnished intelligence to policymakers.

He refused to promise to keep the Election Threats Executive Office open.

QUESTION 45: Would you commit to keep the Election Threats Executive Office in place to ensure continuity of efforts, and build on the successes of the 2018 midterms?

Answer: If confirmed, I will work with IC leaders and ODNI officials to ensure the IC is well-positioned to address the election security threats facing our Nation.

He refused to promise to notify Congress if Russia starts helping Trump again.

QUESTION 53: Do you commit to immediately notifying policymakers and the public of Russian attempts to meddle in U.S. democratic processes, to include our elections?

Answer: If confirmed, I would work with the Committee to accommodate its legitimate oversight needs while safeguarding the confidentiality interests of the Executive Branch, including the protection from unauthorized disclosure of classified intelligence sources and methods

He suggested he had no problem with Section 215 being used to access someone’s browsing records.

QUESTION 7: Do you believe that Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act should be used to collect Americans’ web browsing and internet search history? If yes, do you believe there are or should be any limitations to “digital tracking” of Americans without a warrant, in terms of length of time, the amount of information collected, or the nature of the information collected (e.g., whether particular kinds of websites raise special privacy concerns)?

Answer: I believe it is important for the Intelligence Community to use its authorities appropriately against valid intelligence targets. The amendments to Title V of FISA made by Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act expired on March 15, 2020 and, to date, have not been reauthorized.

Ratcliffe dodged several questions about whether FISA was exclusive means to collect

Extra-Statutory Collection

QUESTION 9: Title 50, section 1812 provides for exclusive means by which electronic surveillance and interception of certain communications may be conducted. Do you agree that this provision of law is binding on the President?

Answer: If confirmed, I would work with the Attorney General to ensure that IC activities are carried out in accordance with the Constitution and applicable federal law.

QUESTION 10: Do you believe that the intelligence surveillance and collection activities covered by FISA can be conducted outside the FISA framework? If yes, please specify which intelligence surveillance and collection activities, the limits (if any) on extra-statutory collection activities, and the legal authorities you believe would authorize those activities.

Answer: If confirmed, I would work with the Attorney General and the heads of IC elements, as well as the General Counsels throughout the IC, to ensure that intelligence activities are conducted in accordance with the Constitution and applicable federal law. As set forth in Section 112 of FISA, with limited exceptions, FISA constitutes the exclusive statutory means by which electronic surveillance, as defined in FISA, and the interception of domestic wire, oral, or electric communications for foreign intelligence purposes may be conducted.

QUESTION 11: What would you do if the IC was requested or directed to conduct such collection activities outside the FISA framework? Would you notify the full congressional intelligence activities?

Answer: Consistent with the requirements of the National Security Act, I would keep the congressional intelligence committees informed of the intelligence activities of the United States, including any illegal intelligence activities. As you know, not all intelligence activities are governed by FISA.

If confirmed, I would work with the Attorney General and the heads of IC elements, as well as the General Counsels throughout the IC, to ensure that intelligence activities are conducted in accordance with the Constitution and applicable federal law.

Senator Wyden asked a question about the IC purchasing stuff they otherwise would need a warrant for.

QUESTION 12: Do you believe the IC can purchase information related to U.S. persons if the compelled production of that information would be covered by FISA? If yes, what rules and guidelines would apply to the type and quantity of the information purchased and to the use, retention and dissemination of that information? Should the congressional intelligence committees be briefed on any such collection activities?

Answer: Elements of the IC are authorized to collect, retain, or disseminate information concerning U.S. persons only in accordance with procedures approved by the Attorney General. As you know, not all intelligence activities are governed by FISA, and it is my understanding that in appropriate circumstances elements of the IC may lawfully purchase information from the private sector in furtherance of their authorized missions. Nonetheless, any intelligence activity not governed by FISA would be regulated by the Attorney General-approved procedures that govern the intelligence activities of that IC element. Consistent with the requirements of the National Security Act, if confirmed, I would keep the congressional intelligence committees informed of the intelligence activities of the United States.

 

Art of the Get-Screwed-in-Your-Russian-Quid-Pro-Quo Deal

Donald J. Trump, self-proclaimed Master of the Deal, just got his ass handed to him in a high stakes nuclear negotiation by Kim Jong-Un, at a time when Trump had the full power of the United States and hundreds of experts available to help him.

And yet Russian conspiracy denialists believe that any conspiracy between said deal-maker and Vladimir Putin must show evidence that Trump came away with a big win over anything but the 2016 election. They believe this, even though Trump made any such deal at a time when he was desperate to avoid a humiliating loss, relying on negotiators like his feckless son Don Jr, his attention-craving personal lawyer Michael Cohen, and his financially exposed campaign manager Paul Manafort.

That’s what I learned last night when I walked Aaron Maté through the process of first claiming the Trump Tower deal went nowhere because Cohen and Felix Sater disagreed in December 2015, then admitting that Cohen and Sater were still at it in May and June 2016. By the end, Maté was dismissing Rudy Giuliani’s admission that the deal went through the election (which is itself a limited hangout designed to hide that a Trump Tower deal was pursued in two different forms after the election, as well as abundant evidence that other financial payoffs were dangled if not made) by pointing to Dmitry Peskov’s stories, which have changed right along with Michael Cohen’s evolving story.

Because there’s no shiny tower in Moscow with Trump’s name on it, Maté appears to believe, it is proof that when Don Jr took a meeting in June 2016 at which he (according to the sworn testimony of four people who attended) committed to revisit Magnitsky sanctions if his dad got elected, the possibility of a $300 million payoff didn’t factor in to Junior’s willingness to sign away American policy considerations on behalf of his father.

That’s not how criminal conspiracy law works.

If you sign up for a deal and take steps to make good on it — as Don Jr did on June 9, 2016 and Paul Manafort appears to have done on August 2, 2016 and Mike Flynn appears to have done, on Trump’s behalf, on December 29, 2016 — then it doesn’t matter if the partner to that deal fucks you over later in the process. And, after all, the Russians did continue to supply Trump with a steady supply of dirt on Hillary Clinton all through the election. They got Trump elected, or at least did what they could to help, even if that payoff wasn’t the one Trump was most interested in.

Do you think Oleg Deripaska, a key player in both the deal-making and likely in the cover-up of it, gives a shit if Paul Manafort — who had screwed Deripaska over years earlier — had his life ruined as part of the process of compromising a President and getting sanctions relief? My suspicion is we’ll learn that Deripaska actually magnified Manafort’s hurt, once he had gotten him to compromise himself and the campaign.

Do you think Putin really cares whether Trump — to say nothing of the United States — benefits from the stupid choices Trump made during the election? Putin — a far better “deal” maker than Trump — got a win-win either way: Either Trump succeeded in compromising America’s rule of law in an effort to squelch any investigation into what happened, robbing the United States of the claim to idealism that so irks the master kleptocrat, Putin, or Trump would spend his Administration desperately trying to find a way out, all the while Putin connives Trump into dismantling the alliances that keep Russia in check.

And, too, Putin’s election year operation exacerbated the polarization between Democrats and Republicans such that most Republicans and a goodly number of Democrats have been unable to step back and say, holy shit, this country got attacked and we need to come together to do something about it. Trump’s win got Republicans to fear Trump’s base so much that they care more about those fevered hordes than doing what is right for this country. And Democrats rightly want to punish Trump for cheating, but haven’t thought about what a least-damaging off-ramp for that cheater might look like.

Putin doesn’t care if Trump benefits from all this — though he is happy to keep toying with Trump like a cat plays before he eviscerates his mouse. He cares about whether he and his cronies win. And there are multiple ways for him to get a win out of this, whether or not Trump manages to eke out any kind of real payoff past the election.

And let’s be honest, Putin isn’t the only one playing this game. Certainly, Mohammed bin Salman feels the same way, even if his record of ruthless dealmaking is shorter and sloppier than Putin’s. The truth is that Donald Trump and Jared Kushner are easy marks for a whole range of skilled operators willing to stroke their egos and dangle loot, and over and over again they’ve let themselves be bested in foreign policy negotiations, to the detriment of the interests of the United States. That they are so bad at deal making in no way disproves their culpability.

There is no Trump Tower in Moscow. But there never had to be. All that was needed was the promise of a ridiculously lucrative narcissism-stroking deal for the Trump family to agree to shit that would hurt this country. And all the evidence suggests that they did, and continue to do so.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

We Will Not Get Peace from the People Who Dismember Dissidents Alive

In the wake of Trump’s announcement that the US will withdraw from Syria and James Mattis’ subsequent resignation, Jeremy Scahill captured the ambivalence of the moment this way:

I agree with much of what Scahill says: I welcome withdrawing troops from overseas. We should never forget that Mattis earned his name, Mad Dog, nor that he got fired by Obama for being too belligerent. The panicked response of a bunch of warmongers is telling. Trump cannot be trusted.

But I think Scahill is too pat in saying “the chaos presents opportunity,” in part because (as he suggests) there doesn’t yet exist “an alternative vision for US foreign policy.”

And while I appreciate that Scahill really does capture this ambivalence, far too many others welcoming a potential troop withdrawal are not recognizing the complexity of the moment.

While we don’t yet fully understand the complex dynamics that led to it, Trump decided to withdraw from Syria during a phone call with a man who has spent two months embarrassing Trump, Trump’s son-in-law, and the corrupt Saudi prince whose crackdown Trump has enthusiastically backed by releasing details of how that prince lulled an American resident dissident to a third country so he could be chopped up with a bone saw while still breathing. And even while Erdogan was embarrassing Trump with those details about Khashoggi’s assassination, he was pressuring Trump to extend the same favor to him by extraditing Fethullah Gulen so he could be chopped up in some grisly fashion.

It is a mistake to think we will get peace from men who dismember dissidents alive.

All that said, Trump will do what he wants and unless the simmering revolt at DOD changes his mind, he will withdraw from Syria and drawdown in Afghanistan.

And if that happens those who would like peace had damn well be better prepared  for that “opportunity” than by simply hoping a future alternative US foreign policy arises. It will take immediate tactical actions to prevent any withdrawal from creating more chaos and misery both in the US and overseas. After all, Trump says he wants to bring troops home, but he has already come perilously close to violating posse comitatus by deploying troops domestically, and that was even with Mattis pushing back against that campaign stunt.

At a minimum, those who want peace need to answer some of the following questions immediately:

What person would both be willing to work for Trump and pursue a policy of peace?

I could not think of any person who could be confirmed by the Senate — even one where nutjobs like Marsha Blackburn have replaced people like Bob Corker — that would be willing to work for Donald Trump and might pursue some kind of alternative foreign policy.

In fact, the only person I could think of for the job (ruling out Erik Prince for a variety of reasons) would be Tom Cotton.

So job number one, for people who hope to use this as an opportunity, is to start coming up with names of people who could replace Mattis and anyone else who quits along with him.

How to prevent the refugee crisis from getting worse?

Multiple accounts of the events leading up to Trump’s decision make it clear that Erdogan would like to use US withdrawal to massacre the Kurds. It’s possible we’ll see similar massacres in Assad-held Syria and Afghanistan as those left try to consolidate their victory.

For all the years the refugee crisis has been mostly a political prop here in the US, it has posed a real threat to the European Union (indeed, I went to several meetings with EUP members in the weeks before Trump’s election where they said it was the greatest threat to the EU). So we need to start thinking seriously about how to prevent genocide and other massacres and the inevitable refugee crises that would result.

How to counter Trump’s fondness for fossil fuels and arms sales?

No withdrawal is going to lead to “peace” or even a retreat of the US empire so long as Trump exacerbates an already unforgivable US addiction to fossil fuels and reliance on arms sales. Particularly with Saudi Arabia but also with Turkey, Trump has excused his fondness for authoritarianism by pointing to arms sales.

And on these issues, Trump actually agrees with the “war party in DC,” which will make it far harder to counter them. Yes, many of the new Democrats entering Congress — most of all Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — don’t have these horrible habits. So what can you do to make sure her Green New Deal not only isn’t squelched by party leadership, but is seen as the alternative to Trump by centrists?

Nukes. How to prevent Trump from using them?

It’s not that Trump is opposed to violence. He’s opposed to engagement and complexity and long term engagement.

Which means, particularly as more and more so-called adults leave, the chance he’ll turn a tantrum into a nuclear strike skyrocket. Mattis won’t be there to stop him.

How to balance accountability for the mistakes that got us here with accountability for Trump?

The movement that brands itself as “The Resistance” has long made a grave mistake of embracing whatever warmed over anti-Trump centrist wanted to loudly denounce the President.

As a result, the mistakes of many of those people — people like John Brennan and Jim Comey and David Frum and David Brooks — were ignored, even when those mistakes created the vacuum that Trump (and Vladimir Putin) have filled.

Trump would not be President if George Bush had not invaded Iraq, abetted by Frum’s nifty tagline, Axis of Evil. Trump would not be President if the banks that crashed the economy in 2008 had been accountable by people like former Bridgewater Associates executive and HSBC board member then FBI Director Jim Comey.

Again, this is about complexity. But so long as those who would keep Trump accountable ignore what made Trump possible, we will make no progress.

How to preserve democracy long enough to pursue a new foreign policy?

Finally, an increasingly real challenge. Trump sides with Putin and Erdogan and Mohammed bin Salman and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi not because it serves US interests (which is the excuse American politicians usually offer for tolerating Saudi and Egyptian authoritarianism). He does so because he genuinely loves their authoritarianism.

And as Republicans in the Senate begin to push back against Trump, Democrats in the House try to hold him accountable, and the so-called adults leave his Administration, it raises the chances that Trump will embrace increasingly desperate measures to implement his policies. We can’t just assume that Mueller and SDNY and NY State will prevent a Trump authoritarian power grab, particularly not as he continues to pack the courts.

While numerous State Attorneys General and NGOs are having reasonable success at constraining Trump, thus far, in the courts, eventually we’re going to need a bipartisan commitment in DC to constraining Trump. Eventually we’re going to need to convince a bunch of Republican Senators that Trump is doing permanent damage to this country. That’s going to take building, not severing, relationships with some Republicans, even while finding some means to persuade them that Trump can no longer benefit them.

To some degree, we have no choice but to find answers to these questions, one way or another. It is especially incumbent on those celebrating a withdrawal to acknowledge, and try to answer, them.

The Moving Parts: The Walls Come Down around Trump

The other day (I forget which day it was, to be honest) I wondered aloud whether, as it became clear the walls were collapsing around Trump, he’d make a rash move to pay off his debts, perhaps to salvage something for his post-Presidenting life.

I’m not sure we’re quite at that point yet. But in recent days, a ton has happened it’s hard to make sense of.

This post doesn’t pretend to offer answers. I just want to write down everything I think is happening in one place — blogger’s prerogative, call it.

Mattis resigns, citing Trump’s fondness for authoritarians

The most alarming news is not that James Mattis resigned, but how he did so. In his resignation letter, he cited the importance of NATO, and China and Russia’s authoritarianism that leads them to promote their interest over that of their neighbors, America, and our allies, before he made it clear that Trump disagrees with Mattis in rejecting those authoritarian values.

One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies. Like you, I have said from the beginning that the armed forces of the United States should not be the policeman of the world. Instead, we must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances. NATO’s 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to fighting alongside us following the 9-11 attack on America. The Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations is further proof.

Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions — to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America[,] and our allies. That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.

My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position. [my emphasis]

The precipitating event, though, was Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria.

Officials said Mr. Mattis went to the White House on Thursday afternoon in a last attempt to convince Mr. Trump to keep American troops in Syria, where they have been fighting the Islamic State. He was rebuffed, and told the president that he was resigning as a result.

One source says that Trump’s decision to close the Special Forces base in Syria is part of the problem.

The US is set to shut a special forces base in Syria that has been the subject of repeated Russian complaints, and that some US officials have cast as a key part of US efforts not just to defeat ISIS but to counter Iranian influence in the country.

Muhannad al-Talla, a rebel commander at al-Tanf, a US base near the Syrian border with Jordan, told BuzzFeed News that the base would see the withdrawal of the US troops who have trained and fought alongside rebels there.

I’m wondering if this base was involved in the shellacking of Putin ally Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s mercenaries.

Another is Erdogan’s threat (or promise) to massacre our longstanding Kurdish allies.

Defense officials tell me Mattis went to the White House to discuss Syria & that he was livid after reading reports that Turkey’s Defense Minister threatened to kill US-backed Kurds & put them in ditches once the US withdrew. He was incensed at this notion of betrayal of an ally.

Effectively, it seems, Mattis told Trump, “it’s me or Vladimir Putin” … and Trump chose Putin.

Erdogan exercises leverage — or is he the messenger boy?

But it wasn’t exactly — or just — Putin that finally got Trump to deliver on the payback he started delivering 14 hours after polls closed in 2016. It was Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As I noted, Trump met with Erdogan in Argentina but not — after the Michael Cohen allocution made it clear Putin was enticing Trump with a Tower deal in 2016 — Putin.

Multiple reports say a call Trump had with Erdogan on Friday was the precipitating factor. Here’s a really alarming account of that call.

That leads me to wonder what leverage Turkey, specifically, has over Trump, such that he’d pull out of Syria in response to a threat to massacre the Kurds, which will make it easy for Turkey to massacre the Kurds.

And I have to believe Turkey’s ploy with the Jamal Khashoggi execution is part of it. Erdogan never gave a shit that the Saudis lured a dissident to their soil to dismember alive. Erdogan himself pursues such repression, even if he conducts it with a bit more cover.

Indeed, whatever Erdogan has over Trump also has him considering extraditing Fethullah Gulen to Turkey for what would certainly be similar treatment — the payoff Turkey was requesting back in December 2016 when Trump’s chosen National Security Advisor was still hiding that he had been an unregistered agent for Turkey.

Perhaps Turkey has proof not just implicating Mohammed bin Salman in the execution, but Jared Kushner in green-lighting it, or possibly even Trump?

Mueller’s moves toward endgame

It’s hard — particularly given comments from people like Nancy Pelosi — to separate all this from what feels like an approaching Mueller (attempted) endgame. The lead-up to Flynn’s aborted sentencing featured the following:

  • Flynn makes an ill-considered attack on the legitimacy of the Mueller probe
  • Emmet Sullivan orders the release of the documents with which Flynn was attempting to undercut Mueller
  • Sullivan orders the far more damning Flynn 302 that, among other things, reveals that Turkey and Russia both had compromising information on Trump and Flynn
  • DOJ indicts Flynn’s business partners for hiding how Turkey angled to force DOJ to extradite Gulen
  • At Flynn’s sentencing hearing, Sullivan emphasizes that Flynn had been an agent of Turkey while ostensibly working for Trump and mentions the word treason

Plus there’s evidence that Jared Kushner — who has been the boy plaything for all these ruthless players — probably tried to attack Flynn even while he was having a grocery store tabloid pimp the Saudis.

And it was revealed that the Mystery Appellant refusing to provide information to Mueller is a foreign-owned corporation, probably a Russian or Middle Eastern bank or sovereign wealth fund funneling money to Trump or Jared. The company appears to have asked for an en banc review today.

Mueller also asked for and got the House Intelligence Committee to release its transcript of Roger Stone’s testimony. The timing of this is the interesting thing: Mueller chose to do this when Republicans had to (and did) vote to expose Trump’s top political advisor to indictment. He could have waited, but didn’t. That suggests either he wanted Republican buy-in, or he needs the transcripts now, to finalize his case against Stone before Democrats take over in a few weeks.

The day after SSCI released materials on James Wolfe, he was indicted.

So things are moving to a head in the Mueller probe, and in a way that both Russia and Turkey may be implicated.

Matt Whitaker performs a headfake before taking the corrupt step he was hired to take

Then there was the news today on big dick toilet salesman Matt Whitaker. This morning, multiple outlets reported that DOJ had told Whitaker he didn’t have to recuse from the Mueller probe. After that became the headline, however, multiple outlets revealed that the truth was the opposite: an ethics advisor had told Whitaker he should recuse, and having heard that, Whitaker consulted a hand-picked committee that predictably told him not to.

Within days of the president’s announcement in early November that he had put Whitaker in the role on a temporary basis, Whitaker tapped a veteran U.S. attorney to become part of a four-person team of advisers on his new job, according to a senior Justice Department official. Their guidance included the question of whether Whitaker should recuse himself from Mueller’s investigation because of his past statements regarding that probe and because of his friendship with one of its witnesses, the official said.

Whitaker never asked Justice Department ethics officials for a formal recommendation, nor did he receive one, this official said.

However, after Whitaker met repeatedly with Justice Department ethics officials to discuss the facts and the issues under consideration, a senior ethics official told the group of advisers on Tuesday that it was a “close call” but that Whitaker should recuse himself to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, the official said. Whitaker was not present at that meeting, they said.

Those four advisers, however, disagreed with the ethics determination and recommended to Whitaker the next day not to recuse, saying there was no precedent for that, and doing so now could create a bad precedent for future attorneys general.

That big dick toilet salesman Whitaker did this is not surprising.

That he chose to roll out this admission today is worth noting. One outlet reported that, up until today, Whitaker had not been briefed on the Mueller probe. Apparently, in the wake of a judge raising treason concerns after having reviewed Mike Flynn’s behavior, Whitaker has made the move to become Trump’s mole on the Mueller probe.

Update: BuzzFeed got a hold of the DOJ letter here. It makes it very clear Whitaker ignored advice to recuse.

Update: Marty Lederman notes that this letter fails to conduct a key part of the recusal analysis: why he would make a more appropriate supervisor for Mueller than Rod Rosenstein.

Trump prepares to shut down government

All this is happening as Trump prepares to shut down the government because Fox News laughed at him for getting pantsed by Nancy Pelosi.

Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy said the Democrats had won the showdown, and Trump had lost.

He launched into a tirade saying the president “loses, and the Democrats will win everything” based on his apparent decision to compromise with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer.

Doocy said Trump’s defeat would not only risk his campaign commitment to build the wall, but also bring into question his electoral promises to curb the rest of the government’s spending.

In response, over the course of today, Trump told Republicans he’d veto any continuing resolution that didn’t include $5 billion for his steel slat wall, making it much more likely we’ll have a shutdown as Trump skedaddles to Mar-a-Lago to take calls from his authoritarian buddies.

This may be entirely unrelated. After all, Fox and Friends is Trump’s bubble, that’s the only place where he considers losses to matter, and after the truth that Pelosi had bested him started to seep through, the narcissist-in-chief had no choice but to make a rash demand that Republican politicians sacrifice their careers in deference to his tantrum.

Which is to say that this behavior is precisely what we should expect when a narcissist’s mirror tells his he has been bested by someone he must demean.

Or maybe it is related?

Putin — or someone else — is calling in receipts

As I’m thinking about these things, I keep thinking back to an argument I made in August. I argued that Putin had compromised Trump not with a pee tape, but by ensuring his people kept receipts every time Trump got sucked deeper and deeper into a deal with Russia.

People are looking in the entirely wrong place for the kompromat that Putin has on Trump, and missing all the evidence of it right in front of their faces.

Vladimir Putin obtained receipts at each stage of this romance of Trump’s willing engagement in a conspiracy with Russians for help getting elected. Putin knows what each of those receipts mean. Mueller has provided hints, most obviously in that GRU indictment, that he knows what some of them are.

For example, on or about July 27, 2016, the Conspirators  attempted after hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third-party provider and used by Clinton’s personal office. At or around the same time, they also targeted seventy-six email addresses at the domain for the Clinton Campaign.

But Mueller’s not telling whether he has obtained the actual receipts.

And that’s the kompromat. Trump knows that if Mueller can present those receipts, he’s sunk, unless he so discredits the Mueller investigation before that time as to convince voters not to give Democrats a majority in Congress, and convince Congress not to oust him as the sell-out to the country those receipts show him to be. He also knows that, on the off-chance Mueller hasn’t figured this all out yet, Putin can at any time make those receipts plain. Therein lies Trump’s uncertainty: It’s not that he has any doubt what Putin has on him. It’s that he’s not sure which path before him — placating Putin, even if it provides more evidence he’s paying off his campaign debt, or trying to end the Mueller inquiry before repaying that campaign debt, at the risk of Putin losing patience with him — holds more risk.

Trump knows he’s screwed. He’s just not sure whether Putin or Mueller presents the bigger threat.

It has since become clear that not just Russia, but at least also Turkey and whatever bank is fighting a demand from Mueller that it turn over evidence of Trump’s graft, also have receipts.

Nevertheless, at the moment where it has become increasingly clear that Mueller knows much of whatever blackmail these partners have over Trump, Trump has chosen, instead, to alienate the Senators who might keep him from being impeached by evacuating from Syria and, later reports make clear, Afghanistan.

Trump is, on a dime and without warning to our closest allies, rolling up the American Empire. And he’s doing it not because he’s a peacenik — as far too many self-described progressives are trying to claim — but because ruthless, committed authoritarians have convinced him he needs their continued approval more than he needs the approval of even the Republican hawks in the Senate.

Update: I forgot to mention that the stock market is crashing. It started in response to Trump’s trade wars and bullying of the Fed, but accelerated given his threats to shut down the government.

Before Trump Did Nothing When Mohammed bin Salman Went After Jamal Khashoggi, He Did Nothing When MBS Went After Alwaleed bin Talal

There are a number of stories suggesting that the Trump administration will do nothing in response to the evidence that Mohammed bin Salman lured journalist Jamal Khashoggi to the Saudi consulate in Turkey to have him murdered and dismembered.

Trump has made a show of pretending to get to the bottom of things, while saying doing anything about it would hurt US-Saudi relations (meaning arms sales).

As outrage started to grow, MBS called Jared Kushner, with whom he has a close relationship sealed over all night conversations.

The White House said Wednesday that the powerful Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had spoken about Khashoggi the previous day with White House national security adviser John Bolton and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. Kushner and the crown prince, who is commonly referred to as MBS, are known to be close.

A former administration official told POLITICO that MBS had demanded the call earlier in the week after the top official at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh asked MBS directly about the Khashoggi case. The crown prince denied any wrongdoing in his conversation with that embassy official, the former official said.

Neither the White House nor the State Department would comment on the Saudi crown prince’s demand or most other aspects of this story. But the former official said the crown prince’s insistence on talking directly to the White House indicates he is hoping to leverage his close ties with Kushner and others in Trump’s inner circle to avoid repercussions.

And the business community — including close Trump allies — seem prepared to head for an investors conference in Saudi Arabia in spite of the assassination.

But if it becomes clear that the prince ordered the assassination of Mr. Khashoggi or was connected to it in some way, it will provoke an outcry on Capitol Hill; embarrass American executives, dozens of whom are flocking to Riyadh for a conference next week where the crown prince is scheduled to speak; and put Mr. Kushner, who was once himself a newspaper publisher, in an extremely awkward position.

Among the prominent figures scheduled to take part are Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase; Stephen A. Schwarzman, the chief executive of the Blackstone Group; and Dara Khosrowshahi, the chief executive of Uber.

Two other scheduled attendees have ties to Mr. Trump: Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a financier who is a friend of the president’s; and Dina H. Powell, a Goldman Sachs executive and former deputy national security adviser who worked closely with Mr. Kushner on Saudi Arabia and is a leading candidate to replace Nikki R. Haley as ambassador to the United Nations.

The Treasury Department said Mr. Mnuchin was still planning to attend.

While Congress has responded to this assassination by leveraging the Magnitsky Act, it seems the Administration would just like attention to the killing to fade.

Which really shouldn’t be a surprise.

The Administration did nothing last year when MBS targeted an even more prominent western-connected Saudi, Alwaleed bin Talal. Alwaleed was detained for 83 days by MBS until such time as he agreed to some kind of deal with the government, which may have involved handing over a substantial part of his fortune and acceptance of greater involvement in his business decisions.

Did you have to pay the government any money, did you have to hand over any land, did you have to surrender any shares?

When I say it’s a confidential and secret agreement, an arrangement based on a confirmed understanding between me and the government of Saudi Arabia, you have to respect that.

I’m a Saudi citizen. But I’m also a member of the royal family. The king is my uncle. Mohammed bin Salman is my cousin. So my interest is in maintaining the relationship between us and keeping it unscratched.

While Alwaleed is in no way a Saudi dissident, as Khashoggi was, he was a crucial cog not only in Saudi-US relations, but by virtue of his substantial investments in key US companies, in the US economy.

And western observers watched as MBS exerted some kind of influence over Alwaleed with only hushed complaints.

Far from criticizing the crackdown, Trump (and Jared, before the fact) appeared to sanction it.

Trump might do so not just because he has a fondness for authoritarianism. Starting fairly early in his presidential campaign, Trump had responded to Alwaleed’s criticisms of him with public mockery.

The Alwaleed-Trump tiff began in 2015, when candidate Trump called for curbing Muslim travel to the US in a bid to prevent terrorist attacks. Because of that, Alwaleed tweeted that the Republican front-runner was a “disgrace” and should bow out of the race. Mr. Trump responded that the prince was “dopey” and was seeking to “control our US politicians with daddy’s money.”

At one point, the future president tweeted a photo of Alwaleed alongside Megyn Kelly, then a Fox News correspondent who had clashed with Mr. Trump. It turned out that the image was a fake, and Mr. Trump falsely claimed that Alwaleed was “the co-owner of Fox News.” In fact, the prince had a stake in Fox’s (FOXA) sibling company, News Corp. (NWS), amounting to about 7 percent. He since has cut it drastically.

Alwaleed has countered Mr. Trump’s attacks by pointing out that he helped bail out the New York developer when the highly indebted Trump empire teetered on collapse in the early 1990s. First, the prince bought Mr. Trump’s 283-foot yacht for a bargain price of $18 million and with a partner bought out the Plaza, a storied New York hotel, which the Trump Organization owned.

Indeed, the Intercept reported that Jared provided intelligence from the Presidential Daily Brief to MBS on people he deemed disloyal to the regime.

In late October, Jared Kushner made an unannounced trip to Riyadh, catching some intelligence officials off guard. “The two princes are said to have stayed up until nearly 4 a.m. several nights, swapping stories and planning strategy,” the Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported at the time.

What exactly Kushner and the Saudi royal talked about in Riyadh may be known only to them, but after the meeting, Crown Prince Mohammed told confidants that Kushner had discussed the names of Saudis disloyal to the crown prince, according to three sources who have been in contact with members of the Saudi and Emirati royal families since the crackdown. Kushner, through his attorney’s spokesperson, denies having done so.

“Some questions by the media are so obviously false and ridiculous that they merit no response. This is one. The Intercept should know better,” said Peter Mirijanian, a spokesperson for Kushner’s lawyer Abbe Lowell.

On November 4, a week after Kushner returned to the U.S., the crown prince, known in official Washington by his initials MBS, launched what he called an anti-corruption crackdown. The Saudi government arrested dozens of members of the Saudi royal family and imprisoned them in the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh, which was first reported in English by The Intercept. The Saudi figures named in the President’s Daily Brief were among those rounded up; at least one was reportedly tortured.

While that story line of Trump’s response to the persecution was largely dropped as Alwaleed’s detention drew on early this year, I don’t doubt that Trump’s personal animosity to Alwaleed made him, if anything, at least comfortable if not enthusiastic about MBS’s power grab at Alwaleed’s expense. If so, MBS would have played to Trump’s own penchant for revenge to undercut what otherwise might have been more vocal criticism of the arbitrary treatment of a key international businessman (that said, the US made surprisingly little noise when MBS sidelined Mohammed bin Nayef, either).

And at that moment, MBS established that Trump would not interfere with any crackdown on opposition — because Trump has already bought into it.

The Very Globalized Forces Manipulating the Anti-Globalist President

I want to consider three stories related to the conspiracies that got Trump elected and have influenced his policy decisions.

Cambridge Analytica and Facebook privatizes intelligence sources and methods behind “democratic” elections

First, there’s the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Here are some of the most scandalous tidbits:

Likelihood Facebook failed to abide by a 2011 FTC consent decree and certainty that Cambridge Analytica and Facebook failed to abide by British and EU privacy law, respectively. While Facebook and other big tech companies have sometimes publicly bowed to the onerous restrictions of more repressive regimes and have secretly bowed to the invasive demands of American spies, the public efforts to rein in big tech have had limited success in Europe and virtually none in the US.

In the US in particular, weak government agencies have done little more than ask consumers to trust big tech.

As privacy advocates have long argued, big tech can’t be trusted. Nor can big tech regulate itself.

Cambridge Analytica used legally suspect means — the same kind of illegal means intelligence agencies employ — to help its customers. Channel 4 reported that Cambridge Analytica at least promised they could set honey traps and other means to compromise politicians. The Guardian reported that Cambridge Analytica acted as a cut-out to share hacked emails in Nigerian and a Nevis/St. Kitts elections. Thus far, the most problematic claim made about Cambridge Analytica’s activities in the US are the aforementioned illegal use of data shared for research purposes, visa fraud to allow foreign (British) citizens to work on US elections, and possibly the illegal coordination between Rebekah Mercer’s PAC with the campaign.

Internet Research Agency used the same kind of methods advertising and marketing firms use, but to create grassroots. The IRA indictment laid out how a private company in Russia used Facebook (and other tech giants’) networking and advertising services to create fake grassroots enthusiasm here in the US.

All of these means undermine the democratic process. They’re all means nation-state intelligence services use. By privatizing them, such services became available to foreign agents and oligarchical interests more easily, with easy ways (many, but not all, broadly acceptable corporate accounting methods) to hide the financial trail.

Russia buys the network behind Joseph Mifsud

Then there’s the Beeb piece advancing the story of Joseph Mifsud (ignore the repetitive annoying music and John Schindler presence). It provides details on the role played by German born Swiss financier and lawyer Stephan Roh. Roh has three ties to Mifsud. In 2014, Roe started lecturing at the London Academy of Diplomacy where Misfud worked. In the same year, he bought the Roman institution Misfud helped manage. And then, in 2016, when George Papadopoulos was being targeted, Roh was on a panel with Papadopoulos’ two handlers.

That same month, Mifsud was in Moscow on a panel run by the Kremlin-backed Valdai Club with Timofeev and the third man, Dr Stephan Roh, a German multi-millionaire.

Mifsud and Roh interlock: in 2014, Roh became a visiting lecturer at the London Academy of Diplomacy. Roh bought Link Campus University, a private institution in Rome where Mifsud was part of the management and Mifsud became a consultant at Roh’s legal firm.

The Beeb piece goes on to describe how Roh bought a British nuclear consultancy too. When the British scientist behind it balked at cozying up to Russia, he was fired, but it appears to still be used as a cut-out.

Again, none of this is new: Russia just spent a lot of money to set up some fronts. The amount of money floating around and the ability to buy into a title by buying an old castle do make it easier, however.

George Nader purchases US foreign policy for the Saudis and Emirates

Then there’s NYT’s confirmation of something that was obvious from the first reports that the FBI whisked George Nader away from Dulles Airport before he could meet Donald Trump at Mar a Lago earlier this year. Nader got an immunity deal and has been cooperating with Mueller’s team to describe how he brokered US foreign policy decisions (most notably, and anti-Qatari stance). He did so by cultivating GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy, turning him into both an asset and front for foreign influence. Those activities included:

  • Securing hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts for Broidy’s private security firm, Circinus, with the Saudis and Emirates, and offering several times more.
  • Working with Broidy to scuttle the nomination of Anne Patterson to DOD and to orchestrate the firing, last week, of Rex Tillerson, in both cases because they were deemed too supportive of diplomacy towards Iran.
  • Offering financial support for a $12.7 million Washington lobbying and public relations campaign, drafted by a third party, targeting both Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • Paying Broidy $2.7 million to fund conferences at both Hudson Institute and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies attacking Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood; Broidy provided a necessary American cut-out for the two think tanks because their fundraising rules prohibit donations from undemocratic regimes or foreign countries, respectively. The payment was laundered through an “Emirati-based company [Nader] controlled, GS Investments, to an obscure firm based in Vancouver, British Columbia, controlled by Mr. Broidy, Xieman International.”
  • Unsuccessfully pitching a private meeting, away from the White House, between Trump and Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
  • Obtaining a picture of Nader with Trump, effectively showing the president in the company of a foreign agent and convicted pedophile.

Effectively, Nader provides Mueller what Mueller has been getting from Rick Gates: details of how a foreign country purchased American policy support via cutouts in our easily manipulated campaign finance system.

Nader brings two more elements of what I pointed to last May: what is ultimately a Jared Kushner backed “peace” “plan” that is instead the money laundered wish of a bunch of foreign interests. While we’ve seen the Russian, Saudi, and Emirate money behind this plan, we’re still missing full details on how Mueller is obtaining the Israeli side, though I’m sure he’s getting that too.

Note, Broidy has claimed the details behind his work with Nader were hacked by Qatari hackers. That may be the case; there have also been a slew of presumably hacked documents from Emirates Ambassador to the US, Yousef al Otaiba, floating around. So while this is important reporting, it relies on the same kind of illicitly obtained intelligence that was used against Hillary in 2016.

Importantly, the Nader story generalizes this. Nader has worked with both the Clinton and the Dick Cheney Administrations, and the laundering of foreign funds to US think tanks has long been tolerated (in some cases, such as Brookings, the think tank doesn’t even bother with the money laundering and accepts the foreign money directly). Democrats are not immune from this kind of influence peddling, in the least. It’s just that Trump, because of his greater narcissism, his ignorance of real foreign policy doctrine, and his debt and multinational business make Trump far more vulnerable to such cultivation. Given Cheney’s ties to Halliburton and the Clinton Foundation, it’s a matter of degree and competence, not principle.

Globalism is just another word for fighting over which oligarchs will benefit from globalization

Which brings us to Trump’s claim (orchestrated by Steven Bannon, paid for by the Mercers) to oppose “globalists,” a racialized term to demonize the downsides of globalization without actually addressing the forces of globalization in an effective way. Little Trump is doing (up to and including the trade war with China he’s rolling out today) will help the white people who made him president (the demonization of immigrants will have benefits and drawbacks).

What it will do is foster greater authoritarianism in this country, making it easier both to make Trump’s white voters less secure even while channeling the resultant anger by making racism even more of an official policy.

And it will also shift somewhat which oligarchs — both traditionally well-loved ones, like the Sauds, and adversaries, like the Russians — will benefit as a result.

Importantly, it is being accomplished using the tools of globalization, from poorly overseen global tech companies, easily manipulated global finance system, and a global network of influence peddling that can also easily be bought and paid for.

Jared’s Clearance and the Foreign Policy Version of Conspiracy to Defraud America


I confess there is no multi-day Trump story I’ve looked forward to more than the problem with Jared Kushner’s clearance. And it is officially here. Last night, the NYT described how Jared is butting heads with John Kelly over whether he’ll lose clearance under Kelly’s post-Rob Porter mandate that people who can’t be cleared won’t be kept around anymore.

Kushner, frustrated about the security clearance issue and concerned that Mr. Kelly has targeted him personally with the directive, has told colleagues at the White House that he is reluctant to give up his high-level access, the officials said. In the talks, the officials say, Mr. Kushner has insisted that he maintain his current level of access, including the ability to review the daily intelligence briefing when he sees fit.

Today CNN and WaPo weigh in, with CNN nodding towards the conflict this will present Trump.

Though a source familiar with the situation said Kushner has not yet appealed to the President directly about his access to highly classified information, those close to Trump believe he would be inclined to grant his son-in-law access if asked. This source pointed to the fact that Kushner is part of the President’s family and has outlasted all of his rivals in Trump’s inner circle, including former chief of staff Reince Priebus, former chief strategist Steve Bannon, former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and former deputy campaign manager David Bossie.

Trump, however, has given Kelly his full support in efforts to reform the White House’s system of security clearances, and has told his chief of staff that changes need to be made to bring the system into order, according to a person who has spoken to him about the matter. Kelly has interpreted that as a wide-ranging mandate that would include Kushner, a person familiar with the matter said. The person said Trump and Kelly would likely discuss the matter this week, if they haven’t already, before Kelly’s self-imposed Friday deadline.

WaPo brings the appropriate level of skepticism over whether Kushner can really do his Fake Peace Plan job without clearance.

It is not clear how Kushner could perform his job without a high-level security clearance.

He holds a broad range of responsibilities, from overseeing peace efforts in the Middle East to improving the efficiency of the federal government. And he is the administration’s interlocutor with key allies, including China and Saudi Arabia, where he has developed a personal relationship with the young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

[snip]

And apart from staff on the National Security Council, he issues more requests for information to the intelligence community than any White House employee, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.

More importantly, WaPo includes a series of false bravado quotes from Jared’s defense attorney, Abbe Lowell, who bizarrely offered up his judgement that Jared is speaking with foreign officials “properly.”

“My inquiries to those involved again have confirmed that there are a dozen or more people at Mr. Kushner’s level whose process is delayed, that it is not uncommon for this process to take this long in a new administration, that the current backlogs are being addressed, and no concerns were raised about Mr. Kushner’s application,” he said in a statement.

[snip]

Lowell said Kushner’s job is “to talk with foreign officials, which he has done and continues to do properly.”

I’ve come to think of Kushner’s clearance process in similar terms to the way I’ve thought of the bail process Mueller has used with Paul Manafort and Rick Gates: While Gates ultimately did make bail, Manafort is still (!) almost four months after his arrest, struggling to show enough liquidity free of taint from his money laundering to alter his release conditions. The process of making bail (and having to serially beg to attend his kids’ soccer events) seems to have been one of the factors that brought Gates to the point of flipping, but along the way, he probably gave Mueller’s team far more leverage in plea negotiations, because they know how little Gates actually has to pay a defense attorney to oversee the flip (indeed, that may lie behind the confusion over Gates’ current legal representation).

Kushner’s liquidity problems are literally an order of magnitude greater than these men. But unlike them, he made the idiotic decision to work in the White House, and thereby to undergo the scrutiny of sworn statements laying out all the financial vulnerabilities and foreign entanglements that might make him susceptible to blackmail.

Which brings me back to my description of how Mueller is leveraging “conspiracy to defraud the United States” (what I will henceforward refer to as ConFraudUS*) charges to prosecute political influence peddling for which our regulatory system has completely collapsed. With the Internet Research Agency indictment, Mueller charged ConFraudUS because the trolls bypassed a campaign finance system that no longer works. With Manafort and Gates, Mueller charged ConFraudUS because they bypassed Foreign Agents Registration Act requirements that have never been enforced.

In the old days, to pursue the kind of quid pro quo we see outlines of, in which Trump officials (from George Papadopoulos’ proposed business with Sergei Millian to the possibility Kushner might get bailed out by the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which is itself a cut-out for the sanctioned Vnesheconombank, whose head, Sergey Gorkov, Kushner met in December 2016), you’d pursue bribery. But post-Bob McDonnell, bribery is a far tougher charge to make stick, as Mueller prosecutor Andrew Goldstein, who worked on the Sheldon Silver prosecution team, knows well.

What if, however, you could charge people whose meetings seamlessly tie the foreign policy decisions of the United States with discussions of their own financial interests, with ConFraudUS? That might make it easier to charge someone whose foreign policy decisions don’t serve the US interest but might enrich them for the quid pro quo entailed.

Which is why I’m interested in the report that Mueller has shown increased interest (almost certainly tied to Steven Bannon’s public pronouncements that, “It goes through Deutsche Bank and all the Kushner shit”) in Jared’s foreign financial dealings, how he has mixed his business interests and US foreign policy.

One line of questioning from Mueller’s team involves discussions Kushner had with Chinese investors during the transition, according to the sources familiar with the inquiry.
A week after Trump’s election, Kushner met with the chairman and other executives of Anbang Insurance, the Chinese conglomerate that also owns the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, according to The New York Times.

At the time, Kushner and Anbang’s chairman, Wu Xiaohui, were close to finishing a deal for the Chinese insurer to invest in the flagship Kushner Companies property, 666 Fifth Avenue. Talks between the two companies collapsed in March, according to the Times.

Mueller’s team has also asked about Kushner’s dealings with a Qatari investor regarding the same property, according to one of the sources. Kushner and his company were negotiating for financing from a prominent Qatari investor, former prime minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, according to The Intercept. But as with Anbang, these efforts stalled.

Lowell’s false bravado in this report is even more ridiculous than that in the clearance stories.

A representative for Kushner declined to comment prior to the publication of this story. After publication, Kushner attorney Abbe Lowell told CNN in a statement, “Another anonymous source with questionable motives now contradicts the facts — in all of Mr. Kushner’s extensive cooperation with all inquiries, there has not been a single question asked nor document sought on the 666 building or Kushner Co. deals. Nor would there be any reason to question these regular business transactions.”

Lowell may not have turned over any documents relating to 666 Fifth Avenue. But Deutsche Bank got subpoenas even before Bannon started running his mouth (albeit in a separate EDNY probe). Moreover, the key detail under my imagined ConFraudUS charge would be whether Kushner did things — like try to get Chinese investors visas — that didn’t serve or indeed violated the interests of the United States. Admittedly, the President gets largely unfettered control over the foreign policy of the United States (though Trump has defied Congress in areas where they do have some control). But to the extent Jared pursued his own business interests during the transition, he wouldn’t be able to claim to rely on presidential prerogative.

Which brings me back to Jared’s long struggle to get a security clearance.

Abbe Lowell may not have turned over the financial documents on 666 Fifth Avenue that would show how susceptible Jared’s debt woes make him to foreign influence. But he has serially provided that evidence in support of Jared’s almost certainly futile attempt to convince the FBI he should get a permanent TS/SCI security clearance.

I laid this out yesterday at the very end of my Democracy Now appearance:

I think—the reason why Kushner’s business deals are important, we’ve talked—and in the intro, this wasn’t the only example of—there’s the Don Jr. We’ve talked about how poorly Trump’s people have separated his business interests from the interests of the country. The same is even more true for Jared Kushner, whose family business is basically bankrupt. And over and over again, he’s been shown to be in negotiations with entities, including Russians, but also Chinese and Middle Eastern. So, you know, he’ll go in and say, “OK, we’ll talk about this grand peace plan,” which is not about peace at all, “but, oh, by the way, can you bail out our 666 Park Avenue building, which is badly underwater?” And I think Mueller could make the same argument he’s made with the IRA indictment and the Manafort indictment, and say that Jared Kushner is pretending to be serving America’s foreign policy interests, but in fact he is just doing his own bidding. He’s just trying to bail out his own company. So I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s moving towards a very similar indictment on conspiracy to defraud the United States, having to do with his conflicts of interest.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, interesting that Kushner also hasn’t managed to get top security clearance, when he’s a senior adviser to President Trump, as Porter didn’t because he beat his wives, etc. And then you’ve got Donald Jr. now in India promoting Trump businesses, as, of course, Donald Trump is the president of the United States. And he’s standing with the prime minister of India as he does this, promoting the Trump brand, Marcy.

MARCY WHEELER: Exactly. I mean, if Trump and his son and his son-in-law are pretending to be doing the business of the United States but are instead just trying to enrich themselves, again, I don’t think it’s a—you know, we’ve talked about the Emoluments Clause and how you go after the Trump campaign—the Trump officials for their egregious conflicts of interest. And, frankly, it extends into his Cabinet. But what Mueller seems to be doing, with some very good appellate lawyers, by the way, is to be laying out this framework that if you are pretending to be doing something in the interest of the United States but are actually doing something else, serving somebody else’s bidding, whether it’s Russia, pro-Russian Ukrainian political party, or whether it’s your own family business, then they’re going to go after you for a conspiracy charge. And I wouldn’t be surprised if these conspiracy charges all kind of link up at the end, in this kind of grand moment of—I think that’s where he’s headed.

Remember, Trump and his spawn never really thought they’d win the election. Instead, they seemed interested in, among other things, a Trump Tower in Moscow and refinancing 666 Fifth Avenue. But if they made deals with Russians in hopes such personal financial benefits would result, a ConFraudUS charge might be a way to prosecute them for it.

*I originally shortened this “CTDTUS,” but following Peter Crowley’s suggestion, I’m instead using “ConFraudUS.”

 

[Note: At the top of this post there is an embedded video of Marcy’s interview with Democracy Now. It isn’t rendering properly on all browsers and operating systems and may appear as a blank space. You can watch the video or listen to audio at this link. /~R]

The Ridiculous — and Chilling — IP3 Plan for Saudi Economic Diversification

Last week, I pointed out that the retired military generals of IP3, one of the companies that Michael Flynn dabbled with while looking into Saudi Arabia’s plan to develop nuclear power, viewed the US strategy in the Middle East as one of “resourcing conflict“.  I then looked a bit further into the security aspect of IP3’s proposals. But as we see in slide 9 of the IP3 PowerPoint presentation for the Saudi king from August of 2016, IP3 derives its name from “Peace” (the security plan), “Power” (the nuclear power plant construction) and “Prosperity”:

It seems that IP3 views “Prosperity” as encompassing diversification of the Saudi economy, and that somehow it will come about from the lower costs involved in nuclear power, a newly skilled workforce, water desalination and a “smart city”. But, if we also look at the IP3 article at Medium that I found earlier, we see more information on this economic plan. In fact, part of it is found in the same sentence as the “resourcing conflict” phrase:

We need a strategy that doesn’t rely solely on resourcing conflict with weapons sales, arms agreements, or new deployments of U.S. military forces, but one of empowerment through the intellectual capital and industrial might of our nation’s private sector.

Let that soak in for a second: we are talking here in the context of diversifying the Saudi economy, and IP3 is saying that the Saudis will be “empowered”, but that will come about “through the intellectual capital and industrial might of our nation’s private sector”. It’s the business brainpower and the actual businesses themselves from the US that are to drive building a vibrant Saudi economy that relies on more than just oil. From another part of the article:

The people of the Middle East and North Africa need clean, reliable electricity. They need water. They need more career opportunities, and jobs that do not rely on fossil fuel exports alone. They have bold ambitions for a more prosperous future and more inclusive societies.

Note also that this pitch from IP3 is meant to provide the US as an alternative to growing Russian influence in the Middle East. The PowerPoint presentation suggests working with China, although the Medium article proposes a US-only plan. [Side note: I’m currently very deep in the rabbit hole of the various corporate groups and their changing alliances through the past few years, along with the various power plant agreements that countries in the area have executed to date. It’s very complex and has changed very many times. If I find anything useful in the analysis, especially how Flynn fits into the various groups, it will be another post in this series.] In that context, IP3 laments that the US is at a disadvantage, because the competing operations from Russia and China are state-supported:

As a recent report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes, both countries “receive significant state support for their ambitious technology export plans,” …

It really seems that what IP3 wants is a situation in which the the company gets all the benefits of “free enterprise” but also enjoys the sizable advantage of being the “chosen one” to get the imprimatur of the US government so that competing groups are excluded. That would explain why Flynn faces so much more potential legal trouble if the reports of him continuing to push one or more of the competing proposals once he became National Security Advisor turn out to be true, especially if he still stood to profit from the work.

But why nuclear in the first place? Of course, peak oil is coming, and so the Saudis know they have to wean themselves from their dependence on oil for domestic energy consumption. The World Nuclear Association gives some hard numbers for Saudi needs and the evolution of their plans for diversification:

Saudi Arabia’s population has grown from 4 million in 1960 to over 31 million in 2016. It is the main electricity producer and consumer in the Gulf States, with 338 TWh gross production in 2015, 150 TWh from oil and 189 TWh from gas. It consumes over one-quarter of its oil production, and while energy demand is projected to increase substantially, oil production is not, and by 2030 a large proportion will be consumed domestically, much of it for electricity generation. Its per capita consumption is about 9000 kWh/yr, heavily subsidised.

Generating capacity is over 30 GWe. Demand is growing by 8-10% per year and peak demand is expected to be 70 GWe by 2020 and 120 GWe by 2032, driven partly by desalination increase.

I was pretty surprised by this. I viewed Saudi oil production as being much larger than domestic consumption, so the fact that they already consume a quarter of their production and their domestic generation capacity will need to expand up to four fold in only 15 years puts them on the brink of catastrophe. Their planning to diversify has started, but changed recently:

It had plans to install 24 GWe of renewable electricity capacity by 2020, and 50 GWe by 2032 or 2040, and was looking at the prospects of exporting up to 10 GWe of this to Italy or Spain during winter when much generating capacity is under-utilised (cooling accounts for over half the capacity in summer). The 50 GWe in 2032 (later: 2040) was to comprise 25 GWe CSP [Ed note: CSP = Concentrated Solar Power], 16 GWe solar PV, 4 GWe geothermal and waste (together supplying 150-190 TWh, 23-30% of power), complementing 18 GWe nuclear (supplying 131 TWh/yr, 20% of power), and supplemented by 60.5 GWe hydrocarbon capacity which would be little used (c10 GWe) for half the year. The nuclear target date has now been put back to 2040. In 2016 renewables targets were scaled back from 50% to 10% of electricity (by 2040?) as plans shifted more to gas, so that it would increase its share from 50% to 70%.

That earlier plan looked pretty reasonable, with most of the increases in power generation coming from a mix of renewable sources. But that all changed in 2016, with renewables getting cut substantially, from a 50% target down to only 10% and the share of generation accounted for by natural gas actually increasing from 50% to 70%. So what happened to cause this switch away from renewables and back to natural gas (even while some of the discussions on nuclear are continuing)? [Note that a 1.2 GWe solar power plant is opening soon elsewhere in the Middle East, so the Saudis are falling behind on solar.] For one thing, the price of natural gas dropped by about 60% from early 2014 to the beginning of 2016. That timeframe also coincides with the rising influence of Mohammed bin Salman, as his father became king in 2015 and MBS was named Crown Prince this summer.

As Vox explained to us recently, MBS’s “purge” was all about Saudi life after oil. But like his best buddies in the Trump Administration, he can’t really seem to get anything right. Note that gas prices have now re-stabilized at only about 25% lower than they were during most of 2013 to 2015. Also, remember the “smart city” in the IP3 presentation? Bruce Riedel described that and other bits of MBS’s “reforms” to the New Yorker:

“The Saudi Vision 2030 is increasingly turning out to be a failure in economic terms. It has more and more the characteristics of a Ponzi scheme. This new city, Neom, in the Gulf of Aqaba that is supposed to attract five hundred billion dollars of investment and where normal rules of Saudi society aren’t going to apply—meaning women can do things—will have more robots than people. This isn’t serious. This is the kind of thing used to divert people from the real issues,” Riedel said.

The Crown Prince’s regional strategy has also either stalled or backfired, too. “His signature policy is the Yemen war, which has come home to haunt Riyadh,” Riedel, now at the Brookings Institution, said. “Its Qatar blockade is a failure. It wants Qatar to be like Bahrain, just an appendage. And Qatar hasn’t given in.”

That’s pretty much how it seems to me, too. I really don’t buy any of the lip service that the changes MBS is bringing about are aimed at bringing more liberal thought into the kingdom or improving the lives of the general population. I see a huge power grab at a level that makes Trump and MBS buddy Kusher jealous. A purge that results in torture of those detained looks much more like consolidation of power than a move toward a more open society.

And that’s why the collection of technology aimed at “security” of the proposed nuclear sites makes me think it’s all about keeping the population in line as more and more rivals are eliminated. I also think that’s why various US companies have been jostling to be in line when contracts start getting handed out.

As a postscript, I would also note this Intercept article on Erik Prince and the push for privatized intelligence sources. Recall I felt like he had a hidden hand in the Iron Bridge model of security ostensibly around the power plants, as well. Somehow, all these plans with private companies and governments working together in new areas starts to get pretty creepy.

Now Can We Ditch the Saudis?

Mohammed bin Salman, the third ranking royal Saudi, is in the US — ostensibly to visit John Kerry, Ash Carter, and Barack Obama.

But as FP reports, the latter hasn’t happened, and may not.

It was billed by Riyadh’s state media as a trip for Saudi Arabia’s powerful deputy crown prince to meet with President Barack Obama and other senior U.S. officials. But now that Prince Mohammed bin Salman has arrived in Washington, it’s still unclear if the president or any White House officials will meet with him, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

“No confirmation at this time for any WH meetings,” White House spokesperson Dew Tiantawach told Foreign Policy.

The absence of any scheduled meetings with even National Security Adviser Susan Rice is fueling speculation among Gulf experts about a diplomatic snub. It comes amid sharp policy differences between Washington and Riyadh, and unease among U.S. officials about overplaying alliances with the 30-year-old prince, who some view as locked in a power struggle with the older Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

“Very unusual for the Saudis to come out saying he is meeting with Obama and White House not confirming it,” said David Ottaway, a Saudi expert at the Wilson Center in Washington. “They certainly knew he was coming.”

Meanwhile, Haykal Bafana, a usually reliable commentator on events in Yemen, has suggested that not just the one UAE helicopter reported more broadly, but two more, have been downed in recent days, by Saudi missiles. And the UAE tweeted out yesterday that it was withdrawing from the war in Yemen.

UAE, of course, was supporting (or headlining?) our efforts to continue targeting AQAP even as the Saudi invasion empowered the group, one the US has just added new resources to. If UAE withdraws we’ll be alone fighting AQAP.

Or, alternately, they may go back to benefitting wildly from the Saudi invasion of Yemen.

Are we getting closer to the point where we admit the Saudis are not our friends?

At Same Time as DNC Hack Released, Funny Alleged Hacks in the Middle East

You’ve probably heard that hackers, probably Russian, hacked the DNC and released a bunch of information, including a really crappy oppo research report on Donald Trump. See this post for some of the materials and this analysis of the materials (including metadata to support the case these are Russians).

Given that development, I’m even more interesting in this development than I already was. Several websites in the Middle East — in this case Jordan’s Petra news service — posted a report that Mohammed bin Salman, the third ranking Saudi royal, had claimed to have provided Hillary 20% of her campaign funding.

On Sunday a report appeared on the Petra News Agency website that included what were described as exclusive comments from Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The comments included a claim that Riyadh has provided 20 percent of the total funding to the prospective Democratic candidate’s campaign.

I’m particularly interested in how that report got disclaimed: with intervention by the Podesta Group, which is both a lobbying arm for the Saudis and the firm of Hillary’s campaign manager.

On Monday a spokesperson for American public relations firm the Podesta Group contacted MEE to say that they work with the Saudi Royal Court and to request a correction to our earlier story that said the Jordanian news agency had deleted the quotes from Prince Mohammed.

Senior global communications specialist Will Bohlen – who, prior to joining Podesta, was chief researcher for a best-selling history of Bill Clinton’s presidency – sent a link to a clarification issued by the Petra News Agency which said it was “totally false and untrue” that they had published then deleted the quotes from Prince Mohammed about funding the Clinton campaign.

“A technical failure on Petra ’s website occurred for a few minutes on Sunday evening, 12 June 2016,” the Jordanian news agency said. “Protection systems at the agency as well as the technical department noticed that and therefore, they suspended the transmission system and the electronic site and moved to the alternative website.

“Later, it became clear that the technical failure that occurred was an attempt to hack the agency’s transmission system and its website. The agency was surprised to see some media outlets as well as the social media publishing false news that were attributed to Petra. They said that Petra transmitted a news item related to the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia and later deleted this news item. This is totally false and untrue.”

For now, I will assume this was a hack, which (again) I find to coincide interestingly with the DNC hack. The Clinton Foundation does get far too much money from the Saudis, but we can review Hillary’s actual funding to be sure that Mo bin Salman is not funding her campaign directly.

In entirely unrelated news I’ll put here anyway, the big Saudi investor Alwaleed bin Talal is now Twitter’s second largest investor.

Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud, who in 2011 invested $300 million in the social network, now owns 34.9 million shares of Twitter’s common stock, according to a new regulatory filing (pdf).

At nearly 5.2%, his stake in the company is now larger than that of Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder and newly re-minted CEO, whose 21.86 million shares give him 3.2% of the company, according to FactSet. (The prince previously had a stake of roughly 3%.)

Particularly given that Twitter isn’t exactly a great investment, I find Alwaleed’s interest in it notable.