Saturday, July 15, 2017

Trump's Answer To Collusion Will Always Be 'Who Cares?'

Back in May, amidst the revelations of Trump's obvious attempts to obstruct justice, I wrote that Trump had already moved to his final line of defense, namely that Trump himself was not involved in collusion with the Russians. As Trump explicitly said, "There is no collusion - certainly myself and my campaign - but I can always speak for myself and the Russians - zero." I was wrong. His last line of defense will be "who cares?".

With the revelation of the senior campaign management meeting with agents openly stating that they were representing the Russian government and reportedly providing documents that contained some information on either Clinton or the DNC, the defense that there is no direct evidence of collusion has on the part of the Trump campaign has totally collapsed.

The circumstantial evidence that Trump knew of this collusion and approved it was already quite strong. Now we can add the fact that Trump stated he would make a speech laying out "interesting" information about Clinton just four hours after the meeting was confirmed. While I have no proof, I have no doubt that there were either other meetings or communications with the Russians coordinating election strategy and the timing and focus of Russian attacks. The real question is whether any one of the Trump insiders will actually give him up on direct collusion.

The distressing part is that, if and when the information of Trump's knowledge and approval of Russian collusion comes out, Trump will simply say "who cares". He has already started down this path by defending Don. Jr.'s meeting as one that "most politicians would take". The fact that this will not disturb Republicans in Congress in the least is even more disturbing. As is the feeling among Trump's die-hard supporters that the whole Russian collusion story is a tempest in a teapot

You have to wonder what kind of country you are living in when the President will readily admit to conspiring with a foreign adversary to influence our democratic process and his party and supporters don't seem to care.

Natural Weekends - Clouds

Friday, July 14, 2017

Bannon Is Back In Control

Steve Bannon has been keeping a remarkably low profile lately and has only resurfaced in the news in the last couple of days with stories about him that exemplify the hubris and lies of the Trump administration. But, make no mistake, Bannon is quietly accomplishing his goal of white nationalism here in the US again restoring his place as Trump's trusted adviser.

The first of the two recent stories was just another example of the rampant egos in the Trump orbit. Bannon has received a painting of himself as Napoleon Bonaparte, given to him by Nigel Farage. Bannon had that painting hanging in his office at Breitbart News. It does not seem that the painting made the move to the White House but the attitude certainly did. The irony of the painting is that Napoleon was instrumental in building the French administrative state while Bannon dreams of "deconstructing' the American one.

The second Bannon story is just another indication that none of the Trump team takes the responsibility of filling out government forms seriously. It certainly seems that the approach of virtually every senior member of Trump's team is to outrageously lie on these forms and assume they won't get caught. In fact, that pretty much sums up their approach to governing and that strategy seems to have been adopted by Congressional Republicans as well. In Bannon's case, he decided not to disclose who the creditors were behind the $2 million in home loans that he has outstanding. Without that knowledge, there is no way to know whether he would be providing preferential treatment to those creditors or, more likely, whether those creditors were providing preferential treatment, such as discounted mortgage rates, to him.

Meanwhile, Bannon's efforts at destroying the federal bureaucracy are moving full steam ahead. Earlier this week the NY Times and ProPublica provided details on the deregulation teams across multiple federal agencies. Most of these agencies have stonewalled reporters' requests for the people on those teams but the Times/ProPublica have identified 71 people so far with at least 28 of them with significant potential conflicts of interests. The agencies are as diverse as Education, Defense, Homeland Security, Agriculture, Energy, HUD, and most importantly, Interior, and the EPA. All these teams have been infiltrated by industry insiders, some of whom are ruling on the very issues they were lobbying against just a year ago. Read the whole story for the truly frightening and ethically-challenged details.

In addition, there are still hundreds of appointed positions in multiple agencies that Trump has not filled. Part of the reason is because the Trump transition and team is not entirely organized, part because it is hard to find anyone qualified and willing to work in the administration, and part because the administration is not really interested in filling some of these jobs.

Beyond deconstructing the administrative state, the other pillar of Bannon's strategy is immigration. The latest Muslim travel ban is in place and under another court challenge. The makeup of the limited refugees that Trump is letting into the country is also changing, becoming more Christian and  probably white, even as the absolute number of Muslim refugees in the world dwarfs those of Christians. And the mass deportation force is also moving into high gear. The focus is no longer on criminals but on any undocumented immigrant. And now, according DHS head Kelley, even DACA and TPS immigrants may not be protected, putting even documented immigrants under threat.

The influence of Bannon and his sidekick Stephen Miller were all over Trump's speech in Warsaw with phrases like "defending civilization". The hair-brained proposal to have Erik Prince privatize our military forces in Afghanistan, essentially setting up a replica of the British East India Company in order to exploit the citizens and natural resource wealth of that country, also reeks of Bannon's influence.

And Bannon's influence will only get stronger as he will soon be the last man standing among Trump's inner circle of advisers still actually left in the White House. Flynn is long gone. And both Don Jr. and Jared Kushner will soon have to distance themselves from Trump himself and the White House because of this latest revelation about collusion by meeting with the Russians, (which I believe was orchestrated by Bannon). Without Jared, Ivanka will also probably have reduced influence. That pretty much leaves Bannon as the only one left inside the White House to get Trump's ear, which we all know regurgitates what it hears last.

I'm not suggesting that the generals and Trump's family will not have any more influence, just that Bannon's influence will grow as theirs diminishes. That will probably mean even more self-destructive schemes like a tariff on steel and a return to highlighting all the jobs that Trump will save (which then move offshore six months later a la Carrier).

So far, at least, Bannon has been untouched by the Russian scandal. I don't believe for a minute that he didn't know about the collusion with the Russians but he left it to Jared. Bannon's part of the scheme was to use the data collected by the Mercer-funded company Cambridge Analytica which Bannon at one time headed in order to micro-target the precincts and voters in the US for the Russian hacking and propaganda. Bannon and the Mercers successfully and illegally ran a similar effort for Brexit in the UK. In this case, however, Bannon probably let Kushner pass this information on to the Russians and kept his own hands clean.

Whatever the case, it is clear now that Bannon is back and his influence is only growing. With an increasingly isolated and angry Trump, somewhat cut off from his own family and relying on Bannon for strategic advice, it will be an even more dangerous time for our country and the world.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

McCain Says No So Latest Version Of Trumpcare In Senate May Already Be (Temporarily) Dead

It looks like the latest version of the Senate's Trumpcare bill has already been killed as John McCain just joined Susan Collins and Rand Paul as definite "no" votes.  But there is no reason to relax the resistance as it is pretty clear that Republican attempts to provide massive tax cuts to the richest Americans and corporations by ripping healthcare from millions of Americans will, like a zombie, never die. There will yet be another tweak and another attempt to pass something in the Senate. And even if they can't get it done this year, they will just allow to further undermine Obamacare and the exchanges and then take another run at this before they have to face primaries early next year. Today, we won another battle. But we all need to know that this will be a long war.

Don Jr. And Jared Are NOT In Serious Legal Jeopardy

Josh Marshall over at TPM has a pretty good post postulating that Trump and his extended family still don't have a real sense of how much legal trouble they are facing and the dire consequences that could result. He believes that their lack of understanding has to do with the realities of the New York real estate industry and that the success they've had there makes them all both reckless and feeling invulnerable.

Says Marshall, "A lot of the big New York real estate families of today became that way because they held on to investments and stayed in the city in the dark days of the 1970s and early 1980s when it seemed like the city and even the concept of the big American city was falling apart. Whether that required much courage or prescience, staying in meant they reaped a windfall when the city started rebounding about a quarter century ago. It also spurred an ethos or pride in these families that they had the guts, prescience, loyalty or whatever else to stick with the city when others didn’t...".

In addition, the vagaries of NYC real estate and the Trump and Kushner families own approach to business has almost required them to continually break or skirt the law for years. Marshall again, "Trump has skidded on the edge of legality for decades. He at least worked with and took money from crooks and organized crime figures for decades. Other than having to settle a few lawsuits, he’s never paid any price."

But, of course, they aren't invulnerable and eventually some of their crimes do catch up with them, as it did to Charles Kushner, Jared's father. He ended up being sentenced for up to two years in jail for obstructing justice by trying to blackmail his brother-in-law and sister, who were cooperating with a campaign finance investigation into Charles Kushner. But, even that, according to Marshall, does not seem to have dented Jared's hubris and sense of invulnerability.

I think the key point that Marshall is missing is that they are, in fact invulnerable. In fact, the Kushner case would reinforce that idea to Jared, rather than it being a cautionary tale. Kushner was convicted in a plea deal of 18 counts of tax evasion, illegal campaign contributions, and witness tampering. He paid around a half million dollar fine and served 14 months in prison and the remaining portion of his sentence at a halfway house in New Jersey. After that two year, admittedly tough, hiatus was over, Kushner resumed his role in the Kushner Cos. and he and his family are now reported to be worth nearly $2 billion. The Kushner Cos. continued to thrive and Charles is back to life as usual, with the exception of his disbarment, prohibiting him from practicing law in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. But he is not a lawyer, he is a real estate tycoon.

In the same way, Trump has clearly violated the law on countless ways. He and his family illegally discriminated against minority tenants. He has probably engaged in tax evasion and violations of securities law in the whole failure of his casino businesses. He has endured six bankruptcies. He constantly and continually stiffed his creditors. He has lied under oath. He has engaged in massive fraud a la Trump University. His current business relies on money-laundering organized crime and stolen foreign monies. He has illegally used his foundation for personal enrichment. He has more than probably conspired with a foreign adversary to gain political power. And, besides paying some fines to settle cases for far less than what he should, what price has he paid for all this criminal behavior? Simply becoming President of the United States.

Why should the Trump and Kushner families feel vulnerable for conspiring with the Russians and lying on their security clearances? They, and their fathers, have gotten away with far worse and, even when caught, hardly paid a price for it. Certainly, their family businesses have not suffered in any way.

Trump is in no danger of being impeached any time soon. The Republicans in Congress are happy to abet his ongoing criminal activity, enriching himself through his office, and his past treasonous behavior colluding with the Russians, in order to pass massive tax cuts for the 1% and to gut the safety net built over the last 75 years. And does anyone have any doubt that Don Jr. or Jared will be pardoned, preemptively or otherwise, if it becomes clear that either of them might really face serious legal jeopardy or jail time. The families know that, whatever they do or have done, they will not pay a price for it.

This sense of privilege, entitlement, and invulnerability is not just limited to the Trump and Kushner families. It extends to wealthy Americans all over. Only one senior executive was ever even taken to court for creating the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. All the rest simply walked away with their millions in ill-gotten gains. I think I can safely say that a similar situation will occur with the executives of the pharmaceutical industry that basically created the devastating opioid epidemic in this country. Yes, the rich and powerful have always been judged under a different standard by the legal system, but in the past they at least paid a social or economic price for their bad behavior. Nowadays, they just move on with their millions and their lives and are even celebrated for their "accomplishments".

Just like the Wall Street tycoons, the Trump and Kushner families know they will be able to get away with it. They will keep on enriching themselves using their closeness to the office of the President. They have had and will have no compunction about lying to law enforcement to protect themselves and Trump. Because they know that, as long as he is President, they will get a free pass.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Who Are The WH Sources On Trump Campaign Collusion And Why Are They Talking

Isn't it always the case - I go offline for one day and the biggest story of the year drops. Well, I don't think anyone expected that the Trump team would be this stupid to leave such an easy and clear paper trail of their outright collusion with the Russians, including a definitive quid-pro-quo of help electing Trump in return for the lifting of sanctions, or that they wouldn't have destroyed that evidence by now, knowing it existed. But then we are astounded on an almost daily basis by the stupidity and ignorance exhibited at all levels of this administration. (On the other hand, this may make some die-hard Republicans re-think their vote last fall. To their minds, Hillary Clinton, at least, was able to get rid of her emails so that they could not be traced, showing far more competence than Trump in that regard.)

Obviously, this creates big problems for the entire Trump team. Starting at the top, it hardly seems like a coincidence that now-President Trump promised a press conference with dirt on Clinton a mere 4 hours after the meeting that Don Jr., Kushner, and Manafort were going to have with the Russians was confirmed. This just adds to the mountain of real and circumstantial evidence that Trump was colluding with the Russians. It also puts to rest his continual lies that the Russian story is "fake news" and shows that Trump has been exposed to Russian blackmail since almost the moment he was nominated, even if he was similarly exposed due to his financial dealings before.

Don Jr. is clearly in violation of campaign finance and conspiracy laws and perhaps the Logan Act. Paul Manafort is facing similar problems in addition to his other financial issues. Of all them, though, Jared Kushner is the one most legally exposed by these emails, as it proves he was lying on his security clearance which is a felony punishable by up to 5 years in jail in addition to his other incidents of possible collusion with the Russians, both before and after the election.

Now, when I first heard the story before reading the details in the Times, my first thought was that this was possibly Putin really putting the heat on Trump, perhaps because he did not get what he wanted from Trump at the G20, which would be a lifting of the sanctions. The fact is that Putin went all in for Trump and, although he is happy with the chaos the Trump is causing in NATO and the Western Alliance, he dearly needs those sanctions lifted. Going after "Diaper" Don would clearly be a warning shot to Trump from Putin.

But the Times story references sources from within the White House itself. It is like that classic horror movie "When A Stranger Calls" - "the leaks are coming from inside the White House!!". That kind of takes Putin off the hook, unless he has penetrated the White House so thoroughly we can't imagine. In addition, it's now clear that Manafort and Kushner are equally tarred by these emails, making it more than a shot at Don Jr. So the question then comes, what is the motivation of the leakers of this information.

After my first thought about Putin, my next worry was that this was a setup. Rachel Maddow has been warning about bogus documents about the Russian collusion being peddled to news organizations in order to then discredit them and the whole story. These emails sounded just like that, too good to be true. But the fact that the sources were within the White House, that Don Jr. had continually changed his story, the Russian lawyer admitted the meeting took place, and that Don, himself, released the emails pretty much destroyed that theory. Everyone loves to think the Trump team is playing seven-dimensional chess when they do something inexplicable. They never are - it is always exactly what it seems.

Others initially surmised that Corey Lewandowski was behind the leak as he and Don Jr. apparently did not get along well during the campaign. But Lewandowski isn't in the White House and the subsequent reporting shows that Kushner and Manafort are equally involved and they each have bigger troubles than Don Jr. So Lewandowski does not seem like the likely candidate.

In a normal administration, this would probably be looked at as the administration finally caving in to reality and just putting out all the worst details of a scandal just to get it over with and try to move on. And perhaps that is the White House strategy. But this is not a normal administration. And the fact the Don Jr. continually lied about the story also conflicts with line of thinking. In addition, it is hard to see that Trump would countenance that tactic by throwing his son and son-in-law under the bus. But this is Donald Trump we are talking about, so anything is possible.

On the other hand, that strategy of disclosing the worst of the dirty linen might work for Jared Kushner, as he fights to stay out of jail for his previous lies on his security clearance and his own potential violations of the Logan Act. But these revelations simply add to the potential crimes that Kushner has committed. In addition, it would be hard to believe that Kushner would throw his wife's own brother under the bus so he could stay out of jail, but not out of the realm of possibility based on what we know about Jared.

The details of this meeting could have come from Manafort, who is also clearly implicated, or possibly even Flynn, although that is less likely. Both of them are quite possibly cooperating with Mueller's investigation. But that still wouldn't explain the sources within the White House.

By process of elimination, that pretty much leaves us with "Napoleon" Bannon and his sidekick Miller. Their prints were all over Trump's speech in Poland " in defense of civilization itself", indicating a resurgence of influence for the pair with the President. Bannon has made no secret that he wants to push both Kushner and Ivanka out of Trump's sphere of influence, because, according to Bannon's faction in the White House, he considers "Jared and Ivanka as anti-movement". This email revelation pretty much derails Kushner and Don Jr. in one fell swoop and creates more problems for Ivanka, although I'm pretty sure Daddy won't let his little girl go. Tonight the White House refused to confirm or deny whether Kushner's security clearance has now been pulled. In any case, assuming Don Jr. and Kushner take their lawyers advice, which is not a given, we probably won't be hearing too much more from these two in the near future.

Obviously, all of the above is a hopefully somewhat informed conjecture. Only the Times knows who their sources were. If it was Bannon, however, it is a pretty daring and reckless strategy. In fact it is a daring and reckless strategy from whomever the Times sources are. These emails strike directly at the heart of the Trump campaign and the Trump family and that will just enrage Trump even further.

Of course, the other obvious possibility is that these sources are just patriotic Americans doing what they think is right for the country, today's version of Mark Felt. It's just hard to think there are even a couple of people in the White House who have that courage and sensibility. There certainly aren't that many Republicans in Congress with those qualities today. Let's hope that this is the case. It just might restore our faith in people and our democracy.

And one last thought. I know that James Comey has now been martyred by Donald Trump but, in light of what he knew about the Russian hacking and possible collusion and the proof contained in these emails, what exactly was he thinking with the letter regarding the Abedin emails versus his silence regarding the Trump campaign conspiring with a foreign power. Yes, I know the answer is he expected Hillary to win. But she didn't, simply because of James Comey.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Christie's And GOP's Abhorrence To Investment Guarantees Economic Decline

Last week, I wrote in the wake of the New Jersey government shutdown that Chris Christie embodied the hubris, entitlement, lies, belligerence and lack of policy concerns of the current Republican party. Nowhere is that more evident than in his willful destruction of the transportation infrastructure in his home state, decisions that may have real ramifications for the entire New York City metro area economy.

His first decision, in 2010, was to abandon the proposed new third rail tunnel to NYC, in order to ease pressure on the two deteriorating existing tunnels that had been ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. Christie rejected the proposal because, he claimed, the state could not afford the cost overruns if they occurred. Christie's cost numbers overstated the cost of the tunnel by 40% and he claimed that New Jersey would be on the hook for 70% of that cost when the actual number was 15%.

The real reason for Christie's backing out of the project was that New Jersey desperately needed to restore its transportation fund and that would require a hike in the gas tax. That, of course, would be a tax hike which would devastate Christie's future political ambitions. So Christie instead used the $1.8 billion allocated for the tunnel project to help fund repairs of the states' roads and bridges. In the end, a few years later and after the transportation fund had essentially run dry, Christie was forced by the legislature to finally raise the tax.

Despite the money saved from backing out of the tunnel project, Christie managed to cut the state subsidy to NJ Transit by 90%, reducing the budget for repairs and maintenance by 50%. The rail line, once as high performing as its neighbor Metro North, is now plagued by constant delays, breakdowns, and even derailments. In addition, over $2.5 billion in NJ Transit projects were delayed last summer as Christie fought with the legislature over the gas tax.

However, Christie did find a good use for that previously allocated tunnel money and that was to subsidize a high-speed ferry to Manhattan for wealthy Wall Street traders and corporate big shots who lived in northern New Jersey. The Seastreak holds about the same number of passengers as a commuter bus and costs passengers $24 for a round trip ticket, which hardly covers the actual cost of the trip. Instead, New Jersey subsidizes that round trip to the tune of $94 dollars, costing the state around $7,200 each day and $1.8 million a year. And all to make sure that a handful of Wall Street fat cats don't have to deal with the overcrowding and delays on NJ Transit that Christie himself has caused.

New Jersey commuters are suffering through a summer of hell as Amtrak is doing repair work to the tracks at Penn Station, closing down a number of tracks. NJ Transit is still a mess, with countless breakdowns and delays. And all the while, everyone is praying that the two existing, century-old, salt-ravaged rail tunnels hold up. Amtrak has estimated they will both be required to be shut down in the next 15 years for major repairs. If one of the tunnels fails, it is estimated that it would reduce rail traffic through the Northeast Corridor by 75%, creating an economic disaster for that region.

If Christie had moved ahead with the new tunnel, it was scheduled to come online sometime next year. Now, the revised project won't be completed until sometime in the middle of the next decade, if it even gets off the ground. Last week, the US Department of Transportation withdrew from the board overseeing the project and still has not committed money to the project.

Christie's short-sighted approach to infrastructure in order to satisfy his own personal quest for power is reflecting of the Republican party as a whole. Amtrak, which is responsible for most of the rail lines in the Northeast Corridor has been underfunded for years. But the short-sightedness goes well beyond the NYC metro area. Opportunities to build for the future by investing in nationwide access to high-speed broadband, renewable technologies, or even in the maintenance and repair of the transportation system built since the 1950s that made this country great have been blocked by Republicans because "we can't afford it". This is farcical because, for much of the last decade, real interest rates have been negative, meaning those investments would virtually be cost free on an inflation adjusted basis. Republicans also point to tremendous debt, but then make budget and tax proposals which would increase that number by 50% in just ten years. When faced with total control of government, the GOP chose to forego an infrastructure plan that would have probably generated bipartisan support and instead opted to cut taxes via the ACA repeal and tax reform. And most of that money would simply go into filling rich people's money with more cash, rather than investing in the infrastructure we need for the future.

Earlier, I wrote about the increasing isolation of the US under Trump's leadership. Increasing isolation and refusal to invest in the future is a recipe for economic decline and stagnation, whether from the increasing costs of climate change or the failure of our transportation and communication infrastructure. But that is the current Republican strategy and we will all pay a price for that going forward.

The US And UK Will Live In Splendid Isolation As The World Moves Forward Without Us

While much of the focus on the G20 meeting revolved around the Trump-Putin love fest, the gathering also highlighted the increasing isolation of both the US and Britain, all of it self-inflicted.
The EU and Japan made a point of announcing a trade agreement that, if consummated, would create what Japanese PM Abe called "the world’s largest free, advanced, industrialized economic zone" , even larger than NAFTA. The meeting then ended with a statement on climate change in which the US was the only dissenting vote, leaving us further isolated and abdicating our global leadership position. As one French diplomat noted, "Whatever leadership is, it is not being outvoted, 19 to 1."

Trump's refusal to vigorously defend NATO and Article V has already driven Europe to begin to move on the assumption that the US will no longer be a global leader and a reliable partner. After Trump's disastrous G7 meeting, Angela Merkel stated, "The times in which we could completely rely on others are over to a certain extent. That is what I experienced in the last few days. That is why I can only say: We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands." More than even Putin or the fear of the far right, Trump seems to have unified Europe more than ever.

The Europeans are also preparing to retaliate if Trump goes ahead with his threats to impose steel tariffs. Although Trump is mainly focused on the Chinese, these tariffs could also effect the EU. Apparently there was an agreement to draw up proposals to deal with the steel glut at the G20 meeting but there was no clear resolution and still no indication whether the tariffs were just another empty threat from Trump or something that actually might happen.

After playing Trump, (whose family was looking for Chinese investments to bail out a disastrous NY real estate deal), like a fiddle at Mar-a-Lago, President Xi of China is ready and willing to fill the void left by Trump's vanishing act. China is already a huge investor in Africa and is now expanding its global reach with its Silk Road initiative and domination in renewable energy technology, especially in the wake of Trump's pulling out of the Paris Agreements. The renminbi has become a global reserve currency and the collapse of the Trans Pacific Partnership has allowed China to become Asia's leader almost by default. Australia is largely re-thinking it relationship to the US in the wake of Trump and smaller Asian countries increasingly rely on Chinese trade and investment.

Even Canada has started to hedge its reliance on the US. Outgoing Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland stated quite clearly in her departure speech that Canada must "set our own clear and sovereign course" and diversify its trade so as not to become America's "client state". Canada is now becoming a refuge for immigrants escaping Trump's deportation forces and stands solidly behind the Paris Climate Agreement. In addition, it has recently completed its own free trade agreement with the EU.

Now some Trump supporters will look at all this as a positive development, especially if the US is seen as offloading some of its military costs on its allies. But Trump isn't planning to use any military savings that might come from this, instead looking to further increase the US military budget. And Trump's positions go far from re-allocating shared costs more evenly to outright protectionism and isolation.

Meanwhile, Britain is following a similar path with Brexit. The UK is already being frozen out of EU issues as it begins negotiations to exit the European Union. There is an increasing realization that the agreement will probably never be consummated by the two year deadline, causing devastating new WTO trade rules to kick in and shaving 5% to 10% in UK growth over the next decade and a half. Theresa May herself is incredibly weak after barely surviving as PM in the last election and her majority is split between a "hard" and "soft" Brexit, making negotiations even more complicated. There is no doubt that this long-running uncertainty about the UK's final relationship with the EU is and will be a drag on the UK economy.

May herself emerged from the G20 meetings talking up potential trade agreements once Britain leaves the EU. Trump vowed to May, "We will do a very big deal, a very powerful deal. Trade will be a big factor between our two countries." And Japanese PM Abe at least floated the idea that a similar deal to the one he announced with the EU might be available to the UK.

It is really a pitiful sight to see the two former leaders of the free world shutting themselves off from the current international order and believing that they can somehow thrive simply by working with each other. It is a sad delusion for which their citizens will pay a dear price in the coming years. While I am no fan of Reagan or Thatcher, they both believed their countries had an important place on the global stage. It is a sign of how far astray conservatism has gone, that we are now left with the willing isolationists of Trump and May.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Trump Campaign Meeting With Russian Lawyer Links Collusion And Money Laundering

The revelation from the NY Times today about a meeting between a Russia-linked lawyer and senior members of the Trump campaign and members of the Trump family finally ties together the two strands of Trump's involvement with the Russians, providing money-laundering opportunities to sustain the Trump real estate effort and collusion with the Russians during the campaign.

The report details a meeting just two weeks after Trump's nomination between Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and Natalia Veselnitskay, a lawyer linked to Russian intelligence who has led the fight against the Magnitsky Act, a US law that targets Russian human rights abusers. The law is named after a Russian lawyer who exposed a $230 million money laundering scheme in which oligarchs backed by Putin stole tax credits from a hedge fund run by an American in Russia and laundered that money through New York real estate transactions and banks. Magnitsky later died under suspicious circumstances in a Russian prison, which is a euphemistic way of saying that Putin had him killed.

Don Jr. claims that the meeting covered the issue of adoption of Russian babies which had been blocked by Putin in response to Magnitsky Act and that he was not aware of who he was meeting and what the agenda would be when the meeting was set up. He, did, however ask Kushner and Manafort to sit in on the meeting with him. That seems like an interesting choice considering he was so in the dark about the meetings details and his claims that no campaign issues were discussed. The explanation clearly does not pass the laugh test. Later today, Trump Jr. "updated" his explanation, saying that Ms. Veselnitskay originally offered to provide damaging information on Clinton and the Democrats in order to entice him to the meeting. When it became clear she had no real information about that, the conversation then turned to the Russian adoption issue. This actually makes the meeting even worse.

The lawyers for Don, Jr. put forward an even more pathetic excuse, implying that the meeting was a setup by opposition researchers because Ms. Veselnitskay employs an investigator associated with a firm who also employed Christopher Steele, the man who put together the "Russian dossier" that contained numerous allegations of contacts between Trump and the Russians. Of course, that dossier was requested and paid for by a wealthy Republican donor/donors who would not have been able to stop Trump after his nomination, making this excuse for the meeting even less plausible than Don Jr.'s.

It is also worth mentioning that, even after Trump's bump in the polls after his convention, it was largely expected that Clinton would still win the election. That raises the question of why Ms. Veselnitskay would waste her time meeting with Trump, Jr. about adoptions and why Kushner and Manafort would be in such a meeting as well. On the other hand, it would make sense if the meeting was about issues more wide ranging than adoptions...

Interestingly, Ms. Veselnitskay also represented the head of the Prevezon Holdings, a Cyprus based real estate firm owned by a Russian oligarch. Prevezon was under indictment in New York for its part in laundering around $2 million of the $230 million in stolen money that the Russian lawyer Magnitsky exposed. That case was all set to go to trial in New York when Preet Bharara was fired in March. But just as the case was to go forward in late May, the government suddenly settled the case with Prevezon with a $6 million fine and no admission of wrongdoing. While some believe that was a fair settlement, even a spokesman for Prevezon's own attorney described the deal as "too good to refuse."

By admissions from the Trump family themselves, we know the Trump Organization has used Russian money to finance its real estate business for years, probably ever since the early 2000s when every reputable bank, except Deutsche Bank, stopped providing financing after Trump's multiple bankruptcies. So Trump and his team were clearly comfortable working with the Russians well before his nomination. There would be no reason to think that they would stop working with them after that, especially when their interests were also so firmly aligned when it came to the election.

This meeting, especially with the presence of Kushner and Manafort, finally connects those two elements of Trump's connections with the Russians, using money-laundered Russian money to support the business and working with the Russians to influence the 2016 election. It is interesting that Trump Jr.'s explanation has come out right after Trump's over two hour meeting with Putin, although it's possible he gave his comment to the Times before that event. A cynical mind like mine might think that Trump and Putin were getting their stories straight by meeting without note takers or the NSA. It does seem clear, however, that the Prevezon case is at least part the "pro quo", although quite probably just a small part. The evidence keeps growing that colluding with the Russians in hacking our election was the "quid".

Natural Weekends - More Of A Yellow Crowned Night Heron

Here are some more pics of the yellow crowned night heron an another successful luncheon run.