Wednesday, May 30, 2018

How Much Trouble Is That Little Misha Cohen In? Let Us Count The Several Ways.

Pick one: Will the end of the Donald Trump presidency have more to do with a special counsel who has dug deeply into the campaign of then-candidate Trump's collusion with Kremlin lowlifes, a rampantly corrupt fixer with a reputation for making Trump's problems go away, or a porn star whom Trump bedded with a streak so stubborn and a lawyer so clever that one particular problem not only didn't go away, it now poses a potentially greater threat to his presidency than do Robert Mueller or Michael "Misha" Cohen.
l myself don't care, just so Trump goes away. 
Trump hired Cohen as his attorney in 2006 because he viewed him as a new conduit for money -- much of it laundered -- from Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union that had kept Trump's impressively mismanaged business empire from going under in the late 1990s and in subsequent years.  This was because of Cohen's extensive "cash-intensive" business contacts, including taxi medallion businesses in New York, Chicago and elsewhere that have piqued investigators' interest, hence Dick Codor's great cartoon atop this post.  And because Cohen could help make Trump's "problems" evaporate, whether through legal sleight of hand, lawsuits or outright intimidation.  
Cohen and Donald Jr. and Ivanka, Trump's two eldest children, basically ran the Trump Organization while Daddy-O starred in a reality TV show and chased porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal, among many other women with impressive bosoms and rounded heels.  It was Cohen and the kids who did most of the deal making with an astonishing array of bad people from whom other businesses fled in horror. (Okay, perhaps feigned horror.)  
While all that rot has indeed been hiding in plain view for years, it did not escape the notice of the elite Public Corruption Unit of the U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District of New York, which has an impressive record of bringing down politicians and businesspeople, Democrats and Republicans alike. 
Lawyers for Cohen and Trump were back in court on Wednesday in yet another hearing following April 9 raids by FBI agents on Cohen's Manhattan office, apartment and hotel room based in part on a referral from Special Prosecutor Mueller.  They seized a passel of cellphones, a computer hard drive or three, the contents of a shredding machine and 10 boxes of records related to the Public Corruption Unit's investigation into possible bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations as part of its examination of Cohen's efforts to suppress damaging stories about Trump just before the 2016 election. 
Cohen attended the hour-long hearing but did not speak.  
Because Cohen was the key intermediary between the Trump family and its sleazy global partners and presumably kept records of it all, these records should provide prosecutors with an invaluable window into Trump's relationship with Cohen, including his role in helping to arrange payments during the 2016 campaign for women who had sex with Trump and him lying about it.    
Anyhow, lawyers for Cohen and Trump threw a fit after the raids, claiming that many of the documents and communications were off-limits to prosecutors because they might be protected by attorney-client privilege.  District Judge Kimba Wood then appointed retired judge Barbara Jones, a former organized-crime prosecutor, as a special master to arbitrate what would be released in an effort to balance the interests of all parties. 
In their initial request for a special master, Cohen's attorneys said thousands of the seized documents might be covered by attorney-client privilege, but they have flagged only 252 items as privileged.  (Recall also that Cohen's lawyers said he had too many clients to name, but when forced by Wood to name them, only came up with Trump; Elliott Broidy, who is a Trump mega-fundraiser and was a Republican National Committee finance chair, and Sean Hannity, the Fox News anchor and Trump sycophant and apologist.)   
Long story short, Jones on Wednesday approved prosecutors getting a million (okay, 1,025,063) files from three of Cohen's cellphones seized last month. Prosecutors already been given access to nearly 300,000 (okay, 292,006) pieces of potential evidence seized in the raids.  
Lawyers for Cohen and Trump told Wood it would take them until mid-July to finish their review of the materials because they were only a third of the way through them. Wood said that was too long and gave them until June 15.  She said that if they fail to meet that deadline, she will allow prosecutors to take control of the review. 
When it rains in MishaLand, it pours, and Cohen is up to his Bulgari necktie in storm clouds. 
For openers, Evgeny Freidman, known as the New York Taxi King and a longtime business associate of Cohen's in the once-lucrative medallion trade, has agreed to cooperate with federal and New York state prosecutors in a massive tax fraud case.  He will avoid doing any jail time by testifying against Cohen.   
Then there is Daniels, who fired lawyer Keith Davidson and replaced him with Hollywood go-getter Michael Avenatti, and has sued to be released from a $130,000 nondisclosure agreement engineered by Cohen two weeks before the election requiring her to remain silent about a year-long affair with Trump that began in 2006 when The Big White Hat (who has not been seen in public since May 10) was caring for four-month-old baby Barron.    
Trump and Cohen have filed a $20 million countersuit against Daniels, while she has amended her own suit to include an allegation that Cohen defamed her by insinuating that she lied about her affair with Trump. 
Avenatti also attended the Wednesday hearing and did speak. 
He had said he wanted a role in the case so he could ensure that any confidential records or recordings related to Daniels weren't improperly disclosed, but withdrew the request after Wood told him in a sarcasm-drenched rejoinder that while he was free to speak in her courtroom, he would have to end his "publicity tour on TV and elsewhere" if he entered the case, a reference to his frequent appearances on CNN and elsewhere.  
Cohen had paid Daniels the $130,000 through a Delaware shell company called Essential Consultants LLC, which he used to arrange another hush agreement for Broidy (yes, that Broidy) who knocked up Playboy bunny Shera Bechard.  
Cohen and Davidson apparently were operating in concert in the Bechard affair, according to the Wall Street Journal.  When Bechard found out she was pregnant by Broidy, she contacted Davidson, who then brought in Cohen to contact Broidy.  Cohen was Broidy's lawyer in negotiations that resulted in a $1.6 million settlement and confidentiality agreement, for which the Journal says Davidson bagged a $640,000 fee and Cohen a paltry $250,000. 
It gets better.  A lot better. 
Financial documents obtained by Avenatti from a Treasury Department whistleblower show that Cohen's Essential Consultants has all the earmarks of being a classic slush fund. 
It was the recipient of a cool $500,000 from Viktor Vekselberg, a billionaire industrialist who is one of the richest men in Russia, a member of Vladimir Putin's inner circle and guest of honor at Trump's inauguration, as well as several Fortune 500 companies looking for access to Trump by making off-the-books payments to Cohen.  
Beyond Cohen, Vekselberg and Broidy are persons of considerable interest to Mueller.  
Vekselberg was stopped by FBI agents working for the special counsel when his private jet landed at a New York area airport in early March and his electronic devices were searched.  He is among the seven Russian billionaires and 17 top government officials sanctioned by the Trump administration on April 6 in the most aggressive effort to punish Putin's inner circle for interference in the 2016 election and other Russian aggressions. 
Broidy, meanwhile, secretively lobbyied the Trump administration to isolate Qatar and undermine the Pentagon's longstanding relationship with the Gulf country, a longtime U.S. ally in that troubled region.  Broidy's security firm, Circinus LLC, has secured at least $800 million in foreign defense contracts since Trump took office and Broidy began advocating for outcomes favorable to the countries Circinus lists as clients, which does not include Qatar.   
If this seems like one big happy family, you'd be right except for the happy part. 

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

Reflections On Memorial Day 2018

It is Memorial Day weekend in the U.S. 
The holiday originally was called Decoration Day and was a day of remembrance for Union soldiers who died in the American Civil War. After World War I, it was expanded to include soldiers who died in any war.  It more recently was expanded to allow retailers to shamelessly peddle their stuff at those ubiquitous if dying monuments to rampant capitalism -- the shopping mall.  
As always, I've hung an American flag outside of Kiko's House this Memorial Day, a 48-star banner that long waved outside the rural Minnesota farmhouse of my love's Norwegian immigrant forebears.  
As always, I will keep the weekend simple and go for a hike and perhaps a swim in our spring-fed mountain pool (brr!). 
As always, I will remember that freedom of speech is not protected by journalists like myself but by the men and women who have given their lives to defend American values. 
As always, I will feel a sadness over loved ones and friends who will not be with us  because of their sacrifices.  
But this Memorial Day is different.  So have too many holidays of remembrance as I have slouched into my dotage.   Besides being sad, I also am angry -- a slow burn, I suppose -- over the mess that we've made of our once great country.    
As my cousin County Bumpkin was fond of saying, dissent and bickering are the soundtrack of a democracy.  But this should be a golden age for America and it is anything but.  I cannot recall a time in my life when so few have so much and so many are struggling.   
When an unrelenting fear rules our lives and the president's narcissistic craziness indelibly colors our country and culture. 
When America's heart and soul -- its middle class -- is so beleaguered. 
When we are so incapable of a national consensus on anything beyond the belief that government and many of our institutions have failed us. That things only will get worse before they get better, if they ever get better.    
So what’s to be done about this dismal state of affairs?  
Such pessimism is uncharacteristic of me, let alone Americans in general, and I feel a twinge of shame that I am unable to be more upbeat this Memorial Day weekend.  But my glass is well below half empty, especially when I reflect on the sacrifices our men and woman at arms are asked to make.
Sacrifices for what? An ill-focused War on Terror?  The pathetic war in Afghanistan?  Preparing for the next war with an evil nut who has access to the nuclear codes as commander in chief? 
You tell me.  
-- Love and Peace, SHAUN

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Eyes Of The World: 'The Heart Has Its Seasons, Its Evenin's And Songs Of Its Own'

If it wasn't for the love of my woman and all our critters, I would have melted down some time ago in not merely trying to write about the President From Hell, but trying to rationalize how anyone, regardless of what basket they live in, can support he and his Vichy Republican enablers.  
And then there is music, which takes me about as far away from this insanity as I can get beyond all that homegrown love.  This brings me to "Eyes of the World," my favorite Grateful Dead song and one of my favorites of any musical genre.    
If ever the world needed "Eyes of the World," it is now.  
Which brings me to a wonderful piano rendition of the Jerry Garcia-Robert Hunter anthem by Holly Bowling, who has transcribed for piano, pretty much note-for-note, the Dead's performance of the song at a concert near her home at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky on June 18, 1974.  (I heard a not dissimilar version a few weeks later in Philadelphia.)  
Ms. Bowling is not Martha Argerich.  Hell, she's not even Bruce Hornsby.  But her version of "Eyes" is true to its modal jam roots, deeply satisfying and extraordinarily moving.  Her nod to Phil's bass solo with her left hand while playing Jerry with her right is insanity. 
If I can micromanage your life a little more, I'd recommend waiting until late in the evening after the dishes are done, the children and critters are abed and it is absolutely q-u-i-e-t to give it a first listen.    
Click here for a link to a video of Ms. Bowling's wonderful cover, which is part of JamBase's Songs of Their Own series.

Richard Codor's Cartoon du Jour

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Will Trump & His Banana Republicans Spell Electoral Doom For The GOP? Maybe.

Here are a couple of facts to make your head explode. 
A mere 15 bills that are not ceremonial in nature or rescind existing laws have passed Congress since Donald Trump became president.  This includes a bill sent to the president this week that rescinds a law forbidding discrimination in car loans.  (I am not making this up.)   Meanwhile, the august House Rules Committee has sent a record-shattering 84 bills to the House floor this year under "closed" rules.  (And there still are seven months to go.)  These bills are rubber stamped by Banana Republicans with no opportunity for Democratic input to craft the kind of bipartisan legislation that has flowed from Capitol Hill to the president's pen for generations.  
There is no better example of the madness than Banana Republicans have wrought than strangling their own $867 billion farm bill in its crib last week.   
This reliably popular piece of pork-laden legislation, which has been a fixture in every Congress since 1933, benefits country and city folk, Republicans and Democrats alike, and the strangulation came not over ethanol subsidies or free lunches for poor school kids, which are sometimes stumbling blocks, but over the House Freedom (Pardon the Term) Caucus's demand that moderate Republicans sign onto their draconian immigration legislation. 
But wait!  There is a better example: The Freedom Caucus and mere garden variety right wingers are faced with the reality that their Dear Leader and a small army of his associates will be eviscerated in Robert Mueller's Russian scandal investigation meat grinder as we slouch toward the midterm election in November.   This is because they did a lot of really bad stuff.   
So what are these Banana Republicans doing in response to this orgy of law breaking?  They are working hammer and tong to undermine the Justice Department and FBI, which are trying to protect America, with increasingly wild accusations of deep-state coups and spies, oh my! in trying to protect Trump.  And, of course, queuing up another Hillary Clinton investigation. 
Thank goodness that Rod Rosenstein knows how to rope-a-dope. 
The farm bill eventually will pass (possibly minus free lunches) and the Hail Mary plays to extricate the Russia scandal perps from the special counsel's meat grinder will fail in familiar fashion.   
That is, having demanded their outrageous claims be investigated, those investigations predictably reveal how pointlessly destructive their malevolent natterings are. (Remember the accusation that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump's phones in Trump Tower?  I knew you'd forgotten.) 
CURSE THAT IT IS, BANANA REPUBLICANISM is a gift for Democrats in their increasingly plausible quest to take back Congress through deftly (it is hoped) bundling pocketbook issues like health care and prescription drug costs, Social Security and Medicare, veterans benefits and clean air and water with corruption, which is to say Trump's innumerable scandals and Banana Republicans substituting cowardice for oversight. 
But which scandals on which to piggyback those issues? 
Beyond the Russia lollapalooza, there are Trump's hush-money payments to women (and I guarantee we've only seen the tip of this very big iceberg), selling foreign policy to the highest bidder (ditto on the iceberg analogy), and the gross misuse of taxpayer money by Cabinet officials at the behest of corporations (ditto).  All punctuated by brazen lies that spill from the president's pie hole at the rate of a half dozen or so a day, or more if he's early-morning tweetstorming.   
While Felix Sater, Elliott Broidy and Scott Pruitt are not exactly household names, I would vote for using all of these scandals and incessantly using the word CORRUPTION! on the Internet and airways, especially in races where Republicans are standing by the man with small hands and peculiar hair, while hammering home the message that a government that works for you is preferable to a scandal-sodden constitutional crisis with no end in sight.     
Trump's ego-diven overture to North Korea (which is blowing up in his face as he gets punked by Rocket Man), his trade deal with China (which will save more Chinese jobs than American) and his nonsensical scuttling of the Iran nukes deal (which has further alienated the U.S.'s closest allies while inching us closer to a war for that nice John Bolton man) also qualify as scandalous, but they will make barely a ripple in the election. 
What may make big splashes are Trump's buddies flipping. 
Michael Flynn and Rick Gates already have.  Trump lawyer Michael Cohen's own lawyer agreed to cooperate with the feds this week, it is now stated matter of factly that Cohen will turn on Trump, and there will be no surprise when Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort concludes that his lawyers' legal burlesque isn't getting anywhere and ratting out the president is preferable to spending the rest of his life behind bars.  This will further up the ante, give Democrats further opportunities to wave the corruption flag and further inflame Banana Republicans. 
In any event, it cannot be politics as usual, and in this respect the Democratic leadership's worst enemy is itself, not Trump. This is because the party's DNA inexorably forces it away from a more populist, left-leaning approach toward the dreaded center.  That would be a gift for Banana Republicans and their beleaguered Grifter in Chief.   
Just ask Hillary Clinton.   

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Maximum Bob Indictment Watch: Fredo Sinks Deeper In The Collusion Cauldron

Practically from the moment we learned of the infamous June 9, 2016 Trump Tower sitdown convened by Donald "Fredo" Trump Jr. to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from a lawyer with close Kremlin ties, it has been less a meeting than a big smoking gun and on its face ample proof that the Trump campaign was delighted to collude with Russia in its cybersabotage of the Hillary Clinton campaign.  
"If what you say is true I love it," were Donald Jr.'s immortal words in response to an email from Rob Goldstone.  
Goldstone, a British music promoter, has pushed Donald Jr. even deeper into the collusion cauldron -- one imagines that he's now pretty much up to his neck -- in 2,500 pages of testimony by Goldstone, Donald Jr. and four other individuals before the Senate Intelligence Committee released on Wednesday morning.   
In conjunction with the release, the committee said it had determined that the U.S. intelligence community was correct in assessing that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the aim of helping Trump, an anti-climactic conclusion that nevertheless contradicts the findings reached last month by Vichy Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee.  This sets up another inevitable flame war between a committee determined to get to the truth and a committee running from it. 
"The Russian effort was extensive, sophisticated, and ordered by President Putin himself for the purpose of helping Donald Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton," said the Senate committee chairman, Republican Richard Burr, and vice chairman, Democrat Mark Warner. 
Goldstone flat-out states in his testimony about the meeting that he had been assured the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was "well connected" and had "damaging material."   He testified that he had warned his client, Russian pop star Emin Agalarov, that the meeting would be a bad idea.  
"He said, 'it doesn’t matter. You just have to get the meeting,' " Goldstone testified.   
(Goldstone, meanwhile, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he proposed a second meeting between Veselnitskaya and Trump's team at the behest of Emin's father, Aras, a billionaire developer and close associate of Putin, in November 2016, but it never took place.) 
The intensity with which the Agalarovs  sought the June 9 meeting is shot through the testimony.   
When news of the meeting became public a year later, Trump, his aides and lawyers tried to lie and spin it away as a big nothing.  In the process, they made matters far worse, and the meeting has taken on an outsized importance to Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller's investigation, which entered its second year on Thursday with the promise of dizzying new developments to come as Trump's sycophancy reaches new levels of "witch hunt" hysteria and the president continues to suck up to the Russian kleptocrat. 
IT WAS AN ODD GROUP THAT ASSEMBLED on that unseasonably cool late spring afternoon around a table in a conference room on an upper floor of a glass and marble skyscraper on New York's Fifth Avenue.  On one side of the table were four Russians. On the other side were Trump's eldest son, son-in-law and the man who was about to become manager and chief strategist of the billionaire's improbable campaign to become president.   
The events surrounding the June 6, 2016 meeting -- both before and after -- suggest that Trump not only encouraged members of his campaign team to assist Russians working for Vladimir Putin to interfere in the forthcoming election, but expected the meeting to pay dividends for his long-shot bid for the presidency because it would provide new ammunition with which to assail the chief target of his incendiary stump speeches -- Hillary Clinton. 
Prior to the meeting, there already had been several attempts by Russians to find entry points into the Trump campaign, an effort that accelerated after he clinched the Republican nomination on May 26, 2016 amidst a flurry of media reports that his campaign had no agenda, was disorganized and several key positions had been left unfilled. 
In a June 2, 2016 speech in San Diego before the California primary, Trump had hammered Clinton over emails deleted from her personal server while she was secretary of state. 
"By the way, Hillary Clinton is missing 30,000 emails," he said.  "They've been deleted.  30,000.  30,000."  
When Donald Jr. scrolled through his email in-box the next day, there was a message from Goldstone, who got right to the point:
The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning, and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.  This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump -- helped along by Aras and Emin.  
Donald Jr. responded not by refusing the offer or alerting the FBI, but by replying, "If it's what you say I love it." 
Despite denials by father and son, it is possible that Trump Sr. was informed of the enticing news and signed off on the meeting in a four-minute phone call Donald Jr. had with a blocked number -- his third of the day -- at 4:27 p.m. on the afternoon of June 6, according to Senate committee findings.  Perhaps not coincidentally, the phone in his father's private Trump Tower residence utilized a blocked number. 
At 4:31 p.m., Donald Jr. had a three-minute phone conversation with Agalarov and then at 4:38 p.m. emailed Goldstone, writing "Rob thanks for the help."   
On June 7, Trump tweeted the promise of "big news" on Clinton's "crimes" in a forthcoming "major speech."
He amplified on the promise that night after winning the California and New Jersey primaries. 
"I'm going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week," he declared in a victory speech in Briarcliff Manor, New York.  "And we're going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons.  I think you're going to find it very informative and very, very interesting." 
DONALD JR. HAD INVITED TWO OTHER important campaign players to the meeting -- Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort. 
Kushner, the husband of his kid sister Ivanka, was in some ways a mirror image of Trump Sr.  He had a reputation for shady and occasionally disastrous business practices as a real estate developer and was a manipulator, blame shifter and liar for whom everything was about money. 
Several days after the meeting, Kushner was named head of the campaign's digital team and in all likelihood was responsible for helping Russian hackers identify voters to target with cyber onslaughts of fake anti-Clinton news, possibly in conjunction with Cambridge Analytica, in the Kremlin's successful effort to sabotage her campaign.  He also was to pop up with uncanny regularity at many of the meetings with the very Russians being investigated by Mueller.  
Manafort was a longtime associate of Trump who had made his nut through financial wheeling and dealing with shadowy Russian figures abroad and corporate shell games and money laundering at home, and 11 days after the meeting was promoted to run the campaign, a job that gave him control over day-to-day operations.   
The meeting commenced at 4 p.m. and lasted 20 to 30 minutes.   
The four Russians on the other side of the table were lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, a former Soviet soldier with ties to Russian spies; Ike Kaveladze, an official in Agalarov's real estate company; lawyer Veselnitskaya, who has continually lied about who she is, who she was representing, and the real reason for her being at the meeting, and her  translator, Anatoli Samochornov.  
Goldstone testified that Kushner was one of just three people who spoke during the meeting, interrupting Veselnitskaya at one point to ask her to refocus her presentation. Goldstone also said he recalled that Kushner stayed for the entire meeting, contradicting Veselnitskaya's public assertion the president's son-in-law left early and never came back.  
WHEN NEWS OF THE MEETING WAS FIRST REPORTED by The New York Times on July 8, 2017, Veselnitskaya described herself as a private attorney who wanted Trump to roll back the Magnitsky Act if he became president.   
The act, passed by Congress in 2012, was named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer and auditor who uncovered a $230 million web of corruption and fraud involving law enforcement, tax officials and the Russian mafia.  He died in a Moscow prison in 2009, where he had been held without trial, after allegedly being beaten and tortured by government officials. 
The Magnitsky Act, which was aggressively supported by Clinton, prohibited the Russian officials believed to be responsible for Magnitsky's death from entering the U.S. or using its banking system, and preceded by 15 months the first of three rounds of increasingly broad Obama administration sanctions on Russia in response to its takeover of Crimea.   The Magnitsky Act so outraged Putin that he retaliated by banning the adoption of Russian children by Americans. 
Contacted by The Times, Donald Jr. stated that the meeting was about adoptions. 
On June 26, 2017, Goldstone had written in an email to Emin Agalarov that "[Trump’s lawyers are] concerned because it links Don Jr. to officials from Russia, which he has always denied meeting.”  
On July 9, The Times reported that Donald Jr. had agreed to the meeting on the premise that damaging information on Clinton would be provided.  Donald Jr. confirmed that, but asserted the information was not useful and was merely a pretext to discuss adoptions. 
On July 10, The Times published the damaging pre-meeting email exchange between Goldstone and Donald Jr.   
On July 11, Donald Jr. posted on Twitter screenshots of all the emails between he and Goldstone with an accompanying statement saying he believed the meeting would be about "Political Opposition Research."  "To put this in context," he stated, "this occurred before the current Russian fever was in vogue." 
On July 12, Trump, returning from a G20 meeting in Germany aboard Air Force One, told reporters, "Don is -- as many of you know Don -- he's a good boy.  He's a good kid.  And he had a meeting, nothing happened at the meeting. . . . [which] I only heard about two or three days ago" but nothing came of it. 
On July 31, The Washington Post reported Trump had overruled his aides to personally direct that misleading statements be issued regarding the meeting. 
TRUMP NEVER GAVE HIS "MAJOR SPEECH" on Clinton, and it is easy to understand why.   The "dirt" Veselnitskaya brought to the meeting was a convoluted tale in which Clinton played a peripheral role, at best.
Meanwhile, it turned out Veselnitskaya was not exactly a babe in the woods.   
She had an intelligence background, was hard-wired to Putin and had discussed the "dirt" with one of Russia's most powerful officials, prosecutor general Yuri Y. Chaika.  Veselnitskaya acknowledged as much last month in an NBC News interview, saying that "I am an informant" who since 2013 has been "actively communicating" with Chaika to try to thwart a U.S. money-laundering case. 
A memo Veselnitskaya brought to the meeting was nearly identical to one Chaika's office had given a U.S. congressman in April 2016, The Times reported.  It alleged that Ziff Brothers Investments, an American firm, had illegally purchased shares in a Russian company and evaded tens of millions of dollars of Russian taxes, two of the brothers were major donors to Democratic candidates, including Clinton, and by implication the donations were tainted by "stolen" money. 
The Trump campaign officials at the meeting felt let down and even baffled by Veselnitskaya's presentation about the Democratic donors. 
"Some DNC [Democratic National Committee] donors may have done something in Russia and they didn't pay taxes," Donald Jr. was to say later.  "I was like, 'What does this have to do with anything?' " 
That, of course, misses the point. 
The Trumps, anxious if not desperate to climb into bed with the Russians, were duped. Donald Jr. took their bait and almost certainly shared it with his father, who with his trademark impetuosity and the knowledge that his attacks on Clinton were working at a time when little else in his campaign was, went public and promised major revelations. 
Donald Jr., Kushner and Manafort have all testified behind closed doors to congressional investigators about the meeting.  Manafort has been indicted by Mueller's grand jury for conspiring against the U.S. by money laundering and tax and foreign lobbying violations. Donald Jr. and Kushner also are in the special prosecutor's crosshairs. 
Goldstone's testimony shows that relations between he and Emin Agalarov grew increasingly tense as publicity about the meeting grew.  In a voicemail played aloud by the Senate committee to Goldstone, Agalarov urged the music promoter to decline comment about the meeting. 
"Stay cool," Agalarov told him.  
Goldstone testified that Agalarov also told him he should be pleased he had become so famous. 
"You know, Jeffrey Dahmer was famous. I don’t think he got a lot of work out of it," Goldstone said he replied, referring to the serial killer, before hanging up.

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

U.S.-Russia Relations: The More Things Change The More They Remain The Same

There has been one drearily reliable constant in U.S.-Russian relations over the past 25 years: The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations have come into office committed to improving relations with Moscow and each has not merely failed, but failed spectacularly, while the Trump administration also is well on the way to going off the rails with America's former Cold War nemesis. 
Many journalists and Russia hands -- the nickname for people who devote their public lives to trying to understand Russia -- find this to be an abiding mystery, most recently Keith Gessen in a New York Times Magazine story that covers a lot of real estate but also fails -- and fails at considerable length -- to shed new light on the conundrum, let alone solve it.  This at a time the Russia scandal investigation is entering its second year, the tug of war between Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Trump and his Vichy Republican allies is dominating headlines, and the longterm failure of U.S. Russia policy has taken on a new importance. 
The prevailing theory about why relations between Washington and Moscow have been so poor is not without merit and goes something like this:
The U.S. has never gotten past the idea that it "won" the Cold War and as a result needs to spread, even at considerable diplomatic and geopolitical cost, the American way of life. 
That is the big takeaway from the Gessen takeout and is echoed by the usual Russia hand suspects, all of whom are not exactly household names in the U.S.  These suspects include Strobe Talbott (Bill Clinton administration), Thomas Graham (George W. Bush administration), Michael McFaul (Obama administration), and for our purposes most notably Victoria Nuland, who was assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia during Barack Obama's second term and his administration's leading spokesperson on Russia. 
As Gessen notes, these people are as well known in Russia as they are obscure in the U.S., and no one more so than Nuland. 
So well known in Russia that when Nastya Rybka, a "professional sex coach" and former mistress of Oleg Deripaska, a Russian aluminum oligarch, Vladimir Putin pal and person of (considerable) interest to Mueller because of his ties to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, was busted in Thailand earlier this year, she claimed to have the "missing link" in proving collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign to cyberscrew Hillary Clinton. 
Rybka, in appealing to the U.S. to prevent her deportation to Russia, pointed to a video shot aboard Deripaska's yacht in 2016 in which Deripaska discusses the sorry state of Washington-Moscow relations with Sergei Prikhodko, Putin's deputy prime minister. 
"Our relations with America are bad," Deripaska tells Prikhodko as Nastya and other for-hire babes look on.  "Why?  Because the person in charge of them is . . . Nuland is what she is called.  When she was young — about your age — she spent a month living on a Soviet whaling vessel.  Ever since then, she's hated our country." 
A BIG REASON THAT NULAND IS, IN TURN, HATED in Russia is that in 2013, as a newly confirmed assistant secretary of state under Putin arch nemesis Hillary Clinton, she became the most visible U.S. government representative when large street protests erupted in Kiev against the pro-Moscow president of Ukraine following his decision to pull out of an economic agreement with the European Union, which eventually would lead to his ouster and flight to Moscow aboard a helicopter arranged by Putin. 
Nuland was videotaped handing out sandwiches, pastries and cookies to the protesters in what the Kremlin and everyday Russians viewed as a provocative show of American anti-Russian solidarity with the protesters.  (Never mind that Nuland had done the same for government riot police.)  And later, to add insult to injury, she said in a call to Washington most likely intercepted by Russian intelligence and then leaked that the U.S. should not work with the E.U. to resolve the crisis.
"Fuck the E.U.,” Nuland memorably said.  
Obama's efforts to "reset" relations with Russia by lowering tensions and focusing on an emergent China as a worrisome global player went pfft!  Nuland's hospitality was recast by Putin's propaganda machine as yet another instance of an American president dictating policy to Moscow.   
BUT THE PRIMARY FACTOR IN THE SORRY STATE of U.S.-Russian relations over the past 25 years is not Washington's belief that it "won" the Cold War and can dictate the terms of the relationship, let alone Nuland's cookie diplomacy.   The U.S. indeed did "win" the Cold War, but it "won" by default.  The Soviet Union was on the verge of a monumental collapse and nothing the hallowed Ronald Reagan did hastened that inevitability, the beliefs of conservative Republican myth makers aside.  Nor were the actions of Bill Clinton and his successors particularly to blame. 
The cause was, to a great extent, these presidents' reactions, specifically to:
Boris Yeltsin catastrophically botching the dramatic shift from the centralized Soviet economy of state ownership to a market economy, which enabled cash-rich mobsters and corrupt government officials like Prikhodko to privatize and loot state-held assets.   
And after Putin succeeded Yeltsin, Russia's feared intelligence agencies joining forces with mobsters and oligarchs like Deripaska, whom Putin has given a free hand so long as they help enrich him and strengthen his grip on the country. 
I know this view seems Cold Warriorish.  It is not.  And this is not to overlook Clinton's Kosovo adventure, Bush's response to the Russian bombing of Georgia, let alone Obama's sanctions in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea, all of which mightily ticked off Putin and everyday Russians, who get their news through that well-oiled propaganda machine. 
This is what is called realistic, and the self-flagellation of many Russia hands over Who Lost Russia? is downright silly because Russia already was lost when Putin strongarmed his way to power and then rigged subsequent elections.  Nothing any America president could do was going to change that.   
Meanwhile, what is Trump's Russia policy and who is his top Russia adviser?   
Trump has no policy beyond making nice with Putin and issuing frequently nonsensical executive orders, while his top adviser is  . . . Putin, whose views he has valued over his own national security and foreign policy hands, including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose ouster by Tweet followed his break with Trump over the need to get tough with Russia after the poisoning in England of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal. 
Trump has never criticized Putin and has long denied that Russia interfered in the election that plopped him in the Oval Office, while Putin is never going to acquiesce to accommodation with the U.S. no matter how benevolent Washington is.   That collides with his goal of knocking the U.S. from its perch as the sole remaining global superpower and returning Russia . . . yes, to its former Cold War glory by any means necessary.   
This includes undermining a bedrock of American democracy by helping elect Trump, whose Make America Great "vision" is as devoid of substance as Putin's own vision.  And no less dangerous.

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.