Monday, February 27, 2017

Please Meet Felix Sater, The Best Friend That Donald Trump Claims He Never Had

THE DAILY BEAST
RUSSIAN EMIGRE SATER IS EVEN DIRTIER THAN THE DONALD
When last we checked in on Donald Trump's Russia scandal a couple of weeks ago, it was bubbling away nicely and threatened to come to a boil.  It hasn't yet.  Not quite, but we now know enough about the relationship between the president and a smorgasbord of Russian interests to reach certain conclusions.  This is because while presidential scandals -- be they Watergate, Iran-Contra or the Teapot Dome -- follow their own individual arcs, they all have certain things in common, notably that the cover-up can be worse than the crime and that at some point there inevitably is a standoff as the scandal teeters on the cusp between going super nova or becoming a mere historic footnote.  
We have now reached the proverbial standoff -- specifically between the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has perhaps the best opportunity to get to the truth without a special prosecutor, and a beleaguered White House, whose efforts to cover up the welter of past and present ties between Trump, his surrogates and those Russian interests have failed so completely that it has now shifted gears and is engaging in a full-court-press attempt to minimize the damage, or switch the narrative as it is known in the trade.   
All of the players know that this is a scandal of great breadth and depth. 
This explains Representative Daryl Issa's extraordinary break with his Republican colleagues in calling on Saturday for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself and an independent special prosecutor be named to dig into Trump's Russia ties, as well as White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus's unsuccessful efforts to prod the FBI -- first through Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and then Director James Comey -- into publicly disputing damaging if accurate media reports on those ties. 
The scandal also happens to be fermenting a mere month into the tenure of a mentally unbalanced president that the Republican Congress needs to sign its agenda into law before it considers whether to discard him because it faces the prospect of itself possibly being discarded in the 2018 mid-term elections because of an electorate growing more restive by the week.  Besides which, Veep Mike Pence is far preferable to party loyalists. This is something that Issa, who typically is hyper partisan and was unrelenting in his attacks on Barack Obama, may understand. 
These circumstances have resulted in the hero of the scandal to date improbably being the CIA. 
The intelligence agency, which for decades has been extraordinarily inept (my favorite being it finding out on CNN that the Soviet Union had collapsed and the Berlin Wall was coming down), has been unwilling to abide the collusion between Trump and the most hostile of all hostile foreign powers.  Working with a foreign power, let alone an enemy power, to interfere in American democracy happens to constitute treason, but that's another matter.   
The most important thing for the moment is that the CIA has pretty much kept the scandal alive through leaks, although it was a leak from the FBI that resulted in outting Preibus's abortive effort to get it to side with his boss.  That failure in turn has prompted the White House to orchestrate a campaign to enlist senior members of the intelligence community and senior Republican lawmakers to try to counter the avalanche of damaging news stories about Trump's ties to Russia and undercut congressional investigations.   
The decision to try to involve senior intelligence officials is yet another effort to compromise the independence of spy agencies that by law must remain insulated from partisan politics.  A bit of context is helpful here: Trump has yet to be critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet he has repeatedly disparaged those intelligence agencies, and they resent it.  Hence the leaks.  
All of this brings us to Felix Henry Sater. 
There are several key players at the Trumpian end of the scandal, including former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign aides Paul Manafort and Carter Page.  But Sater is special because of his extraordinary sleaziness and longtime ties to Trump, including his recent efforts at "diplomacy" on Trump's behalf  to give Russia a fig leaf for its illegal annexation of Crimea by ginning up a "peace plan" under which the Kremlin would have a 50- to 100-year lease on the Crimea region of the Ukraine. 
This is just one of a number of incredibly Gothic aspect of the scandal that should leave any sentient person gasping for air.     
Sater is a Russian immigrant with extensive mob ties who did prison time for stabbing a man in the face with the broken stem of a margarita glass, became a federal informant to avoid a 20-year mandatory sentence for a scheme to defraud elderly victims of $40 million, most of them Holocaust survivors, and has had extensive business dealings with the now president of the United States beginning in 2003 that include the Trump SoHo New York hotels and condos.   
Wait!  There's more. 
Sater has stayed out of prison ostensibly because of what he has done for the U.S. as opposed to against it.  This includes ratting out mobsters for the FBI in two big Mafia cases, a failed effort to buy Stinger missiles in Afghanistan on the black market for the CIA, as well as supposedly trying to obtain Osama bin Laden's cellphone number.   
Okay, time for another gasp of air.   
Trump, as we now well know, automatically defaults to lying when the truth does not suit his purposes.  When confronted with Sater's rancid past, he said in court papers stemming from a 2013 lawsuit involving the SoHo projects that "If he [Sater] were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn't know what he looked like."   
Michael Cohen, Trump's personal attorney, said the same thing when contacted by The New York Times earlier this month after he was seen having coffee with Sater in a Manhattan hotel as they worked on their Crimea scheme, which The Times revealed included forcing nominally pro-Western Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko from office. 
Meanwhile, there was a third person at that sitdown. 
He is Andrii Artemenko, a wealthy oligarch and member of the Ukraine Parliament who has claimed to have compelling evidence of Poroshenko's corruption.  Artemenko told Cohen and Sater that he had the approval of Putin's senior aides in pushing the Crimea "peace plan," according to The Times, which reported that Cohen delivered the plan to (drum roll, please) none other than then-National Security Adviser Flynn at the White House shortly before Flynn's unceremonious ouster. 
Wait!  There's still more. 
Artemenko is not the only Ukrainian parliamentarian tangled up in the scandal. 
According to Politico, Serhiy Leshchenko is alleged to have been behind a cyberhack of Paul Manaford in an attempt to blackmail Trump's then-campaign manager over damaging dirt he had on Trump when Manafort stood accused of accepting millions of dollars in cash for representing Russian interests in Ukraine and the U.S.   
The brazenness of Trump and his surrogates simply astounds, witness Cohen's very public meeting with Sater and Artemenko.  The feeling persists and grows that in the world of Trump, there is a belief that you can get away with anything.
The scandal, while very much on that cusp between exploding and fading away, is at the point where the White House has twisted itself into such contortions that the unintended consequences are coming fast and furious.  This includes Priebus's back channel pleas to FBI bigs having had the effect of verifying that there is, in fact, an FBI counter-intelligence investigation involving Trump's associates, something that had only been reported through anonymous sources.  
All of this has the potential to be the greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War, and in retrospect something of its gravity was bound to threaten to implode Trump's presidency. Watergate pales in comparison, and we can only hope that the Russia scandal will take Trump down. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Surviving The Age Of Trump: It Began. It Will End. But Can We Endure The Middle?

MARK BRYAN
One month into the Donald Trump regime, the big question is not whether it will last, but how long it will last.  Trump harrumphed last week at what had to have been the most bizarre press conference in White House history that his administration "is running like a well-oiled machine." As one pundit remarked, that is a crash-test machine -- and the wheels already have come off.   
Let's be very clear about a couple of things: Trump's base -- the 62 million or so people who voted for him -- remain faithful as ostensibly does the Republican-controlled Congress, which wants him to sign its agenda into law before it can bother with the question of whether he is doing the party more harm than good, never mind the country. And so we are hurtling ahead at breakneck speed into The Middle, that indeterminate period in the Age of Trump that is the muck and mire between The Beginning and The End.   
Whether The Middle lasts weeks, months or even years depends upon several things, all of which are interrelated.  One or more of those things -- or perhaps a really big surprise coming out of proverbial left field -- could be catalysts for Trump's downfall: 
* His failure to understand the so-called Deep State cripples his administration. 
This is the faceless permanent government that has accumulated power as presidents and parties in the majority come and go.  The Deep State is dominated but not limited to the CIA, FBI and NSA, and Trump has quickly maneuvered himself into the position where these spy agencies are ignoring his diktats as we saw with the Michael Flynn debacle. 
* His demands for absolute loyalty undermine him.   
Trump's difficulty in filling top posts, and many dozens of them remain vacant, is a result of an authoritarian-esque rule that no individual, no matter how qualified they may be, can be considered for a job when it is found they have made remarks critical of him in the past.  This litmus test makes it increasingly difficult to make badly needed hires as the pool of candidates shrinks.
* His Russian connections and hidden agenda finally demand decisive action. 
This would take the form of an independent special counsel investigating the Kremlin's assault on American democracy, as openly abetted by Trump and his surrogates, as well as continuing back channel initiatives by Trump business associates to assist in carrying out an agenda in sync with Vladimir Putin to upend the U.S.-led western alliance.  
* Giving senior campaign staff White House jobs has major repercussions. 
One of the president's underlying problems is that he has never stopped campaigning and has surrounded himself with a sycophancy of amateurs and hacks from his campaign, some with outlandish and dangerous views.  None have any government experience and have quickly divided themselves into warring (and leaking) factions.
* Congress, initially reluctant to move against the president, eventually does.   
Beyond the caucus of reliable cultists are congressional Republicans who privately loath Trump and for whom continuing to duck responsibility -- as they learn that running the country, as oppose to merely tying a president's hands as they did with Barack Obama, is beyond their means -- will cause irreparable cracks in the party leadership.  
* The alt-left resistance becomes a powerful grassroots movement. 
The immense post-inauguration protests are insinuating themselves into many smaller groups coalescing around the repeal of Obamacare and other draconian aspects of Trump's agenda.  These groups are showing up in force at town hall meetings, emboldening more and more people to become involved.  Comparisons to the early days of the Tea Party are valid. 
* A crisis occurs that lays bare his incapacity as commander in chief.   
The January 29 commando raid in Yemen, Trump's initial foray into covert counterterrorism operations, was carried out despite Pentagon concerns that there was insufficient intelligence, ground support and backup.  The consequence was a series of mishaps resulting in the death of a Navy SEAL, a child and several other civilians. 
* His incessant lying eventually will catch up to him. 
Trump believes that molding the truth to fit his needs is a no-lose proposition, witness the incredible number of lies and distortions he packed into a campaign-like Florida rally over the weekend, including false claims that the crime rate is way up, refugees entering the U.S. are not screened, and there had been a major terror attack in Sweden.
* Finally, his manifold symptoms of instability become too large to ignore.   
A growing chorus of mental health experts are pointing to Trump's overarching grandiosity, hypersensitivity to criticism, unrequited craving for mainstream acceptance, rudeness, intolerance leading to rage reactions and narcissistic meltdowns, outbursts of tweeting and, most troubling of all, inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
Trump's most effective weapon in prolonging the muck and mire of The Middle is ignorance.  Dismissing his demagoguery is a close second.  As I wrote last August 3 after he had clinched the nomination but the election was Hillary Clinton's to lose (ha!):
Say what you will about Donald Trump.  I've said plenty and will have plenty more to say, but he is sorely testing my ability to be outraged over and over and over again over his outrages.  Call it outrage fatigue, the bastard cousin of compassion fatigue, which is what happens when you've seen too many news clips of Biafran babies with swollen bellies or the bodies of Syrian refugees washed up on Mediterranean beaches.   
We cannot let that happen.   
There is an unmistakable edge of desperation -- even panic -- to much of what Trump and his handlers say and do.  As repeatedly occurred during the campaign, there already have been intentional leaks to the effect that his administration is rebooting, which is a joke, but at least is an acknowledgement that this Keystone Kops of a White House is in deep trouble after a mere four weeks and its juggling act of surreality simply is not sustainable.
Although the president, wrapped ever tighter in his cocoon of crazy, may understand in the abstract that being the leader of the free world requires discipline, hard work, patience and an ability to compromise, he utterly lacks these four essential qualities.  And we know well that of all of his characteristics, his inability to learn, to grow and to change . . . well, they trump everything. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Return to the Schilderwald -- A Jew Comes Home After Sixty-Eight Years

THE SITE OF BLOCK 17 AT SACHSENHAUSEN
 CONCENTRATION CAMP
("Country Bumpkin" was a contributor to Kiko's House over the years.  That was the nom de plummage of a dear cousin, John Schnellenberg.  John died on February 14 in New Zealand, his adopted and deeply beloved homeland.  He was 81 and left his wife Sonia and a loving family.  John was a fabulous writer and observer of the passing scene.  Like so many greater writers, he had a spare and beautifully understated way with words, conveying a lot with a little.  This moving November 2007 guest post was my favorite of all his contributions.) 

By COUNTRY BUMPKIN 
Germans call their country the Schilderwald ("sign forest"), because there are so many road signs — the Allgemeine Deutsche Automobil Club estimates there are 20 million —there is hardly any time left to drive; there is simply too much to read.  There is growing acceptance
across the country that this absurd proliferation of signs is a traffic hazard, and one or two towns have been getting rid of them; to good effect, so it is said. 
We stopped one late summer morning in Bad Breisig, a small town on the Rhine not far from Remagen, where invading American troops had first crossed the river in March 1945 after finding the Ludendorff Bridge there undamaged (there is no bridge there now).  Bad Breisig was holding a zwiebelmarkt — an onion market — that day, and parking was hard to find because a couple of million citizens or so had turned out to be huckstered by men selling travelling wallets, and to eat zwiebelkuchen.  At last, we saw a space in the carpark used by clients of the Bad which gives the town its name.  On the gate there were no fewer than nine advisory signs for drivers—I counted them! 
HOW THIS ALL BEGAN 
Our reasons for being in Germany have a provenance which will help make sense of what follows. 
For many years, at least forty, a number of German cities have invited back people who had to leave because of Nazi persecution; and of course such people are almost all Jews, now living in a huge variety of countries because they had the good fortune to get out while it was still possible.  The object, naturally, is to demonstrate that things in Germany have changed for the better. 
I was born in Berlin and left for New Zealand with my parents in 1939 thanks to the intervention of Sir George Ogilvie Forbes, Counsellor at the British Embassy in Berlin, and his colleague the British Passport Control Officer, Captain Frank Foley, who obtained for us New Zealand visas.  These men, frequently bending visa rules, were instrumental in saving many lives including mine and those of my father and mother.  That is not to say the British government behaved badly over the German Jewish refugee problem, because they were in fact generous in taking people into Britain by the standards of the time.  But after Kristallnacht in November 1938 the demand for visas vastly exceeded the supply, and most countries were parsimonious, to say the least, in granting them.  (And New Zealand was one of these.) 
Yet more than half of Germany’s Jews were able to emigrate after 1933, with the enthusiastic support of the Nazis who wanted rid of them.  Britain and the USA admitted more than half of them. 
That part of our family history belongs in another place; suffice it for now to say that it qualified me, along with my wife, to be invited to join a party visiting Berlin in August 2007. 
FIRST IMPRESSIONS 
As the British Airways Airbus A319 from Heathrow reduces power to descend into Berlin-Tegel, the views of the German countryside slowly grow bigger and you can begin to see some of the detail of the landscape. After an absence of 68 years, it makes for compelling viewing. 
Two things strike you straight away. First the sheer density of villages and towns which are built to roughly the same pattern, subject to the shape of the land, of course.  The inner town is usually more or less circular with a church spire or two dominating a platz, and then red-tiled houses in widening rings around.  Later expansion adds outer rings of newer houses and more often than not an industrial area helping to drive the local economy.  The city of Worms in the Palatinate, for instance, has a big Procter and Gamble plant on its outskirts. 
The second thing that strikes you is the huge number of electricity-generating windmills scattered across the land.  This impression is powerfully reinforced once you are on the ground and driving through the countryside.  They are everywhere, often but by no means always, grouped in wind farms — there are many single generators on hilltops, too. There are some 18,000 of them, more than any other country in Europe. 
There is much good environmental practice in Germany.  Hotel corridors have sensors which turn on the lights only when you pass through.  The same hotels invite you to use your towels for more than just one day, and throw them on the floor to show the maid when you want them changed.  Street bins are divided into receptacles for glass, paper, plastic and “other” rubbish.  A big proportion of cars — even BMW and Mercedes-Benz — are diesel powered. More rarely, one hotel conserved by switching off its lift power when it wasn’t being used to carry our luggage up and down. 
A JEWISH VISITOR IN GERMANY
We talked to many people — young, old, middle aged; all kinds of people.  In hotels, on the street, in Laundromats, in restaurants; everywhere.  The pattern of those conversations was always the same, and went like this: 
"Are you from England?" 
"No, we're from New Zealand." 
"New Zealand! Das ist aber sehr weit wegg!!! ("That's a long way away!") 
"How is it that a New Zealander speaks such good German?” 
"I was born in Berlin." 
"Ahhh! Berlin!  When did you leave to go to New Zealand?" 
"In 1939." 
"Ahhh!" 
Whereupon a switch in the person's head would flick to "on," and the conversation moved on to the big questions engrossing Germans in 2007.  First, the Nazi past; second, where Muslim immigration and the burden of integrating the former DDR into a reunited Germany would lead. 
Neither of these are trivial issues, either for Germany or for the rest of Europe and the world. 
It is beyond dispute that Germany and its people have faced their past and are prepared to remember it as a warning to future generations. "We must never forget our history," was a sentence we heard over and over again.  This is more than one can say for the Japanese, and recognition of the Turkish genocide of Armenians from 1915 onwards is to this day the topic of furious diplomacy. 
Memorials to the Holocaust appear everywhere. 
Museums, stolpersteine ("stumbling stones") embedded in city sidewalks, plaques on old synagogue walls -- no town or city we visited was without them.  Police guard the growing tally of new and rebuilt synagogues 24 hours a day.
HOW THIS ALL BEGAN
My mother was born in 1904 in a little village called Steinheim, which lies off the main route about three quarters of an hour east of Paderborn.  The address on her birth certificate reads Hausnummer 345 ("House number 345") — no street names in those days; that's how small it was.  We drove into what is now a reasonably substantial town on a dull afternoon in September, and arriving in the Zentrum, the town centre, found no-one about.  No cars, no customers in the shops, and the only people in the square two Muslim women in hijab wheeling a child in a pushchair. 
There was symbolism in this, because Muslim immigration and its consequences make up Part 1 of the worries Germans expressed to us about the future. In every town we visited, there was a Muslim presence.   
Approximately 3.3 million Muslims live in Germany, 70 percent of them of Turkish origin of whom many have lived in Germany for 30 years or more.  Many Muslims lead secular lifestyles but some make strong, even extreme, efforts to preserve conservative values. 
Part 2 is the problem of absorbing the former East Germany into the modern West German economy and political system. Almost 20 years after the fall of the Wall dividing Communist Germany from the west, east Germany is a mess. Covered in graffiti, dirty, infrastructure still not restored to modern standards. 
Worst of all, from the West German point of view, is that east German workers (along with those from eastern bloc countries who have recently been admitted to the EU and therefore have the right to move freely around Europe) are flooding westwards, prepared to take jobs at lower rates of pay than westerners will accept.  Meanwhile westerners are levied taxes which pay for the modernisation of the former DDR, and support their unemployed. They hate it! 
More than one person said to us, "They can put the Wall back up tomorrow, as far as I’m concerned!" 
There's no future in forecasting, but my own feeling is that there is trouble ahead. Worse, the people we talked to seemed also to think that trouble is looming. 
That's where Germany's history comes in to the equation.
 BACK TO THE ROOTS
In Steinheim, where my mother was born, there is to this day a Jewish cemetery.  There are, of course, no more Jews to be buried there, though the most recent interment took place in 1979. 
My wife and I are the first members of our family to return to Steinheim, as far as we know, which added mightily to the poignancy of this visit.  These are matters of great weight, and this day and the ones which followed were perhaps the most wrenching in our German visit. 
We asked at the Rathaus for directions to the cemetery and were told to knock on Frau Henning's door — she looks after the key.  On the opposite street corner is the gate, and a plaque informing passers by that the cemetery was first used in 1607.  The oldest visible grave stone is dated in the mid-18th century and this is because the early community ran out of space and heaped a mound of earth over the oldest graves so that people were buried one above another, and not until later in a single layer as the cemetery was expanded. 
There in front of us were the gravestones carrying the names I heard from my mother when I was a child. 
They have lain undisturbed for centuries, and unlike so many others in Germany were neither desecrated by the Nazis nor damaged by war. We failed to find my mother's father, a cattle dealer of Steinheim, who died before she was born and might be presumed to be in that graveyard. 
As we walked back to the car, a flight of fighter jets roared overhead. 
Having based ourselves in a delightful town called Bad Lippspringe near Paderborn, which lies roughly halfway between my parents' hometowns, we drove west next day to Neheim. Neheim lies below the Möhne Dam which was busted by the Dambusters in May 1943.  The ensuing flood killed around 900 people in the town, of whom most were Ukrainian POWs working as slave labourers.  Much of the Jewish cemetery was washed away, though the headstone of my uncle remains. 
Our reception in Neheim was overwhelming. Werner Saure had arranged a meeting with the mayor, where we signed the town's Golden Book in a caucus room dedicated to the memory of my great-uncle; were photographed for the local newspaper stories; and presented with books as a souvenir of our visit. 
In many ways, this was the climax of our visit to Germany.  Most of what followed was more relaxing and less emotionally fraught and the slowing of our adrenalin had its inevitable consequence in growing fatigue. 
But this account cannot be complete without recording our visits to the sites of my grandfather’s persecution. 
SACHSENHAUSEN 
Some 35km north of Berlin lies a pretty little town called Oranienburg, about three-quarters of an hour from the city on the S-bahn. About twenty minutes walk from the town centre are the remains of the notorious Sachsenhausen concentration camp, scene of many terrible acts both under Nazi rule, but also after liberation by the Soviets who continued its ghastly use with different political ends in mind. 
Today it is another Holocaust memorial, still being improved and refined, and there my grandfather was interned for two weeks after Kristallnacht.  He was accommodated in Block 17, marked now by a concrete block along with the locations of the other prisoner blocks of which a single one remains intact, and is a sample of what internees experienced. 
On our drive from Prague to Dresden, the road passes the old barracks town of Theresienstadt, of notorious memory. "Star of David" featured harrowing scenes shot there, and in the intervening 20 years or so things have changed.  Life is returning to this formerly deserted and ugly place, and museums have sprung up which admit to the persecution of Jews there which had remained unacknowledged during the period of communist rule. 
Today the town even has a beggar.  My grandfather and grandmother were sent there in 1942, and died within a few months of each other in 1943.  Mercifully, they were not transported to Auschwitz as so many others were. 
We stopped for about an hour in one of the museums, and took no photographs. 
THE FUN HITS 
Our tour of Europe of did not entirely consist of tragedy recalled, the emotions engendered by family memories, suspicion of old men, nor even youngish men with Hitler hairdos.  Oh, no . . . 
Both of us celebrate our birthdays in September. 
Mine, on the 14th, was spent in an 800-year old fortress turned hotel. It overlooks the town of Attendorn, and hour or so east of Cologne and staying there was my wife’s gift to me. 
On her birthday, on the 23rd, we drove from our hotel in Wiesbaden across the glorious Taunus mountain range to Wetzlar.  Wetzlar is the home town of our daughter-in-law and she, our son and our two young grandsons were there on the way to Israel to visit their eldest son.  So, there was a family reunion for us all, and it was lovely. 
Then there was the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.  We spent a couple of nights in Cologne.  We took some of our spare time in Berlin to visit 27 Thomasiusstrasse, where my parents and I lived before we emigrated.  We took a cruise on the Rhine one afternoon.  From our hotel room window we watched the barge traffic up and down the river, in endless procession all through the daylight hours.  To this day, barges are major freight movers in the region, and they carry flags from France, Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Italy, and more. Italy? 
Don't ask; I have no idea. 
Prague was memorable for its beauty, and the best pizza I have ever eaten. But it was freezing cold and wet, and the pension in which we stayed a relic from the communist past.  The Czech Republic is an uncomfortable place, and we were warned against pickpockets and petty crime.  The infrastructure deficit there and in Slovakia, to which we took a quick return trip from Vienna, is still being made up almost 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Empire and it shows. 
Can we let this report pass without mentioning Mozart?  Surely not.  In Salzburg, and the following day in Vienna, we visited the Mozart museums ho 
What could be more uplifting than that? 
HOME AGAIN
A long flight home, with no stopovers.  Four changes of aircraft, arrival in Wellington in mid-afternoon on the 27th, and with our baggage all present and correct. 
Once home I discovered that my computer printer had died. And a sewer drain was blocked. 
A new Hewlett-Packard printer later, and a man with a long scraper thing to scour out the drains, and we were pretty much ready to have a little sleep.  Upon which we both kept waking, ready to roll, at 3 in the morning.  Then we fell into bed at 7 in the evening. 
They say that for every hour of time shift it takes a day to recover from jetlag. How the airline crews manage it I do not know.   
But finally our body clocks returned to normal, and so did we.  Masterton and New Zealand are pretty much the same as they were when we left.   
We, on the other hand, are not. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Fast Escalating Russia Scandal Is A Window Into A Traitor's Deep Corruption

RUSSIA TODAY NETWORK VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS
When Michael Flynn sat down for dinner with Russian President Vladimir Putin in December 2015, it triggered a series of events that may bring down the Donald Trump presidency.  The fast escalating Russia scandal has become a window into how traitorous and deeply corrupt Trump is, how he is incapable of defending America and soils everything he touches, as well as revealing that while he demands absolute loyalty, he does not reciprocate, and has hung his vice president out to dry.   
The Flynn-Putin dinner meeting was no secret.  Flynn, a retired three-star Army general, has acknowledged that he was paid by the Russian government to give a speech focused on radical Islam, something he had knowledge of because of his national security background, including two years as President Obama's director of the Defense Intelligence Agency before being dismissed, as well as a well documented case of Islamaphobia.  
Flynn's gab-and-grub visit to Moscow on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Russia Today, a Kremlin-run television propaganda network on which he has frequently appeared, probably violated a constitutional emoluments clause prohibiting former military officers from receiving money from a foreign government without the consent of Congress.  But that is so much small beer.  What is of substantially greater consequence is what happened next: A series of events involving Moscow, Trump surrogates and the presidential election that call into question what Trump knew when and -- most importantly -- to what extent he may have stage managed those events.  
Trump, if nothing else, has proved himself incapable of deep thinking in his three-plus weeks in office, so it is somewhat difficult to imagine that he had a direct hand in Russia-backed hacking of Democratic interests and orchestration of a false news campaign that, with an able assist from maladroit FBI Director James Comey, threw the election to Trump, although he publicly praised them.   
Still, his (unusually small) fingerprints are all over phone conversations between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergi Kislyak on December 29 in the waning days of Obama's presidency, as well as other contacts that onetime campaign chairman Paul Manafort and other campaign staffers and Trump business associates had with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.   
The contacts, made as Trump was repeatedly praising Putin, were unearthed by U.S. intelligence agencies seeking to learn whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians on hacking and other efforts to influence an election in which Trump lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College.  
The timing of the Flynn-Kislyak conversations are of paramount importance in understanding the gravity of the scandal that led to Flynn's resignation on Monday night as Trump's national security chief after a mere 24 days and why concerted White House efforts to paint Flynn's departure as a result of him "lying" to Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations are so much smoke to obscure the real reason. 
Early on December 29, acting on the unanimous conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Moscow had actively sought to influence the election, Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and closed down two stateside Russian retreats used for that country's diplomats and spies.  The Kremlin quickly made it clear that Putin would retaliate in kind.   
No such thing happened. 
Instead, early on December 30 the Kremlin posted a statement on its Web site stating that "although we have the right to retaliate . . . we will plan our further steps to restore Russia-US relations based on the policies of the Trump Administration."   
Flynn's conversations with the ambassador -- and there were several of them on December 29 while Flynn was vacationing at a resort in the Dominican Republic with his wife -- took place after Obama's announcement and before Moscow's surprisingly tepid response, and it is probable that Trump instructed Flynn to signal Kislyak that the new president would ease the sanctions.  It turns out that the conversations between Flynn and the Russian ambassador were wiretapped as part of routine electronic surveillance of the communications of foreign officials, and the Januay 29 conversations were only the latest of a series between the men before and after the November 8 election. 
Obama administration officials, aware of and concerned about Flynn's earlier contacts with the ambassador and other Russian officials, did not give him advance notice of the new sanctions, as would have been customary.  The wiretaps probably would have received little attention had it not for Putin's baffling refusal to counter Obama's sanctions with his own.   
A transcript of the wiretaps was forwarded to Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who briefed James R. Clapper Jr., Obama's director of national intelligence, and then CIA Director John Brennan, both of whom urged her to contact White House counsel Don McGahn.  FBI Director Comey initially opposed Yates notifying McGahn, citing concerns that it could complicate the bureau's ongoing investigation of Trump ties to Russia.  He relented on January 23 after Trump press secretary Sean Spicer tried to minimize the importance of Flynn's outreach to Kislyak and claimed there only had been a single call. 
Yates, accompanied by an unidentified senior intelligence official, informed McGahn on January 26 of the wiretap's explosive contents and warned him Flynn was potentially vulnerable to blackmail because he had misled Pence and other senior Trump administration officials about the nature of his communications.   The FBI also questioned Flynn about this time regarding the communications because of concerns he had violated the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens -- which he was when he spoke to Kislyak -- from negotiating with foreign governments in disputes with the U.S.  
McGahn briefed Trump immediately following Yates's warning, putting the lie to the White House's incredible claim that Flynn was forced out only after after Trump learned of his repeated misrepresentations when he should have been summarily fired nearly three weeks earlier.  Pence was intentionally kept out of the loop until February 9 when his own repeated inquiries finally unearthed what had happened.  So much for Trump's much vaunted loyalty to his vice president.  
The plot thickens. 
Trump, of course, fired Yates on January 30 because of her refusal to enforce his Muslim ban.  He also refused to act on the information after she provided him and went so far as to yet again praise Putin, as he had repeatedly during the campaign, in a pre-Super Bowl Sunday interview with Bill O'Reilly of when reminded by the Fox News commentator that the Russian president was "a killer."  Flynn, who repeatedly denied discussing sanctions with Kislyak and was still sitting in on security briefings as of late Monday, was only shown the door after a leak about Yates's warning, which further cements the view that Flynn was acting with Trump's consent and the president was willing to protect Flynn at the expense and to the eventual embarrassment of Pence.   
Putin, meanwhile, was shaking up the FSB, the main state security agency, in an effort to identify moles who may have cooperated with an ongoing investigation by U.S. intelligence agencies of Russian election meddling and possible ties to Trump.  One former top FSB official -- Oleg Erovinkin -- died on December 26 under suspicious circumstances in his car on a Moscow street. 
The plot thickens some more.   
Erovinkin was indeed a likely mole, and was so identified by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, who compiled and shared with the FBI an explosive dossier on Trump-Kremlin ties and compromising material that Russian operatives allegedly had collected on the future president as possible blackmail material.  Steele cut off contact with the FBI in October because he was said to be frustrated by the bureau's slow progress in investigating the ties, and then disappeared.   
The U.S. intelligence probe, insulated by what remains of the firewall between the CIA, FBI and NSA and the White House, continues.   
The agencies are said to have corroborated the less salacious (read Trump consorting with Kremlin-chaperoned prostitutes at a Moscow hotel) aspects of the Steele dossier, including the involvement of Carter Page, a member of Trump's foreign policy team during his campaign.  Page is said to have met with Erovinkin's former boss in July 2016 to discuss lifting earlier Obama administration sanctions in the event of a Trump victory in exchange for a stake in a shell company associated with Rosneft, a huge government-owned oil company.   
Page resigned from the Trump campaign, as had campaign chairman Manafort, who was accused of accepting millions of dollars in cash for representing Russian interests in the Ukraine and U.S.   
The Republican Party had removed anti-Russian language from its convention platform regarding the conflict in Ukraine while Manafort was still running the campaign, while Trump memorably claimed during a presidential debate that Russia had not necessarily hacked Hillary Clinton-related emails, saying "It could also be lots of other people.  It could be someone sitting on a bed that weighs 400 pounds."   
The White House has yet to comment on the latest developments in the scandal except for press secretary Spicer, who has turned contradicting himself into an art and continues to stand by Trump's earlier and now discredited claims that nobody from his campaign had contact with Russian officials before the election.  The administration is also trying to float the notion that Flynn "had gone rogue" through manufactured leaks, but no one in the media with a modicum of sense is buying that, while Trump on Wednesday fell back on the shopworn "it's fake news" canard in a series of tweets.   
Meanwhile in Moscow, Russian legislators were hyperventilating over Flynn's departure as if Trump's national security adviser had been one of their own.   
The Russia scandal is but one of several crises for Trump.   
The Office of Government Ethics recommended on Tuesday that top aide Kellyanne Conway be disciplined for encouraging the public to buy clothes from the Ivanka Trump line, while there is concern over the lack of security protocols at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort, where club members photographed the president and senior staff reading security documents on their phones on the club's dining terrace on Saturday night.   
(FBI Director Comey also is appropriately back in the crosshairs.  Howcum he was all over Hillary Clinton's ass during the campaign but never said boo about the far more troubling ties between Trump and his campaign and business associates and Russian interests?)
Top Republican senators, clearly fatigued by Trump's shockingly inept start and the deep dysfunction of his administration, say that Congress should look into the Flynn affair, including calling him to testify.  That is not adequate, and if it is confirmed that Flynn indeed lied, he should face a felony charge and criminal trial.  Then there is the reality that loyalty to the president matters more than loyalty to country. 
"Who's in charge?" asked Senator John McCain.  No one, least of all the president, is in charge. 
Still, don't expect a top-to-bottom investigation of the president's longstanding ties to Moscow, let alone all of the contacts his campaign and business associates had with senior intelligence officials,  even though it is becoming harder by the day to defend his conduct and what has quickly become a very public humbling.  That just isn't going to happen so long as the president is useful to the GOP, as in validating their agenda and signing it into law.   
Yet there is a ticking time bomb here. 
The damage caused by Russian meddling already is done, but Trump's capacity to do further harm is immense.  If it turns out that there is clear evidence that Trump is indeed beholden to America's one-time Cold War rival, which for 70 years the Republican Party viewed as the global Satan, all bets are off and he finally would be viewed as the traitor he is. 

THIS STORY WAS BASED ON REPORTING BY THE ATLANTIC, BBC, CNN, HAARETZ, THE NEW YORKER, NEW YORK MAGAZINE, NEW YORK TIMES, TALKING POINTS MEMO AND WASHINGTON POST.