Monday, July 25, 2016

I Just Got Back From Moscow... Where I Didn't Get A Chance To Discuss Trump With Putin


Saturday I did a brief post at the travel blog about the fantastic Museum of Russian Political History in St. Petersburg which I visited a few weeks ago. I was really impressed that a still somewhat paranoid country barely emerging-- slowly-- from unbroken centuries of routine authoritarianism would permit such an unbiased and objective presentation of history right up to the present day. That said, no one crosses Putin in Russia and gets away with it. That painting up top of him and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in lingerie by Konstantin Altunin was seized by security personnel in 2013 and the artist was forced to flee and seek political asylum in France. The city of Moscow appeared to me to be particularly uptight about anything that could be interpreted as disparaging to President Putin and people there do not joke around about him. People in St. Petersburg are considerably more open and expressive and the Political History museum included an exhibit-- neutral enough, but not fawning or complicit in his cult of personality-- on him. I very spontaneously cracked a joke in front of it tying Putin to Trump. The whole room-- primarily filled with Russians, the museum being off the beaten tourist track-- cracked up. Everyone got the joke. And, even if Putin isn't, Trump is very much a joke... at least among people in St. Petersburg who are conversant in English.

Look, I'm going to get to the Putin-Trump connections in a minute but let me take a little detour from my tangent for a moment. I won't get into how this happened but I wound up spending an afternoon at Russia's most famous cemetery, Novodevichy, part of a 16th century convent. Virtually all of the top Soviet political and heroic leaders are buried in the Kremlin wall behind Lenin's ghastly tomb in Red Square-- Stalin, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Leonid Brezhnev, Marshall Zhukov, Yuri Gagarin, John Reed, Mikhail Suslov, Sergei Kamenev, Mikhail Frunze, Mikhail Kalinin, Dmitriy Ustinov, Konstantin Chernenko-- but not all.

Me & Nikita 
Novodevichy Cemetery, aside from national luminaries like Chekhov, Gogol, Stanislavski, Rostropovich and Prokofiev, holds the bodies of Andrei Gromyko and of out-of-favor former ruling elites like Nikita Khrushchev and Boris Yeltsin-- and has a plot ready for Mikhail Gorbachev (next to his deceased wife). There was always a feeling among some of Russia's political elites that Gorby was somehow owned by the CIA and his deconstruction of the Soviet Union was something they (we) had put him up to. Some think Putin's revenge is none other than Donald J. Trump. Perhaps Clinton campaign manager Robbie Mook, not a scholar but a worshipper of unnamed "experts," is of that mindset. "Experts are telling us," he told CNN's Jake Tapper yesterday, "that Russian state actors broke into the DNC, stole these e-mails... Other experts are now saying that the Russians are releasing these emails for the purpose of actually helping Donald Trump. I don't think it's a coincidental that these emails were released on the eve of our convention. And that's disturbing... We need to be concerned that we also saw last week at the Republican convention that Trump and his allies made changes to the Republican platform to make it more pro-Russian... This isn't my assertion. There are a number of experts that are asserting this. I think we get to the bottom of these facts. But that is what experts are telling us. Experts have said that it is the Russians that in fact went in and took these emails and if they are the ones who took them then we have to infer that they are the ones who have been releasing them."

Mook may be a nut or an ignoramus-- or both-- but there is a seemingly credible case being built that ties Trump and Putin. I don't know how much of it is true but I do know the Clinton team has signaled they will be using it to denigrate Trump for the next 3 and a half months. Let's remember that Trump has been making statements that would seem to be in line with what Putin would like him to say-- like refusing to defend NATO partners in a way that undermines the core of the alliance the West has built to contain Russia. And yesterday Trump was babbling about pulling the U.S. out of the WTO, the trade system which helps western elites control the world's economy.

The U.S. and NATO have given the Russians plenty of legitimate reasons to be uncomfortable and Putin's vision of the U.S. as an adversary is not unwarranted by any stretch of the imagination. And that's far more in line with Clinton's thinking than with Trump's, who's basically just in it for a quick buck rather than anything to do with the complex global strategies that are well beyond his grasp or interest.

Josh Marshall laid a lot of the popular groundwork for this weekend's paranoia about Putin's hold on Trump when he pointed out that the untrustworthy and heavily leveraged Trump has been blackballed by all major U.S. banks and that his tottering empire is only able to stay afloat because of Putin-connected (and directed) money. Remember, we still don't have a clear picture of Trump's business ties with Putin and his wide network of allies because Trump is still refusing to release his taxes. "At a minimum," wrote Marshall, "Trump appears to have a deep financial dependence on Russian money from persons close to Putin. And this is matched to a conspicuous solicitousness to Russian foreign policy interests where they come into conflict with US policies which go back decades through administrations of both parties. There is also something between a non-trivial and a substantial amount of evidence suggesting Putin-backed financial support for Trump or a non-tacit alliance between the two men." Marshall asks his readers to consider 7 facts that seem to tie Trump and Putin together:
1. All the other discussions of Trump's finances aside, his debt load has grown dramatically over the last year, from $350 million to $630 million. This is in just one year while his liquid assets have also decreased. Trump has been blackballed by all major US banks.

2. Post-bankruptcy Trump has been highly reliant on money from Russia, most of which has over the years become increasingly concentrated among oligarchs and sub-garchs close to Vladimir Putin. [T]here's a good overview from the Washington Post, with one morsel for illustration ...
Since the 1980s, Trump and his family members have made numerous trips to Moscow in search of business opportunities, and they have relied on Russian investors to buy their properties around the world.

“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Trump’s son, Donald Jr., told a real estate conference in 2008, according to an account posted on the website of eTurboNews, a trade publication. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
3. One example of this is the Trump Soho development in Manhattan, one of Trump's largest recent endeavors. The project was the hit with a series of lawsuits in response to some typically Trumpian efforts to defraud investors by making fraudulent claims about the financial health of the project. Emerging out of that litigation however was news about secret financing for the project from Russia and Kazakhstan. Most attention about the project has focused on the presence of a twice imprisoned Russian immigrant with extensive ties to the Russian criminal underworld. But that's not the most salient part of the story. As the Times put it,
"Mr. Lauria brokered a $50 million investment in Trump SoHo and three other Bayrock projects by an Icelandic firm preferred by wealthy Russians “in favor with” President Vladimir V. Putin, according to a lawsuit against Bayrock by one of its former executives. The Icelandic company, FL Group, was identified in a Bayrock investor presentation as a “strategic partner,” along with Alexander Mashkevich, a billionaire once charged in a corruption case involving fees paid by a Belgian company seeking business in Kazakhstan; that case was settled with no admission of guilt."
Another suit alleged the project "occasionally received unexplained infusions of cash from accounts in Kazakhstan and Russia."

Sounds completely legit.

Read both articles: After his bankruptcy and business failures roughly a decade ago Trump has had an increasingly difficult time finding sources of capital for new investments. As I noted above, Trump has been blackballed by all major US banks with the exception of Deutschebank, which is of course a foreign bank with a major US presence. He has steadied and rebuilt his financial empire with a heavy reliance on capital from Russia. At a minimum the Trump organization is receiving lots of investment capital from people close to Vladimir Putin.

Trump's tax returns would likely clarify the depth of his connections to and dependence on Russian capital aligned with Putin. And in case you're keeping score at home: no, that's not reassuring.

4. Then there's Paul Manafort, Trump's nominal 'campaign chair' who now functions as campaign manager and top advisor. Manafort spent most of the last decade as top campaign and communications advisor for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian Ukrainian Prime Minister and then President whose ouster in 2014 led to the on-going crisis and proxy war in Ukraine. Yanukovych was and remains a close Putin ally. Manafort is running Trump's campaign.

5. Trump's foreign policy advisor on Russia and Europe is Carter Page, a man whose entire professional career has revolved around investments in Russia and who has deep and continuing financial and employment ties to Gazprom. If you're not familiar with Gazprom, imagine if most or all of the US energy industry were rolled up into a single company and it were personally controlled by the US President who used it as a source of revenue and patronage. That is Gazprom's role in the Russian political and economic system. It is no exaggeration to say that you cannot be involved with Gazprom at the very high level which Page has been without being wholly in alignment with Putin's policies. Those ties also allow Putin to put Page out of business at any time.

6. Over the course of the last year, Putin has aligned all Russian state controlled media behind Trump. As Frank Foer explains here, this fits a pattern with how Putin has sought to prop up rightist/nationalist politicians across Europe, often with direct or covert infusions of money. In some cases this is because they support Russia-backed policies; in others it is simply because they sow discord in Western aligned states. Of course, Trump has repeatedly praised Putin, not only in the abstract but often for the authoritarian policies and patterns of government which have most soured his reputation around the world.

7. Here's where it gets more interesting. This is one of a handful of developments that tipped me from seeing all this as just a part of Trump's larger shadiness to something more specific and ominous about the relationship between Putin and Trump. As TPM's Tierney Sneed explained in this article, one of the most enduring dynamics of GOP conventions (there's a comparable dynamic on the Dem side) is more mainstream nominees battling conservative activists over the party platform, with activists trying to check all the hardline ideological boxes and the nominees trying to soften most or all of those edges. This is one thing that made the Trump convention very different. The Trump Camp was totally indifferent to the platform. So party activists were able to write one of the most conservative platforms in history. Not with Trump's backing but because he simply didn't care. With one big exception: Trump's team mobilized the nominee's traditional mix of cajoling and strong-arming on one point: changing the party platform on assistance to Ukraine against Russian military operations in eastern Ukraine. For what it's worth (and it's not worth much) I am quite skeptical of most Republicans call for aggressively arming Ukraine to resist Russian aggression. But the single-mindedness of this focus on this one issue-- in the context of total indifference to everything else in the platform-- speaks volumes.

This does not mean Trump is controlled by or in the pay of Russia or Putin. It can just as easily be explained by having many of his top advisors having spent years working in Putin's orbit and being aligned with his thinking and agenda. But it is certainly no coincidence. Again, in the context of near total indifference to the platform and willingness to let party activists write it in any way they want, his team zeroed in on one fairly obscure plank to exert maximum force and it just happens to be the one most important to Putin in terms of US policy.

Add to this that his most conspicuous foreign policy statements track not only with Putin's positions but those in which Putin is most intensely interested. Aside from Ukraine, Trump's suggestion that the US and thus NATO might not come to the defense of NATO member states in the Baltics in the case of a Russian invasion is a case in point.

There are many other things people are alleging about hacking and all manner of other mysteries. But those points are highly speculative, some verging on conspiratorial in their thinking. I ignore them here because I've wanted to focus on unimpeachable, undisputed and publicly known facts. These alone paint a stark and highly troubling picture.

To put this all into perspective, if Vladimir Putin were simply the CEO of a major American corporation and there was this much money flowing in Trump's direction, combined with this much solicitousness of Putin's policy agenda, it would set off alarm bells galore. That is not hyperbole or exaggeration. And yet Putin is not the CEO of an American corporation. He's the autocrat who rules a foreign state, with an increasingly hostile posture towards the United States and a substantial stockpile of nuclear weapons. The stakes involved in finding out 'what's going on' as Trump might put it are quite a bit higher.

There is something between a non-trivial and a substantial amount of circumstantial evidence for a financial relationship between Trump and Putin or a non-tacit alliance between the two men. Even if you draw no adverse conclusions, Trump's financial empire is heavily leveraged and has a deep reliance on capital infusions from oligarchs and other sources of wealth aligned with Putin. That's simply not something that can be waved off or ignored.
Thursday, John Harwood interviewed extreme rightist Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), simultaneously a violent and aggressive hawk and a Trumpist. Cotton may be the youngest member of the Senate but he's an unreconstructed Cold War psychopath, always ready for for war. "Putin," he glady reminded Harwood, "was a KGB spy and he never got over that. He does not have America's best interests at heart and he does not have any American interests at heart. I suspect, after this week, when Donald Trump is the nominee and he begins to receive classified briefings, similar briefings to what I receive as a member of the Intelligence Committee, he may have a different perspective on Vladimir Putin and what Russia is doing to America's interests and allies in Europe and the Middle East and Asia." It doesn't seem to have occurred to Senator Cotton-- nor even to McConnell or Ryan, to whom it should be occurring-- that the very idea of giving Trump classified information on Putin and Russia, information which will most assuredly get right back to Putin, is an extremely dangerous proposition.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


At 7:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We spent about 50 years condemning Russia for its "communism" (Wolff and Resnick, ISBN 9780415933186, show it was actually state capitalism).

So Saint Ronald finally slayed the evil empire and now we wet our pants because Russia/Putin behave exactly like the fat-cat capitalist CEOs we insisted for several decades that they MUST be- using money to further their interests. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

The essential "on" switch for our (USA) system of perpetual war is nicely summarized by the extreme twit Cotton. Who, of sound mind, expects the head of ANY OTHER country to operate with the interests of America, or any different country, in mind? Such an expectation/requirement is patently absurd. But, of course, it IS the basis of our foreign "policy" and it's all the better if those non-American non-Americans (sic), who must be punished for their impurity of purpose, ALSO sit on the world's largest combined oil/gas resources.

On the other hand, will Cotton instigate the legal case of treason against his party's presidential nominee?

The following is pretty funny given the the DNC's howling about Russia intelligence allegedly having intercepted their condemning emails: "the very idea of giving Trump classified information on Putin and Russia, information which will most assuredly get right back to Putin, is an extremely dangerous proposition."

When do we get a similar analysis on the Clinton Foundation purpose and its international pay-to-play strategy?

Finally, please, give ONE example of "Russian military operations in eastern Ukraine."

John Puma

At 7:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unbelievable but not really that surprising. Another terrible reason to hold out noses and vote for Hillary, at least that is my take. I have been saying to friends that if Trump gets in, he and Putin will become the new Axis of Evil and attempt to take over the world.
Some choice we have this election!

At 10:10 AM, Blogger Robert Miller said...

When the kerfluffle over the DNC's computers became known, discovered by Sanders' team, we learned that the people running the computers, and DWS, had been the ones running computers et al for Clinton's 2008 campaign. Instead of heeding the warnings DWS used it as another means to attack Sanders. Apparently, security of the DNC computers was way down on the to-do list.

I am sure you will find some Russian capital tucked away in the Clinton Foundation vaults, too, so I wouldn't worry too much about Trump being a Russian secret operative. And if he were I'd be more likely to vote for her than the Cold War Queen.

Anyone who studies propaganda knows the whole bad man routine done in preparation for military operations. Hussein was a bad man who threw babies out of incubators and had WMDs. Osama bin Laden, graduating from being our man in Afghanistan with the Mujahadeen became the violent zealot. Khadafy was a bad man. Then they died.

Does anyone not know who the next target of the US military will be?

At 4:24 PM, Anonymous AntiSpin said...

You're right, Robert -- for info on cash flowing from Putin into Hillary's coffers, just look up a few articles on the "UraniumOne" scandal.

Now -- I cannot think of a single thing that would cause me to vote for Trump (or for Hillary for that matter) but if there could be one it would be learning that Putin and Trump are working out cooperative and mutually beneficial agreements between our two countries.

That, if it could be ascertained as true, would be extraordinarily good news!

At 6:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It isn't very shocking that neocon warmonger Hillary Clinton would start so early trying to gin up a war against Russia by scapegoating that country.


Post a Comment

<< Home