Thursday, 23 February 2017

Trump's Russian Connections

More news emerges about the Russian connections of a top Trump adviser (Paul Manafort) who was reportedly paid $12 million in cash from the Ukrainian oligarch Victor Yanukovych. 


Trump and Russia (18/02/17)

The BBC provides an excellent summary of Team Trump's dirty dealings with the Kremlin which go all the way back to the campaign trail in 2016 when his election manager, Paul Manafort, suddenly quit after revelations about big cash payments from former Ukranian president, Victor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin.

The BBC reported at the time: 

"Mr Manafort has faced public scrutiny in recent weeks after the New York Times reported that the Ukrainian government had uncovered ledgers pledging more than $12m (£9.2m) in undisclosed cash payments for his work with Mr Yanukovych, who fled after an uprising in November 2013."

The only possible reason for maying someone in cash these days is to avoid proper scrutiny from tax and other authorities which may also help to explain Trump's reluctance to publish his income tax returns.

Russia: The scandal Trump can't shake

BBC US & Canada

Image copyright - AFP/GETTY Image caption - Donald Trump has been dogged by suspicion over his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin

Throughout the confusion of Donald Trump's campaign and the chaotic events of his early days in the White House, one controversy has clung to the Trump train like glue: Russia.

The sudden departure of Michael Flynn from his role as national security adviser on Monday was the latest in a string of controversies tying the administration to apparent Russian interests.

Mr Flynn resigned after misleading the president, and Vice-President Mike Pence, over whether he discussed sanctions with Russia's ambassador in the weeks before Mr Trump took office - which would violate a law that prohibits private citizens from conducting diplomacy.

Early warning signs

It was back in May 2016 that the first reports emerged of hackers targeting the Democratic Party. Over the next two months, the reports suggested US intelligence agencies had traced the breaches back to Russian hackers.

In July, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, Wikileaks published 20,000 internal emails stolen by the hackers. US intelligence officials said they believed with "high confidence" that Russia was behind the operation, but the Trump campaign publicly refused to accept the findings.

Instead, at a press conference, Mr Trump caused outrage by inviting Russian hackers to target Hillary Clinton's controversial personal email server, saying: "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing".

In this file photo taken on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin, center right, with retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, center left,
Image copyright - APImage caption - Mr Flynn dines with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in December 2015

The first casualty

About the same time the hacking scandal was beginning to unfold, Mr Trump's then campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was accused of accepting millions of dollars in cash for representing Russian interests in Ukraine and US, including dealings with an oligarch with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While Mr Manafort was running the campaign, the Republican Party changed the language in its manifesto regarding the conflict in Ukraine, removing anti-Russian sentiment, allegedly at the behest of two Trump campaign representatives.

Mr Manafort was investigated by the FBI and quit as Mr Trump's campaign chairman. Like Mr Flynn, Mr Manafort, a political operative with more than 40 years' experience, was supposed to marshal some of the chaos and controversy around Mr Trump, but ended up falling prey to it.

At odds with the intelligence

In October, the US intelligence community released a unanimous statement formally accusing Russia of being the perpetrator behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Mr Trump continued to argue against the finding, claiming in a presidential debate that it "could be Russia, but it could also be China, it could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds".

The same day that the intelligence agencies released their finding, the explosive "Access Hollywood" recording emerged of Mr Trump's obscene remarks about women in 2005. An hour later, Wikileaks began dumping thousands more leaked Clinton emails.

Mr Trump continued to refuse to acknowledge the consensus that Russia was behind the hack.

'I always knew Putin was smart!'

In December, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security published a report of the US intelligence findings linking Russia to the hack.

In response, President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and levied new sanctions on Russia. The world awaited Mr Putin's response but he chose not retaliate. Mr Trump, by then the president-elect, sided with the Russian president, tweeting: "Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!"

Mr Putin's decision not to respond in kind struck many as a canny PR move, but reportedly set off suspicions among US intelligence officials that Russia was confident the sanctions would not last.

The same month, Mr Trump picked Rex Tillerson as his nominee for secretary of state, arguably the most important job in the cabinet. The biggest hurdle for Mr Tillerson's confirmation? Close ties to Mr Putin.

As CEO of the ExxonMobil oil company, Mr Tillerson cultivated a close personal relationship with the Russian leader, leading many to speculate on whether he was fit to serve as America's most senior foreign diplomat.

Mr Tillerson was sworn in as secretary of state on 2 February.

Image copyright - APImage caption - Rex Tillerson has cultivated close ties with Vladimir Putin

The 'compromising claims' dossier

In January, Buzzfeed published a dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence official and Russia expert, which alleged that Moscow had compromising material on the then-president-elect, making him liable to blackmail.

Among the various memos in the dossier was an allegation that Mr Trump had been recorded by Russian security services consorting with prostitutes at a Moscow hotel.

Mr Trump dismissed the claims as fake news.

CNN revealed that President Obama and President-elect Trump had been briefed on the existence of the dossier by intelligence officials, and Buzzfeed went one further, publishing the entire thing.

The document went off like a hand grenade tossed into the already febrile political scene and generated a backlash against Buzzfeed for publishing what were essentially unverified claims.

Image copyright - REUTERSImage caption - Michael Flynn encouraged a softer policy on Russia

The evidence against Flynn

In February, the most concrete and damaging Russia scandal finally surfaced, months after suspicions were raised among intelligence officials.

A Washington Post report said Mr Flynn had discussed the potential lifting of Mr Obama's Russia sanctions with the Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, before Mr Trump took office.

Mr Flynn, who had appeared regularly on Russian propaganda channel RT and once attended dinner with Mr Putin, resigned as Mr Trump's national security adviser, saying he had "inadvertently briefed the vice-president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador" late last year.

It is illegal for private citizens to conduct US diplomacy.

Mr Trump has made no secret of his regard for Mr Putin and his desire to establish closer ties with Russia. But the more pressing question, and one which the president just can't seem to shake, is just how close those ties already go.

Kremlin Backs Trump (16/02/17)

The BBC reports that the Kremlin has rushed to the aid of Donald Trump as the embattled American President tries to brush off claims that his administration has been in cahoots with Russian spies.

Vladimir Putin's spokesperson dismissed allegations that the Kremlin had been in close contact with the Trump camp, but this is course is the same person (Dmitry Peskov) who lied about Russia's dealings with Donald Trump's national security adviser Mike Flynn.

Flynn was forced to resign his post after denying that he had spoken with Kremlin officials about western sanctions against Russia - and Flynn's conduct is now under investigation by both the FBI and a US Senate committee.

Trump meanwhile is furiously trying to divert attention away from himself and what he knows about the affair by complaining bitterly about leaks from within the security agencies.

Despite the fact that Trump warmly welcomed the leaking of such information when he was just another candidate on the election campaign trail.

Trump hits back at US media reports on Russia contacts

BBC US & Canada

Image copyright - COMPOSITE OF IMAGES FROM REUTERS, AP AND EPAImage caption - Former Trump aides Michael Flynn, Carter Page and Paul Manafort are under scrutiny for their alleged links with Russia

President Donald Trump has lashed out at the US intelligence community and media after new reports of contacts between members of his team and Russia.

Mr Trump accused the National Security Agency (NSA) and FBI of giving out information illegally.

Some US media say top Trump aides were in constant communication with Russian officials in the election campaign.

Intelligence officials previously said they believed Russia tried to influence the vote in favour of Mr Trump.

Moscow has dismissed the claim, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying on Wednesday that the latest reports of contacts with Trump aides were "not based on any facts".

On Thursday Rex Tillerson is due for his first meeting as US secretary of state with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at a G20 gathering in the German city of Bonn.

The latest allegations look set to reignite tensions between the president and his own intelligence services, which flared during the 2016 election campaign, says BBC Washington correspondent Gary O'Donoghue.

They come a day after National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned amid a row over reports he discussed US sanctions by phone with a Russian diplomat before Mr Trump took office.

Leading Republicans have joined calls for a wide investigation into Mr Flynn's links with Russia.

And on Wednesday Adam Schiff, a Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said he would push for the committee's investigations into Russian hacking to be expanded to include Mr Flynn's phone calls, Reuters news agency reported.

The FBI and a Senate committee are also investigating the claims.

Mr Trump appeared to attack the NSA and the FBI for what he described as leaks to the media about the contacts.

"Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?)," he tweeted.

More on the Flynn scandal
But in another tweet he suggested that the reports were "non-sense" produced by his Democratic opponents.

"This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton's losing campaign."

The tweets came after the New York Times quoted unnamed former and current officials as saying that the communications were intercepted as evidence of Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee was coming to light. Other media have since corroborated the reports.

The intercepted communications were said to be between Trump campaign officials and other associates on the one hand, and Russian intelligence and government officials on the other.

However, the officials interviewed by the Times said they had seen no evidence of the Trump team colluding in the hacking.

Mr Flynn and Mr Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, were said to be among those mentioned by the officials.

Mr Manafort told the newspaper: "I have never knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers, and I have never been involved with anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration or any other issues under investigation today.

"It's not like these people wear badges that say: 'I'm a Russian intelligence officer.'"

Mr Manafort and former Trump foreign policy aide Carter Page both left the campaign after reports emerged of their close links with Russia.

Trump Mired in Scandal (14/02/17)

The BBC reports that Vladimir Putin's spokesman (Dmitry Peskov) tried to help America's national security adviser, Michael Flynn, cover up the fact that he had spoken with the Kremlin officials about sanctions on Russia.

Flynn has now been forced to resign in disgrace after days of dissembling during which his story became a version of the 'Yes, No, I Don't Know Show'.  

Strangely enough the recent telephone conversation between President Trump and President Putin is the only one of its kind for which no official records exist because  White House aides turned the recording equipment off. 

After just three weeks in office Donald Trump's presidency is mired in scandal and controversy.


Michael Flynn: Trump's national security adviser quits

BBC US & Canada

Image copyright - REUTERS Image caption - Michael Flynn encouraged a softer policy on Russia and a harder line on Iran

Donald Trump's national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has resigned over his contacts with Russia, the White House has announced.

Mr Flynn is alleged to have discussed US sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Mr Trump took office.

He is said to have misled officials about the conversation.

Earlier, US media reported that the Justice Department had warned the White House about the contacts late last month.

They said that Mr Flynn might be vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

Senior Democrats had called for Mr Flynn to be fired.

It is illegal for private citizens to conduct US diplomacy, and the calls happened late last year before Mr Flynn was appointed to the administration.

The national security adviser is appointed by the president to serve as his or her chief adviser on international affairs and defence. 

What did Mr Flynn say about the phone call?

In his letter of resignation, Mr Flynn said he had "inadvertently briefed the vice-president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador".

A White House statement said Lt Gen Joseph Keith Kellogg had been appointed as interim replacement for the post.

Image copyright - APImage caption - Questions have been raised about Mr Flynn's closeness with Russia. He was pictured dining with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in December 2015

Mr Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, initially denied having discussed sanctions with Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, and Vice-President Mike Pence publicly denied the allegations on his behalf.

However, Mr Flynn later told the White House that sanctions may have been discussed.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday that Mr Flynn and Mr Kislyak did not discuss lifting sanctions.
Is Trump implicated? - Anthony Zurcher, BBC North America reporter

Image copyrightREUTERS

From inauguration to full-blown scandal punctuated by a high-level resignation in 24 days. That simply has to be some kind of record.

Donald Trump never does anything small. If his administration is going to have a political crisis, why waste any time?

From the day he was announced as Mr Trump's national security adviser, there were concerns about Michael Flynn's questionable contacts with Russia both before and after November's election.

The ground crumbled beneath his feet only recently, however, after revelations that his conversation with a Russian ambassador included talk of US-imposed sanctions. The mortal blow came late on Monday, with reports that Obama-era government officials had warned the Trump White House about the details of these calls in January.

Now Mr Flynn has been cut loose, but that may not be enough to staunch the bleeding.

Congressional Democrats - and perhaps some Republicans - will want to find out who was informed about Mr Flynn's contradictory stories and why nothing was done earlier. How far up the chain of command does it go?

All of this has some observers dusting off language from the mother of all presidential scandals, Watergate.

What did the president know, and when did he know it?
What was the reaction to the phone call?

Several House Democrats have called on Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz to launch an investigation into Mr Flynn's ties to Russia.

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said it would also be "troubling'' if Flynn had been negotiating with a foreign government before taking office.

Mr Flynn, who was previously fired by Barack Obama as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was an ardent supporter of Mr Trump during the campaign.

He became a close ally of both the president and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon.

He encouraged tougher policies on Iran and a softer policy on Russia, but questions were raised about his perceived closeness to Moscow.

How Flynn floundered
  • Mr Flynn is known to have spoken with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak several times by phone in December;
  • Mr Flynn denied that he and Mr Kislyak had discussed US sanctions and Vice-President Mike Pence also denied the claims on his behalf;
  • A spokesman for Mr Flynn then backtracked, telling reporters the adviser "couldn't be certain" he had not discussed the sanctions;
  • On Monday, White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway said Mr Trump had "full confidence" in Mr Flynn;
  • White House spokesman Sean Spicer later said the president was "evaluating the situation". Hours later, Mr Flynn resigned.
Who's the man who replaces him?

Image copyright - REUTERS

Retired Lt Gen Joseph Keith Kellogg has been appointed acting national security adviser, and is far from a newcomer to the Trump team.

He brings more than 30 years' experience in the army, and served in Vietnam, Cambodia, Panama and the Gulf.

During the Iraq war, he helped manage the coalition authority running the country in 2003 and 2004, before working for a defence contractor, according to Bloomberg.

More recently, he advised Mr Trump on national security issues during his campaign, and went on to be appointed chief of staff in the new administration's National Security Council.

Former CIA director retired General David Petraeus and Robert Harward, a former deputy commander of US Central Command, are also under consideration for the post, a White House official has said.

Princes and Oligarchs (22/05/14)

Prince Charles has caused a political rumpus by comparing Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler and while there's no suggestion that the Russian President is a fascist, there is a clear similarity in a highly militarised country acting on the basis that it is perfectly reasonable to push its neighbours around, often through the use of force and on the pretext that Russian speaking citizens in these neighbouring countries are under some kind of existential threat.  

Which is nonsense, of course, unless you believe that Russia has some kind of ongoing right to interfere in the internal affairs of countries like Ukraine just because they were once treated as puppet states of the former Soviet Union.

I heard the UKIP leader Nigel Farage say on the radio the other day that you could argue that Russia was being provoked or 'poked with a stick' by the West which is a bit rich coming from someone who has made a political career by complaining about the European Union and its wholly peaceful involvement in the UK's affairs.  

Now I'm no fan of Prince Charles, but on the issue of Russian expansionism it seems to me he has a point and while he's not an elected politician with a mandate to speak on anyone's behalf - nor are the Russian oligarchs who keep President Putin in power. 

Unchain Ukraine (23 February 2014)

Here's an interesting take on the momentous events in Ukraine by Anne Applebaum who is a American writer and historian apparently with a particular interest in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Now as an American I wasn't very surprised to find that Anne Applebaum is critical of the Soviet Union and its 21st century successor in shape of the Russian Federation, but then I delved a bit deeper and found that Anne Applebaum became a Polish citizen in 2013 and is married to the Poland's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Radoslaw Sikorski with whom she has two children.

So I think that Anne Applebaum probably has an excellent perspective on what's happening  in Ukraine because she now lives in a country which managed to shake itself free of the Soviet Union without falling into the clutches of of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation. 

I thought to myself after reading the article that if I didn't live in Scotland, would I rather live in Poland or Russia?

But I didn't have to think for long because there's no contest really - Poland and the European Union would win out every time and that's what the people of Ukraine are fighting for - their freedom.      

The pictures from Kiev don't tell the whole story

The conflict in Ukraine is, at heart, about politics – not an ethnic, geographical or linguistic dispute – and nor is it confined to Kiev

Fanning the flames: anti-government protesters clashing with police in Independence Square in Kiev early Photo: Getty Images

By Anne Applebaum

Yes, the photographs from Kiev this week were uncanny, even “apocalyptic”. The orange sky, the burning buses, the blood on the barricades did indeed create scenes which looked like a Second World War movie. They made the city seem foreign, exotic, unreal – which is precisely why you should be wary of them.

Certainly there were quite a few things that the pictures didn’t show. The rest of Kiev, for example: it was far from business as usual in the Ukrainian capital this week, but neither was the entire city a war zone. The fighting was concentrated in a few places, and the rest of Kiev looked no different from any other European city.

The rest of the country wasn’t in the pictures either. In the city of Lutsk, in Western Ukraine, police not only refused to fight anti-government demonstrators, they joined them in demanding the resignation of the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych.

In truth, large parts of the country are already run by people who bitterly oppose Yanukovych and will happily say so quite loudly. Even if Kiev were permanently cleared of government opponents, the government’s problems would not be over. Disagreement is spread far beyond the capital.

More importantly, the pictures didn’t explain the motives of those who are taking part in these scenes. Nor did they explain why others, including many who were nowhere to be seen, went out of their way to create this kind of havoc.

This latest round of violence began, after all, with a surprise attack. On Monday, negotiations to alter the constitution and limit the powers of the president seemed to be progressing. Some demonstrators had even agreed to withdraw from government buildings that their protest camps had been blocking for many weeks.

But on Tuesday, the parliament, which is controlled by the president, abruptly blocked the reform. At the same time, police launched a violent attack on the remaining protesters, who had spent weeks preparing for just such an eventuality. To protect themselves, they set fire to the barricades which had surrounded them. Those flames made the Kiev scenes appear so dramatic.

The riot police did not act alone. In addition to the men in uniform, the Ukrainian government also employs plain-clothes thugs who periodically show up and wreak mayhem. In the past few weeks, groups of unidentified men – death squads – have grabbed activists off the street, beaten them or tortured them, cut off their ears, and left them in the woods for dead.

On Tuesday, they stopped the taxi of a well-known journalist, pulled him out and shot him. This wasn’t “crowd control”. Nor was this a legitimate response to troublesome demonstrators or an accident caused by circumstances. This was a planned murder.

When violence is deliberately provocative, it is always important to ask why – and in whose interests? Some of this state-organised thuggery was, of course, intended to scare people, to keep them away from the barricades and prevent them from joining the protests. But it was also intended to inflame people: violence can make any situation spin out of control.

To some extent, the attempt to make people very, very angry has succeeded. There were no violent protesters in November, when the unrest began: the original demonstrators were mostly young people profoundly disappointed by Yanukovych’s last-minute decision not to sign a trade treaty with Europe, and to join a Russian-led Customs’ Union instead.

There was no violence on New Year’s Eve either, when many tens of thousands of Ukrainians came to central Kiev to hear speeches, wave the European flag, and sing the national anthem.

But since then, the government’s opponents have been provoked, threatened and teased by a president who awarded himself dictatorial powers, then rescinded some of them, who has agreed several times to make big changes and then stopped short.

Now he has once again reversed: after two days of unexpectedly terrifying violence – and with heavy encouragement from three European foreign ministers and the threat of personal EU sanctions – he has agreed to bring back the old constitution, to hold early elections, and not to press charges against anyone.

It is possible that the opposition will still be reluctant to go home. After many months, Ukraine’s peaceful protest movement has developed into a much different, angrier and more volatile crowd, one which will indeed tear up paving stones and throw them at police who are spraying them with water cannons, or will capture police guns and ammunition and begin to use those as well.

And this is precisely the transformation that some wanted. Photographs of such violence certainly help the cause of the Russian parliamentarian who has just declared that he and his colleagues are “prepared to give all the necessary assistance should the fraternal Ukrainian people ask for it”. Since “fraternal assistance” was the term used to describe the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968, or Afghanistan in 1979, this was clearly understood as a threat of military intervention.

Violence also helps the cause of those who want to describe all of the demonstrations as a “coup d’etat” orchestrated by “fascists” or “far-Right” extremists. It is just as useful for those who still want to organise an “anti-terrorist operation” and carry out martial law.

The chief of the Ukrainian security agency called for precisely such an “anti-terrorist operation” this week, and interior ministry troops were being prepared. Yanukovych has, for the moment, abandoned that plan: after signing the agreement negotiated with the opposition and the EU yesterday, riot police once again pulled back from the central square and the army is presumably back in its barracks.

But if Yanukovych wants to reverse himself again, there is still time.

Finally, the photographs of violent struggle and burning buses are misleading because they mask what is, in fact, a legitimate argument about the future of Ukraine.

Appearances to the contrary, the conflict we are witnessing is not an atavistic, ethno-linguistic struggle between Russians and Ukrainians, or some kind of tussle between street thugs and police. There are no ancient ethnic rivalries at stake.

It is not even clear that the Ukrainian political struggle is really just a geographic dispute, as it is so often characterised, between the more “European” western half of the country and the more “Russian” East.

On the contrary, this is a political conflict, and one which is not that hard to understand. On the one side are Ukrainians (both Russian and Ukrainian-speaking) who want to live in a “European” democracy with human rights and rule of law, one which is genuinely integrated with the European Union and the rest of the world. The supporters of this “European” option include students, pacifists, gay and environmental activists, as well as Right-wing nationalists and people motivated by memories of the terrible crimes that Stalin carried out in Ukraine 80 years ago.

On the other side are Ukrainians (also both Russian and Ukrainian-speaking) who support an undemocratic, oligarchic regime which is politically and economically dependent on Russia, more cut off from the European Union, and affiliated instead with the customs union controlled from Moscow.

Some of this regime’s supporters are the tiny elite who have made such massive profits from Ukrainian corruption, and who have famously purchased some of London’s most expensive homes (and, if rumours are correct, may have rapidly taken up residence in them this week).

Others without such wealth may fear the violent extremists they have seen on the television news, and the forces of general disorder. Still others may fear that even a trade agreement with Europe would entail deep reforms and economic changes, threatening their jobs.

Either way, this is not a fight over which language to speak or even over who controls Kiev’s main square. Historical allegiances are not an issue, either. Though both get bandied about, neither the word “fascist” nor the word “communist” is correctly applied to either side.

On the contrary, the fighting on the street this week was the latest manifestation of a deep national disagreement over the nature of the Ukrainian state, the shape of Ukraine’s economy, the status of the legal system, the country’s membership of international organisations. This is a legitimate political argument, and ultimately it can only have a political solution. And, in the end, this is why you should treat those dramatic photographs with caution.

This is not a war, or even a conflict which either side can win with weapons. It will have to be solved through negotiations, elections, political debate; by civic organisations, political parties and political leaders, both charismatic and otherwise; with the participation of other European states and Ukraine’s other neighbours.

The thugs, riot police and men bearing arms may be part of the problem right now, but in the very long term, they won’t bring about a solution.

Anne Applebaum is a writer and historian of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Her latest book 'Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe’ (Penguin) is available to order from Telegraph Books at £9.99 + £1.10 p&p. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit