This week the President announced that the United States would withdraw from the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as the “Iran Deal.” It is impossible to predict the short and long-term impacts of this action, but there are huge changes on the horizon as a result. Some analysts have called our withdrawal the biggest change in the international world order since World War II. There are many reasons why this may be true.
First and foremost, it is important to remember that the JCPOA was not meant to solve every problem in the Middle East or even to inhibit Iranian adventurism in promoting unrest in the area or their possible development of ballistic missiles. It was meant, in very technical and specific ways, to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program. It worked. The Iranians, unlike the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, do not have nuclear weapons, thanks to the agreement. There are many valid criticisms of the Iran Deal, and you may even think that the president made the right decision, but to truly discuss it, one must remember that it was meant to be a stepping stone to resolving other issues, including those not addressed in the JCPOA. Sanctions against Iran for violating existing limits on ballistic missile developments, or as a reaction to other valid issues of concern could still be imposed. This is one of the reasons why the Europeans pushed so hard for the U.S. to stay in the agreement and to work with them to tackle the other legitimate issues that should be addressed.
The U.S. unilaterally withdrew from a multi-lateral agreement where by all accounts, all elements of the agreement were being followed by all of the members. During his confirmation hearings just a few weeks ago, now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when asked if the Iranians were in compliance with the agreement, said “With the information I have been provided, I have seen no evidence they are not in compliance today.” Further, when asked if the Iranians were building a nuclear weapon, Secretary Pompeo, who was the head of the CIA at the time of his nomination, said, “Iran wasn’t racing to a weapon before the deal, there is no indication that I am aware of that if the deal no longer existed that they would immediately turn to racing to create a nuclear weapon.” Recall that under the Iran Deal, Iranian facilities are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and are subject to no notice inspections. There is no evidence of cheating as some claim. No proof exists that they have abrogated their responsibilities and indeed the international consensus is that the Iranians have fully complied.
In matters of diplomacy and military strategy, a long-standing adage is that one must always strive to “seize the initiative.” We have now conceded the initiative to Iran. They stand on the moral high ground in this agreement as they have filled all of the requirements. We are the ones that left the agreement, even as we concede that it is working as designed. Mr. Trump upon announcing our immediate withdrawal gave no specific reasons for doing so other than vague pronouncements that the agreement was “defective at its core.” Presumably, he means that some years in the future, the “sunset” clauses of the agreement will kick in and Iran will build nuclear weapons. Besides being technically incorrect, this argument ignores two important factors. One we know, and the other is speculative but within reason. First, right now Iran has no nuclear weapons. Assuming the worst, which over simplifies reality, under the agreement they could start working on them again in ten years. The last time I looked ten was better than zero. They now have the decision in their hands as to whether to resume their program or not. They didn’t break the agreement, we did. Secondly, ten years of steady diplomatic effort, as all sides benefit from the agreement, could readily persuade Iran that building nuclear weapons was not in their best interests. Even if they did threaten to resume their program, nothing precludes the international community from reinstating severe sanctions and other measures to keep them from building them.
Mr. Trump announced the immediate reinstatement of sanctions against Iran and reasoned that sanctions brought the Iranians to the table before and so it will bring them back again for “a better deal.” Perhaps he is correct. Even under the current agreement, Iran’s economy is in dire straits. It might work. However, logic says that Iran has no incentive to return to the table for a better — to the U.S., but not Iran — deal. Most obviously, the U.S. walked away from the last deal. It would be easy for them to brand us as “liars” that cannot be trusted to stick to any agreement. What trust will they have, even if they return to the table, that we will stand by what we say? None.
More importantly, we had a multi-national sanctions effort the last time around. The JCPOA was an agreement between the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, the European Union, and Iran. It was unanimously ratified by the United Nations Security Council. All other signatories have clearly stated their intention to remain in the agreement, which means no universal sanctions will be reimposed on Iran. The U.S. may be the biggest economic power in the world, but we cannot alone bring Iran to its knees economically if other nations trade freely with them. The other members of the agreement have asked Iran to remain in the agreement. Again, this gives the initiative to Iran. They may actually want a “better deal” — for them — with the other nations involved as their price for remaining within the agreement.
The president clearly does not understand that the “enemy” has a vote on how things go. We cannot dictate to other nations when they do not see that their own best interests are being served. Playing hard ball in a New York City real estate deal may work for him, but nations have other interests at play and can deploy their own form of hard ball. The Iranian regime went through an eight year war with Iraq without flinching, even as they lost countless lives and treasure. They are tough. Bluster will not bring them to the table and may in fact, cause them to demonstrate their own resolve through some form of military action.
Clearly, the U.S. must act in its own best interests. Always. However, it is extremely short-sighted to isolate ourselves from our allies and to pretend that no deal can be a win-win for all nations. Seemingly, to Mr. Trump everything is a zero sum, win-lose proposition. This is not true and is dangerous in the international arena. We are quickly isolating ourselves and may find that in a time of need, we are on our own having burned too many bridges. Other nations may allow “America First” to become “America Alone.”
This is what may be the most troubling aspect of Mr. Trump’s bluster and belligerence toward Iran. This is why many analysts call this the biggest change in International Relations in the post-World War II era. Our closest allies, U.K., Germany and France stand against us on this issue, and increasingly, on a number of other issues as well. Couple our stance on these issues with Mr. Trump’s disdain of NATO. We are helping Mr. Putin achieve his fondest dream, the break up of the western alliance that stands between him and his ambitions. As we draw away from our western allies, look for Mr. Putin to become ever more adventurous, especially in Estonia or another Baltic state where many ethnic Russians reside.
Mr. Trump’s imposition of sanctions includes any business or nation that does not follow our lead. In other words, if he follows through, should Germany or any other ally continue doing business with Iran, then we, the U.S., would impose sanctions on those businesses and/or nations — even, he says, our allies. He is banking (literally and figuratively since the biggest impact would be on the financial industry) that when push comes to shove, western Europe will fall in line and not do business with the Iranians. That may or may not be a good bet. Right now, the Europeans, Russians and Chinese plan to stand by the agreement. If the Europeans cave to Mr. Trump — an action that is politically untenable in their own countries — and re-impose sanctions, the Russians and Chinese will do ever more business with Iran, and thereby achieve their own international goals. Should the Europeans withdraw from the agreement at some time in the future, clearly the Iranians would have no incentive to abide by it on their end.
All of this, of course, ignores the fact that by withdrawing from the agreement, the U.S. increased the likelihood of war breaking out in the Middle East. Indeed, just yesterday, Iranian forces fired directly on Israeli military forces for the first time. The Israelis in turn, bombed Iranian forces and command and control nodes in Syria. The chances for a major miscalculation, or misunderstood bellicosity, could lead to major regional warfare.
Finally, none of us can currently evaluate the impact of our withdrawal from the Iran Deal as it impacts ongoing negotiations with North Korea. Mr. Trump and Mr. John Bolton his National Security Adviser, claim that it will strengthen our hand in those discussions because it shows how tough we are. Or as Mr. Trump said on Tuesday about our withdrawal from the Iran Deal, “the United States no longer makes empty threats.” It is unclear what he means by that, but I suppose it his way of sounding tough.
An alternative outcome may be that Kim Jung Un comes to believe that along with Saddam and Muhamar Quaddafi, one can put Iran on the list of those that made a deal with the U.S. to give up their Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and found that we could not be trusted.
Mr. Trump is already talking about the Nobel Peace Prize for his Korean efforts. In that context, we should be worried that Mr. Trump will do whatever suits him at the moment to get good “ratings”. Just another episode in the show and a chance to deflect from his problems at home. However, I honestly hope that his efforts with North Korea pay off and they hand over their nuclear weapons and their ability to produce WMD, but we should be wary. Frankly, it denies logic that Mr. Kim will hand over his WMD. This will be at least the third time that North Korea promised to do so, the other two times they reneged. The meeting between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump will be historic. If nothing else, we should be thankful that three American citizens held as prisoners in North Korea returned home last night. To date, that action is the only substantive thing that Kim has done to show his willingness to deal. They released prisoners in the past, too. Which of course totally ignores the fact that U.S. citizens were taken as hostages in the first place. They also kill them, as was the case with Mr. Otto Warmbier, the college student imprisoned and probably tortured by the Koreans who died as a result. Talking is way better than fighting. I hope the talks succeed, but I would not hold my breath. Walking away from the Iran Deal complicates our negotiations with the Koreans. More on that in a yet to be post in this space.
Maybe Mr. Trump walked away from the Iran Deal because his main foreign policy objective merely entails undoing anything and everything that President Obama put in place. No clear foreign policy doctrine has emerged from this administration and as French President Macron and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said after talking to the president, there is no U.S. “Plan B.” That makes it one mighty big gamble. Every endeavor should have branches and sequels, or “what ifs.” What if we succeed then what do we do? What if we don’t succeed, what is the next step? There is no discernible plan behind just walking away from the agreement.
One might suspect that Mr. Trump’s decision on the Iran Deal was done primarily because he could and that somehow it showed what a tough guy he was. There are no next steps. He should look up the definition of hubris (arrogance, conceit, pride, self-importance, egotism, pomposity, excessive pride or defiance leading to nemesis), and nemesis (the inescapable agent of someone’s or something’s downfall).
Hubris is not a policy.
As described in this space last week, the situation in and around Syria is quite complicated. We are where we are today because last Saturday Syrian aircraft dropped gas bombs on civilians in the rebel held town of Douma. In the ongoing fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the rebels, and those civilians around them, continue to be subject to crimes against humanity. Photographs and videos of the resulting injuries and the wrenching reactions of those hit by the gas have gone viral and provoked a response from the president as well as a likely response by France and the United Kingdom.
One could reasonably ask, why now? International monitors believe that this is the eighth time that the Syrians have used gas against civilians in the last year. Usually, they use chlorine gas which is not technically banned under international law. Of course it is not banned because it is not supposed to be used as a weapon, but when dropped in high concentrations in confined spaces it can cause severe lung damage, leading to liquid forming in the lungs and inducing severe pneumonia. The effects usually take time to cause damage and it is not automatically fatal. The gas used last Saturday is believed to have been chlorine gas with some other agent mixed in with it. Based on the videos, experts believe that a nerve agent, probably Sarin, was the other ingredient. Sarin is man-made, colorless and odorless, but causes immediate and severe reactions from touching, breathing or ingesting it and often causes a quick but horrible death. One can debate the morality of reacting to Sarin attacks but not to chlorine attacks, but the international community has drawn that line.
Currently, officials from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are investigating if gas was used, and if so, what types of chemical weapons were used in Douma. The effectiveness of their investigation is doubtful so many days after the incident, especially since most of the people impacted by the attack died or left the city. However, military action, if any (and I believe there will be) will likely be delayed while the OPCW is on the ground.
A complicating factor is that the Russian military is heavily invested in Syria in support of the regime.
The U.S. has a history of trying to deter Bashar’s use of chemical weapons. Recall that in 2012 President Obama suggested that Syrian use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” requiring a response. The next year Syria used chemical weapons. After failing to get an international response, especially from the U.K., coupled with the lack of support in the U.S. Congress for military action in Syria, President Obama backed away from his red line. As I wrote at the time, that was a huge mistake.
As a consequence, the U.N. Security Council brokered an agreement whereby Syria would destroy all of its chemical weapons. With Russian assistance, the OPCW removed “all” of the chemical stockpiles, completing the job in June 2014. Russia “guaranteed” that all of the weapons were removed or destroyed — with the exception of chlorine gas.
In 2017 Syria was found to have used Sarin agents against its population. In April last year, Mr. Trump ordered cruise missile attacks against the airfield used to launch the weapons. While I joined others in applauding the decision to strike Syria, the actual strike was a mere hand slap. Mostly it destroyed a few planes on the ground and put some holes in the runways at the air base. They were back up and operating in a few days. More to the point, the strike clearly did not act as a deterrent to further use of chemical weapons.
This is where it gets dicey. To effectively punish Bashar and his regime, the U.S. — hopefully with participation and support from our Allies in France and the U.K — must hit him where it hurts. Targets should be some combination of command and control centers, headquarters buildings, and the locations of the secret police, for example. The counter argument is that Russian citizens and military personnel are very likely to be at some of those targets. Killing Russians in an attack on Syria could easily lead to a full-blown crisis and could endanger our ground troops in Eastern Syria fighting with the Kurds against ISIS. Indeed, the Russians have vowed to defend Syria against, and to retaliate for, any attack. Thus the president’s taunt/threat/thoughtless statement in the Tweet above is directed at Russia.
A tactical strike such as the one carried out last year is relatively easy and low risk. However, based on the ineffective results from our previous strike, coupled with Russian threats, it may make the U.S. look weak. To conduct a much larger attack, with real consequences to Syria, raises the stakes immeasurably and could include manned aircraft. Manned aircraft. Real people going in harm’s way. While I have every confidence in our military aviators, nothing is fool-proof. American lives could be lost or pilots captured. In particular, the Russians have installed sophisticated air defense missiles in Syria that were not there at the time of our Tomahawk strike last year. In addition, the Russians have repeatedly said that they would go after the sources of any attack. Once an attack is underway, the dogs of war are unleashed and it is impossible to project all of the consequences. Syria is a tinder box waiting to explode among the many factions involved.
It is unlikely that the Russians would be able to effectively reach ships and submarines launching missiles hundreds of miles out in the Mediterranean Sea or to reach air bases in Qatar or other locations in the Middle East that may be used to launch aircraft. But they could intercept them. And any commander worth their salt will want to know the plan for protecting our forces in Eastern Syria who would definitely be within the reach and capability of the Russians to hit them. Recall that last February Russian “contractors” (they still insist on calling them that) attacked a U.S. base.
Syria is a difficult dilemma. I feel confident that our military leaders and the Secretary of Defense are putting forth the best options to achieve the mission. What bothers me are the reckless statements of the Commander-in-Chief and his lack of ability to coherently articulate any strategic vision or overall goal for our involvement in Syria. It cannot be an impulsive reaction, an attempt to divert attention from events surrounding his extracurricular activities, or just an exercise in video game perceptions of what combat actual entails.
The military is ready and capable of carrying out their mission and to protect the good citizens of these United States. The use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated and must be punished — not only for now but for the future — in order to make clear that the international community condemns their use in no uncertain terms. However, let’s not do so lightly. Actions have consequences. This is not some theoretical exercise of military might. The lives of real people are at stake. It is not too much to ask the Commander-in-Chief to act like it.
This week the president vowed that he would remove U.S. troops from Syria in the near future. Here is part of what he said at an impromptu news conference at the White House on Tuesday:
“I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. So, it’s time. It’s time. We were very successful against ISIS. But sometimes it’s time to come back home, and we’re thinking about that very seriously, okay?”
Nearly simultaneously, also in Washington, General Joseph L. Votel, Commander of the U.S. Central Command who is the senior officer responsible for our troops in the Middle East said when talking about our troop deployments in the Middle East:
“A lot of very good military progress has been made over the last couple of years, but the hard part, I think, is in front of us.”
Putting aside Mr. Trump’s inability, or stubborn refusal to understand complex issues, war in the 21st century, and especially in places like Syria and Afghanistan, runs counter to our preconceived notions of what “winning” should be about. Mr. Trump seems to think that all that is necessary is to “bomb the hell out of them” and then come home. Seventeen years of continuous combat has provided many lessons learned to our current military leadership and to our Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who himself lead the first ground combat troops into Afghanistan while he was an active duty Marine general.
One important criteria for deciding who is winning and who is losing is finding the correct Measures of Effectiveness (MOE). One may think they are winning while actually losing. The classic example can be found with the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II. The German MOE was tons of Allied merchant ships sunk by their submarines. It was the wrong measure. The Allies were building merchant ships at a rate faster than the Germans could sink them, and at the same time, were sinking German submarines (and even more importantly, killing trained and experienced crews) faster than the Germans could build them. The Germans were losing, even as their MOE showed them winning.
Current reports indicate that our military is using over 90 MOEs in assessing our wars in Syria and Afghanistan. But even they reportedly admit that they are not sure that they are necessarily measuring the right things. One thing we know, counting the numbers of killed or wounded adversaries means very little if new recruits, fighting a low-tech war, continue to flow into the battles.
The other adage learned over and over is that the loser gets to decide when the war is over. As Ryan Crocker former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan said, “As we learned so painfully in Iraq, defeat has meaning only in the eyes of the defeated.” We can bomb the hell out of them all we want, but short of a Dresden-like annihilation of every living thing, as long as the other side keeps fighting, the war is not over. This is another of the hard lessons learned in Viet Nam and again in Afghanistan. The Taliban have not quit, therefore we have been there for seventeen long years despite our overwhelming military capability.
In that vein, ISIS still has strongholds in eastern Syria along the border with Iraq. In this case, our adversary is like a cancer — if they are not totally excised and destroyed they will spread out again. All of the pain in administering a cure will have been for naught. ISIS is showing signs of renewed strength in their last strongholds in eastern Syria. Our comrades in arms in Syria are mostly Kurdish forces. Kurdish officials warn that it could take “years and years” to finish off ISIS.
Senior U.S. government national security and military officials understand this fact. They also understand the larger geo-political issues at stake in the Middle East and South Asia and that a precipitous withdrawal of our forces would do long-term damage to our national interests. The issues are complicated and varied. Among other things, our credibility in supporting our friends and allies would be compromised. As a senior Kurdish official is quoted as saying, if the U.S. leaves now (or even in a few months) “it would be a disaster, and even ordinary people in the street will consider it a betrayal.” That has strategic implications. Or as another Kurdish leader put it, “after fighting for four years, there is a kind of trust between the Kurdish nation and the American nation. If the Americans abandon the Kurds, it means they are never going to find any friends in the Middle East.”
That the military viewpoint is at odds with the president may have caused the ouster of National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. General McMaster continually told the president that we cannot just pull up stakes and leave Syria and Afghanistan, or anywhere else, without first creating the conditions that allow us to withdraw. If we just walk away, the problems will pop up again.
Of course, we want all of our military women and men to come home. But if we are truly a world power, certain obligations and responsibilities accrue in support of our friends and allies. Putting America first does not, or at least should not, mean abandoning a world order that has mostly kept the United States safe and prosperous and the world moving forward. We can lead or get out of the way. It is not in our long-term interest to abandon our leadership role in the world.
In the last forty-eight hours the White House has softened the president’s earlier statements. The new announcement says that the U.S. will stay in Syria until ISIS is defeated and that we will then “transition” to local forces over time. No time frame was enumerated, but reporting indicates that the president wants to bring home the troops from Syria in about six months or so. Contrast that to the statements above by those that are actually doing the fighting that it will take years and years.
Syria is a particularly knotty problem. Over the last few years, there have been arguments both pro and con for U.S. involvement in the country. The effort to push ISIS out of Iraq necessarily meant that we had to continue to chase them into Syria in order to prevent that nation from becoming a refuge for them. Borders in the desert are very fluid. It was necessary to hunt them down and eliminate all sources of support to their regime. We made good progress in doing that, but the job is not finished. So we are in Syria. What does that mean?
In Syria, you can’t tell the players without a score card. The players include the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad, Russians, Israelis, Iranians, Hezbollah, Turks, Kurds, Syrian rebels, ISIS, the U.S. and factions within factions of several of those groups with religious overtones to it all.
It is important to remember that the conflict in Syria started with peaceful protests that were broken up by Syrian troops firing into crowds which then evolved into a civil war. ISIS took advantage of the turmoil as Bashar lost control of much of Syria’s territory. Other nations took sides in the civil war and supported proxy troops or committed their own combat forces to support one faction or another.
The situation on the ground and in the air has the wherewithal to mutate into a regional conflict. All of which has nothing to do with whether or not ISIS is “done.” Half a dozen nations have combat aircraft in a very small area. The U.S., Russia, Turkey, and Iran all have their own troops on the ground often supporting different factions that oppose each other in the war. In a single week in early February, Israel, Russia, Turkey and Iran lost aircraft to hostile fire.
And oh by the way, did you know that Russian “contractors” (Mercenaries? Little green men from Crimea?) attacked a U.S. base at Deir Ezzor in Syria in mid-February? What? You didn’t hear about that? Could it be because neither the U.S. or Russian leaders wanted to talk about it? It was no “accident.” Russia and US forces have a hot line to de-conflict combat forces and missions. According to the on-scene battle field commander, the U.S. notified the Russians that they were attacking a U.S. base. The attack continued. U.S. air strikes turned back the assault with an estimate of over 200 Russians killed. Many analysts surmise that this attack, that could only have been approved on a national level, was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to see just how committed the U.S. was to our involvement in Syria.
To further complicate matters, Turkey, our NATO ally, is attacking the Kurds — our primary ally in the battle against ISIS. Those Kurdish forces were drawn away from the fight against ISIS last month when the Turks attacked a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria and the fighters returned home to protect their families. The Kurds are fighting for an autonomous region in their traditional homeland which is an anathema to Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, all of which actively oppose any independent Kurdish state or de facto state.
And Syrian civilians continue to suffer from barrel bombs, enforced starvation, and other crimes against humanity.
Mr. Trump wants “rich” middle eastern countries to take over the U.S. commitment, but what does that mean? Troops? Not going to happen. Money? Perhaps, to help rebuild cities or to get industries up and running such as oil refineries or other areas where money is needed. Where does the technical know how come from? Regardless, nothing can happen until stability returns to the region and the population.
The president wants “other nations” to take over. The last time I looked, they are doing so. Talks began earlier this month among Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Conspicuously absent was the U.S. We were not invited to the talks. No seat at the table means we will have no say in the future of Syria. That is dangerous to our long-term interests in the Middle East and our ally Israel.
After the first round of talks, those three countries expressed their support to Bashar and his regime. A long stated goal of the U.S. was to remove him. The statement went on to say that they support “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of the neighboring countries.” This is easily translated to mean that Bashar will stay, his regime will stay, and in playground terms it means they expect the U.S. to butt out.
In case we missed their point, the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Russia declared that the areas controlled by the U.S. and the Kurds, the second largest swath of territory in Syria behind that controlled by the regime, cannot be used to create “new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism.”
Furthermore, Turkish president Recep Ergogan threatened to attack U.S. troops supporting the Kurds. And they are a NATO ally.
It is clear that the problem in Syria, and elsewhere, is not a lack of firepower. The problems are political and stem from the ability — or in this case the inability — of the government to govern. When all is said and done, the twenty-first century may need a new definition for “winning.” As we are quickly learning, it is not entirely clear what that definition might be. Developing a political solution that leads to a stable governing entity would be part of it. Unfortunately, we cannot be a part of developing that solution if we pull up stakes and go home.
There are good and bad reasons to continue to stay in Syria or Afghanistan. We have already learned in this century that ungoverned territories, with no central governing authority, creates the conditions that allow terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS and others to grow. We know that these groups threaten the rule of law and a normal world order.
In order to protect our shores in this environment, we need to think in new ways about our nation’s wars. Nobody wants American lives wasted in far off lands that most of us could not have located on a map in the last century. At the same time we need some strategic thinking about what the long-term impact of our actions will be. There are many experienced and bright people in the Pentagon and elsewhere that are working through these issues. The answers are difficult and sometimes come at the cost of blood and treasure. They are not fail proof. There can be several “right” answers to the problems we face and reasonable people can reasonably disagree as to which ones to pursue.
There is also a “wrong” answer. That answer is to arbitrarily make decisions for the sole purpose of demonstrating that people have to do whatever one man says just because he says it. It is especially wrong when that man does not understand the implications of his decisions, and apparently, thinks no further ahead about the issue than whether it can fit into a tweet or not.
War is nasty and complicated. We are facing new challenges in real time. Critical thinking and new ways of defining our goals and missions is needed. Syria is only one of many such dilemmas we will face in the coming years.
There are a number of perplexing events unfolding in and around the White House. My sense is that many Americans are uninterested, unaware, or just minding their own business until all of the facts are in. I hope that the lack of concern is the latter and not that we as a nation have become inured to the unprecedented developments and are numb to the plethora of constant noise and fury emanating from the White House. There are so, so many troubling developments surrounding this administration. Thus far, only one is an existential threat to our democracy.
Yes, Russia again.
It is now over two weeks since Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations as another step in the ongoing investigation conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in our 2016 election. The indictment shows that the clear intent of their actions was to undermine the presidential election by active measures to disrupt the process, and specifically, to hurt Secretary Hillary Clinton and to favor the election of Mr. Donald Trump. But don’t take my word for it, if you haven’t done so already, read the full 37 page indictment. The indictment details how the Russians conducted “information warfare against the United States of America.” Warfare.
News reports today indicate that Mr. Mueller will soon file more indictments, this time specifically naming Russian hackers and outlining their methods in stealing emails from the Democratic National Committee and from Secretary Clinton’s campaign manager Mr. John Podesta. Please recall that the hacking of the DNC and the campaign were the original reasons for the investigation into the Russian meddling.
Additional reports inform us that seven states had their systems compromised in some way including in at least two cases, getting into the voter registration data bank. Attempts were made on a total of twenty-one states to get into the voting system. While there is no evidence to date that any actual votes were compromised or voter information changed to prevent people from voting, many experts consider these to be “probing attacks” to find vulnerabilities for exploitation in the future such as in the 2018 mid-term elections and/or the 2020 national elections.
Last month the heads of the major U.S. intelligence agencies testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee about the Russian meddling attacks. This included the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, FBI Director Christopher Wray, National Security Agency Director Admiral Mike Rogers, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. General Robert Ashley and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo. They were in agreement that the Russians did interfere and that it would happen again. As Director Coats put it, “There should be no doubt that Russia perceived that its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian midterm operations.”
When asked by committee member Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) if the FBI had been directed by the president to take any specific actions against the Russians, FBI Director Wray said the FBI is undertaking “a lot of specific activities” to counter the Russians but was “not specifically directed by the president.” If you saw the body language as Mr. Wray answered, it would sound even worse than it does here.
And it does get worse.
This week during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Rogers, Director of the National Security Agency and the head of the U.S. military Cyber Command, said that he was using his existing authorities to combat the Russian attacks. When asked a question similar to that asked last month of Director Wray — had the president given him any direction — he acknowledged that the president had not asked his agencies that are charged with conducting cyberoperations to find ways to counter the attackers and had not been granted new authorities to conduct counter operations.
Director Wray and Admiral Rogers are saying that they are on the defensive and doing the best that they can. However, they are inhibited by the apparent lack of interest from the Commander-in-Chief and have been given no authorization to go on the offensive. I am sure that the hard-working men and women in the intelligence agencies are doing what they can to protect our country, but they are having to do so with their hands tied and with no consequences for our attacker.
Here is the plain truth from Admiral Rogers during his testimony:
“President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay and that therefore ‘I can continue this activity.’ Clearly what we have done hasn’t been enough.”
I can go on, but you know the story. And it isn’t pretty.
Here are Mr. Trump’s responses, warnings, actions, deterrent activities, and punishments for Russia, in order: Bumpkiss, Nada, Zilch, Nothing, Goose Egg, Diddly-Squat.
Thank you Commander-in-Chief for keeping us safe from our adversaries and protecting our greatest democratic principle.
The latest story from the administration is that it is all President Obama’s fault. Should one take that story hook, line and sinker, it still begs the question as to why the president, in office for nearly 14 months, has directed nothing to be done to dissuade and deter further Russian meddling, much less to punish them and hold them accountable for their actions in 2016. He won’t even implement the sanctions voted on by both parties in the House (by a vote of 419-3) and Senate (98-2) last year designed specifically to punish Russia for their attack.
Why? The most common answer from pundits, politicians and prognosticators is that in his eyes, to even acknowledge that the Russians interfered, much less to help him as delineated in Mr. Mueller’s court papers, lessens his election victory and somehow makes it less legitimate.
I have other ideas as to why he won’t hold Russia and Vladimir Putin accountable for their actions, but so far, that would be pure speculation. Let’s go with the “my feelings would be hurt” reason.
Why does anyone accept that as an answer? Even if he feels that way, he is the president. As president he took an oath “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” To my knowledge there is nothing that precludes that responsibility just because the president’s ego may be bruised. As Commander-in-Chief he has an obligation to do his duty. If he refuses, then he is derelict in his duties as delineated in the Constitution.
Why do we continue to pretend otherwise?
Yesterday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations as a result of the ongoing investigation conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The indictment shows that the clear intent of their actions was to undermine the 2016 presidential election and to favor the election of Donald Trump. (Read the full 37 page indictment here.) The indictment details how the Russians conducted “information warfare against the United States of America.” This was no fly-by-night operation as the core entity, Internet Research Agency, had at least 80 full-time employees and a monthly budget of approximately 73 million Russian rubles a month (about 1.25 million dollars a month).
According to the indictment, the purpose of the covert Russian activity, which included putting undercover Russian operatives in the United States, was to engage “in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.” Once the nominees were selected, the operation focused solely on supporting Mr. Trump and denigrating Mrs. Clinton, including active efforts to discourage possible Clinton supporters from voting for her by spreading false and misleading information.
The Internet Research Agency had hundreds of additional support employees (trolls and other social media experts) beyond the core 80 and included a graphics department, a data analysis department, a search-engine optimization department, an IT department and a finance department. It was organized with branch heads and assigned duties. Very sophisticated.
Ultimately the operation’s interference in the 2016 election was not limited to social media or cyberspace. They also played “dirty tricks” at campaign rallies, organized their own rallies and otherwise put out derogatory and inflammatory information. For example, in the indictment it states that at one such event they tried to promote the idea that Mrs. Clinton was pro-Muslim by convincing an unaware American citizen to carry a sign “depicting Clinton and a quote attributed to her stating ‘I think Sharia Law will be a powerful new direction of Freedom.'” They also bought ads on Facebook and other sources claiming that Mrs. Clinton committed “voter fraud” amplifying one of Mr. Trump’s constant refrains. And more.
But you can read the indictment for yourself.
Here’s the rub.
What is the President of the United States doing to protect our country from a sophisticated asymmetrical attack on our homeland? So far? Nothing.
As the NY Times says, Mr. Trump’s “conspicuous silence” is a clear lack of leadership. His only reaction as of this writing is to tweet that “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!” It’s only about him — not the nation or our security. Oh by the way, how do you think the Russians and other adversaries around the world view his response? One word. Weak.
There are many factual errors in his tweet, among them the fact that the indictment said nothing about whether there was or was not collusion — a totally separate issue from this one — and the start date also has nothing to do with the activities of the Russians or the fact that they favored Mr. Trump and actively worked to get him elected.
(As and aside, for all you conspiracy theorists out there, Mr. Trump visited Moscow in 2013. Is it not conceivable that he conspired with the Russians then to aid an upcoming presidential campaign? Even though he had not announced it publicly? Or maybe the Russians blackmailed him into running with the express purpose of undermining U.S. democracy and attempting to install him in the White House? The operatives arrived in 2014 because it takes time to set up an effective covert operation, integrate into the community, establish ties and learn the lay of the land before Mr. Trump announced his candidacy in 2015. But then, I am not a conspiracy theorist.)
Here’s my real point.
Where is the outrage? Where is the United States’ response to a clear and present danger? What are we doing to punish the Russians for this grievous attempt to undermine our democracy? No outrage from the administration. No warnings to Russia. Gosh, the president refuses to implement sanctions against Russia already overwhelmingly approved by bipartisan votes in both the House and the Senate last summer. What is wrong with him? Will he continue to call the Russian involvement a “hoax” perpetrated by the Democrats as he has consistently and constantly done? Apparently so, if the statements coming from his press office today are any indication.
Remember that this is only one area of the Special Counsel’s investigation. Still to come is the result of investigations into the hacking of the Democratic National Committee; the hacking of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails; a June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower which Mr. Trump Jr. thought would deliver “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton; and the guilty pleas of Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser, and another campaign adviser. Mr. Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates have been indicted. Not to mention possible obstruction of justice charges. There is a lot going on for a “hoax.” Additionally, just because there is no allegation made in one indictment does not mean that it won’t be made in other ones in the future. If one saw or reads Mr. Rosenstein’s announcement releasing the indictments, he was very, very careful in his wording. To me he seemed to be signalling that just because no campaign or other U.S. officials were named in this indictment, it does not mean that there will not be some in other indictments yet to come.
Again. Read the indictment. Decide for yourself. I find it to be dereliction of duty by the Commander-in-Chief if the United States does not respond to this attack by the Russians. I am trying to give the president the benefit of the doubt thinking that maybe a response is being planned even as I write this. I hope so. However, even if the administration is planning such a response, one would rightly expect a clear, precise and strongly worded statement from the president condemning the Russian activity by now. It is discouraging to note that this administration has yet to hold even one cabinet level meeting or even one inter-agency task force meeting to address the issue. Just this week, all of the heads of our intelligence agencies testified before Congress that the Russians were still trying to disrupt our democracy and would surely attempt to disrupt the 2018 and 2020 elections. And we do nothing.
Where is the outrage? More importantly, where is the action to combat an attack by the Russians?
It is likely that by the time you read this post, a classified memo put together under disputed circumstances, will be released to the public. The entire process and related story is long, arcane, a little bit of “inside baseball” and dangerous to the rule of law.
In short, Representative Devin Nunes (R-CA) as the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee had his staffers compose a memo accusing the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) of misusing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in the investigation of the Russian interference in our 2016 election. In contrast, the Democrats on the committee, the DOJ and the FBI argue that Congressman Nunes misused the data that was reluctantly turned over to him to present a misleading portrayal of how the system was used and indeed to condemn the system itself. As the story unfolds, remember that the protesting members of the DOJ and of the FBI, including Director Chris Wray are appointees put in office by the current president.
The DOJ and FBI are concerned on two fronts. First, the memo could reveal sensitive “sources and methods” to our adversaries. (Sources meaning where intelligence comes from and methods meaning the ways in which the intelligence is collected.) It is not hyperbole to say that this could easily put lives at stake. Second, they are concerned that the memo will inaccurately portray the way that the FISA warrants (issued by a special court for wiretaps and other methods of collecting information on suspected foreign operatives and their collaborators) are obtained and thereby undermine the confidence of us, as citizens, in the process and in the results.
Mr. Nunes is using an arcane rule of Congress to release the information. The rule has never — never — been used before. The intent of the rule is to provide a method for revealing relevant information when there is a gross misuse of intelligence that provides a clear and present danger to the nation. Mr. Nunes is using it for purely political purposes. At best, he is attempting to sow doubt about the investigation into Russian interference conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, thus undermining possible damaging information about the president. At worst, he is aiding and abetting the president in providing a rationale for ending the investigation entirely.
As background I point out that this week the president refused to implement sanctions against Russia under a law passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and signed by him. In a show of sloppy staff work or lack of seriousness (you choose), individuals on the sanctions list were reportedly lifted by administration staffers from a list published annually by Forbes magazine naming the richest people in the world. Anyone from Russia with over a billion dollars in assets was placed on the Forbes list which was transcribed to the administration’s list — even though some are known to be anti-Putin. Although I suppose it doesn’t really matter because Mr. Trump will not implement the sanctions. Perhaps this is a quid pro quo? Who knows, but there certainly have been a bizarre list of actions and statements by the president regarding President Vladimir Putin and Russia. As someone said, there is a long list of the “whats” that have occurred but there is still no answer as to the “why”.
How serious is this possible breach of national security? Representing the DOJ position, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote to Mr. Nunes and the committee asking that the information not be released. In the letter he said that to release it would be “extraordinarily reckless” and that the department had reviewed its processes and found no wrongdoing regarding the FISA process.
An official FBI statement concerning the possible release states:
The FBI takes seriously its obligations to the FISA Court and its compliance with procedures overseen by career professionals in the Department of Justice and the FBI. We are committed to working with the appropriate oversight entities to insure the continuing integrity of the FISA process.
With regard to the House Intelligence Committee’s memorandum, the FBI was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it. As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.
Mr. Nunes and the president also know that there is a Catch-22. Several in fact.
The Democrats wrote a memo telling “the rest of the story” to put Mr. Nunes’ memo in context. He refuses to release it and the Democrats are trying to follow the rules and therefore won’t release it without committee approval. More importantly, the DOJ and FBI cannot refute the memo without themselves using classified information that would do further harm to the nation. By following the rules and taking national security seriously they find themselves in a bind that allows the president and his enablers to get away with their shenanigans.
Further complicating the response is that Congress has, and should have, over sight responsibility for the DOJ and the FBI. They should exercise that responsibility fully. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) contends that that is what is happening. (A further question for another day is why the Speaker did not step in, as he could do, and stop the release of the memo or at least allow a fully vetted process determine its viability. He abdicated his responsibility. I had hopes for Mr. Ryan as a buffer to the worst tendencies of the president, but apparently my hopes were misplaced.)
To fully understand how shady this entire undertaking is, read the unclassified transcript of the committee meeting where the issue was discussed. (You will find it here.) Among other things, it is apparent that Mr. Nunes never read the supporting information from which his memo was crafted. You will also note that Mr. Nunes never denies that the his staff may have worked with White House staffers as to the content of the memo. You will also find that the FBI and the DOJ requested to come in and explain the impact of releasing the memo and the harm it will do to national security but the request was denied. And on and on. One might think that the fix was in. Oh, and by the way, Mr. Nunes would not release the memo for review by the Republican Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Senator Richard Burr (R-NC). Why?
Additionally, under normal circumstances, should the FBI concerns be ignored, “grave concerns” not-with-standing, and the administration releases the memo, FBI Director Wray should resign. I hope that he stays and continues to fight for what is right.
The word “unprecedented” gets used a lot these days. This event is truly unprecedented. The House and Senate intelligence committees are historically known for their bipartisanship, concern for the safety of our country, very, very careful in their use and review of sensitive information and generally known as a model for how the government should work. Well, that’s over.
I cannot over emphasize how critical this is to the norms of honest government and the impact on our leading law enforcement agency and the intelligence community as a whole. The politicization of intelligence is a dangerous precedent. Once the genie is out of the bottle, there will be, inevitably in my opinion, other instances of one or both parties (“paybacks are hell”) undertaking similar political use of sensitive information.
One must also think of the willingness of future potential sources of information to put themselves on the line knowing that what they do covertly could be blasted to the public for political reasons. Think also of foreign intelligence agencies and their willingness to work with the United States if they also think that sensitive sources and methods could be compromised. Some reports already indicate that other nations’ intelligence agencies have significantly cut back on the information that they share with us because they are wary of the ability of this administration to keep a secret — as evidenced by the president sharing such intelligence in the Oval Office with the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador last year.
Credible reports indicate that the president has been pushing for the release of the memo — even without having read it until last night — since last week. He reportedly thinks that it will “prove” that the “deep state” is out to get him (remember that those opposing its release are his own political appointees). More ominously, it has been reported that he may use this memo as an excuse to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. This is significant because Mr. Rosenstein, following the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, oversees Mr. Mueller in the conduct of the Russian investigation. Mr. Rosenstein has repeatedly said that he would never fire the Special Counsel barring egregious and unlawful actions on his part. This infuriates the president. By removing the Deputy AG, Mr. Trump would look for a replacement willing to fire Mr. Mueller or at least inhibit and undermine the investigation. That would be a travesty of justice.
As I’ve said many times over the last year or more, whatever one thinks of Mr. Trump, we should all be livid and concerned that the Russians clearly interfered (as even Mr. Trump’s own appointees to lead the intelligence community concede). And yet, not only will Mr. Trump not say that there was interference, more importantly there is not one federal agency or inter-agency task force looking into it or planning how to counter it for this year’s elections. In a recent interview with the BBC, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said that the Russians continue to interfere in our internal policy and that he fully expects that they will try to interfere with our next elections and continue to do so as long as they can. And we sit on our hands? Apparently this administration, abetted by Republicans in the House, would rather investigate the FBI and the DOJ rather than the Russians.
The sanctions that this administration is refusing to implement were designed specifically to punish the Russians for interfering in 2016. What they hey?
If Mr. Trump has nothing to worry about (even though two of his aides pleaded guilty and two others are under indictment — hardly a “nothing burger”) then why not let the investigation continue without interference and come to a quick conclusion exonerating him? In my mind it is because he is afraid of what will be found. Each event unto itself could be dismissed, I suppose. But it is compelling when one looks at all the things we already know happened between the Trump campaign and the Russians. I am positive that what we know is only the tip of the iceberg compared to what the Special Counsel already knows.
There are many more twists and turns behind this unfolding sordid episode. Because it is happening in slow motion, and involves arcane House and DOJ rules, I suspect many Americans are unaware of the details and even more than that are unaware of the implications behind this unprecedented action. Perhaps Mr. Trump and Mr. Nunes are counting on that. Meanwhile, the DOJ and FBI are under attack as independent protectors of the nation. The rule of law is in danger.
We are on the verge of a Constitutional crisis. It has been creeping up on us for several months. Soon its full-blown existence will make it so that no one can ignore what is happening. Mr. Trump will not do the right thing when the time comes. As he said last week at an impromptu meeting with the press when asked about the investigation, he said he is “fighting back.” One can only imagine what that will bring.
As we approach the end of a tumultuous 2017, let me offer my wish that each of you have a joyous holiday season and that 2018 brings you all the best. Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas and a fine Festivus!
While I sincerely hope that all of us have a wonderful 2018 in our own ways, I am concerned that as a country we will hit turbulent waters at best or worse, experience a Constitutional crisis. I gave up prognosticating some years ago. However, since it is the end of the year, I will offer up my scenario as to how the coming year will unfold as the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller plays out. There are certainly other very important events to come in 2018 that the administration will face, such as dealing with a bellicose North Korea, implementing a tax cut by expanding the deficit, undermining the Affordable Care Act, retooling immigration and someday passing a budget. All of these will be overshadowed by the unfolding drama surrounding Mr. Mueller’s investigation and its final results. It will not be pretty.
Lest we forget, as I see it there are four distinct areas of investigation for the Special Counsel. Three have been his focus from the beginning and the fourth I surmise got added as the investigation looked into the activities of Mr. Paul Manafort and others and the resulting relationship to the original three areas of interest. The four are concerns over Russian interference in the election, possible collusion between the campaign and the Russians, whether or not the FBI investigation into these matters was obstructed by the president or his advisers, and my fourth, money laundering and/or tax evasion by the president and/or family. Let’s look at them one by one.
Many of us forget that the original intent of the investigation, starting with the FBI and CIA in 2016, was to determine the extent, methods, and impact of Russian interference in that year’s election. The combined intelligence community in the United States and elsewhere concluded some time ago that the Russians did interfere. End of discussion. The questions of how, why, whether it mattered or not and what to do stop it in the future remain unanswered. Reportedly, the president refuses to discuss it with his top advisers, has yet to hold any cabinet level discussions as to how to protect future elections and continues to deny that it ever happened. This is unconscionable. Regardless of one’s political views, all of us should be upset that there is overwhelming evidence that it occurred and there is no evidence that anyone is doing anything substantive to prevent it in the future. There is still no federal coordinated action to stop it from happening again. As Americans we should be appalled. Michael V. Hayden had a lifetime of experience in the intelligence community and was CIA director under President George W. Bush. His view of the Russian meddling? That it is the political equivalent of the attack on September 11. He further said,
“What the president has to say is, ‘We know the Russians did it, they know they did it, I know they did it, and we will not rest until we learn everything there is to know about how and do everything possible to prevent it from happening again. He has never said anything close to that and will never say anything close to that.”
Perhaps some in Congress will wake up to the fact that action is needed, and soon. I won’t hold my breath for the president to initiate any action. When Mr. Mueller’s findings come forward, we may have an impetus for action by the rest of the government.
The second area of investigation, and the one most focus on including the president, is whether or not the president’s campaign colluded with the Russians to interfere in the election and impede Secretary Hillary Clinton’s chances of victory. This one is more complicated and takes more than a sound bite or Twitter statement to unfold. In short, the theory is that in exchange for “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton and other “aids” during the election, the new administration, if they won, would lift sanctions on Russia imposed for a variety of reasons generated by Russian bad actors, and not just during the election. This one is less clear as to the extent that the campaign organization knew what they were doing. Their best defense, if one can call it that, is that they were incompetent. That line of reasoning is becoming less tenable as more and more instances of meetings between campaign representatives and Russian representatives become known. In addition, both campaigns were briefed in August 2016, following the official nominations, that the Russians were trying to interfere in the election, that other bad actors might also try, and the two campaigns need to notify the FBI if they detect any Russian overtures or other activity. The Trump campaign made no such reports to the FBI. It is hard to claim ignorance under those circumstances.
The third area of investigation involves possible obstruction of justice. This stems in one way from the aforementioned meetings with Russian operatives during the campaign. Various campaign officials initially denied any such meetings. It grew bigger after the president fired then FBI Director Jim Comey and bragged in a Lester Holt interview on NBC and later in a private conversation with the Russian (!) Foreign Minister and Ambassador that it was over the “Russia thing.” Director Comey testified under oath that the president asked him to drop the investigation into former NSC Director Michael Flynn’s interactions with the Russians. (The same Michael Flynn that pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about those very interactions.) As if that is not enough, the investigation also includes the president himself pushing prevarications on Air Force One concerning his son Donald Trump Jr. and his interactions with the Russians. They made a very weak attempt to cover it up, allegedly at the president’s direct involvement in the cover up story.
You can’t tell the players without a program.
Not on the “official” list but the area that will cause the biggest consternation, and at the same time pull everything together, is my notion that the Special Counsel and his office are looking into the Trump Organization’s and family’s financial dealings. I think that they will find instances of money laundering and tax evasion. Very much like what they come up with concerning Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates — only with Russians rather than corrupt Ukrainians.
Many focus on Mr. Trump’s visit to Moscow for the Miss Universe Pageant and his subsequent attempts at creating new business opportunities in Russia. Lost to some is the knowledge that he started visiting Russia in 1987 and has made trips off and on since then. If his son is to be believed, lots of their investment money came from Russian sources. U.S. banks would not underwrite his endeavors after four bankruptcies and he was desperate. Think of it as a “Godfather” scenario. “Donnie, don’t worry. We’ll take care of the problem. Relax. But at some time in the future we may come and ask you for a favor.” Or as Don Corleone says it much better in the original, “Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.”
My opinion as to the results?
- The Russians interfered in many, many ways in the election but the number of votes that changed because of those actions (none of which were by actual vote tampering) is unknown.
- Aides to Mr. Trump did collude with the Russians but the president will benefit from plausible deniability as there will be no way to tie it directly to him.
- The investigation will conclude that Mr. Trump and some of his aides did try to obstruct justice by interfering in the attempt to investigate his family and campaign ties to the Russians.
- The Special Counsel will conclude that prior to becoming president, Mr. Trump knowingly engaged in unethical and illegal financial transactions. These transactions helped Russian oligarchs launder money in Trump investments and real estate purchases. His hundreds of LLCs and shell corporations were used to hide these transactions and to limit the taxes he was by law responsible for paying.
That’s when the “fun” starts.
First, prior to the Special Counsel’s findings, the House committees investigating these matters will rush out findings — possibly in early January — that will find that there is no evidence of collusion, they did not look at obstruction of justice because it is a criminal matter, and did not investigate his finances. They will say that the Russians interfered in the election but it is unclear to what extent and in any case, the interference did not change the election.
The president will seize on this report, claim that it proves his innocence and that there was “no collusion!”
The president will try to fire Special Counsel Mueller because, he will reason, the House committees already proved that there was “no collusion!” and so there is no need for the investigation to continue. To do so would make it a “witch hunt” based on the Democrats efforts to push a “hoax” and an attempt to disenfranchise millions of Trump voters because of a deep hatred of Mr. Trump. Fox News and some House Republicans will cry long and loud that this is an attempted FBI “coup” to overthrow the duly elected President of the United States. (By the way, this has already happened in the last 48 hours. The attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice from certain Republican Members of Congress are despicable. Please note that they are not attacking the facts, the results so far or any other substantive issue. They only attack the people and the institution with the goal to sow doubt in advance of just this scenario.)
The Senate will try to protect the Special Counsel but at the same time expand their investigation to include the other nominees — Jill Stein and Hillary Clinton — to show that it wasn’t just Mr. Trump. When the Special Counsel’s findings start to leak out, the Senate, caught in a bind as to how to act as the president continues to undermine, ignore and invalidate the non-partisan results, delays action.
The Special Counsel will name Mr. Trump as an un-indicted co-conspirator.
Mr. Trump will not step down from the presidency and tries to pardon those indicted as well as himself. This will lead to a Constitutional crisis.
The “#metoo” movement continues to build pressure against Mr. Trump as more allegations of harassment by multiple women come out and he calls them all “liars.”
To make sure that justice prevails, state prosecutors step in to bring state charges — especially on money and tax issues. Mr. Trump cannot pardon violations of state law, only federal.
The issue of pardons for whom and for what gets challenged in court and follows an expedited path to the Supreme Court.
Pressure will build for the Congress to act. However, the House and Senate will not act to impeach the president and will cite the upcoming 2018 elections as the reason. “Let the American people decide.”
Democrats win big in the elections. While campaigning they will not use the word “impeach” but will insist that Mr. Trump needs to be held accountable for his actions with Congressional oversight.
Mr. Trump, Fox News, and some House Republicans continue to cry that the system was rigged and that an attempted “coup” is underway. Mr. Trump embarks on a series of campaign rallies to build support among the minority of voters that still support him. Angry demonstrations ensue.
Most Americans are appalled at the complete story and the fact that Mr. Trump will not step down plus the fact that he is trying to pardon the wrong doers — especially close family members. The Democratic landslide is a result of voters being fed up because Congress will not act.
Very bitter disputes break out in violence on both sides of the issue as Mr. Trump continues purposely to stir up animosity and anger.
There is very little energy left to try to tackle the big issues facing our nation. American influence in the world continues to wane and other nations take advantage of our inward rage and lack of attention to international affairs. The Russians continue to meddle in western European elections and to support Syria and Iran. China consolidates its economic power and pulls other Asian nations closer to its orbit as they become the de facto leader of the region under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
2018 ends without resolution of the Constitutional issues surrounding Mr. Trump and his associates’ actions. Trials begin for Mr. Manafort, Mr. Gates, and Mr. Kushner and others close to the president.
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!
QUESTION: Mr. President, do you have any response to the Russian president expelling 755 workers from our embassy in Russia?
TRUMP: No, I want to thank [Putin], because we’re trying to cut down on payroll. And as far as I’m concerned, I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll. There’s no real reason for them to go back. So, I greatly appreciate the fact that they’ve been able to cut our payroll for the United States. We’ll save a lot of money.
President Trump made these comments during an impromptu press conference on Thursday at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey. He doubled down on them on Friday.
His press secretary related that the president was “joking” and being “sarcastic” — seemingly the go-to response for every comment he makes that receives significant push back for its outrageous nature. But let’s assume that, in fact, he is joking. It is still an outrageous comment coming from a president and it shows no respect for his diplomats and the important work that they do, including at times putting their own well-being at risk. Perhaps a little context will help to bring this home.
At the end of July Russian President Putin gave the United States until 1 September to remove 755 diplomatic and technical support personnel from our embassy in Moscow. In addition, he seized two properties used by the U.S. embassy. All of this was in retaliation for the sanctions bill passed by the U.S. Congress a few days earlier.
Until last Thursday, the president made no comment about the Russian actions. None. Eleven days without comment on that situation despite having lots to say about stories on “Fox and Friends” and a significant number of insignificant matters. He had time to Tweet numerous attacks on his own Senate Majority Leader, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), but has yet to utter one negative word about Russia, or Mr. Putin. He still has not done so. His first comment on a long-standing dispute with Russia was to “thank” Mr. Putin. Ha. Ha.
His remarks also reveal a lack of understanding of how these things work. It is also possible that he thinks of the diplomats as “employees” — perhaps the same way he thinks of the workers that make his shirts in Bangladesh. Obviously, Mr. Putin did not “let go” U.S. diplomats. He can’t, they are American citizens working for the U.S. government. And Mr. Putin did not “cut the payroll” or “save a lot of money” because those impacted people still receive pay checks. They will return to the U.S. or posted elsewhere overseas. Mr. Putin’s actions will have some impact on his own citizens’ pay checks, as there are some Russian nationals that work in our embassy and consulates in supporting roles that will lose their jobs.
The reported response from the career diplomats, current and past, was predictably swift. And they were not pleased. Coupled with what appears to be a secondary role for Secretary of State Tillerson and the fact that countless senior positions in the State Department critical to shaping and implementing U.S. foreign policy have yet to be nominated, much less in position to help — including an ambassador to South Korea, which might be useful about now — it appears that President Trump has little use for, and certainly no regard for, the role our professional diplomats play in keeping our nation safe. I expect many to start voting with their feet and leaving the foreign service, further debilitating our ability to meet our national goals. Of course, to some presidential advisers, those that work in the Department of State are the worst of the “deep state.” They will be happy to see these professional diplomats resign. Apparently, President Trump agrees with that view.
He also apparently does not understand that far more U.S. government departments work in our overseas embassies than just from the Department of State. In an embassy such as ours in Moscow (the largest we currently have) there are personnel from the CIA, FBI, Agriculture, Commerce, Treasury and just about every agency in between. Losing these positions inhibits our ability to maintain some programs (remember, for example, that our NASA astronauts ride Russian rockets into space) but also inhibits our ability to gather valuable intelligence on every facet of life in Russia. The reduction will also have a significant impact on services provided to Americans in Russia as well as on Russians that may need visas or other assistance in travelling to the U.S.
President Trump’s cavalier attitude about nearly everything that does not benefit him directly is not only short-sighted in ensuring an effectively functioning government, it also shows his disdain for patriotic Americans that are at the front lines in keeping our nation safe.
In a week of events that were mind-boggling, one more reckless statement from the president was probably lost in the news of so many outrageous statements and careless Tweets. To me, however, his Russian statement represented all of the things that I worry about concerning our president. His lack of knowledge, his lack of intellectual curiosity about anything that has to do with basic civics, his lack of concern over anything that does not involve him personally, and the cavalier way that he treats people trying hard to serve him and the American public. I could go on.
Really Mr. President? I mean, really. As my grandmother would have said, “for goodness sake…”
Just when one thinks that just about everything that could happen under the Trump Administration has already occurred — it can’t possibly get any crazier, but it does. Last week was chock full of newsworthy items, any one of which would have been worthy of discussion but they just kept coming and coming. Over the last week or so, we’ve seen proof that President Trump still does not understand the dignity and impact of the presidency.
To quickly cover a few of the highlights before getting to the main event — health care bills — let’s do a tour d’ horizon. Two venerable institutions, the Boy Scouts of America and Police Departments across the country, had to issue apologies and “clarifications” following President Trump’s speeches to the annual Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia and to a Long Island New York police department.
In the former he gave a political speech that was short on inspiration to America’s youth and long on past grievances, politics, and a reminder of how personally great everything Trump is and will be. Some parents threatened to pull their kids from the Scouts. President Trump supporters opined that the “kids loved it” forgetting that they are boys and teens and that when you get 40,000 kids together in one place, especially mostly boys, they will laugh and cheer at just about anything, especially if flatulence is involved. On Long Island the president seemed to say that police brutality when arresting suspects was okay. As usual, whenever called out on similar pronouncements, it was proposed that it was a “joke.” Police departments around the country could only cringe and issue statements that such statements were no joking matter and that their (fill in the city) police department does not condone such action.
Within days of President Trump announcing the new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, aka “The Mooch”, aka “Mini-me” Mr. Scaramucci went on a rant to a New Yorker Magazine reporter that disparaged key senior members of the White House staff and included numerous references, in full graphic detail, to acts of biology that to my knowledge are impossible. No comment from the president at the time. Others in the Administration opined that he’s just a “New Yorker” and apparently that’s how New Yorkers talk about co-workers. Having lived for a number of years in New York state I don’t recall anyone talking that way and certainly not in the name of the President of the United States.
In Tweets (Tweets!) the president continues to disparage his own Attorney General and his first and for a very long time, only official supporter for president. According to some accounts this is a prelude to cleaning out the senior levels of the Department of Justice including the Attorney General, his deputy, the Acting FBI Director, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. No problem there. In another Tweet the president arbitrarily told all active duty transgender military personnel that their services were no longer required “in any capacity” because they are a burden and “disruptive.” Suddenly somewhere around 7,000 soldiers, Marines, Sailors and airmen are in limbo and told that somehow their patriotism and willingness to defend the nation does not count.
In yet another Tweet, the president fired his chief of staff Reince Priebus. The Tweet announced that retired Marine general and serving Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly would be the new chief.
Whew! A full week.
On the upside for those of us rooting for a successful and appropriate presidency there were several positive developments. As I write this, reports are that Anthony Scaramucci was removed from his job of ten days as the Communications Director. I have no inside information but I suspect that the new chief of staff had something to do with that as Mr. Scaramucci bragged last week that he only reported directly to the president and did not have to answer to anyone else on the staff. My knowledge of General Kelly, although limited, would indicate that he would absolutely not tolerate antics such as those of Mr. Scaramucci. Perhaps the General can bring order to the White House staff. We’ll see, but a good first step.
Also positive, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, USMC let it be known that the military does not act on Tweets or any other form of informal communications when a policy decision is to be made, even a Tweet by the president concerning transgender policy. Hurrah. It remains to be seen what actual policy evolves, but it is good to know that spontaneous utterances by the president will not precipitate military action.
Further good news came out of the Congress that overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill strengthening sanctions primarily against Russia, but with some additional provisions against Iran and North Korea. The Congress felt it necessary after listening to, and observing the actions of, President Trump with regards to Russian President Putin and our president’s apparent fascination with him. The White House staff had worked hard behind the scenes to stop the passage of the bill but both houses of the Congress got up on their hind legs and said “no” to the president on this issue. A positive sign that they may increasingly exercise their role in governing as an equal branch of the government.
Many Republican Senators and Representatives also went on the record along with their Democrat colleagues to oppose President Trump’s Tweet policy on transgender individuals in the military and the treatment of Attorney General Sessions. Clear signs that the president will not get blanket support from them. As an aside, the president now taunts Republicans as well as Democrats via Twitter seeming to make it clear that he does not consider himself a Republican. But to most of us, that is no surprise.
And of course let’s not forget that North Korea tested new Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that experts think can reach targets on the U.S. mainland as far as Chicago.
Arguably the biggest news of the week was the failure to repeal or repeal and replace or otherwise get rid of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) lovingly known as Obamacare. Most of us followed the news and at least heard of the ins and outs of the entire suspense filled week of “will they or won’t they?” They did not. One could ask why after seven years of clamoring for (and voting over 50 times for) the repeal of Obamacare the Republicans were not ready to put forward their own coherent health plan. One could also ask why the only argument put forward by most Republicans, and especially by the president, had nothing to do with the merits of the proposed replacement plan(s) but rather the only argument was that Obamacare was “bad” — nothing about why the new plan would be better. SAD!
But be careful.
I do not think the health care battle is finished, only in a strategic pause. There will be further efforts to repeal or repeal and replace. For supporters of Obamacare, or supporters of a bipartisan effort to repair Obamacare and to make it better, do not relax. The fat lady has yet to sing.
Over the weekend President Trump tweeted out (how else?) that Obamacare was going to implode and implicitly that he would make it happen. On Sunday the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Mick Mulvaney went on television to be explicit about the president’s threats/promises. As I have written in this space before, the president can do grave harm to the current Obamacare system, primarily through non-enforcement of the mandate and by withholding funds to subsidize premiums. He also made news by threatening the Congress and Congressional staffers with actions to increase their premiums. I am no expert in this area, but this is what I understand is the issue.
Is it possible for the president to make Obamacare “implode” as he promises? As with most things, the answer is “it depends” on what part of Obamacare one refers to during the discussion. Since Obamacare remains the law of the land, the president cannot make it go away at once. He can, however, create enough chaos in the system that it can degrade over time. Remember that most Americans get their health insurance through their employers or through the government (military, VA, military retirees, Medicare, etc.). For middle to low-income working adults and for children that do not have employer or government health insurance they mostly get their insurance through Medicaid or in a market place created by the ACA. Although a major factor in the latest debates, Medicaid is provided by law and cannot be legally changed without a change to the law. What is really under discussion are the ACA market places. Since the ACA was fully implemented, about 10 million Americans get their coverage via the government market place. These are the people you most hear about on the news and in political rallies, be it how bad the system is or how wonderful the system is.
The administration has a number of ways to degrade the ACA. In a slow motion effort, they could stop advertising and marketing the exchanges so that people either don’t know that the markets still exist (a lot of Americans are unsure as to what is available after all the latest hubbub) or miss deadlines to sign up because there was no public advertising as to how or when to get on board. Additionally, if the administration follows through by not enforcing the mandate (either get insurance or pay a fine) healthy people will get out of the market which causes costs to rise for the insurers which is then passed on to those still in the market — their premiums rise — or the insurer gets out of the market because it isn’t profitable for them if they have to eat the added costs. (Remember the three legs from my 23 June post. To work, if we want to cover pre-existing conditions, the system needs a mandate to keep the pool costs low by balancing healthy folks with those that we already know have problems, but then to be fair, we subsidize those that have to have insurance but cannot afford it. Get anything out of whack, and the system starts to wobble — the promised “death spiral.”)
President Trump is threatening/promising to speed up the process by withholding cost sharing payments. As I write, they are only released through the end of July — today. (The next deadline is in late August.) The ACA requires insurance companies to hold down the deductibles, co-pays and premiums for those in the individual market place. However, the insurance companies are not charitable organizations and they are in business to make money. To make up the loss of revenue to those companies every month the government makes up the difference on the costs — currently about $600 million a month. Should the Trump administration stop paying those subsidies, premiums for those on the market place would sky-rocket or the insurers would just pull out of the market. This is a lot of what you hear about when those that oppose the ACA say it is “collapsing.” Health care and health insurance is not “collapsing” for most Americans, but it could for those middle to low-income Americans that are on the individual markets should the president follow through and try to cause the ACA to “implode”.
He claims the Democrats will “own it” and he will take no blame. I think he is fooling himself if he takes deliberate action to make it tough on the citizens he swore to protect.
There is one more esoteric wrinkle in the president’s threats that you may hear more about this week. Mr. Mulvaney explained the issue and says that the president is serious about implementing it. This involves the health insurance for members of Congress and their staffs. Despite rumors to the contrary, by law the entire Congress and their staffs are on the ACA — they get their insurance from Obamacare. But with a wrinkle. President Obama’s administration put out a policy that allowed them to treat each individual office of each Senator and Representative each as a small business. This means that they are eligible for the subsidies just talked about above, saving them lots of money out of their own pockets. Before setting our hair on fire, take a minute to think about it. Certainly the individual Senators and Representatives could afford to pay full price in an employer plan, but most staffers, interns, administrative personnel, etc. working in their offices are young folks not making much money. It would have a huge impact on them should President Trump change the policy to exclude them from the subsidy program.
Today is the start of a new week. Let’s hope it is a dull one. We need to take a collective deep breath and take a few minutes to enjoy the summer. And summers in official Washington D.C. are supposed to be dull. Nothing going on. If so, hold on to your hats come September.
With the daily evolution of the story of Mr. Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting in June 2016 with a Russian lawyer that offered to help the Trump campaign work against Secretary Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president, one can no longer claim that reports of Russian efforts to impact the election is “fake news.” I have always believed that the Russians clearly worked to influence the election, taking as accurate the consensus of the American intelligence community that they stole emails from the Democratic National Committee and from the Clinton campaign manager Mr. John Podesta. Other evidence of Russian influence, especially in the realm of social media, is beginning to emerge. It is fact. I was not at all certain that senior members of the Trump campaign would have actively worked to aid and abet the Russian effort. One way or the other I figured that the ongoing investigation led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller would conclusively resolve that part of the issue. Let the chips fall where they may. Well now we know a lot more.
If you are not familiar with the story, you can read Mr. Trump Jr.’s emails for yourself. In sum, a friend of the Trumps named Mr. Rob Goldstone with close Russian ties offered to arrange a meeting with a Russian national in order to give damaging information about Secretary Clinton to the Trump campaign. In the email exchange Mr. Trump Jr. responded enthusiastically and set up a meeting with the Russian emissary to hear her out. The key passages of the email that jump out at me follow. Mr. Goldstone wrote that the Russians “offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump….” To which Mr. Trump Jr. replied in part “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
At the subsequent meeting were Mr. Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and current Senior Adviser in the White House, and Mr. Paul Manafort, then the Trump campaign manager. And others, which I will get to momentarily.
End of discussion. After months and months of denying vehemently that they ever had any meeting with the Russians where cooperation or coordination with the Russians was ever discussed, it turns out that there was one. At least. Additionally, since the story broke last Saturday, nearly every day a different story as to what was discussed and who was present came out. Can you spell “cover up”?
To be honest, I am exhausted by all things Trumpian. It is very difficult to keep track of all the misleading statements, innuendo and out right lies that come out of the White House or from others associated with President Trump. The tangled webs of who knows who, or more importantly has significant business ties to the Trump Organization is hard to follow as well, or as they say at the ballpark, “you can’t tell the players without a score card.” But we need to try.
Today’s events caused me to say “that’s it” — I cannot ignore the outrageous carrying on any longer. I planned to write about other issues, but when it came out today that at least one other previously undisclosed person (as I write, some news outlets are reporting that it may actually be two other people) with Russian ties (the new attendee was born there, served in the Russian Army and may be a lobbyist or may be a former intelligence officer or both as this unfolding story develops) was in the room.
After days of Mr. Trump Jr.’s denials and obfuscation about everything, until it is uncovered by reporters at which point his story changes — despite his claims of total transparency — this takes the cake. Appearing on the Sean Hannity Show on Fox News, Mr. Trump Jr. was asked multiple times by the very friendly to the Trumps interlocutor Mr. Hannity if there was anything else that would come out or if any other people with Russian ties had met with him. He gave a vigorous and straight forward “no” answer. Check it out. And yet… there was more to the story. It seems there is always more to the story with the Trumps.
Mr. Trump Jr. claims that “nothing” came of the meeting and that it was a waste of time. Given the events of the last week, and many more before that, I am unwilling to take the word of Mr. Trump Jr. I am sure that Special Counsel Mueller will be very interested in following up on this story.
It is indeed a weak defense of these actions to claim that nothing came of the meeting and that they did not get any “dirt” on Secretary Clinton. To them this means that it was a “nothingburger” of a meeting. Very troubling. Read the emails. The Trump campaign was eager to get negative information on Secretary Clinton. Fine. That happens in many, many campaigns. But not from the Russian government! Or any foreign government. End of story. Just because they got nothing — as if we can believe anything Mr. Trump Jr. says about this situation — they clearly were willing to take this information and to use any ties to the Russian government that they thought would help them win. Nice. Strong ethics. Look, I know that politics is a full contact sport and that it can be really nasty. Republicans, Democrats, Independents, it doesn’t matter. It gets personal. But really? The Russians? C’mon man! It only shows that with this outfit, there are no boundaries. Mr. Michael Gerson, a conservative columnist and former chief speech writer for President George W. Bush has an excellent piece today. Basically he argues that the Trumps are clueless about all the fuss because they have no concept of right and wrong, they have a set of values “in which victory matters more than character and real men write their own rules.” Mr. Gerson explains that “it is the banality of this corruption that makes it so appalling. The president and his men are incapable of feeling shame about shameful things.”
Most troubling to me in terms of national security is the portion of the email train that says, emphasis mine, that this “is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Part. What else was going on? What else is going on? Coupled with all that we know so far, and the inability of Mr. Trump Jr. and the White House to accurately and correctly deal in facts, I would read that section to mean that the Russians were actively interfering in the election, and that quite plausibly, the Trump campaign knew about it in other ways. Just because they may or may not have walked out of this particular meeting with dirt in hand, it clearly implies that they were ready and willing to work with the Russians and may in fact have other sources and methods where they were doing so.
I have no idea what will come of this. I have no idea if anything illegal occurred or if any of the attendees can be held accountable under the law. I do have an idea, however, that this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I am sure more and more will slowly be uncovered as the Senate, House, and Special Counsel’s office continue to investigate the Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
I also know that for the President to continue to deny that it happened is unhelpful to our country. For him to continue, as recently as two days ago, to continue to call this the “greatest WITCH HUNT in political history” (his emphasis) is also unhelpful. In every way, President Trump is actively working to undermine every U.S. institution that may stand in his way. Fake news, indeed.
What is clear, is that it is becoming impossible to breathe with all the smoke rising out of the Russian election interference issue. It is only a matter of time before the conflagration flares up. I pray that we don’t all get burned by the resulting fire and that we are not left with only the smoldering ruins of our great democracy.