Saturday, June 2, 2018

Trump-Russia: A Grand Unified Theory

The Trump-Russia scandal is difficult to follow because of its complexity. It is hard to understand how the many characters and elements fit together.

Two journalists have stood out in their tracking and insightful understanding of this story: Josh Marshall of and Adam Davidson of The New Yorker. Their conversation in the most recent edition of Marshall's podcast is absolutely worth a listen. Marshall and Davidson try to piece together a Grand Unified Theory of the scandal which I will summarize here.

The theory begins with a set of macro-economic conditions that set the table for the relationship between Trump and Russia.

  1. The fall of the Iron Curtain resulted in a scramble to seize trillions of dollars in assets that had been the property of the communist states. The most successful kleptocrats were those best positioned: former party officials familiar with the assets and the local levers of power (like Vladimir Putin) and local organized crime. 
  2. Seizing these assets was only the first task for these kleptocrats. Second was the necessity of getting the loot out of the country and parking it in western countries where the rule of law and independent judiciary systems would ensure its safety. Otherwise, a bigger, more powerful shark could steal it from the original thief. Tens of trillions of dollars worth of dirty money began to flow west, largely to London and New York.
  3. A short time later the vigilance and scrutiny of the US Government of possibly shady financial transactions became far more thorough and intense. This was partly due to 9/11 and the resulting effort to detect and interdict terrorist financing and partly due to a similar effort with respect to international drug cartels.
  4. This resulted in a shrinkage of available ways to park ill-gotten gains. As Davidson explains, a Russian oligarch could not just invest his $300 million in Google or Apple stocks. Regulations and reporting requirements for banks, brokerage houses and other financial actors would set off multiple alarms. Real estate emerged as a potential avenue for such investment.
As these trends developed through the late 1990's and early 2000's, Davidson observed that "Donald Trump was screaming 'open for business!' " Trump has a long, well-documented history of sleazy business practices and, specifically, willingness to accept financing from criminal figures. It was an open secret that Trump's Atlantic City casinos were financed in part by the Italian-American mob. He has since participated in multiple deals with international organized crime figures.

Interestingly, contrary to many other Trump-Russia observers, Davidson does not think Trump started doing business with oligarchs from the former Soviet republics because they were his only financing option. He maintains that even after his string of personal bankruptcies Trump still had the opportunity to make the Trump Organization a legitimate financial player. However, he thinks Trump gravitated toward shadier deals because he lacked the temperamental qualities required for more legitimate global financial success on the scale that he aspired to.

Building an organization into a legitimate global financial entity is, to put it simply, a hell of a lot of work. There is a ton of due diligence. It requires real expertise in very complex and abstract business concepts as well as understanding of cultural and economic trends. It requires strategic planning and, above all, patience and persistence. Such a business structure also would involve multiple levels of accountability and loss of individual control. The payoff for all of that work is access to vast pools of capital in legal, above-board ways.

By all accounts, however, Trump possesses none of these qualities. He is impulsive, has a notoriously short attention span and little to no ability to delay gratification. He has a constant need for self-aggrandizement. Davidson believes these qualities led him to a series of quick deals with "third tier oligarchs in backwater countries" like Georgia and Kazakhstan. He was treated like a head of state and paid millions of dollars up front whatever the ultimate fate of the projects (like other Trump ventures, many failed). 

Fast forward to 2013 and the Miss Universe pageant. Russian oligarch Aras Agalarov, pop-singer son Emin and publicist Rob Gladstone were reportedly dispatched to Las Vegas and the Miss USA pageant that spring to pitch Trump on bringing the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in the fall. Agalarov is not in Putin's inner circle but is a huge step up in wealth and international prestige from the Georgians and Kazakhs Trump had been dealing with. Trump sensed a possible big step forward and bought it. His trip to Moscow has been (in)famously highlighted in the Steele dossier.

Despite Trump's insistence that he did not decide to run for President until 2015, there are multiple social media posts from during and just after the 2013 pageant in Moscow making reference to him running in 2016. Broadcasting his plans to his Russian hosts was apparently part of Trump's well-publicized effort to meet with Putin.

Glenn Simpson, head of Fusion GPS which hired Steele to research Trump's ties to Russia, posed what Davidson described as a "powerful question" in his Congressional testimony. Noting ongoing fruitless efforts by Trump and his children to leverage their relationship with Agalorov and Russia into a Trump Tower Moscow deal, what explains this persistence by the notoriously impatient Trump? Help getting elected President? Other financial compensation that has yet to come to light?

Marshall and Davidson agreed that there is "a lot of meat left on the bone" with respect to Trump-Russia--much still left unexplained. It seems clear that Robert Mueller and his team know far more than anyone else about this. It seems just as clear that the President's claims that this a "hoax", "witch hunt" and "made up story" hold about as much water as Trump's 3,250 other documented lies.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

House GOP Russia Report: Bad Crime Fiction

Former Rep. Steve Isreal (D-NY) says the House GOP Russia report is written with November's midterms in mind in The Hill.

The GOP’s House Intelligence Committee report acknowledging Russian meddling in our elections but no collusion by the Trump campaign is like any bad crime fiction. We know how it’ll end before finishing the first chapter. No stunners here, no twists of plot. This is a political document written in a midterm election, for a midterm election, by Republican members of Congress who fear losing a midterm election.

There’s a well established corollary in any midterm election: The lower a president’s job approval, the more seats his party will lose in the House and the Senate. Those two factors are joined at the hip. Sometimes the right hip, sometimes the left, but basically tethered.

When Democrats won their majority in the 2006 midterm, President Bush’s job approval was at 38 percent. When they lost it in the 2010 midterm, President Obama’s job approval was at 45 percent. President Trump’s is consistently under 40 percent in Gallup’s weekly tracking. What happens down ballot? Energy.
Energy in midterm elections determines seats won and lost. An unpopular president provides a jolt of enthusiasm for voters in the opposite party and saps energy in his own. In the wipeout of Democrats in 2010, the party’s energy was like water being sucked down the sink drain. The left was dispirited because it thought Democrats hadn’t accomplished more. The right was ignited by the thought of ObamaCare death panels and shariah law at the local town hall.

People in between those two poles just wanted it all to go away. Of course, energy is fluid. In base districts, it’s not as impactful as in the competitive districts that decide whether a party will hold a majority or minority in Congress. There, energy can, well, blow up in a candidate’s face. Moderate members have to regulate between their own party base and crossover voters. They can’t win with just one.

That’s the crux of the problem for House Republicans in this midterm. It explains why the partisan report from Republicans who control the House Intelligence Committee was written even before the first word was formulated. Republicans may privately grit their teeth at President Trump’s incessant tweets, careening foreign policy, daily distractedness, and perhaps even evidence of some kind of collusion between his campaign and Russia in the 2016 election.

Publicly, however, they have no choice other than to prop him up. They can’t aim at him without it backfiring on them. Shaving points off his job approval dampens voter enthusiasm in the base they need and persuades swing voters to swing in the wrong direction, or, at least stay home on Election Day. This cycle stretches the problem over a current total of 62 competitive districts.

And, so, the cognitive disconnect. When our survival is threatened, we tend to disregard certain facts (maybe even calling them false) and buttress certain beliefs as facts. Our conclusions are prejudiced, pursued to be validated, rather than vigorously challenged. That’s a human condition exploited by novelists, screenwriters, and anyone who’s watched the Netflix adaptation of “Lost In Space.”

The problem is that the security of our democracy shouldn’t be questionable fiction marketed to a specific audience for political gain. We deserve better, which is why, for my money, I’ll wait for the sequel, written by an independent investigator named Robert Mueller.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Trump, GOP Exploit Fear

Tony Schwartz, Donald Trump's ghostwriter for "The Art of the Deal," knows him very well. He has an article up in The Guardian describing how Trump is driven by fear and exploits fear in others.

Fear is the hidden through-line in Trump’s life – fear of weakness, of inadequacy, of failure, of criticism and of insignificance. He has spent his life trying to outrun these fears by “winning” – as he puts it – and by redefining reality whenever the facts don’t serve the narrative he seeks to create. It hasn’t worked, but not for lack of effort.

In his first year in office, Trump has lambasted any facts he dislikes as “fake news”, while making nearly 2,000 false or misleading claims of his own – more than five a day. In a single half-hour interview with the New York Times in late December, he made 24 such claims. This is the very definition of gaslighting – lying until you get people to doubt their own reality – and it is both frightening and disturbing. Because the office Trump now occupies makes him the most powerful man on Earth, his fears, and the way he manages them, have necessarily become ours.

We fear Trump because he is impulsive, irrational and self-serving, but above all because he seems unconstrained by even the faintest hint of conscience. Trump feels no more shame over his most destructive behaviours than a male lion does killing the cubs of his predecessor when he takes over a pride.

Trump did not invent exploiting fear for political gain. The Republican party has been stoking the fear and resentment of voters to rally support for essentially unpopular policies (tax cuts for the wealthy, rolling back consumer protections, militaristic foreign policy) since Nixon's "Southern Strategy." Trump is both the logical result and an amplifier of decades old trends in GOP politics.

Take a look at Fox News with the sound off. Notice the bright, glaring colors. See the eye candy on-air "talent." Take in the quick camera cuts, sound bite editing and sheer amount of visual stimulus (a constant "crawl" of content at the bottom, time, ads and stock quotes in the corners). BUSY!

Combine all of that stimulation with alarmist, often anger/fear stoking content and the preferred state of the viewer is clear. Fox wants its viewers riled up. So do Trump and the Republican Party.

Trump has made fear the dominant emotion of our times. This, I believe, is his primary impact on the body politic after a year in office. He began his campaign by describing immigrant Mexicans as rapists, Muslims as terrorists, and more recently all black and brown people, and entire countries, as inferior. Trump skilfully exploited the fears of supporters who felt powerless and disenfranchised by presenting himself as their angry champion, even though the policies he has since pursued are likely to make their lives worse.

About the only thing Trump truly has in common with his base is that he feels every bit as aggrieved as they do, despite his endless privilege. No amount of money, fame or power has been enough to win him the respect he so insatiably craves. His anger over this perceived injustice is visceral and authentic. Trump’s unwinding of government programmes such as Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act will fuel yet more fear among the millions of people will lose their health care in the year ahead. The tax plan Trump pushed through most benefits him, his family and his fellow billionaires and provides the least relief to those who need it most. In both cases, the victims of these policies will include millions of his supporters who may find someone else to blame, but whose suffering will inexorably increase.

In the face of fear, it is a physiological fact that our most primitive and selfish instincts emerge. Control of our behaviour shifts from the prefrontal cortex to the emotionally driven amygdala – sometimes referred to as “fear central”. As we move into fight-or-flight mode, we become more self-centred, and our vision narrows to the perceived threat, which in the modern world is less to our survival than to our sense of value and worthiness. We lose the capacity for empathy, rationality, proportionality and attention to the longer-term consequences of our actions.

This is the reactive state Trump has tapped into with his followers and which he has prompted in his opponents. It serves none of us well. Think for a moment about the immense difference between how you feel and behave at your best and your worst. It is when we feel safest and most secure that we think most clearly and expansively. It’s also when we are most inclined to look beyond our self-interest, and to act with compassion, generosity, consideration and forgiveness.

Trump and his Republican enablers will never be talked or reasoned out of this madness. That is because they are responding from the emotion-driven mid-brain, as Schwartz points out. Facts don't mean much to someone in this fear and anger driven state. The only route to making our politics more that of "compassion, generosity, consideration and forgiveness"--in short, sanity--is their defeat at the polls in November. Democratic campaigns are beginning canvassing and phone banking now to identify, contact, motivate and get our voters to the polls.

Let's do this.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Trump-Russia Turning Point

Josh Marshall argues that we are at "the end of the beginning" of the Trump-Russia scandal on Talking Points Memo.

So where are we now in this story? A series of revelations in the final weeks of 2017 placed us at what we should think not as the beginning or the end but the end of the beginning. We are still only at the front end of this investigation. We still know only the outlines of what happened and how. But we are past any serious question about whether there was collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. There was. It’s no longer a matter of probability, even high probability. We know it from either undisputed facts or sworn statements from Trump associates now cooperating with the Mueller investigation.

There were not one but numerous instances in which Russian cut-outs or intelligence officers reached out to Trump associates with offers of support and/or news of stolen documents to support his campaign. These overtures were eagerly reciprocated. None of them were reported to US authorities. While this was happening, Trump’s pro-Russian statements became more aggressive and explicit on the campaign trail. Soon after, J.D. Gordon, the lead on the campaign advisory group, which informally oversaw Papadopoulos, Page and the rest intervened on that Ukraine platform plank which got press soon after.

We know there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during 2016. We just don’t know how much. We don’t have proof about how high it went. Did Trump himself know? How much did his longstanding but pre-campaign role with Russian organized crime and money laundering play into Russian efforts to secure his election? (That’s actually the question that most animates my mind.)

What about Paul Manafort, the man who fortuitously and really inexplicably ended up as Trump’s campaign manager, despite decades out of US politics, who himself had two decades of history working with and for the same Russian and Ukrainian oligarch elite? What about Sam Clovis, Trump’s campaign co-chair, a key early foreign policy advisor and the guy who was on the receiving end of so many of Papadopoulos’s emails? Does it stop with him? Did he really never tell anyone else what was happening? Did he encourage Papadapoulos to keep moving forward on his own account?

Those remain the live questions. But I say the end of the beginning because the core question about collusion has been answered in the affirmative. We know this. Any reasonable survey of the evidence now makes this clear. What remains uncertain is whether it was (improbably) limited to a few non-central members of the campaign or whether it went right to the top.

That’s what we’ll learn this year.