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The Hunter Biden Issue–Not Exactly the One You Think

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I have no wish to lend any support or credence to the Trump-Barr-Giuliani effort to manufacture a scandal where none exists. (See here.) But there is something else in the Hunter Biden story that I find troubling. Here’s my question: How did a man with such apparently undistinguished talents and so many obvious personal problems wind up on all those corporate boards (like Burisma’s) at all?

Well, you might say, the answer is obvious–he is Joe Biden’s son. Indeed. But isn’t there something wrong with that? Isn’t this a form of corruption that has become so pervasive in America’s elite that we don’t even remark on it? We don’t really have a name for it, so let me propose one: nepotism-by-proxy. The quid for an unstated potential future quo.

This is much more subtle than ordinary nepotism, like installing Ivanka and Jared in senior White House jobs. It’s more like a influence savings account for a rainy day. Give the senator’s less-favored kid a nice job, and if you need a favor in the future you might not even have to mention it, because Dad will remember. It all seems nice and clean, because the senator never asked for it–it was just volunteered. That’s one way logrolling works in America’s upper class.

Let me stipulate right now that it’s probably very unfair to single out the Bidens when this sort of thing happens all the time. It’s just that we know quite a lot about this particular case, which–as it turns out–could have far-reaching consequences.

Let’s consider Hunter Biden’s career path. (Note: I’m relying here mainly on an extensive and largely sympathetic profile in The New Yorker by Adam Entous.)

  • 1992 Hunter graduates Georgetown University with a degree in history.
  • Starts a year of Catholic volunteer work in Portland, Oregon.  Meets first wife Kathleen. She becomes pregnant, and they marry in July 1993.
  • Hunter applies to Yale Law School, but is not accepted. Starts Georgetown Law School instead. After a year, transfers to Yale Law School and graduates in 1996.
  • Takes job with MBNA America (a bank holding company based in Wilmington, Delaware and also one of Joe Biden’s largest campaign contributors) with a six-figure salary plus signing bonus.
  • By 1998, Hunter is an executive VP at MBNA, but doesn’t enjoy the corporate culture. Uses father’s campaign contact William Oldaker, a DC lawyer, to seek a job with the Clinton Administration through Commerce Secretary William Daley (who had worked on Biden’s 1987 presidential campaign). Offered a job as policy director for the “Internet economy.” Moves to DC.
  • In late 2000, leaves to join lobbying firm The National Group co-founded by Oldaker who had helped him get the Commerce Department job. Works on “earmarking”–lobbying members of congress to insert language into legislation directing funds to projects that benefit the lobbyist’s clients. One client, the president of St. Joseph’s University, told Entous that Hunter was “like his dad: great personally, very engaging, very curious about things and hardworking,..[with] a very strong last name that really paid off in terms of our lobbying efforts.” Reportedly, he didn’t work on anything that involved his father and they didn’t discuss Hunter’s lobbying with each other.
  • By this time, Hunter was showing problems with alcohol and drugs, which by 2003 were affecting his marital life.
  • In 2006, despite personal financial problems he buys a $1.6 million house in DC, taking out a mortgage for 110% [sic] of the purchase price with no down payment.
  • Also in 2006 Hunter and uncle Jimmy Biden enter into a $21 million deal to by Paradigm, a hedge fund said to manage assets worth $1.5 billion. The deal falls apart and Hunter and Jimmy lose a reported $1.3 million. To pay legal bills, Hunter obtains a million dollar note against his house [presumably the same one he just took the mortgage on] from Washington First Bank, founded by Oldaker. Just before his father announces his run for president, Hunter and Jimmy are sued by another former partner in the deal.
  • In January 2007 Hunter goes to Iowa to help his father’s campaign, which doesn’t go well. Biden drops out of the race and later is chosen by Obama as his running mate.
  • Hunter winds down his lobbying business and resigns his seat on the Amtrak board, to which Senator Harry Reid had appointed him.
  • In September 2008, Hunter launches a “boutique” consulting firm Seneca Global Advisors, and after the election in June 2009 he co-founds another private equity company, Rosemont Seneca Partners, with Christopher Heinz (John Kerry’s stepson and heir to the Heinz food fortune) and Devon Archer (a former Abercrombie and Fitch model who had worked with Citibank in Asia and knew Heinz at Yale).
  • In 2012, Hunter and Archer discuss setting up a new equity fund with Jonathan Li,  chief of a Chinese equity fund, Bohai Capital. In June 2013, Li, Archer and others sign an MOU establishing BHR Partners. Hunter becomes an unpaid board member, but delays becoming an equity partner until after Joe Biden leaves office. During a December 13 visit by Joe Biden to Beijing, Hunter arranges a public handshake encounter with Li. This later raises concerns in the Obama White House because of a possible appearance of impropriety.
  • Archer travels to Ukraine to pitch a real estate fund and meets Mykola Zlochevsky, co-founder of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma and former ecology minister under the deposed pro-Russian president Yanukovitch. The new government, with the encouragement of the Obama Administration, was investigating whether Zlochevsky had used his position to benefit Burisma. In early 2014, Zlochevsky begins setting up a new board to clean up Burisma’s image and recruits former Polish president Kwasniewski as a member, who then convinces Archer to join as well.
  • Hunter recommends to Archer the law firm Boies, Schiller, Flexner (where he is “of counsel”) to improve Burisma’s “corporate governance”. They bring the investigative firm Nardello & Co. to look into corruption at Burisma, and Hunter joins the Burisma board in April 2014. At this point, Joe Biden is a major player in US policy towards Ukraine. According to the New Yorker piece, Hunter says that his father “discussed Burisma with him just once: “Dad said, ‘I hope you know what you are doing,’ and I said, ‘I do.’ ””
  • Also during this period, Hunter continues to have relapses in his efforts to lay off alcohol and drugs and engages is a number of rehabilitation programs. In 2013 he fails a Navy reserve drug test, which results in his discharge in February 2014.

What follows is a sad tale of personal decline, family tragedy, and perhaps eventual redemption, which to me seems of no legitimate public concern.

There’s a lot here that smells, shall we say, a little fishy. I think it’s a fair judgement that Hunter was presented with things of value mostly or entirely because he was Joe Biden’s son: amazing mortgage loans, cushy jobs, partnerships in equity funds to which he brought neither experience or money, seats on corporate boards, and eventually business deals in places like China and Ukraine. Clearly, there were people in the Obama administration who were concerned about how all this looked. Joe Biden seemed to have a few qualms as well, but he apparently never raised any objections to any of it.

But is there a scandal here? I would have to say: No, not really.

Certainly not by the standards set by the Trump adminstration, where semi-overt corruption has become the norm. Trump never divested himself from his businesses, and his claim that he has no involvement because they are being run by Donaldito and Eric is laughable and transparently false. As the New York Times points out, the two sons continue to pursue business deals around the world which directly benefit them and Trump himself. Ivanka never divested her companies either, despite her official position in the White House, and she has gained business licenses in China, Japan, and other countries that seem, well, not unconnected to her position as First Daughter to the president. Never mind the numerous instances of foreign and domestic influence seekers spending money at Trump properties, sometimes for services not even used. Or Scott Pruitt, Tom Price, Ryan Zinke, etc., etc.

The great difference is that TrumpWorld really doesn’t care about the optics. They just do it, take the money, and dare anyone to do anything about it. And so far the Trumps have gotten away with it scot-free.

By Washington bigwig standards, Joe Biden is not a particularly rich man, and the rise in his net worth since leaving office has come mostly from writing and speeches. (Elizabeth Warren and her husband reportedly have a higher net worth.) There has been no evidence whatever that Joe Biden benefited financially from Hunter’s business activities or that as Senator or Vice-President he delivered political favors to Hunter’s benefactors. He does seem to have kept himself at arms length from Hunter’s business. Indeed, his lack of curiosity about that might have contributed to the problem he now faces.

So maybe the nice breaks that fell Hunter’s way were just the way the world works:  good things come to the rich and powerful and to their offspring.  I don’t know how you would stop that, but maybe there is a way to address a part of this endemic corruption. A recent op-ed in the New York Times argues that we need to strengthen American disclosure rules:

Joe Biden and Elaine Chao have to report when someone sends them a $500 campaign donation, or when they make a $5,000 investment in a stock. But when their family members strike lucrative deals with a foreign government or oligarch, the reporting requirements are vague. The personal financial disclosure rules for American public officials should be expanded to include details concerning all their immediate family members (and not just their spouses, as the law currently states), and any dealings with foreign governments. To the public, closing a loophole this glaring seems anodyne, a no-brainer. But lawmakers set the system up this way for a reason; they will not stop the foreign cash influence game voluntarily. That’s why we need a Washington Corrupt Practices Act, one that clearly shuts down foreign influence and self-enrichment for some of America’s most powerful families on both sides of the aisle.

 

An Administration Openly Defying the Law It is Supposed to Enforce

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Today, according to the Washington Post, Donald Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, declared that five current or former State officials would not show up for scheduled depositions before the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week. The depositions were part of the impeachment inquiry precipitated by Trump’s July 25 phone call to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, in which Trump–according to the official White House memcon–demanded as “a favor” that Ukraine provide material to discredit the origins of the Russian election meddling investigation and to dig up dirt on Joe Biden. Yesterday, it was revealed that Pompeo, who previously had denied knowledge of the call, was actually present when the conversation took place.

This is just the latest in a series of outrageous refusals by the Trump White House to comply with lawful demands by House committees for testimony or documents that they are manifestly entitled to have. The administration instead has either flatly refused to turn over requested documents, or instructed current or former employees not to appear before the committees, or in the few instances when they did show up, as with Corey Lewandowski or Hope Hicks, instructed them to say nothing–which is exactly what they did. Perhaps the most egregious defiance was the refusal by Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to deliver Trump’s tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee, as the law plainly requires him to do when requested.

Meanwhile, Trump has his personal lawyer (well maybe–the exact relationship isn’t totally clear) and, more ominously, his Attorney General scurrying around the world looking for something that would provide any shred of credibility for an alternative cover story that would delegitimize the Russia investigation, which Trump oddly insists totally exonerates him.  Meanwhile his actions continue to make him look like a passive patsy, if not a witting agent, of Vladimir Putin.

Trump has run the White House just as he did the Trump Organization, and indeed he has made the US government an extension of the latter. Just as he operated his businesses in closely held secrecy and skirted the edge of legality (often crossing that line), he has tried to run his presidency in the same way, hidden from public scrutiny. He staffed his government, as he did with his businesses, with people whose primary qualification was loyalty to him and made clear that he expected them to regard the agencies they were put in charge of as organizations to be gutted, looted, and turned to serving his and his supporters’ private agendas.

It is nothing short of amazing that to this day the American public knows next to nothing about the financial entanglements of Trump’s business enterprises (which he never divested) even though the press has turned up plenty of leads that point in the direction of suspicious sources of financing. Unlike previous presidents, we have no idea how rich he actually is, or where his money comes from, or who he owes money to, or whether he paid taxes and if he did, how much. The Mueller investigation inexplicably never went there. Now the House Ways and Means Committee has received “credible allegations” from a whistleblower (presumably at the IRS) of “‘evidence of possible misconduct’ — specifically, potential ‘inappropriate efforts to influence’ the mandatory audit program” with regard to Trump’s tax returns. Still nada from Treasury or the IRS.

Now Trump has gotten caught red-handed trying to extort a foreign government for his personal benefit. His response is to do what he has always done, which is to deny what is plainly in view, whine that he’s being persecuted for political reasons, make up counter-accusations, and assemble a platoon of expensive lawyers to intimidate his accusers and fight compliance with the judicial authorities, which in this case is the US Congress.

The difference is that this time, he sits in the White House, and his chief lawyer is the Attorney General of the United States, the man who heads law enforcement for the US Government. And the president is openly hinting at “civil war” if impeachment moves forward.

We, as a country, have no template for dealing with this situation. Watergate is the closest analogy, but this time the issues and what’s at stake are far more serious. (It’s worth observing that Nixon’s AG, John Mitchell, wound up going to prison.) The outcome ultimately depends on what Senate Republicans fear more: the wrath of Trump and his rabid rabble, or a majority of Americans who are simply fed up with this shit.

Why the Ukraine Scandal is Really about Russia

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Suddenly, the country of Ukraine has been thrust into the seething molten center of US domestic politics with the revelation that Trump phoned Ukrainian President Zelenskyy on July 25 to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse. What we need to keep sight of is that all of this (at least as far as it concerns Trump) ultimately is really about links to Russia, both past and present. Ukraine was just unlucky enough to be caught in the middle.

As the released memcon of Trump’s Mafia-style call to Zelenskyy (read it here) makes clear, his very first “ask” before releasing US money approved by Congress and the Pentagon to help arm Ukraine’s beleaguered military involved the cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike.

[Trump]: I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike… I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.

Huh? Well, Crowdstrike is the company that exposed the Russian intrusions into the Democratic Party computers in 2016 which Trump has repeatedly sought to deny. According to the Washington Post, “CrowdStrike has been a subject of allegations that rippled through conservative news sources, onto social media, into the criminal trial of longtime Trump friend Roger Stone and, finally, in July,” into this phone call. The Post reports that “the month before the Ukraine call, Trump voiced dark suspicions about CrowdStrike in a call with Fox News commentator Sean Hannity. That same day, Breitbart News had published a story, based on documents that had emerged in Stone’s trial on charges of lying, obstruction and witness tampering, about how the FBI relied on information from CrowdStrike in its probe of the DNC hack. ‘Take a look at Ukraine,’ Trump said to Hannity in a conversation that was broadcast on his show. ‘How come the FBI didn’t take the server from the DNC? Just think about that one, Sean.’ People familiar with the president’s thinking said he has come to suspect the DNC server hacked by Russian intelligence agents in 2016 may have been hidden in Ukraine.”

In other words, this looks like yet another attempt by Trump to discredit the conclusion of the US intelligence community and the Mueller investigation that Russia interfered to get him elected.

Let’s pause at this point to consider Ukraine’s situation vis-a-vis Russia and the Trump administration. In 2014, massive protests resulted in the removal of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who then fled to Moscow. In response, Russia seized and annexed Crimea, which had been Ukrainian territory, and sent arms and troops to help pro-Russian rebels occupy a large area of eastern Ukraine, which remains effectively in Russian control and where a low-grade shooting war continues today. These actions led the Obama administration to impose severe sanctions on both the Russian government and selected individuals, which Moscow has labored mightily to have removed. (Remember that Mike Flynn reportedly all but promised Russian officials to lift the sanctions right after the 2016 election, while Obama was still president.) Ukraine depends heavily on financial and military support from the EU and the US to resist Russian aggression and to avoid being reduced again to a satellite of its vastly larger and more powerful neighbor. The US Congress and government in general has supported maintaining the sanctions and aid to Ukraine, but Trump himself has been oddly deferential to Putin and has never directly condemned Russian territorial aggression against Ukraine.

Ukraine is clearly vulnerable to this kind of pressure. In May 2018, with the delivery of US Javelin anti-tank missiles in the balance, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor froze investigations into Paul Manafort’s activities in the country.

All this leaves new President Zelenskyy in a highly compromised position. He is threatened by Putin’s Russia and therefore desperately needs military, diplomatic, and economic support from the US, whose president however consistently supports Putin’s positions even though the rest of the US government may not. So what is he supposed to do when Trump calls and demands a “favor”? Especially right after Trump has put a hold on delivering military aid already approved by Congress?

That’s the very definition of being between a rock and a hard place: On one side is a predatory Putin. One the other is Trump whose support he needs, but who often seems suspiciously like an admirer or even agent of Putin, and who clearly got help from him to get elected.

Then there is Ukraine as a nexus of Russian contacts with the Trump campaign as detailed in the Mueller Report, mostly though not exclusively through Paul Manafort, Trump’s erstwhile campaign manager. Manafort helped make Yanukovych president of Ukraine, to whom he was introduced by Rinat Akhmetov, a Ukrainian steel oligarch who was based in eastern Ukraine (now largely under Russian control). According to the Washington Post, Manafort’s firm also lobbied for Yanukovych in Washington and other Western capitals, but never bothered to register as a foreign agent. Manafort continued to work in Ukraine after he began working for the Trump campaign. In August 2016, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine published a “black ledger” of secret cash payments showing that Yanukovych’s party had paid Manafort $12.7 million between 2007 and 2012, a revelation that led to him leaving the Trump campaign. According to the New York Times, the illicit payments first came to light when they were published by Serhiy Leshchenko, then a member of the Ukrainian parliament.

Leshchenko’s name appears in the whistleblower complaint (read the entire published redacted version here) .

Beginning in late March 2019, a series of articles appeared in an online publication called The Hill. In these articles, several Ukrainian officials — most notably, Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko — made a series of allegations against other Ukrainian officials and current and former U.S. officials. Mr. Lutsenko and his colleagues alleged, inter alia, that they possessed evidence that Ukrainian officials — namely, Head of the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine Artem Sytnyk and Member of Parliament Serhiy Leshchenko — had “interfered” in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, allegedly in collaboration with the DNC and the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.

Here is the basic kernel of the alternative narrative that Rudy Giuliani has been working tirelessly to construct: That the REAL foreign interference in the 2016 election was by the Clinton campaign, which somehow engineered the leak of the “black ledger” on Manafort to hurt the Trump campaign. The Biden allegations, which have been pretty thoroughly debunked, were the icing on the cake.

The whistleblower (who appears well versed in Ukrainian politics) includes a footnote about Yuriy Lutsenko, the man who was shopping this story around DC.

Mr. Sytnyk and Mr. Leshchenko are two of Mr. Lutsenko’s main domestic rivals. Mr. Lutsenko has no legal training and has been widely criticized in Ukraine for politicizing criminal probes and using his tenure as Prosecutor General to protect corrupt Ukrainian officials. He has publicly feuded with Mr. Sytnyk, who heads Ukraine’s only competent anticorruption body, and with Mr. Leshchenko, a former investigative journalist who has repeatedly criticized Mr. Lutsenko’s record. In December 2018, a Ukrainian court upheld a complaint by a Member of Parliament, Mr. Boryslav Rozenblat, who alleged that Mr. Sytnyk and Mr. Leshchenko had “interfered” in the 2016 U.S. election by publicizing a document detailing corrupt payments made by former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych before his ouster in 2014. Mr. Rozenblat had originally filed the motion in late 2017 after attempting to flee Ukraine amid an investigation into his taking of a large bribe. On 16 July 2019, Mr. Leshchenko publicly stated that a Ukrainian court had overturned the lower court’s decision.

Lutsenko appears to be who Trump was referring to in his phone call to Zelenskyy when he said: “I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair.”

Giuliani has been pursuing this narrative widely. According to the Miami Herald, he has two Soviet-born Florida businessmen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, as legal clients. Parnas and Fruman reportedly helped introduce Giuliani in Ukrainian political and financial circles, and they are telling the same story to anyone who will listen. They appear to be referred to–though not by name–in the whistleblower complaint, and have made major donations to Trump and other Republican campaigns. The Herald observes that “Parnas’ and Fruman’s newfound political prominence, including major donations to GOP candidates, belies a history of financial troubles.”

There is no question that Ukraine–like Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union–is rife with corruption, and it would take a panel of experts in Ukrainian politics to parse the corrupt deals and score-settling that is the background of this story. But it is clear that Paul Manafort was in the thick of it. So far, no one has produced any persuasive evidence that Joe Biden or his son engaged in anything nefarious, but in TrumpWorld that doesn’t matter. Trump is still trying to litigate the 2016 election and desperately wants an alternative narrative to use against the “Russia hoax”, and his followers will accept anything, regardless of how flimsy.

Of Edward Snowden and Reality Winner

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The whistleblower/traitor (take your pick) Edward Snowden is again much in the news with the publication of his autobiography/apologia Permanent Record this week. As you may recall, Snowden is a former CIA contractor employee who in May 2013 fled first to Hong Kong and then to Moscow where he sought and received asylum after copying and releasing to journalists thousands of highly classified NSA documents. These documents included evidence that NSA was indeed doing mass surveillance of Americans by collecting metadata on telephone calls, contrary to what NSA’s Director, James Clapper, had told congress. For an excellent overview of both the book and the controversy, see Jill Lepore’s recent New Yorker article here.

Snowden’s book gives his version of why he did what he did and how he ended up in what appears to be fairly comfortable exile in Moscow. He presents himself as a patriotic citizen who was so disturbed by secret US government spying on Americans that he was compelled to expose the truth. But as Lepore points out, he didn’t just stumble on the evidence, but rather he spent months actively looking for it. “Snowden has claimed that he alerted more than ten officials at the N.S.A. about his discovery and expressed his alarm. He has provided no support for this claim. The N.S.A. says he reported his concerns to no one… The classified documents Snowden released to the press contained a good deal more than evidence of the surveillance of American citizens; they included, for instance, a 2006 memo detailing the N.S.A.’s monitoring of the telephone conversations of thirty-five unnamed world leaders, which led the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to charge the Obama Administration with tapping her phone, causing a diplomatic uproar.”

Snowden doesn’t remark on the obvious irony of a self-proclaimed champion of civil liberties seeking the protection of a country that has for centuries operated the world’s most pervasive and oppressive domestic surveillance apparatus. Well, any port in a storm, right?

It’s worth contrasting Snowden’s situation with that of Reality Winner, the ironically-named former Air Force linguist and intel specialist, who after her military discharge also went to work for an NSA contractor in Georgia. While working there, she came across an NSA report about a Russian attempt to access American election infrastructure through a private software company. According to the report, Russian intelligence sent phishing emails to the company that provides election support to eight states. obtained log-in credentials, and sent emails infected with malware to over 100 election officials, days before the election. On May 9, 2017, the day when Trump fired James Comey, Winner anonymously mailed a physical printout of the document to The Intercept, which then provided NSA with a photocopy to verify its validity and, after making a few redactions, published it. You can read the published version here

Based on metadata contained in the scanned copy of the report that The Intercept provided to NSA, the FBI was quickly able to narrow down who had printed it out, and arrested Winner within days–before Intercept had even published the report. She quickly confessed (though later sought to have the confession suppressed on the grounds that she had not been Mirandized), and was jailed without bond for a year. Eventually, she plead guilty to one felony count of “unauthorized transmission of national defense information”, and on August 23, 2018 she was sentenced to 5 years and 3 months in federal prison, reportedly the longest sentence ever imposed for leaking classified information to the media.

So was Winner’s act of leaking ONE document (unlike Snowden or Chelsea Manning, who both released thousands of classified documents) really a crime that endangered national security or a courageous attempt to alert the US public to an unprecedented foreign attack on America’s electoral system? At the time when she leaked the NSA report, Americans were becoming aware of Russian meddling in the 2016 election to benefit Donald Trump, but it was not yet generally known that specific US electoral databases, including electronic voter registration rolls, had been penetrated and compromised. It was not until May 8, 2018–nearly a year after The Intercept published the leaked NSA report, and 3 months before Winner’s sentencing–that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) published an unclassified report which stated that at least 18 state election systems had been targeted by Russian cyber attacks. The SSCI report also stated: “In at least six states, the Russian-affiliated cyber actors went beyond scanning and conducted malicious access attempts on voting-related websites. In a small number of states, Russian-affiliated cyber actors were able to gain access to restricted elements of election infrastructure. In a small number of states, these cyber actors were in a position to, at a minimum, alter or delete voter registration data.” The Mueller Report (section entitled “Intrusions Targeting Administration of US Elections”), released in March 2019, contains much of the same information that was in the NSA report published by The Intercept.

Incredibly, however, the details of such intrusions known to the FBI and the US Intelligence Community apparently still have not been made available to local and state officials responsible for voter registration rolls and other electoral databases. In May 2019, the New York Times reported that “At a news conference in Tallahassee, [Florida governor Ron] DeSantis, a Republican, said that officials from the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security had asked him to sign a nondisclosure agreement pledging not to identify the two counties that fell victim to a “spearphishing” attempt by Russian hackers.” Both DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio have expressed frustration and dismay that more information has not been forthcoming.

The NSA report leaked by Winner pointed to VR Systems, based in Tallahassee, as a private contractor that was targeted by Russian cyber attackers. According to the Miami Herald, VR Systems is the vendor that handles registration software for most of Florida’s 67 counties, as well as systems in a number of other states. (CNN had reported back in October 2016 that “Federal investigators believe Russian hackers were behind cyberattacks on a contractor for Florida’s election system that may have exposed the personal data of Florida voters”, but did not name the company.) Throughout, everyone officially involved has insisted that there is no evidence that the Russian intrusions changed the voting results.

But how confident can we be about that? The New York Times reported that there were large numbers of suspicious irregularities in North Carolina voter databases in the 2016 election that prevented people from voting, particularly in Durham County where the database used software from VR Systems. The Times article noted, “Beyond VR Systems, hackers breached at least two other providers of critical election services well ahead of the 2016 voting, said current and former intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information is classified. The officials would not disclose the names of the companies.” In any case, it has become clear that voter registration databases are the Achilles heel of the US electoral system, whether for foreign-based tampering or domestic partisan voter repression.

So does Reality Winner really deserve to spend another 5 years in prison? Did her action really endanger US national security, or did she actually perform a noble service to the American public? Does her punishment seem appropriate, when the Trump Administration and the Republican Senate leadership refuse to make any meaningful or systematic effort to secure the integrity of US elections? Who is the real criminal here?

Edward Snowden seems a more complicated call. Ultimately it comes down to what you think about the legitimate limits of surveillance by US intelligence and law enforcement of US citizens and residents in the Internet Age. Should we really be so concerned about NSA harvesting of phone call metadata (i.e., who called who when and for how long) if they’re not actually listening to the content without a warrant.  After all, we willingly hand over vast amounts of far more intimate data to private companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, etc. who can do literally anything they want with it with virtually no legal restraints. Shouldn’t that concern us more? The collaboration of companies like Facebook with Cambridge Analytica may well have done more to put Donald Trump in the White House than the Russians. As Jill Lepore observes, “Google, Facebook, and Amazon know far, far more about most Americans than the N.S.A. does.”

There are legitimate reasons for classifying information and for imposing penalties for disclosing information that could harm the interests of the country. If you work in that world, you certainly understand the rules as well as what could happen if you break them. That said, classification is often over- and misused. Reality Winner accepted her punishment, even though it seems grossly disproportionate.  But Edward Snowden wants to get off as some kind of libertarian folk hero. He doesn’t fit the mold of a spy, but I am bothered by the indiscriminate magnitude of the information that he stole and disseminated. And whether he recognizes it or not, he is now a Russian asset–a living symbol of the hypocrisy of American claims of freedom who had to flee to Mother Russia for protection. Certainly not nearly as big an asset as Trump, but significant all the same. Let him stay there until Putin or someone else decides he’s no longer useful.

 

 

 

 

Mueller Fails Bigly Again

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This could have been Robert Mueller’s day to be a patriotic hero, but he chose to stay a timid bureaucrat, following the rules laid down by William Barr and refusing to answer about anything that wasn’t in his report. And sometimes not even that.

Mueller is now a private citizen. He surely has some opinions about the import of the material he put in his report, which he should know better than anyone else.  There is no reason why he could not have connected the dots in this hearing in ways that he might have been constrained against doing while in his role as special prosecutor. But he resisted all questions about that. At the end of the HPSCI hearing, he was given an opportunity to share anything he thought the American people should know, but he said he couldn’t think of anything.

When Mueller was appointed, he was lionized as a fearless and impartial seeker after truth, a giant who Trump needed to fear. What we saw today was something else: a halting, often bumbling, past-his-prime, bureaucratic lifer, who accepted the quite outrageous limits Barr imposed on his testimony and refused time after time to acknowledge the implications of his own discoveries. He essentially admitted that he let Trump bully him into not issuing a subpoena because it would take too long to fight the court battles. He thereby enabled the strategy that the Trump administration is now using to refuse to comply with scores of congressional subpoenas. If, as some believe, that the Report was intended as a road map for impeachment, Mueller was unwilling even to utter the word when asked if that was he meant about leaving presidential accountability to other parts of the government.

Democrats mistakenly bet the farm on the Mueller investigation, and when that proved to be a disappointment, hoped that these hearings would be the blockbuster movie that would animate and make real to the public the dry facts contained in the book that few people had actually read. That didn’t happen.

Mueller made a terrible witness with his endless refusals to answer questions. He came across as evasive, tired, and just old. He refused multiple times to answer the central question that his report left hanging, i.e., did he think there was enough evidence to indict Trump for obstruction, disregarding the OLC opinion about charging a sitting president.

As a media event, which this was meant to be,  it was pretty much a bust. The Democrats had a few small moments and got Mueller to admit some of the most obvious things, e.g., that the Russian attack on the election was real and that the investigation wasn’t a witch hunt. But the answers he did give were couched in such carefully legalistic terms that they likely did not register with a public that wants simple clean answers. To a public raised on reality TV, the aggressive Republican attacks on the investigation and their introduction of fantastic alternative theories of Democrat malfeasance (like the real collusion was between the Clinton campaign and Russia), were probably much more compelling television. The Democrats wanted to move the needle of public opinion. If the needle moved at all, it may have been in the opposite direction.

So Robert Mueller is not our messiah. Nobody is going to save us. Impeachment is probably less likely after today. And Trump’s re-election chances probably just went up.

 

 

The All-Purpose Mashup Smear, con’d: …, Anti-Israel, Anti-Semitic, America-hating… [Part 2]

TrumpNetanyahu

Trump and Netanyahu celebrating US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights, 3/15/2019

Now for the “anti-Israel” part. When Trump and Graham say the congresswomen “hate Israel” or they’re “anti-Israel” or “anti-Semitic”, this is what they’re really saying:

  • Israel, uniquely among all the countries in the world, cannot be criticized, and the policies of its government must be endorsed by all Americans.
  • American national interests are identical to the interests of the Israeli government. 
  • If you criticize Israeli government actions or policies, you are supporting hatred and violence against Jews everywhere. 

This is both logically absurd and offensive in a democracy, but it has become virtual dogma in much of the American political spectrum, especially on the right, and it needs to be called out.

There is no moral clarity in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jews have built a vibrant and successful nation in Israel, with massive support from the US government and from Jewish communities abroad, particularly in the US.  But Israel’s establishment in 1948 also entailed the dispossession of non-Jewish Palestinians whose ancestors had lived there for centuries and permanent exile of hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring countries. Wars in 1967 and 1973 expanded Israel’s effective borders to include all of former Palestine and the Golan Heights , and turned Israel into an occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza, where it encouraged and subsidized further Jewish settlement on what had been Palestinian Arab lands. Violent rebellion in Gaza led Israel to withdraw its forces and settlements there, but it keeps a stranglehold on everything that goes in or out which it tightens at will, leaving Gaza with massive unemployment, scarce resources, and no hope for real economic development. Hamas, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and supported by Syria (and formerly by Iran) has exploited this power vacuum and hopelessness to become the de facto power there. When Hamas-supplied rockets have been launched from Gaza into Israeli towns, Israel has responded with massive retaliation bombing of civilian communities resulting in hugely disproportionate numbers of Palestinian vs. Israeli casualties.

On the West Bank, Israel has formally and unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem, including the Old City which includes the holy religious sites of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It has also fostered and expanded strategically located Jewish settlements which have effectively sliced up the West Bank into disconnected chunks of territory which are under de facto Israeli military control. Movement within the West Bank is controlled by Israeli military forces which force non-Israelis to go through humiliating and time-consuming searches at internal checkpoints when traveling from one town to another. When tensions exploded into the second intifada rebellion in 2000 and suicide bombers set off bombs smuggled into Israel proper, the Israeli government responded with increased repression and the construction of a wall or “security barrier” inside the internationally-recognized 1948 boundary between Israel proper and the West Bank, which effectively incorporated significant amounts of the latter into Israel. As in Gaza, Palestinian casualties of violent conflict have far outnumbered Israeli casualties.

Israel has a robust free press, an independent judiciary, and it is a democracy–but with important caveats. Palestinian residents of the occupied territories of the West Bank and in Gaza have no right to vote in Israeli elections or hold office in Israel, but Jewish settlers in the West Bank can do both. This means that the 4.6 million Palestianian residents of the West Bank and Gaza have no voice in the government that has controlled most aspects of their lives for more than 50 years, while the 500,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have full rights of Israeli citizens. Arab-Israelis (about 20% of the 8.6 million people in Israel proper) can vote and hold office in the Knesset, but in practice have generally been excluded from positions of power and, according to Freedom House, face various forms of discrimination.

Israel has long struggled with how to reconcile its identity as a Jewish state with recognizing the rights of non-Jews. In 2018, under Netanyahu’s Likud government, it passed a controversial “nation-state law”, which was widely seen as strengthening the primacy of Jewish citizens over all others. The new law:

  • states that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people,”
  • establishes Hebrew as Israel’s official language, and downgrades Arabic — a language widely spoken by Arab Israelis — to a “special status,” and
  • establishes “Jewish settlement as a national value” and mandates that the state “will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development.”

Not surprisingly, Palestinians–including Arab-Israelis–see this as a major step to assigning them permanently inferior status and, in the case of West Bank Palestinians, making them essentially stateless if Israel continues on its apparent trajectory of rejecting a two-state solution and asserting sovereignty over all of Palestine plus the Golan Heights.

Why should Americans care about this? For one thing, the US government has supported Israel financially far more generously than any other country in the world. Until fairly recently (when aid to maintain the US-supported governments in Afghanistan and Iraq was drastically increased), aid to Israel was orders of magnitude greater than to any other country. For FY2017, the amount was $3.2 billion, almost all of it military aid–or about $400 for every Israeli man, woman, and child. American military assistance–including access to advanced armaments and missile defenses–has been a key factor in making Israel the dominant military power in the region.

The US has traditionally given Israel diplomatic protection in the UN and other international organizations as well, often at considerable cost to US relations with other countries in the region. Last year, for example, the US used its veto in the UN Security Council to kill a resolution condemning excessive Israeli force against Palestinian civilians which was supported by France, Russia, China, and Sweden (among others–the UK and Netherlands abstained). 

Then there is the little-discussed issue of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. Israel is the only–if  officially unacknowledged–nuclear power in the Middle East and is believed to possess scores if not hundreds of nuclear warheads since the 1970s.  The US never seriously tried to use its leverage to dissuade Israel from developing nuclear weapons, as it has with other countries–most notably recently with Iran. Israel’s status as a nuclear power obviously is a major factor in the decisions of other regional countries, like Iran, on whether to pursue a nuclear weapons program.

Israel also directly affects US domestic politics to an extent unmatched by any other country.  Trump’s and Graham’s accusations are actually proof of this.  Imagine them saying that Rep. Omar is anti-[insert any other country here] and expecting it to have a similar impact–you simply can’t. Traditionally,  full-voiced support for Israel was not a partisan issue–a legacy of sympathy (and perhaps some guilt) over the Holocaust, a claimed Christian religious affinity with Judaism (and suspicion of Islam), and not least, a desire to tap the US Jewish community for fundraising.  The pro-Israeli lobbying organization AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) has been stunningly successful at delivering its message and directing support to cooperative members of Congress of both parties, and they in turn were (and many still are) eager to appear at AIPAC’s annual conference to demonstrate that they were on board.  (For an inside look at how this system of reward and retribution works, click here.) AIPAC was the “fight club” of lobbying operations; the first rule is that no one was supposed to talk about it or acknowledge its influence. By contrast, the Palestinian cause had virtually no champions in the US congress.

All that began to change around the turn of the century when the Iraq war brought an unprecedented level of direct US military intervention in the Middle East, and the WMD lies used as its rationale were exposed. This prompted, at least in some quarters, a broader look at US policy toward Israel and Palestine, and a less one-sided view of the consequences of unconditional support for Israeli policies, including greater media attention to Israeli repression in Gaza and the West Bank. The increased pace of Jewish settlement of East Jerusalem and the West Bank suggested that the strategy of the Israeli government, dominated by Netanyahu, had changed and that the goal was really permanent Israeli dominion over all of Palestine. When the Obama administration attempted to impose some conditions on US aid, the hostility broke into the open, especially over the Iran nuclear agreement. And it became more partisan, with Israel and AIPAC increasingly aligning with Obama’s Republican opponents. In March 2015, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell arranged (without consulting Obama) for Netanyahu to address congress in a transparent attempt by both Israel and congressional Republicans to derail the Iran deal, and perhaps more importantly, to undermine and embarrass the president. Obama and Democrats were outraged. Obama refused to meet with Netanyahu, and the President and Vice-President did not attend the speech as did a number of Democratic members of congress.

This deliberate intermingling of both US and Israeli domestic politics with critical foreign policy issues thus became blatant, caused many commentators to openly express that an important line had been crossed and that the client state had acquired greater influence over its patron than the other way around.

With the election of Trump, the capitulation of the US to Israeli government goals has become virtually complete. The Trump administration has abandoned decades of US policy (as well as international consensus) by moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and, just recently, by explicitly recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. And, of course, Trump has reneged on US adherence to the Iran nuclear agreement. The US has thereby squandered any possible leverage and received nothing in return, giving Netanyahu and his allies in the Knesset a huge political boost as well as a green light to do whatever they want.

And, of course, Trump’s trashing of previous US policy toward Israel has to be read as yet another example of destroying everything associated with Obama.

All of these issues are legitimate subjects for debate and discussion among American officials, media, academic experts, and the public. The US Jewish community is itself divided over Israeli government policies and includes many voices and organizations that are deeply critical of the direction that the Netanyahu government is going. For Trump or Graham to accuse members of “The Squad” of anti-semitism for having the temerity to criticize Israeli government policies and speak of its influence is false, cynically manipulative, and two-faced.

As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg put it:

This is a president who regularly deploys anti-Semitic tropes and whose ex-wife said that he slept with a volume of Hitler’s speeches by his bed. When speaking to American Jews, he’s called Israel “your country” and Benjamin Netanyahu “your prime minister,” suggesting that in his mind, we don’t fully belong here any more than Omar does…Trump and his accomplices are simultaneously assaulting the political foundation of Jewish life in America and claiming they’re doing it on the Jews’ behalf…

“It’s worth thinking about how we got to a point where anti-Semitism can be exploited as it has been this week. What we’re seeing is the absurd but logical endpoint of efforts to conflate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, and anti-Zionism with opposition to Israel’s right-wing government. Only if these concepts are interchangeable can Jewish critics of Israel be the perpetrators of anti-Semitism and gentiles who play footsie with fascism be allies of the Jewish people. Only if these concepts are the same can an evangelical group claim that Jews are being anti-Jewish when they protest Trump, because Trump loves Israel.”

Anti-semitism certainly remains an endemic danger in America, as the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh tragically proved, and its most virulent form co-exists with white nationalism directed against blacks, latinos, and other non-white groups.  These were the ones who marched in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” in violent protests ostensibly to prevent the removal of Confederate monuments. They are inspired by and support Trump and his allies, and Trump cannot quite ever bring himself to denounce them.

It is also possible for criticism of Israel to spill over into anti-semitism, and this needs to be called out when it happens. But what Trump and Graham were responding to wasn’t that, and what they were doing was simply a revival of the despicable red-bating and race-bating tactics that have always stained American politics at its worst.

 

 

 

 

 

The All-Purpose Mashup Smear: Socialist, Communist,… [Part 1]

mccarthy and cohn

“Mr. Trump then asked, ‘Where’s my Roy Cohn?'” (New York Times, 1/4/2018

It’s pure socialism, worse than socialism. There’s a word called communism too. This is beyond socialism.” Trump, at Social Media Summit, 7/11/2019

We all know that [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and this crowd are a bunch of communists, they hate Israel, they hate our own country, they’re calling the guards along our border—the Border Patrol agents—concentration camp guards. They accuse people who support Israel as doing it for the benjamins, they are anti-Semitic, they are anti-America.Lindsey Graham on Fox and Friends, 7/15/2019

Perhaps I’m not the only one caught by surprise when Donald Trump and Lindsey Graham recently began flinging the epithet “communist” at The Squad (Democratic Congresswomen Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley, and Tlaib) and Democrats in general. Apparently, calling them “socialist” isn’t scary enough anymore. Where did this red-baiting revival come from and why the escalation?

There were actually two linked odious rhetorical tropes that slithered out of the Republican attacks on the four congresswomen, in addition to the straight-up racism. One was the aforementioned indiscriminate and quasi-interchangeble use of “socialist” and “communist” as political scare labels. The other was the assertion that unconditional support for Israel is necessary to be a patriotic American. Let’s look at each of these separately.

I’m old enough to remember the heyday of the John Birch Society and even to have hazy childhood memories of seeing the McCarthy hearings on the TV news. Being labeled as a communist sympathizer (or “comsymp”) during the height of the Cold War was a political and professional kiss of death. Being labeled “socialist” was almost as bad in America, though not in Western Europe where democratic socialism became the default political system. Our NATO alliance with those European social democratic countries–the UK, France, West Germany, Italy, etc.–became the bulwark that contained and eventually brought down Soviet communism.

But in America, people in public life would go to almost any length to avoid the “socialist” label, and God help you if you got branded as “communist.” Most Americans then and now couldn’t  explain the difference between the two if their lives depended on it, so the two terms became effectively conflated. The implication was that if you were a socialist, then you were “un-American”, and if you were a communist, then you were a traitor. Even social safety net programs which most Americans now cherish and depend on, such as Social Security and Medicare, were bitterly fought by conservatives as “socialist” or “communist” threats to American freedom. And the stigma attached to the words has never quite gone away.

It’s also worth reiterating that African-American civil rights leaders were routinely accused of being “communists” by white segregationists from Strom Thurman to George Wallace to J. Edgar Hoover. That’s basically what’s going on here.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, capitalism seemed triumphant. The two great communist powers, Russia and China, each developed its own system of authoritarian capitalism. It was “The End of History” as Reaganite author Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed. Communism was essentially dead, barely surviving in isolated backwaters like Cuba and North Korea, and no longer considered a threat. The very word “communist” lost its political potency because it seemed like an archaic joke. 

Or so we thought, which is why it was so shocking to hear Trump use the “communist” smear against the Democrats at his “Social Media Summit” last week. Then Lindsey Graham doubled down with it on “Fox and Friends” while defending Trump for his racist attack on The Squad (this, after looking straight into the camera and proclaiming that Trump was the best golfer ever–twice). Trump then re-tweeted Graham’s attack, adding “They are Anti-Semitic. They are Anti-America…They talk about Israel like they’re a bunch of thugs, not victims of the entire region…” Later that day, Trump upped the ante yet again, ranting on Twitter “We will never be a Socialist or Communist Country. IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE, YOU CAN LEAVE!…Certain people HATE our Country. They are anti-Israel, pro Al-Qaeda…” Then later Trump told reporters, “[Graham] said they’re communists. I’m saying they’re socialists, definitely. As to whether or not they’re communists, I think they might be…”  You get the drift.

So where was the “communist” meme lurking for the last 3 decades while it seemingly had disappeared from US political discourse? Well, it turns out that the red-bating culture had been carefully preserved and propagated in the bubbling petri dishes of alt-right websites, a number of which were represented at the White House Social Media Summit last week. So that was a perfect venue for reintroducing the virus into a receptive population.

Just google something like “democrats called communist meme”, and you will be led to a surprising number of metaphorical rocks which you can flip over, if you dare, to see what’s wriggling underneath. Pick any at random. Here’s one from The Epoch Times from September 2018 headlined “How 57,000 Socialists and Communists are Planning to Take Over the Democratic Party.” The author, a New Zealander named Trevor Loudon, wrote a book which he self-published in 2013 titled The Enemies Within: Communists, Socialists, and Progressives in the US Congress. His book was reviewed in TeaParty.org under the headline “Communists in Congress? Just Count ‘Em” by Jerome Corsi, of Swift Boat fame, who you may also recall figured fairly prominently in the Mueller Report. The book was made into a documentary movie of the same title in 2016, directed by Judd Saul who is described as a longtime Christian conservative activist from Iowa. You can read a review here, and it’s available on Amazon.

Then there’s this from June 2018 on Real Clear Politics in which Washington Times reporter Charles Hurt tells Tucker Carlson from Fox News about the new crop of Democratic congressional candidates like AOC: “These people are communists.”

So it never really went away; it just went into remission. What exactly prompted this outbreak is anyone’s guess. But it’s no accident that these scurrilous labels are being revived by the most racist president in a century.