Discerning the Don … in The Donald

If you haven’t yet read the Memorandum of the July 25, 2019, conversation between President Donald Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky released today, I recommend you do so; it’s but five typewritten pages and readily available online; you owe it to your country not to rely on either a news outlet or a Medicare-aged blogger.

It is undisputed that at the time of the call, the Administration was holding up the distribution of funds to Ukraine that Congress had appropriated to aid its defense against Russia. To me, the highlights:

Mr. Trump to Mr. Zelensky: “[T]he United States has been very very [duplicate in text] good to Ukraine….the United States has been very very [duplicate in text] good to Ukraine.”

Mr. Trump to Mr. Zelensky: “I would like [Mr. Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani] to call you. I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General.”

Mr. Trump to Mr. Zelensky: “There’s a lot of talk about [former Vice President Joe] Biden’s son [Hunter Biden], that [Joe] Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. [Joe] Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … [ellipsis in text, indicating pause; no skipped text] It sounds horrible to me.”

Mr. Trump to Mr. Zelensky: “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of [Joe Biden’s participation in the shutting down of a Ukranian prosecutor]. I’m sure you will figure it out. [My emphasis.]”

 

Mr. Zelensky to Mr. Trump: “Yes you are absolutely right. Not only 100%, but actually 1000% … I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes. [My only translation in this post: “Please give us the money. If you give us the money, we’ll buy American products. Please give us the money].”

Mr. Zelensky to Mr. Trump: “I will personally tell you that one of my assistants spoke with Mr. Giuliani just recently and we are hoping very much that Mr. Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine. I just wanted to assure you once again that you have nobody but friends around us … I also wanted to tell you that we are friends. We are great friends and you Mr. President have friends in our country so we can continue our strategic partnership ….”

Mr. Zelensky to Mr. Trump: “[T]he next prosecutor general will be 100% my person….I would kindly ask you if you have any additional information that you can provide to us …”

Mr. Zelensky to Mr. Trump: “Actually the last time I traveled to the United States, I stayed in New York near Central Park and I stayed at the Trump Tower…. I also want to ensure you that we will be very serious about the case [either about the Bidens, or about the Clintons; not clear] and will work on the investigation.”

 

I cast no aspersions toward Mr. Zelensky; his country is trying to maintain its independence against the onslaught of the second most powerful military force in the world. I would have prostrated myself in front of Mr. Trump at least as obsequiously as he did if I felt it was necessary to protect my country.

The President’s defenders argue that the President’s comments weren’t malfeasance because he neither threatened Mr. Zelensky nor specifically offered Mr. Zelensky a quid pro quo for reviewing the investigation of the Ukrainian activities of the Messrs. Biden.

 

“Vito Corleone raised his hands in surprise. ‘I’m asking you a favor, only that. One never knows when one might need a friend, isn’t that true? Here, take this money as a sign of my goodwill and make your own decision. I wouldn’t dare to quarrel with it.’ … He patted Mr. Roberto on the shoulder. ‘Do me this service, eh? I won’t forget it. Ask your friends in the neighborhood about me, they’ll tell you I’m a man who believes in showing his gratitude.’” – Mario Puzo: Book III … The Godfather

Perhaps a Perilous Time

The recent attacks on the Saudi Arabian oil facilities – for which the Iranian-backed Yemen rebels, the Houthis, have claimed credit — create plenty to ponder; they are perhaps the first meaningful yield of the seeds sown by President Trump’s erratic foreign policy, and of the way his heedless, casual, and inconsistent bluster has compromised his – and our — credibility. A few thoughts:

Inasmuch as the location of the Saudi facilities’ damage was on their north and northwest sides, it seems more probable, despite the Houthis’ claims, that the attacks were launched from Iran (to the facilities’ north), rather than from the Houthis’ Yemen strongholds (to the facilities’ south). There are mixed reports as to whether the damage was caused by drones or missiles, but American experts have opined that Iran was the perpetrator because the weapons were Iranian, and too sophisticated to have been entrusted to their Houthi surrogates. That said, the Iranians deny that they were responsible for the attack, and interestingly, the Saudis, obviously feeling trepidation as to what a broad scale Middle East war might mean for them, have asked for U.N. experts to verify the U.S. claims. (Comment: we used to be the gold standard. That our word is no longer sufficient – even with an ally that we have treated better than it deserves – is arguably a result of President George W. Bush’s 2003 claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and an understandable suspicion that Mr. Trump may be seeking a conflict with Iran for his own political purposes. Compromised credibility – both national and personal — is hard to reclaim.) (Another comment: actually a pretty adroit maneuver by the Iranians. While probably not egregious enough to result in all-out war, it has: delayed their regional rival’s public offering of Aramco stock, thus setting back Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s domestic agenda; pointed out to the Saudi Royal Family how easily its wealth can be hit; and raised the price of whatever oil Iran is able to export.)

Since abandoning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the official name of the multilateral Iran Deal negotiated by the Obama Administration to halt Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon — the “JCPOA”), the Trump Administration, in an effort to force Iran to the bargaining table for what it considers a broader and better deal, has imposed financial sanctions upon Iran that have by all accounts crippled its economy. We have apparently not expected a military reprisal in response to our initiative, our approach being “informed,” as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote in a Foreign Affairs article last November, by Mr. Trump’s “… strategic calculation the Iranian regime understands and fears the United States’ military might.” The most intriguing question: Since we do have the military might to do catastrophic damage to Iran if we choose, why would Iran be so bold as to launch attacks on the Saudi facilities?

While over the years many western foreign policy experts have expressed the hope that Iranian moderates (the “technocrats”), generally considered to be led by President Hassan Rouhani, will control Iran’s future – the fundamental premise upon which the Obama Administration built the JCPOA – these experts generally concede that the true control of the country currently remains with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now 80, and the Islamic conservatives beholden to him, perhaps most prominently the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (the “IRGC”). Some of these experts make a point that was initially counterintuitive to me: that the IRGC leaders, despite their rigid adherence to Islam, are not ascetics; these men have major financial interests. Although probably an ancillary irritant, their financial losses due to the American sanctions have undoubtedly added to the ferment that has arisen from what they consider grievous religious and national insults.

Richard Haass, in A World in Disarray, has noted: “[T]here is scant evidence that sanctions can ever be made strong enough to dissuade a country from pursuing what it believes to be a vital national interest ….” From 1938 through 1941, in response to warlike initiatives by the Japanese Empire, the United States imposed increasingly punitive sanctions upon Japan, which in turn strengthened the hand of Japan militarists calling for war against the U.S. Recently-released notes of the late Japanese Emperor Hirohito indicate that he regretted not preventing the Japanese military from leading Japan into a war he felt it couldn’t win. Iran resents American intrusion upon what it considers its rightful regional hegemony. It is history [guided, as TLOML points out, almost entirely by men 😉 ] that aggressive voices generally overwhelm the restrained.

Although – much to my dismay – I heard an MSNBC talking head make a point this week similar to that which follows, I nonetheless offer it here since it’s an impression I’ve had since the President’s earliest days in office [and thus, consider it mine 🙂 ]. I would submit that it is the most critical flaw in Mr. Trump’s foreign policy approach: he knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. It has guided his trade policy, his attitude toward NATO, etc., etc., etc. For someone so obsessed with his own appearance and standing, he inexplicably fails to grasp that first rate political and military leaders are not motivated by money, but by power, “face,” and sometimes religion. I am absolutely convinced that if Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping were given the stark choice of either maintaining power over their countries while living in mud huts or living without power in opulent castles … they’d both opt for the mud huts. Mr. Trump would clearly choose the castle – and is unable to fathom that anyone would do otherwise. These are the contrasting motivations that have caused him to eschew diplomacy in favor of economic sanctions to achieve his goals although, as Mr. Haass has stated, sanctions rarely obtain strategic result. If faced with an existential threat, a true leader can’t be financially bullied to forsake what s/he considers vital interests, and a military leader’s instincts will be … to reach for a gun. These are the people running Iran. Perhaps they either don’t fear our military might enough, or believe that Mr. Trump has the resolve to use it. They are not contestants in a reality show.

I am concerned that Mr. Trump’s honeymoon – the grace period that our international adversaries have actually afforded him because of his emotional unpredictability tied to American military and financial might – might be ending. His reactions to the Iranian foray will be watched closely by Messrs. Putin and Xi, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, the Taliban, and others, with potential consequences for Ukraine, Taiwan, South Korea, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. I fear that we may be entering a perilous time in the Trump presidency.

On the Anniversary of 9/11: Avoiding Further Radicalization

Below is a link to an open letter published today, “Unless We Act Now, the Islamic State Will Rise Again,” signed by a significant number of American counterterrorism specialists. In their communication, only a bit over two pages, these experts assert that in order to avoid the indoctrination of a whole new generation of terrorists from among those now being held in Syrian detention camps – many of whom are children – the home countries of the detained terrorists should readmit them and their families, prosecute under their home laws those that have actively engaged in terrorism, and at the same time fully accept the innocents back into their respective societies without tarnish.

Although the Trump Administration – in fairness, not unlike the two previous Administrations – has primarily focused on our battlefield success and failure, these national security professionals submit that unless we prevent the radicalization of the next generation of youth through “soft” and just measures, we are sentencing ourselves to remain in our current quagmire.

https://thesoufancenter.org/open-letter-from-national-security-professionals-to-western-governments/

 

Wish I’d Said That

This week, I heard a learned observer – I’m sure enough it was George Will to attribute it to him, but am not entirely positive it was Mr. Will – state to the effect, “From the beginning of the New Deal through the end of the Obama Administration, American domestic politics have essentially amounted to a conversation between Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan,” indicating that President Trump has significantly departed from the tenets espoused by each.

An arresting image.  Wish I’d said that. In a post a while back, I noted that I consider President Reagan the most accomplished president of my lifetime, but the only reason President Roosevelt didn’t best him in my ranking is … because I haven’t been around quite long enough for Mr. Roosevelt to have qualified for the competition. 😉

I can’t recall whether Mr. Will also observed that notwithstanding their domestic “conversation,” Messrs. Roosevelt and Reagan were, decades apart, almost perfectly aligned on their views of America’s place and responsibility in the world – that which, in my view, is perhaps the most important component of what actually makes America great — or that in this area, Mr. Trump has also disrupted and is seeking to further disrupt if not destroy much of what these two American giants stood for. If Mr. Will didn’t add that … I’m reasonably confident he wouldn’t mind if I do.

On the Mueller Report … Mostly Sans Politics: Part II

If one intends to review this post, but has not yet read Part I (which is immediately below), I would start there 😉

While the depth and breadth of the Russians’ efforts to interfere with the 2016 election weren’t known by our intelligence services prior to the election, the early sections of Volume I of the Mueller Report nonetheless seem to me to cast a pall over a figure the Report mentions only in passing: then-President Barack Obama. It is undisputed that the Obama Administration was alerted to a notable level of malign Russian activity some months before the election, and engaged in internal debates about a strategy as to how best to respond. Mr. Obama said after the election that he had told Russian President Vladimir Putin in September, 2016, “to cut it out” or face “serious consequences,” and the Obama Administration publicly indicated in October, 2016, that it was “confident” that the Russian government was behind the theft and dissemination of Democratic officials’ emails. These actions received little attention from our people and had no effect on the Russians. Mr. Obama also said after the election – about the time he was then placing sanctions on the Russians for their behavior – that he was concerned that his Administration’s placing too much emphasis on the Russians’ actions prior to balloting would have appeared to be interfering with the election: “We were playing this thing straight – we weren’t trying to advantage one side or another. Imagine if we had done the opposite. It would have become one more political scrum.”

President Trump has recently criticized Mr. Obama for his relative reticence about the Russian interference prior to the election. Although Mr. Trump’s comments are transparently self-serving, I do believe that Mr. Obama should indeed have done more than he did to create greater awareness of the Russian threat and aggression. As President, he was sworn to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. Free, fair, and accurate suffrage forms the foundation of our constitutional system. Putting aside claims of active collusion or criminal conspiracy existing between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government, Messrs. Putin and Trump have both publicly acknowledged that they had a coincidence of interest in the election’s outcome. Neither is a strategist; both, brilliant opportunists. Any objective observer would recognize that it would have been Mr. Trump that initiated the “political scrum” that Mr. Obama decided it was best to avoid by failing to speak out more forcefully about the Russians’ behavior in the fall of 2016. For all of our former President’s charisma, intelligence, and good intentions, Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump each out-maneuvered him. The Republicans are so focused on defending Mr. Trump’s legitimacy and the Democrats so committed to protecting Mr. Obama’s legacy that neither have really expressed what I will venture: that given the intelligence he had at hand, President Obama should have damned the political consequences, and used his bully pulpit to place a spotlight on the Russians’ attack on our system. In the last great test of his presidency … he didn’t do his job.

A brief comment about Volume II of the Mueller Report, of which I have read – and only intend to read – its Introduction and Executive Summary. As all who care are aware, Mr. Mueller and his team, after outlining a litany of questionable activities by President Trump relating to the Russia investigation, elected not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgement as to whether Mr. Trump had criminally obstructed justice. Below is a link to a short Statement joined by hundreds of former federal prosecutors, asserting that Mr. Trump’s conduct “… would, in the case of any other person not covered by the [Department of Justice’s] Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.” Given their respective situations, Mr. Mueller’s and these prosecutors’ assessments seem complementary.

https://medium.com/@dojalumni/statement-by-former-federal-prosecutors-8ab7691c2aa1

Addendum to Today’s Entry

I’ve been advised by a follower of these notes that the page citations appearing in today’s post as initially published (which are to the Mueller Report’s actual page numbers) don’t necessarily align with the page numbers appearing in electronic versions of the Report. To provide better guideposts, I’ve edited today’s entry, adding references to pertinent section titles.

On the Mueller Report … Mostly Sans Politics: Part I

Having now read Volume I of the Mueller Report (there will be a brief comment on Volume II in Part II of this note), I would most strongly urge every American to read pages 14 (page citations are those of the actual Report, with pertinent text beginning with, “II Russian ‘Active Measures’ Social Media Campaign”) through 51 (ending at, “D. Trump Campaign and the Dissemination of Hacked Materials”). In these sections, the Report’s references to the Trump Campaign are mostly tangential. I would submit that Republicans are so busy defending the President and the Democrats so intent on savaging him that they are paying too little heed to what I consider the main import of the Report, best captured in those 37 pages: the Russians’ comprehensive and sophisticated activities to undermine our system of government. These early sections set forth in detail – in a form not dissimilar to a spy novel, but terrifying because what is related is real – what former Vice President Dick Cheney declared in March, 2017, “[Would] in some quarters … be considered an act of war.”

A bit of the content follows; its weight is best absorbed from these Report pages themselves. These first sections describe how the Russians set up two different organizations whose mission was to disrupt our electoral processes. The first, Russia’s Internet Research Agency, LLC (the “IRA”), was tasked with social media operations targeted at large U.S. audiences “with the goal of sowing discord in the U. S. political system.” The IRA’s efforts ultimately resulted in the formation of social media presences (with specialists focusing on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter) and of operational divisions dedicated to areas such as social presences, analytics, graphics, and IT. The IRA reached as many as 126 million persons through its Facebook accounts. Acting through fake U.S. identities, it also recruited unknowing U.S. citizens to post social media entries and to host dozens of political rallies furthering its aims. Like a direct response business, the IRA monitored which of its presences and unwitting recruits were most effective.

Russia tasked the second organization, its Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (the “GRU”), to conduct cyber hacking and information dumping operations. The GRU carried out computer intrusions into the Clinton Campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The Report states that one GRU department developed specialized malware while another “conducted large-scale spearphishing campaigns.” It further indicates, to me the most ominously, that one GRU unit “… hacked computers belonging to state boards of elections, secretaries of state, and U.S. companies that supplied software and other technology related to the administration of U.S. elections [my emphasis].” The GRU released the material it stole through two fictitious online personas it created (DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0), and later through WikiLeaks to undermine then-Candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Although it is hard after reading these Mueller Report sections not to wonder whether the Russians’ efforts against Sec. Clinton were sufficient to affect the outcomes of the close 2016 races in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, I would suggest that at this point … it doesn’t matter. What matters is what we do now. The Republicans are so focused on defending Mr. Trump’s election that they appear to have completely lost sight of a point FL Sen. Marco Rubio made soon after the extent of Russian interference in our election had become apparent: next time, the Russians could target a Republican. I would pose this to my Republican friends: if Mr. Trump dropped out of the race tomorrow (say, for sudden health reasons) and Mitt Romney – who, presciently, called Russia our “Number One Geopolitical Foe” during the 2012 campaign – was running for President in 2020 against almost anyone in the Democratic field, upon which candidate do you think the Russians would aim their assault?

It seems likely that during his youth in Russia, Mr. Putin learned how to split wood. One quickly learns when splitting wood that it is best to let the sawn segments of the felled tree cure – dry out – for a year before attempting to split them; but even then, to split successfully, after the log is placed on the chopping block, the splitter must accurately aim the maul at the log’s seams that resulted from its curing. If the splitter misses the seam, nothing happens; the log sits there in defiance. If s/he hits the seam, the log splits. I would suggest that lacking an existential enemy since the fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1989, we as a people have been curing – quarreling among ourselves, our bonds weakening in partisan rancor – due to a growing divergence of interest, culture, and financial means. Mr. Putin and his agents have identified our fissures and, using technology and the Russian espionage apparatus as their splitting maul, have and will again strike at our seams … to split us apart. Hopefully, we retain the sense and courage to defend ourselves.

In an effort to keep these posts to at least a somewhat manageable length, what remains of this note will appear in Part II.