Along with pardoning Manning, Obama should have repealed 1917 Espionage Act

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

In a daring and bold move that showed his profound humanitarian side, President Obama has commuted the 35-year sentence of Chelsea Manning, a transgender woman and former military intelligence analyst who in 2010 leaked hundreds of thousands of State Department cables and also some Iraq and Afghanistan military logs to the Wikileaks organization, which shared them with the press.

Manning’s leaks are credited in some quarters with helping to galvanize Tunisian youth and activists against the brutal dictatorship of Zine el Abidine ben Ali. The argument is that people assumed that Ben Ali was authoritarian but relatively upright and that the corruption was committed by the people around him, whereas State Department cables demonstrated that he personally asked for kickbacks. It is certainly the case that opposition webzines like in Tunisia translated the cables immediately into Arabic. Manning has been criticized for her scattershot publication of so many documents rather than for whistleblowing, i.e. concentrating on a particular injustice. In the case of Tunisia, some of the released cables did function as whistleblowing. France and the US in public tended to reassure the world that Ben Ali’s regime was a bulwark against radical Muslim fundamentalism and was improving the lives of its citizens. It was perhaps only just that the sordid reality be exposed to everyone, including the Tunisian people, who now have the only democracy in the Middle East. (Lebanon is too dysfunctional and dominated by a party-militia to fit that bill; Turkey is veering sharply toward authoritarianism, and Apartheid Israel with 4 million people under military colonialism doesn’t count by a long shot).

According to a UN inquiry, Manning was tortured when held for 11 months in the brig at Quantico. She was kept in solitary confinement and put under a “suicide watch” by her jailers despite the opposition of her own physician. The watch involved being made to sleep nude and enchained and being woken up many times each night to be checked, for months on end. The suicide watch was a mere pretext to subject her to the sleep deprivation techniques that are an important arrow in the quiver of contemporary torturers. She still bears the cognitive and emotional scars of this treatment, according to Glenn Greenwald, who has interviewed her.

Obama’s commutation of her sentence is all the more surprising because his administration was the hardest in recent memory on whistle blowers and on the journalists to whom they leaked. The idea that whistle blowers should have gone through channels is challenged by the substantial evidence that employees who came forward with concerns faced retaliation. One of the tools Attorney General Eric Holder used against these brave individuals, who were trying to correct some pernicious practice, was the Espionage Act of 1917. This unconstitutional monstrosity was passed at the height of the Red Scare and the immigration hysteria during World War I. explains:

“Once Congress declared war, President Wilson quickly created the Committee on Public Information under the direction of George Creel. Creel used every possible medium imaginable to raise American consciousness. Creel organized rallies and parades . . .

Still there were dissenters. The American Socialist Party condemned the war effort. Irish-Americans often displayed contempt for the British ally. Millions of immigrants from Germany and Austria-Hungary were forced to support initiatives that could destroy their homelands. But this dissent was rather small. Nevertheless, the government stifled wartime opposition by law with the passing of the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917. Anyone found guilty of criticizing the government war policy or hindering wartime directives could be sent to jail. Many cried that this was a flagrant violation of precious civil liberties, including the right to free speech. The Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision on this issue in the Schenck v. United States verdict. The majority court opinion ruled that should an individual’s free speech present a “clear and present danger” to others, the government could impose restrictions or penalties. Schenck was arrested for sabotaging the draft. The Court ruled that his behavior endangered thousands of American lives and upheld his jail sentence. Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned and ran for President from his jail cell in 1920. He polled nearly a million votes.”

Obama and Holder have bequeathed yet another tool of authoritarianism (along with a revived domestic surveillance program) to the incoming Trumpian troglodytes. Instead of resorting to the Espionage and Sedition Act, they should have worked alongside Libertarian Republicans to get rid of it. Pardoning one person, however praiseworthy, doesn’t make up for developing anti-democratic techniques that have now been passed on to the most anti-democratic government in recent decades.


Related video:

TYT Politics: “BREAKING: Chelsea Manning FREED By Pres. Obama”

Screwed?: 4 Top International Crises we have to depend on Trump to Resolve

By Michael T. Klare | ( | – –

Within months of taking office, President Donald Trump is likely to face one or more major international crises, possibly entailing a risk of nuclear escalation. Not since the end of the Cold War has a new chief executive been confronted with as many potential flashpoints involving such a risk of explosive conflict. This proliferation of crises has been brewing for some time, but the situation appears especially ominous now given Trump’s pledge to bring American military force swiftly to bear on any threats of foreign transgression. With so much at risk, it’s none too soon to go on a permanent escalation watch, monitoring the major global hotspots for any sign of imminent flare-ups, hoping that early warnings (and the outcry that goes with them) might help avert catastrophe.

Looking at the world today, four areas appear to pose an especially high risk of sudden crisis and conflict: North Korea, the South China Sea, the Baltic Sea region, and the Middle East. Each of them has been the past site of recurring clashes, and all are primed to explode early in the Trump presidency.

Why are we seeing so many potential crises now? Is this period really different from earlier presidential transitions?

It’s true that the changeover from one presidential administration to another can be a time of global uncertainty, given America’s pivotal importance in world affairs and the natural inclination of rival powers to test the mettle of the country’s new leader. There are, however, other factors that make this moment particularly worrisome, including the changing nature of the world order, the personalities of its key leaders, and an ominous shift in military doctrine.

Just as the United States is going through a major political transition, so is the planet at large. The sole-superpower system of the post-Cold War era is finally giving way to a multipolar, if not increasingly fragmented, world in which the United States must share the limelight with other major actors, including China, Russia, India, and Iran. Political scientists remind us that transitional periods can often prove disruptive, as “status quo” powers (in this case, the United States) resist challenges to their dominance from “revisionist” states seeking to alter the global power equation. Typically, this can entail proxy wars and other kinds of sparring over contested areas, as has recently been the case in Syria, the Baltic, and the South China Sea.

This is where the personalities of key leaders enter the equation. Though President Obama oversaw constant warfare, he was temperamentally disinclined to respond with force to every overseas crisis and provocation, fearing involvement in yet more foreign wars like Iraq and Afghanistan. His critics, including Donald Trump, complained bitterly that this stance only encouraged foreign adversaries to up their game, convinced that the U.S. had lost its will to resist provocation. In a Trump administration, as The Donald indicated on the campaign trail last year, America’s adversaries should expect far tougher responses. Asked in September, for instance, about an incident in the Persian Gulf in which Iranian gunboats approached American warships in a threatening manner, he typically told reporters, “When they circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats and make gestures that… they shouldn’t be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water.”

Although with Russia, unlike Iran, Trump has promised to improve relations, there’s no escaping the fact that Vladimir Putin’s urge to restore some of his country’s long-lost superpower glory could lead to confrontations with NATO powers that would put the new American president in a distinctly awkward position.  Regarding Asia, Trump has often spoken of his intent to punish China for what he considers its predatory trade practices, a stance guaranteed to clash with President Xi Jinping’s goal of restoring his country’s greatness.  This should, in turn, generate additional possibilities for confrontation, especially in the contested South China Sea. Both Putin and Xi, moreover, are facing economic difficulties at home and view foreign adventurism as a way of distracting public attention from disappointing domestic performances.

These factors alone would ensure that this was a moment of potential international crisis, but something else gives it a truly dangerous edge: a growing strategic reliance in Russia and elsewhere on the early use of nuclear weapons to overcome deficiencies in “conventional” firepower.

For the United States, with its overwhelming superiority in such firepower, nuclear weapons have lost all conceivable use except as a “deterrent” against a highly unlikely first-strike attack by an enemy power. For Russia, however, lacking the means to compete on equal terms with the West in conventional weaponry, this no longer seems reasonable. So Russian strategists, feeling threatened by the way NATO has moved ever closer to its borders, are now calling for the early use of “tactical” nuclear munitions to overpower stronger enemy forces. Under Russia’s latest military doctrine, major combat units are now to be trained and equipped to employ such weapons at the first sign of impending defeat, either to blackmail enemy countries into submission or annihilate them.

Following this doctrine, Russia has developed the nuclear-capable Iskander ballistic missile (a successor to the infamous “Scud” missile used by Saddam Hussein in attacks on Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia) and forward deployed it to Kaliningrad, a small sliver of Russian territory sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. In response, NATO strategists are discussing ways to more forcefully demonstrate the West’s own capacity to use tactical nuclear arms in Europe, for example by including more nuclear-capable bombers in future NATO exercises. As a result, the “firebreak” between conventional and nuclear warfare — that theoretical barrier to escalation — seems to be narrowing, and you have a situation in which every crisis involving a nuclear state may potentially prove to be a nuclear crisis.

With that in mind, consider the four most dangerous potential flashpoints for the new Trump administration.

North Korea

North Korea’s stepped-up development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles may present the Trump administration with its first great international challenge.  In recent years, the North Koreans appear to have made substantial progress in producing such missiles and designing small nuclear warheads to fit on them.  In 2016, the country conducted two underground nuclear tests (its fourth and fifth since 2006), along with numerous tests of various missile systems.  On September 20th, it also tested a powerful rocket engine that some observers believe could be used as the first stage of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that might someday be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the western United States.

North Korea’s erratic leader, Kim Jong-un, has repeatedly spoken of his determination to acquire nuclear weapons and the ability to use them in attacks on his adversaries, including the U.S.  Following a series of missile tests last spring, he insisted that his country should continue to bolster its nuclear force “both in quality and quantity,” stressing “the need to get the nuclear warheads deployed for national defense always on standby so as to be fired at any moment.”  This could mean, he added, using these weapons “in a preemptive attack.”  On January 1st, Kim reiterated his commitment to future preemptive nuclear action, adding that his country would soon test-fire an ICBM.

President Obama responded by imposing increasingly tough economic sanctions and attempting — with only limited success — to persuade China, Pyongyang’s crucial ally, to use its political and economic clout to usher Kim into nuclear disarmament talks.  None of this seemed to make the slightest difference, which means President Trump will be faced with an increasingly well-armed North Korea that may be capable of fielding usable ICBMs within the coming years.

How will Trump respond to this peril? Three options seem available to him: somehow persuade China to compel Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear quest; negotiate a disarmament deal directly with Kim, possibly even on a face-to-face basis; or engage in (presumably nonnuclear) preemptive strikes aimed at destroying the North’s nuclear and missile-production capabilities.

Imposing yet more sanctions and talking with China would look suspiciously like the Obama approach, while obtaining China’s cooperation would undoubtedly mean compromising on trade or the South China Sea (either of which would undoubtedly involve humiliating concessions for a man like Trump).  Even were he to recruit Chinese President Xi as a helpmate, it’s unclear that Pyongyang would be deterred.  As for direct talks with Kim, Trump, unlike every previous president, has already indicated that he’s willing. “I would have no problem speaking to him,” he told Reuters last May. But what exactly would he offer the North in return for its nuclear arsenal? The withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea? Any such solution would leave the president looking like a patsy (inconceivable for someone whose key slogan has been “Make America Great Again”).

That leaves a preemptive strike. Trump appears to have implicitly countenanced that option, too, in a recent tweet. (“North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!”) In other words, he is open to the military option, rejected in the past because of the high risk of triggering an unpredictable response from the North, including a cataclysmic invasion of South Korea (and potential attacks on U.S. troops stationed there). Under the circumstances, the unpredictability not just of Kim Jong-un but also of Donald Trump leaves North Korea in the highest alert category of global crises as the new era begins.

The South China Sea

The next most dangerous flashpoint?  The ongoing dispute over control of the South China Sea, an area bounded by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and the island of Borneo.  Citing ancient ties to islands in those waters, China now claims the entire region as part of its national maritime territory.  Some of the same islands are, however, also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.  Although not claiming any territory in the region itself, the U.S. has a defense treaty with the Philippines, relies on free passage through the area to move its warships from bases in the Pacific to war zones in the Middle East, and of course considers itself the preeminent Pacific power and plans to keep it that way.

In the past, China has clashed with local powers over possession of individual islands, but more recently has sought control over all of them. As part of that process, it has begun to convert low-lying islets and atolls under its control into military bases, equipping them with airstrips and missile defense systems. This has sparked protests from Vietnam and the Philippines, which claim some of those islets, and from the United States, which insists that such Chinese moves infringe on its Navy’s “freedom of navigation” through international waters.

President Obama responded to provocative Chinese moves in the South China Sea by ordering U.S. warships to patrol in close proximity to the islands being militarized.  For Trump, this has been far too minimal a response. “China’s toying with us,” he told David Sanger of the New York Times last March.  “They are when they’re building in the South China Sea.  They should not be doing that but they have no respect for our country and they have no respect for our president.” Asked if he was prepared to use military force in response to the Chinese buildup, he responded, “Maybe.”

The South China Sea may prove to be an early test of Trump’s promise to fight what he views as China’s predatory trade behavior and Beijing’s determination to resist bullying by Washington.  Last month, Chinese sailors seized an American underwater surveillance drone near one of their atolls. Many observers interpreted the move as a response to Trump’s decision to take a phone call of congratulations from the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, shortly after his election victory. That gesture, unique in recent American presidencies, was viewed in Beijing, which considers Taiwan a renegade province, as an insult to China. Any further moves by Trump to aggravate or punish China on the economic front could result in further provocations in the South China Sea, opening the possibility of a clash with U.S. air and naval forces in the region.

All this is worrisome enough, but the prospects for a clash in the South China Sea increased significantly on January 11th, thanks to comments made by Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil and presumptive secretary of state, during his confirmation hearing in Washington.  Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he said, “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”  Since the Chinese are unlikely to abandon those islands — which they consider part of their sovereign territory — just because Trump and Tillerson order them to do so, the only kind of “signal” that might carry any weight would be military action.

What form would such a confrontation take and where might it lead?  At this point, no one can be sure, but once such a conflict began, room for maneuver could prove limited indeed.  A U.S. effort to deny China access to the islands could involve anything from a naval blockade to air and missile attacks on the military installations built there to the sinking of Chinese warships.  It’s hard to imagine that Beijing would refrain from taking retaliatory steps in response, and as one move tumbled onto the next, the two nuclear-armed countries might suddenly find themselves at the brink of full-scale war.  So consider this our second global high alert.

The Baltic Sea Area

If Hillary Clinton had been elected, I would have placed the region adjoining the Baltic Sea at the top of my list of potential flashpoints, as it’s where Vladimir Putin would have been most likely to channel his hostility to her in particular and the West more generally.  That’s because NATO forces have moved most deeply into the territory of the former Soviet Union in the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Those countries are also believed to be especially vulnerable to the kind of “hybrid” warfare — involving covert operations, disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, and the like — that Russia perfected in Crimea and Ukraine.  With Donald Trump promising to improve relations with Moscow, it’s now far less likely that Putin would launch such attacks, though the Russians continue to strengthen their military assets (including their nuclear war-fighting capabilities) in the region, and so the risk of a future clash cannot be ruled out.

The danger there arises from geography, history, and policy. The three Baltic republics only became independent after the breakup of the USSR in 1991; today, they are members of both the European Union and NATO.  Two of them, Estonia and Latvia, share borders with Russia proper, while Lithuania and nearby Poland surround the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.  Through their NATO membership, they provide a theoretical bridgehead for a hypothetical Western invasion of Russia. By the same token, the meager forces of the three republics could easily be overwhelmed by superior Russian ones, leaving the rest of NATO to decide whether and in what fashion to confront a Russian assault on member nations.

Following Russia’s intervention in eastern Ukraine, which demonstrated both Moscow’s willingness and ability to engage in hybrid warfare against a neighboring European state, the NATO powers decided to bolster the alliance’s forward presence in the Baltic region. At a summit meeting in Warsaw in June 2016, the alliance agreed to deploy four reinforced multinational battalions in Poland and the three Baltic republics. Russia views this with alarm as a dangerous violation of promises made to Moscow in the wake of the Cold War that no NATO forces would be permanently garrisoned on the territory of the former Soviet Union. NATO has tried to deflect Russian complaints by insisting that, since the four battalions will be rotated in and out of the region, they are somehow not “permanent.” Nevertheless, from Moscow’s perspective, the NATO move represents a serious threat to Russian security and so justifies a comparable buildup of Russian forces in adjacent areas.

Adding to the obvious dangers of such a mutual build-up, NATO and Russian forces have been conducting military “exercises,” often in close proximity to each other. Last summer, for example, NATO oversaw Anaconda 2016 in Poland and Lithuania, the largest such maneuvers in the region since the end of the Cold War. As part of the exercise, NATO forces crossed from Poland to Lithuania, making clear their ability to encircle Kaliningrad, which was bound to cause deep unease in Moscow. Not that the Russians have been passive. During related NATO naval exercises in the Baltic Sea, Russian planes flew within a few feet of an American warship, the USS Donald Cook, nearly provoking a shooting incident that could have triggered a far more dangerous confrontation.

Will Putin ease up on the pressure he’s been exerting on the Baltic states once Trump is in power?  Will Trump agree to cancel or downsize the U.S. and NATO deployments there in return for Russian acquiescence on other issues?  Such questions will be on the minds of many in Eastern Europe in the coming months.  It’s reasonable to predict a period of relative calm as Putin tests Trump’s willingness to forge a new relationship with Moscow, but the underlying stresses will remain as long as the Baltic states stay in NATO and Russia views that as a threat to its security.  So chalk the region up as high alert three on a global scale.

The Middle East

The Middle East has long been a major flashpoint.  President Obama, for instance, came to office hoping to end U.S. involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet U.S. troops are still fighting in both countries today.  The question is: How might this picture change in the months ahead?

Given the convoluted history of the region and its demonstrated capacity for surprise, any predictions should be offered with caution. Trump has promised to intensify the war against ISIS, which will undoubtedly require the deployment of additional American air, sea, and ground forces in the region. As he put it during the election campaign, speaking of the Islamic State, “I would bomb the shit out of them.” So expect accelerated air strikes on ISIS-held locations, leading to more civilian casualties, desperate migrants, and heightened clashes between Shiites and Sunnis.  As ISIS loses control of physical territory and returns to guerilla-style warfare, it will surely respond by increasing terrorist attacks on “soft” civilian targets in neighboring Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey, as well as in more distant locations. No one knows how all this will play out, but don’t be surprised if terrorist violence only increases and Washington once again finds itself drawn more deeply into an endless quagmire in the Greater Middle East and northern Africa.

The overriding question, of course, is how Donald Trump will behave toward Iran. He has repeatedly affirmed his opposition to the nuclear deal signed by the United States, the European Union, Russia, and China and insisted that he would either scrap it or renegotiate it, but it’s hard to imagine how that might come to pass.  All of the other signatories are satisfied with the deal and seek to do business with Iran, so any new negotiations would have to proceed without those parties. As many U.S. strategists also see merit in the agreement, since it deprives Iran of a nuclear option for at least a decade or more, a decisive shift on the nuclear deal appears unlikely.

On the other hand, Trump could be pressured by his close associates — especially his pick for national security advisor, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, a notoriously outspoken Iranophobe — to counter the Iranians on other fronts. This could take a variety of forms, including stepped-up sanctions, increased aid to Saudi Arabia in its war against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, or attacks on Iranian proxies in the Middle East. Any of these would no doubt prompt countermoves by Tehran, and from there a cycle of escalation could lead in numerous directions, all dangerous, including military action by the U.S., Israel, or Saudi Arabia. So mark this one as flash point four and take a deep breath.

Going on Watch

Starting on January 20th, as Donald Trump takes office, the clock will already be ticking in each of these flashpoint regions.  No one knows which will be the first to erupt, or what will happen when it does, but don’t count on our escaping at least one, and possibly more, major international crises in the not-too-distant future.

Given the stakes involved, it’s essential to keep a close watch on all of them for signs of anything that might trigger a major conflagration and for indications of a prematurely violent Trumpian response (the moment to raise a hue and cry). Keeping the spotlight shining on these four potential flashpoints may not be much, but it’s the least we can do to avert Armageddon.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @mklare1.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, as well as Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Michael T. Klare

Trump feuds with Merkel, EU, BMW, NATO, China, CIA but not with Putin

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Donald Trump picked a fight with almost everyone but his buddy Vladimir Putin this weekend. His continued tweaking of China over its claims on Taiwan produced a sharp rebuke from Beijing. John Brennan, head of the CIA, pushed back against Trump’s branding of the agency as a Nazi institution after the golden shower Russian dossier on him was leaked.

Trump gave an interview Monday with the German publication Der Bild in which he rampaged around like a bull in a China shop, insulting Chancellor Angela Merkel over her immigration policies, threatening BMW with a trade war, putting Merkel and Putin on the same plane with regard to his respect for them, dismissing NATO as outmoded, harming investment, and putting a scare into Eastern Europe that he’ll abandon them to Putin the way he seems to have acquiesced in the aggression on Ukraine. (See the interview, linked at the bottom of this page, which is in English with German subtitles).

Trump also went again after the Bush administration and his own Republican Party, calling the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 the worst foreign policy decision that the US ever made. “It was like,” he exclaimed, “throwing stones at a beehive.”

Asked whom he respected more, Merkel or Putin, Trump said “both.” Merkel is a treaty ally of the United States. Putin is a frenemy.

Trump said he likes Germany and respects Merkel, but that he disagreed with her decision to admit large numbers of what he called “illegals” from Syria (he then backed up and said he didn’t know where they were from because they weren’t vetted), and suggested that the decision opened Germany to more terrorism. He also dismissed the European Union as a German project, hinting that it was some sort of money-making scam for Berlin, and complained about a chronic US trade imbalance with the EU, which he said “is going to stop.” In November, the US exported $21 billion worth of goods to the EU countries and imported $34.8 billion. Trump shrugged and indicated that he didn’t care if the EU survived or not, since he saw it as a means for Germany to gain unfair trade advantages over the United States. Trump doesn’t understand macro-economics or the function of a trade deficit over time.

Merkel replied curtly, “I think we Europeans have our destiny in our own hands.” She also said that while the issue of terrorism is a great challenge for everyone, it is a separate question from that of immigration.

Several terrorist attacks by Muslims in Europe have actually been carried out mainly by European-born individuals, mostly petty criminals. A recent attack by truck was perpetrated by someone whose asylum application was rejected but who went into hiding. It wasn’t as though he were unvetted.

Most terrorism in Europe in the past decade has been carried out by separatists or far-right groups, not by Muslims.

Trump again slammed NATO, demanding that European countries pony up more funds for it and stop freeloading off the United States. The Der Bild interviewer tried to get him to understand that this sort of talk was spooking the new eastern European members of NATO. Trump said he knew what was going on, but he declined to back down from his attack.

He also went after BMW, which is building a big new auto plant in Mexico. Trump warns that they won’t be allowed to export those cars to the US unless they pay a 35% tariff.

This threat caused BMW stock to drop 2.2% at some points Monday, leveling off at 1%, representing a lost of billions of dollars. Finance specialists warned that Trump is creating an atmosphere in which investors are jittery and putting off investing, which could slow economic growth. They also point out that the US is a member of the World Trade Organization, which would certainly not allow the abrupt imposition of a big new tariff on goods coming in to the US from Mexico. Further, were Trump to follow through on his threats, Germany would retaliate with its own tariffs, which could push the fragile world economy into a Depression.

As for the refugees given asylum in Germany, they are not “illegals.” Human beings cannot be “illegal,” for one thing. But the immigration to Germany has typically been through legal channels, and those denied asylum are leaving in ever greater numbers. Germany accepted about a million asylum seekers in the past two years.

Germany’s population has been declining and was expected to spiral down from 82 million to 60 million by 2050. This decline threatens the ability of elderly Germans to receive government services, since there are so many fewer workers in the next generation and they cannot generate the same amount of tax returns to the state as did the previous cohort. In part, Merkel’s decision to let the asylum-seekers in was taken out of charity, but she and her team may also have calculated that the immigrants who brought skills (the majority) could contribute to the economy over time and slow the country’s population decline.

The German Interior Ministry revealed that some 280,000 migrants applied for asylum in 2016. Germany only admits about half of the applicants to full refugee status. Some 70,000 of those rejected have returned home in the past two years. The largest groups of applicants are Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, Eritreans and Albanians.

The US admits roughly 1 million legal immigrants and 70,000 asylees annually, so that Germany’s applicants for the past year are exactly proportional to the numbers actually processed by the US, since it is 1/4 as populous. That is, Germany is just behaving more like the US recently, not doing something unheard of, as Trump (who deeply dislikes immigrants from anywhere to anywhere, apparently) said.

The 890,000 asylum applications received by Germany in 2015 are therefore something extremely unusual. That situation derived from a crisis of immigration across the Mediterranean, in which many lives were at stake (some 5,000 attempted immigrants died on the sea last year). In addition, however, it now seems clear that people smugglers set up shop in Turkey and flooded immigrants into Europe, with its open borders, for a fee, taking advantage of the sympathy of the European public for the boat people. Turkey has made an agreement to police its own borders better (and likely to crack down on these coyotes) in return for a payment of $3 billion from the EU. While Europe clearly needs to do something about its border security, Merkel’s act of compassion and of population policy will certainly benefit the German economy and German dynamism over time. Trump is wrong.

See the Bild Interview with Trump here

In the Age of Trumpian Reaction, is MLK’s Legacy to the 99% being Reversed?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Reaction has two main meanings in English. One is to respond to some new situation (not specifying the nature of the reaction). The other is to resist some innovation. In this second sense, a reactionary is one who wants to go back to a previously existing condition of society. A reactionary is worse than a conservative. A conservative resists progressive change that benefits large numbers of people but does not help the rich. A reactionary wants to undo a progressive change already long since effected, taking achievements away from the people for the sake of the 1%.

We live in a reactionary age. Trump crony Newt Gingrich wants to undo the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt entirely, getting rid of social security and condemning large numbers of elderly Americans to penury. (In the 1930s the elderly were the poorest segment of society; that is no longer true today, and people can hope to retire and live with dignity, because of social security). We live in a moment where 8 billionaires are as rich as the poorer half of humankind and when the top 1% takes home 20% of the US national income (up from 10% only a few decades ago). Ironically, it is in this moment, when workers and the middle classes are prostrate and the lion’s share of resources is going to 1.2 million households out of 124 million American households– it is at this very moment that reactionaries are demanding that ordinary people surrender their pensions and social security and health care for the sake of a further fat tax cut for the super-rich. The average wage of the average worker has been flat since 1970 in the US, as any increases in productivity or real economic growth appears to have been taken right to the top and the 1% by the Republican tax-cut conveyor belt. A loss of entitlements would actually reduce their incomes substantially, sending them back to the 1950s.

I saw the Wall Street Journal reporter Brett Stephens on Farid Zakaria’s GPS recently, opining that he goes around the country talking to small business owners, and they are complaining about excessive regulation and the injustices of the 2002 Sarbanes Oxley Act. Let me just say that I believe Mr. Stephens was using “small business” as a more sympathetic stand-in for his actual client, mega corporations. Sarbanes-Oxley made it illegal to destroy records to forestall a Federal investigation, in the wake of Enron and other scandals that robbed large number of employees of their pensions. Very inconvenient. Dodd-Frank is also no doubt very inconvenient for “small business.” Any let or hindrance on the super-rich whom Stephens and his like serve is of course a brake on economic progress. Except that Enron and the 2008 crash, which occurred in the absence of regulation were not in fact good for the economy or for workers and the middle class. Stephens may well get his way, and these regulatory reforms may well be deep-sixed in the Age of Trump. Many among the rich dream of getting back to the halcyon unregulated 1920s, managing to forget the plunge their predecessors took off the Empire State building in 1929. The very definition of reaction is a nostalgia for an age whose time has passed.

Reaction menaces us in the realm of civil rights as well as in that of the economy, where we have become a hereditary plutocracy. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made it illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It made it illegal for state officials to give literacy (or even Latin) tests only to African Americans as a prerequisite to register to vote. It ended racial discrimination in establishments that offered what was defined as a public accommodation. That is, white southerners like George Wallace insisted that a restaurant is a private business and so the owner should be welcome to discriminate in which customers he or she would serve. The Voting Rights Act begged to differ. If you’re serving the public, it said, you are in some ways a public institution and you may not operate in a racist manner. Some members of the Libertarian wing of the Republican Party still hold the George Wallace position on restaurants, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).

In this age of reaction, the achievements of the Voting Rights Act have been deeply eroded when they haven’t been entirely reversed. After three decades in which desegregated schools operated perfectly well throughout the country and came to be supported by many progressive southern Whites, from about 1990 the Federal courts began ceasing to require desegregation. The result? Apartheid schooling in the United States is again a reality. Given the high rates of racial segregation in neighborhoods, this reality, partly economic, has come to be reflected in the schools. We’ve seen large-scale resegregation. Call it Jim Crow by other means.

h/t American Studies

Ironically, all students benefit from being in racially mixed schools, including the white students. There are cognitive benefits; i.e. you learn to think more clearly in a more hybrid social situation.

Not only have the schools been resegregated but once the Roberts court removed oversight from the Deep South states, they immediately ran and put back in the Latin tests for African-Americans. This time though they cleverly did it more subtly by requiring identification papers in order to vote. If challenged, the white racists who passed these laws will say it is to prevent voter fraud. But there isn’t any voter fraud to speak of, at least from these quarters. Maybe the law should have been restricted to the Russian embassy. That supposed Libertarians who squawk at the idea of national identity cards should have suddenly decided we need identity cards to vote can only be explained by bigotry. John Roberts was snarky in asking whether court oversight was really any longer needed for the former Jim Crow states, asking if people in the New York-Boston corridor really were less racist nowadays. I don’t know, John. Why don’t you tell me? Here’s a map to help you decide. Notice where the white spaces are.

h/t Sun Herald

So we are back to de facto restrictions on the voting rights of African-Americans, which may have affected the election outcome in 2016. And we’re back to all-Black schools. The Republican Party is still dedicated to equality in one area, though. They’d love to make us all wage slaves with no unions, no rights ( even to have a break), no minimum income, no health care and no social security. Indeed, there is a sense in which the 99% are all Black in the Age of Trump, whether they know it yet or not.

That is why we need the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., today more than ever. Here is his last speech, on the dignity of labor:

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Speech to Memphis Sanitation Workers

5 Images that refute Trump’s attack on Hero John Lewis

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

It began when Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) announced that he would not attend the inaugural of Donald J. Trump because he did not consider him a legitimate president.

Lewis, sometimes called “the conscience of Congress,” emerged to prominence as a very young man in 1963-66 as Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)– of which he had been one of the founders. He organized the large numbers of students active in the Civil Rights movement. The 1963 March on Washington was to some extent his idea.


Since 1986, Lewis has represented the Fifth Congressional District in Georgia, comprising much of Atlanta, including its downtown, and western and southern suburbs.

Trump, of course, could not control himself and tweeted at Lewis,

People are complaining that Trump is attacking Lewis, a close associate of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the eve of the latter’s official day. But what difference would that make to Trump? He says racist things every day of the year.

I’ve spoken at Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta, and I think it is very nice. Of course all big cities have some problems, but Trump has mixed up the 5th District with some other inner city. His incorrect assumption that because Lewis is African-American, he represents a slum is incredibly offensive.

midtown_atlanta_skyline Midtown Atlanta skyline, h/t Wikimedia

Actually, some 33% of Lewis’s district is white and 5% is Asian, so that non-African-Americans are nearly 4 in 10.

The median family income in Atlanta is $48,000 a year. It is lower than the recent US national average of $54,000 a year, but not that much lower. It is higher than plenty of great American cities, including St. Louis and Des Moines.

Atlanta’s income levels have steadily shot up during the past few decades. It has one of the biggest Black middle classes in the country. African-Americans are hurt by income equality, however. Trump is not going to make incomes more equal in the US.

Some 90% of residents of this district have a high school education or higher, and 40% have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

As for crime, Atlanta is not one of the 25 cities where the murder rate has increased slightly in the past few years. It should be noted that the murder rate in the US has fallen dramatically since the early 1990s, and the slight increase is some cities is relatively small. Statistics look big when you start from a low base.

This is what the chart for the murder rate since 1990 looks like in Atlanta:

atlantacrime h/t Atlanta Magazine

Far from falling apart, Atlanta has seen housing starts increase by double digits in the past year.

The average sold home price in Atlanta has rebounded from the Great Recession into which Trump’s Wall Street buddies had plunged the country, and is very healthy, as demonstrated by this graph from 2011 through September 2016:

My fifth image riposting to Trump is not a graph. It is a photo of John Lewis on an infamous bridge in 1965.

John Lewis kept being beaten and arrested. He did not back down. He won, and Jim Crow in the law is gone and is itself illegal.

John Lewis declared Jim Crow illegitimate, and after a while it wasn’t there any more. John Lewis has declared the Trump presidency illegitimate.

From Syria to Sanctions, Flynn-Russia Quid Pro Quo?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The headlines about Trump and his team on the one hand and the Russian Federation on the other are coming fast and furious. The items are often, however, merely isolated data points. Can we draw them together?

First, while the Obama administration was imposing sanctions on Russia over its hacking attempts and other activities aimed at influencing the US presidential election, we now know that incoming National Security adviser Mike Flynn was calling the Russian embassy, on December 25. The current cover story for this call, delivered by Sean Spicer, is that Flynn was wishing the Russians merry Christmas. All the policy people are falling down laughing at this assertion. Flynn doesn’t seem to have called any other embassies to wish them a merry Christmas. And as he surely knew but Sean Spicer apparently does not, Eastern Orthodox Christians in Russia do not celebrate Christmas on December 25 but usually two weeks later. And moreover, New Year’s is the big holiday in Russia, not Christmas. Finally, Flynn called the Russians five times that day, which is a lot of holiday cheer.

So we may conclude that Flynn was actually doing something other than conveying holiday greetings. The most likely hypothesis is that he was reassuring Russia that Trump did not agree with Obama’s sanctions and that they would be lifted.

The second bit of news is that Trump told the Wall Street Journal Friday that he might remove sanctions on Russia entirely if they are helpful in, e.g., fighting terrorism. US sanctions on Russia are reducing Foreign Direct Investment and so harming the Russian economy. They also ruined a $500 billion deal Putin had done with ExxonMobil, whose CEO, Rex Tillerson, has been nominated for the Secretary of State position. You could imagine Putin and Tillerson wanting the sacntions lifted so that they could get back to pumping oil and making money.

The third piece of the puzzle is that the Russians have abruptly invited the United States to join them, the Turks, the Iranians and the Syrians at Astana in Kazakhstan on January 23. Trump will be sworn in on January 20. The Russians had not extended any similar invitation to the US in recent months during Obama’s last months in office. So we may conclude that the Russians hope that the incoming Trump administration will be a more constructive diplomatic partner in Syria than had the Obama administration (at least as Moscow defines constructive). The Russians represent themselves as fighting Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) and the Levantine Conquest Front (i.e. al-Qaeda in Syria) in that country, and so as indeed helping the US versus terrorism. The Obama administration had been dismayed that the Russians mainly focused on al-Qaeda and its battlefield allies. Some of the Salafi groups the CIA had allegedly vetted as moderate are in fact extremist and in recent weeks have been making closer alliances with al-Qaeda. But the Obama administration kept calling them moderates even if they had obviously become Salafi Jihadis. With Obama out and Trump in, the political geography of Syria may well be redefined, so that Washington will see the people the Russians are targeting as bona fide terrorists.

Maybe it is a coincidence that all three stories have broken in the past couple days. Or maybe the stories are threaded together, with Flynn at the center. Flynn perhaps reassures Russia about Obama’s new sanctions. Then Trump hints strongly that he will lift the sanctions on Russia growing out of its unilateral annexation of Crimea and its election hacking efforts. He makes this end of sanctions dependent on Russia helping with terrorism.

And now the US is being suddenly invited again to the diplomatic table regarding Syria at Astana, in what is being advertised as, in part, an anti-terrorism effort.


Related video:

CNN: “Coons: Flynn’s calls with Russia “very suspicious”

All the President’s Deniers

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

This week, we’ve seen a parade of Donald J. Trump’s far-right cabinet appointees attempting to tone themselves down (with help from pliant GOP senators) for the general public with half-truths and evasions. They were not challenged on some key issues. Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, didn’t admit his company’s complicity in fooling the public about the danger of climate change, e.g. In particular, Mike Pompeo for CIA got off amazingly lightly.

So here’s the problem. Trump is putting someone in charge of the Company who doesn’t trust the facts. When his exhaustive persecution of Hillary Clinton over the Benghazi attack of 2012 yielded conclusive findings that exonerated her, he wrote his own dissenting report. His report was a dark fantasy; he should leave that to horror writer Stephen King.

Pompeo was behind an attempt to undermine the CIA in Iraq by claiming that the success of the fight against Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) there had been exaggerated by the intelligence community. In fact, Daesh has been steadily rolled up and is now besieged in virtually its last Iraqi territorial bastion, of West Mosul.

Pompeo, of Wichita Kansas, who is in the back pocket of the dirty-carbon Koch brothers, is a major climate change denialist. Climate change is one of the big security challenges facing the US. How can a denialist deal with the refugee flows it will create, the damage to infrstructure it will do, the terrorism it might provoke?

Pompeo was asked by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) if he would order the waterboarding of suspects by the Central Intelligence Agency if he were confirmed to lead it.

“Absolutely not,” he replied. “I will always comply with the law.”

Then he added, “I can’t imagine I would be asked by the president-elect or then president.”

So just close your eyes, Mike, and listen to Trump from Feb. 2015: “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work — torture works. Half these guys say ‘Torture doesn’t work’. Believe me, it works.”

Although Pompeo said he had voted for a law that banned waterboarding, what he actually voted for was banning torture; the trick is that he doesn’t define waterboarding as torture. In fact he has continued to advocate it and has slammed the Obama administration for not using it, so I think he wasn’t being entirely forthcoming here.

He wrote at his website in 2014, ““President Obama has continually refused to take the war on radical Islamic terrorism seriously—from ending our interrogation program in 2009 to trying to close Guantanamo Bay . . .”

What exactly does he mean by “ending our interrogation program”? By the way, Obama killed Osama Bin Laden; Pompeo didn’t.

Pompeo also caused a stir by arguing that Muslims must go around denouncing Muslim terrorism all the time or else they are “potentially complicit in these acts, and more importantly still, in those that may well follow.”

I can’t say how monstrous this is. Did Pompeo ever once stand up in Congress and denounce the terrorist actions of white supremacists, which are far more frequent and damaging than those of Muslims? And why is he comfortable joining an administration where Neofascist Steve Bannon is White House chief strategist? Maybe Pompeo is complicit?

Ironically, three white supremacists from Pompeo’s part of the country were busted in a plot to kill local Somali Muslims and to kill white officials and clergymen whom they saw as soft on Muslims. Some of Pompeo’s own political colleagues were in danger from these terrorists. So again, I ask. Did Pompeo denounce this group of white terrorists? If not, did he approve of their plans?

The CIA is in the business of having field officers recruit and run agents, including in the Muslim world. Will a Pompeo CIA really be good at gaining the trust of Muslims in the Middle East, if he thinks they are all terrorists?

Then there is Pompeo’s determination to go to war against Iran:

So you have to wonder whether someone who unfairly bashed the CIA for its successful work against Daesh in Iraq, who has alienated all America’s Muslim allies with his extremist Islamophobia, who denies the challenge of a rapidly changing climate, who lives in a fantasy world in which Hillary Clinton had any operational role at Benghazi, who favors waterboarding, and who doesn’t seem to have heard the speeches demanding torture given by his own prospective boss– and who has consistently failed to denounce terrorism by white supremacists– you have to wonder whether he can be successful at the helm of the CIA.


Related video:

Sen. Kamala Harris questions Pompeo on climate change,

Trump does Poor imitation of Tin-Pot Dictator at “Press Conference”

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

In his first news conference in months, president-elect Donald J. Trump engaged in a series of petulant tirades. For anyone like myself, who has lived under dictators in the global South, his performance was unpleasantly reminiscent of their authoritarian publicity techniques.

Instead of letting a wide range of reporters attend, he limited their spots so that he could pack the hall with his own supporters. Those supporters were the ones applauding, and since the cameras were not turned on the audience, television viewers may have thought the cheers came from reporters. This effect was intended. There are some allegations that some of the Trump supporters in attendance were actually part of a rent-a-crowd, a common technique among Middle Eastern dictators. And then there was the typical technique of painting dissidents and critics as themselves authoritarian. Innocent Japanese were interned during WWII on unsupported charges that they were imperialists. Members and former members of the 50,000-strong Communist Party in the US were accused of trying to take over the US government. Trump on Wednesday characterized the leak of the intelligence report as “Nazism,” as though he were a victim of an authoritarian genocide being perpetrated by a web news site. The charge is ironic, as Rula Jebreal pointed out:

1. Disagreement is treason. Trump’s spokesman slammed Buzzfeed for publishing the annex to the US intelligence report on Russian hacking of the US election, complaining that it was false and not verified by the intelligence agencies. I said yesterday that I found the dossier unconvincing. But Buzzfeed’s conviction that the document was of public interest and the at the public should be able to see and judge it for themselves can be argued about. Buzzfeed did not certify it as true. Trump essentially put them on trial for treason. As for inaccuracy, Trump and his people want a monopoly on it. Let’s remember that Trump denied for years that President Obama was born in the United States, that he keeps saying that the murder rate in the US has risen (it has fallen dramatically since the 1990s), that he denies that humans burning hydrocarbons causes climate change, that he says that unemployment is 42%, and that there are 30 million undocumented workers in the US (it is about 11 million and has fallen). His campaign allies at the Neo-Nazi Breitbart rag accused Hillary Clinton (edited by Steve Bannon) of practicing voodoo and/or of being part of a pedophilia ring run from a Washington, DC pizzeria. At least the report on Trump’s having been compromised by Russian intelligence on his escapades in Russia actually exists.

2. Divide and rule. Trump tried to single out Buzzfeed for publishing the document and CNN for reporting that it was part of the intelligence community’s report by denouncing them as “fake news” and refusing them the opportunity to question him. He instead allowed the white supremacist Breitbart (a chief producer of fake news from its inception) to toss him a softball. Creating disfavored and favored news outlets is a typical authoritarian move. Trump is punishing CNN to create an incentive for other news outlets to treat him with kid gloves, and he is hoping the other reporters will climb over the prostrate bodies of the Buzzfeed and CNN journalists on their way up to White House access. The reporters and news organizations will have to stick together to overcome this tactic. Trump is also trying to legitimize his buddy Steve Bannon’s Neofascist monstrosity, Breitbart, by favoring it over CNN in public. (The Breitbart reporter suggested that Trump crack down on all those mainstream ‘fake news’ outlets, which is sort of like a wine-seller arguing for prohibition). Incidentally, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed CNN’s story later in the day. CNN did not publish the two pages of salacious material and were treated completely unjustly by Trump.

3. The Big Lie. Trump contradicted the US intelligence community, which maintained that Russian hackers also broke into the servers of the Republican National Committee but declined to leak those documents– in contrast to the way they treated the Hillary Clinton campaign. Trump said, “had they broken into the Republican National Committee, I think they would’ve released it just like they did about Hillary . . .” But they did and they didn’t. Trump continues to manufacture his own reality, in his own interests. (If the Russians treated their hacked information differently, some would argue, that his how they threw the election to Trump. He wants to deny that he had any help and so denies the facts of the case.)

4. Weasel words. Aware of arguments being made that he is beholden to Russian financial concerns, Trump said “As a real estate developer, I have very, very little debt. I have assets that are — and now people have found out how big the company is, I have very little debt — I have very low debt. But I have no loans with Russia at all.” This assertion is disingenuous because he might have partnerships or Russian investors without categorizing that money as “loans.” In fact, Trump owes at least $300 million to creditors, and if you total up the debts held by all the companies in which he has at least a 1/3 stake, the debts may come to $1.5 billion! One of the New York City buildings he has a part ownership of carries a $950 million debt, some of which is held by the Bank of China. Trump may presently have no Russian creditors or projects (and his finances are so Byzantine that it is impossible to know), but that does not rule out his having Russian partners or investors in US or European projects. As for investments inside Russia, he certainly has tried. Contrary to what he said, he has tried on several occasions to build Trump Towers in Russia. The deals collapsed, but not for lack of trying. in 2008 he made $54 million on a sale of a Florida mansion for $95 million to a Russian billionaire. That’s a suspiciously large profit in Florida in 2008, and there have been questions about Russian or former Soviet Union businessmen laundering money through joint ventures with Trump. Trump also had a $30 million deal to put on a Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013 and wanted to invited and befriend Vladimir Putin.

5. Substituting spectacle for substance. Trump had one of his attorneys put on a dog and pony show about how he will handle his finances during his presidency, implying that he thereby put to rest the worries about his business conflicts of interest. No one who knows about the pertinent laws appears in the least convinced that Trump’s proposals resolved these issues. The attempt to use smoke and mirrors to finesse this matter is typical of authoritarian regimes, who deny their own corruption via public spectacle and the strong-arming of critics. The big piles of Manila folders were apparently empty and just for show.

Empty and just for show will be some of the words inscribed on the tombstone of Trump’s presidency.


Related video:

PBS: “Donald Trump’s first press conference as president-elect”

Informed Comment Fundraiser Success- with Profound thanks

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Many, many thanks to everyone who contributed during the annual IC Fundraiser! I’m bowled over by your generosity, and pledge to keep Informed Comment at the cutting edge of analysis of both foreign and domestic policy!

Am enclosing a photo I took last fall in Istanbul at Istiklal Avenue, a busy shopping and cultural scene, which, however, is now a ghost town because of a series of terrorist attacks in the city. Let’s remember what normal looks like. My solidarity with the city’s people as they face an unknown future!

cheers Juan Cole


For Russian hold on Trump, follow the Money, not the Sex tapes

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Buzzfeed has published the unverified allegations by a former MI6 analyst with good Russian contacts, contained in a two-page hitherto secret annex to the US intelligence community’s report on Russian hacking and interference in the 2016 election. These two pages have circulated in Washington for months. David Corn talked about them, though not with salacious detail, in October, and then Senate minority leader Harry Reid wrote a sharp letter to FBI director James Comey about them.

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The notion that Donald J. Trump might have been recorded doing kinky things on business trips to Moscow or St. Petersburg is plausible, but people should be careful here. It isn’t proven, and intelligence professionals gather a lot of raw intelligence that is nonsense. The specific allegations in the annex don’t make much sense (urolagnia is a fetish for sexual satisfaction, not an instrument of revenge on a political opponent).

Note, too, that it is just as plausible that the National Security Agency and/or the Central Intelligence Agency have data on Trump in Russia. If Trump were in contact with Russians whom the NSA was monitoring then they would have ended up monitoring him, as well.

That is,if the worry is that foreign intelligence agencies could blackmail someone like Trump, why isn’t it equally worrying that the US government could? J. Edgar Hoover used to blackmail congressional representatives all the time.

The unusual thing here is that even if Russia had such video, it is difficult to see how they could damage Trump. The people who elected him knew that he had appeared in pornographic videos, liked to tour the dressing rooms of the Miss Teen contests when the contestants were naked, and gropes random women in public places. That he paid for a golden shower or two isn’t even the most disgusting thing in his closet (at least if it was paid for it was consensual). So I think if Russia threatened him with being outed, he could just brush them off. The evangelical ministers who encourage their flocks to vote Republican have decided that they are all about forgiveness when it comes to Trump. I wouldn’t have said this last year this time, but the guy is teflon on the right.

If Trump has a vulnerability with regard to Russia, it is far more likely to be financial. He kept going bankrupt (six times!) as a strategy to avoid paying creditors, and understandably real banks stopped wanting to lend to him. The Financial Times alleges that Trump then got in bed with very wealthy figures from, e.g., Kazakhstan, who loaned him money or licensed his name for, e.g., the Trump Soho, in which he was a partner with a shadowy Kazakh figure. But FT suggests that the quid pro quo was that he got them into the New York real estate market, which they then used for money laundering. Money earned from embezzling (say, from the Kazakh ministry of petroleum) or criminal activity needs to be laundered before it can be openly invested. The criminal claims that the ill-gotten funds are profits from an investment, e.g. The FT thinks Trump may have, knowingly or naively, facilitated this kind of activity. If it was knowingly, of course, that was a heavy duty crime.

Or there is the Washington Post‘s expose of Trump’s relationship with a Russian “businessman” whom the Post characterizes as possibly having links to organized crime and whom, the Post alleges, former business partners accuse of routinely threatening to kill them.

In fact, big business people often seal deals at strip clubs, and sex parties in St. Petersburg were likely to be sweeteners for a business deal. Only puritan Americans would think it was the sex party that was the important thing.

James S. Henry in The American Interest surveyed several cases of Trump’s sketchy financial relationships with Russian or Former Soviet Union Oligarchs. Henry doesn’t allege criminality in these relationships, though the accounts he gives heavily hint at it. And if there was ever a place where Honore de Balzac’s maxim in Le pere Goriot was true, it is post-Soviet lands. Balzac said, “the secret of great fortunes with no apparent explanation is a crime forgotten because it was well executed.” Mario Puzo paraphrased it to “behind every great fortune there is a crime.”

Mark Sumner at Daily Kos also rounds up these oligarch/ organized crime links.

So if Russia has a hold on Trump, I’d look at the business angle, myself. The idea that they could shame him by attacking his reputation for sexual propriety seems a little far-fetched.


Related video:

USA Today: “Intel chiefs told Trump that Russia targeted him”