Bob Dreyfuss – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Wed, 24 Apr 2024 04:31:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.8.9 Trump blew up the Iran Nuclear Deal, unleashing Tehran — Can Biden Fix it? https://www.juancole.com/2024/04/nuclear-unleashing-tehran.html Wed, 24 Apr 2024 04:02:33 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=218203 By

( Tomdispatch.com ) – One, erratic and often unhinged, blew up the U.S.-Iran accord that was the landmark foreign policy achievement of President Obama’s second term. He then ordered the assassination of a top Iranian general visiting Iraq, dramatically raising tensions in the region. The other is a traditional advocate of American exceptionalism, a supporter of the U.S.-Iran agreement who promised to restore it upon taking office, only to ham-handedly bungle the job, while placating Israel.

In November, of course, American voters get to choose which of the two they’d trust with handling ongoing explosive tensions with Tehran across a Middle East now in crisis. The war in Gaza has already intensified the danger of an Iran-Israel conflict — with the recent devastating Israeli strike on an Iranian consulate in Syria and the Iranian response of drones and missiles dispatched against Israel only upping the odds. In addition, Iran’s “axis of resistance” — including Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, and militias in Iraq and Syria — has been challenging American hegemony throughout the Middle East, while drawing lethal U.S. counterstrikes in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

It was President Donald Trump, of course, who condemned the U.S.-Iran agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) while running in 2016. With his team of fervent anti-Iran hawks, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, he took a wrecking ball to relations with Iran. Six years ago, Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA and, in what he called a campaign of “maximum pressure,” reinstituted, then redoubled political and economic sanctions against Tehran. Characteristically, he maintained a consistently belligerent policy toward the Islamic Republic, threatening its very existence and warning that he could “obliterate” Iran.

Joe Biden had been a supporter of the accord, negotiated while he was Obama’s vice president. During his 2020 presidential campaign, he promised to rejoin it. In the end, though, he kept Trump’s onerous sanctions in place and months of negotiations went nowhere. While he put out feelers to Tehran, crises erupting in 2022 and 2023, including the invasion of Israel by Hamas, placed huge obstacles in the way of tangible progress toward rebooting the JCPOA.

Worse yet, still reeling from the collapse of the 2015 agreement and ruled by a hardline government deeply suspicious of Washington, Iran is in no mood to trust another American diplomatic venture. In fact, during the earlier talks, it distinctly overplayed its hand, demanding far more than Biden could conceivably offer.


“Natanz,” Digital Imagining, Dream, Realistic v. 2, 2024.

Meanwhile, Iran has accelerated its nuclear research and its potential production facilities, amassing large stockpiles of uranium that, as the Washington Post reports, “could be converted to weapons-grade fuel for at least three bombs in a time frame ranging from a few days to a few weeks.”

Trump’s Anti-Iran Jihad

While the U.S. and Iran weren’t exactly at peace when Trump took office in January 2017, the JCPOA had at least created the foundation for what many hoped would be a new era in their relations.

Iran had agreed to drastically limit the scale and scope of its uranium enrichment program, reduce the number of centrifuges it could operate, curtail its production of low-enriched uranium suitable for fueling a power plant, and ship nearly all of its enriched uranium stockpile out of the country. It closed and disabled its Arak plutonium reactor, while agreeing to a stringent regime in which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would monitor every aspect of its nuclear program.

In exchange, the United States, the European Union (EU), and the United Nations agreed to remove an array of economic sanctions, which, until then, had arguably made Iran the most sanctioned country in the world.

Free of some of them, its economy began to recover, while its oil exports, its economic lifeblood, nearly doubled. According to How Sanctions Work, a new book from Stanford University Press, Iran absorbed a windfall of $11 billion in foreign investment, gained access to $55 billion in assets frozen in Western banks, and saw its inflation rate fall from 45% to 8%.

But Trump acted forcefully to undermine it all. In October 2017, he “decertified” Iran’s compliance with the accord, amid false charges that it had violated the agreement. (Both the EU and the IAEA agreed that it had not.)

Many observers feared that Trump was creating an environment in which Washington could launch an Iraq-style war of aggression. In a New York Times op-ed, Larry Wilkerson, chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, suggested that Trump was repeating the pattern of unproven allegations President George W. Bush had relied on: “The Trump administration is using much the same playbook to create a false impression that war is the only way to address the threats posed by Iran.”

Finally, on May 8, 2018, Trump blew up the JCPOA and sanctions on Iran were back in place. Relentlessly, he and Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin piled on ever more of them in what they called a campaign of “maximum pressure.” Old sanctions were reactivated and hundreds of new ones added, targeting Iran’s banking and oil industries, its shipping industry, its metal and petrochemical firms, and finally, its construction, mining, manufacturing, and textile sectors. Countless individual officials and businessmen were also targeted, along with dozens of companies worldwide that dealt, however tangentially, with Iran’s sanctioned firms. It was, Mnuchin told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “a maximum pressure campaign for sanctions…. We will continue to ramp up, more, more, more.” At one point, in a gesture both meaningless and insulting, the Trump administration even sanctioned Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, a move moderate President Hassan Rouhani called “outrageous and idiotic,” adding that Trump was “afflicted by mental retardation.”

Then, in 2019, Trump took the unprecedented step of labeling the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s chief military arm, a “foreign terrorist organization.” He put a violent exclamation point on that when he ordered the assassination of Iran’s premier military leader, General Qassem Soleimani, during his visit to Baghdad.

Administration officials made it clear that the goal was toppling the regime and that they hoped the sanctions would provoke an uprising to overthrow the government. Iranians did, in fact, rise up in strikes and demonstrations, including most recently 2023’s “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement, partly thanks to tougher economic times due to the sanctions. The government’s response, however, was a brutal crackdown. Meanwhile, on the nuclear front, having painstakingly complied with the JCPOA until 2018, instead of being even more conciliatory Iran ramped up its program, enriching far more uranium than was necessary to fuel a power plant. And militarily, it initiated a series of clashes with U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf, attacked or seized foreign-operated oil tankers, shot down a U.S. drone in the Straits of Hormuz, and launched drones meant to cripple Saudi Arabia’s huge oil industry.

“The American withdrawal from the JCPOA and the severity of the sanctions that followed were seen by Iran as an attempt to break the back of the Islamic Republic or, worse, to completely destroy it,” Vali Nasr, a veteran analyst at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and one of the authors of How Sanctions Work, told me. “So, they circled the wagons. Iran became far more securitized, and it handed more and more power to the IRGC and the security forces.”

Biden’s Reign of (Unforced) Error

Having long supported a deal with Iran —  in 2008, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, in 2015, in a speech to Jewish leaders — Joe Biden called Trump’s decision to quit the JCPOA a “self-inflicted disaster.” But on entering the Oval Office, Biden failed to simply rejoin it.

Instead, he let months go by, while waxing rhetorical in a quest to somehow improve it. Even though the JCPOA had been working quite well, the Biden team insisted it wanted a “longer and stronger agreement” and that Iran first had to return to compliance with the agreement, even though it was the United States that had pulled out of the deal.

Consider that an unforced error. “Early in 2021 there was one last chance to restore the agreement,” Trita Parsi, an expert on Iran and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told me. “He could have just come back to the JCPOA by issuing an executive order, but he didn’t do anything for what turned out to be the ten most critical weeks.”

It was critical because the Iranian administration of President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, responsible for negotiating the original accord, was expiring and new elections were scheduled for June 2021. “One of the major mistakes Biden made is that he delayed the nuclear talks into April,” comments Seyed Hossein Mousavian, Princeton University scholar and a former top Iranian official who was part of its nuclear negotiating team in 2005-2007. “This was a golden opportunity to negotiate with the Rouhani team, but he delayed until a month before the Iranian elections. He could have finished the deal by May.”

When the talks finally did resume in April — “gingerly,” according to the New York Times — they were further complicated because, just days earlier, a covert Israeli operation had devastated one of Iran’s top nuclear research facilities with an enormous explosion. Iran responded by pledging to take the purity of its enriched uranium from 20% to 60%, which didn’t exactly help the talks, nor did Biden’s unwillingness to condemn Israel for a provocation clearly designed to wreck them.

That June, Iranians voted in a new president, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric and militant supporter of the “axis of resistance.” He took office in August, spent months assembling his administration, and appointed a new team to lead the nuclear talks. By July, according to American officials, those talks on a new version of the JCPOA had reached “near complete agreement,” only to fall apart when the Iranian side backed out.

It was also clear that the Biden administration didn’t prioritize the Iran talks, being less than eager to deal with bitter opposition from Israel and its allies on Capitol Hill. “Biden’s view was that he’d go along with reviving the JCPOA only if he felt it was absolutely necessary and to do it at the least political cost,” Parsi points out. “And it looked like he’d only do it if it were acceptable to Israel.”

Over the next two years, the United States and Iran engaged in an unproductive series of negotiations that seemed to come tantalizingly close to an agreement only to stop short. By the summer of 2022, the nuclear talks once again appeared to be making progress, only to fail yet again.  “After 15 months of intense, constructive negotiations in Vienna and countless interactions with the JCPOA participants and the U.S., I have concluded that the space for additional significant compromises has been exhausted,” wrote Josep Borrell Fontelles, the foreign policy chief for the European Union.

By the end of 2022, Biden reportedly declared the Iran deal “dead” and his chief negotiator insisted he wouldn’t “waste time” trying to revive it. As Mousavian told me, Iran’s crackdown on the Woman, Life, Freedom revolt in the wake of its “morality police” torturing and killing a young woman, Mahsa Amini, arrested on the streets of Tehran without a veil, and increased concern about Iranian drones being delivered to Russia for its war in Ukraine soured Biden on even talking to Iran.

Nonetheless, in 2023, yet another round of talks — helped, perhaps, by a prisoner exchange between the United States and Iran, including an agreement to unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian oil revenues – resulted in a tentative, informal accord that Iranian officials described as a “political ceasefire.” According to the Times of Israel, “the understandings would see Tehran pledge not to enrich uranium beyond its current level of 60 percent purity, to better cooperate with U.N. nuclear inspectors, to stop its proxy terror groups from attacking U.S. contractors in Iraq and Syria, to avoid providing Russia with ballistic missiles, and to release three American-Iranians held in the Islamic Republic.”

But even that informal agreement was consigned to the dustbin of history after Hamas’s October 7th attack doomed any rapprochement between the United States and Iran.

The question remains: Could some version of the JCPOA be salvaged in 2025?

Certainly not if, as now seems increasingly possible, a shooting war breaks out involving the United States, Iran, and Israel, a catastrophic crisis with unforeseeable consequences. And certainly not if Trump is reelected, which would plunge the United States and Iran deeper into their cold (if not a devastatingly hot) war.

What do the experts say? Against the possibility of a revived accord, according to Vali Nasr, Iran has concluded that Washington is an utterly untrustworthy negotiating partner whose word is worthless. “Iran has decided that there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans and they decided to escalate tensions further in order to gain what they hope is additional leverage vis-à-vis Washington.”

“Biden’s intention was to revive the deal,” says Hossein Mousavian. “He did take some practical steps to do so and at least he tried to deescalate the situation.” Iran was, however, less willing to move forward because Biden insisted on maintaining the sanctions Trump had imposed.

The Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi, however, catches the full pessimism of a moment in which Iran and Israel (backed remarkably fully by Washington) are at the edge of actual war. Given the rising tensions in the region, not to speak of actual clashes, he says gloomily, “The best that we can hope for is that nothing happens. There is no hope for anything more.”

And that’s where hope is today in a Middle East that seems to be heading for hell in a handbasket. 

Via Tomdispatch.com

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Will Trump Strike Iran as his October Surprise? https://www.juancole.com/2020/08/strike-october-surprise.html Wed, 12 Aug 2020 04:01:51 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=192528 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – Was Donald Trump’s January 3rd drone assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani the first step in turning the simmering Cold War between the United States and Iran into a hot war in the weeks before an American presidential election? Of course, there’s no way to know, but behind by double digits in most national polls and flanked by ultra-hawkish Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump is a notoriously impetuous and erratic figure. In recent weeks, for instance, he didn’t hesitate to dispatch federal paramilitary forces to American cities run by Democratic mayors and his administration also seems to have launched a series of covert actions against Tehran that look increasingly overt and have Iran watchers concerned about whether an October surprise could be in the cards.

Much of that concern arises from the fact that, across Iran, things have been blowing up or catching fire in ways that have seemed both mysterious and threatening. Early last month, for instance, a suspicious explosion at an Iranian nuclear research facility at Natanz, which is also the site of its centrifuge production, briefly grabbed the headlines. Whether the site was severely damaged by a bomb smuggled into the building or some kind of airstrike remains unknown. “A Middle Eastern intelligence official said Israel planted a bomb in a building where advanced centrifuges were being developed,” reported the New York Times. Similar fiery events have been plaguing the country for weeks. On June 26th, for instance, there was “a huge explosion in the area of a major Iranian military and weapons development base east of Tehran.” On July 15th, seven ships caught fire at an Iranian shipyard. Other mysterious fires and explosions have hit industrial facilities, a power plant, a missile production factory, a medical complex, a petrochemical plant, and other sites as well.

“Some officials say that a joint American-Israeli strategy is evolving — some might argue regressing — to a series of short-of-war clandestine strikes,” concluded another report in the Times.

Some of this sabotage has been conducted against the backdrop of a two-year-old “very aggressive” CIA action plan to engage in offensive cyber attacks against that country. As a Yahoo! News investigative report put it: “The Central Intelligence Agency has conducted a series of covert cyber operations against Iran and other targets since winning a secret victory in 2018 when President Trump signed what amounts to a sweeping authorization for such activities, according to former U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the matter… The finding has made it easier for the CIA to damage adversaries’ critical infrastructure, such as petrochemical plants.”

Meanwhile, on July 23rd, two U.S. fighter jets buzzed an Iranian civilian airliner in Syrian airspace, causing its pilot to swerve and drop altitude suddenly, injuring a number of the plane’s passengers.

For many in Iran, the drone assassination of Soleimani — and the campaign of sabotage that followed — has amounted to a virtual declaration of war. The equivalent to the Iranian major general’s presidentially ordered murder, according to some analysts, would have been Iran assassinating Secretary of State Pompeo or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, although such analogies actually understate Soleimani’s stature in the Iranian firmament.

In its aftermath, Iran largely held its fire, its only response being a limited, telegraphed strike at a pair of American military bases in Iraq. If Soleimani’s murder was intended to draw Iran into a tit-for-tat military escalation in an election year, it failed. So perhaps the U.S. and Israel designed the drumbeat of attacks against critical Iranian targets this summer as escalating provocations meant to goad Iran into retaliating in ways that might provide an excuse for a far larger U.S. response.

Such a conflict-to-come would be unlikely to involve U.S. ground forces against a nation several times larger and more powerful than Iraq. Instead, it would perhaps involve a sustained campaign of airstrikes against dozens of Iranian air defense installations and other military targets, along with the widespread network of facilities that the United States has identified as being part of that country’s nuclear research program.

The “Art” of the Deal in 2020

In addition to military pressure and fierce sanctions against the Iranian economy, Washington has been cynically trying to take advantage of the fact that Iran, already in a weakened state, has been especially hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Those American sanctions have, for instance, made it far harder for that country to get the economic support and medical and humanitarian supplies it so desperately needs, given its soaring death count.

According to a report by the European Leadership Network,

“Rather than easing the pressure during the crisis, the U.S. has applied four more rounds of sanctions since February and contributed to the derailing of Iran’s application for an IMF [International Monetary Fund] loan. The three special financial instruments designed to facilitate the transfer of humanitarian aid to Iran in the face of secondary sanctions on international banking transactions… have proven so far to have been one-shot channels, stymied by U.S. regulatory red tape.”

To no avail did Human Rights Watch call on the United States in April to ease its sanctions in order to facilitate Iran’s ability to grapple with the deadly pandemic, which has officially killed nearly 17,000 people since February (or possibly, if a leaked account of the government’s actual death figures is accurate, nearly 42,000).

Iran has every reason to feel aggrieved. At great political risk, President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei agreed in 2015 to a deal with the United States and five other world powers over Iran’s nuclear research program. That accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), accomplished exactly what it was supposed to do: it led Iran to make significant concessions, cutting back both on its nuclear research and its uranium enrichment program in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions by the United States and other trade partners.

Though the JCPOA worked well, in 2018 President Trump unilaterally withdrew from it, reimposed far tougher sanctions on Iran, began what the administration called a campaign of “maximum pressure” against Tehran, and since assassinating Soleimani has apparently launched military actions just short of actual war. Inside Iran, Trump’s confrontational stance has helped tilt politics to the right, undermining Rouhani, a relative moderate, and eviscerating the reformist movement there. In elections for parliament in February, ultraconservatives and hardliners swept to a major victory.

But the Iranian leadership can read a calendar, too. Like voters in the United States, they know that the Trump administration is probably going to be voted out of office in three months. And they know that, in the event of war, it’s more likely than not that many Americans — including, sadly, some hawkish Democrats in Congress, and influential analysts at middle-of-the-road Washington think tanks — will rally to the White House. So unless the campaign of covert warfare against targets in Iran were to intensify dramatically, the Iranian leadership isn’t likely to give Trump, Pompeo, and crew the excuse they’re looking for.

As evidence that Iran’s leadership is paying close attention to the president’s electoral difficulties, Khamenei only recently rejected in the most explicit terms possible what most observers believe is yet another cynical ploy by the American president, when he suddenly asked Iran to reengage in direct leader-to-leader talks. In a July 31st speech, the Iranian leader replied that Iran is well aware Trump is seeking only sham talks to help him in November. (In June, Trump tweeted Iran: “Don’t wait until after the U.S. Election to make the Big deal! I’m going to win!”) Indeed, proving that Washington has no intention of negotiating with Iran in good faith, after wrecking the JCPOA and ratcheting up sanctions, the Trump administration announced an onerous list of 12 conditions that would have to precede the start of such talks. In sum, they amounted to a demand for a wholesale, humiliating Iranian surrender. So much for the art of the deal in 2020.

October Surprises, Then and Now

Meanwhile, the United States isn’t getting much support from the rest of the world for its thinly disguised effort to create chaos, a possible uprising, and the conditions to force regime change on Iran before November 3rd. At the United Nations, when Secretary of State Pompeo called on the Security Council to extend an onerous arms embargo on Iran, not only did Russia and China promise to veto any such resolution but America’s European allies opposed it, too. They were particularly offended by Pompeo’s threat to impose “snapback” economic sanctions on Iran as laid out in the JCPOA if the arms embargo wasn’t endorsed by the council. Not lost on the participants was the fact that, in justifying his demand for such new U.N. sanctions, the American secretary of state was invoking the very agreement that Washington had unilaterally abandoned. “Having quit the JCPOA, the U.S. is no longer a participant and has no right to trigger a snapback at the U.N.,” was the way China’s U.N. ambassador put it.

That other emerging great power has, in fact, become a major spoiler and Iranian ally against the Trump administration’s regime-change strategy, even as its own relations with Washington grow grimmer by the week. Last month, the New York Times reported that Iran and China had inked “a sweeping economic and security partnership that would clear the way for billions of dollars of Chinese investments in energy and other sectors, undercutting the Trump administration’s efforts to isolate the Iranian government.” The 18-page document reportedly calls for closer military cooperation and a $400 billion Chinese investment and trade accord that, among other things, takes direct aim at the Trump-Pompeo effort to cripple Iran’s economy and its oil exports.

According to Shireen Hunter, a veteran Middle Eastern analyst at Georgetown University, that accord should be considered a world-changing one, as it potentially gives China “a permanent foothold in Iran” and undermines “U.S. strategic supremacy in the [Persian] Gulf.” It is, she noted with some alarm, a direct result of Trump’s anti-Iranian obsession and Europe’s reluctance to confront Washington’s harsh sanctions policy.

On June 20th, in a scathing editorial, the Washington Post agreed, ridiculing the administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran. Not only had the president failed to bring down Iran’s government or compelled it to change its behavior in conflicts in places like Syria and Yemen, but now, in a powerful blow to U.S. interests, “an Iranian partnership with China… could rescue Iran’s economy while giving Beijing a powerful new place in the region.”

If, however, the traditional Washington foreign policy establishment believes that Trump’s policy toward Iran is backfiring and so working against U.S. hegemony in the Persian Gulf, his administration seems not to care. As evidence mounts that its approach to Iran isn’t having the intended effect, the White House continues apace: squeezing that country economically, undermining its effort to fight Covid-19, threatening it militarily, appointing an extra-hardliner as its “special envoy” for Iran, and apparently (along with Israel) carrying out a covert campaign of terrorism inside the country.

Over the past four decades, “October surprise” has evolved into a catch-all phrase meaning any unexpected action by a presidential campaign just before an election designed to give one of the candidates a surprise advantage. Ironically, its origins lay in Iran. In 1980, during the contest between President Jimmy Carter and former California Governor Ronald Reagan, rumors surfaced that Carter might stage a raid to rescue scores of American diplomats then held captive in Tehran. (He didn’t.) According to other reports, the Reagan campaign had made clandestine contact with Tehran aimed at persuading that country not to release its American hostages until after the election. (Two books, October Surprise by Gary Sick, a senior national security adviser to Carter, and Trick or Treason by investigative journalist Bob Parry delved into the possibility that candidate Reagan, former CIA Director Bill Casey, and others had engaged in a conspiracy with Iran to win that election.)

Consider it beyond irony if, this October, the latest election “surprise” were to take us back to the very origins of the term in the form of some kind of armed conflict that could only end terribly for everyone involved. It’s a formula for disaster and like so many other things, when it comes to Donald J. Trump, it can’t be ruled out.

Bob Dreyfuss, an investigative journalist and TomDispatch regular, is a contributing editor at the Nation and has written for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the American Prospect, the New Republic, and many other magazines. He is the author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Bob Dreyfuss

Via Tomdispatch.com

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Arirang News: “Trump says he will quickly make deals with N.Korea and Iran if reelected”

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Coronavirus and Intelligence: Trump is Getting up Conflict with China the way Bush did with Iraq https://www.juancole.com/2020/05/coronavirus-intelligence-conflict.html Fri, 22 May 2020 04:01:47 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=191038 By Bob Dreyfuss | –

( Tomdispatch.com ) – There’s a meme that appears now and then on Facebook and other social media: “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.”

That’s funny. What’s not is that the Trump administration and its coterie of China-bashers, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and aided by Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton, have recently been dusting off the fake-intelligence playbook Vice President Dick Cheney used in 2002 and 2003 to justify war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. At that time, the administration of President George W. Bush put enormous pressure on the U.S. intelligence community to ratify spurious allegations that Saddam Hussein was in league with al-Qaeda and that his regime had assembled an arsenal of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Fantasy claims they may have been, but they did help to convince many skeptical conservatives and spooked liberals that a unilateral, illegal invasion of Iraq was urgently needed.

This time around, it’s the Trump administration’s reckless charge that Covid-19 — maybe manmade, maybe not, advocates of this conspiracy theory argue — was released perhaps deliberately, perhaps by accident from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, the city that was the epicenter of the outbreak late last year. It’s a story that has ricocheted around the echo chambers of the far right, from conspiracy-oriented Internet kooks like Infowars’ Alex Jones to semi-respectable media tribunes and radio talk-show hosts to the very highest reaches of the administration itself, including President Trump.

Unlike with Iraq in 2003, the U.S. isn’t planning on going to war with China, at least not yet. But the Trump administration’s zeal in shifting attention from its own bungling of the Covid-19 crisis to China’s alleged culpability in creating a global pandemic only raises tensions precipitously between the planet’s two great powers at a terrible moment. In the process, it essentially ensures that the two countries will be far less likely to cooperate in managing the long-term pandemic or collaboratively working on vaccines and cures. That makes it, as in 2002-2003, a matter of life and death.

Iraq Redux?

Back in 2002, the Bush administration launched an unending campaign of pressure on the CIA and other intelligence agencies to falsify, distort, and cherry-pick intelligence factoids that could be collated into a package linking al-Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction to Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad. At the Pentagon, neoconservatives like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith set up an ad hoc team that eventually took on the name of Office of Special Plans. It was dedicated to fabricating intelligence on Iraq.

Just in case the message didn’t get across, Vice President Cheney made repeated visits to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to badger analysts to come up with something useful. In 2003, in “The Lie Factory,” which I co-authored with Jason Vest for Mother Jones, we reported on how Wolfowitz, Feith, allied Defense Department officials like Harold Rhode, and neoconservative apparatchiks like David Wurmser, then a senior adviser to Iraq-war-touting State Department Undersecretary John Bolton (and now an unofficial advisor to Donald Trump on Iran), actively worked to purge Pentagon and CIA officials who resisted the push to shape or exaggerate intelligence. A year later, veteran spy-watcher James Bamford described the whole episode in excruciating detail in his 2004 book, A Pretext for War.

In 2020, however, President Trump is not just pressuring the intelligence community, or IC. He’s at war with it and has been busy installing unprofessional know-nothings and sycophants in top positions there. His bitter antipathy began even before he was sworn into office, when he repeatedly refused to believe a sober analysis from the IC, including the CIA and FBI, that President Vladimir Putin of Russia had aided and abetted his election. Since then, he’s continually railed and tweeted against what he calls “the deep state.” And he’s assigned his authoritarian attorney general, Bill Barr, to conduct a scorched-earth offensive against the work of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the FBI, and the Justice Department itself, most recently by dropping charges against admitted liar Michael Flynn, briefly Trump’s first national security advisor.

To make sure that the IC doesn’t challenge his wishes and does his bidding, Trump has moved to put his own political operatives in charge at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, created as part of an intelligence reorganization scheme after 9/11. The effort began in February when Trump named U.S. ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell as acting DNI. A highly partisan, sharp-elbowed politico and spokesman for former National Security Advisor John Bolton, he harbors far-right views and is a Trump loyalist, as well as an acolyte of former Trump aide Steve Bannon. On arriving in Bonn as ambassador, Grenell soon endorsed the rise of Europe’s anti-establishment ultra-right in an interview with Bannon’s Breitbart News.

To bolster Grenell, the administration has called on another ultra-right crusader, Kash Patel. He has served as Republican Congressman Devin Nunes’s aide in the campaign to discredit the Russia investigation and reportedly acted as a White House backchannel to Ukraine during the effort to stir up an inquiry in Kiev aimed at tarring former Vice President Joe Biden.

Following that, the president re-named Congressman John Ratcliffe of Texas, one of the president’s most enthusiastic defenders during the debate over impeachment, to serve as Grenell’s permanent replacement at ODNI. In 2019, Trump first floated Ratcliffe’s name for the post, but it was shot down days later, thanks to opposition from even Republican members of Congress, not to speak of intelligence professionals and various pundits. Now, he’s back, awaiting likely confirmation.

It remains to be seen whether the Grenell-Ratcliffe tag-team, combined with Trump’s three-year campaign to disparage the intelligence community and intimidate its functionaries, has softened them up enough for the administration’s push to finger China and its labs for creating and spreading Covid-19.

The Wuhan Lab Lies

As is often the case, that campaign began rather quietly and unobtrusively in conservative and right-wing media outlets.

On January 24th, the right-wing Washington Times ran a story entitled “Coronavirus may have originated in a lab linked to China’s biowarfare program.” It, in turn, was playing off of a piece that had appeared in London’s Daily Mail the previous day. Written like a science-fiction thriller, that story drew nearly all its (unverified) information from a single source, an Israeli military intelligence China specialist. Soon, it moved from the Washington Times to other American right-wing outlets. Steve Bannon picked it up the next day on his podcast, “War Room: Pandemic,” calling the piece “amazing.” A few days later, the unreliable, gossipy website ZeroHedge ran a (later much-debunked) piece saying that a Chinese scientist bioengineered the virus, purporting even to name the scientist.

A couple of weeks later, Fox News weighed in, laughably citing a Dean Koontz novel, The Eyes of Darkness, about “a Chinese military lab that creates a new virus to potentially use as a biological weapon during wartime.” The day after that, Senator Tom Cotton — appearing on Fox, of course — agreed that China might indeed have created the virus. Then the idea began to go… well, viral. (Soon Cotton was even tweeting that Beijing might possibly have deliberately released the virus.) By late February, the right’s loudest voice, Rush Limbaugh, was on the case, claiming that the virus “is probably a ChiCom laboratory experiment that is in the process of being weaponized.” (A vivid account of how this conspiracy theory spread can be found at the Global Disinformation Index.)

Starting in March, even as they were dismissing the seriousness of Covid-19, both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeatedly insisted on referring to it as the “China virus” or the “Wuhan virus,” ignoring criticism that terminology like that was both racist and inflammatory. In late March, Pompeo even managed to scuttle a communiqué from America’s allies in the Group of Seven, or G7, by demanding that they agree to use the term “Wuhan virus.” It didn’t take the president long to start threatening retaliatory action against China for its alleged role in spreading Covid-19, while he began comparing the pandemic to the 1941 Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

And all of that was but a prelude to the White House ramping up of pressure on the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community to prove that the virus had indeed emerged, whether by design or accident, from either the Wuhan Institute of Virology or the Wuhan Center for Disease Control, a branch of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An April 30th article in the New York Times broke the story that administration officials “have pushed American spy agencies to hunt for evidence to support an unsubstantiated theory that a government laboratory in Wuhan, China, was the origin of the coronavirus outbreak,” and that Grenell had made it a “priority.”

Both Trump and Pompeo would, in the meantime, repeatedly assert that they had seen actual “evidence” that the virus had indeed come from a Chinese lab, though Trump pretended that the information was so secret he couldn’t say anything more about it. “I can’t tell you that,” he said. “I’m not allowed to tell you that.” Asked during an appearance on ABC’s This Week if the virus had popped out of a lab in Wuhan, Pompeo answered: “There is enormous evidence that that’s where this began.”

On April 30th, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a terse statement, saying that so far it had concluded Covid-19 is “not manmade or genetically modified,” but that they were looking into whether or not it was “the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.” There is, however, no evidence of such an accident, nor did the ODNI cite any.

A Finger on the Scale

The run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2002-2003 should be on all our minds today. Then, top officials simply repeated again and again that they believed both Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent ties to al-Qaeda and his nonexistent active nuclear, chemical, and bioweapon programs were realities and assigned intelligence community collectors and analysts to look into them (while paying no attention to their conclusions). Now, Trump and his people are similarly putting their fat fingers on the scale of reality, while making it clear to hopefully intimidated intelligence professionals just what conclusions they want to hear.

Because those professionals know that their careers, salaries, and pensions depend on the continued favor of the politicians who pay them, there is, of course, a tremendous incentive to go along with such demands, shade what IC officials call the “estimate” in the direction the White House wants, or at least keep their mouths shut. That is exactly what happened in 2002 and, given that Grenell, Patel, and Ratcliffe are essentially Trump toadies, the IC officials lower on the totem pole have to be grimly aware of what their latest bosses expect from them.

There was near-instant pushback from scientists, intelligence officials, and China experts about the Trump-Pompeo campaign to finger the Wuhan lab. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the preeminent American scientist and Covid-19 expert, promptly shot it down, saying that the virus had “evolved in nature and then jumped species.” That’s because actual scientists, who study the genome of the virus and its mutations, unanimously agree that it was not generated in a lab.

Among America’s allies — Australia, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand — in what’s called the Five Eyes group, there was an unambiguous conclusion that the virus had been a “naturally occurring” one and had mutated in the course of “human and animal interaction.” Australia, in particular, rejected what appeared to be a fake-intelligence dossier about the Wuhan lab, while German officials in an internal document ridiculed the lab rumors as “a calculated attempt to distract” attention from the Trump administration’s own inept handling of the virus.

Finally, according to Bloomberg News, those studying the issue inside the intelligence community now say that suspicions it emerged from a lab are “largely circumstantial since the U.S. has very little information from the ground to back up the lab-escape theory or any other.” In the end, however, that doesn’t mean top IC officials beholden to the White House won’t tailor their conclusions to fit the Trump-Pompeo narrative.

John McLaughlin, who served as deputy director and then acting director of the CIA during the Bush administration, believes that we are indeed seeing a replay of what happened in Iraq nearly two decades ago. “What it reminds me of is the dispute between the CIA and parts of the Bush administration over whether there was an operational relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda,” he said. “They kept asking the CIA, and we kept coming back and saying, ‘You know, it’s just not there.’”

Whether the tug-of-war between Trump, Pompeo, and the IC is just another passing battle in a more than three-year-old war between the president and the “Deep State” or whether it’s something that could lead to a serious crisis between Washington and Beijing remains to be seen. Ironically enough, in January and February of this year, the IC provided President Trump with more than a dozen clear warnings about the dangers to the United States and national security posed by the coronavirus, following clarion calls from China and the World Health Organization that what was happening in Wuhan could spread worldwide — warnings that Trump either failed to notice, disregarded, or downplayed through March.

Were Donald Trump not so predisposed to see the intelligence community as his enemy, he might have paid more attention back then. Had he done so, there would undoubtedly be many less dead Americans right now and he wouldn’t have had to spend his time in his own lab concocting what might be thought of as batshit excuses for his dereliction of duty.

By the time this affair is over, the invasion of Iraq could look like the good old days.

Bob Dreyfuss, an investigative journalist and TomDispatch regular, is a contributing editor at the Nation and has written for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the American Prospect, the New Republic, and many other magazines. He is the author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Bob Dreyfuss

Via Tomdispatch.com

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

TRT World: “Trump suggests cutting ties with China over Covid-19 crisis”

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Rudy Giuliani’s sinister Foreign Policy Coup on Behalf of the World’s Shadiest Customers https://www.juancole.com/2020/03/giulianis-sinister-customers.html Fri, 06 Mar 2020 05:01:07 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=189491 (Tomdispatch.com) – Imagine, just for the sake of argument, that the president of the United States was an arrogant, information-challenged, would-be autocrat with a soft spot for authoritarian leaders from China, Russia, and North Korea to Egypt (“my favorite dictator”), Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. And then, suppose that very president, while hollowing out the State Department and slamming its diplomats as “Deep State” troublemakers, were to name a voluble wheeler-dealer attorney as his unofficial, freelance White House go-between with shady characters worldwide. Imagine further that the president would do an end run around the professionals of the U.S. intelligence community — more Deep Staters, natch — and rely instead on conspiracy theories trundled back to Washington in that attorney’s briefcase.

Now, one last unimaginable thing, but humor me: accept that the attorney in question went by the name of Rudy Giuliani.

That, of course, is a reasonable description of the state of America in 2020. Three-plus years into Donald Trump’s misshapen presidency, as the “adults” fled the room one by one or were pushed to the exits, the president was left with a rump collection of family loyalists and third-tier yes-people around him.

Rarely, if ever, do mainstream media types take a step back to survey the classic Star Wars bar-like crew of know-nothings, Bible-thumpers, and connivers who’ve been assembled as Trump’s “team” and their breathtaking incompetence and perfidy. Luckily, with Giuliani in the mix, there’s at least one figure so wildly over-the-top that analysts and pundits have heaped scorn or ridicule on his head, and often his alone, as a person so outrageously unfit, so borderline deranged, so nakedly in it for profit that it’s impossible to consider him without marveling at the tragicomedy of it all.

Since 2017, however, Rudy Giuliani has emerged as Trump’s shadow secretary of state with his hands in American foreign policy and politics from Iran to Russia, Turkey to Ukraine and beyond. That means anyone, anywhere in the world, with a few million bucks to proffer and an angle to pursue in Washington can avoid Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Christian-right uber-hawk from Kansas, and sidle up instead to the former U.S. attorney from the Southern District of New York and mayor of New York City.

During most of 2019, as is well known to anyone who even casually followed the impeachment proceedings in Congress, Giuliani had a starring role in President Trump’s conspiracy-laden efforts to prove that Ukraine, not Russia, intervened in the 2016 election and that Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, were mixed up in something nefarious there. (To those in the reality-based world, of course, it was Russia, not Ukraine that meddled massively in 2016. And the Bidens, it’s clear, did nothing illegal in Kyiv.)

As we shall see, the Trump-Giuliani conspiracy theory about that country originated with and was “fertilized” by three individuals who’d earlier been caught up in Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation of the White House: Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the disgraced former national security advisor in the White House; Paul Manafort, who chaired Trump’s election campaign; and Manafort’s Ukraine partner and ally, an apparent operative for Russia’s GRU intelligence service, Konstantin Kilimnik. In other words, the Trump-Giuliani Ukraine adventure did indeed get a boost from Vladimir Putin’s secret service and Moscow’s propaganda machine.

You’ll remember, perhaps, or maybe you’ve forgotten, that before Mike Pompeo was secretary of state, before his predecessor Rex (“Rexxon”) Tillerson even took the job, it looked for a while like Giuliani was going to get it. He and Donald Trump had been political friends-with-benefits since the mid-1990s, as evidenced by a cringe-worthy 2000 video of Trump placing his lips unbidden on Giuliani-in-drag’s “breast.” The former mayor had quietly sought to reposition himself as the reincarnation of Roy Cohn, the mob-connected lawyer who had been a mentor to the up-and-coming New York real estate tycoon. (“Where’s my Roy Cohn?”) It’s hardly surprising then that, following Trump’s surprise victory in November 2016, Giuliani began lobbying hard for the secretary of state job. At the same time, he was fervently urging the president-elect not to select never-Trumper Mitt Romney for it. (Giuliani did, however, also endorse John Bolton, Washington’s warmonger-in-chief, for the job.)

Back in 2016, a week or so after the election, a New York Times editorial drily noted that the appointment of Giuliani as secretary of state “would be a dismal and potentially disastrous choice,” that he lacked “any substantive diplomatic experience and has demonstrated poor judgment throughout his career,” appeared “unhinged,” and would come with a “flurry of potential conflicts of interest.” And keep in mind that, back then, Giuliani was only getting started.

In recent years, much has been written, and accurately so, about the exodus of veteran diplomats — ambassadors to toilers in the ranks — from a gutted Foggy Bottom and its global outposts under both Tillerson and Pompeo. Writing last October for Foreign Affairs, for instance, former diplomat William Burns noted that fewer people took the department’s entrance exam in 2019 than in any year in previous decades. “Career diplomats,” wrote Burns, “are sidelined, with only one of 28 assistant secretary-rank positions filled by a Foreign Service officer, and more ambassadorships going to political appointees in this administration than in any in recent history.” He added: “One-fifth of ambassadorships remain unfilled, including critical posts.”

At the State Department, as one ambassador told the Hill, morale “is at a new low, although I am not sure it could fall much lower than where it has been for the past three years.” And that decline only accelerated after the humiliating dismissal of the U.S. ambassador in Kyiv, Marie Yovanovitch, whose ouster was orchestrated by Giuliani.

To be sure, the State Department was never a progressive bastion, not during the Cold War years nor in the era when America was the global hyperpower. It is, nonetheless, the main vehicle for any president wishing to use the levers of diplomacy rather than the oft-chosen military option. Now, with the adults gone and the diplomats increasingly neutered, we’re left with Trump and Giuliani. Neither hawks nor doves, they’re vultures, viewing every country as part of a vast veldt where they can pick at carcasses of every sort for their own business or political gain.

How to Become a Shadow Secretary of State

Giuliani’s foreign policy portfolio extends far and wide, though it was in Ukraine — specifically with that country’s many corrupt, Russian-leaning oligarchs — that he rocketed to world attention and helped trigger the president’s impeachment. In his world travels, Giuliani has combined his roles as businessman, security consultant, political fixer, and the president’s personal attorney into a mishmash of overlapping identities. He has, in other words, become a kind of walking, talking conflict-of-interest machine.

Before zeroing in on Ukraine, however, let’s consider just a few of Giuliani’s other foreign ventures. Since leaving office as New York’s mayor, through Giuliani Partners, the Bracewell & Giuliani law partnership, and (after 2016) the giant law firm of Greenberg Traurig, along with Giuliani Security & Safety and Giuliani Capital Advisers, the former mayor has pulled in millions of dollars working on behalf of foreign clients, including highly controversial ones. Among those deals, contracts, and maneuvers, before and after Trump became president and hired his old friend Rudy to serve as his personal attorney in 2018, Giuliani has been involved in a far-flung series of deals: he’s been a paid lobbyist in Romania; had a cybersecurity contract in Qatar; had deals in Colombia, Argentina, and El Salvador; worked shadow diplomacy (with a business angle) with Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro; operated in Japan, Serbia, and Guatemala; and that only begins to tell the story.

Consider Turkey, starting in 2017. Back then, when Lieutenant General Michael Flynn was forced to resign after just a few weeks as national security advisor, it turned out that he had quietly (and without reporting it) been working on behalf of Turkey’s autocratic government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during the 2016 election campaign. Erdogan was disturbed by the presence of a dissident, Fethullah Gulen, in the United States. As an unregistered advocate for Turkey, Flynn lobbied in 2016 to have the United States expel Gulen and send him back to Turkey. Early the next year, Flynn was gone, but no fear, Rudy Giuliani promptly took up the same cause. He began urging President Trump to extradite Gulen to Turkey, where Erdogan was accusing him of having plotted an attempted coup d’état. (In the end, Gulen wasn’t expelled.)

Given Giuliani’s ability to mix policy with business, you won’t be surprised to learn that he was also enmeshed in more lucrative efforts in Turkey. At around the same time, he was lobbying Trump to endorse a prisoner swap involving one of his clients, an Iranian-born Turkish gold trader named Reza Zarrab whom the FBI had arrested in 2016 on charges of money laundering and trying to do an end run around economic sanctions on Iran. According to the New York Times, Zarrab had been working with Halkbank, a major Turkish bank with close ties to Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak who is also President Erdogan’s son-in-law, to “funnel more than $10 billion in gold and cash to Iran.”

At first blush, it might seem odd for Giuliani to offer his services on behalf of an Iranian expat accused of trying to break U.S. sanctions whose family, it turned out, had close ties to former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Curious, yes, but for Giuliani, business is business and there were bucks to be made. That he would use his connections to the Oval Office in an ultimately unsuccessful appeal for his client is even odder, given that Giuliani is otherwise a militant hardliner when it comes to demanding the overthrow of the Iranian government.

Case in point: his long-time affiliation with the People’s Jihadists, otherwise known as the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq, or MEK. Like many of Giuliani’s escapades abroad, his efforts with MEK were a money-making project. Along with John Bolton, the late Senator John McCain, former National Security Advisor Jim Jones, and former Attorney General Mike Mukasey, Giuliani has for years been affiliated with the MEK, making perhaps a dozen appearances, mostly paid speeches, at its conventions and rallies.

The MEK has almost no support inside Iran, not only because it’s conducted a terror campaign against that country’s top officials since 1981, but because it operated with the backing of Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein during and after the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. It’s also widely regarded as a cult. Last year, in the midst of his anti-Joe Biden skullduggery in Ukraine, in his 11th appearance at an MEK confab, Giuliani traveled to Albania, of all places, where the group has established a military and political base. There, he called Trump “heroic” for “doing away with the reckless nuclear agreement and putting [Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] on the terrorist list.”

In 2018, this reporter attended one of the MEK’s large-scale events, held at a hotel in midtown New York City. General Jim Jones, who became an ultra-hawk after being ousted as President Obama’s national security advisor in 2010, spoke to the gathering first, noting proudly that he is supposedly on a list of people the government in Tehran plans to assassinate.

Rising to speak after Jones, Giuliani seemed jealous. “I hope I say enough offensive things that they’ll put me on that list to kill me,” he commented. Needless to say, both Jones and Giuliani are still alive and kicking, and there’s no evidence that either one is on any Iranian kill list. However, thanks in part to Giuliani’s hardline, anti-Iran advice to the president, that country’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, was indeed placed on a presidential kill list and drone assassinated as 2020 began.

And Then There Was Ukraine

It was, of course, in connection with Ukraine that Giuliani’s freelancing came to the world’s attention. In the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s impeachment report, his name is mentioned about 160 times. He’s cited, first and foremost because, in that infamous “perfect” July 2019 phone call of his, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to work through him; because the former mayor was the primary organizer of the smear campaign against the actual ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who was subsequently fired; and because it was he who, starting as early as May 2019, masterminded a months-long political witch hunt against the Bidens, demanding over and over that Ukraine carry out an ersatz investigation of the man the president then expected to be his chief 2020 election opponent.

Numerous figures, including Ambassador Bill Taylor, who succeeded Yovanovitch at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, would express dismay over Giuliani’s role as the “irregular” channel for the Trump administration’s Ukraine policy — the “Giuliani factor,” as Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker called it. The story of how all this led to the president’s impeachment is too well known to be rehashed here.

The Joe Biden/Hunter Biden part of the Ukraine story was straightforward enough in its own way. Far more complicated and troubling was the adherence of the president and Giuliani to a weird conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, used its intelligence service to try to sway the 2016 election. According to various official reports and in the opinion of virtually every expert who’s studied the matter, it was Russia that intervened to boost Trump’s election campaign. According to Trump and Giuliani, however, Ukraine meddled in 2016 on behalf of Hillary Clinton and indeed, they argue, the actual Democratic National Committee server somehow found its way to Kyiv, thanks to a computer security firm called CrowdStrike, which Trump claimed was owned by a wealthy Ukrainian. (It is not.)

Naturally enough, this Trump-Giuliani theory was nonsense, but according to the Washington Post, it had its origins — perhaps not surprisingly — in propaganda generated in Moscow. The Post reported that Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Manafort’s partner, Konstantin Kilimnik, “played a role in convincing Trump that Russia did not actually interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, despite what both Mueller and the U.S. intelligence community have concluded, and that it was actually Ukraine.”

According to Rick Gates, Manafort’s deputy, the Ukraine conspiracy theory originated with his boss who “parroted” the line from Kilimnik. And both Manafort and Kilimnik — who was indicted by Mueller — had ties to Moscow operatives and pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, while Kilimnik himself was identified by Mueller and the FBI as part of Russia’s GRU.

As the Post concluded: “So we have two men [Manafort and Flynn] who have been convicted of offenses related to their Russia ties, have both lied to investigators about their interactions with Russian interests, and who apparently played a significant role in pushing a theory to Trump that Russia did not actually interfere in the 2016 election. They instead pointed the finger at Russia’s nemesis, Ukraine, and that has apparently stuck with Trump for more than three years.”

And it was that line that would be spread eagerly by pro-Trump writers like the Hill’s John Solomon. In a review of Solomon’s pieces, released this month, the Hill’s editors analyzed 14 of his columns with titles like “As Russian collusion fades, Ukraine plot to help Clinton emerges.” In doing so, they found numerous troubling facts about Solomon, his sources, and his overall reporting. As the Hill report put it:

“Giuliani has indicated he was a key source of information for Solomon on Ukraine, telling the New York Times in November 2019 that he turned over information about the Bidens earlier in the year to Solomon. ‘I really turned my stuff over to John Solomon,’ Giuliani said.

“The former New York City mayor later told the New Yorker he encouraged Solomon to highlight information on the Bidens and Yovanovitch, stating, ‘I said, “John, let’s make this as prominent as possible,”’ adding, “‘I’ll go on TV. You go on TV. You do columns.’”

Two colorful characters who acted as Giuliani’s Ukraine go-betweens, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, have been indicted on conspiracy charges and, according to Fortune, Giuliani, too, could be indicted in that case. As CNN noted in January, it’s nearly unheard of for a U.S. Attorney’s office — in this case the one for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) — to end up indicting a former U.S. attorney who led the same district. CNN added: “The SDNY community has watched in disbelief as Giuliani continues to seek the spotlight even as the investigation has unfolded and expanded into new fronts on a nearly weekly basis. The impeachment inquiry has also unleashed new evidence regarding his role performing shadow diplomacy on behalf of President Donald Trump as recently as [mid-January].”

Indeed, Giuliani is still at it. In concert with a collection of corrupt ex-prosecutors in Ukraine and in his ongoing role as shadow secretary of state-cum-intelligence chief, Giuliani is still gathering conspiracy-riddled information on the Bidens in Kyiv — and Attorney General William Barr has obligingly created an “intake process in the field” to absorb Giuliani’s work product straight into the Department of Justice. One thing is guaranteed: “Secretary of State” Giuliani will have a clear field in Kyiv, since Ambassador Taylor was unceremoniously fired on January 1st of this year.

Bob Dreyfuss, an investigative journalist and TomDispatch regular, is a contributing editor at the Nation and has written for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the American Prospect, the New Republic, and many other magazines. He is the author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Bob Dreyfuss

Tomdispatch.com

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CNN: “Exclusive images from Parnas provide peek into Giuliani”

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