Sunday, July 24, 2016

Is Russia Working to Elect Donald Trump?

READER WARNING:  This is a long but very important post.  The mainstream new media is jumping all over the release of hacked DNC e-mails that have caused a bit of a firestorm and lead to the resignation of the DNC Chairwoman, Debbie -Wasserman-Shultz.   What they have ignored for the most part is how the e-mails may have come to be released: by Russian hackers perhaps seeking to aid in electing Donald Trump in November.  Why?  Because Trump seemingly is pushing the GOP toward more pro-Russia stances and Trump has even suggested weakening NATO - a dream come true for Vladimir Putin.  Vanity Fair looks at the e-mail story.  Another story - in my view, a much more important story - from Talking Points Memo looks at Donald Trump's financial ties to Vladimir Putin's henchmen.  I strongly urge readers to read the full Talking Points Memo piece.  Here are excerpts that should be VERY disturbing to all Americans:
Over the last year there has been a recurrent refrain about the seeming bromance between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. More seriously, but relatedly, many believe Trump is an admirer and would-be emulator of Putin's increasingly autocratic and illiberal rule. But there's quite a bit more to the story. At a minimum, Trump appears to have a deep financial dependence on Russian money from persons close to Putin. And this is matched to a conspicuous solicitousness to Russian foreign policy interests where they come into conflict with US policies which go back decades through administrations of both parties. There is also something between a non-trivial and a substantial amount of evidence suggesting Putin-backed financial support for Trump or a non-tacit alliance between the two men.
Let's start with the basic facts. There is a lot of Russian money flowing into Trump's coffers and he is conspicuously solicitous of Russian foreign policy priorities.
I'll list off some facts.
1. All the other discussions of Trump's finances aside, his debt load has grown dramatically over the last year, from $350 million to $630 million. This is in just one year while his liquid assets have also decreased. Trump has been blackballed by all major US banks.
2. Post-bankruptcy Trump has been highly reliant on money from Russia, most of which has over the years become increasingly concentrated among oligarchs and sub-garchs close to Vladimir Putin. Here's a good overview from The Washington Post, with one morsel for illustration ...
Since the 1980s, Trump and his family members have made numerous trips to Moscow in search of business opportunities, and they have relied on Russian investors to buy their properties around the world.
“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Trump’s son, Donald Jr., told a real estate conference in 2008, according to an account posted on the website of eTurboNews, a trade publication. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
3. One example of this is the Trump Soho development in Manhattan, one of Trump's largest recent endeavors. The project was the hit with a series of lawsuits in response to some typically Trumpian efforts to defraud investors by making fraudulent claims about the financial health of the project. Emerging out of that litigation however was news about secret financing for the project from Russia and Kazakhstan.  Another suit alleged the project "occasionally received unexplained infusions of cash from accounts in Kazakhstan and Russia."  Sounds completely legit. 
Read both articles: After his bankruptcy and business failures roughly a decade ago Trump has had an increasingly difficult time finding sources of capital for new investments. As I noted above, Trump has been blackballed by all major US banks with the exception of Deutschebank, which is of course a foreign bank with a major US presence. He has steadied and rebuilt his financial empire with a heavy reliance on capital from Russia. At a minimum the Trump organization is receiving lots of investment capital from people close to Vladimir Putin.
Trump's tax returns would likely clarify the depth of his connections to and dependence on Russian capital aligned with Putin. And in case you're keeping score at home: no, that's not reassuring.
4. Then there's Paul Manafort, Trump's nominal 'campaign chair' who now functions as campaign manager and top advisor. Manafort spent most of the last decade as top campaign and communications advisor for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian Ukrainian Prime Minister and then President whose ouster in 2014 led to the on-going crisis and proxy war in Ukraine. Yanukovych was and remains a close Putin ally. Manafort is running Trump's campaign.
5. Trump's foreign policy advisor on Russia and Europe is Carter Page, a man whose entire professional career has revolved around investments in Russia and who has deep and continuing financial and employment ties to Gazprom. If you're not familiar with Gazprom, imagine if most or all of the US energy industry were rolled up into a single company and it were personally controlled by the US President who used it as a source of revenue and patronage. That is Gazprom's role in the Russian political and economic system. It is no exaggeration to say that you cannot be involved with Gazprom at the very high level which Page has been without being wholly in alignment with Putin's policies. Those ties also allow Putin to put Page out of business at any time.
6. Over the course of the last year, Putin has aligned all Russian state controlled media behind Trump. As Frank Foer explains here, this fits a pattern with how Putin has sought to prop up rightist/nationalist politicians across Europe, often with direct or covert infusions of money.
7. Here's where it gets more interesting. This is one of a handful of developments that tipped me from seeing all this as just a part of Trump's larger shadiness to something more specific and ominous about the relationship between Putin and Trump. As TPM's Tierney Sneed explained in this article, one of the most enduring dynamics of GOP conventions (there's a comparable dynamic on the Dem side) is more mainstream nominees battling conservative activists over the party platform, with activists trying to check all the hardline ideological boxes and the nominees trying to soften most or all of those edges. This is one thing that made the Trump convention very different. The Trump Camp was totally indifferent to the platform.  . . . . Not with Trump's backing but because he simply didn't care. With one big exception: Trump's team mobilized the nominee's traditional mix of cajoling and strong-arming on one point: changing the party platform on assistance to Ukraine against Russian military operations in eastern Ukraine.
This does not mean Trump is controlled by or in the pay of Russia or Putin. It can just as easily be explained by having many of his top advisors having spent years working in Putin's orbit and being aligned with his thinking and agenda. But it is certainly no coincidence.
There are many other things people are alleging about hacking and all manner of other mysteries. But those points are highly speculative, some verging on conspiratorial in their thinking. I ignore them here because I've wanted to focus on unimpeachable, undisputed and publicly known facts. These alone paint a stark and highly troubling picture.
To put this all into perspective, if Vladimir Putin were simply the CEO of a major American corporation and there was this much money flowing in Trump's direction, combined with this much solicitousness of Putin's policy agenda, it would set off alarm bells galore. That is not hyperbole or exaggeration. And yet Putin is not the CEO of an American corporation. He's the autocrat who rules a foreign state, with an increasingly hostile posture towards the United States and a substantial stockpile of nuclear weapons. The stakes involved in finding out 'what's going on' as Trump might put it are quite a bit higher.
There is something between a non-trivial and a substantial amount of circumstantial evidence for a financial relationship between Trump and Putin or a non-tacit alliance between the two men. Even if you draw no adverse conclusions, Trump's financial empire is heavily leveraged and has a deep reliance on capital infusions from oligarchs and other sources of wealth aligned with Putin. That's simply not something that can be waved off or ignored.
As for the e-mail release, here are excerpts from Vanity Fair:
Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager thinks last week’s hack and subsequent document dump of Democratic National Committee e-mails is coming from a controversial source. Robby Mook told CNN’s Jake Tapper that he believes Russian hackers perpetrated the leak to help Donald Trump win the election in November.
WikiLeaks released some 19,252 e-mails and 8,034 attachments that were stolen from the D.N.C. Revealed in the cache: that some D.N.C. operatives mocked supporters of Clinton’s primary challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders, that a Politico reporter sent a pre-publication draft of his article to the D.N.C. for review, and that Debbie Wasserman Schultz once asked for an inordinate number of tickets to the hit Broadway show Hamilton.
Mook’s claim that the hack was carried out by Russian operatives isn’t plucked out of thin air. The D.N.C. has had its files attacked by Russian hackers before. CNN reports that two “Russian intelligence-linked cyberattack groups” were in the D.N.C.’s networks. A Russian hacker who goes by the moniker “Guccifer 2.0” has claimed responsibility for the hack. Mook says this comes after the new Republican platform was announced, changes to which made it “more pro-Russian.”
Mook’s public stance, however, is an interesting move from the Clinton campaign. Painting the D.N.C. hack as a project of Vladimir Putin shifts the narrative away from the controversies contained within the hack itself. Instead of headlines about the suggestion that the D.N.C. was behind Clinton from the get-go, the story becomes about Republicans forming ties with an increasingly aggressive Russia.
Josh Marshall, the editor of Talking Points Memo, highlighted another troubling connection between Trump and the Kremlin. In a post on his editor’s blog, Marshall delineates the evidence that suggests Trump “appears to have a deep financial dependence on Russian money from persons close to Putin.” Trump’s campaign chair, Paul Manafort, also has ties to pro-Russian leaders. He lobbied for them. It’s quite damning, and worth a read.

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