The Russian Question

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December 13, 2017

The media is full of rumbles that Trump is trying to cook up a politically credible excuse to fire Robert Mueller. If Trump does this and the Republican majorities in Congress refuse to block him, the game, in my opinion, is up. Over. Trump can get away with any sort of lawless action that he wants and America Democracy, the great experiment, will have failed. It will have been destroyed from within, not just because of Donald Trump, but because the members of a major political party refused their patriotic duty to protect the institutions and principles of the republic, to protect the Constitution itself.

These are dangerous times. My explorations of them began, some nine months ago, with reference to a column by the New York Times columnist David Brooks. I chose him not just for his steady wisdom, but because he is a conservative, a Republican. I am quoting him again. His December 7th column is titled “The G.O.P. is Rotting.” In it, Brooks, a man of an older school, from the time when Republicans represented traditional moral values and patriotic honor, cites Jesus (Mark 8:36) saying, “What shall it profit a man if he gain the world and suffer the loss of his soul?” For today’s Republican Party, however, it is clear that the profits have become everything, even at the cost of the soul, even at the cost of the country.

The foundational idea of the American republic, that no one is above the law, is at risk. And the Russian story and the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia are at the center of the story. This is far more serious than what was involved in Watergate. Nixon’s crimes were domestic—corruption and obstruction that we could call homegrown, just burglars and cover-up. This crisis is greatly different in quality: a foreign power has interfered with the fundamental act of our democracy, the election of the president, and there is ample evidence that the present occupant of the White House or his surrogates colluded with that foreign power.

The circumstantial suggestions of relationships with Russia that might lead to or reveal collusion are many: Jared Kushner’s unreported contacts with a Russian state bank in an effort to refinance a failing property in New York; Donald Jr.’s emails and meeting with Russian agents; Trump’s admiration for Putin; Trump’s attempts for years to negotiate business deals with Moscow; the number of Russian oligarchs who have purchased multimillion-dollar condominiums in Trump properties; Trump’s refusal to reveal his tax returns which, it seems likely, would show him indebted or owing favors to Russians. There is also the various statements Trump or his surrogates have made, including some that appear to promise that sanctions against friends of Putin (imposed under the Magnitsky Act) and against the Russian state for the aggression against Ukraine would be ended with a Trump presidency. The reversal of diplomatic punishments imposed by Obama when Russian election hacks were proved seems to have been included in the menu of favors sought by Russia.

Whether promises were exchanged is unknown, whether it was a wink and a nod during one of Trump’s private tête-à-tête with Putin is unknowable; what is clear, however, is that Russia offered help and the Trump campaign accepted the help (the Trump Tower meetings at a minimum). This is collusion. To get a sense of the history of this relationship, I recommend Luke Harding’s book Collusion or the summation of his findings in The Guardian, Harding is an experienced Guardian investigative reporter with a specialty in Russia.

To understand the gravity of the situation we must get our heads around the fact that Russia is not America’s friend. Putin’s Russia is an aggressive power. It has territorial ambitions; a revanchist sentiment prevails among Putin’s oligarchical inner circle, not a return to communism, of course, because the Kleptocracy that modern Russia has become could not flourish in a lawful environment, but a return to the empire, when Russia was a global player to be reckoned with. In respect to the United States specifically, Russia must be understood as a hostile power. Through the summer of 2016, it was widely reported by all major media that Russia-based hackers probed the defenses of the American power grid. And worse, in the election campaign, Russian cyber-weapons were used to deliver anti-Clinton, nationalist, and fake news propaganda to an estimated 150 million American voters.

There is no disagreement that the hackers were Russian and that the targets were selected by someone who understood the American political mood, by district and by issue. This was not ordinary internet activity in the manner of Facebook and Twitter. These were, in all respects except for the absence of physical violence, attacks. Russia had breached the walls that gave stability to America society and was deliberately weakening the democracy. The Russians delegitimized core institutions in the republic, the idea of a free press as a defense against lies, and the vote itself. The fact that these tactics meshed perfectly with the Trump campaign and Fox News does not change a fundamental fact: these were acts done by a hostile foreign power.

The extent of the collusion with the Trump campaign and whether it is of a sort that violates American laws is what the Mueller team is investigating. But collusion, per se, we are constantly reminded by Trump’s lawyers, is not a crime. Nor is doing business with Russians, even Russians who are under sanction for illegal acts or human rights violations, or with Russian bankers whose professional backgrounds are in intelligence work. America is a very legalistic society. Mueller can only bring charges for American laws that have been broken. Obstruction of justice is one such. Does firing Comey qualify? Aiding and abetting is an another. Did Trump use Democratic National Committee emails that he knew had been stolen? Did Trump instruct Flynn to lie to the FBI? These are crimes, but they are hard to prove in the strict judicial sense.

To repeat: Russia offered help and Trump, through his campaign, accepted. And Russia has, for the most part gotten what they had hoped to get from the transaction. The joint report by CIA, FBI, and NSA titled “Assessing Russian activities and intentions is recent US Elections” (Link below) had this statement

“The Kremlin sought to advance its longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, the promotion of which Putin and other senior Russian leaders view as a threat to Russia and Putin’s regime.”

I am sure that Putin considers these activities to have been a great success. A good return on investment. Trump has communicated to NATO that the US may not be a reliable partner. He has withdrawn American leadership, discarding America’s much-valued soft power, from the world in the areas of climate change, trade, and human rights. Human rights in other countries, for example, have, according to Trump and his State Department, no bearing on national security. He has torn up treaties that kept American influence at the center of world affairs.

A Pew survey shows that American standing in all of the world, except for Russia and Israel, has gone into dramatic decline compared with the Obama administration: France, for example, has gone from 84% approval to 14% and, for another, Britain 74% to 22%, but Russia 11% to 53%. America has, after 70 years of global predominance, most of it beneficial, has been manipulated into stepping aside.

At home, America is as deeply divided, by hatreds and quasi-ideologies, as it has ever been, a spiritual crisis of the country not seen since the period before the Civil War. Trump deliberately inflames racial, sectarian and sectional tensions, and during the election campaign, the Russian hackers echoed them. The dignity of the country and its institutions is in tatters. The amorality, shamelessness, and ignorance in the highest places have sapped the morale of the country. None of this, Trump’s advisors will point out, breaks a law.

If it does not break the codes of the law, it certainly breaks the spirit of the law, the laws whose purpose is to protect society from corruption and corrosion. Trump has allowed a hostile power to attack the country he has sworn to protect. These have not been acts of war under the legal definitions that customarily define warfare as involving violence. These acts were “acts of war” nonetheless: they are called subversion. The American Department of Defense definition of subversion is as follows: Actions designed to undermine the military, economic, psychological, or political strength or morale of a governing authority. More relevant is the statement by Yuri Bezmenov, a Soviet KGB agent defector, who wrote of subversion as understood and practiced by the Russian intelligence services: “A destructive, aggressive activity aimed to destroy the country, nation, or geographical area of your enemy… by demoralizing the cultural values and changing the population’s perception of reality.”

And this is what the Russians, with their dupe, Donald Trump, set out to do and they appear to be well on their way to success. KGB tradecraft, Bezmenov reveals, calls for identifying likely surrogates, unwitting agents. They look for weak personalities with frail egos and large needs—money or sex—easily flattered, susceptible to blackmail or bribery. Luke Harding suggests that Trump has been in Putin’s web for five years, ever since the 2003 Moscow Miss Universe contest.

Still, Trump’s lawyers say, what law is broken? Mueller is finding them, but they are refinements. But there are indisputable grounds for impeachment. The Constitution says the president can be impeached for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes…” If Mueller manages to penetrate Trump’s hidden financial world—at this writing there are rumors that he has subpoenaed Trump family records from Deutsche Bank—we may find evidence of bribery that comes in the form of loans that rescue Trump or his family from some financial disaster. Or bribery in the form of a deal to build the Trump Tower in Moscow or in the form of hidden partnerships with highly-placed Putin associates. In the Constitutional Convention of 1787, these issue were discussed and examined. Gouverneur Morris noted that “the president may be bribed by a greater interest to betray his trust; and no one would say that we ought to expose ourselves to the danger of seeing the first Magistrate in foreign pay without being able to guard against it by displacing him.”

Or what of the other high crimes? Obtaining the presidency by collaborating with a hostile power whose methods of subversion included spreading lies and falsehoods, statements not protected as free speech because the speech was generated by persons not protected by the Constitution, this surely is a high crime.

And what of treason? Article III of the Constitution describes it as follows: Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. Surely a foreign power that prepares to disrupt the nation’s power grid, that actively interferes with an election, and would subvert the institutions that have for 250 years made America great should be considered an enemy.


American banks have been unwilling to do business with Trump because he is a bad risk; he defaults on loans, hides in bankruptcy, and is endlessly litigious. He has turned to Frankfort-based Deutsche Bank for most of his banking for the last 20 years. He has defaulted on a loan from Deutsche Bank, then sued them over it. Why does Deutsche stay with him? Why, indeed, is Deutsche Bank his go-to banker?

Deutsche Bank has been fined $630 million by US authorities for its role in a Russian money laundering scheme that involved $10 billion. The Magnitsky Act, passed by Congress in 2102, is linked to money laundering. Sergei Magnitsky was a Moscow lawyer who uncovered a $250 million dollar theft of state funds that were passed out of the country and “laundered.” He was arrested by the security services and murdered in prison. The Magnitsky Act sanctions are aimed at the oligarchs involved, all of whom are members of Putin’s inner circle.

It seems probable that Deutsche Bank is a window into the connections with Russians. Trump is not known to do business with Germans. As Deep Throat famously said to Woodward and Bernstein, “follow the money.”

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