Posts Tagged 'Trump'

The Trumpanos

To understand the Trump White House, one needs only remember whence Mr. Trump hails. He is the quintessential New York City and New Jersey real estate mogul and casino magnate. As such, he has had a long and close relationship with organized crime. It is not surprising that he is running the government the way Tony Soprano would. Here are some facts, based in part on an article that appeared in Politico in May 2016.  

Trump’s links to organized crime date back to the early 1970s when he befriended Roy Cohn, a mob consigliere whose clients included “Fat Tony” Salerno, boss of the Genovese crime family, and Paul Castellano, head of the Gambinos. Both families were deeply involved in the concrete business that supplied material for Trump Tower. The indictment that led to the imprisonment of Salerno 1988 listed $8M of concrete provided for Trump Plaza, another of the Don’s projects. Before Trump Tower could be built, the old Bonwit Teller department store on the site had to be demolished. That work was done by illegal Polish immigrants working for contractors under the protection of the Genovese crime family. Eventually, Trump was found guilty of conspiracy to defraud the workers and paid $325,000 under a sealed settlement.  

When Trump decided to build his first casino in New Jersey, his license application was approved in far less time than was usually the case. He denied any wrongdoing when questioned by the FBI and allegations of improprieties quietly disappeared. Trump was widely believed to have cut an under-the-table deal with then NJ Attorney General, John Degnan. Although probably unrelated, in 2014 NJ Governor Chris Christy appointed Mr. Degnan, retired chairman of the Chubb insurance company, to head the Port Authority of NY and NJ in the wake of the Ft. Lee lane closure scandal.

In the mid-1980s, Trump’s helicopter pilot, Joseph Weichselbaum, who had a record for embezzlement, was indicted for trafficking in marijuana and cocaine. Trump defended him as “a credit to the community.” After he was released from prison, Weichselbaum and his girlfriend “bought” adjacent apartments in Trump Tower for $2.4M. However, there is no evidence that any money actually changed hands raising the question of whether Trump was paying him for some services. By 2016, Trump appeared to have forgotten that he ever knew the man even though Wiechselbaum has said that he tried to convince the Don to break off his affair with Marla Maples.

This, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. Read the Politico article for more details on Trump’s close association with the underworld. When you do, the fact that the Trump White House resembles the Bada Bing will make much more sense.

Goose, meet gander

Everyday it is becoming more apparent that Russia interfered in our recent presidential election. As unsettling as that is it is also rather ironic considering that the US has a long and sordid history of doing just that to other countries. A brief review is in order:

Perhaps the most famous example of US interference in another country was the 1953 CIA-engineered coup in Iran that restored the Shah to the brutal Peacock Throne. The animosity that intervention engendered boiled over in 1979 and underlies the tensions between our two countries to this day.

A year later the CIA the overthrew the president of Guatemala and installed the first of a fifty-year line of right-wing dictators. The poverty these despots have allowed to persist continues to play a major role in driving Guatemalans to immigrate illegally to the US. And the malign hand of the US in Central America was not lost on the young Che Guevara who witnessed that coup first hand.

During the same period, the US intervened in the governments of the Philippines and Lebanon, not for the first or last time in either country. And, of course, this was also when the US involvement in Vietnam began as the Eisenhower administration scuttled the scheduled 1955 national referendum in that country. More than 58,000 Americas and perhaps millions of Vietnamese paid for that bit of hubris with their lives.

One of the more notorious examples of US meddling in other nations was the 1973 CIA-backed military coup that took the life of freely elected Chilean president Salvador Allende. It was not until 1993 that some semblance of freedom returned to that country after the death of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

The US predilection for interfering in other countries did not begin in the mid-20th Century. Rather it dates to the early part of the 19th Century with the Mexican War when the United States wrested away a significant part of our southern neighbor. Before that we tried unsuccessfully to seize part of Canada in 1812. But that failure did not stop us from trying to grab part of Pacific Canada in the 1840s.

Sadly, the fact is that the US has been the most expansionist, interventionist country in the world almost since our inception. Perhaps getting a small taste or our own medicine from the Russians will, when dust inevitably settles, cause us to reevaluate our place in the world. Even more sadly, it is impossible to see that happening any time soon.

Trump on tap

It has become abundantly clear that Donald Trump’s response to critical news reports is to deflect and lie. The latest flap over his and his campaign’s contacts with Russian officials is a case in point. When the press reported that Trump surrogate and current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had met at least twice with the Russian ambassador to the US during the campaign, the Donald responded with angry tweets accusing then-President Obama of illegally tapping the phones at Trump Tower. Mr. Obama has denied ordering any such wiretap and both the Director of National Intelligence and of the Federal Bureau of Investigation have said categorically that there was no bugging of Candidate Trump or of his campaign. It is worth parsing these statements carefully to try to determine the truth.

First, though, let us consider the process through which such surveillance might be implemented. Before anything happened, someone at the FBI would have to suspect that some law was being broken. That suspicion could have arisen from any of a number of sources. Perhaps NSA intercepted unusual funds transfers between Russian banks and entities associated with the Trump organization or campaign. Persons with security clearances, including, one presumes, Senator Sessions, are required to file reports of contacts with certain foreign officials. Maybe one or more of those reports raised a red flag. It is no secret that the FBI monitors the activities of some, if not all, foreign diplomats in the US. Maybe they saw something that appeared questionable. And then there is always the possibility that someone within the Trump campaign blew the whistle on a perceived impropriety. In any case, if the FBI became suspicious, they might well seek a warrant for a wiretap. That warrant could be issued by a Federal Court in the District of Columbia or, if there were a national security issue at hand, by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also known as the FISA court. In an extreme case where human lives or critical national security interests were at stake, the FBI could initiate the wiretap before obtaining the warrant but that seems unlikely in this case. With the warrant in hand, the FBI, quite possibly with assistance from NSA, would establish electronic surveillance of communications to and from the Trump offices. Most likely NSA would mount a parallel effort against the backchannels from the Russian embassy for which they would need no warrant. The information generated by the intercepts would be processed and analyzed by the intelligence and law enforcement communities then presented to the appropriate prosecuting authorities.

But this case is a bit different because of the political sensitivity associated with surveilling a nation campaign, especially against the candidate of the opposition party. Against the backdrop of the Watergate scandal everyone involved surely exercised the utmost discretion. Here is how I believe events unfolded:

Sometime in the earlier days of the Trump campaign, the FBI became aware of questionable contacts between members of that campaign and the Russians. Paul Manafort, in particular, clearly engaged in dubious activities. I would not be at all surprised if money were being channeled to the Trump campaign from Russian interests as well—a clear violation of US election laws. Being aware of the political ramifications, the FBI most likely took the matter to the Attorney General who consulted President Obama who told them to stand down until after the election. I suspect that Director Comey’s ill-timed and unethical comments about Clinton emails, that may well have cost her the election, could have been a misguided attempt on his part to be even-handed. In any case, on November 9 or shortly thereafter, I imagine that the FBI took the matter to the FISA court and obtained a warrant to monitor communications between the Trump transition team and the Russian government. After the inauguration, as Trump appointees filtered down into the Federal bureaucracy, someone learned of the top-secret wiretap and informed Trump who responded with a typical tweet storm. Go back and read the statements from Obama, the FBI, and the DNI. They are all consistent with this scenario.

And this, I believe, is the history of the matter heretofore. What emerges in the next weeks and months promises to be interesting at the least and frightening at worst. The evidence of Russian interference in our election and influence over the Trump administration is becoming difficult to ignore or to dismiss as “fake news.” There is a lot of smoke coming from Trump Tower these days and it is hard to believe that there is no fire there.

Agent Trump

Let me begin by noting that I was a Russian linguist in the US Air Force and so I am quite sure that I know more about Russia and Russians than do most Americans. I am also an avid reader of history, so I believe I know more than many about the Cold War and the arms race. That background has led me to the conclusion that the Russians are not, and never have been, the threat to the United States that our leaders have led us to believe.

Russian behavior before, during, and since the Cold War has been entirely consistent with their thousand-year history of authoritarian rule, a national inferiority complex vis-à-vis the West, and a strong culture of religious or ideological mysticism. Post-World War II Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe was not about communism; it was about fear of Western invasion. By the late 1980s, the Soviets finally came close to achieving strategic parity with the US but the enormous cost of doing so bankrupted the country leading to its economic and political collapse in 1991. Since then post-Soviet Russia has watched as its western buffer crumbled and NATO advanced to the borders of the motherland. Perhaps the last straw was the defection of Ukraine to the West. German troops were again, figuratively and in some cases literally, on Russia’s doorstep. Besides symbolically taking back Crimea, which Ukrainian-born Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had ceded to Ukraine in the 1950s, there was little they could do about it.

Throughout the Cold War, the US was two steps ahead of the Soviets in the arms race. Despite the few areas in which they had technical superiority over the US—rocket engine design, for example (current US Atlas V and Delta 4 launchers use Russian-designed engines)—they never had a qualitative military lead over the US and their quantitative superiority in tanks, troops, and nuclear warheads was never sufficient to give them an edge. Perhaps the most ironic incident I recall was the panicky announcement by the Nixon administration that the US was in grave danger because the Soviet Union had tested their first missile with multiple independently-guide reentry vehicles (MIRV). That very same week the US Minuteman III carrying MIRVs became operational. The Cold War was, and its chilly aftermath remains, more about the profits of the US military industrial complex than about defending the United States against a marauding USSR.

There is one field, however, in which the Russians are the best in the world: human intelligence. They cannot come close to the technical prowess of the National Security Agency or the National Reconnaissance Office but when it comes to developing and exploiting human spies, they have no peers. Which brings me to the real point of this piece: Russian infiltration of the 2016 US election with the aim of accomplishing through subterfuge what they could not do militarily: roll back NATO from their western frontier.

Like any good undercover operation, the compromise of the US 2016 election was developed over a long period. The first thing the Russians did was to identify individuals who could be recruited, knowingly or unwittingly. As Malcolm Nance details in The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016), Russian spymasters look for certain character weaknesses that they can exploit to turn a person into an asset: avarice, cupidity, and narcissism. One person fits that profile perfectly: Donald J. Trump.

Just when the Russians began grooming Trump as an asset is unclear. His first foray into Russia was in 1987, a year before he first put his toe into the presidential candidate pool. But the internal chaos leading up to the demise of the USSR forestalled any deals. After the Soviet Union collapsed, a small number of entrepreneurs—if one can call them that—became extraordinarily wealthy privatizing Soviet state enterprises. Many, if not most, of them looked to the West to invest and hide their wealth.  Real estate was a favorite investment, especially in large American cities, and Donald Trump was one of the highest flying real estate moguls in Manhattan. Russian investors lavished money on Trump, buying condos in his buildings and reportedly bankrolling several of his grandiose plans. When those plans collapsed into bankruptcy it is likely that Trump was left owing considerable sums to Russian oligarchs. But it is probably after Trump again considered a bid for the Republican nomination in 2004 that the Russian government recognized that he could be exactly what they were looking for. From then on, Russian cash poured into Trump’s coffers. Persistent rumors suggest that the Russians cashed in their second chip, cupidity, when Trump took the Miss Universe Pageant to Moscow in 2013 and is said to have engaged in what can only be described as tawdry behavior with Russian prostitutes, who were quite possibly in the employ of Russian intelligence. The last character flaw, narcissism, was probably the easiest for the Russians to exploit. Trump is surrounded by toadies with connections to Moscow.

As I suggested earlier, I think it unlikely that Trump is a witting Russian agent. I doubt that a professional intelligence service would hire someone as volatile and unpredictable. But it does seem possible, and indeed probable, that Trump is an unwitting Russian asset sitting in the White House. His inchoate America-First rhetoric fits perfectly with the Russian desire for the United States to disengage in Europe. Without US participation, NATO will probably reverse its expansion into Eastern Europe. Trump’s belligerence in the Middle East makes Russia appear to many in the region as a sane alternative to the US. His promised torpedoing of the Iran nuclear treaty will surely drive that country farther in to the arms of the Russian bear. His apparent determination to make an enemy of China will strengthen Russia’s position in the Far East while slowing China’s growth as an economic superpower. And his hostility toward Latin America may well make Russia appear a reasonable alternative partner for that region. All in all, Trump being Trump is very good for Russia’s interests.

The evidence that Russian hackers interfered in the US election is incontrovertible. Their finger prints are all over the attacks on the DNC and DCCC computer systems. It seems possible, even probable, that Edward Snowden is a Russian asset. His trail to the position that allowed him to steal so much information from NSA seems hardly accidental as does the fact that after Trump was elected talk started of his repatriation. Contacts between Trump surrogates like Michael Flynn and the Russian government have been too numerous to be coincidental. Key Trump appointees, notably Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have long-standing connections with Russian commercial interests.  

It does not require a conspiratorial mind to believe that, having failed to best the US in overt military and economic power, Russia has, at last, succeeded in beating us through the black arts of espionage where their millennium of experience in insurmountable. Who knows, perhaps it is for the best. Trump himself and his crackpot ideas will not last very long. The very character defects that made him a useful target for the Russians will not likely survive the US legal system very long. The autocracy he threatens will probably mellow into a form acceptable to Americans just as democracy in Russia evolved into a tsarist model with which the Russians are more comfortable. But whatever the future, it seems certain that the Russians have won this round.

Resist

Free speech is under attack in a very real way. Post something about Trump that someone does not like and you may well find, as I did, your home address posted on Facebook. You might receive an email with a printout from one of those background check sites, full of inaccurate information and the names of people you do not even know. Your ex-wife, who lives in a different state, might receive a phone call telling her that the Trumpster in question has “friends in law enforcement.” You might find this person plastering Facebook with your Twitter account, your Gravatar, copyright material from your blog, and screen grabs of your Facebook posts. If you report those to Facebook you are politely informed that they do not violate their “community standards” but that you have been blocked from posting for a week because you called someone a right-wing coward. When you report the harassment to the police they tell you that none of this is illegal. These are the same police who claimed that saying “fuck” on your deck is illegal (it isn’t).

I know who is harassing me. He is a local businessman catering to a knuckle-dragging segment of the community. He apparently feels that it is his responsibility to protect the world from my having more than one Facebook account. I have created multiple accounts because Facebook’s biased “community standards” result in my frequently being blocked from posting because I offended some thin-skinned yahoo. I am looking into pursing legal action against this person because I will not be silenced by a fascist bully. I urge everyone to stand up to suppression of their rights to speak their minds. We will only survive the Trump regime by refusing to back down in the face of right wing tyranny. And if the harassment continues, I will organize a boycott of this person’s business and that of anyone else who tries to stifle free speech.

Have a nice day.

The second shoe drops

When the Soviet Union collapsed on December 26, 1991 worn out and bankrupt from decades of Cold War and a seemingly endless involvement in Afghanistan, I remember wondering when the other shoe would drop. Tomorrow, January 20, 2017, it will do so.

With the demise of the USSR, Russians experienced the first real taste of democracy in their thousand-year history. But that was short lived as a few people, oligarchs as they were known, became fabulously wealthy privatizing the assets of the state economy, basically looting the bones of the old order. With wealth came political power and the oligarchs conspired to put a compliant former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, into the position of a modern tsar, an autocrat accountable only to his billionaire patrons.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the election of Ronald Reagan ushered in an era of unprecedented transfer of wealth from ordinary Americans to the very wealthy through tax cuts, massive borrowing, and financial legerdemain. The top 0.1% of Americans cashed in the equity built up in the country over generations through leveraged buyouts and the dismantling of profitable companies. They even stole the equity in the homes of middle and working class Americans by stoking refinance fever leading to a housing bubble that burst leaving the banking class ever wealthier and ordinary people deeply in debt. In 1981, when Reagan took office, the US had nearly the lowest level of wealth inequality in the world; by 2017 we were the third least equal country in the world.

Money, of course, has no patriotic loyalty. American billionaires are no different than Russian ones and they all share the same goal: domination of the world for personal profit. So, it should come as no surprise that Russia’s plutocratic leader would conspire to put into the American presidency someone who shares his avarice and disdain for ordinary citizens. And it should not surprise anyone that US President-elect Donald Trump is eager to dismantle NATO, the only thing standing in the way of Russia reestablishing hegemony in Eastern Europe. His choice of a Secretary of State with close business ties to Russia is another indication of the collusion among the oligarchs of East and West.

In 1991, it seemed as though the United States had won the Cold War and brought democracy to Russia. In fact, age-old Russian autocracy prevailed and, with the inauguration tomorrow of Donald J. Trump, has brought the United States to heel.

Rest in Peace United States of America. Born July 4, 1776. Died January 20, 2017 of a self-inflicted wound suffered on November 8, 2016.

We live in interesting times.

The “good” news

For the most part, I am an optimist. I believe in the basic goodness of people and their general good intentions. Lately I have had to try to reconcile those beliefs with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. I think I have finally made some sense of it.

Since Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981 I have watched with dismay as trillions of dollars have been transferred from average Americans and their progeny to the top tier of the super wealthy. The total net worth of the US population is around $86T of which $37T is held by the top 1%. In 1979, the top 1% had a combined net worth of about $2T which represented 24% of the total net worth of $8T. Adjusted for inflation, the net worth of the wealthiest 1% grew from $7T to $37T while the total net worth of all Americans went from $28T to $86T. In other words, 52% of the increase in wealth went to the top 1%.

Where did that $58T in increased net worth come from? Well, some $20T was borrowed, more than $3T of it from the Social Security payments of working Americans. Much of the rest represents financial legerdemain funded in in part by deferred maintenance of our national infrastructure.  According to the American Society of Civil Engineers we need to spend nearly $4T in the next few years just to stay even. Estimates of the cost of developing a current state-of-the-art infrastructure range as high as $20T. So basically, the very wealthy have stolen some $40T from average Americans since Reagan began the looting. And that does not include the $1.5T in student loan debt or the $1T in credit card debt that average people have incurred while taxes on the wealthy were cut time and again.

So what does this have to do with the election of Donald Trump? Well, a lot as it turns out. By the early 1990s working class people were beginning to feel the pinch of job losses and stagnant wages as companies downsized or moved manufacturing overseas. Republicans under Newt Gingrich shifted the blame from the wealthy to the very poorest Americans, mostly African Americans they claimed were lazy welfare cheats. White America responded by giving the GOP control of Congress which they used to accelerate the theft. Through the early 2000s as the cost of needless wars soared and further weakened the economy, the GOP sponsored the Tea Party to capitalize on the distress of the working class by again blaming those even more disadvantaged. Meanwhile the wealthy were stealing the equity from people’s homes through re-finance mania leading to the economic crash of 2007/2008. The right blamed the mortgage crisis on the Community Redevelopment Act, claiming that banks were forced to make loans to unqualified black people. Rural whites, who had been duped into using their houses as virtual piggy banks through repeated cash-out refinancing, ate that up. The election of the first more-or-less black president, Barack Obama, was the final straw for redneck America; their anger stoked by endless whispering that he was a secret Muslim born overseas. Republican-dominated state legislatures nationwide launched a campaign to disenfranchise as many minority voters as possible. Meanwhile, Russian president Putin, seeing an opportunity to bring the US to its knees without firing a shot, ordered a covert disinformation campaign to elect Donald Trump. Now the US and Russia were both to be led by corrupt oligarchs. The triumph of the wealthy, begun in 1980, was now complete.

By now you are probably asking why I am optimistic.  Like I said, I have faith in the basic goodness of people. The shamelessness with which Trump is larding his cabinet with incompetent billionaires intent on crushing everything the US has accomplished in the past century will soon have its effect. The economy will stall and go into recession as it has under every Republican president since Taft. The promised jobs will not return from China and Mexico but prices will skyrocket as Trump alienates our trading partners upon whom we rely for nearly all of our consumer goods. His belligerent foreign policy will see the US embroiled in more regional wars and subject to more terror attacks. His attacks on blacks, the LGBT community, Latinos, Muslims, and others will almost certainly lead to civil unrest and quite likely widespread rioting. In short, Trump will crash the ship of state into the rocks of public outrage. The outcome will be the collapse of Reaganism that has dominated US politics for a generation. If we are lucky, sane heads will prevail, the Democratic and Republican parties will both field rational candidates and our ship of state will right itself in good order. If not, we are likely to have to endure a period of fascism like Germany did on its way from a belligerent monarchy to a social democracy. But whatever the short term outcome, it seems certain that Trump’s election will have been the bitter pill that saves the US in the long run. And that will be a good thing.

Hmmm….

Ok, I am not much for conspiracy theories but how is this for one: Congressional Republicans passed a resolution requiring the FBI to publicly inform them if any more Clinton emails were uncovered. Then, magically, eleven days before the election, the team looking into sexting allegations against Anthony Weiner discover emails to or from Clinton on the phone of her aide who is Weiner’s estranged wife. Lifelong Republican and Romney campaign contributor FBI Director Comey is required by the aforementioned resolution to notify Congress. Shit storm ensues over, basically, nothing. Trumpsters break into their happy dance and grope every woman in reach. A shudder circles the globe at the prospect of a Trump victory. Maybe this is all a coincidence. Then again, maybe not.

Let Trump be “the Donald”

The Democrats and liberal media need to stop attacking Donald Trump over his many questionable business dealings…until after the Republican convention. Why? Because bringing Trump down before the convention is a dangerous strategy. Suppose he is found to have committed crimes in the operation of Trump University. The Republican National Committee could use that to invalidate his primary victories and throw open the convention. The result would almost certainly be a stronger GOP candidate without the contrived negatives that Clinton faces. And that could endanger a near-certain Democratic victory in November.

Instead Democrats should spend this next month building up Secretary Clinton by aggressively debunking the decades of dishonest right wing attacks on her. Far too many Americans across the political spectrum suspect that she is deceitful and corrupt despite the total lack of evidence to support those attacks.  Her supporters need to emphasize her experience, intelligence, and integrity to counter those untruths. As anyone who have ever met her will attest, in person Ms. Clinton is warm, open, and charming. Her political strength has always been her ability to connect with small groups. Through the primary campaign she has begun to come out of her shell somewhat. It is time for her and her staff to let the voting public see the real Hillary Clinton.

And meanwhile those of us who support Clinton need to lay off the Donald and let the GOP dig its own grave. Taking him down while the Republican Party still has time to regroup is a serious mistake.

Donald il Duce

To understand the success of Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican Party presidential nomination, one need only look to 1920s Italy. The country was deeply in debt because of its involvement in WW I. Industrial and agricultural workers were upset about the declining buying power of their wages. Powerful corporations controlled the economy. People were frightened and angry. From that tinderbox rose the flames of fascism.

The National Fascist Party under Benito Mussolini ran on a platform of restoring Italy’s historic greatness, of ending labor unions, of banning the use of any language besides Italian, of banning contraception, of removing women from the work force, of deporting Jews, of granting corporations unlimited control of the economy, and of fighting communism and socialism. If you have been listening to Donald Trump, this will sound very familiar. In fact, there is virtually no difference between Mussolini’s politics and Trump’s.    

Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” echoes Mussolini’s called for Italy to restore the mantel of the Roman Empire.  Like Mussolini, Trump opposes labor unions. He has called for English to be made the national language of the US. He opposes reproductive rights of women. He has stated that women should not compete with men in the workplace. He has famously called for deporting 11 million immigrants who he has branded rapists. He is a corporatist of the first order. And, of course, he is virulently anti-socialist.

Now some will say that 2015 America is not 1925 Italy and that is certainly true. But to ignore rise of fascism in the US is to court disaster. Yes, it CAN happen here. It is happening here. The elements that led to the rise of fascism in Italy are present in the US today. Our country is deeply in debt because of endless, unnecessary wars and a bloated military industrial complex.  The real income of ordinary Americans has been declining steadily for the past generation. A small number of very wealthy individuals control our supposedly democratic institutions. Powerful corporations export our jobs, pay little or no taxes, and control our elections. People are frightened and angry. The US today is a political tinderbox. And Donald Trump is our Duce.