Another Gift for a Putin Buddy

This week, the Trump administration further eased its pressure on Rusal, Russia’s largest aluminum company, less than four months after sanctions on it and its notorious leader were imposed. Even as the White House seems willing to inflict pain on American farmers and consumers with its trade wars, Russian aluminum workers are apparently worthy of special protection.

.. Rusal is controlled by Oleg Deripaska, a member of Mr. Putin’s inner circle. As the Treasury Department acknowledges, he has been investigated for

  • money laundering and accused of
  • threatening the lives of business rivals,
  • illegally wiretapping a government official and
  • taking part in extortion and racketeering.

.. There are also allegations, made public by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, that Mr. Deripaska

  • bribed a government official,
  • ordered the murder of a businessman and
  • had links to a Russian organized crime group. During the 2016 presidential campaign,
  • Paul Manafort, then Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, tried to offer Mr. Deripaska private briefings about the campaign.

.. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said he is considering lifting the sanctions altogether because they are punishing the “hardworking people of Rusal.” But Mr. Mnuchin has it backward. If he was truly concerned about Rusal’s 61,000 employees, he would not relent until the company fully washed its hands of Mr. Deripaska and the corrupt regime the aluminum giant serves.

.. Behind Mr. Deripaska’s estimated fortune of as much as $5.3 billion, there stands a great crime. During the “aluminum wars” of the 1990s, when that economic sector was consolidating in the chaotic privatization that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the young metals trader was suspected of ties to gangsters as he seized control of huge Siberian smelters. According to testimony by a gang member in Stuttgart, Germany, part of Mr. Deripaska’s value to the group were his links to Russia’s security services. While his rivals were killed off or fled Russia, Mr. Deripaska somehow emerged as the director general of Rusal, a company that reported revenues last year of nearly $10 billion. But suspicions that the oligarch has had links to organized crime have denied him a visa to enter the United States.

.. they must do its bidding, which in Mr. Deripaska’s case meant spending more than $1 billion, through his holding company, on new infrastructure for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia

Mr. Deripaska has embraced his role, stating that he does not separate himself from the Russian state.

.. Manafort tried to pitch him a plan for an influence campaign to “greatly benefit the Putin government.”

.. “Rusal’s own website says that it supplied military material to the Russian military that was potentially used in Syria.”

.. Mr. Deripaska’s holding company, hired a $108,500-a-month lobbyist to continue to negotiate with the Treasury Department. The firm he chose, Mercury Public Affairs, is the firm Mr. Manafort paid $1.1 million to lobby members of Congress on behalf of Ukraine and its then-president, Viktor Yanukovych

.. Led by David Vitter, a former Republican senator from Louisiana, Mercury has sought to enlist support from ambassadors of France, Germany and Australia, among others.

.. emanding more time to reduce the oligarch’s ownership stake in En+ from 70 percent to below 50 percent. In a July 24 filing with the Justice Department, Mercury outlined a host of calamities that might be unleashed if sanctions aren’t eased

  • The global aluminum market might suffer significant disruptions with “severe collateral damage to United States interests, allies”;
  • En+ might have to entertain a potential acquisition by “Chinese and/or other potentially hostile interests”; or
  • Mr. Deripaska might just hang on to his majority stake.

.. The specter of a fellow traveler with gangsters dictating terms to the United States government is yet another sign of the Trump administration’s inexplicable capitulation to Russia.

.. July 16 summit in Helsinki, at which President Trump and President Putin met privately for more than two hours.

We don’t know what they discussed, but given the stakes on both sides, there’s a good chance that the discussion touched on the subject of the sanctions the United States has imposed on Russia’s biggest aluminum company.

 

 

As Trade War Persists, Mnuchin Says China Talks Have ‘Broken Down’

The trade war between the United States and China showed no signs of yielding on Thursday, as Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, told lawmakers there was no clear path to resolution and Beijing blasted the administration over its approach.

Mr. Mnuchin, who has tried to avoid calling the trade tensions with China a “war,” said talks with Beijing had “broken down” and suggested it was now up to China to come to the table with concessions. President Trump, speaking in Brussels on Thursday, described the trade talks with China as a “nasty” battle.

.. “The administration needs to explain to Congress where this is all headed,” Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and the committee’s chairman, told Manisha Singh, an assistant secretary at the State Department, as she prepared to testify.

“To my knowledge, not a single person is able to articulate where this is headed, nor what the plans are, nor what the strategy is,” Mr. Corker said.

.. China has also had difficulty figuring out whom to negotiate with, after tentative agreements reached with Mr. Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, fell through.

“I think they’re coming to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter whether Mnuchin or Ross or anybody is in the front of the line, that it’s really going to be figuring out what Trump wants,”

.. “For the purpose of meeting domestic political needs and suppressing China’s development, the U.S. has fabricated a set of policy arguments that distort the truth about Sino-U.S. economic and trade relations.”

 

How Mnuchin Keeps a Steady Grip in a Tug of War on Trade

Two weeks ago, Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, declared that the trade war with China was “on hold” and that the United States would temporarily holster its tariffs. The reassuring comments calmed markets and raised hopes that Mr. Mnuchin, one of President Trump’s most enduring and trusted advisers, was winning the internal trade battle that has gripped the White House.

Then Mr. Trump weighed in. In a one-two punch last week, the president doubled down on the trade war with China and threw in ones with Canada, Mexico and Europe for good measure.

.. The scolding laid bare the uncomfortably familiar spot that Mr. Mnuchin finds himself in: trying to be a voice of moderation and a statesman in an administration that sees diplomatic norms and protocols as signs of weakness.

He has so far managed to stay in Mr. Trump’s good graces while advocating a more free-trade approach, but that balancing act is showing signs of strain.

.. Mr. Mnuchin, unflappable in public, is privately making his case with a president

.. The internal tensions boiled over in May during a trade mission Mr. Mnuchin led to China, when he dressed down Peter Navarro, Mr. Trump’s hawkish trade adviser, by reminding him where he stood in the administration’s pecking order after Mr. Navarro confronted him about being sidelined from the talks.

.. Current and former White House and Treasury officials say Mr. Mnuchin has managed to thrive by employing a mix of assertiveness and obsequiousness, staking out his position to the president but quickly changing course to carry out Mr. Trump’s marching orders, even if his message did not win the day.

.. Mr. Trump tweeted that he was going to find a way to help put back in business a Chinese telecommunications company that had been punished for violating American sanctions on Iran and North Korea. The decision blindsided administration officials and lawmakers

.. Mr. Mnuchin, along with the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, was dispatched to Capitol Hill to try to calm angry Republican lawmakers and explain the rationale behind allowing the company, ZTE, to remain in business.

.. those close to the secretary say he has learned to appreciate Mr. Trump’s use of the threat of tariffs as a negotiating tool.

.. focused on the president’s desire to see the bilateral trade deficit reduced, rather than emphasizing some of the other trade barriers

.. Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former top strategist, has said that Mr. Mnuchin is in over his head in the negotiations and that he is letting Mr. Trump’s leverage slip away by failing to force China to make major changes to its industrial policy.

.. it was apparent that the Chinese government was trying to elevate Mr. Mnuchin’s role in the negotiations because they see him as the American official most likely to cut a deal.

.. “Among the possible choices, they see Mnuchin as being less hawkish than some of the other counterparts,”

.. populist voices outside the administration have already been heckling Mr. Mnuchin as inept amid reports that the United States was on the verge of making an agreement with China that was viewed as merely symbolic.

.. Mr. Mnuchin has at times found himself the subject of derision, characterized as a fawning banker who cannot tell the president “no.”

.. Last year, the Treasury secretary was scoffed at by economic policymakers from across the political spectrum for insisting that the $1.5 trillion Trump tax cuts would pay for themselves.

.. Mr. Mnuchin told members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus to “vote for the debt ceiling for me.” His plea was met with groans and hisses.

.. Last August, fellow alumni of Yale, where Mr. Mnuchin earned a bachelor’s degree, called on the secretary to resign when he defended Mr. Trump’s handling of racially inspired violence in Charlottesville, Va. A month later, Lawrence Summers, a Clinton administration Treasury secretary, called Mr. Mnuchin the “greatest sycophant in cabinet history” for supporting Mr. Trump’s criticism of football players who knelt during the national anthem.

.. points to his role in successfully steering the Republican tax cut package, which many said would never pass, through Congress.

.. Within the Treasury Department, Mr. Mnuchin has developed a reputation as a micromanager. He resisted choosing a full-time deputy for more than a year, preferring to oversee everything from carrying out the new tax law to overseeing financial sanctions.

.. When the Internal Revenue Service systems failed on Tax Day, the response to the crash was slowed because Mr. Mnuchin was in New Hampshire

.. He had required that any big decisions be cleared by him

.. Mr. Mnuchin’s closest aides describe him as a collegial and mentoring figure.

.. Despite his earnest persona on television, he is known to possess a wry sense of humor