The special counsel is connecting the dots and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture for the president.a flurry of recent activity this past week all points in the same direction: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will likely implicate the president, his campaign, and his close associates in aiding and abetting a Russian conspiracy against the United States to undermine the 2016 election.First, Mueller has clearly identified collusion in the
- efforts of Trump aides and associates to contact WikiLeaks. In a draft plea agreement provided to conservative operative Jerome Corsi, Mueller details how Roger Stone, who the special counsel notes was in frequent contact with Donald Trump and senior campaign officials, directed Corsi to connect with WikiLeaks about the trove of stolen materials it received from Russia.
- Corsi subsequently communicated WikiLeaks’ release plan back to Stone, and
- the Trump campaign built its final message around the email release. That is collusion.
Third, Mueller has found evidence that Trump was compromised by a hostile foreign power during the election. In his plea deal, Cohen revealed that Trump had repeatedly lied to voters about the then-candidate’s financial ties to Russia. While Trump claimed during the campaign to have no business dealings with Russia, he was negotiating a wildly lucrative business deal not simply with Russian businessmen, but also involving with the Kremlin itself. Trump’s team even reportedly tried to bribe Russian President Vladimir Putin by offering him a $50 million penthouse.
Worse, Russia not only knew that Trump was lying, but when investigators first started looking into this deal, the Kremlin helped Trump cover up what really happened. That made Trump doubly compromised: first, because he was eager to get the financial payout and second because Russia had evidence he was lying to the American people—evidence they could have held over Trump by threatening to reveal at any time.
Since the president’s embarrassing performance at the Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin—when he kowtowed to a foreign adversary rather than stand up for American interests—there has been open speculation about what leverage the Kremlin has over him. Now we know at least part of the picture, raising the specter of what other information Putin has, and how he is using it to influence Trump’s policy decisions.
Fourth, we know that Trump has engaged in an increasingly brazen attempt to cover up his actions: installing a political crony to head the Department of Justice by potentially illegal means in an effort to shut down the investigation; using his former campaign chairman and convicted criminal Paul Manafort to find out information about Mueller’s investigation; and even appearing to offer Manafort a pardon if he helps him obstruct the Russia probe. These may be components of an obstruction of justice case, but they also provide strongly circumstantial data points as to how serious Trump himself views the allegations of collusion being levelled against him.
The narrative that Russia is under attack has long dominated Kremlin propaganda, with Putin positioning himself as the commander of a fortress besieged – militarily, economically, and even in the domain of international sports – by a hostile West. This propaganda, already building in volume in 2012, after Putin won his third presidential term, reached a crescendo in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea.
So far, there has been no diminuendo, and there is unlikely to be one so long as Putin’s siege narrative strategy continues to yield political dividends. Prior to the annexation of Crimea, his approval rating had dropped to record lows; afterwards, it surged to more than 80%.
But, since last summer, Putin’s approval ratings have again dropped precipitously, to 66% in October and November. Beyond “making Russia great again” on the international stage, Putin was supposed to improve Russians’ standard of living. Instead, after four years of falling real incomes, the government announced deeply unpopular pension reforms, which included an increase in the retirement age.
Addressing Russians’ economic grievances will not be easy. Russia’s economy is under severe strain as a result of the sanctions imposed by the West over Crimea. More important, Russia’s state-capitalist model has led to weak competition and declining incentives for private investment and entrepreneurship.
With few options for rallying public opinion, Putin may well have decided that it is time to “remind” Russians that they are under attack. (Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, may also benefit politically from escalating tensions as he seeks to lift his dismal approval ratings ahead of his reelection bid in March.).. To be clear, Ukraine is not attacking Russia. The Ukrainian naval vessels were in full compliance with a 2003 bilateral treaty governing access to the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov. But, by asserting that the vessels entered Russian waters illegally, not to mention escalating tensions with the West, Putin may be hoping to breathe new life into the siege narrative, thereby inspiring the kind of primitive patriotism on which he has long relied... But Putin is likely also to draw more public attention to Russia’s military-industrial complex and weapons development, while celebrating past glory, especially the mythologized version of World War II that he has established as a component of his own legitimacy... For example, the veneration of Stalin, with whom Putin shares more than a few traits, has no doubt contributed to many Russians’ greater willingness to accept repression. The grand military parade commemorating the anniversary of the end of the Siege of Leningrad, planned for January 29 in St. Petersburg, may inspire patriotism, but it will in no way reflect the real drama of the city’s starving inhabitants... In the “Great Waltz” of July 1944 – which the Novgorod event will reenact – 57,000 German prisoners of war were marched through the streets of Moscow, Stalin’s goal being to humiliate the Germans and remind Muscovites of their hatred for their enemies. But, in the event, many Russians pitied the prisoners, and some even threw bread to them... When sociologists from the Levada Center recently asked 20-year-old Russians to identify the country they view as a model for others, they chose
- Germany, followed by
- China and Putin’s favorite villain, the
- United States.
While these young people support Russian greatness, they define greatness not only in military terms, but also on the basis of economic prosperity and social progress.
.. It does not help that Putin’s foreign-policy gambits have become increasingly dubious. It is hard for many Russians to see why their leaders have channeled so many resources to Syria when there are such pressing challenges at home. Watching a Russian boat ram a Ukrainian boat is no substitute for economic opportunities.
For a long time, the slogan “we can repeat” – a reference to the Soviet Union’s WWII victory – was popular in Russia. But the truth is that we cannot. We lack not only the resources, but also the will to let our young people die fighting another country’s young people. Indeed, the last thing Russians want is to repeat a war that left 27 million of their countrymen dead.
Since helping to mitigate the global financial crisis, the G20 has degenerated from a platform for action to a forum for discussion. In the age of Donald Trump, it could sink even further, becoming a vehicle for legitimating illegal behavior, from Russia’s aggression in Ukraine to Saudi Arabia’s murder of a journalist... Now, instead of jostling for pictures of Trump and Xi, the world’s media will be dissecting interactions between MBS, accused of ordering the brutal torture and murder of the US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Those between Russian President Vladimir Putin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel – which would have been uncomfortable even without the recent attack on Ukraine – will also be heavily scrutinized... None of this is the point of a G20 summit. What used to be an effective forum of global governance has now degenerated into a kind of Kabuki theater – a faithful reflection of the extent to which the global order has lost its way... After the global financial crisis erupted in 2008, the G20 acted as an international crisis committee, mitigating the disaster by injecting liquidity into markets worldwide. The effectiveness of the G20’s 2008 and 2009 summits raised hopes that, at a time of rapid change, this emerging platform, comprising economies accounting for 85% of world output, could serve as a global fire brigade. Not bound by procedural rules or legal strictures, the G20 could respond quickly when needed. There was even talk of the G20 intervening in a wider range of areas, potentially even eclipsing the United Nations Security Council.
.. His speaking style is typical for any experienced, high-level bureaucrat: leaden, colourless, but occasionally interspersed with locker-room jokes, sex-related similes and street-smart threats.
.. Stalin .. What we know from media about his political decision-making shows the full toolbox of every advanced spy and secret police organization throughout history. Its obsession with secrecy, careful preparation, deep layering, multi-option planning, highly sophisticated tactical thinking. How much of this is attributed to himself, and how much to his aides and government organization, is unknown.
What is clear, though, is that Putin is a very good judge of character, and a skillful manager of human relationships. To this day, no one from his close circle has turned against him with compromising information, or by heading political dissent.