12 Russian Agents Indicted in Mueller Investigation – The New York Times

American intelligence officials and lawmakers are concerned that the Russians are also trying to meddle in the upcoming midterm congressional elections in November. Mr. Trump said on Friday that he planned to tell Mr. Putin when he meets with him to stay out of those elections.

“I know you’ll ask will we be talking about meddling?” Mr. Trump told reporters. “And I will absolutely bring that up. I don’t think you’ll have any, ‘Gee, I did it, I did it, you got me.’ There won’t be a Perry Mason here, I don’t think, but you never know what happens, right? But I will absolutely firmly ask the question. And hopefully we’ll have a very good relationship with Russia.”

What on earth does this mean?

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The retreat of Western Liberalism

This is an excellent book summarising the the intertwined global forces which are threatening democracy and liberalism, indeed pitching them against one another.

It is said the book can be read in three hours, it took me longer. Mr Luce clearly has a strong grip on the growing literature addressing,  globalisation; populism; automation; the shift to the East ; climate change and more. His erudition, however, never gets in the way of clear concise exposition and commentary.

His analysis always sets maters in a historical context taking due account of the transitory nature of much that seems permenant as lived. Implicit in this is a challenge to all of us to recognise the scale and reality of the threats which exist and to do something about them. History is not inevitable it is created, although not necessarily consciously.

His arguments are often challenging but always thoughtful. He is particularly good around the contentious opposition, or as I suspect he sees it, interplay between class and identity. He is clear however that if the Democrats ever want to govern effectively again they need to develop policies which address the concerns of the “basket of deplorables”. Of course the contentious bit is defying what you think their concerns are.

If you want to read one book that will provide you with an underground map of contemporary social, political and economic issues this is it. It reduces the complexity by focusing on the key issues, illustrating what connects and divides them.

It may take you longer than three hours to read but whatever it does you will think it worthwhile.

The retreat of Western Liberalism. E Luce. Abacus 2018.

 

 

Trump’s Roller Coaster Week

What a roller coaster of a week for President Trump. It starts with his saving the world from nuclear conflict in the Korean peninsula but ends with the heat of the Mueller Inquiry being turned up significantly on two of his ex colleagues.

The media coverage of the Trump – Kim summit was surely the triumph of wishful thinking over common sense. It would be foolish to expect this event to get the level of coverage its potential impact deserves. It was always going to be a media fest with the President of the economically strongest country on the planet meeting the leader of one of the economically weakest. However, the spectacle seemed to dazzle commentators into suggesting, albeit guardedly, that this was some kind of step forward.

Whilst it can be nothing but a relief that the views of John Bolton, the national security advisor, for whom the term hawkish sounds wimpish, seemed to be ignored. It must, however, be a concern that the man at the centre of the negotiations, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s best effort was a plain vanilla statement about the two sides commitment to motherhood and apple pie.

It would be interesting to know what Mr Pompeo thought when he heard his boss had carefully negotiated a cessation of war games in South Korea in exchange for … nothing. He really is some kind of deal maker. His defence of the cessation on money saving grounds, as well as being beside the point, betrayed all the sophisticated insight that is the hall mark of the man. Talking of the planes that participate in the games from the Guam air base he said “That’s a long time for these big massive planes to be flying to South Korea to practice and then drop bombs all over the place and then go back to Guam,…  I know a lot about airplanes. It’s very expensive.” Priceless, but scary.

In essence the summit involved two people who think truth is whatever was the last thing to come out of their mouths, meeting, getting photographed a lot and signing a document where the words detracted from the communicative force of a blank sheet of paper.

So that was the successful part of the week for President Trump. The close of the week has been much more threatening. First comes news that Mike Cohen, Trumps long time personal lawyer, is looking for a new legal team. This is important as it may be an indication he is about to flip to become a co-operating witness for the Mueller Inquiry.

Following raids on Cohens home and office an enormous cache of documents was seized. In an attempt to prevent Mr Mueller seeing the documents Mr Cohen claimed the documents were subject to legal privilege. After a review of the thousands of items of evidence by independent legal experts the courts seem to have recognised the protection of privilege for a tiny fraction of them. Those not protected are due to go to the Special Counsel’s office today. This might help Mr Cohen’s decision to turn against the boss that has already disowned him.

Probably the greatest increase in heat has been applied to Paul Manafort. Mr Manafort was briefly candidate Trump’s campaign chairman. A man with a colourful history of working in the Ukraine to support its former leader Viktor Yanukovych. That was before Mr Yanukovych fled to Russia following the 2014 Ukranian Revolution. Mr Manafort also has links to Russian oligarchs including Oleg Deripaska who is now suing Mr Manafort for monies he claims disappeared in one of their join tbusiness ventures.

Mr Manafort was subject to a dawn raid on his home and offices and subsequently indicted for money laundering and other offences. He was subject to house arrest and had to wear an ankle bracelet tracking device. He pleaded innocent to all the charges and has so far given no indication of flipping to become a co-operating witness. Today he has gone to jail as a judge found him guilty of witness tampering. Again this might start to focus his mind on how loyal he wants to remain to President Trump. He might think a pardon is coming his way although there is no sign of it yet and of course that might increase the President’s personal legal jeopardy in relation to obstruction of justice.

It may of course be that these men have nothing to tell the Special Prosecutor about President Trump. You would certainly think this was the case given the way President Trump has disowned them. On the other hand the President’s redeeming feature is he is stupid.

One suspects that stress levels in the Trump camp will increase significantly over the weekend. Expect some lashing out next week and further attacks on the FBI, the Attorney General, the Justice Department and most of all the Special Prosecutor. 

A weeks a long time in politics!

Why Robert Mueller probably won’t — and perhaps shouldn’t — indict Trump – The Washington Post

Doing so would be legally controversial and likely reduce the odds of peaceable resolution.

Source: Why Robert Mueller probably won’t — and perhaps shouldn’t — indict Trump – The Washington Post

A sensible case for why Trump should not be indicted whilst President. That does not mean he could not be indicted when he is no longer President. A pragmatic decision not to indict whist 44% of Americans think the Mueller inquiry is a witch hunt may change if the Mueller inquiry reports and presents evidence which starts to change the minds of the 44%. Not an easy task given they are not moved by what comes out of the Presidents mouth every time he opens it but if a smoking gun were found linking Trump to Russia patriotism may overcome loyalty to him.

Managing the Party

No one can envy Theresa May the job of managing the Conservative Party at the moment. It is a thankless task and may ultimately be impossible. But her strength is in management. She is a highly competent manager who will work efficiently and quietly but forcefully to achieve whatever goal is set for her.

The Home Office, a well known graveyard for many a political career, which some argue is unmanageable and not fit for purpose was overseen by Mrs May for just short of 6 years. You have to go back to 1957 and RA Butler to find another politician who lasted more than a couple of years.

In her time at the Home Office she could not have been accused of being a reforming Minister.  Instead she ploughed a popular Tory agenda of cracking down on drugs and immigration. She managed very effectively to avoid PR disasters or faced them down such as the Abu Hamza saga which she deftly used as a stick to beat the European convention on human rights, again a popular move for the party faithful. 

When David Cameron resigned after his disastrous attempt to heal the divisions over Europe with a referendum Mrs May emerged as the “safe pair of hands” compromise. The Goldilocks candidate who was not very much in favour of leaving Europe and not very much in favour of staying inside.

Her initial foray into leadership as opposed to management was not particularly successful. Her commitment to the “just about managing” and addressing an increasingly unequal society with proposals about workers on company boards soon ran into opposition. The latter was just dropped and the members of the former group could be forgiven for wondering what her commitment meant in practice as the employed become the largest cohort of poor people.

If these early attempts at leadership collapsed or dribbled into the sand, the next, an election, ran into a brick wall. Having lead the country into believing now was not the time for an election she was persuaded an opportunistic grab for more seats was in fact precisely in the interests of the country. During the election she equated leadership with an oft repeated mantra of “strong and stable government”  and seemed to hope this would overcome the deficiencies of an ill thought through rag bag of a manifesto.

With a reduced majority and reliant on the votes of the DUP Mrs May was back in her comfort zone of managing competing interests. Clearly this is a real strength however success is not always possible. Over Europe, she took her vision from the electorate and transformed the yes/no result of the referendum into the more sophisticated statement of policy that “Brexit means Brexit”.

Unfortunately, her party has within it diametrically opposed views of what this means. On one side there are those who think leaving Europe will be an enormous mistake on the other those who believe departure will open up a new vista of opportunity to put the Great back into Britain. Phillip Hammond and Jacob Rees Mogg respectively.

If this were not bad enough, between the rock and the hard place circle the Gove/Johnson vultures in a principle free zone, occasionally swooping down to pick the flesh off the bones of any attempt to establish a coherent policy on Brexit. Guided by the moral compass of dedicated careerists they snipe and carp openly hoping to benefit from the political chaos which is inevitable whether we leave of remain.

As the awful car crash that is Britain’s exit from Europe becomes clearer the pressure for another referendum grows day by day. It is to Mrs May’s credit that she stands firm against this. Most Prime Ministers, with an eye to their place in history would be wanting to do a Pontius Pilate on this one. Who wants their name remembered in the history books as the Prime Minister that oversaw the decisive shift to accelerate the decline of the UK needlessly.

It is possible this has not yet occurred to Mrs May. She is focused 100% on making this work like the excellent manager she is. What she lacks is the vision and resolution a leader needs to identify that the goal set is now clearly wrong, even if it was right at some point in June 2016.

It is impossible to rule out the possibility that no deal would be better than a bad deal. But it is increasingly clear David Davis and his team would have to have got us to the point of one spectacularly bad deal to make it worse than no deal.

The truth is “no deal” is not an option. The border between the North and South of Ireland alone prevents this. In most circumstances politicians can fall back on two staple ways of avoiding difficult choices. First, kicking the can down the road. Unfortunately this is precluded by the legislative timetable attached to withdrawal. Second, good old fudge. Sadly the choices are so stark and so highly politically contentious this is not on the menu either.

My money is on another referendum. As the awfulness of the alternatives becomes increasingly apparent no one will want to be left as the person responsible. Mrs May’s efforts are noble but as likely to be effective as those of King Canute.

 

 

 

A tale of two people.

The political turmoil in the States has thrown up the best of people and the worst of people. James Comey’s autobiographical reflection on leadership presents a picture of the both.

Obviously, autobiography is a partial view, which it would be foolish to accept uncritically. Reassuringly perhaps, the self Mr Comey is willing to reveal to us is not without fault. He confesses to weaknesses, sins of omission and commission including bullying a fellow student when at University and lying about playing basketball in high school.

He makes no claims to infallibility, indeed quite the contrary recognising that key decisions he has made in his career may have been wrong. He appreciates how difficult it is to understand how motives shape decisions consciously or unconsciously particularly his own. If there is one thing he is keen to convince the reader, it is that, in his professional career he has always tried to act in good faith according to the law and the Constitution of the United States. He presents himself as a fallible human being but a deeply patriotic person who aims high in his professional behaviour.

The book considers the events and people in his life he believes shaped him as a leader. Whether or not he genuinely absorbed those influences and lived up to the high standards he describes only those he led would be able to answer. However his descriptions of what good leadership looks like are compelling and worth reading.

Whilst the leadership style of President Trump is not addressed directly until the end of the book one cannot but feel the first 210 pages create, consciously or not, a sharp point of contrast. Its elements include the ability to listen actively, to seek out the opinions of others and see the value of those that contradict your own. It understands the difference between intelligence and judgement. Intelligence being the ability to “…master a set of facts.” Judgement on the other hand being the ability to “…say what those facts mean and what effects they will have on other audiences.”

Comey, a Republican voter, describes what he thinks are characteristics of good leaders but his examples  are absent of partisan bias. He describes characteristics and behaviours of President Obama he thinks are important including a good sense of humour which he believes to be a good indicator of a persons ego. The ability to laugh at someone else’s joke reveals a degree of self confidence in a willingness to look a little silly as you laugh and an appreciation of others.

Central to Comey’s view of a good leader is personal confidence. Being comfortable in your own skin, knowing yourself, including your weaknesses as well as your strengths. Such confidence facilitates the ability to be humble. To recognise that a good leader does not have to pretend infallibility, rather they recognise others may have more to offer on certain matters and indeed provide better insight into an issue. A good leader blends confidence and humility in a mutually reinforcing whole.

Comey is clear a leader cannot take respect it has to be earned. Earned through consistency of words and actions. Living the values you espouse. He understands that as a leader you are constantly under scrutiny. Some will be willing you to exhibit actions which contradict your words, the vast majority will be looking for examples of what you value. Your words and actions are signposts, you constantly have to take care are pointing in the right direction.

Access to truth, for Comey is seen as fundamental to good leadership. Loyalty of those around you means having people who will challenge you with vigour when they think you are making a mistake. Helping you discover the uncomfortable truth as opposed to reassuring your convenient prejudice.  Loyalty expressed through flattery magnifies errors when whatever “the boss” says is agreed to as right. This is the loyalty offered to  the Mafia boss.

There are lots of textbooks on leadership but if you want a passionate guide from someone who at the very least has occupied some very senior leadership positions you could do a lot worse than read this book. Comey sets the bar high and from his autobiography you do get the impression he measured himself against it. He clearly reflected a lot on leadership and thought deeply about it.

And then of course there is President Trump. Clearly, the fact that President Trump sacked him will have shaped Mr Comey’s views about the man. However, the manner of his sacking, reported live on TV speaks volumes to the leadership style of the man who now ‘leads the free world”.

In summary, Comey was in the FBI’s Los Angeles field office speaking to a room full of staff when he saw the news of his sacking being reported on the TV screen running across the back of the room. Once it had sunk in that this was not a joke he got onto his assistant back in Washington who had been given a letter which she scanned and emailed to Comey which fired him with “immediate effect”.

If Comey had been guilty of some act of gross misconduct this would have been a shocking and deplorable way to handle his dismissal. The ostensible reasons in the advice given by the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein were, ironically, about his handling of the Hilary Clinton email investigation which had been conducted 6 months previously, before Trump had been elected to the Presidency.

Whilst this manner of sacking might seem unprofessional it does not plumb the depths of the sacker. The issue of how Comey would get home arose. The Deputy Director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, who had suddenly become the Acting Director of the agency, decided it was appropriate to return Mr Comey to Washington in the official plane with his security detail.

Millions saw the return of the sacked Director live on TV, including, it seems, the President. Many would have thought this national coverage of his return a public humiliation. It was, but seemingly not enough for the President. The next day Trump rang the new Acting Director and asked how Comey had been allowed to use the official plane to get back to Washington. When McCabe explained he had authorised it, “The President exploded.” He ordered that Comey should never again be allowed into any FBI property anywhere. This meant his staff had to box up his personal effects and take them to his home.

Are we at the bottom yet? No. The Deputy Director’s wife had once run unsuccessfully as a democrat for the Virginia state legislature. Apparently in his fury with McCabe Trump asked “Your wife lost her election in Virginia, didn’t she?” When McCabe replied “Yes, she did.” Trump said “Ask her how it feels to be a loser.”

Confidence, humility, judgement? No. Petty, spiteful, vindictive? Yes.

In the epilogue Comey manages to maintain a sense of optimism. Whilst he deplores those who stand silent and provide tacit assent to Trump’s outrageous behaviour, he believes after the forest fire which is the Trump presidency the United States will refocus and restore the balance between the executive, legislative and judicial arms of government. We can only hope his optimism is well founded.

Having read this book I think about the lift test. Would I want to be stuck in a lift with Comey. He sounds genuine and interesting so the answer is yes. If it were Trump? I’d jump.

 

A Higher Loyalty: Truth Lies and Leadership. James Comey. Flatiron Books 2018

McMafia strike in Washington?

In the wake of what appears to be an assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal sponsored by Russia there is renewed interest in the death of other Russian exiles, including that of one Mikhail Lesin found dead in his hotel room in Washington in November 2015.

Mikhail Lesin had been a very prominent Russian figure with close links to Putin having been responsible for setting up Russia Today (RT) the international television station funded by the Russian government aiming to provide a Russian viewpoint on major global events. He went on from there to head up Gazprom Media the largest Russia media holding company which, in 2000, controversially acquired the last nationwide independent television network.

In 2014, quite suddenly and without explanation, Lesin resigned from Gazprom Media and left Russia for a home he had set up in the United States. What happened after that is not all that clear.

Following his death, in March 2016 it was concluded the cause of his death was “blunt force injuries to the head”. However other “blunt force injuries” were also identified on his neck, torso, upper extremities and lower extremities. This sounds like he had “blunt force injuries” all over his body.

There followed a 12 month period of investigation to determine the manner of his death. This included a Grand Jury investigation local police and the FBI. The Department of Justice concluded that his death was “accidental” following heavy drinking. He had apparently got so drunk he kept falling down until he killed himself. Not a common cause of death even in Glasgow.

The plot thickens when you discover that the hotel room in which Lesin was staying was paid for by the US Department of Justice. The reason for this being he was due to meet with the officers from the Department of Justice the following day to be interviewed about the operation of RT.

In summer 2017 three FBI agents spoke to BuzzFeed claiming Lesin was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat. Perhaps it could be argued that, in his drunken stupor, he had beaten himself to death with a baseball bat. Not a view the FBI agents favoured saying no one in the FBI thought this was anything other than murder. This generated a fair amount of interest at the time although no change in the official conclusion about the manner of death being accidental.

Then late last week BuzzFeed revealed a secret report had been produced in 2016 which had indicated that Lesin had fallen out with a Russian oligarch. The oligarch, who had close links to Putin, had then commissioned the Russian secret service to frighten Lesin. Whether they had been over enthusiastic in their work or the mission had been changed in the light of his impending discussions with the FBI is unknown.

Interestingly the author of that report was Christopher Steele. The same Christopher Steele that produced the report on Russian attempts to influence the US election in Trumps favour. Incidentally, the Same Christopher Steele who is now alleged to be on a Kremlin hit list according to ex KGB spy Boris Karpichkov who is now in hiding in the UK. All of this may have sounded like conspiracy theory 10 years ago but now it is difficult to see as anything other than an extra-judicial state killing.

For me there are two interesting questions if the stories about Lesin are true. Firstly, how on earth did the Department of Justice come to the conclusion that it did about the death? Even if you rule our Russian involvement Lesin would have had to have been one of the most accident prone people in the world to keep falling down until he killed himself, however drunk he was.

The second question is about the Steele claim that Lesin fell out with an oligarch who then used the forces of the Russian state to deal with the matter. If true this betrays an integration of personal, criminal and state power which reinforces a picture of the world where crime and politics are increasingly interlinked. Where the economic resources of the state are plundered by rapacious politicians and state power is used to protect and sustain outright criminal behaviour.

The evidence against Mr Putin mounts every day. He is clearly no friend of democracy, doing what he can to undermine the process in the west as he subverts it at home. The latest diplomatic response to the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal has been impressive. It must however be followed up by actions on the finances of Russian oligarchs with links to the Kremlin. For some time now there have been calls for the City of London to look much more closely at the sources of money flowing through the capital from Russia and a range of other locations. These must not be seen as alarmist propaganda threatening the global finance centre’s future. On the contrary failure to take urgent and substantial action will put at risk the long term credibility of the City. Ultimately losing that credibility will cost dearly.