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.


Consuming Consumers

Some time ago I received an email from PayPal which informed me that they were going to update their User Agreement, Acceptable Use Policy and Privacy Policy. Furthermore they told me that these updates would automatically apply to me on the dates set out in the policies. I was asked to go to the Policy Update page where I could review the proposals and if I did not want to accept them I should follow the instructions about what to do.

On the policy review page there were 15 clauses of changes to the User Agreement, 5 clauses on the Privacy Agreement, and 5 clauses on the Acceptable Use Agreement. These covered several pages and displayed the limpid clarity which characterises all legal documents translated from American via Mandarin into English.

This got me to thinking about all those little boxes we tick covering “terms and conditions”. I might be the only person that fails to study the contractual details that accompany every commercial website but I suspect there might be a few others that display the same rash abandon to contractual detail.

The fact that many contracts are observed in the absence of a precise understanding of their terms is, I think, not a new phenomenon. When you buy a ticket for a railway journey  for example you rarely look up the “National Rail Conditions of Carriage”. On the other hand I don’t ever remember being asked to sign up to those terms either. I guess there is an implied acceptance of the terms in the purchase of the ticket.

Somehow however, the rail ticket issue feels different and probably for two reasons. One is that over many years there will have been litigation in relation to the terms that applied to the small piece of paper. This litigation will have articulated the interests of the consumer. Naively, no doubt, I think a compromise position will have been arrived at where the consumers interests have been accepted.

Secondly, of course, there is the whole issue of legislation to strike down unfair terms in contracts which means that if someone does something beyond the pale then it can be struck down later. This might have cost attached to it and delay, but it is a defence for the consumer.

With online purchasing however you are constantly agreeing to terms and conditions by a positive action of agreement. Those terms and conditions may not be unfair but they might be significant if for example they change the privacy settings on some social media product. Because they are so new and also because some of the products are constantly changing there is no opportunity for litigation to build in the interest of the consumer.

It makes one wonder whether there is a qualitative difference in the consumer transaction brought about by the internet which requires a radical development of the, essentially 19th Century, contract form.

One way to do this would be to have all contract forms and amendments reviewed by lawyers with the consumers interest in mind. Clearly they are not negotiating a contract for any single individual, rather they are checking to see that the balance of interests between seller and buyer are fair. Identifying unfair contract terms in advance.

Contracts that have been reviewed in such a way could have a kite mark which would provide consumers with some confidence that the terms were reasonable. Over time bad practice terms would be excluded. A plain English summary of what the contract meant could also be provided for those who wanted to go beyond simply accepting the kite mark. If items were not against the interest of the consumer but were potentially contentious they would be picked out from all the guff that is procedural and non-contentious.

Who should pay for this? The people who want you to sign the contract. Yes it will add to their costs and let us assume that a consumer review will cost as much as the cost of writing the contract. Indeed let us assume it is double the cost. If this is the anything other than an insignificant fraction of the cost of sales then it is probably not worth the bother writing the contract in the first place.

I think there is a similar argument to be made about corporate structures but that is for another day.

Yes, John Bolton Really Is That Dangerous – The New York Times

The good thing about John Bolton, President Trump’s new national security adviser, is that he says what he thinks.

The bad thing is what he thinks.

There are few people more likely than Mr. Bolton is to lead the country into war. His selection is a decision that is as alarming as any Mr. Trump has made. His selection, along with the nomination of the hard-line C.I.A. director, Mike Pompeo, as secretary of state, shows the degree to which Mr. Trump is indulging his worst nationalistic instincts.


Just when you think it can’t get any worse President Trump shows he can still shock. The only hope is that his latest appointment will last as long as the two previous ones although sadly that is plenty of time for him to engage the US in a conflict with North Korea or Iran or both.

Fire and Fury

The maelstrom of comment around the new book by Michael Wolf is interesting for two reasons.

Firstly, the apparent amazement surrounding what it says about President Trump and those around him. What in the book is a surprise? Anyone who has followed Mr Trump’s presidency with half an eye or indeed his election campaign can hardly be surprised with the picture that emerges from the book. A boorish narcissist with the attention span of a gnat, wholly incapable of high office.

A child for whom the word “no” has not occurred sufficiently often in his life. Someone for whom instant gratification is the norm, more, a basic requirement, as, if it is not achieved, he simply moves on without a backward glance to the next demand. Someone who wakes anew every day, his mind a tabula rasa for Fox news and innate prejudice to write upon.

The best that you can say is that it is a testament to the respect in which the democratic process is held that many people continue to try and translate his actions and comments into something coherent and sensible. Whilst he promotes a neoliberal agenda there are those who will have an interest in pretending he is something he is not. However, there are probably still some who cling to the hope that democracy cannot have gone so badly wrong.

As to the views of those working for President Trump about their boss these have been leaked frequently over the past 12 months. Back in October comments by Rex Tillerson about him being a moron were widely reported.

The second interesting thing about the book is how it got written. Mr Wolf is a well known journalist in the States’ whose metier is not journalism of the sober pedantic type. He is to political journalism what the bodice bodice ripper is to novels. President Trump now says he was was never interviewed by him and denigrates the man as a gutter scandal monger.

That may all be true but you have to wonder on what basis this man manages to secure access to the West Wing of the White House,… for a year? You would have thought any journalist given such privileged access for such a long period of time would a) have been thoroughly vetted and b) chaperoned 24/7.

The fact that this man was allowed to wonder around, at will, in what should be one of the most secure locations on the planet says something about President Trump but also those around him. It is a failure of security and judgement which would be inexcusable in any corporate entity but in the White House it is almost unbelievable.

Is Mr Wolf’s account accurate? As to detail, who knows. As to tone and substance it rings awfully true. In “Fire and Fury” President Trump’s first year in office seems to have secured the account it deserves.

The Case for Impeachment

It is a sad but unsurprising comment on the Trump Presidency that in April this year (2017), less than three months into his term of office, an American professor of history, Allen J Lichtman, should think it worthwhile publishing a work entitled “The Case for Impeachment”. The book considers Trump’s behaviour generally and specifically in his first few weeks in office to present the “… foundation for building a case for his impeachment”.

He makes the point that impeachment proceedings are not confined to the actions of a President in office. Politically unlikely, but constitutionally possible is the impeachment of Trump for actions which were committed before he became President. More likely such actions may be considered as evidence of his character and propensity to behave in particular ways as part of an impeachment hearing for things related to his campaign for the Presidency and his time in office.

Professor Lichtman summarises a whole series of areas which he believes provide grounds for action to impeach Trump. A key one is his attitude to the law. He summarises the various laws that Trump has broken over the years: racial discrimination in housing; illegal use of charitable funds; failure to pay taxes; sexual discrimination against female  employees in his casinos; establishing a fraudulent “University” (one which offered no course credits, conferred no degrees, did not grade students and did not submit to outside review); and, perhaps most ironically, the exploitation of undocumented immigrants in the construction of Trump Tower in 1980.

Whilst impeachment may not be instituted because of any of the above transgressions they provide evidence of his attitude towards the law. Details of the above cases betray an attitude which sees it as a tool to gag and intimidate people who oppose him but to be ignored or subverted where it stands in the way of what he wants to do. His modus operandi is to spend his way out of trouble by, for instance, paying $25m to settle the case relating to his bogus university whilst at the same time claiming this as a victory. He has certainly had plenty of practice finessing the law it being reported he has been plaintiff in 1,900 legal actions, defendant in 1,450, and involved in bankruptcy or third-party suits 150 times.

The book catalogues the various and multiple conflicts of interest created by Trump’s ongoing business interests around the world and makes the point that the high level of debt many of his companies rely upon creates real leverage for the holders of that debt if something goes wrong and his businesses cannot repay their loans. The only way to avoid these conflicts and risks would be by selling all his assets, liquidating his debt and putting the proceeds into a blind Trust operated by a third part not reporting to the President. He has refused to do this rather handing over control of his business empire to his two sons!

Trumps propensity to see the truth as whatever serves his purpose is considered. The independent fact-checker PolitiFact reviewed all the presidential candidates at the end of the nomination process and found Trump had more “Pants on Fire” ratings than all twenty-one other candidates… combined! The point is made that lying under oath about his relationship with Ms Lewinsky was a key driver of the impeachment of Bill Clinton. A series of outstanding lawsuits against Trump could result in his having to testify under oath and create a similar risk for him if he failed to tell the truth.

Of course the big issue is the Russia connection and the book provides a summary of the nature of the pro-Trump Russian intervention in the election and the many links Trump has to Russia, and oligarchs close to Putin. It charts the pro-Russia interventions made by the Trump administration and the links going back to the 2013 Miss Universe pageant which Trump took to Moscow. It also mentions the fact that, at the time, Trump had tweeted “Trump Tower Moscow is next.” Since the book was published in April evidence has emerged that Trump Tower Moscow was more than a vague dream. It appears, despite statements to the contrary, that Trump Tower Moscow is a live project. Indeed in 2016 Mr Trump signed a letter of intent about the project.

Given what we know about the actions of Trump since the election the question arises, why has he not been impeached already. The cold reality according to Prof. Lichtman is that the Republican Party has a programme of change they want to see through. It involves, tax reform, de-regulation, eviscerating climate change laws, repeal of the affordable care act, shifting investment towards the military away from social programmes, and generally reducing the role of the state. Whilst it is judged Trump is capable of delivering on this the Republicans will not move against him and their control of the House and Senate means therefore impeachment would not succeed.

Given Trump’s spectacular failure to deliver pretty much anything since he came into office the GOP may well be starting to think about plan B. If they were to impeach Trump then, theoretically, Mike Pence, as Vice President, should take over which may have looked an attractive option at some point. However, this may not be so appealing if there is a risk that the investigations of special counsel Bob Mueller finds that Mr Pence has, in some way, colluded in the Russia connection or, even worse, the cover up of the same.

It is difficult to see how President Trump can survive to the end of his first term. His propensity to dig  when he is in a hole is spectacular. Whilst it is a comment on the times a book could be published 4 months into his Presidency making the case for impeachment it is even more instructive that 6 months later the book looks significantly out of date as to the weight of evidence mounting and pressure building on this presidency.

There is a sense President Trump has created a new standard for shock. He has set the bar much higher for outrage. However, in the background the prosaic investigations of the Mueller inquiry grind on. The President may find at some point the civilised standards of ordinary people reassert themselves and that no one is above the rule of law. If he does not – God help America.

The Case For Impeachment. A J Lichtman. Harper Colllins 2017


Plot to oust Theresa May breaks into the open

Plot to oust Theresa May breaks into the openEx-Tory chairman Grant Shapps emerges as ringleader of rebellion against prime minister

Source: Plot to oust Theresa May breaks into the open

After Diem Horribilis Grant Shapps claims leadership of backbench challenge to her leadership Mrs May must have though things could not get any worse. Then up pops Michael Gove on the Today programme offering his complete support. She must see her days are numbered.

Boris Johnson’s Brexit ‘red lines’ undermine Theresa May

Boris Johnson’s Brexit ‘red lines’ undermine Theresa MayIntervention on eve of Tory conference scuppers premier’s plan to reassert controlRead nextLabour’s galvanising conference in Brighton4 HOURS AGOTheresa May with other EU heads of government at a summit in Tallinn on Friday © EPAShare on Twitter (opens new window)Share on Facebook (opens new window)Share on LinkedIn (opens new window)Email162 Save to myFT8 HOURS AGO by Robert Wright and George ParkerBoris Johnson issued a direct challenge to Theresa May over her Brexit strategy last night, undermining the prime minister as she tries to reassert her authority at the Conservative conference that starts on Sunday.The foreign secretary used an interview to stake out his four “red lines” for Brexit, which go beyond the carefully agreed cabinet position set out by Mrs May in her speech in Florence last week.

Source: Boris Johnson’s Brexit ‘red lines’ undermine Theresa May

The Tory leadership campaign is likely to be long and bitter. Europe has always had the potential to tear the party apart and the process of getting rid of Mrs May may be the catalyst which is why she remains Prime Minister.

Telling the truth in politics has never been a moral commitment. Rather a practical imperative not to be found to lie has tempered political rhetoric. That seems now to have gone. Boris lied in the Brexit campaign and he is lying again. It will be interesting to see if this carries any weight with MP’s and party members when a leadership challenge is mounted.

One thing which might undermine his campaign is his open disloyalty to the leader. Many Conservatives think it is a sin to undermine the leader publicly whatever you might do privately. Given that lying, and being found out is not necessarily a disbar from the role of leader it may be possible for an unplaced runner to come in late. Someone like Grant Shapps for instance. He certainly has the brass neck for the job.

On the other hand, time is the friend of the wounded. The longer Mrs May is in power the longer politics has the opportunity to throw up something that might help her. A week is a long time… but months and years is even longer. Mrs May is in power because the party fears the alternative. The longer they fear this the more difficult it will be to replace her. Given the poisonous challenge of Europe is quite possible they will fear it though to 2022.

Mrs May’s strength may be holding the ring on this potentially fatal issue. The next week is strewn with banana skins but if she gets through it it will be an important milestone in her Premiership. She may well see this government though, however whether it lasts to 2022 is a whole different issue.