British politics

Christmas Ayatollah style

Reza Reesh

Guarding democracy

Cartoon by Adam Zyglis

US Senate urged to guard democracy as Mueller probe nears end

Financial Times: Several dozen former Democratic and Republican senators have urged the Senate to be a “zealous guardian” of US democracy as special counsel Robert Mueller moved towards completing the Russia investigation.

The 44 retired senators — who included Democrats such as Tom Daschle, Max Baucus and John Kerry, and Republicans such as William Cohen and Chuck Hagel — said the US was “entering a dangerous period” as the country faced challenges to the rule of law, its constitution, government institutions and national security.

While the senators did not mention Donald Trump, they urged that “partisanship or self-interest not replace national interest” in a letter that indirectly referred to criticism of the president’s attack on institutions. They said the US was “entering a dangerous period” as Mr Mueller moved towards ending his probe and the House of Representatives, which will revert to Democratic control in January, started investigations into Mr Trump.

“At other critical moments in our history, when constitutional crises have threatened our foundations, it has been the Senate that has stood in defence of our democracy. Today is once again such a time,” the senators wrote.

The letter, published in the Washington Post, came just three days after prosecutors in New York made clear they believed that Mr Trump had told Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, to make payments to two women — porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal — to silence them ahead of the 2016 election. Both women said they had sexual relationships with Mr Trump many years ago when he was married.

Mr Trump on Monday repeated his mantra that the Russia investigation was a “witch-hunt” orchestrated by Democrats. He said Democrats were focusing on a “simple private transaction” and saying it was a campaign contribution because they could not find a smoking gun. “Cohen just trying to get his sentence reduced,” he tweeted. “WITCH HUNT!”

The president lashed out after Democrats suggested that he had been complicit in the felony Mr Cohen was charged with committing. Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat who will chair the House judiciary committee from January, said Mr Trump had committed “impeachable offences”. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who will become chair of the House intelligence committee, said it was conceivable that Mr Trump would go to jail.

“There’s a very real prospect that on the day Donald Trump leaves office the justice department may indict him, that he may be the first president in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time,” Mr Schiff told CBS News.

John Thune, the South Dakota senator who will become the number two Republican in the Senate in January, on Monday said he expected that the Southern District of New York and the Mueller team would eventually come out with “a lot more”.

“What they’re implying there, obviously, is something I assume at some point the president will have an opportunity to respond to,” Mr Thune said in reference to the claims that Mr Trump ordered his former lawyer to make hush-money payments to the two women who accused him of affairs.

James Comey, the former FBI director, on Sunday said “all of us should use every breath we have to make sure the lies stop on January 20 2021”. Mr Trump’s decision to fire Mr Comey, who was overseeing the Russia probe, led to the appointment of Mr Mueller as special counsel.

The increased scrutiny of Mr Trump comes as he looks for a new chief of staff following his announcement that John Kelly, a retired general, would leave the position this year. Mr Trump’s top choice for the critical role — Nick Ayers who serves as chief of staff to vice-president Mike Pence — turned down the job.

Mr Trump is considering several candidates who include Mick Mulvaney, the top White House budget official, and Mark Meadows, a North Carolina lawmaker who belongs to the ultra-conservative House freedom caucus.

Terrorism; vicious circle

Shahrikh Heydari

Khashoggi murder solved

Cartoon by Patrick Chappatte

The Wooing of Jared Kushner: How the Saudis Got a Friend in the White House

The New York Times: Senior American officials were worried. Since the early months of the Trump administration, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, had been having private, informal conversations with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the favorite son of Saudi Arabia’s king.

Given Mr. Kushner’s political inexperience, the private exchanges could make him susceptible to Saudi manipulation, said three former senior American officials. In an effort to tighten practices at the White House, a new chief of staff tried to reimpose longstanding procedures stipulating that National Security Council staff members should participate in all calls with foreign leaders.

But even with the restrictions in place, Mr. Kushner, 37, and Prince Mohammed, 33, kept chatting, according to three former White House officials and two others briefed by the Saudi royal court. In fact, they said, the two men were on a first-name basis, calling each other Jared and Mohammed in text messages and phone calls.

The exchanges continued even after the Oct. 2 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was ambushed and dismembered by Saudi agents, according to two former senior American officials and the two people briefed by the Saudis.

As the killing set off a firestorm around the world and American intelligence agencies concluded that it was ordered by Prince Mohammed, Mr. Kushner became the prince’s most important defender inside the White House, people familiar with its internal deliberations say.

Mr. Kushner’s support for Prince Mohammed in the moment of crisis is a striking demonstration of a singular bond that has helped draw President Trump into an embrace of Saudi Arabia as one of his most important international allies.

But the ties between Mr. Kushner and Prince Mohammed did not happen on their own. The prince and his advisers, eager to enlist American support for his hawkish policies in the region and for his own consolidation of power, cultivated the relationship with Mr. Kushner for more than two years, according to documents, emails and text messages reviewed by The New York Times.

A delegation of Saudis close to the prince visited the United States as early as the month Mr. Trump was elected, the documents show, and brought back a report identifying Mr. Kushner as a crucial focal point in the courtship of the new administration. He brought to the job scant knowledge about the region, a transactional mind-set and an intense focus on reaching a deal with the Palestinians that met Israel’s demands, the delegation noted.

Even then, before the inauguration, the Saudis were trying to position themselves as essential allies who could help the Trump administration fulfill its campaign pledges. In addition to offering to help resolve the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, the Saudis offered hundreds of billions of dollars in deals to buy American weapons and invest in American infrastructure. Mr. Trump later announced versions of some of these items with great fanfare when he made his first foreign trip: to an Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The Saudis had extended that invitation during the delegation’s November 2016 visit.

“The inner circle is predominantly deal makers who lack familiarity with political customs and deep institutions, and they support Jared Kushner,” the Saudi delegation wrote of the incoming administration in a slide presentation obtained by the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, which provided it to The Times. Several Americans who spoke with the delegation confirmed the slide presentation’s accounts of the discussions.

The courtship of Mr. Kushner appears to have worked.

Only a few months after Mr. Trump moved into the White House, Mr. Kushner was inquiring about the Saudi royal succession process and whether the United States could influence it, raising fears among senior officials that he sought to help Prince Mohammed, who was not yet the crown prince, vault ahead in the line for the throne, two former senior White House officials said. American diplomats and intelligence officials feared that the Trump administration might be seen as playing favorites in the delicate internal politics of the Saudi royal family, the officials said.

(After publication, a senior White House official said in a statement: “Implications that Jared inquired about the possibility of influencing the Saudi royal succession process are false.”)

By March, Mr. Kushner helped usher Prince Mohammed into a formal lunch with Mr. Trump in a state dining room at the White House, capitalizing on a last minute cancellation by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany because of a snowstorm >>>

Prosecuting Huawei Executive

Cartoon by Arcadio Esquivel

Prosecuting the Chinese Huawei executive is an idiotic way to hold China in check

by Zachary Karabell

The Washington Post: The U.S.-China relationship seemed to improve last week at the G-20 summit in Argentina, where President Trump announced that he’d reached an important agreement with President Xi Jinping. Then, an ominous development: American authorities asked Canada to arrest the CFO of one of China’s largest technologies companies for alleged sanctions fraud and violations of U.S. export controls. Meng Wanzhou isn’t just a top leader at Huawei, which makes phones and other gadgets; she is also the daughter of the company’s founder and chairman, which makes her arrest somewhat like the Chinese arresting the daughter of Steve Jobs if she helped run Apple. It would be an understatement to say that Beijing did not react well: It demanded her release and accused the U.S. government of violating the rights of a Chinese citizen.

The timing could hardly be worse, and from what can be told, it reflects the overall chaos of the Trump administration. National Security Advisor John Bolton claimed that he was informed of the pending arrest by the Justice Department but did not pass that information to the president. That no one in the White House considered the implications of her arrest on the tenuous trade truce between China and the U.S. is itself rather astonishing.

The case against Huawei and its executives may be legitimate under U.S. law, but it is nonetheless a hideous political mistake. Perhaps Huawei used American-made components in equipment it sold to Iran, violating U.S. sanctions. But even in less ambiguous cases, there is always such a thing as prosecutorial discretion. Not every case that can be brought should be brought, and not every case should be prosecuted to the full letter of the law. In international cases, that is doubly true. If the U.S. wants to respond to China’s rise and manage the changing role of the United States in the international system, it could hardly have picked a dumber tactic.

Huawei is not exactly a noble avatar of social responsibility. Since at least 2016, when Obama was still president, the Commerce Department has been investigating Huawei for export violations to Iran and North Korea. In the spring of 2017, the Treasury Department opened its own inquiry.

Even before that, though, Huawei operated on the margins of legality. In 2003, Cisco sued it for copying some of the code used in its routers. (Huawei admitted as much before the trial and promised to stop.) In 2012, a House committee named the company as a potential threat to U.S. national security because of its ties to the Chinese government, its legacy of intellectual property theft and its ability to embed spyware in its phones. The U.S., Australia and New Zealand have already blocked Huawei from being part of the initial build-out of the next generation 5G telecom networks.

Even if everything alleged is correct, however, the quest against Huawei is a ridiculous overreach — predicated on an assumption that the U.S. can dictate how foreign competitors conduct business. Yes, the company has deep ties with the Chinese Communist Party, though it’s worth mulling whether those are any more pernicious than the close bonds that connect defense contractors such as Boeing and Lockheed with the Pentagon.

More important, global supply chains are now deeply interconnected and touch multiple countries and numerous companies. Samsung, for instance, is the second largest cellphone provider in Iran, behind Huawei, while the Swedish telecom company Ericsson has been selling Iran equipment even under the sanctions. Those companies may have done a better job not using American components for products sold to those countries, though with the complexity of global component sourcing, it is unlikely that no American intellectual property has been used by Iranian consumers. Yet U.S. prosecutors are not trying to curtail the work of those mega-technology giants, or aggressively investigating where every component originated.

Samsung and Ericsson, of course, are domiciled in countries that are American allies, whereas Huawei is tightly connected to what is now being seen by many as a prime American adversary. The initial reaction in China, judging by the social media flow and some interviews, is that the Americans are using their legal system to advance political interests in an ongoing contest with China.

There is a long and debated legacy on how far American laws extend. On the one hand, the Supreme Court has recognized a “presumption against extraterritoriality,” which holds that U.S. laws should not be enforced outside the United States. On the other, there are statutes such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which punishes bribery by foreign entities. Sanctions occupy a zone of their own, whereby the U.S. government has acted against other countries by threatening foreign companies that do business with them, if they also do business in the U.S. To the degree that the United States has enjoyed dominant economic power relative to any one country that might object, it has been able to use law enforcement as one tool among many to achieve policy objectives.

That works, however, primarily where there are stark power imbalances, which is clearly not the case with China. Arresting the No. 2 executive of one of the world’s largest technology companies is an ineffective way to achieve policy aims – and a very effective way to complicate negotiations that matter rather more. It’s one thing to ban Huawei’s 5G components from the U.S. market, a defensible response to a perceived threat. That’s an unassailable invocation of American sovereignty (which would still carry a steep economic and political cost).

It’s something else entirely to arrest a very senior executive and potentially try her for evading U.S. export controls. Using law enforcement against individuals for corporate actions of this sort risks backfiring spectacularly. It is easily painted as a crude attempt by the Trump administration to put pressure on Beijing in the upcoming trade negotiations, even if that is not the actual intent. It exposes American executives to potential retaliation in China and abroad in a tit-for-tat that will chill an already frosty business climate, with direct effects on the domestic American economy and markets. And it may succeed only in pushing technology even further into national camps that compete and develop their own protocols, which appears to be happening with the evolution of artificial intelligence. We can hope to win that competition, but it will prove costlier than the mutual dependence that defined much of the past two decades.

Carbon Emissions

Cartoon by Kevin Siers

Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions Rise to Record High

Democracy Now: Global carbon dioxide emissions climbed to a record high in 2018, setting the world on a path toward the most catastrophic effects of climate change. That’s the stark warning of the Global Carbon Project in a new report that found global CO2 emissions are on track to grow by 2.7 percent this year. Under goals set out in the United Nations Paris Agreement in 2015, the world needs to rapidly cut its emissions to keep average global temperatures from rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius—or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. The report came as the United Nations climate summit got underway in Katowice, Poland. This is renowned broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough speaking at the opening ceremony.

Decisions Decisions

Cartoon by Bruce Plante

Spare me America's tears for Jamal Khashoggi – this excuse for Trump-bashing ignores the CIA's past crimes

by Robrt Fisk

The Independent: Can I be the only one – apart from his own sycophants – to find the sight of America’s finest Republicans and Democrats condemning the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia for murdering Jamal Khashoggi a bit sickening? “Crazy”. “Dangerous”. A “wrecking ball”. A “smoking saw”. These guys are angry. CIA Director Gina Haspel, who was happy to sign off on the torture of her Muslim captives in the secret American prison of Thailand, obviously knew what she was talking about when she testified about Mohammed bin Salman and the agony of Jamal Khashoggi.

US government leaks suggest that Haspel knew all about the shrieks of pain, the suffering of Arab men who believed they were drowning, the desperate pleading for life from America’s victims in these sanctuaries of torment in and after 2002. After all, the desperate screams of a man who believes he is drowning and the desperate screams of a man who believes he is suffocating can’t be very different. Except, of course, that the CIA’s victims lived to be tortured another day – indeed several more days – while Jamal Khashoggi’s asphyxiation was intended to end his life. Which it did.

A generation ago, the CIA’s “Operation Phoenix” torture and assassination programme in Vietnam went way beyond the imaginations of the Saudi intelligence service. In spook language, Khashoggi was merely “terminated with maximum prejudice”. If the CIA could sign off on mass murder in Vietnam, why shouldn’t an Arab dictator do the same on a far smaller scale? True, I can’t imagine the Americans went in for bone saws. Testimony suggests that mass rape followed by mass torture did for their enemies in Vietnam. Why play music through the earphones of the murderers?

But still it goes on. Here’s Democrat Senator Bob Martinez this week. The US, he told us, must “send a clear and unequivocal message that such actions are not acceptable on the world’s stage.” The “action”, of course, is the murder of Khashoggi. And this from a man who constantly defended Israel after its slaughter of the innocents in Gaza.

So what on earth is going on here? Perhaps the “world’s stage” of which Martinez spoke was the White House – an appropriate phrase, when you come to think about it -- where the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has been no stranger. Yet when at least one recent US presidential incumbent of that high office is guilty of war crimes – in Iraq – and the deaths of tens of thousands of Arabs, how come American senators are huffing and puffing about just one man, Mohammed bin Salman, who (for a moment, let us set aside the Yemen war) is only being accused of ordering the murder and dismemberment of one single Arab?

After all, world leaders – and US presidents themselves -- have always had rather a soft spot for mass murderers and those who should face war crimes indictments. Trump has infamously met Kim Jong-un and invited him to the White House. We are all waiting for Rodrigo Duterte to take up his own invitation.

Obama lavished hospitality at the White House on a host of bloody autocrats – from Gambia, Burkina Faso and Cameroon – before we even recall Suharto, whose death squads killed up to half a million people, and Hosni Mubarak, whose secret police sometimes raped their prisoners and who sanctioned the hanging of hundreds of Islamists without proper trials; and his ultimate successor

Field Marshal-President al-Sissi, who has around 60,000 political prisoners locked up in Egypt and whose cops appear to have tortured a young Italian student to death. But Giulio Regeni wasn’t murdered in an Egyptian consulate. This list does not even include Ariel Sharon, who as Israeli defence minister was accused by an Israeli inquiry of personal responsibility for the massacre of 1,700 Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Chatila camps in Beirut in 1982 >>>

The Yellow Vests

Cartoon by Christo Komarnitski

The ‘yellow vest’ protests in France aren’t limited to Paris — they’re tapping into deep anxiety nationwide

The Los Angeles -- Over the weekend, international attention was drawn to the streets of Paris, where thousands of marchers clashed with police and fires burned for hours in one of the biggest challenges yet to President Emmanuel Macron.

Yet Paris remains just part of a much broader story. Some of the greatest anger against a planned diesel fuel tax increase has come from the French provinces, where Macron is seen as an urbanite who favors the rich and lacks understanding of rural France.

France’s interior minister estimated that 136,000 people had marched or taken part in protests across the country over the weekend. In the southwestern city of Toulouse, the protests left 57 injured, including 48 police officers. Further east along France’s coast, a driver was killed in the town of Arles after his van hit a barrier put in place by protesters. In Narbonne, demonstrators set fire to a toll booth.

The Gilets Jaunes, or Yellow Vests, movement, in which protesters wear bright yellow vests, started initially as a reaction to the planned tax on diesel fuel set to take effect in January as part of the French president's efforts to fight climate change.

The Gilets Jaunes, or Yellow Vests, movement, in which protesters wear bright yellow vests, started initially as a reaction to the planned tax on diesel fuel set to take effect in January as part of the French president's efforts to fight climate change. (Pascal Pavani / AFP/Getty Images)

Even in Paris, prosecutor Remy Heitz said that most of the 378 people arrested over the weekend had come from provinces outside the capital.

The Gilets Jaunes, or Yellow Vests, movement, in which protesters wear the bright vests that drivers are required to keep in their cars at all times, started initially as a reaction to the planned tax on diesel fuel set to take effect in January as part of Macron’s efforts to fight climate change.

Rural residents who are more dependent on their cars for work and daily life say the tax will fall disproportionately on their backs. But the movement also tapped into a broader anxiety bubbling across regions of the country far from Paris. And given the deep-seated, underlying issues, simply addressing the gas tax no longer seems like it will be enough to resolve the tension.

Facing the gravest crisis of his 18-month presidency, Macron returned Sunday from the Group of 20 economic summit in Argentina, toured the damage, and asked his prime minister to hold a series of emergency meetings with leaders of all the other major political parties and representatives of the Yellow Vests movement, which has no formal organization.

On Monday, there was no sense of any return to normalcy. Vinci, a private company that contracts to manage many of France’s highways in the southern part of the country, was still publishing a long list of blockages throughout its networks that included at least 70 protest sites, some of which cut off access to major roads. Meanwhile, even some high school students staged walkouts in sympathy.

The uprising has proved confounding because it was not organized by a recognized group. While the French are accustomed to strikes, typically they are called by a major union or political party, and then there is often plenty of warning. When French railway employees went on strike for three months last summer, they published a calendar of strike dates so travelers could plan accordingly.

In contrast, the Yellow Vests’ protest has felt more like an uprising, even as some unions have issued words of support and solidarity, adding to the sense of uncertainty and foreboding. Yet signs of the rupture have been there for years.

According to statistics from INSEE, the government’s statistics and research wing, about 60% of French residents now live in big cities that comprise 7% of the nation’s land. In contrast, rural France covers 70% of the territory, but only has 23% of the population, a percentage that continues to decline. The rest live in some range of extended suburbs.

For those in the countryside, the numbers of stores, post offices, doctors and jobs continue to slide, leaving people even more dependent on their vehicles, according to INSEE.

To some degree, the anger that has bubbled up in recent weeks reflects tension in a country where culture, politics and the economy are highly centralized in Paris. The rural-urban divide has become even wider over the last decade, as evidenced in the most recent presidential election. Macron won the second round of voting with 66%, but much of the 34% received by far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen came from hard-hit rural areas.

A landslide for his party in the legislative elections emboldened Macron to push through work and tax reforms at breakneck speed >>>

Mueller Climate Change

Cartoon by Nick Anderson

The Mueller investigation is closing in on Trump 

By Jill Abramson

The Guardian: The rogues’ gallery exposed in Robert Mueller’s court filings last week make the Watergate burglars look positively classy.

Even veteran lawyers who were involved in the investigations of Richard Nixon say they’ve never seen this level of chicanery. Most importantly, last week’s events showed that Special Counsel Mueller is getting closer to exposing the scope and depth of it all. His most recent filings make clear that considerable evidence touches the president himself.

The disclosures from Michael Cohen, the former Trump fixer who is now a cooperating witness, drew the connection tighter. In his guilty plea to an additional charge of lying to Congress, Cohen revealed, and Trump confirmed, that the Trump Organization was pursuing a luxury skyscraper deal in Moscow while Donald Trump, identified as “Individual 1” in the latest court filings, was sewing up the Republican party presidential nomination.

As a candidate, Trump repeatedly reassured voters that he had no business dealings in Russia. But as he uttered those lies, he knew Cohen was planning to sell Russian kleptocrats $250m units in a future Trump Tower Moscow by luring Putin into the project with a free $50m spread. This was all unfolding as emails from Democratic officials, hacked by the Russians, disrupted the Democratic convention and the Republican party was making its party platform much kinder to Russia.

Trump tried to dismiss this Moscow real estate bombshell, saying it was fine for him to pursue his business affairs while running for president, because if he lost, he expected to return to the throne of the Trump Organization. Could this help Mueller close the circle of collusion between Trump and Russia?

Cohen had previously connected President Trump to payoffs made to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, which may violate election law. But the additional guilty plea last week goes to the heart of Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling and possible links to Donald Trump.

Also last week came the astounding revelation that Paul Manafort was acting as a double agent inside Mueller’s office. After Manafort was convicted on multiple counts of bank and tax fraud related to the millions he was paid by Ukrainian clients, he cut a deal with Mueller before his second trial, agreeing to plead guilty and to cooperate with the special counsel. Instead of cooperating, turncoat Manafort was spying and tipping off the president’s lawyers about the prosecution’s areas of interest.

Manafort’s deal then went where it belonged, in the trash. Big jail time should be in store for him, but it is more than likely that he will receive a presidential pardon for being such a standup guy. “I wouldn’t take it off the table,” President Trump said in an Oval Office interview with the New York Post. “Why would I take it off the table?” Mafia dons often dangle protection to silence snitches. But this isn’t the mafia, it’s the White House.

It’s hard to imagine anything lower than what Manafort did. But also trotting on stage last week were the conspiracy-loving tag team of Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi. In a draft court filing related to a collapsed plea deal with Corsi, 72, Mueller also revealed that in email exchanges, Stone told Corsi to get hold of hacked emails from WikiLeaks and that the pair discussed optimum times to release them in order to damage Clinton’s candidacy. Stone and Corsi have ties to Alex Jones’s ultra-right conspiracy site, Infowars, and Corsi was the man behind the false birther campaign against Barack Obama and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a rightwing group that tried to besmirch John Kerry’s military record in his 2004 bid to become president. Stone is a trickster from way back (he even has a Nixon tattoo on his back). Stone and Corsi have both denied contacts with WikiLeaks.

Clownish though some of them seem, these men may hold some keys to Mueller’s investigation. And we have yet to hear from Michael Flynn, the Trump foreign policy adviser and short-lived national security adviser, who has also pleaded guilty in the Mueller investigation and whose role in this muck is soon to be revealed in court. Though last week’s documents did not deal with the suspect meeting in Trump Tower during the campaign with a Russian lawyer claiming to have dirt on Clinton. Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump Jr, were there and the meeting remains a subject of interest to Mueller.

What a tantalizing pile of clues. Surely, we will soon know where they lead.

During the Nixon years, a famous journalist, Jimmy Breslin, wrote two books. One was a novel about the mafia called The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, that I thought about as I watched Manafort et al trot across the television screen last week. He also wrote a book after Nixon resigned about the politicians who helped restore honesty and dignity to Washington. It was called How the Good Guys Finally Won. That one deserves a sequel.