Money Talks

Cartoon by Emad Hajjaj

Trump meets with Saudi crown prince, and talks about money

The Washington Post: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman kicked off his U.S. visit with talks and lunch at the White House, where President Trump displayed posters showing recent Saudi weapons purchases from the United States, saying that “we make the best equipment in the world.”

The $12.5 billion the Saudis were paying for planes, tanks, ships and munitions shown in the posters was “peanuts” for the oil-rich kingdom, Trump joked before cameras in the Oval Office. “You should have increased it,” he told Mohammed.

The poster’s list of finalized sales fell far short of the $110 billion figure that Trump cited during his visit to Riyadh last May, and some were initiated and approved during the Obama administration. Additional deals might still come to fruition.

Earlier, the prince went to the Capitol to meet with top congressional leaders, many of whom raised concerns over the Saudi-led coalition’s role in the war and massive humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the U.S. support role in the conflict.

“We talked about the importance of our relationship, no doubt,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a floor statement after his own session with Mohammed. “But we strongly, strongly pushed back on what is happening right now in Yemen and asked them to take strong corrective actions.”

Lawmakers have sharply criticized the war Saudi Arabia has waged with U.S. support over the past several years in Yemen, in which at least 1,000 civilians have been killed in bombing attacks. Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for a political solution.

“We also talked about the enrichment that they’re pursuing and some of the concerns that existed there,” Corker said, touching on a disagreement over whether Saudi Arabia should insist on retaining its option to enrich domestic uranium resources under a nuclear cooperation agreement. The deadlock over an agreement has been an obstacle to the ability of firms using U.S. material or technology to bid on construction contracts for a pair of electricity-producing reactors the Saudis want to build.

In group meetings on Capitol Hill, Mohammed spent more than two hours in 20- to 30-minute sessions with the congressional leaders and heads of national security committees from both sides of the aisle.

Vice President Pence and H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser, planned dinners in Mohammed’s honor, as did the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Khalid bin Salman, the crown prince’s brother.

Mohammed was expected to meet with Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, who are in charge of the administration’s effort to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, as well as CIA Director and secretary of state-designate Mike Pompeo, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. In addition to being the heir apparent to the Saudi throne, Mohammed is also his country’s defense minister.

When they met in the Oval Office, and later in the Cabinet Room, Trump was effusive in his praise for Mohammed. “We really have a great friendship, a great relationship,” following what he said were “strained” ties during the Obama administration.

He recalled counterterrorism agreements made with Islamic nations during his visit last May to Saudi Arabia and said “the relationship is probably stronger than it’s ever been.”

Mohammed, in response, described the bilateral relationship as “really huge and really deep.” Picking up on Trump’s theme, he said that Saudi-U.S. ties had created “more than four million jobs in the United States of America, directly and indirectly,” as well as jobs in Saudi Arabia.

Trump said that the Saudis were “also footing a big part of the bill for defense” in “the whole Middle East” but made clear that he expects Riyadh to do more. Referring to the nearly completed battlefield defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Trump said that U.S. involvement was “coming to an end in that part of the world. And we’ll be able to get out of certain areas that we’ve wanted to get out of for a long period of time. And other countries can handle it.”

In a December telephone call, Trump asked King Salman to contribute $4 billion to reconstruction and stabilization efforts in parts of Syria cleared of the Islamic State and thought he had gotten a Saudi commitment, The Washington Post reported last week.

But most of Trump’s public comments surrounding the visit Tuesday concerned what the Saudis have spent in the United States and the additional expenditures Trump is expecting >>>

67th anniversary

Behnam Mohamadi

Cartoon on the 67th anniversary of 's nationalization of Iranian oil

The Winner

Cartoon by Miguel Villalba Sánchez (Elchicotriste)

Vladimir Putin secures record win in Russian presidential election 

The Guardian: Vladimir Putin is set for another six years in power after winning a record victory in Russia’s presidential election, despite opposition activists highlighting a number of cases of vote rigging.

Final results released on Monday morning showed Putin had won his fourth presidential term with 76.6% of the vote, his highest score ever.

The total number of ballots cast on Sunday for Putin, who has spent 18 years as Russia’s most powerful politician, exceeded 56.2m in overnight counting. That was a record total, even discounting the nearly 1m votes he gained as a result of the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Putin 4.0: as Russian president prepares for fourth term, what next?
Read more

Speaking at an event to mark the anniversary of the annexation on Sunday night, Putin told crowds in Manezhnaya Square, just under the Kremlin walls: “Thank you for your support … Everyone who voted today is part of our big, national team.”

Putin’s most serious rival, the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was barred from the race. The Central Election Commission said on Monday that the communist candidate, Pavel Grudinin, came second with 11.8% of the vote, and third was the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky (5.6%). The only candidate to openly criticise Putin during the campaign, the liberal TV star Ksenia Sobchak, won 1.6%.

Putin has never faced a serious threat to his rule since he came to power on the eve of the new millennium. He won 53% of the vote in the 2000 presidential election, 71% in 2004 and 63% in 2012.

Turnout at the elections on Sunday was more than 67%, the commission reported. The Kremlin had initially sought a 70% share of the vote with 70% turnout, but was said to have lowered its expectations as the election drew closer.

About 10 million more Russians voted for Putin on Sunday than in 2012, when he appeared on the defensive after mass voter fraud at parliamentary elections sparked protests in Moscow and other large cities.

Perhaps the most surprising result came from Moscow itself, where Putin won just 47% of the vote in the 2012 elections. On Sunday, he took 70% of the capital city, one of the main bastions of the opposition.
Russian voters go to the polls – in pictures

The opposition pointed to video evidence of voter irregularities at a number of polling stations across Russia. They included ballot stuffing and attacks on some vote observers, as well as reports of ballots being cast by “dead souls”, people who have died but remain on the electoral rolls.

In one video shared online from the Siberian region of Yakutia, voters patiently queued behind a man shoving ballots into the ballot box.

Turnout is usually highest in the North Caucasus, where a machine of administrative support regularly pushes turnout, and vote share for Putin, above 90%. In Dagestan, an election monitor said he was beaten by a crowd of several dozen men. During the encounter, turnout at his polling site jumped significantly.

One polling place in Chechnya, where observers managed to remain until the end of voting, showed just 35% turnout. In others, it was close to 100%.

The Kremlin had pushed a broad get-out-the-vote campaign before the elections, apparently concerned that Putin’s popularity might not be enough to get voters to the polls. Incentives included raffles for prizes including iPhone Xs and cars, as well as festivals scheduled on 18 March to mark the anniversary of the Crimean annexation (last year the Duma changed the 2018 election day to coincide with the date).

On Sunday night, Putin’s campaign chairman declared turnout to be high, and needled London by suggesting that it may have been a rally-round-the-flag response by voters to the accusations of Russian involvement in the nerve agent attack on a former spy in the UK.

“Right now the turnout numbers are higher than we expected. We need to thank Great Britain for that because once again they did not consider the Russian mentality,” the chairman said. “Once again we were subject to pressure at just the moment when we needed to mobilise.” >>>

No worries

Nik Kowsar

Related news here.

Making American Torture Great Again

Cartoon by Marian Kamensky

Feinstein calls on CIA to declassify documents detailing Haspel’s ties to torture program

The Washington Post: The Democrat who wrote the Senate’s seminal report on the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques criticized as torture wants the agency to declassify documents detailing the role Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to take over as director, played in overseeing the practice and attempts to destroy evidence of it.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein ­(D-Calif.), a senior member of the Intelligence Committee, wrote in a letter Thursday that senators need “the complete picture” of Haspel’s involvement to “fully and fairly” review her fitness for the job. The letter was sent to current CIA director Mike Pompeo, who has been nominated to become Trump’s secretary of state, and Haspel, who serves as the agency’s deputy director.

“The American people deserve to know the actual role the person nominated to the director of the CIA played in what I consider to be one of the darkest chapters in American history,” Feinstein wrote.

Haspel, who if confirmed would be the first woman to lead the agency, is a longtime CIA employee. During her tenure, she was in charge of a “black site” prison — a facility where detainees were interrogated using methods such as waterboarding. She also was among those officials involved in the decision to destroy video of interrogation sessions.

As a candidate, Trump suggested the United States reinstate waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques, a proposal he has not followed through on as president. But several senators pointed to Haspel’s history as a reason to be concerned about her nomination, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), himself a victim of torture during the Vietnam War.

“Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program,” McCain said in a statement this week, noting that her career dovetailed with the harsh interrogation program “on a number of occasions.”

Feinstein, however, was noticeably reserved when the announcement was made, nodding to her past concerns with Haspel’s record but telling reporters that she has been “a good deputy director.”

Feinstein is credited with shining a light on the interrogation techniques used after the 9/11 attacks. The 6,000-page report was the product of a five-year investigation, a summary of which was publicly released in 2014.

But on Tuesday, Feinstein appeared to stress that when Haspel was implicated in such practices, the laws against them were not as clear.

“The difficult problem is intelligence agencies work aside from the law. So our job doing oversight is really to do our level best to keep them within the law,” Feinstein said on Tuesday. “And fortunately the law, thanks to Senator McCain, has been changed. And torture is now illegal in the United States. That’s with specificity. And I think that’s important. So it’s a different day.”

On Wednesday, Senate candidate Kevin de Leon, a Democrat who is vying for Feinstein’s seat questioned why the senator did not more strongly condemn Haspel. The Senate, he wrote in a tweet, “should not equivocate on rejecting Trump’s pro-torture CIA nominee. John McCain understands that. Why doesn’t Dianne Feinstein?”

The Intelligence Committee is scheduled to begin considering Haspel’s nomination in April.

"Stardom": Stephen Hawking ( 1942-2018)

Tributes paid to 'inspirational' Hawking


Mana Neyestani

England's possible escape from the Russian World Cup

Look on the bright side, lads. Thanks to Putin we might not have to face the usual humiliation of being knocked out in the second round.


Too anti-Russia?

Cartoon by Kevin Siers

Did Trump fire Tillerson because he was too anti-Russia?

The Washington Post: About 13 hours before he was fired as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson issued perhaps his toughest comments to date on Russia. He said that a nerve agent used on a former Russian spy in Britain last week “clearly came from Russia.” He also called Russia “an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.”

It was perhaps his last major act as secretary of state. But was it the reason for his dismissal — or even a last straw?

The White House is insisting the decision to fire Tillerson had been made before his comments Monday evening — that he was informed of the decision in the early-morning hours Saturday, before returning from a trip to Africa. But a statement from a top State Department spokesman Tuesday indicated Tillerson had no advance warning of his termination beyond a heads-up that Trump would tweet something. (The spokesman, Steve Goldstein, has been fired for contradicting the White House.)

Democrats quickly issued statements Tuesday alleging that Tillerson was fired for being too tough on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Secretary Tillerson’s firing sets a profoundly disturbing precedent in which standing up for our allies against Russian aggression is grounds for a humiliating dismissal,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Added Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.): “Just hours ago, Rex Tillerson became the lone Trump administration cabinet official to stand with the United Kingdom in condemning Russia’s nerve agent attack on English soil. Donald Trump’s reaction to Tillerson’s support of a close American ally facing threats from Russia was to fire him.”

Even if Tillerson's firing wasn't a direct result of his comments Monday, they could be symptomatic of the clear disconnect between him and the White House on the broader issue.

Tillerson's comments about Russia have not been echoed by the White House — even as a key U.S. ally, Britain, has concluded it was “highly likely” Russia was at least complicit in the attack. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders offered noncommittal remarks Monday about Russia's alleged role in the nerve-agent attack. Trump spoke Tuesday with British Prime Minister Theresa May, but according to a White House readout he said only that Russia “must provide unambiguous answers” about the matter.

It's not unreasonable to think Trump was unhappy with Tillerson's comments or general approach to Russia. Trump has, after all, repeatedly suggested the United States needs to craft an alliance with Russia — even at the expense of getting to the bottom of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump has also frequently cast doubt that Russia even interfered, and he said a few months ago that he believes Putin's denials are genuine.

All of this runs counter to what the U.S. intelligence community has concluded about the entire affair. And now Trump is in the position of either trusting or doubting Britain's conclusions about Russia's alleged incursion into its homeland. Trusting them would undoubtedly cause a rift with Russia; doubting them would be entirely in character for Trump and allow him to keep arguing for an alliance with Russia.

One of the great ironies of this whole situation is that the biggest knock on Tillerson when Trump selected him as secretary of state was his allegedly too-cozy relationship with Putin. Putin, in fact, had awarded the then-ExxonMobil chief executive the Russian Order of Friendship in 2013. There are photos of them shaking hands in 2012.

The idea that Tillerson, of all people, has now lost his job because he was too tough on Putin is surely an attractive argument for Democrats.

Whether we can connect A to B is to be determined. But firing Tillerson shortly after his tough talk on Russia was bound to lead to some inescapable conclusions. And if the White House continues to slow-walk the Britain-Russia situation, that'll be a pretty good indicator that his firing was at least a symptom of a larger disconnect >>>

Getting Desperate

Cartoon by Ken Catalino

Trump’s Lawyers Seem to Be Getting Desperate

New York Magazine: A recent spate of leaks appears to be telling us something about Donald Trump’s legal team. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s lawyers were considering an audacious demand of Robert Mueller. In return for granting Mueller an interview with Trump, they would require he commit to end his investigation of the Russia scandal within 60 days. Such a deadline would, among other things, allow witnesses with potentially incriminating information to run out the clock without giving anything up to the prosecution. There is zero chance Mueller would ever agree to it.

This weekend, BuzzFeed reported that Trump’s lawyers are considering a legal challenge to block 60 Minutes from airing its interview with Stormy Daniels. This legal maneuver is even less likely to succeed than the other one. The pretext for the challenge is the nondisclosure agreement Daniels signed with Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen. But 60 Minutes was not a party to that deal. (Indeed, Daniels’s lawyers argue that Trump himself was not either, since he didn’t sign it, rendering it moot.) The First Amendment provides news media with strong protections, and the highest standard of protection applies to efforts to block a story from being published or broadcast. (As the noted legal scholar Walter Sobchak understands, the Supreme Court has roundly rejected prior restraint.)

Also this weekend, the New York Times reported that Trump’s lawyer, Ty Cobb, “has told friends for weeks that he views his position as temporary and does not expect to remain in the job for much longer.” Cobb has reportedly counseled his client, President Trump, not to fire Robert Mueller by assuring him last year that the Russia inquiry would be completed by Thanksgiving (of 2017), and then, when that deadline slipped, by the end of the year, and then by the end of January. That is not the kind of trick a lawyer can keep pulling forever.

So, the lawyer who has been holding Trump back from taking drastic action seems to be on his way out. And Trump’s lawyers are contemplating some extremely rash strategies that have about a zero percent chance of succeeding. It’s difficult to know exactly what’s happening behind the scenes, but these stories seem to indicate some sense of desperation is setting in >>>