Trump, Russia, What???

There is no "smoking gun" yet proving collusion between Trump and Russia, but almost every day we read new information tying his staff to Russian financial or intelligence assets, or new actions by Trump himself that inexplicably furthers the interests of Russia. Even more inexplicable is that every time we think the latest revelation has almost passed Trump does something new that favors Russian interests and is completely unnecessary, or even harmful, for the interests of the U.S. If innocent a rational person would not just steer clear of anything creating an appearance that he is influenced by Russia, but would go out of his way to cooperate fully with investigators!  If he’s innocent let somebody else take the fall.

But Trump’s defense to each revelation is: 1) The information was leaked illegally by people out to get him; and 2) It’s all fake news created by Democrats because they can’t accept they lost the election. Never mind these two arguments are completely contradictory.  Since the leaked information could only come from his own administration, it cannot be a plot by Democrats.

Despite all this, many conservatives continue to maintain allegiance to Trump.  I understand a party must back its own president, up to a point.  But how can they continue to defend him when he denies Russian attempts to influence the election and he continues to do things that favor them. Even Republican Congressional leadership believes Russian at least attempted to influence the election in Trumps favor, and there were undisclosed and possibly illegal communications between his campaign staff and Russia. How does this comport with historical Republican suspicion of the Soviet Union and Russia?

I have been trying, for sake of my own sanity, to piece together some of the main facts to see where this whole story is leading. There were signs way back during the primary elections, clear enough for some of us to warn people about Trump’s deference toward Putin and Russia in light of his financial links to Russia. So how much evidence, actual and circumstantial, does it take to convince the most loyal Trump supporter that there’s something hinky here? Journalists have written 10-page articles analyzing just the last week of Trump’s diplomatic missteps and leaks from his administration. I’m not going to attempt this. But I’m going to try to hit the main points in less than 4 pages, starting with Trump and the election.

This really must start with Trump’s financial ties with Russia. Despite Trump’s protestations that he has no personal financial ties with Russia, there is no doubt at all that his companies have very close financial connections to Russia. Eric Trump stated in 2014: “We don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.”  If you’re with me, skip the sidebar below. Otherwise, read on:

To understand this, you must go back a bit. Trump’s claims that he has never personally declared bankruptcy, while true, are disingenuous. Public records show his companies declared bankruptcies four times in the 1990’s and early 2000’s and he sustained huge personal monetary loss as a result. 

In a 1991 his Atlantic City Taj Mahal casino went into bankruptcy with $3.4 billion in debts. In exchange for renegotiating his debt with Citibank, Trump was ordered by the court to give up half his equity in the casino, sell his yacht and personal jet, and was placed on a humiliatingly restrictive personal expense budget. A year later his Atlantic City Hotel was also in bankruptcy and he again gave up half his equity in exchange for restructuring his $550 million in debt. Then two years later he was forced to give up another 25 percent equity, resulting in loss of control over his own name in that property. However, his companies were “too large to fail.” The banks sustained 100’s of millions, maybe billions of dollars of losses because they would lose far more if they allowed the businesses to fail.

Trump himself bragged repetitively about how he used the bankruptcy process to extract concessions from his lenders. Trump filed bankruptcy two more times after that, in part because of huge losses in the 2006-8 real estate crash.  American banks continued lending to him for a time, but eventually realized they would inevitably end up losing in dealings with Trump. After that, the only banks that would lend to him were foreign banks. So how in just 10 years did he get the financing to extract himself from financial ruin to where he is now, by his own claims, worth more than $7 billion?

It is hard to know exactly how much capital he received from Russia and exactly to whom in Russia he owes money, because Trump, like many international businesses, hides his financing behind layers of financial institutions. Even if he released his taxes we wouldn’t know. I’m not a forensic accountant, however one thing is clear: Trump’s biggest lender by far for the last 20 years has been Deutche Bank. Deutsche Bank, a German Bank with well-known ties to Russia, is under investigation for laundering Russian money after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russian banks because Russia illegally annexed the Crimea. All Trump’s loans from Deutsche Bank come from their private banking section, which means the money is untraceable without their cooperation. This is a favorite method of Russian oligarchs for hiding loans and transactions with outside entities, particularly considering U.S. sanctions on Russian banks. But Trump should be very afraid at this point because international banking agreements aimed at thwarting money laundering by terrorists and drug lords give the DOJ access to foreign bank records.

We must remember that in Russia banks are either state-owned or state-controlled. Controlled by Putin in one way or another. Money owed to Russian banks is essenially owed to Putin himself who has absolute control over everything of value in Russia.

The second thing we need to understand is Russia at least attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor.  There is absolutely no doubt about this. The FBI, CIA and even the Republican leaders in both the House and Senate who have seen the classified report agree. And I’m not referring just to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computer server.  Way more troubling is the fake news stories planted by Russian assets, like the “pizza-gate” story that claimed Wikileaks emails contained coded messages connecting Clinton to a child prostitution ring run out of a pizza parlor. The story was patently absurd and totally without substance, but never-the-less it went viral through social media and many people believed and still believe this fake news. When I say “fake news,” I mean it in the original sense. Not the way Trump uses it to describe news he doesn’t like. We won’t know how many other fake news stores were planted by the Russians until the FBI/DOJ finish their investigations. But we can assume there was a lot of fake news because the people who have access to the classified information are very concerned. They should be, because people today get most of their news from the internet; and an informed electorate is essential to the functioning of our democracy.

Of course, Putin has denied involvement saying some Russians may have acted independently. But his denial is absurd. Why would individual Russians care about influencing American elections unless they are being compensated by the Russian state or would personally benefit from a Trump presidency? And in Russia, no one would have the computer resources and sophisticated hacking ability unless they were funded by the state or Russian oligarchs or Russian mobsters, which are all the same anyway. Makes you wonder why conservatives would even vote for Trump since, at least by appearances, Trump looks to be Russia’s patsy.

The third thing we need to understand is that Trump consistently shows deference to Russia and Putin, both before and after the election. We’re not talking about a few statements taken out of context, or words that can be easily explained away. Given his history of favor toward Russia and Putin, and his campaign staff’s connections with Russia, you’d think Trump would want to avoid, at all cost, any appearance of favoring Russia.  And yet, the day after he fired the Director of the FBI, who oversaw investigating contacts between Russia and his campaign, he invited Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak to the White House for what was supposed to be a secret meeting.  In that meeting Trump bragged about the intelligence he receives and in the process disclosed classified information which by its nature probably allowed our enemies to figure out where the information came from.  The public wasn’t supposed to know, except Trump allowed Russian photographers to record the meeting.  Then Trump got mad because Russia "leaked" what happened at the meeting. When exposed, the White House argued that the President did nothing wrong because he has the right to declassify any information. And they argued further that Trump was disclosing the information intentionally in some kind of crafty bargaining move to make the Russians feel indebted to him. These are patently ridiculous arguments. First, the Russians gave him nothing in return for the information. And second, the Russians are far too sophisticated at diplomacy to be influenced by Trump’s clumsy attempt to ingratiate himself.  Recently NSA intercepts were leaked of Russian diplomats bragging (during the elections) about how they have information that would compromise Trump. So why did Trump leak classified information to the Russians?

Besides the sheer incompetence of all this, meeting with the Russians so soon served no purpose to benefit the U.S. The President traditionally reserves the first diplomatic invitations to the White House for our close allies as a way of showing respect for the relationships, and increasing the other country’s international stature. In that one tone-deaf move, he communicated that the U.S. owes greater allegiance to Russia than all our allies. Why would Trump be surprised that Russia would leak a record of the meeting? He wittingly or unwittingly gave Russia a "trump" card too valuable NOT to play.

Interestingly, this Ambassador Kislyak guy is the same one who met with President-elect Trump's son-in-law Kushner, where Kushner asked the Ambassador if they could use secure communications facilities at the Russian Embassy for "back-channel" communications with the Kremlin to avoid detection by the NSA! Now that we know about this fiasco, it makes Trump’s decision to meet with Kislyak even more perplexing.  Admittedly, back-channel communications are a tried and true diplomatic tool for Presidents when dealing with very sensitive international negotiations. And it is not without precedent for President-elects, although it has more often led to ignominious results. If you’re interested, read about Nixon pre-election back channel communication with South Vietnamese President Thieu for political purposes that may well have cost hundreds or thousands of American lives.

Of course, the Russians refused Kushner’s request. It would be stupid for them to allow Americans inside Russia’s secure encrypted communications technology. Would the U.S. ever allow Russians inside our secure communications apparatus? But why would Kushner attempt to create a way for President-elect Trump to communicate with Putin without knowledge by American intelligence or diplomatic resources? Trump’s supporters claim it was a normal, in fact laudable effort to create a diplomatic channel of communication. What was exceptional, however, is the intent to avoid detection by the NSA. Under previous presidents, back channel meant secret from world, not secret from our own diplomatic and intelligence resources. Why would Trump want to talk to Russians without advice from or knowledge of our diplomatic and intelligence agencies? They are there to serve the President by giving them the information and advice possible, not to thwart has authority.

There are only two possibilities: 1) Either Kushner and Trump were in such a hurry to undermine Obama’s policies toward Russia that they couldn’t wait until they controlled the U.S. diplomatic channels; or 2) They wanted to have a secret way of discussing something he didn’t want American intelligence agencies or the American public to ever know about: Perhaps Trump’s debts to Russian lenders or exchange of financial favors from the Russians for favorable policies toward Russia?  The former indicates Trump’s intent to reverse not only Obama’s policies, but many decades of U.S. policies toward Russia, carefully crafted by Republican and Democrat presidents, in order adopt policies that favor Russia. The latter possibility is straight up treason. 

Just in the last week during his first international tour as president, Trump managed to alienate Europe in several diplomatic missteps and, thereby, strengthened Russia’s position in the world. First, while standing next to the Israeli Prime Minister, Trump announced that he did NOT say the word "Israeli" to the Russians when he disclosed classified information to the Russians.  The problem is that no one ever accused him of naming Israel as the source; and thereby he revealed to the world, including terrorists, that the source actually was Israel.  This one act informed our allies, particularly European allies, that we cannot be trusted with intelligence that could protect our nation and our people. Germany and Great Britain have as much as said they won’t share information until they receive guarantees Trump won’t leak it. It also likely compromised an Israeli intelligence asset embedded in ISIS and, at best made Israel lose an important source of intelligence. At worst it may have caused the asset to lose his life.  Trump decided ingratiating himself to Russian diplomats was worth the cost of losing an asset for a key ally in the middle-east?

Later while he was in Europe he again stumbled diplomatically. Despite his staff’s vigorous attempts to prep him, Trump deviated from their script and once again rejected Article IV of the NATO convention which binds the U.S. and Europe into mutual defense against enemies. He rejected NATO during his campaign. Then as President, after meeting with NATO officials for a few hours, Trump announced his meeting had fixed NATO and now it’s a good thing. Now he swerves back toward Russia by telling the world that the U.S. can’t be trusted to honor its treaty commitments and telling Russia the U.S. might not defend Europe if Russia chose to invade Eastern Europe.

Next, Trump offended our ally Germany by calling them "very bad" just because they sell so many cars in the U.S.  Trump threatened prohibitive tariffs against Germany, and by extension all the European Union (EU), apparently not understanding that the European Union treaty binds all the EU to support Germany against trade sanctions by the U.S.

To understand the gravity of Trump’s actions during his international tour we must revisit the history of relations between Russia and the western world. Russian strategy since the cold war has been to use every opportunity to attempt to sow discord between the U.S. and its European allies. Over 75 years of American diplomacy and treaties with Europe since World War II, crafted by Republican and Democrat Presidents alike, were aimed at creating a coalition to discourage Russia from invading Europe. If Russia invaded Eastern Europe it would create a world crisis, disastrous for the U.S. as well as for Europe. This is not “old cold war mentality.”  In 2014 Putin annexed the Crimea from the Ukraine, which was and is still seeking to join NATO.  Putin’s post-Soviet Russia has been attempting to recreate the security buffer it enjoyed during Soviet rule. The Soviet Union saw, and today Russia sees Eastern Europe and the Baltic region as a security buffer against Europe, and against the U.S’s missile defenses and military bases across Europe intended to contain Russia. Hence, the U.S’s commitment to NATO to defend Europe against Russia is the single greatest roadblock to Russia reestablishing the defensive buffer Soviet Russia enjoyed. 

Why would Trump go out of his way to distance the U.S. from Europe and thereby strengthen Russia? Is Trump just the first president to be so gullible and ignorant of the last 75 years of history as to hand Russia ammunition to use against us? Is Trump really so naïve as to believe Russia is benign, and Europe is bad for the U.S.? Or is he pursuing an intentional course of action favoring Russia because they have damaging information on him?

To summarize:  1) Despite his denials, Trump has major financial connections with Russian Banks, which are in effect debts to Russia and Putin, since Russian banks and financial institutions are state-controlled. 2) There is no doubt Russia at least attempted to influence the presidential election in favor of Trump, and Russia wouldn’t do this unless they felt they could influence Trump? 3) Trump’s actions, particularly in the last few weeks, have consistently and repetitively show deference to the interests of Russia, at the cost of compromising 75 years of relationships with European nations carefully negotiated by both Democrat and Republican presidents. 4) If this were a murder trial, a jury would probably find overwhelming circumstantial evidence to convict. At what point will Republican leaders disavow a president who acts contrary to Republican ideology, values and historical suspicion of the Soviet Union and Russia?


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