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Hillary Clinton

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Still Not the Smoking Gun

Like the diligent journalist I am, I went online within minutes of the news that Donald Trump Jr. had put “incriminating” emails about his meeting with Russian lawyer and lobbyist Natalia Veselnitskaya on Twitter. I opened the Washington Post site and there, nestled beteween the paragraphs of their lead story on Trump Jr., was an ad for a box set of “The Walking Dead”. And I thought…

Well, actually, I thought that this stinks to high heaven, but it is still not the “smoking gun”. The dead will continue to walk around for a while yet.

The emails prove that Junior (not a naive youth but a 39-year-old businessman who has frequently done work in Russia) met the Russian lobbyist in the Trump Tower together with Ivanka’s husband Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, then the elder Trump’s campaign manager. They had been told that Veselnitskaya was a “Russian government lawyer”.

The emails also show that Trump Jr. believed Veselnitskaya would “provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” That’s what Rob Goldstone, the slippery British music publicist who acted as a go-between, told him.

Trump Jr. (and presumably Kushner and Manafort too) already knew that Vladimir Putin’s regime wanted Donald Trump to win the presidency and was willing to help. “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump,” said Goldstone’s initial email, which did not elicit any expression of surprise from Junior and his friends.

Finally, the emails show that the US president’s eldest son was enthusiastic about the idea that he could get some dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russians. “If it’s what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer,” he emailed back to Goldstone.

But the emails do not show what actually happened at the meeting. For that we only have Trump Junior’s word, and as long as the other two men back him up he can say whatever he likes about it.

Trump Junior’s account of what was said at the meeting has changed several times in the past week, but the general impression he is trying to create is that some random weird lady got a meeting with him under false pretences. Then, when they actually met, she just rambled on about Americans adopting Russian orphans.

Maybe she did and maybe she didn’t, but Natalia Veselnitskaya is not some random weird lady. She is a respected Russian lawyer who has been leading a lobbying effort to get American sanctions against various Russian oligarchs who are close to the Kremlin dropped for some years now, and she has close connections to the Kremlin herself.

The meeting in the Trump Tower took place in June, 2016, when the servers of the Democratic National Committee had already been hacked by the Russians (according to the unanimous conclusion of all the US intelligence agencies), but before any of the information gained had been used. But later in the summer, by some strange coincidence, Junior’s hopes for a major Russian strike against Hillary Clinton were miraculously fulfilled.

That happened just before the Democrats held their national convention in late July, when there was a large dump of emails on WikiLeaks showing that the DNC had systematically loaded the dice in favour of Hillary Clinton and against Bernie Sanders.

It didn’t stop Clinton from getting the Democratic presidential nomination, and if the Russians really wanted Trump to win the presidency they should have been backing Clinton. Sanders would probably have given Trump more of a run for his money. But seen from Moscow, sabotaging Hillary Clinton probably looked like a clever move at the time.

So there it all is, and it wouldn’t be enough to impeach Donald Trump even if the Democrats controlled Congress. In fact, the Republicans have majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and Trump wouldn’t be impeached even if he was caught in bed (as they say in Washington) with a live boy or a dead girl.

It isn’t the smoking gun because we will never know what was really said in that meeting. It is very hard to believe that Donald Trump himself didn’t know about the meeting when his three closest political advisers were all there, but his denial will stand unless one of those three men chooses to say otherwise.

Yet he really is a “dead man walking”. It will be a very long walk – the slow death of a thousand little cuts – but the steady drip of minor and major revelations about his Russian links (and other embarrassing topics) will continue. And one day his tax returns will probably be leaked, which could be the final blow.

He won’t be impeached, but he’s not having fun any more, and at some point it will all get too much for him. He will simply resign (he’s in his 70s, so he can just plead ill health) – and we will get President Pence instead.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Trump Junior’s account…herself”)

Trump, WikiLeaks and Russia

When a Fox News reporter asked Donald Trump about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange back in 2010, just after Assange had released a huge cache of secret US diplomatic cables, the reality TV star had no doubts: “I think it’s disgraceful, I think there should be like the death penalty or something.”

Circumstances change, however, and smart people with big brains know when it’s time to switch sides. It was WikilLeaks, once again, that revealed the hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee that did such damage to Hillary Clinton’s campaign last summer. But Trump now readily accepts Assange’s word that he didn’t get those emails from the Russians.

Trump has been having a problem with the main US intelligence agencies, which unanimously insist that the Russians did indeed hack the DNC’s emails, and that they passed them to WikiLeaks (through an intermediary) in order to damage Clinton’s presidential election campaign. “Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” as the joint intelligence report put it.

So Trump was very happy to be able to reply (in a tweet, of course) that “Assange… said Russians did not give him the info!” After all, what motive could Assange have for lying about it?

Well, there is the fact that Assange has been living in one room in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for the past four years, in order to avoid being extradited to the United States on espionage charges that could get him up to 45 years in prison. Donald Trump is the one person who could make all that trouble go away, once he becomes the president, so doing him a favour now might be a wise move on Assange’s part.

Assange would not even have to lie outright, because the Russians would obviously never give him the emails directly. There would have to be one or more persons in between, because WikiLeaks is not in the business of taking leaks from governments. Assange might have strong suspicions about who originally hacked the DNC, but he did not necessarily go all out to confirm them.

Moreover, as Trump points out, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are the same organisations that cooked up the evidence for Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” so that President George W. Bush could invade Iraq.

Nevertheless, the US intelligence agencies are probably right to blame their Russian counterparts for the hacks that caused the Clinton campaign such problems. President Vladimir Putin has been quite open about preferring Trump to Clinton, and the leaks definitely gave a boost to Trump’s election campaign in late July and August.

On the other hand, that happened so long before the actual vote in November that it’s impossible to say if it had any effect on the outcome.

The event that probably did give Trump his very narrow margin of victory (100,000 votes spread between three key swing states) was FBI director James Comey’s bizarre decision to declare that Hillary Clinton was facing another investigation only eleven days before the vote.

It’s all might-have-beens, and the only reason it has become controversial is Trump’s extremely thin skin. He is questioning the intelligence services’ conclusions about Russian interference because he believes (wrongly) that they undermine the validity of his election victory. But his strong sympathy for the Russian position, though driven by perceived personal interests, is a refreshing break from the usual Washington paranoia.

He said it himself (in another tweet): “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only stupid people or fools would think that it is bad. We have enough problems around the world without yet another one.”

This is a perfectly reasonable statement. Trump’s views on China give cause for alarm, but his desire for a reconciliation with Russia makes more sense than the reflex hostility that both Hillary Clinton and the US intelligence services bring to the relationship. Vladimir Putin is a player, and sometimes he plays rough, but his recent meddling in the American election is far less than the massive US interference in Russian elections in the 1990s.

In seeking a rapprochement with Moscow, Trump should not make the mistake of accepting Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Changing borders by force (even if most of the local population approves of it) has been banned by international law for more than half a century, and we should not start making exceptions to that rule now.

But while the United States never accepted the old Soviet Union’s illegal annexation of the Baltic states in 1940, it did not let that stand in the way of improving the US-Soviet relationship as the Cold War drew to an end.

There is much that the United States and Russia could usefully cooperate on now, starting with putting an end to the war in Syria. On this issue, at least, Trump is right and Obama, Clinton and the spooks are wrong.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“Assange…them”; and “The event…vote”)

The Biggest “Fuck You” Vote in History

Not many things are certain in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s narrow victory in the US presidential election, but FBI Director James Comey can rest assured that his job is safe. His prediction of a new investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails eleven days before the election (followed by a retraction only 36 hours before the vote) gave Trump the edge he needed to win in the close-run contests in the “battleground states.”

Another sure bet is that Trump will not waste his time trying to send Hillary Clinton to jail, despite his many promises to “lock her up.” But this brings us rapidly to the nub of the matter: how many of his promises does he really intend to keep? If he keeps them all, we are in for a wild ride in the next four years.

President Barack Obama, addressing his last rally before the election, said: “All that progress (we made) goes down the drain if we don’t win tomorrow.” So down it goes: the promising climate change deal signed in Paris last December, the Affordable Care Act that gave 20 million poorer Americans access to health insurance, the deal that persuaded Iran to stop working on nuclear weapons, and maybe the whole 68-year-old NATO alliance.

Trump often accused of being sketchy on the details of his plans, but he has actually given us quite a lot of details on these issues. He’s not just going to tear up the Paris climate accord, for example. At home, he’s going to dismantle all but a few “little tidbits” of the Environmental Protection Agency and, he says, revive the coal industry.

He’s not just going to restart a confrontation with Iran. He has talked about closer cooperation with Russia in the fight against Islamic State – which, given Russia’s support for the Assad regime, might even give Assad a decisive victory in the Syrian civil war.

Will he really deport 11 million illegal immigrants from the United States? (He back-tracked a bit on that.) Will he build a wall on the Mexican border? (He can’t walk away from that promise.) Will he ban all Muslims from entering the US? (Not in so many words, maybe, but Muslims should not consider taking vacations there.)

Will Trump tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, and repudiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a free trade deal linking most Pacific Rim countries except China) and the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (a similar deal between the US and the European Union)? Yes, yes and yes. Destroying the current “globalised” trading arrangements was a key part of his platform.

Will he impose import duties on goods made in America’s trading partners in an attempt to “bring the jobs home”, including 35 percent tariffs on Mexican-made goods and 45 percent on Chinese exports. If he does, he’ll be starting a global trade war, and in the case of China a confrontation that could even turn military.

How could almost half of American voters support all this (47.5 percent)? Well, they didn’t, actually. They weren’t interested in the details.

They just hated the way the country was changing. Many of them had lost out economically because of the changes, and they were all very angry. As American film-maker and social commentator Michael Moore predicted, Donald Trump has ridden to power on the back of the biggest “Fuck You” vote in history.

It was driven by the same rage that fuelled the Brexit vote in Britain last June, and it was equally heedless of consequences. Pro-Brexit British voters were more obsessed by immigration and Trump voters were more upset about jobs going abroad, but white working-class males provided the core support in both cases and the basic message was the same: “Stop the world. I want to get off.”

Populists like Boris Johnson in England and Donald Trump in the United States are just exploiting those emotions, but they are barking up the wrong tree. The basic change that is leaving so many people feeling marginalised and unhappy is not immigration or globalisation. Those scapegoats are popular mainly because you can imagine doing something to solve the problem: close the doors to immigrants, rip up the free trade deals.

But the real change is automation: computers and robots are eating up most of the jobs. Seven million American factory jobs have disappeared since 1979, but American factory production has doubled in the same time. The United States is still the world’s second largest manufacturer, behind only China.

So the populists can go on baying at the moon for a while, but sooner or later we will have to recognise that this is unstoppable change and start figuring out how to live with it. In particular, we will have to figure out how a large proportion of the people in developed countries can still have self-respect and a decent living standard when there are no jobs for them.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“He’s not…there”)

United States: The Wells Are Poisoned

Donald Trump may not win the election next week – although he is at least going to come close – but even if he loses, the wells are poisoned. Either “Crooked Hillary” becomes president, and spends the next four years fighting off legal challenges and fearing assassination by some of Trump’s more deranged admirers. Or Trump becomes the 45th US president, and the United States becomes the world’s biggest and most dangerous loose cannon.

The race was probably always closer than the opinion polls suggested. The last-minute decision of FBI director James Comey to hint publicly that he MIGHT reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s “extremely careless” (his words) use of a private email server when she was secretary of state has undoubtedly made it closer.

Inevitably, the media took this to mean that he HAD reopened the case, and it is hard to believe that he did not act with malice aforethought. As John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager, said: “Director Comey’s letter (to Congress) refers to emails that have come to light in an unrelated case, but we have no idea what those emails are, and director himself notes they may not even be significant.”

So what did Comey think he was doing when he sent Congress a letter stating that maybe, when he had the time to look into these emails, and if they turned out to be from or about Mrs Clinton, and if there was new information in them that changed his previous conclusions, then he might consider reopening an investigation against her?

It was contrary to FBI policy to publicly trail a possible investigation like that, and both Comey’s own staff and the US attorney-general advised against it. But Comey was a lifelong Republican until he let his registration lapse some time after he was appointed to the FBI job three years ago by President Obama.

Trump was already claiming that the election was “rigged” against him, and that he might not accept a Clinton victory. Comey has created an equal and opposite likelihood that Democrats will regard a Trump victory as illegitimate, and refuse to accept him as president. Either way, it will be the “birther” conspiracy all over again, but this time in seven-league boots.

This is almost entirely Trump’s fault. With constant lies and threats and personal abuse, he has brought the entire electoral process into disrepute, and the American media have let him get away with it because he was “entertaining”. As Les Moonves, chairman of the CBS television network, admitted eight months ago, when Trump was just starting out: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Many billions of dollars of free publicity later, this ignorant and bombastic “sociopath” – the word that Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Trump’s premature autobiography “The Art of the Deal”, uses to describe him – stands on the threshold of great power. And Schwartz, in an interview with The Observer last weekend, was very frightened about the possibility that he would become president.

“Staggeringly dangerous. Worse than I imagined when he began to run….He’s way more out of control in the last couple of months than I’ve ever seen him. He doesn’t have any core beliefs beyond his own aggrandisement and power.” Schwartz didn’t even find it over the top to talk about a Trump presidency in terms of martial law, an end of press freedom, and nuclear war.

We must hope that really is over the top, but we should also bear in mind that Tony Schwartz has probably spent more time actually talking to Donald Trump (while writing the book that launched him as a celebrity) than any other non-family adult has done in the past thirty years.

But the omens are not good if Trump loses the election either, because that doesn’t mean that Clinton wins it. At least not for the very large chunk of the American population who will have voted for The Donald.

Hillary Clinton would have to preside over a bitterly divided country in which almost half the population believe she has stolen the presidency – and there is a strong possibility that Trump would start sending out coded calls for violence.

He already did this once, in August, when he was whipping up a crowd with accusations that Clinton would override the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which most gun-owners believe enshrines the right of American citizens to own weapons.

If Clinton created a majority in favour of gun control on the US Supreme Court, Trump warned the audience, then that’s it: “Nothing you can do, folks.” The pro-gun crowd started to boo, and after a little hesitation Trump added: “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

Like most public incitements to violence, it was veiled and oblique, but it was also unmistakable. It would be heroically optimistic to believe that Trump would not serve up more of the same if he loses the election. One way or another, it is going to be an ugly and frightening time in the United States.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“So…Obama”)