WHEN THE KUSH HITS
So, uh, you remember how, yesterday, Jared Kushner was just a “person of interest” in the FBI investigation into ties between the Trump 2016 campaign and the Russian government? Well, it seems he’s a whole lot more interesting than the FBI made it seem:
Jared Kushner and Russia’s ambassador to Washington discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring, according to U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports.
Ambassador Sergey Kislyak reported to his superiors in Moscow that Kushner, son-in-law and confidant to then-President-elect Trump, made the proposal during a meeting on Dec. 1 or 2 at Trump Tower, according to intercepts of Russian communications that were reviewed by U.S. officials. Kislyak said Kushner suggested using Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States for the communications.
The meeting also was attended by Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser.
The administration has acknowledged that this meeting took place, but it never said anything about the discussions around setting up a secret backchannel.
Now, it’s possible that there’s no fire here, that Kushner just thought it would be a good idea to hit the ground running on improving relations with Moscow and wanted to do it away from the press (and, potentially, US government surveillance) because sometimes that can be a good idea. That’s what the New York Times is arguing in its reporting about this meeting, though it’s not clear why an innocent effort to conduct honest diplomacy with Moscow would require all the amateur hour cloak and dagger stuff. But Kushner is now leaking smoke, and it’s no wonder the FBI would like to know a bit more about his conversation with Kislyak. His suggestion to use communications tools at Russian facilities is hilarious, because not only does it make him sound shady, but FFS there was no way the Russians would let members of the new administration into their facilities to use their secure communications equipment. They’re not that stupid, even if Kushner is.
Additionally, Reuters is reporting that Kushner had “multiple contacts” with Kislyak before the election, which means Kushner is actually billowing smoke at this point. Again, these could all have been perfectly innocent contacts, but where a contact between someone like Kushner and the Russian ambassador during the transition could be easily explained, multiple contacts between someone like Kushner and the Russian ambassador during the campaign are harder to rationalize.
The juicier tidbit amid all of this, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias notes, is that, shortly after his meeting with Kislyak, Kushner apparently met with Sergey Gorkov, the chief executive of the Russian bank Vnesheconombank (VEB)–a meeting possibly/probably arranged by Kislyak. Kushner may have been looking to arrange financing from VEB for a property his family owns in New York. The problem here, aside from the obvious influence peddling, is that VEB is under US sanctions. Of course, Trump’s people, including Flynn, may have already been talking to the Russians at this point about lifting US sanctions, which could have opened the door for VEB to invest in Kushner’s property. In which case, holy shit is that corrupt.
Oh, and it’s now pretty clear that Kushner lied about this December meeting with Kislyak on his security clearance paperwork. Which is a crime.
Well, if you were hoping to visit a reunified Cyprus later this year–or ever, really–you may want to rethink your travel plans:
The best hope yet of reuniting war-partitioned Cyprus has been dashed after reconciliation attempts were brought to an abrupt halt following two years of intense negotiations.
The optimism engendered by talks seen as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to unite the Mediterranean island ended when the United Nations special envoy, Espen Barth Eide, announced that he was terminating negotiation efforts.
“Without a prospect for common ground, there is no basis for continuing this shuttle diplomacy,” the Norwegian former foreign minister said in a short statement.
Eide is insisting that the talks are not dead, but it’s going to be up to Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akıncı to restart them. And as neither seems prepared to compromise, especially on the issue of whether Turkish soldiers would continue to be stationed on a unified island, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.
The Estonian government announced today that it’s expelling two Russian diplomats from the country, an act Russia condemned and for which it promised to retaliate in kind. There was no reason announced for the expulsion, but the two diplomats in question, Consul General Dmitry Kazennov and consul Andrey Surgaev, both worked out of the city of Narva, which is right on the country’s eastern border with Russia and whose population is 82 percent ethnic Russian. These are the places that the Estonian government worries are being primed by Moscow for some kind of ethnic Russian uprising or provocation that might justify a Russian intervention akin to what happened in Crimea. Chances are this expulsion has something to do with those fears.
Former Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos was injured yesterday when a parcel bomb exploded in his car. His injuries are not life-threatening, but the attack is the latest in a string of similar attacks on Greek political figures and institutions. A group called Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire has been behind previous attacks but hasn’t claimed this one, at least not yet.
HAPPY RAMADAN (?)
The Trump administration issued its Ramadan greeting today, and it is…certainly something:
There’s really no explanation for this other than that the American president, and most of the people in his White House (at least) are mentally incapable of separating Islam and terrorism.
REST IN PEACE
Zbigniew Brzezinski, shown above on the far right in a meeting with US President Jimmy Carter and Iranian ruler and secret torture prison aficionado Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, died today in a hospital in Virginia. They say the good die young…anyway, Brzezinski was 89. He should be, though he is not, best known for helping to devise Operation Cyclone, the plan to counter Soviet activity in Afghanistan by shipping advanced weapons to arguably the most unstable and dangerous people in the world, the Afghan Mujahideen, via arguably the most corrupt intelligence organization in the world, the Pakistani ISI. I wonder how that all turned out?
I don’t know if Brzezinski rethought his Afghan endeavors after 9/11, but I do know that in 1998, when it was already pretty clear that Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda (a direct descendant of Operation Cyclone) was the new hotness in terms of threats, Brzezinski was still pretty proud of himself:
Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?
Brzezinski: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.
Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic [integrisme], having given arms and advice to future terrorists?
Brzezinski: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?
He will be missed.
Reuters reports that even staunch allies of embattled President Michel Temer are beginning to plan for life after he’s removed from office:
At dinner parties in plush Brasilia residences and in backroom meetings in Congress, Temer’s coalition partners and members of his own party are seeking agreement on a caretaker to replace the scandal-plagued president, who they see as too damaged to govern.
Amid the political turmoil that comes just a year after his predecessor was impeached and removed from office, preserving Temer’s agenda of austerity reforms and pulling Brazil’s economy out of recession is more important than saving the leader himself, sources in Temer’s main three allied parties told Reuters.
Those measures range from reducing a gaping budget deficit through opening doors to foreign investors to weakening labor laws and tightening pensions.
I find it equally hilarious and sad that their real hope here is to preserve Temer’s agenda of fucking over the little people ostensibly in order to end a recession, which austerity can’t do. I wonder if Erskine Bowles is eligible to serve as president of Brazil.
The G7 summit is taking place in Sicily, and Buzzfeed’s Alberto Nardelli has the blow by blow. In particular, the leaders of the other G7 countries seem to be working overtime to try to convince President Trump that climate change is actually a real thing:
Meanwhile, on climate and whether President Donald Trump will back the Paris agreement, the diplomat said the leaders’ statement is likely to include an acknowledgement that the US is reviewing its position. The source told BuzzFeed News that the leaders focussed their case above all on the longer term economic gains between a trade-off in adaptation costs and the benefits of de-carbonizing economies. The point was driven primarily by French president Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Trump listened to the arguments attentively, the source said.
The US president is not expected to make a decision about the future of the Paris deal in Sicily. White House advisor Gary Cohn told reporters that the president professed to the other six leaders that the environment was very important to him, and claimed the president’s views of the Paris climate deal were “evolving”.
At a press conference after the talks Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni said the question of the Paris accord was still hanging. While Chancellor Merkel described the day’s discussions with Trump as “intensive”, and said the US president had made clear that he had not yet made a decision about the climate agreement and would not do so in Sicily, but would rather continue to work on clarifying the US position.
Hey, good luck with that. I assume Trump is going to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, otherwise why not participate in the joint statement. Paris was already woefully inadequate as a response to the situation in which humanity finds itself, but it at least represented a first step international effort. If Trump isn’t even willing to abide by its terms…yikes.
The leaders are also squabbling over trade–most of them prefer multilateral “free” trade deals while Trump famously hates them–but the climate seems like the bigger deal.
Energy ministers from the world’s top oil producers, OPEC and non-OPEC, agreed in Vienna to extend their production cuts for another nine months, through March 2018. And in response, oil prices…fell, by about five percent.
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