After months and months of being inundated with charges that Donald Trump and/or his campaign colluded with the Russian government to install him somehow as a Manchurian candidate in Washington – by hacking the election, facilitating the publication of true information that put candidate Hillary Clinton in a negative light, or clandestine meetings with various Russians (all of whom are assumed to have direct connections to the Kremlin/Putin because, after all, every Russian has connections to the Kremlin/Putin just like every American is personally connected to the White House/Obama/Clinton/Trump), there are some actual polls trying to ascertain what Americans really think of this media obsession and the charges proclaimed daily.
According to a June, 2017 Harvard-Harris poll, 62% of voters don’t think there is any hard evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia; 74% of Independents and 68% of Democrats believe the constant focus on this story is diverting attention away from other critical issues like the economy, healthcare and jobs; 64% of those polled said the constant flogging of this story by the media and politicians is hurting the country and 56% thought the media and Congress should move on.
Another Harvard-Harris poll from May found that 65% of Americans believe the mainstream media publishes a significant amount of “fake news.” The partisan breakdown was: 80% of Republicans, 60% of Independents, and 53% of Democrats. An annual Gallup poll conducted in the latter part of 2016 revealed that only 32% of Americans trust the media.
(Thanks to Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report for writing about both of these polls recently)
Speaking of the media, a Bloomberg graphic was recently brought to my attention revealing the top issues that Americans care about compared to the amount of corporate media coverage given to each. The graphic is telling:
So why does the media insist on giving a disproportionate amount of coverage to an issue that has largely been unsubstantiated at the expense of issues that the American people care far more about. Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi gave his perspective in a recent interview with Aaron Mate of the Real News Network:
From the media standpoint, I think what people have to understand is that a lot of this is about money. The Russia story sells incredibly well and cable networks that traditionally have not made a lot of money are making a lot of money with this story. So I understand that the relentless emphasis on the Russia story makes a lot of sense from the networks’ point of view because it creates among viewers this impression that the fate of the nation may be decided any minute. This is like they’re selling it as a kind of Watergate sequel, so you have to tune in every night. Not just on election night, you have to keep tuning in. I almost understand it more coming from the media.
It’s the political class that I understand less because their sort of relentless emphasis on this Russia story is a huge bet that I don’t know whether it’s going to pay off. I think they’re doing this at the expense of making a cogent argument on policy grounds against Trump, and they’re also forcing the resistance to be synonymous with this Russia story. So in order for the resistance to have meaning, the conspiracy has to be true. It would make a lot more sense if there was a resistance that was based upon opposition to Trump’s healthcare policies or his environmental views, all of which are totally repugnant.
We’ve seen poll numbers consistently throughout the last six or seven months that Democratic voters just aren’t as excited about this policy-wise as the Party is. The Party is much more obsessed with this than their voters are. From a media standpoint of view, again, I understand it because people will tune in, but I don’t think that politically it’s necessarily a smart move to do what they’re doing because Democrats, if there’s one thing that has been clear about the election and what happened last year is that they have to reinvent themselves. They have to find a new way to talk to America. The Russia story is just delaying that process in my mind.
More analysis is coming out about the ceasefire agreement that resulted from the Putin-Trump meeting in Hamburg earlier this month. Many details were not initially being made public and some that were supposedly dripping out were confusing. Foreign policy journalist Ben Norton was interviewed recently at the Real News Network and offered the following commentary:
The exact details of the agreement are secret, and this was made by President Trump and President Putin without really the input even of the Pentagon, so many of the details are being leaked slowly, but what is very clear from the get-go is that this is an agreement about weakening Iran and containing its influence inside Syria. It looks like Russia has gone along with this so far. We will see what Russia’s response will be in the future, and there have also been questions about the fact of whether or not this is actually enforceable, but the general analysis that we’ve seen so far based on some internal leaks is that this agreement creates four so-called “de-confliction zones” inside Syria.
There actually are significant concerns that have been echoed by establishment pundits that this is paving the way for the partition of Syria. Right now, there is already a kind of de facto partition, but it looks like this ceasefire, if it holds, may lead to an actual political partition of the country, so according to the details we have so far, Iran and Iranian-backed groups including Hezbollah, which had been playing a lead role in the fight in Syria, especially against ISIS, are forbidden from the southwest of the country, and this was an agreement that was made between the U.S., Russia, Jordan, and Israel.
Jordan is officially part of the ceasefire agreement. Israel is not technically part of it, but internal sources told Foreign Policy Magazine that Israel is playing a role in the negotiating process, and Jordan and Israel, which see Iran as their mortal enemy, do not want Iran and its allies to have any influence inside Syria, especially in the areas near their borders. The Golan Heights, which have been illegally occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, are not going to be … They’re already Israeli-occupied territory where Islamist rebels have been fighting, including Al-Qaeda, but this is going to be an area near the border of Israel that is completely off-limits, and Russia says that it’s going to agree so far. Whether or not this is going to be able to be enforced is unclear.
Russia has fairly good relations with Iran, which is seen as an important part of the future One Belt, One Road (or New Silk Roads) Eurasian economic project. Furthermore, Iran agreed to increase some food imports to Russia with respect to the sanctions in 2014 and Russia is encouraging Iran’s entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). So it strikes me as strange that Russia would agree to anything that would seriously undermine Iran in Syria, especially given their large role in helping the Syrian government regain control of rebel-held areas. I also don’t believe that a partition of Syria would be perceived by Russia to be in the interests of Russia or Syria. However, if this only pertains to limiting Iran in this one part of Syria in order to placate Israel for the time being, I could maybe understand it.
But no less than Israeli PM Netanyahu himself is complaining publicly about the ceasefire deal. Robert Parry at Consortium News reports that the Israeli leadership, along with their Neocon minions in Washington, are trying to sabotage the ceasefire deal and are clinging to their receding hopes for regime change in Syria and beyond:
….After meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Sunday, Netanyahu declared that Israel was totally opposed to the Trump-Putin cease-fire deal in southern Syria because it perpetuates Iranian presence in Syria in support of the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Netanyahu’s position increases pressure on Trump to escalate U.S. military involvement in Syria and possibly move toward war against Iran and even Russia. The American neocons, who generally move in sync with Netanyahu’s wishes, already have as their list of current goals “regime changes” in Damascus, Tehran and Moscow – regardless of the dangers to the Middle East and indeed the world.
At the G-20 summit on July 7, Trump met for several hours with Putin coming away with an agreed-upon cease-fire for southwestern Syria, an accord that has proven more successful than previous efforts to reduce the violence that has torn the country apart since 2011.
But that limited peace could mean failure for the proxy war that Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other regional players helped launch six years ago with the goal of removing Assad from power and shattering the so-called “Shiite crescent” from Tehran through Damascus to Beirut. Instead, that “crescent” appears more firmly in place, with Assad’s military bolstered by Shiite militia forces from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
In other words, the “regime change” gambit against Assad’s government would have backfired, with Iranian and Hezbollah forces arrayed along Israel’s border with Syria. And instead of accepting that reversal and seeking some modus vivendi with Iran, Netanyahu and his Sunni-Arab allies (most notably the Saudi monarchy) have decided to go in the other direction (a wider war) and to bring President Trump along with them.
So, if Israel is going to remain dangerously recalcitrant in its position with respect to Syria, then what motive would Russia have for making concessions in regard to Iran’s position? I understand that Russia wants to have friendly relations as much as possible with all countries in the Middle East, but Russia’s interests most often align more closely with Iran’s recently than with Israel’s. Moreover, Iran has shown less inclination toward aggression (haven’t invaded another nation in hundreds of years) and less inclination toward back-stabbing than Israel. And, finally, Syria has been an ally of Russia since the Soviet era.
Pepe Escobar, within his larger analysis of how China is providing humanitarian aid and is set to provide much of the rebuilding in post-war Syria in anticipation of the country being an important hub in the New Silk Road (which, again, would imply a unified Syria), had this to say about the recent ceasefire deal:
A possible scenario out of what Putin and Trump negotiated in Hamburg – that was not relayed by either Lavrov or Tillerson – is that the ceasefire in southwestern Syria, assuming it holds, could mean US peacekeeping forces in effect sanctioning the creation of a demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the Syrian Golan and the rest of the country.
Translation: the Golan de facto annexed by Israel. And the “carrot” for Moscow would be Washington accepting Crimea de facto re-incorporated into the Russian Federation.
That may sound less far-fetched than it seems. The next few months will tell if this is indeed a plausible scenario.
Interesting. But I’m not holding my breath that that scenario would work. The Golan Heights would be costly for Syria to give up, materially, symbolically and security-wise. This would be a heavy concession made in the hopes that the Trump administration would be able to overcome the immense resistance in Washington to any acceptance of Crimea as Russian – that’s assuming that Trump could be trusted to be tenacious in trying to push it through in the first place. This strains credulity for me.
Earlier this month, it was reported – with the usual sensationalism reserved for anything remotely connected to Donald Trump, his campaign and Russia – that Donald Trump, Jr. held a meeting in June 2016 with a Russian attorney, Natalia Veselnitskaya, at the suggestion of eccentric music promoter, Rob Goldstone, with the impression given that Ms. Veselnitskaya had information about Hillary Clinton that would be useful to the Trump campaign. Apparently, this was a come-on to get the meeting with someone close to one of two candidates who would be the next president in order to lobby against the Magnitsky Act. No information was offered about Hillary Clinton and the meeting did not last long. NBC News provided the following details:
Donald Trump Jr., the eldest son of the president, acknowledged Sunday that he met with a woman who turned out to be a Kremlin-connected lawyer during the 2016 presidential election — after being told she allegedly had information that could help his father’s presidential campaign.
Moscow said Monday, however, that it was unaware of who the lawyer is.
The New York Times first reported on Saturday that Donald Trump Jr. met with the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, prompting him to respond with a short statement confirming that the meeting occurred.
He said he attended “a short introductory meeting” with Veselnitskaya, where the topic of conversation was primarily about adoption. He added that the topic was not a campaign issue at the time and that there was no followup conversation.
Subsequently, Trump Jr. released all the emails relevant to the meeting to the public, reportedly after Julian Assange advised him to do so as a preemptive move, but with the suggestion to have them published by Wikileaks.
One thing that struck me in the emails was the reference to Veselnitskaya as the “crown prosecutor.” No such position currently exists in Russia and would not have existed in the last 100 years since Russia ceased to be a monarchy in 1917. I have not seen any evidence that Veselnitskaya works for the Kremlin. I have heard that she has represented people connected to the political class in Russia, but so what? There are many attorneys who have represented people associated with the political class in Washington but that doesn’t mean they are official representatives of the White House or Congress. But this is the level of ignorance and misinformation pushed about how things work in Russia in order to keep resuscitating the Russiagate story every time it appears to be on life support.
Veselnitskaya has recently claimed that William Browder is behind the sensationalizing of the meeting with Trump Jr. in order to keep the Magnitsky Act – which is predicated upon Browder’s version of the whole Magnitsky affair and his role as a victim in it, a version that has recently come into serious question by journalists and researchers – on the books:
Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, who has become a poster child for the mainstream media’s claims of collusion between the Trump administration and the Kremlin, agreed to speak to RT on the streets of Moscow.
The attorney, who met with Donald Trump Jr. during his father’s campaign for the presidency, said she knows who was behind the “mass hysteria” related to the meeting. She accuses Magnitsky Act lobbyist William Browder of masterminding the disinformation campaign, aiming to harm her as revenge for a defeat he suffered in a U.S. court in 2013 at the hands of a team of lawyers that included Veselnitskaya.
“I have absolutely no doubt that this whole information [campaign] is being spun, encouraged and organized by that very man as revenge for the defeat he suffered in the court of the Southern State of New York in the ‘Prevezon’ company case,” she said.
In 2013, Veselnitskaya was one of the lawyers who represented Cyprus-based holding company Prevezon, owned by Russian businessman Denis Katsyv, in its defense against allegations of money laundering. The case was settled with no admission of guilt by Prevezon.
“He wasn’t able to convince the court with his lousy human tragedy that actually never happened, about the fate of a dead man – who he only learned about after his death,” Veselnitskaya said, referring to the 2009 death of Russian lawyer [sic] and auditor Sergey Magnitsky in a Moscow detention center.
In a recent interview with Democracy Now!, attorney and journalist Glenn Greenwald stated that nothing in the emails constitutes a smoking gun:
Now, what the Democrats are saying is that the Trump administration and their defenders in the media at Fox News and the like are, quote-unquote, “moving the goalposts” by saying, “Well, this only shows that Trump Jr. was willing to get information from the Russian government about Clinton, but it doesn’t show there was actual criminal collusion.” To me, it seems as though the people who are moving the goalposts are the Democrats. The claim all along, the reason why there’s talk of impeachment, the reason why there is a special prosecutor, the reason why people want to see Trump and his associates criminally prosecuted, is because of the claim that they committed crimes by colluding with the Russians with regard to the hacking. That’s what Harry Reid has always said. That’s what John Podesta has always said. That has always been the Democratic claim. This newest evidence doesn’t in any way suggest that. What it suggests instead is that Donald Trump Jr. was told that the Russian government had incriminating evidence about Hillary Clinton and wanted to give it to him. And he said, “Well, I’d love to get it. I’d love to have it.” Now, I guess there’s some sense that it’s wrong for a political campaign to take dirt on your adversary from a foreign government. I don’t think it’s illegal at all to do that, but there’s a claim that it’s somehow sort of immoral.
And here’s what I don’t understand. The Steele dossier that everybody got excited about, that claimed that the Russians had incriminating videos of Trump in a Moscow hotel and other dirt on Trump, that came from somebody who was getting first paid by Republicans and then by Democrats, going to Moscow and getting dirt about Donald Trump from Kremlin-affiliated agents in Moscow. In other words, he went to Russia, talked to people affiliated with the Russian government and said, “Give me dirt about Donald Trump,” and then, presumably, got it and put it in the memo. Similarly, there’s an amazing Politico article from January of this year that describes how allies of the Clinton campaign, including somebody being paid by the DNC, met with officials of the Ukrainian government, which was desperate to help Hillary Clinton win and Donald Trump lose, and get information incriminating about Trump from Ukrainian officials. In other words, Ukraine was meddling in our election by giving Democrats incriminating information about Trump.
….So, I want to hear the standard that we’re supposed to use to assess Trump Jr.’s actions. Is it that it’s wrong in all cases to get incriminating information about your opponent from a foreign government? In which case, why is it OK for the Democrats to do it with Ukrainian officials or for their investigator to go to Moscow and get dirt on Trump? Or is it some other standard that distinguishes what Trump Jr. did in this case versus what Democrats did with the Steele dossier and with Ukraine? And I just don’t see this distinction.
Read the full interview with Greenwald here.
The Politico article Greenwald referenced is here.
Readers will have to draw their own conclusions as to whether there is a real scandal here.
A final item I’d like to address on this week’s post is a recent piece by investigative journalist Craig Unger called “Married to the Mob: What Trump Owes the Russian Mafia.” This came to my attention via an interview with Unger that Amy Goodman did on Democracy Now!.
Now, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if investigations into Trump turn up run-of-the-mill corruption about the president. However, a few things raised red flags with Unger’s claims. First of all, I noted in Unger’s background that he’s done many exposes and books digging up dirt on Republicans. That’s fine, but he never seems to expose anything by the Democrats and that makes me wonder. If he’s a non-partisan muckraker, are we supposed to think he suddenly takes long sabbaticals that coincide with when Democrats are in office? There’s never anything to report on what Democrats might be up to that would be less than honest?
Also, he talks about the Russian mafia as far back as the early 80’s when it was still the Soviet Union. And I had to ask myself: did Russia have what we would consider to be “the mafia” operating in the Soviet Union in the 1980’s? And, of course, he recycles the discredited Karen Dawisha claims of Putin running a “mafia state.” So, I asked my mentor on Russia, Sharon Tennison, who has been traveling all throughout Russia since 1983 when it was indeed still the Soviet Union, about these claims by Unger. Here is what she had to say:
In the late 80S, Russians called anyone whom they distrusted “the mafia.” It was a derogatory term loosely used. Then in 1990 as sharp young men in Moscow began grabbing Soviet enterprises and illegally privatizing them to themselves, they became a mafia of sorts – again a loosely used term. Simultaneously, a group of high risk young Russian guys began extracting money from Russians who had started microbusinesses. They demanded monthly payments for “protection” from these fledgling new businesses. If owners didn’t pay up, they torched their businesses. This was Russia’s real street mafia. This went on until the late 90s when many were getting killed by entrepreneurs so most of them decided to stop and go into business for themselves; at the street level, Russia’s petty bureaucrats became known as “mafia” themselves because they extracted additional rubles beyond the normal fees for registering the entrepreneurs’ businesses or any official claim for which they could get extra money for themselves. This went on under the table up until 2005.
Back to 1996 – some of the most aggressive street mafia “went upstairs” to big businesses and continued their racket work. Many were killed. Some of the murders of that time were later attributed to Putin. This was sheer fabrication. Putin was busy doing registrations and joint ventures in St. Petersburg (he was deputy mayor)—and was known for being the only public official in the Marienskii City Hall who didn’t “Get rich on his seat” (Russian term for not making extra money off of one’s position.
There is no such thing today as a “Russian mafia state.” Putin has put many lower level and higher level bureaucrats behind bars and is still bringing others to trial. Slowly this is cleaning up Russia’s internal corruption, likely for the first time in centuries.