Rosie Gray’s article in the July 25 Atlantic, “Bill Browder’s Testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee” is a must read to make sense of the motivations underlying Trump Russia. They reveal a corrupt Vladimir Putin uncomfortably in the sights of the Magnitsky Act passed by Congress in 2012 and willing to risk Russian capital to see it killed.
Bill Browder founded and ran a large capital investment firm in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. When Browder, as now seems inevitable, ran afoul of the corrupt oligarchs that were looting the government, he initially turned successfully to Vladimir Putin for protection. Yet, when Browder and his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky turned up evidence of corruption that ultimately benefited Putin, Browder became persona non gratis in Russia and Magnitsky was detained under allegations of corruption, was abused, and ultimately died in Russian prison. In 2012, the United States Congress sanctioned the involved Russian Oligarchs with the Magnitsky Act, an act that has proved painful to the Russians, and which Putin has gone to great lengths to quash. The meeting between Donald, Jr., Kushner, and Manafort with the Russians concerned making a deal to lift those sanctions. Rosie Gray’s article and Browder’s testimony put flesh on these bare bones and are necessary to understand the breadth and nature of the corruption.
This is from Rosie Gray’s introduction in the Atlantic, “Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who secured a meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, was engaged in a campaign for the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, and raised the subject of adoptions in that meeting. That’s put the spotlight back on Browder’s long campaign for Kremlin accountability, and against corruption—a campaign whose success has irritated Putin and those around him.”
Here’s Browder concerning when difficulties with Putin began: “[Assistance from Putin] all changed in July 2003, when Putin arrested Russia’s biggest oligarch and richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Putin grabbed Khodorkovsky off his private jet, took him back to Moscow, put him on trial, and allowed television cameras to film Khodorkovsky sitting in a cage right in the middle of the courtroom. That image was extremely powerful, because none of the other oligarchs wanted to be in the same position. After Khodorkovsky’s conviction, the other oligarchs went to Putin and asked him what they needed to do to avoid sitting in the same cage as Khodorkovsky. From what followed, it appeared that Putin’s answer was, ‘Fifty percent.’ He wasn’t saying 50 percent for the Russian government or the presidential administration of Russia, but 50 percent for Vladimir Putin personally. From that moment on, Putin became the biggest oligarch in Russia and the richest man in the world, and my anti-corruption activities would no longer be tolerated.”
Browder is then expelled from Russia. As he notes: “Eighteen months after my expulsion a pair of simultaneous raids took place in Moscow. Over 25 Interior Ministry officials barged into my Moscow office and the office of the American law firm that represented me. The officials seized all the corporate documents connected to the investment holding companies of the funds that I advised. I didn’t know the purpose of these raids so I hired the smartest Russian lawyer I knew, a 35-year-old named Sergei Magnitsky. I asked Sergei to investigate the purpose of the raids and try to stop whatever illegal plans these officials had.
Sergei went out and investigated. He came back with the most astounding conclusion of corporate identity theft: The documents seized by the Interior Ministry were used to fraudulently re-register our Russian investment holding companies to a man named Viktor Markelov, a known criminal convicted of manslaughter. After more digging, Sergei discovered that the stolen companies were used by the perpetrators to misappropriate $230 million of taxes that our companies had paid to the Russian government in the previous year.”
Believing this to be a case of rogue officials, Browder goes on, “We filed criminal complaints with every law enforcement agency in Russia, and Sergei gave sworn testimony to the Russian State Investigative Committee (Russia’s FBI) about the involvement of officials in this crime.
However, instead of arresting the people who committed the crime, Sergei was arrested. Who took him? The same officials he had testified against. On November 24, 2008, they came to his home, handcuffed him in front of his family, and threw him into pre-trial detention.”
After slightly more than a year in prison, Magnitsky would be dead. Browder notes, “Sergei Magnitsky was murdered as my proxy. If Sergei had not been my lawyer, he would still be alive today.”
In reaction, Congress, in November 2012 would pass the Magnitsky Act and Putin would retaliate by banning the adoption of Russian children in the United States. Browder goes on to detail Putin’s personal corruption: “…since 2012 it’s emerged that Vladimir Putin was a beneficiary of the stolen $230 million that Sergei Magnitsky exposed. Recent revelations from the Panama Papers have shown that Putin’s closest childhood friend, Sergei Roldugin, a famous cellist, received $2 billion of funds from Russian oligarchs and the Russian state. It’s commonly understood that Mr. Roldugin received this money as an agent of Vladimir Putin. Information from the Panama Papers also links some money from the crime that Sergei Magnitsky discovered and exposed to Sergei Roldugin. Based on the language of the Magnitsky Act, this would make Putin personally subject to Magnitsky sanctions.”
Moreover, “There are approximately ten thousand officials in Russia working for Putin who are given instructions to kill, torture, kidnap, extort money from people, and seize their property. Before the Magnitsky Act, Putin could guarantee them impunity and this system of illegal wealth accumulation worked smoothly. However, after the passage of the Magnitsky Act, Putin’s guarantee disappeared. The Magnitsky Act created real consequences outside of Russia and this created a real problem for Putin and his system of kleptocracy.”
Browder’s testimony further provides a history of the Russian efforts in Washington to remove the Act. For example, “Veselnitskaya, through Baker Hostetler, hired Glenn Simpson of the firm Fusion GPS to conduct a smear campaign against me and Sergei Magnitsky in advance of congressional hearings on the Global Magnitsky Act . He contacted a number of major newspapers and other publications to spread false information that Sergei Magnitsky was not murdered, was not a whistle-blower, and was instead a criminal. They also spread false information that my presentations to lawmakers around the world were untrue.
As part of Veselnitskaya’s lobbying, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, Chris Cooper of the Potomac Group, was hired to organize the Washington, D.C.-based premiere of a fake documentary about Sergei Magnitsky and myself.”
And this, “They hired Howard Schweitzer of Cozzen O’Connor Public Strategies and former Congressman Ronald Dellums to lobby members of Congress on Capitol Hill to repeal the Magnitsky Act and to remove Sergei’s name from the Global Magnitsky bill.”
There’s more, focusing on Putin’s determination to undermine current US law for the benefit of Putin and company. Billions of dollars and personal fortunes are at stake. In all, it strongly suggests that Putin’s obsession with the Magnitsky Act significantly underlied his efforts meddling in the 2016 election and his bromance with Mr. Trump. But judge for yourself.
We’ve all seen the videos of police beating and shooting our citizens, most often a young black man who failed to show sufficient deference, or talked back, or had a pen in his hand.
In the international news, we are now inured to stories of US drone strikes, with the inevitable “collateral damage”, in countries that most of our population could not locate on a map.
If you dug deeper, you would find that US foreign policy often supports repressive regimes.
If you dug deeper, you would find that the “War on Drugs” provided the perfect ploy for jacking up a private prison industry.
And at the root of it all, you would find weapons manufacturers and right-wing gun nuts pontificating about individual rights and manhood, and don’t tread on me.
So, if you are wondering where does this lead, I have a reading assignment, Janet Reitman’s stunning expose of the culture of Parris Island, the Marine boot camp, in last Sunday’s New York Times, “The Making – and Breaking- of Marines How the Death of a Muslim Recruit During Boot Camp Revealed a Culture of Brutality.” Read how the Marines literally beat a young Muslim recruit to death. I don’t think I’ve read anything as shocking or depressing in years. I’m not going to excerpt from it. You need to read it yourself.
But then ask yourself just who we are. My dad, an officer in the Army signal corp, was in numerous battle zones in the Pacific in World War II. As a career nuclear engineer, he designed nuclear submarines that were critical to America’s first line of defense.
I’ve had good friends who are police officers; their service is critical to protecting public safety. I’m not anti-military or anti-police – they are crucial in protecting a civilized society in a less than benign world.
But their worth depends on understanding what we are protecting – the basic human rights to speak, to work, to associate as we please. The core of civilization is its humanity and the arts, the literature, the science that it can produce. Those values are not represented by our current administration, or the militarized police forces that are now the rage, or the wide-spread availability of assault rifles, or beating and abusing a young recruit, or American’s self-assumed role as world policeman, acting in foreign lands and cultures of which it is profoundly ignorant.
Please. I’m asking for a little light on this. Haven’t we seen enough?
Given Trump’s disclaimers of contacts with the Russians, each day brings a surprise. Today Donald Jr. admitted to meeting in June 2016, along with Manafort and Kushner, with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Clinton. Watch as they try to spin this one.
But equally, or perhaps more, damning are the reports concerning Trump’s proximity to the US and Russian mob. See, for example, Trump, Collusion, Global Oligarchs, and the Mob. Here’s an article from September 14, 2016 worth considering, from Mother Jones, by David Corn and Hannah Levintova, “How Did an Alleged Russian Mobster End Up on Trump’s Red Carpet?” The gist of that story: “On April 16, 2013, federal agents burst into a swanky apartment at Trump Tower in New York City as part of a larger raid that rounded up 29 suspected members of two global gambling rings with operations allegedly overseen by a supposed Russian mob boss named Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov. The Russian was not nabbed by US law enforcement. Since being indicted in the United States a decade earlier for allegedly rigging an ice skating competition at the 2002 Olympics, he had been living in Russia, beyond the reach of Western authorities. And this new gambling indictment did not appear to inconvenience Tokhtakhounov. Seven months after the bust, he was a VIP attendee at Donald Trump’s Miss Universe 2013 contest held in Moscow. In fact, Tokhtakhounov hit the red carpet within minutes of Trump.”
“The operations of the gambling scheme were handled by two other men: Vadim Trincher and Anatoly Golubchik. The indictment alleged that they and others ran ‘an international gambling business that catered to oligarchs residing in the former Soviet Union and throughout the world,’ used ‘threats of violence to obtain unpaid gambling debts,’ and ’employed a sophisticated money laundering scheme to move tens of millions of dollars…from the former Soviet Union through shell companies in Cyprus into various investments and other shell companies in the United States.’ According to the US attorney, their enterprise ‘booked sports bets that reached into the millions of dollars’ and laundered approximately $100 million.
Trincher, a dual citizen of the United States and Israel, was a championship professional poker player who had purchased a Trump Tower apartment located directly below an apartment owned by Donald Trump. In 2009, Trincher had paid $5 million for the posh pad. Two years later, he and his wife had reportedly hoped to hold a fundraiser in the apartment for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign, but they had to cancel the event because of the presence of mold caused by a water leak. During one court hearing, the US attorney’s office said that Trincher, then 52 years old, directed much of the racketeering enterprise from this Trump Tower apartment.”
Corn and Levintova’s takeaway? “Trump has cited the 2013 Miss Universe contest as proof he possesses serious foreign policy experience. In May, he told Fox News, ‘I know Russia well. I had a major event in Russia two or three years ago, which was a big, big incredible event.’ And it provided the reality television mogul the opportunity to hobnob with a Putin crony who is now under US sanctions, various oligarchs who are chums with the Russian leader, and an alleged Russian mafioso accused by the US government of protecting a global criminal enterprise that operated directly below one of Trump’s own apartments in Trump Tower. What a small world.”
My take away? If you spend your life flocking with ducks, it is remotely possible you are a swan or a goose. But the best probability? You are a duck.
There’s a lot wrong with the US government but nothing is quite as telling, and distressing, as the fact that it is for sale to the highest bidder. I’ve blogged about this before and highly recommend that you read Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, a treatise on the right-wing octopus of money spread by the Koch brothers and other right-wing oligarchs to tip the scale in elections and governance.
Yesterday’s article in Fast Company, by Margaret Sessa-Hawkins and Andrew Perez, “White House Relied Upon Dark Money Lobbyist to ‘Quarterback’ Gorsuch’s Confirmation“, describes how dark money permeates not only the election campaigns but also the inner Congressional campaigns to confirm nominations and enact legislation.
Here’s their lead-in:
“A lobbyist with extensive ties to secretive nonprofit organizations served as the ‘quarterback’ for the successful nomination of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, according to records reviewed by MapLight.
Rob Collins, a Washington lobbyist and Republican strategist, claims on his professional biography at the S-3 Group that he worked with more than a half-dozen White House offices, the Department of Justice, the U.S. Senate, and more than 20 advocacy organizations to ensure Gorsuch’s confirmation.
The disclosure reveals that the Trump administration is taking advantage of a loophole in U.S. campaign finance law that allows elected officials to coordinate their agendas with nonprofit organizations that aren’t required to disclose their donors to the public. All told, five major ‘dark money’ organizations spent more than $14 million boosting Gorsuch’s nomination.”
And more on Collins:
“Collins was a director of 45Committee, a dark money organization that spent more than $21 million supporting Trump’s presidential campaign, as recently as January, when he last appeared on the organization’s FCC filings. The Herndon, Virginia-based committee’s ads made it the third highest-spending dark money organization in the election cycle.
Since the election, the organization has supported Trump’s agenda, launching campaigns to help confirm cabinet picks including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The 45Committee paid for a round of ads touting Gorsuch’s qualifications that ran nationally on networks including Fox, MSNBC, and CNN.”
Or consider this: “The Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), a nonprofit that advocates for the appointment of conservative judges in state and national courts, spent at least $10 million on the Gorsuch confirmation. The network shares a top donor with the 45Committee, the Wellspring Committee, which has distributed more than $24 million in grants to conservative nonprofits since 2008. Wellspring has given roughly $13.9 million to JCN, and also provided $750,000 to the 45Committee—a third of the money the organization reported raising between April 2015 and March 2016.”
Sessa-Hawkins and Perez report on the following exchange during the confirmation hearing:
“During the March confirmation hearings, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, asked Gorsuch about the spending by dark money organizations to aid his confirmation, and the $3 million spent to oppose former President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, whose nomination was blocked by Republicans last year.
‘I’m trying to figure out what they see in you that makes that $17 million. . . worth their spending,’ he said.
‘You’d have to ask them,’ Gorsuch replied.
‘I can’t,’ Whitehouse said. ‘I don’t know who they are.'”
Actually, now we know more, including that the NRA ponied up over a million dollars to support Gorsuch. You might ask yourself why that would do that and what they expect from a Supreme Court Justice in return.
Take time to read the article in full; then give thought to what is needed to get the paws of the rich off our government.
Robert Mueller’s Justice Department investigation of Trump/Russia collusion and of obstruction of justice by Donald Trump provides the best sign that not all official institutions are going to role over and play dead in the face of Trump’s fast growing authoritarianism. Mueller’s investigation has hit the ground running as he has collected a strong experienced legal team. It seems clear that a reckoning is at hand. Less clear – the jury is still out – is whether Trump or Mueller holds a winning hand.
In that light, I recommend Tim Weiner’s excellent article in The New York Times, “How Donald Trump Misunderstood the F.B.I.” A must read, Weiner’s piece shows that the history of the F.B.I. as an independent check on abuse of presidential power dates back to the Watergate era. As Weiner notes, “over the course of two decades and five presidents, the post-Hoover relationship between the F.B.I. and the White House had settled into a delicate balance between the rule of law and the chief of state. Presidents could use secrecy, and sometimes outright deception, to push their executive powers to the limit. But the F.B.I., through its investigative brief, retained a powerful unofficial check on these privileges: the ability to amass, and unveil, deep secrets of state. The agency might not have been able to stop presidents like Nixon and Reagan from overreaching, but when it did intervene, there was little presidents could do to keep the F.B.I. from making their lives very difficult — as Bill Clinton discovered in 1993, when he appointed Louis J. Freeh as his F.B.I. director. ” It was Freeh’s F.B.I. that would ultimately trip up Clinton for his dalliance with Lewinsky.
And it was Robert Mueller who followed Freeh as Director of the F.B.I., now heir to a tradition of institutional independence uncowed by the presidency. Weiner notes of Mueller that, “born into a wealthy family, Mueller exemplified ‘’the tradition of the “muscular Christian” that came out of the English public-school world of the 19th century,’ Maxwell King, Mueller’s classmate at St. Paul’s, the elite New England prep school, told me. Mueller arrived at F.B.I. headquarters with a distinguished military record — he earned a bronze star as a Marine in Vietnam — and years of service as a United States attorney and Justice Department official.” Mueller proved to be innovative and dynamic, moving to solve the moribund Lockerbie case. Weiner again, “Mueller used his power under law to obliterate the F.B.I.’s byzantine flow charts of authority in the case. ‘We literally cut out the chains of command,’ Marquise said. ‘We brought in the C.I.A. We brought the Scots. We brought MI5 to Washington. And we sat down and we said: “We need to change the way we’re doing business. . . . We need to start sharing information.’’’ It was a tip from the Scots that put Marquise on the trail of the eventual suspect: one of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s intelligence officers, whose cover was security chief for the Libyan state airlines. Qaddafi’s spy, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, was indicted in 1991. It took until the turn of the 21st century, but he was convicted.”
And as Weiner notes, it was Mueller who thereafter confronted George W. Bush to rein in his unconstitutional “Stellar Wind” surveillance program.
So now, it is Mueller, a straight shooter with a record of independence, versus Trump. We know Trump is neither a Nixon nor a Bush, but a practiced conman who has made a living skirting and confronting the law. With his staff of henchmen, Bannon, Sessions, and Kushner, with his presidential powers, he is a formidable foe. But Mueller, as we know, is in the right; the facts are on his side. And so the game begins.
What sort of bill might provide necessary voter protections? I recommend something along the following lines, addressing three issues: 1. voter eligibility, 2. gerrymandering, and 3. vote counting. In my view, all citizens should be registered and eligible to vote. Rules should be liberally construed to ensure that no such right to vote is denied. Redistricting laws should expressly prohibit gerrymandering. Vote counting must preserve a paper trail. Any electronic counting machine must be certified as secure from manipulation.
An Act Protecting the Right to Vote
Section 1. Concerning the right of all citizens to vote. Every citizen of the United States eighteen years of age or older shall be eligible to vote in all state and national elections, including elections for President, and elections for each state and federal Senator and Representative in the electoral district of domicile. Each state shall promulgate laws and regulations to ensure the registration of all such citizens, including automatic registration on attaining one’s eighteenth year, and provisions to enroll any unregistered citizen by cross-checking registration records with state licensing laws and federal social security records. An eligible voter whose identity as a citizen is known to polling personnel, or who shows a state license or other indicia of identity at a poll, may not be denied the vote. No citizen may be deprived of the right to vote unless that person has been adjudicated incompetent in a court of law.
Section 2. Prohibiting Gerrymandering. The practice known as gerrymandering is hereby expressly forbidden in the drawing of state and Congressional district boundaries and no such district may be drawn for the purpose of conveying a political advantage.
Section 3. Concerning security of vote counts. All votes in state and national elections must be cast pursuant to a paper ballot, which ballot must be retained to allow such recount or audit as may be deemed necessary. Paper ballots may be counted by machine, provided such machine has been certified by the Justice Department of the United States as secure against electronic manipulation of reported results and as secure from interference through electronic media. In the event that electronically reported results are challenged due to anomaly or are challenged in a contest in which the winning margin is 10 percent of the votes or less, the paper ballots shall be recorded by hand and that result shall be binding.
Section 4. The Justice Department of the United States shall take such actions as may be necessary to protect and enforce the voting rights set out herein.
Section 5. Any law of the United States that conflicts with the provisions of this act shall be reconciled therewith.
Issues for consideration: Voting rights have been addressed numerous times since the formation of the Republic. Understanding where that law is now is a necessary prerequisite to further legislating. The Wikipedia entry on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 contains much of the relevant information, The Voting Rights Act remains in force today, but has proven ineffective in recent years since the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder struck down what was known as the section 5 “coverage formula” that required certain states with a history of discrimination to “pre-approve” changes in election laws. Since Shelby, numerous states have enacted or are considering provisions that have the practical effect of suppressing voter turnout. Section one of my proposed bill makes voter eligibility automatic for all citizens and places a duty on states to ascertain those citizens domiciled in their state. My bill assumes continued enforcement of existing prohibitions on discrimination.
Gerrymandering is also an issue subject to considerable ongoing litigation. Current law, for example, under Thornburg v. Gingles sets out tests for weighing whether a redistricting plan inappropriately discriminates against a racial or ethnic minority. My judgment is that recent gerrymandering has been used by parties for partisan advantage, wholly apart from racial or minority concerns, and in those cases inappropriately predetermines electoral outcomes. I suggest a simple ban on gerrymander for political purposes, period.
Finally, with the Russian cyber-operatives meddling in the 2016 election, it has become clear that existing voting machines in many jurisdictions are not secure from hacking and that, in some of those jurisdictions, the lack of a paper trail makes an audit of the results impossible. It’s time that the security of electoral results be directly addressed.
This bill is intended as a draft only, for discussion purposes. I welcome input, including research as to existing laws or proposals in these areas. I also recognize that like Universal Healthcare, the current establishment may not consider itself ready for Universal Registration. Nonetheless, universal registration is also the global norm and has been enacted in some states. If we care about a true democracy, the appropriateness of universal registration seems self-evident. See for example, this article by Seth McElwee in the Huffpost, “Why Universal Voter Registration Matters“, and this article in The Los Angeles Times, “The merits of universal voter registration“.