The Michael Flynn Mess: The New Geopolitics In The Age of Oligarchy
Michael Flynn has finally resigned. Paul Manafort abruptly quit the Trump campaign in August, as the Russian clouds began forming a disturbance above him. In September, Paul Page was next to go. The Daily Dot has a very nice summary of the departures of all three Trump-related personalities and the circumstances of their abrupt exits from his circle of advisors.
The New York Times reports today that the FBI interviewed Flynn in the first days of the new Trump administration:
“While it is not clear what he said in his F.B.I. interview, Mr. Flynn maintained publicly for more than a week that his conversations with the ambassador were innocuous and did not involve Russian sanctions, something now known to be false.
Shortly after the F.B.I. interview, on Jan. 26, the acting attorney general, Sally Q. Yates, told the White House that Mr. Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail because of inconsistencies between what he had said publicly and what intelligence officials knew to be true.”
What is interesting here is that Sally Yates, who ended up being fired by Trump when she refused to comply with his executive order on immigration, was involved in letting Trump know of Flynn’s security vulnerabilities.
Today, again, we were informed by the New York Times that “Russia has secretly deployed a new cruise missile despite complaints from American officials that it violates a landmark arms control treaty that helped seal the end of the Cold War, administration officials say.” The Times further reports:
“The ground-launched cruise missile at the center of American concerns is one that the Obama administration said in 2014 had been tested in violation of a 1987 treaty that bans American and Russian intermediate-range missiles based on land.
The Obama administration had sought to persuade the Russians to correct the violation while the missile was still in the test phase. Instead, the Russians have moved ahead with the system, deploying a fully operational unit.”
Trump and Putin had a cordial phone conversation just last week and Politico reported that while on the phone with Putin, Trump suspended the call to ask his advisers about the New START treaty, which, apparently, Trump wasn’t aware is in place…
“After reportedly checking with his advisers to learn what treaty Putin was talking about (the White House says he was asking for an opinion), Trump apparently told the Russian leader the entire agreement was just another bad deal signed by his predecessor, even though its provisions impose identical obligations on both sides, and even though it was supported by the U.S. Senate and all the key national security players, including the U.S. Strategic Command and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Instead of seizing upon a good offer (as well as an offer to convene talks on a range of other nuclear issues, including strategic stability, according to a former U.S. official familiar with the call) that would strengthen U.S. national security, Trump signaled a willingness to embark on an expensive, pointless new arms race that he boasts the United States would win.”
To those with a college education and higher than 5th grade reading skills, it has been apparent from the start that Donald J. Trump is neither in command of current events or historical facts, nor does he possess a modicum of understanding of geopolitics that he should have prepared for during his transitions. What drives Trump is insatiable greed paired with the uncanny ability to game the system and amass wealth through the accumulation of debt via huge loans from a multitude of banking institutions in the U.S. and abroad, making this particular oligarch a danger to our nation more than any other in office before him, due to the combination of his financial vulnerabilities and his intellectual and educational deficits.
“As the story festered, Flynn spent the weekend with Trump in Florida, staffing the President’s getaway with the Japanese Prime Minister at Mar-a-Lago. On Monday, the Post reported that in late January, the former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates had told Trump’s White House counsel Donald McGahn that transcripts of Flynn’s calls clearly showed he was lying about his contacts with Kislyak.
That story finally seized Trump’s attention. “This has been something the President’s been monitoring internally for a while,” the senior White House official said. “Today, in between meetings, he started to ask questions about who knew what, what do we think about this report, and continued to flesh it out.””
Lizza is right. When one looks at the series of events that led to Flynn’s resignation, one goes all the way back to late December and the Obama administration’s announcement of sanctions that were immediately followed by a threat from the Kremlin to retaliate in kind, and then a mysteriously magnanimous reversal, book-ended by a complimentary tweet from Trump:
Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2016
Is Flynn taking the fall for a president who ordered him to negotiate with Russia behind President Obama’s back? Was Flynn acting on his own? If the latter, did Trump finally heed Sally Yates’ warning and only fire Flynn because his lie is now a matter of public record? Does Trump even understand the enormity of the compromise Flynn put the diplomatic and national security complex in? Does the nature of the relationship with Russia even matter to Trump in the same way it does any other American leader?
Flash back to the 2012 election, Mitt Romney, an oligarch himself, also had a “Russian problem.” One of his sons traveled to Russia and communicated with Kremlin officials on his dad’s behalf. At the time, the New York Times reported:
“But while in Moscow, Mr. Romney told a Russian known to be able to deliver messages to Mr. Putin that despite the campaign rhetoric, his father wants good relations if he becomes president, according to a person informed about the conversation.”
This duality in behavior and messaging tinged with cronyism is characteristic of an oligarch. Moreover, oligarchs, due to the nature of their interests, aren’t driven by the same sets of principles that guide foreign policy. While each new non-oligarch president may have an affinity for this or that foreign partner within established circles of allyship, oligarchs aren’t bound by the same loyalties, and that explains Trump’s affinity for such foreign authoritarian oligarchs as Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan.
In these days of “Fake News,” one must be especially careful where one gets one’s news from. Here’s a breathless headline from Daily Kos:
While the piece is based on the original reporting of actual newspapers, the analysis is quite alarmist. Daily Kos has changed a great deal over the past year, most visibly during the Democratic primary, and not for the better.
Fox News’ own reporting on Russian reaction to Michael Flynn’s ouster is more measured and matter-of-fact:
Yes, the way Trump and his peers relate to Russia is very different from what Americans have been accustomed to with previous administrations. That difference is one of the many ways the power dynamic between the political and donor classes has manifested itself, with the ruling political class somewhat moderating what donors demanded. That was the case in the plutocracy we have been under over the last few years. Now, in our new oligarchy, the ruling class is now also the donor class and the moderating layer is gone.
With Trump, money, in the form of very large foreign loans, may be involved on a personal level, added to which there probably are heavy interests coming from the business quarters of Trump’s sphere of influence. Rex Tillerson and the choice to nominate him to run the State Department is the single most direct evidence of that. That said, in spite of all the ink that has been spilled on the subject, we don’t yet have proof that the president is compromised and being blackmailed, nor do we have any evidence that Michael Flynn is some kind of Russian agent. That said, his behavior raises some very serious questions about his motives and that of his boss and those need answers. The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, a journalist and an attorney, raises some serious concerns with respect to whistleblowing, journalism, and the law as it will be interpreted and acted upon by the Trump administration:
“The only reason the public learned about Flynn’s lie is because someone inside the U.S. government violated the criminal law by leaking the contents of Flynn’s intercepted communications.”
Technically, blowing the whistle on Flynn involved revealing information gathered by SIGINT, a felony. According to the NSA website, SIGINT is:
“SIGINT is intelligence derived from electronic signals and systems used by foreign targets, such as communications systems, radars, and weapons systems. SIGINT provides a vital window for our nation into foreign adversaries’ capabilities, actions, and intentions.
NSA’s SIGINT mission is specifically limited to gathering information about international terrorists and foreign powers, organizations, or persons. NSA produces intelligence in response to formal requirements levied by those who have an official need for intelligence, including all departments of the Executive Branch of the United States Government. For information on how NSA protects Americans’ right to privacy, see the FAQs section.”
Michael Flynn, by conducting himself as he did, contacting the ambassador of a foreign nation, committed an infraction of some kind. The contents of his interaction with Russia’s U.S. ambassador were captured by SIGINT. A government official leaked the gathered information to the media. The media, specifically the Washington Post’s David Ignacius, by publicizing Flynn’s communications, committed an infraction of the law pertaining to signals intelligence. Under any other president, this would be problematic. Under this president, this is more problematic than ever. How will the Trump administration handle things? Representative Jason Chaffetz, for one, says the matter was taken care of by virtue of Flynn’s resignation. His counterparts in the Senate, with the exception of Senator John McCain, have been largely silent. The conservative media is portraying Michael Flynn as a victim of political espionage. Remember, Flynn picked up the phone to the Russian ambassador to the U.S. to talk about relaxing the sanctions imposed by the then sitting president, President Barack Obama.
Late on February 14, 2017, the New York Times breaking news is that:
“Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.
American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time that they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said”
The rush of developments in just the last day is an indication that this is a developing story and it will take some time to sort out. Is Trump a new Nixon on steroids? Will his presidency be among the shortest ever? It remains to be seen.
The cold war is over and communist Soviet Russia is no more. Russia and America are oligarchies. That last fact alone is the basis for a completely different set of dynamics that we cannot lose sight of. Trump is drawn to Russia, at least in part, for the same reasons Mitt Romney was. As narrow as Mitt Romney’s view of the world turned out to be in the famously leaked 47% comment from 2012, it pales in comparison with President Trump’s, Unlike Romney, Trump’s view of the world is far narrower and more simplistic. The difference in sophistication between the two is akin to that of an octopus and an amoeba.
We must be careful to separate the issues from each other and mind each component as this story develops. There is nothing inherently wrong for an administration, given the right circumstances, to consider some kind of rapprochement with Russia. For example, nothing in the U.S. Constitution says we must be forever allied with Western Europe. That said, it is far from an accepted norm for someone who isn’t a government official – yet – to approach a foreign dignitary and begin negotiations ahead of the next president’s swearing in and inauguration. Depending on what else is in the SIGINT files and what a proper investigation will uncover, Flynn may well have committed several high crimes.
What will our oligarch-in-chief do? What will our oligarch’s Attorney General do? Given both men’s conflicts of interest, what is even more germane is what the FBI will do. More than the Department of Justice, at this very moment, the Federal Bureau of Investigations is the arm of government with the relative independence to investigate and recommend action in a case such as Flynn. James Comey, yes, the same James Comey who has been maligned by the media for his own actions during the election, is in charge of investigating Flynn, and has been doing his job all along. Will Trump allow him the wide berth he is due? Will the media stop attacking him and just report on what Comey does? What will Congress do if Trump decides he wants to fire Comey?
Those questions are where the dangers lie and what we should all focus on. Everything else, in this corrupt state we call “oligarchy,” is white noise.
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