Thursday, February 22, 2018

Alfa Bank, van der Zwann indictment and how it might relate to President Trump

Since the Steele Dossier came to light, so has a bank mentioned in it with many names and many branches...but the group is known as Alfa Bank. The indictment of a an attorney, Alex van der Zwann,  unconnected with the investigation until now may have far more significance than we might imagine.  The attorney has a family relationship to the bank and the Steele Dossier indicated that  Alfa bank figured in a large loan to the Trump organization.  The Steele Dossier may be considered unverified so far, but it may be in the process of being verified by  Special Counsel Robert Mueller.   Raising further suspicions is that the Mueller staff has a large number of prosecutors experienced in investigating financial crimes. We could say the plot is beginning to thicken a bit and no one outside the Mueller team really knows because they are so tight lipped. However, connecting the dots is still a fascinating exercise.  For the record, I am making note of this for what I suspect will be referred to in the future.

A Moscow bank keeps popping up in the Trump-Russia affair. Ben Schreckinger reports with the latest.
On Tuesday, Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller made another surprise indictment, this time of a London-based lawyer for allegedly lying to the FBI.
Like two of Mueller’s previous targets, Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates, the lawyer—a man named Alex Van Der Zwaan—had done work for Ukraine’s previous, pro-Russia government, which was overthrown in a popular uprising in 2014.
And according to the indictment, the false statements in question were about communications he had in 2016 with Rick Gates and an unnamed “Person A” related to that work.
So on its surface, Tuesday’s indictment relates solely to a single branch of Mueller’s investigation: Paul Manafort’s dealings with the pro-Russia faction in Ukraine.
But search beyond the scant details offered in the two-page indictment and there’s an intriguing link to a whole other branch of Trump-Russia inquiry: the Alfa Bank mystery.
As it so happens, Van Der Zwaan, the lawyer indicted Tuesday, is the son-in-law of Russian oligarch German Khan. Khan is a director and co-owner of Alfa Bank and one of three key leaders of its parent company, the sprawling conglomerate Alfa Group.

From November 11, 2017 posting:
Observations 2/23/18
Note to the reference to the Steele dossier, so far unverified, but it may become verified in the future.
For sometime the rumor has been circulating that Trump had $300 million in loans, debts he owed to the Russian private bank, Alfa, and that the Russians had evidence which was termed “salacious” (with conspiracy theorists thinking there may had been a honey trap involved). That these rumors and allegations made in the agent’s “report “were taken seriously was most likely because many of both sides of the aisle were puzzled why Donald Trump was constantly apologizing or was in sympathy with the policies of Russia. They were trying to find a reason why Donald Trump had made comments supportive of Russia’s territory grabbing in the Ukraine,Crimea, and Georgia, letting Russia finish and dominate the Syrian civil war, weakening NATO’s mutual defense responsibility and endangering the Baltics by failure to be protected from Russian expansionism, or denying of Russian interfering is US elections and hacking.. Sometimes Trump’s Putin bromance was owed to Trump’s vulnerability to flattery, and especially from the Russian president , whose leadership Trump openly admired. It was also owed to political connections and friendship of his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, with the deposed president of the Ukraine and an associate of Putin. The “report’ was called trash by Trump’s surrogates and spokespeople. All media, even the reporting Buzzfeed and CNN , referred to the report as unproven.

It stands in sharp contrast with the GOP presidential candidate himself, Donald Trump, who has been advocating a foreign policy that strangely runs parallel to the same as Russia's, from declaring NATO obsolete, not objecting to the Russian threats and incursions into Eastern Ukraine, and recognizing Russia's grab of the Crimea.  In fact, the mutual comments between Trump and Putin have been so complimentary that it has been timed a "bromance" of mutual admiration.

Not only is this a major issue in foreign policy, but in calls into question whether Trump can even negotiate with Putin in America's and our alliies' security interests without giving away the store to Russia.  Negotiation means give and take and the question remains what Trump would give away to make a deal. ""

2  14  17
Some background: (Note, the Steele Dossier is may haveen the key, here.)
 For some time, the question has been why has Donald Trump been so cozy with Russia? There has been a great deal of speculation ranging from Trump's debts to Russia oligarchs to blackmail , the connection with  the Russian Alfa Bank, with embarrassing pictures (a victim of a honey trap).  Fingers have been pointed to influencing Trump's views of Russia was his campaign manager, who departed the campaign mid year, Paul Manafort, who was an advisor to the ousted  president of the Ukraine who sought refuge in Moscow after a coup.  Congressional investigations into Russian influence and hacking  in the US elections are just getting underway.  Ukraine is involved. The Russians have conducted a stealth takeover of the eastern parts of that country and the West punished Russia with economic sanctions.  The Flynn issue involves lies about his pre- January conversations with the Russian ambassador over lifting those sanctions. The question arises was this a thank you for the role Russia played in helping Trump win by planting false news stories and by hacking and revealing damaging information regarding Hillary Clinton.

That there are many concerned about why Donald Trump only ever has kind words for Russia and their president Vladimir Putin, while being critical of even our closest allies and even calling NATO, our mutual defense treaty with Europe, obsolete.  It has set our Eastern Europe members of NATO on edge and one of President Obama's departing actions was to announce the placement of US troops in Poland as a signal to Russia not to mess with our Baltic members.  Trump and others, including libertarians, had already expressed concern about going to war to support the small trio of Baltic nations in spite of their NATO membership. Russians have always seen the Baltics, with their ports to the sea, as part of theirs since there is a large number of Russians living in those areas left over from the old Soviet  military occupations days when the Baltics were their satellites.  Russia has a modus operandi of using "saving discrimination against Russian minorities" as an excuse to grab territory and the Baltics are ripe targets.  Their membership in NATO has made Russia think twice. Ukraine, Crimea, and Georgia, recent targets of Russian grabs, are not part of NATO and are not under NATO's protections.  Flynn was Donald Trump's closest campaign adviser on foreign affairs throughout  the campaign.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

A warning to politicians: Cross these young adults from Parkland Florida at your own risk

Edited to include a discussion of solutions, 2/22/18.

Cross these young adults at your own risk. They have the tools to lead these movements and high school seniors reaching 18 can vote in November 2018, millions of them nationwide.The rising American electorate including, those newly turning 18 , millennials and others, number eight million. . Missing has been a motivation to register and turnout to vote. These school massacres putting students' lives personally in jeopardy will provide unprecedented motivation.and presents an opportunity for this movement.

What Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland have in common is that these are suburban type of schools, ,with well educated articulate parents , and demographics similar to suburbs elsewhere. Whether the trend to losses of the GOP in the suburbs will be intensified by the sympathy toward stricter gun control is not yet measured. However, it is possible. parents and grandparents in suburbs around the country can easily imagine what happened in Parkland could happen to them and their children and translate that into large election day turnout and votes for supporters of stricter gun control.. This could be an additional motivation for those suburban women who are already inspired by the women's marches, #me too, and the issues they highlighted.
I know it is hard for us older folks to believe students have the ability to articulate and lead a movement. So much so, the pro gun radical fringes have invented a conspiracy theory that some deep state and outside forces or paid crisis actors are leading them. This 3000 student school , Marjory Stoneman Douglas, is like many large suburban type schools near large metro areas. .It is the top ranked academic school in Broward, County. I attended a mega size school in my day that provided a nationally recognized debate program and a vigorous journalism newspaper/yearbook opportunities. Schools now provide video and TV training as part of their academic courses..Two of my granddaughters participated in debate or journalism in their high school in Centennial, Colorado.. Debate clubs , stage performance opportunities were offered in the Parkland school. Use of video social media keeps kids from being camera and microphone shy and its forces them to speak in sound bites. . Those are communication skills this young generation has that many before them did not have a chance to develop, but they are key to providing leadership. Some of the student spokespersons/survivors interviewed on TV shortly after the Parkland massacre were JR ROTC members, also products of great leadership training. Unlike my day, the internet makes keeping up with current events so much more pertinent, in their face, and easier. to access leaving them with a level of political sophistication generations before them did not have .

The Florida House cut the high school crusade off at the knees before they even listened to the students by refusing to bring their issues up for debate at the outset. This is a great civics lesson. The answer, my friends, is blowin' in the wind. The high school students  have  public opinion and sympathy filling their sails. 2/3 of voters favor an assault weapon ban per the most recent poll.  When a movement is stonewalled like this, change lies in voting out state and federal representatives district by district and replacing them. 

Waiting for more God in our lives or reversing our culture to old fashioned ways is not a solution to an epidemic happening now.  So what could the students  ask legislators to do?    One approach  alone is not  the answer. Each proposal I have heard has some weaknesses as well as some advantages  The answer  lies in "many of the above".from improving mental health services, tip lines, background checks, even metal detectors, more uniformed and armed guards in school. 

Above all, banning assault weapons and enhancements  to increase their deadliness within a few minutes and with minimal skill would be the single most effective policy. If the latter is done, raising ages required to buy such weapons or even expanding and improving background check data bases to include court determined  extreme risk individuals known to be violently  angry or mentally ill, and arming teachers would be less necessary to defend against young adult or teenage males bearing AR-15.

 Both the shooter in this case and the Aurora theater killer had access and sought mental health care, but  there are very strict laws to protect their rights and law enforcement failed to follow up even when they could. Even mental health professionals tell me they cannot always spot a potential mass killer and not all killers are mentally ill. Some are just consumed with anger. That illustrates the weakness and room for improvement for   relying solely  on mental health services . Tip lines certainly need to get  more serious attention. Expanding  those eligible to be included in universal round checks may help. 

 .  Putting in metal detection at entrances might work, but it could be difficult in open campuses and multi building schools such as the one in Parkland, Florida. Restricting open campuses and hardened building entrances may help.  There was active shooter training and community police officers in the Parkland school .It was not enough..Arming teachers? A teacher armed with a concealed  handgun is supposed to outgun a person armed with an AR15 without killing  innocents in the crossfire? A first responder may mistake a gun wielding teacher for the perp  and shoot him, too. This idea  is one where the cure could  be worse than the disease  and it may wither away for lack of participants. There are no teachers I know  or teacher organizations who would participate. More uniformed, trained security guards would make more sense so hang  the expense and do it..  

Banning future  sales of assault weapons  or raising the age to 21 to buy an assault weapons with  long enough cooling off periods to do a background check would make it harder  for teenagers to get weapons that can kill seventeen people in 6 minutes.  Banning bump stocks or reducing the size of clips can  also reduce the numbers killed.  With a nation awash with AR 15s, and taking them away from  current gun owners  is a non-starter. for me. However,  a voluntary buy back program might reduce some of the existing stock at risk for theft and misuse by criminals and family members.

Also see prior blogposts: Reflections on the Parkland shooting and a Facebook debate between a pro gun advocate and me.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

American elections for Americans

Trumpists  may chant Make America  Great Again or put  America First, but they should be chanting instead: American  Elections for Americans and Make Democracy Great Again.  They are not. The Mueller indictment of the 13 Russians for their  execution of a campaign  to swing the 2016 elections toward Donald Trump has  had a very disturbing reaction from  many on the right , both in their media  and in their Facebook comments. Some even called the Mueller Russian indictments a “nothing burger” .   It was not nothing that the Russians undertook  a million dollar a month campaign on behalf of Donald Trump’s election.  Even social media CEOs admitted to Congress in the fall  the Russian bots reached 120 million voters.  The indictment found that by 2016, the size of many (Russian) ORGANIZATION-controlled groups had grown to hundreds of thousands of online followers.“

The indictment did not assess whether the Russian conspiracy tilted  the election to Trump.  It left that issue  simply unaddressed.  Did the Russian efforts support the election of Donald Trump?   Yes it did . Revealed in the indictment  “by early to mid-2016, Defendants’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump (“Trump Campaign”) and disparaging Hillary Clinton.”  If the Russians' purpose was to increase greater enthusiastic turnout of those leaning to Trump and to depress Clinton supporter enthusiasm, they probably were a factor. PEW research exploring why pollsters in the midwest rust belt were wrong was that they failed to measure the enthusiasm factor correctly.

I speculate  the reason  Trump supporters have responded as they  did is that they believe  it helped their guy win; the Russians  were on their side; go blame Obama, not the one in the White House in over a year who called the whole thing a hoax and still does not care to do anything about it. Trump has failed to take any action or leadership to harden our election systems or to punish Russians with executing sanctions as  Congress directed him to do. Instead he has made those blowing the whistle, the intelligence agencies and the FBI, the object of his disaffection and biased against him. He perpetuated the “hoax” and “witch hunt” myth as he  ignored the evidence intelligence agencies  presented in last year’s Congressional hearings..  Even now, he claims he was cleared of collusion. Left hanging by the indictment is that there are  unindicted co-conspirators. Besides “the  non collusion” ,  findings of obstruction of justice and financial crimes, as well as other kinds of conspiracies  were not addressed in this one announcement of indictments that was  limited to Russian social media use.

While the indictment revealed  at least three Trump campaign officials were unwitting participants,  in another way the unwitting  American supporters of the Russian campaign numbered in the hundreds of thousands, too.  They could well be some reading this. Identified Trumpists were not the only targets. Russian campaigns on social media exhorted Democrats to vote for Jill Stein (Green Party) and Bernie Sanders in order to divide and weaken Hillary Clinton.
The Russians manipulated  the Trump loyalists and  they too unknowingly carried the Russian messages  on social media to millions . By the hundreds of thousands,  Americans retweeted, reposted, shared the messages well crafted  by the Russians posing as Americans  to make them hate immigrants, African American activists, Muslims  more  than before and  to love guns even more. Russian bots claimed in October 2016 that there was election fraud, but offered no proof. They also hyped scary false social media postings  of Muslims supporting Sharia law. I was wondering why anti-Sharia law hysteria had  such a  sudden rebirth  then and an  anti Muslim speaker was  featured in an event  on an unrelated subject held in my own county. Now I have an idea why.

Some examples from the indictment are that  the (Russian) “ORGANIZATION controlled pages addressed a range of issues, including: immigration (with group names including “Secured Borders”); the Black Lives Matter movement (with group names including “Blacktivist”); religion (with group names including “United Muslims of America” and “Army of Jesus”); and certain geographic regions within the United States (with group names including “South United” and “Heart of Texas”).

Friday, February 16, 2018

Russians, Judas goats in the 2016 election

A version of this was published in the Sky Hi News, Feb. 20-21, 2018

“A Judas goat is a trained goat used in general animal herding. The Judas goat is trained to associate with sheep or cattle, leading them to a specific destination. In stockyards, a Judas goat will lead sheep to slaughter, while its own life is spared. Wikipedia”

Russians were the Judas goats, leading willing US believers to the undermining of the American political system and democracy by playing with their political inclinations  on social media. Per 10.6 of the indictment, their stated strategy included interfering
with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with the stated goal of “spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.” By the summer of 2016, their focus shifted to supporting Trump's campaign. They did it by boosting divisiveness with many methods, including trying to divide the Democratic vote by boosting the Green candidate  and Bernie Sanders, and promoting fake rallies against Muslims and minorities.

Some voters may be feeling a bit sheepish when they read the text of the Special Counsel indictment of thirteen Russians. The indictment is very specific, citing exact ads, fake organization names. rallies, and twitter handles .How many of these did you fall for, retweet, repost? It is  very unsettling to know that Colorado voters were among three  states (Virginia and Florida the other two)  specially targeted for this Russian conspiracy. Instead of curling up with a spy novel tonight, reading the indictment might be just as entertaining.

Not in the indictment, but Russians creating discord is  even  still happening in the wake of the Parkland, Florida high school massacre, with  bots hyping pro guns, just as they promoted “release the memo” campaign urging release of the Nunes memo, tech people following social media bots report.
The release of the thirteen indictments  should be particularly  unsettling to those who  believed President Trump’s constant refrain that the Russian investigation was just a “hoax”. No, Mr. Trump, the Russian interference beginning in the  summer of the 2016 campaign was
designed to help you win, and your charges Russian interference in 2016 was all a hoax is not true. The hoax on the American people was yours., perpetuated for your own purposes even after intelligence agencies  last summer testified  eight times to Congress Russians did interfere in the 2016 campaign.

In his announcement, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein presented the details of the indictments with such specificity, that even the President acknowledged there was interference   beginning in 2014 , though the 2016 campaign changed direction in the summer to help Trump. Mr Trump trumpeted that it absolved him of collusion. The indictment did not name him, but it did call out  three of his staff  as unwitting accomplices and that the Russians paid Americans to participate, but they did not know they were paid by  Russians. These indictments refer to  specific instances having to do with social media only, but there are others yet to be indicted . Not addressed are the Trump Tower meeting and non-social media issues.. Contrary to right wing media claiming the indictment debunks the Steele Dossier, it does not. It substantiates the Steele's basic claim that Russians were interfering the the election in many ways .Mentioned in the indictment there are unindicted co-conspirators. Stay tuned for that.

The Special Prosecutor’s investigation is not concluded and there are still many facets yet announced and  other shoes to drop. The hacking issue is not the subject of this indictment. In fact, Donald Trump may be in even more at risk. President Trump is  not cleared by this for other actions being investigated, obstruction of justice and financial dealings. What has been missing until now was an underlying crime. In fact, those indictments today provide  the underlying crime  needed to charge those  in the President’  immediate circle or even him   with conspiracy  to commit a crime and/or  with  obstruction of justice.

From the indictment:
31:In order to collect additional intelligence, Defendants and their co-conspirators posed as U.S. persons and contacted U.S. political and social activists. For example, starting in or around June 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators, posing online as U.S. persons, communicated with a real U.S. person affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization. During the exchange, Defendants and their co-conspirators learned from the real U.S. person that they should focus their activities on "purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida." After that exchange, Defendants and their co-conspirators commonly referred to targeting "purple states" in directing their efforts.
Use of U.S. Social Media Platforms
32. Defendants and their co-conspirators, through fraud and deceit, created hundreds of social media accounts and used them to develop certain fictitious U.S. personas into "leader[ s] of public opinion" in the United States.
33. ORGANIZATION employees, referred to as "specialists," were tasked to create social media accounts that appeared to be operated by U.S. persons. The specialists were divided into day-shift and night-shift hours and instructed to make posts in accordance with the appropriate U.S. time zone. The ORGANIZATION also circulated lists of U.S. holidays so that specialists could develop and post appropriate account activity. Specialists were instructed to write about topics germane to the United States such as U.S. foreign policy and U.S. economic issues. Specialists were directed to create "political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements."
34. Defendants and their co-conspirators also created thematic group pages on social media sites, particularly on the social media platforms Facebook and Instagram. ORGANIZATION controlled pages addressed a range of issues, including: immigration (with group names including "Secured Borders"); the Black Lives Matter movement (with group names including "Blacktivist"); religion (with group names including "United Muslims of America" and "Army of Jesus"); and certain geographic regions within the United States (with group names including "South United" and "Heart of Texas"). By 2016, the size of many ORGANIZATION-controlled groups had grown to hundreds of thousands of online followers.

43. 43. By 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used their fictitious online personas to
interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They engaged in operations primarily intended
to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such
as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.
a. On or about February 10, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators internally
circulated an outline of themes for future content to be posted to
ORGANIZATION-controlled social media accounts. Specialists were instructed to
post content that focused on “politics in the USA” and to “use any opportunity to
criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them).”

6.6. Defendant ORGANIZATION had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Defendants posted derogatory information about a number of candidates, and by early to mid-2016, Defendants’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump (“Trump Campaign”) and disparaging Hillary Clinton. Defendants made various expenditures to carry out those activities, including buying political advertisements on social media in the names of U.S. persons and entities. Defendants also staged political rallies inside the United States, and while posing as U.S. grassroots entities and U.S. persons, and without revealing their Russian identities and ORGANIZATION affiliation, solicited and compensated real U.S. persons to promote or disparage candidates. Some Defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities.