Monday, June 5, 2017

Last Call For Trump Cards, Con't

So it turns out that everyone really was expecting Donald Trump to reaffirm America's military commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, the mutual military defense part of the agreement that has only been invoked once, after 9/11. Only Trump changed the speech himself at the last minute and left that part out on purpose.

When President Donald Trump addressed NATO leaders during his debut overseas trip little more than a week ago, he surprised and disappointed European allies who hoped—and expected—he would use his speech to explicitly reaffirm America’s commitment to mutual defense of the alliance’s members, a one-for-all, all-for-one provision that looks increasingly urgent as Eastern European members worry about the threat from a resurgent Russia on their borders.

That part of the Trump visit is known. 
What’s not is that the president also disappointed—and surprised—his own top national security officials by failing to include the language reaffirming the so-called Article 5 provision in his speech. National security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all supported Trump doing so and had worked in the weeks leading up to the trip to make sure it was included in the speech, according to five sources familiar with the episode. They thought it was, and a White House aide even told The New York Times the day before the line was definitely included.


The president appears to have deleted it himself, according to one version making the rounds inside the government, reflecting his personal skepticism about NATO and insistence on lecturing NATO allies about spending more on defense rather than offering reassurances of any sort; another version relayed to others by several White House aides is that Trump’s nationalist chief strategist Steve Bannon and policy aide Stephen Miller played a role in the deletion. (According to NSC spokesman Michael Anton, who did not dispute this account, “The president attended the summit to show his support for the NATO alliance, including Article 5. His continued effort to secure greater defense commitments from other nations is making our alliance stronger.”) 
Either way, the episode suggests that what has been portrayed—correctly—as a major rift within the 70-year-old Atlantic alliance is also a significant moment of rupture inside the Trump administration, with the president withholding crucial information from his top national security officials—and then embarrassing them by forcing them to go out in public with awkward, unconvincing, after-the-fact claims that the speech really did amount to a commitment they knew it did not make.

In the end Trump always throws his employees under the bus.  Always.  And he did this not out of "skepticism" but because it directly benefited his actual patron, Vladimir Putin.

So yes, he sandbagged his own foreign policy team on this.  Makes you wonder what else he's screwed his cabinet picks over with, and maybe it explains why he still can't find anyone willing to be FBI Director after more than a month and why scores of cabinet positions at the senior level remain unfilled.

After all if Trump just ignores their advice and does things because of "instinct" who needs advisers, cabinet members, and their deputies and support staff?

Not Trump. He doesn't need anyone.

But Vlad.

Conn Baby Gone

The big story here in Kentucky today is the disappearance of Eric Conn, the trial lawyer who plead guilty earlier this year to more than a half-billion in Social Security fraud and was facing 12 years in federal prison.  Under house arrest, it seems Conn took off his monitoring device and fled the country.

The FBI office in Louisville issued a press release saying Conn had removed his electronic monitoring device in violation of his bond and that authorities didn’t know where he was. 
Conn pleaded guilty to stealing from the Social Security Administration and paying bribes to a judge to rubber-stamp disability claims for thousands of his clients. Conn remained free on bond pending his sentencing next month, but a judge had ordered him to be on home detention with electronic monitoring. 
Conn faced up to 12 years in prison. He had also been ordered to pay more than $80 million — $5.7 million to repay fraudulent earnings; $46.5 million to the Social Security Administration; and $31 million to the government and two whistleblowers who helped expose his wrongdoing and their attorneys. 
After Conn was arrested in April 2016, prosecutors argued he should have to stay in jail pending trial, partly because of the risk that he could flee.

Employees in Conn’s office had heard him say he would flee to Cuba or Ecuador to avoid criminal charges, and Conn had wired substantial sums of money out of the country at times, an FBI agent testified at one hearing. 
“If he were to leave, to cross a border, he could go to wherever he has stashed some money and flee,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Trey Alford said at the time. 
Conn’s attorneys pointed out that he had not fled even though he’d known for years that he was under investigation, and that he had substantial ties to home, including his elderly mother and teen daughter. 
U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert E. Wier allowed Conn out of jail but set a number of conditions, including home detention with GPS monitoring at his large house in Pikeville. Wier also required Conn to pledge his home to secure a $1.25 million bond and to surrender his passport. 
Conn said at the time that he was not a threat to skip town. 
“Your trust is not misplaced,” he told Wier. 
The court issued an arrest warrant for Conn Saturday after he disappeared, according to the release from FBI chief counsel David Habich.

Despite the fact that the guy's name is literally "Conn" and he defrauded the government for nine figures, it amazes me that you get more prison time for carjacking a rusted out Dodge pickup than stealing half of one billion dollars, but that's America for you.  Meanwhile, maybe the Louisville FBI ought to figure out how this guy got away.

It's almost criminal.

Qatar Pin, Linchpin, Grenade Pin, Boom

That "major diplomatic crisis beyond Trump's control" scenario has just happened, and of course it involves America's Gulf State allies in the Middle East.  There are several players in the region, but Monday's meltdown involves natural gas-rich Qatar, and it looks like the Saudis believe they have the green light to squeeze Iran's Shiite allies in the region.

Saudi Arabia and three other Arab countries cut off most diplomatic and economic ties to Qatar, in an unprecedented move designed to punish one of the region’s financial superpowers for its ties with Iran and Islamist groups in the region.

Oil gained and Qatari stocks plunged after Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt said they will suspend air and sea travel to and from the Gulf emirate. Saudi Arabia will also shut land crossings with its neighbor, potentially depriving the emirate of imports through its only land border. Qatar called the accusations “baseless” and said they were part of a plan to “impose guardianship on the state, which in itself is a violation of sovereignty.”

Qatar is one of the world’s richest countries and of strategic importance, being the biggest producer of liquefied natural gas. A country with a population smaller than Houston, its $335 billion sovereign wealth fund holds stakes in companies from Barclays Plc and Credit Suisse Group. It also hosts the forward headquarters of CENTCOM, the U.S. military’s central command in the Middle East.

Emboldened by warmer U.S. ties under President Donald Trump, the Saudi-led alliance is seeking to stamp out any opposition to forming a united front against Shiite-ruled Iran. And while Monday’s escalation is unlikely to hurt energy exports from the Gulf, it threatens to have far-reaching effects on Qatar.

Air, sea, and land travel has been cut off to Qatar and its capital of Doha as well. All this started over -- surprise! -- an email leak between the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the US and several US foreign policy figures from the Obama and Dubya administrations complaining about Qatar's frenemy the UAE being allowed to get away with things that no other Gulf State could.

An unnamed source who late last week leaked emails between a powerful ambassador and top figures in the U.S. foreign policy community shared a fresh batch of private messages with HuffPost on Sunday just hours before a new Middle East crisis erupted.

The new dump appears to contain messages between the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba and top members of the Obama administration as well as figures at the Atlantic Council, an influential Washington think tank that receives funding from the Emirates, and Elliott Abrams, a prominent official in former President George W. Bush’s administration who is popular among some Trump administration officials.

Late Sunday, Otaiba’s nation, the UAE, and three other U.S.-friendly countries ― Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain ― announced that they had severed ties with their neighbor Qatar, a wealthy nation which hosts the largest American military facility in the region. The weekend email dump shows the ambassador and others privately blasting Qatar.

The dramatic change in diplomatic ties came after a leak of messages that showed Otaiba communicating with former Defense Secretary Bob Gates and prominent alumni of the Bush and Obama teams about his disdain for Qatar, his desire to shut down the U.S. military base there and his support for public criticism of the country. The stream of leaks also showed the level of tension among U.S. partners despite President Donald Trump’s recent visit to the Middle East and the scale of a campaign targeting one of the most important diplomats in the U.S.

In a message accompanying the latest dump, the source claimed the emails were meant to expose how moneyed foreigners hijack U.S. foreign policy to their own benefit and Americans’ loss. The source had previously denied any ties to Qatar. HuffPost has confirmed the authenticity of six of the email exchanges.

Qatar has long positioned itself as Shiite mediator between the Sunni Muslim states led by Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, because of its position in the region, its wealth, and its diplomacy.  The United Arab Emirates is the other side of that coin, only favoring the Sunni side.  The US happily helps out both countries as a result, and so far it's been nothing personal, just business (and business is good).

All that just disintegrated over these email leaks.

These leaks show a concerted effort by Qatar to slag the Emirati Ambassador to the US, while Qatar is saying that all the Iranian terror support is fake news, and in return the rest of the Gulf States have now considered Qatar a terrorist state (which is hysterically funny and awful once you recall that Saudi Arabia's militant Wahhabi faction of Muslim fundamentalists are pretty much terrorist factories.)

There's way more going on here than on the surface, and the US has multiple military, academic and corporate interests among all the Gulf States.  Having to take sides here when threading a series of needles is necessary is going to be bad enough, but let's remember our State Department is criminally understaffed, led by a oil executive who was hired by an idiot luxury hotelier who can't even keep his own hotels open.

In other words, the odds of this becoming a spectacular and bloody mess is extremely high. It's one thing for Qatar and the UAE to be in the middle of a fight, but it's entirely another for everyone to suddenly call Qatar an ISIS terrorist state and shut the place down.  And the bulk of the military forces in Qatar belong to...the US.  We have a nice little base outside Doha. Qatar says it's the victim here.  What happens to the US military in Qatar? What about the 5th Fleet US Naval HQ in neighboring Bahrain?

Absolutely nothing good can come from this.  This is going to get Middle East-ugly at wildfire-level speed, and Donald Trump is the US leader at the helm right now.

Good luck, and buckle the hell up, kids.  None of this makes sense, and it's moving way too quickly to contain.  Trump better figure it out or we're going to have an open shooting war on the Saudi Peninsula.

Of course, the larger issue goes back to Qatar being the largest producer of natural gas.  Qatar has long wanted a pipeline through Syria to sell its product in Europe.  The war in Syria has made that pipeline impossible for years.  And guess who's currently the biggest natural gas dealer to Europe right now?

Our friend Vlad.  So what if wrecking the Qatari ambition for a pipeline becomes the price Doha has to pay to get back in the Gulf States country club?

Remember, this all started days after Trump's Middle East trip to Riyadh. Qatar being completely cut off, unable to move natural gas at all, would be a huge help to the Russians and OPEC.  Heavy tension in the region would certainly start to push oil prices up.  Everyone would benefit.

Except for, you know, American consumers.

Just looking at the chessboard a few moves ahead, and I'm not liking what I'm seeing.  But off we go.


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