Surprisingly, it snowed in Washington, but the temperature rose in the White House. So far, the array of investigations centering on president Donald Trump have been prologue. Now, Chapter One is starting to be written.
The president is alarmed. He Tweets in the middle of the night. “No collusion,” is his daily favorite phrase, with “witch hunt” a close second.
He claims that all alone, free of legal advisors, he has written replies to questions from Special Counsel Robert Mueller about Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and that this ends the Mueller-Trump discourse. Nobody believes the president.
No lawyer would ever allow a client to freelance written answers to investigators. Moreover, the Mueller questions did not relate to what in time may be the central issue of impeachment hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives: Obstruction of justice.
Four distinct threats
As I have previously reported, there are multiple parallel sources of danger for Trump. Right now, he faces four distinct, yet overlapping threats to his political and business fortunes:
- More indictments of former Trump friends by Special Counsel Mueller.
- A series of high-profile court sentences of former Trump associates who have pleaded guilty to assorted crimes.
- A host of investigations to be launched by various committees of the House of Representatives, now that the Democrats have the majority there.
- The determination of New York State’s newly elected attorney-general, Letitia James, to go after Trump after she noted in her victory speech: “New Yorkers, we can spot a con man.”
Mueller takes aim
Washington is awash with rumors that Special Counsel Mueller, who has already issued over 30 indictments against individuals related to his investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign, is about to bring charges against more Trump associates, including just possibly Donald Trump Jr.
Mueller has been investigating whether the Trump campaign was involved in the timing in late 2016 of the publication by Wikileaks of torrents of damaging e-mails from the Hilary Clinton campaign.
A central figure in the inquiry is Roger Stone, an old friend of Trump, and a former partner of Paul Manafort, the one-time 2016 Trump campaign manager, who now faces jail. James Corsi, an associate of Stone, has publicly stated that he expects to be indicted soon. Wikileaks is believed to have obtained the information from Russian hackers.
Related to this inquiry is the pursuit by Mueller of all the events that surrounded a meeting at Trump Tower with Russians said to have close Kremlin ties, involving Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and his brother-in-law Jared Kushner, for the express purpose of securing damaging information on Hilary Clinton.
A volcano of bad publicity
Meanwhile, Trump cannot escape a volcano of bad publicity as his former key associates face judgement in the courts.
On December 12, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former top business lawyer will be sentenced after reaching an extensive plea agreement with prosecutors, which includes the revelation that he lied to Congress about the dealings of the Trump organization in Russia – Cohen now says he was negotiating with top Moscow officials until June 2016 about building a Trump tower building there and he continuously kept Donald Trump and his family informed. Until now, Trump has always said he had no dealings with the Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Cohen has also provided information to prosecutors about the hush money payments he made just before the election for Trump to cover up alleged affairs with two women.
On December 18, Michael Flynn, the former White House national security chief and former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor, will face court sentencing after having pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his various dealings with Russians in 2016.
And, then on February 9, Paul Manafort, who was found guilty by a jury on various charges of fraud and tax evasion, while he also entered into a plea agreement on charges related to the presidential campaign. Now, Mueller has suddenly announced the plea deal is invalid as he claimed Manafort has consistently lied and Mueller will provide full details to support this claim in the courts before long.
Manafort’s deputy as campaign manager and his former business colleague, Rick Gates, is still cooperating with Mueller and his sentencing date has yet to be set. It seems likely that this may coincide with the conclusion of the Mueller investigation and the finalizing of a comprehensive report.
Attempts by the new acting U.S. attorney-general, Matt Whitaker, to stop the public release of the report would likely be challenged by prominent politicians in both houses of Congress and add to the sense of White House crisis.
Trump’s worst nightmare
Indeed, Congressional investigations may prove to be the worst of all of Trump’s impending nightmares. There are many targets and many members of Congress keen to take aim.
They will go after Whitaker himself, who seems to have been selected by Trump solely on the basis of his many previous public statements deriding the Mueller investigation and whose qualifications as America’s top law enforcer are questionable.
Plans are taking shape for a host of investigations led by the Democratic Party majority in the House of Representatives, including: the alleged unethical conflict-of-interest activities of several of Trump’s cabinet members.
These include the secretaries of Interior, Commerce, Environment and possibly Treasury, and the business profits made by the firms that are still controlled by Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, despite both of them being on the government’s payroll as White House advisors.
There is also the issue of expenses for security that the U.S. government has as Donald Trump Jr. travels the world promoting the Trump brand – his trip to India alone is said to have involved around $100,000 in taxpayer cash.
And, of course, there will be several House investigations, including public hearings, which explicitly relate to the alleged multiple connections between the Trump 2016 campaign and Russians, including Trump business dealings.
Letitia James enters the stage
Now, as the curtain goes up on the made-for-Broadway drama, “The Decline and Fall of Donald Trump,” so Letitia James enters the stage.
The first African-American woman to be New York state’s leading prosecutor declared as her election victory was announced: “We can spot a carnival barker. I will shine a light into every dark corner of his real estate dealings, and every dealing.”
It is just plain old good politics for Ms. James to secure as much publicity as she can by targeting Trump and her sights will be on the tax returns that the president refuses to make public, the international sources of funding that the Trump organization has tapped over the years, as well as alleged fraud by the Trump foundation.
All of these events combined will dominate Washington politics for months to come. As the facts emerge and as Trump’s troubles mount, so the number of Democratic Party politicians to announce plans to run for president in the 2020 elections will multiply — but that’s another story.
While GOP Wants Change, the Democratic Donkey in Power Dig in Their Heels
“All the world’s a stage,” proclaimed the hero of a Shakespearean comedy. If we follow this metaphor, presidential elections in America are always a multi-act drama, often turning into a melodrama with elements of tragicomedy and even farce. Major and minor characters perform on the political stage, sudden plot twists are punctuated by various special effects, and culminate in a colorful extravaganza in November of each leap year.
The audience watching the play from inside the theater can only follow the actors’ performances, trying to keep up with the rapid unfolding of the plot’s intricacies, and wonder how the show will end. But unlike the conclusion of a Shakespearean comedy, much depends on the outcome of the US election. So, even if the opening of the show doesn’t herald a stunning display of stagecraft, the world’s attention will be focused on the American political scene in one way or another.
Two categories clearly stand out among audiences of this theater. The first can be conventionally described as political romantics. This group does not demand a reading from the actor, but a complete death in earnest. The romantics always talk about the “historic choice,” about the critical “bifurcation point” in the development of the US, and about the “fateful” significance of this electoral cycle both for America and for the rest of humanity.
Another category are the conventional skeptics. They assume that, for all its splendor and even pomp, the process will make little difference to the lives of Americans, let alone to all the other inhabitants of our planet. Mark Twain, who clearly belonged to the skeptical camp, is credited with perhaps the most emphatic credo of the latter: “If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.”
These two categories are certainly present in Russia. Our romantics always hope that a change of team in the White House will open up new opportunities in relations between our two countries. Today, they assume that there can be no one worse for Russia than the incumbent US president. They remind us that, since Richard Nixon, it has always been easier for Moscow to deal with pragmatic Republicans than with ideological Democrats. They also pay tribute to Donald Trump, generously quoting his recent reassuring statements about Russia.
Skeptics, for their part, stress that American foreign policy has always been bipartisan and that there is a strong negative consensus against Russia in the American political establishment. They also often bring up Trump, but only as a clear illustration of the fact that even a US president who is generally favorable to Moscow is inevitably powerless in the face of the all-powerful ‘deep state’.
Probably both romantics and skeptics have their own truth. But if the skeptics are right in general, the romantics may be sometimes correct. Indeed, there is now a broad and enduring anti-Russian consensus in the US – broader and more enduring than even a similar anti-China consensus. The White House and Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department, the leading media and influential think tanks generally have, if not unified, then very close positions on Moscow, and these positions are unlikely to change even in the medium term.
Nevertheless, any new team in Washington has to distinguish itself from the old one and prove its undeniable superiority over its predecessors. This means new nuances in foreign policy. For example, the Republicans will not abandon military support for Kiev, but they will have to take into account that foreign aid programs have never been popular with voters, especially conservative ones.
It is therefore reasonable to expect that the Republicans will seek to tighten control over how US military and other aid to Ukraine is spent. We can also expect them to push for a “fairer” distribution of the burden of military support for Ukraine between Washington and its European allies.
Moreover, US approaches to Russia should be seen in the broader context of US foreign policy. For example, Democrats have traditionally been much more concerned than their Republican opponents about promoting liberal values around the world. This fixation wins Joe Biden points in predominantly liberal Europe, but creates problems with such important “illiberal” or “not quite liberal” US partners like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, or even India.
A Republican victory would be enthusiastically welcomed in these countries, but would pose a serious challenge to fragile transatlantic unity. These differences, though not radical, need to be taken into account by all international actors, including Russia.
As always, the Republican elephant in opposition today demands change, while the Democratic donkey in power wants things to hold firm. A victory for Biden in next November’s election would mean another four years of the status quo, unless the aging president is forced to leave office before January 2029. A victory for any Republican candidate would trigger a process of revision of policy, creating both new opportunities and new challenges for America and the rest of the world.
From our partner RIAC
US-China: Creeping Escalation
The deterioration of US-China relations has long been a generally recognised trend. Contradictions on specific issues, such as human rights, have been accumulating since the boom in trade between the two countries in the 1990s and 2000s. During the presidency of Barack Obama, the outlook for bilateral ties gradually began to darken against the backdrop of the US pivot to Asia, the situation in the South China Sea, and several incidents in the digital environment. Donald Trump took an even tougher line toward Beijing, directly voicing Washington’s entire list of claims against China.
The high-tech sector has become a key front for containing China. The general line of Washington is to limit the access of Chinese companies to the technologies of the United States and its allies. Such technologies can solve dual-use problems and lead to the subsequent modernisation of the PRC in both the military and civilian sectors. President Joe Biden has continued the prior administration’s protectionist course, which confirms the absence of critical inter-party differences on the issue of relations with China. Another indicator of China’s containment in the field of high technologies is President Biden’s new Executive Order “On Addressing United States Investments in Certain National Security Technologies and Products in Countries of Concern.”
The new Executive Order introduces a National Emergency due to the fact that individual countries use access to US civilian technology to develop their military-industrial complex. In the annex to the Order, China is named as such a country, as well as the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau. The very concept of the National Emergency concept has its own specifics. More than four dozen states of emergency are simultaneously in effect in the United States with regards to various foreign policy issues. The president imposes them on the basis of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977 (IEEPA), which gives the US Commander-in-Chief the ability to use economic sanctions to counter existing threats. That is, a state of emergency is introduced on a selective issue, and serves as the basis to exercise individual powers.
The Executive Order implies at least two innovations. First, the Administration, represented by the State and Commerce Departments, must create a list of foreign persons who are individuals or legal entities from a particular Country of Concern. In this case, from China. Such persons must be connected in one way or another with high-tech transactions mentioned in the Order. In other words, we are talking about creating another list, which, most likely, will name large Chinese technology and industrial companies and, possibly, their leaders or individual employees. Second, US citizens will be required to notify the authorities of certain transactions with these individuals. In addition, a number of other transactions will be prohibited. The list of such transactions must also be determined by the Administration and periodically subject to revision.
The new legal mechanism gives the Administration wide room to limit Chinese companies’ access to US high-tech firms. The flexibility of the mechanism will be determined by the ability to revise the categories of transactions, technologies and foreign entities that are subject to restrictions. At the same time, the mechanism is likely to provide more opportunities, in comparison with the norms that already exist.
Among the previously-imposed restrictions, one can note the prohibition of Americans from buying or selling securities of “Chinese military companies”. The ban was introduced by Donald Trump in November 2020. Biden modified it somewhat, but without major changes. The appendix named the largest Chinese companies in the field of telecommunications, aircraft manufacturing, electronics, etc. Even earlier, in May 2019, Donald Trump declared a National Emergency due to threats to the US telecommunications sector (Executive Order 13873).
The Chinese telecommunications company Huawei and a number of its subsidiaries were included in the Entity List of the US Department of Commerce — it was forbidden to supply certain goods in the field of electronics, including manufactured outside the USA using American technology. In addition, a number of Chinese companies have been placed on the Military End User List (MEU-List). These companies are prohibited from supplying certain items on the US Department of Commerce’s Commerce Control List.
Such restrictions have a negative background: separate legal mechanisms for sanctions against Chinese persons in connection with the situation in Hong Kong, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), etc. In addition, members of Congress periodically propose sanctions bills against China in connection with a variety of reasons, starting from the already familiar topics of human rights and ending with sanctions for possible cooperation with Russia. During the presidency of Joe Biden, none of these projects became law, which does not exclude the adoption of those and other bills in the future.
However, the intensity of US sanctions against China is incomparable to the volume of US restrictions on Russia. So, for example, the number of Chinese persons under blocking US financial sanctions can be measured in the dozens, while the number of Russians already exceeds 1,700. This does not include those persons in respect of whom the so-called “Rule of 50%” is in force, extending blocking sanctions to subsidiaries and controlled enterprises. The same can be said about export controls.
Restrictions against Huawei, the creation of a list of Chinese military companies, and the replenishment of the list of military end users by Chinese enterprises create a media response. But compared to the restrictions against Russia, the sanctions against China are still negligible. It is forbidden to supply almost all dual-use goods, hundreds of industrial goods and “luxury goods” to Russia, including consumer electronics and appliances. Large-scale restrictions on Russian imports and transport sanctions complete the picture. In addition, the United States has managed to build an impressive coalition of sanctions allies against Russia, while it is much more difficult to create such a coalition against China.
However, there is no guarantee that Beijing will not face a similar scenario in the future. Back in 2016, publications cautioning about possible US sanctions against China presented an unlikely scenario. However, the situation in the early 2020s is already significantly different from that reality. The United States and China assume the irreversibility of confrontation, but for their own reasons, they delay its escalation. This does not mean that sooner or later there will not be a landslide fall in relations. Predicting exactly the timing and scale of such a fall is as difficult as was predicting a crisis in relations between Russia and the West. In the meantime, there is a gradual accumulation of restrictive measures, one of which was Biden’s new Executive Order. The creeping nature of the escalation gives Beijing time to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
From our partner RIAC
Quad foreign ministers meet in New York for the third time
Quad foreign ministers met in New York for the second time this year and the seventh time since 2019. The four-nation grouping’s ambit of cooperation has clearly expanded and diversified over the years. What were the key talking points this time? I analyse.
The foreign ministers of India, Japan, Australia and the United States – four key maritime democracies in the Indo-Pacific – met on the sidelines of the 78th annual session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York on September 22. This was their seventh meeting since 2019 and the second of 2023. Notably, exactly four years ago, this four-nation Quad was raised to the foreign ministers’ level amid a UNGA session. Earlier in 2023, the ministers met in March on the sidelines of the G20 ministerial in New Delhi and in May, this year, the Quad leaders’ summit was hosted by Japan on the sidelines of the G7 summit. Having met twice in 2022 as well, the ministers congregated six times in person and virtually once so far.
The previous ministerial in New Delhi saw the four-nation grouping making a reference to an extra-regional geopolitical issue for the first time – Ukraine – and also the initiation of a new Working Group mechanism on counter-terrorism, a key agenda item for India and the United States, among other themes of discussion. Following the seventh meeting, India’s foreign minister Dr S. Jaishankar tweeted, “Always value our collective contribution to doing global good”, while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken remarked that the grouping is “vital to our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, and together we reaffirmed our commitment to uphold the purposes and principles of the UN Charter”.
Diversifying ambit of cooperation
The ministers have clearly doubled down on the commitments taken during their previous deliberations, particularly to improve capacity-building for regional players. The joint statement that followed the meeting read, “The Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness is supporting regional partners combat illicit maritime activities and respond to climate-related and humanitarian events.” Similarly, the Working Group on maritime security promised “practical and positive outcomes” for the region. Prior to the recent ministerial, the Working Group on counter-terrorism conducted a Consequence Management Exercise that “explored the capabilities and support Quad countries could offer regional partners in response to a terrorist attack”, the joint readout mentions.
Later this year, the U.S. island state of Hawaii will host the Counter-terrorism Working Group’s meeting and tabletop exercise, which will focus on countering the use of emerging technologies for terrorist activities, while the Working Group on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) will be convened in Australia’s Brisbane for its second tabletop exercise. Earlier in August, this year, all four Quad navies participated in Exercise Malabar for the fourth consecutive year, off Sydney, the first hosted by Australia. However, as in previous meetings, the ministers didn’t specifically mention Russia or China with regard to the situations in Ukraine and maritime east Asia respectively.
On the Ukraine question, the ministers expressed their “deep concern”, taking note of its “terrible and tragic humanitarian consequences” and called for “comprehensive, just, and lasting peace”. In a veiled reference to Russia, the ministers rebuffed the “use, or threat of use, of nuclear weapons”, underscoring the respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, and called for the resumption of the UN-brokered Black Sea Grain Initiative, which allows for the export of food grains and fertilizers from Ukraine to world markets via a maritime humanitarian corridor, amid the ongoing conflict with Russia.
Similarly, in another veiled reference to continuing Chinese belligerence and lawfare in maritime east Asia, the ministers stressed upon the need to adhere to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and to maintain “freedom of navigation and overflight consistent with UNCLOS”, reiterating their “strong opposition to any unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo by force or coercion”, including with respect to maritime claims in the South and East China Seas. Going further ahead, the ministers expressed their concern on “the militarisation of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard and maritime militia vessels, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore exploitation activities”. The joint readout also had mentions of North Korea and Myanmar.
The evident and the inferred
Today, almost all the areas of cooperation of Quad countries happen to be the areas of strategic competition with China, the rapid rise of which necessitated the coming together of the four nations, even though this is not openly acknowledged. In this new great game unfolding in the Indo-Pacific, the U.S.-led Quad is trying to balance China’s overwhelming initiatives to capture the support of smaller and middle powers in the region and around the world. Placid initiatives such as the Open Radio Access Network, the private sector-led Investors Network, Cybersecurity Partnership, Cable Connectivity Partnership and the Pandemic Preparedness Exercises should be read in this context.
With the rise of Quad in parallel with the rise of China and other minilateral groupings in the Indo-Pacific such as the AUKUS (a grouping of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States), the existing regional framework based on the slow-moving, consensus-based Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was put to test. However, allaying all doubts, Quad deliberations at both the ministerial and summit levels continued to extend their support to ASEAN’s centrality in the region and also for the ASEAN-led regional architecture that also includes the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum. Despite somewhat differing regional outlooks, the Quad likes to see itself as “complementary” to the ASEAN, rather than an “alternative” to its pan-regional influence.
India, the only non-ally of the U.S. in the Quad, will host the fourth in-person Quad leaders’ summit in 2024. The Asian giant is often dubbed as the weakest link in the grouping, owing to its friendly ties with Russia, but other members intent to keep India’s bilateral equations with other countries away from the interior dynamics of the grouping, signalling an acknowledgement of India’s growing geopolitical heft in the region and beyond. This seems to be subtly reflected in the stance taken by individual Quad members in the recent India-Canada diplomatic row, in which they made sure not to provoke New Delhi or to touch upon sensitive areas, even though a fellow Western partner is involved on the other side.
|Quad Foreign Ministers Meeting||Month & Year||Venue|
|First||September 2019||New York|
|Fifth||September 2022||New York|
|Sixth||March 2023||New Delhi|
|Seventh||September 2023||New York|
NB:- All three Quad ministerials in New York were held on the sidelines of the respective annual sessions of the UN General Assembly i.e., the first, the fifth, and the seventh meetings.
On the multilateral front, the four ministers reaffirmed their support for the UN, the need to uphold “mutually determined rules, norms, and standards, and to deepen Quad’s cooperation in the international system, and also batted for a comprehensive reform of the UN, including the expansion of permanent and non-permanent seats in the Security Council. While China and Russia, two powerful permanent members of the Security Council, continue to denounce the Quad as an “exclusionary bloc”, the Quad ministers and leaders tend to tone down any security role for the grouping.
However, a recent comment made by Vice Admiral Karl Thomas of the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet during this year’s Exercise Malabar is noteworthy. He said the war games were “not pointed toward any one country”, rather it would improve the ability of the four forces to work with each other and “the deterrence that our four nations provide as we operate together as a Quad is a foundation for all the other nations operating in this region”. Even in the absence of a security treaty, in a way he hinted at the grouping’s desire to cherish its collective strength across all fronts and to check on hegemonic tendencies that may manifest in the region from time to time.
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