Trump Shifts Course on Egypt, Praising Its Authoritarian Leader

Ever since he seized power in a military takeover nearly four years ago, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt has been barred from the White House. But President Trump made clear on Monday that the period of ostracism was over as he hosted Mr. Sisi and pledged unstinting support for the autocratic ruler.

“We agree on so many things,” Mr. Trump said as he sat beside Mr. Sisi in the Oval Office. “I just want to let everybody know in case there was any doubt that we are very much behind President el-Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt. The United States has, believe me, backing, and we have strong backing.”

In that one moment, Mr. Trump underscored a fundamental shift in American foreign policy since he took office. While his predecessors considered authoritarians like Mr. Sisi to be distasteful and at times shied away from them, Mr. Trump signaled that he sees international relations through a transactional lens. If Egypt can be a partner in the battle against international terrorism, then in Mr. Trump’s calculation, that is more important to the United States than concerns over its brutal suppression of domestic dissent.

Nothing could have made Mr. Sisi happier. He arrived from Cairo with a list of financial, security and political requests, but effectively he got what he really wanted in the six minutes that news media photographers were permitted in the Oval Office to record the visit that President Barack Obama had denied him. The picture of the general-turned-president in the White House, hosted by an American leader lavishing praise on him, was the seal of approval he had long craved, the validation of a strongman on the world’s most prominent stage.

That big hug was just what Mr. Sisi’s government sought, said Eric Trager, a scholar on Egypt at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It wants to see the White House legitimate it, and set it on a new course.”

The scene provided a powerful counterpoint to Mr. Sisi’s many critics, in Egypt and abroad, who know him as the leader of the military takeover that removed an elected president, oversaw a vicious security operation in which hundreds of protesters were gunned down in the streets of Cairo and has cemented his authority by filling prisons with his opponents while strangling the free press.

It was the first visit by an Egyptian president to Washington since 2009, when the guest was the autocratic former president Hosni Mubarak, then in the waning years of his rule — an era now viewed by many Egyptians as a time of relative freedom, prosperity and security. Mr. Mubarak was pushed out in 2011 by a wave of street protests and succeeded, in a democratic election, by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. Taking advantage of popular discontent with Mr. Morsi two years later, the military, led by Mr. Sisi, then a general, took power and Mr. Sisi became president in a pro forma election that awarded him 97 percent of the vote.

Little of that seems to matter to Mr. Trump, though, who has showcased his determination to reshape America’s relationship with a number of Middle Eastern countries, regardless of human rights concerns. In his public remarks on Monday, Mr. Trump made no mention of such issues; aides said he believed discussing them in private might be more effective.

“I just want to say to you, Mr. President, that you have a great friend and ally in the United States and in me,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Sisi.

Mr. Sisi responded in kind, sometimes in language mimicking a Trumpian sales pitch. “You will find Egypt and myself always beside you in bringing about an effective strategy in the counterterrorism effort,” he said. He also vowed to support Mr. Trump’s effort to negotiate peace between Israelis and Palestinians, calling it an effort to “find a solution to the problem of the century in the deal of the century.”

While Egypt has long been a crucial American ally in the Middle East, Mr. Trump’s admiration for Mr. Sisi seems to mirror in some ways his appreciation for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia as a fellow tough figure. After their first meeting in September, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly when Mr. Trump was running for president, he hailed Mr. Sisi as “a fantastic guy” and spoke admiringly of his iron-fisted methods. “He took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with Fox Business Network.

Mr. Sisi has rejected suggestions that he rules like a dictator. Speaking to The Financial Times in December, he said he was “building love between Egyptians, a wave of respect for the other that will start in Cairo and spread across the region.”

Yet as he was preparing to meet Mr. Trump on Monday, a court in Cairo sentenced 17 people to jail terms of five years each for taking part in street protests in January 2015.

In Rome, the parents of Giulio Regeni, an Italian postgraduate student found dead in Cairo last year, held a news conference to press their longstanding accusations that Egyptian security officials had abducted, tortured and killed their son, probably on suspicion that he was a spy. The family’s lawyer, Alessandra Ballerini, said they had identified two high-ranking Egyptian national security officials said to be implicated in the case, but declined to give further details.

Beyond a shared love for harsh rhetoric warning against the dangers of jihadist Islam, Mr. Trump has striking similarities with Mr. Sisi’s brand of authoritarianism in Egypt, according to Middle East analysts. Both leaders came to power promising splashy projects derided by experts — an expensive extension of the Suez Canal for Mr. Sisi, and a giant wall along the Mexico border for Mr. Trump. In speeches, both leaders have been ridiculed for making exaggerated claims, embracing conspiracy theories and speaking in a limited rhetorical style.

Egyptians also often mock Mr. Sisi for speaking in a rustic form of Arabic that contrasts with the formal version usually favored by national leaders. Mr. Trump has the grammar and vocabulary of a fifth-grade student, one study last year found.

Both leaders are notoriously thin-skinned and project a sense of unfiltered self-regard. In recent months, Mr. Trump branded critics in the “fake news” media as the “enemy of the American people”; last year, in a fit of exasperation, Mr. Sisi told Egyptians, “Please, do not listen to anyone but me!”

Yet in many other ways there are vast differences between their styles. While Mr. Trump wrestles with a hostile media and recalcitrant factions in his Republican party, Mr. Sisi’s government has imprisoned dozens of journalists — fewer only than China and Turkey, according to press freedom groups — while the national Parliament is stuffed with his supporters.

It remains far from clear what the two leaders can offer each other in concrete terms. Mr. Sisi has resisted loud appeals to release Aya Hijazi, an American aid worker imprisoned in Egypt, while Mr. Trump’s White House is considering slashing foreign aid to countries including Egypt’s $1.3 billion in military assistance. The Trump administration also appears to have gone cold on proposals to designate the country’s Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

While human rights advocates criticized Mr. Trump, a lawyer for Ms. Hijazi said her supporters had been working with his administration to highlight her case and those of others held. “We are confident that the case is being prioritized at the highest levels of the United States government,” said the lawyer, Wade McMullen, managing attorney at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, an advocacy center.

One thing Mr. Sisi desperately wants, according to Western officials in Cairo, is for Mr. Trump to reinstate a military financing deal, suspended under Mr. Obama in 2015, allowing Egypt to effectively buy, on credit, the tanks, warplanes and other large-ticket military items it desires. Such a deal would give Mr. Sisi something to bring home to his backers in the military.

But experts say that while a military finance deal might please American defense contractors, it could frustrate American counterterrorism goals by making Egypt less likely to pour resources into smaller weapons that are better suited to battling Islamic State insurgents in Sinai.

“If Trump is really interested in getting the Egyptians to fight radical Islam, giving them more tanks will not help our goals,” said Amy Hawthorne of the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington nonprofit that has been sharply critical of Mr. Sisi.

Some experts worry that Mr. Sisi’s hard-knuckled approach to Islamism — banning all forms of political Islam, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as fighting jihadist violence — could ultimately feed a new wellspring of radicalism that could blow back on the United States.

“The authoritarian bargain the U.S. has struck with Egypt might seem to be the right thing, but it never pays off in the long run,” Ms. Hawthorne said. “It’s not just about being on the wrong side of history, but about over-investing in a regime that is fueling radicalization that will ultimately harm U.S. interests.”

(h/t New York Times)

Reality

This isn’t the first time Donald Trump praised other authoritarian leaders while calling the democratically elected officials in Congress and the White House “weak.”

  • After receiving praise from Vladimir Putin, Trump showed lots of love for the authoritarian Russian President in return saying he’ll get along fine with him.
  • Praised North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un on how well he killed all of his uncles in order to take power.
  • In the midst of a brutal civil war where authoritarian Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, Trump was kind enough to give Bashar a grade of ‘A’ for leadership.
  • During the CNN-Telemundo Republican candidates’ debate in February that while Gaddafi was “really bad,” his tactics were effective and we would be so much better off if Gaddafi were in charge.
  • Trump tweeted a quote from former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. When asked about being associated with a fascist Trump responded what difference does it make if it was Mussolini or somebody else — it’s a very good quote.
  • And Trump has a history of praising Saddam Hussein in interviews and at rallies.

Gadhafi, Hussein, Bashar, Un, and Putin all have committed atrocities against their own people and were among the world’s worst human rights abusers.

Former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort ‘Offered to Help Putin’

Paul Manafort is said to have proposed a strategy to nullify anti-Russian opposition across former Soviet republics a decade ago.

AP says documents and interviews support its claims about Mr Manafort.

Mr Manafort has insisted that he never worked for Russian interests.

He worked as Mr Trump’s unpaid campaign chairman from March until August last year, including the period during which the flamboyant New York billionaire clinched the Republican nomination.

He resigned after AP revealed that he had co-ordinated a secret Washington lobbying operation on behalf of Ukraine’s ruling pro-Russian political party until 2014.

Newly obtained business records link Mr Manafort more directly to Mr Putin’s interests in the region, AP says.

It comes as Trump campaign advisers are the subject of an FBI investigation and two congressional inquiries.

Investigators are reviewing whether the Trump campaign and its associates co-ordinated with Moscow to interfere in the 2016 presidential election campaign to damage Mr Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, a stern critic of Mr Putin.

Mr Manafort is said to have pitched the plans to aluminium magnate Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of President Putin.

In a confidential strategy plan in 2005, AP reports, Mr Manafort proposed to influence politics, business dealings and news coverage in the US, Europe and the ex-Soviet republics to advance the interests of the Putin government.

At this time, US-Russia relations were deteriorating.

“We are now of the belief that this model can greatly benefit the Putin government if employed at the correct levels with the appropriate commitment to success,” Mr Manafort is said to have written, adding that it would be offering “a great service that can refocus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government”.

Mr Manafort signed a $10m-a-year contract beginning in 2006, AP reports. How much work he did under this contract was unclear.

Mr Manafort and Mr Deripaska reportedly maintained a business relationship until at least 2009.

When Donald Trump picked Paul Manafort to be his campaign chair last March, the political operative was a relatively minor player in Washington, consigned to working for deep-pocketed foreign benefactors. That those benefactors have turned out to include Russian oligarchs and Ukrainian politicians with ties to Vladimir Putin is sure to cause growing concern in the Trump White House.

Now it appears increasingly likely that Mr Manafort is one of the “individuals associated with the Trump campaign”, in Director James Comey’s words, at the heart of an ongoing FBI investigation.

This would explain why White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer recently downplayed Mr Manafort’s connections to the Trump team, saying he “played a very limited role” in the campaign for “a very limited amount of time”.

Mr Manafort could face legal consequences if the FBI concludes that he did not properly disclose his work for foreign leaders. That would at the very least prove embarrassing for Mr Trump, given the power he delegated to Mr Manafort last summer.

If it turns out that Mr Manafort’s contacts with foreign interests continued during his time at the top of the Trump campaign, the situation for the White House could go from embarrassing to full-blown scandal.

In a statement to AP, Mr Manafort confirmed that he had worked for Mr Deripaska in several countries but insisted the work was being unfairly cast as “inappropriate or nefarious” as part of a “smear campaign”.

“I worked with Oleg Deripaska almost a decade ago representing him on business and personal matters in countries where he had investments,” Mr Manafort said in the statement.

“My work for Mr Deripaska did not involve representing Russian political interests.”

A spokesman for Mr Deripaska in Moscow declined to answer questions from AP.

Further allegations have been made in Ukraine about secret funds said to have been paid to Mr Manafort.

Lawmaker Serhiy Leshchenko said he had evidence that Mr Manafort had tried to hide a payment of $750,000 (£600,800) by a pro-Russian party in 2009.

Mr Manafort’s spokesman said the claim was “baseless”.

Mr Manafort was an adviser to Ukraine’s ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, but denies receiving any cash payments.

(h/t BBC)

New Documents Show Paul Manafort Laundered Payments From Party With Moscow Ties

A Ukrainian lawmaker released new financial documents Tuesday allegedly showing that a former campaign chairman for President Trump laundered payments from the party of a disgraced ex-leader of Ukraine using offshore accounts in Belize and Kyrgyzstan.

The new documents, if legitimate, stem from business ties between the Trump aide, Paul Manafort, and the party of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who enjoyed Moscow’s backing while he was in power. He has been in hiding in Russia since being overthrown by pro-Western protesters in 2014, and is wanted in Ukraine on corruption charges.

The latest documents were released just hours after the House Intelligence Committee questioned FBI Director James B. Comey about possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow. The hearing that also touched on Manafort’s work for Yanukovych’s party in Ukraine.

Comey declined to say whether the FBI is coordinating with Ukraine on an investigation of the alleged payments to Manafort.

Manafort, who worked for Yanukovych’s Party of Regions for nearly a decade, resigned from Trump’s campaign in August after his name surfaced in connection with secret payments totaling $12.7 million by Yanukovych’s party. Manafort has denied receiving those, listed in the party’s “black ledger.”

Serhiy Leshchenko, a lawmaker and journalist, released a copy of an invoice on letterhead from Manafort’s consulting company, based in Alexandria, Va., dated Oct. 14, 2009, to a Belize-based company for $750,000 for the sale of 501 computers.

On the same day, Manafort’s name is listed next to a $750,000 entry in the “black ledger,” which was considered a party slush fund. The list was found at the party headquarters in the turmoil after Ukraine’s 2014 revolution. The ledger entries about Manafort were released by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, a government law enforcement agency, last August.

Leshchenko alleges that Manafort falsified an invoice to the Belize company to legitimize the $750,000 payment to himself.

“I have found during this investigation that [Manafort] used offshore jurisdictions and falsified invoices to get money from the corrupt Ukrainian leader,” Leshchenko said during a news conference in downtown Kiev, where he provided a copy of the invoice to journalists.

He said he received the invoices and other documents in January from the new tenants of Manafort’s former offices in downtown Kiev. The documents were left behind in a safe, he said, adding that Manafort’s signature and his company seal were proof that the documents were authentic.

Leshchenko said he was not aware of any formal Ukrainian investigation of the documents. He declined to comment on whether he had discussed the documents with U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Nazar Kholodnytskyi, a deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine whose department specializes in corruption cases, said in an interview on Tuesday that the documents hadn’t been confirmed by law enforcement or, to his knowledge, submitted for examination. There is an ongoing investigation into the black ledgers, he said, but Manafort was not a target of that investigation.

Manafort has previously accused Leshchenko of blackmailing him by threatening to release harmful information about his financial relationship with Yanukovych. That correspondence between Leshchenko and Manafort’s daughter was released in February as the result of a purported cyberhack. Leshchenko has called the exchange a forgery.

Manafort was involved in crafting the political strategy that brought Yanukovych to power after a crushing defeat in the 2004 elections. Yanukovych’s party has been accused of ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, particularly through wealthy oligarchs from the country’s east with interests in both Russia and Ukraine.

(h/t Washington Post)

Trump Met Russian Ambassador at Reception During Campaign

President Donald Trump met last April with the Russian ambassador at the center of a pair of controversies over engagement between Trump allies and the Kremlin, despite claims by his spokeswoman that he had “zero” involvement with Russian officials during the campaign.

Attention to Trump’s encounter with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak resurfaced after revelations last week that at least five members of Trump’s campaign team — including Attorney General Jeff Sessions — had contact with Kislyak before Trump took office.

The federal government has launched multiple investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and potential contacts between Moscow and the Trump campaign.

Trump met Kislyak during a VIP reception April 27, 2016, at the Mayflower Hotel shortly before a foreign policy address, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. In the speech, Trump said an “easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia” is possible.

The Wall Street Journal article, published May 13, 2016, reported Trump “warmly greeted Mr. Kislyak and three other foreign ambassadors who came to the reception.”

White House officials described the encounter as brief and non-substantive, saying that Trump only attended the reception for five minutes and that multiple foreign ambassadors were present.

The Center for the National Interest, a nonprofit that hosted Trump’s speech, said that it invited Kislyak to attend and sat him in the front row of the audience with three other foreign ambassadors. “The Trump campaign had nothing to do with the seating arrangement,” the group said in a statement posted on its website on Wednesday.

No Recollection

The center said it invited the ambassadors to a “short reception” preceding Trump’s speech with about two dozen guests, who formed a receiving line for Trump.

“The line moved quickly and any conversations with Mr. Trump in that setting were inherently brief and could not be private,” the group said. “Our recollection is that the interaction between Mr. Trump and Ambassador Kislyak was limited to the polite exchange of pleasantries appropriate on such occasions.”

One of the White House officials said in a statement e-mailed on condition of anonymity that campaign staffers who were at the event “have no recollection of who he may have shaken hands with at the reception and we were not responsible for inviting or vetting guests. To state they met or that a meeting took place is disingenuous and absurd.”

But the meeting is at odds with White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders’ claim last week that Trump had “no interaction” with Russian government officials during the campaign.

“The big point here is the president himself knows what his involvement was, and that’s zero,” Sanders told reporters on March 3. “And I think that he’s the primary person that should be held responsible, and he had no interaction, and I think that’s what the story should be focused on.”

The encounter between Trump and Kislyak is in keeping with routine work by foreign diplomats who often seek contact with presidential campaigns of both parties during election season in order to report back analysis of potential impact to their governments.

Renewed Scrutiny

But the White House has come under renewed scrutiny over ties between campaign officials and Russia.

Sessions, who said during his confirmation hearings that he hadn’t had contact with Russian officials, acknowledged last week that he met the Russian ambassador twice during the election year, in response to media reporting on the meetings. He later recused himself from any Justice Department investigation into the Trump presidential campaign and amended his prior Senate testimony.

Last month, former national security adviser Mike Flynn resigned after it was revealed he misled senior administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about the content of his conversations with Kislyak.

The White House has also said Kislyak met with Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.

Trump himself has dismissed allegations of improper ties with Russia as “a ruse.”

“I have nothing to do with Russia. Haven’t made a phone call to Russia in years. Don’t speak to people from Russia,” he said during a February press conference.

(h/t Bloomburg)

Trump Campaign Approved Adviser’s Trip to Moscow

Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski approved foreign policy adviser Carter Page’s now-infamous trip to Moscow last summer on the condition that he would not be an official representative of the campaign, according to a former campaign adviser.

A few weeks before he traveled to Moscow to give a July 7 speech, Page asked J.D. Gordon, his supervisor on the campaign’s National Security Advisory Committee, for permission to make the trip, and Gordon strongly advised against it, Gordon, a retired naval officer, told POLITICO.

Page then emailed Lewandowski and spokeswoman Hope Hicks asking for formal approval, and was told by Lewandowski that he could make the trip, but not as an official representative of the campaign, the former campaign adviser said. The adviser spoke on the condition of anonymity because he has not been authorized to discuss internal campaign matters.

The trip is now a focus of congressional and FBI investigations into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election.

Lewandowski told POLITICO he did not recall the email exchange with Page, but he did not deny that it occurred.

“Is it possible that he emailed me asking if he could go to Russia as a private citizen?” Lewandowski said Tuesday. “I don’t remember that, but I probably got 1,000 emails a day at that time, and I can’t remember every single one that I was sent. And I wouldn’t necessarily remember if I had a one-word response to him saying he could do something as a private citizen.”

Hicks declined to comment. But a former campaign official said campaign officials did not discuss Page’s planned trip before he left for Moscow.

“No one discussed the trip within the campaign and certainly not with candidate Trump directly,” said the former campaign official.

The official pointed to a July statement from Hicks that declared that Page was in Moscow in a private capacity and was not representing the campaign. That statement came in response to media reports from Moscow about Page’s presence there.

Both Lewandowski and the White House official cast Page as a minor character on the periphery of the campaign, who was a foreign policy adviser in name only.

“I’ve never met or spoken to Carter Page in my life,” Lewandowski said.

Gordon and Page had no comment on whether the Trump campaign officially sanctioned the trip, which has drawn the attention of investigators from the FBI and congressional committees investigating possible Trump campaign ties with Russian officials before the election.

And while Page has repeatedly denied wrongdoing in connection with his Moscow visit, it is now drawing increased scrutiny as a result of new disclosures about his contact two weeks later with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Just days after Kislyak talked to Page, Gordon and a third campaign official, WikiLeaks disseminated thousands of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee’s servers — a hack that U.S. intelligence later attributed to the Russian government.

No connection between any of those three events has been alleged publicly or confirmed. But on Tuesday, Page confirmed that he is one of about a dozen individuals and organizations contacted by the Senate Intelligence Committee and asked to preserve relevant materials for its investigation into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.

“I will do everything in my power to reasonably ensure that all information concerning my activities related to Russia last year is preserved,” Page said in a letter to committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and ranking member Mark Warner (D-Va.).

In his letter, Page again denied any wrongdoing and repeated his claims that former officials of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and other Democrats have been spreading false information about the trip and Page’s other connections to Russia.

Page’s trip to Moscow has been the subject of intense speculation for months, but many of the details remain cloudy.

A longtime oil and energy industry consultant, Page had already spent considerable time in Russia before making the trip, most recently as founder and managing partner of the Global Energy Capital investment and consulting firm, which specializes in Russian and Central Asian oil and gas business.

The firm’s website says Page has been involved in more than $25 billion of transactions in the energy and power sector and that he spent three years in Moscow, where he was an adviser on key transactions for Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom and other energy-related companies.

Page has insisted that he was in Moscow to give a commencement address at the New Economic School there based on his scholarly research, and that his visit was “outside of my informal, unpaid role” on the Trump campaign. He also said he had divested any stake in Gazprom and that he had “not met this year [2016] with any sanctioned official in Russia despite the fact that there are no restrictions on U.S. persons speaking with such individuals.”

But last September, top congressional lawmakers were briefed on suspected efforts by Russia to meddle in the election. Soon after, then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada asked FBI Director James Comey to investigate meetings between a Trump official, later identified as Page, and “high ranking sanctioned individuals” in Moscow that he believed were evidence of “significant and disturbing ties” between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Trump campaign officials took steps to distance themselves from Page, who had been publicly identified as an adviser as recently as Aug. 24. He announced Sept. 26 that he was taking a leave of absence from the campaign, saying the accusations were untrue but causing too much of a “distraction.”

But even after Russia was linked to the hacking effort against Democrats, the Trump campaign did not seek to question Page about his trip, the campaign adviser said.

Asked what Page did while in Moscow, the adviser said, “I have no idea. I didn’t want to know.”

The adviser also said he was not aware of anyone else on the campaign who discussed the trip with Page, either to glean any foreign policy insight from him or to determine whether any damage control was needed based on his contacts.

“Nobody talked about it. It was such an ugly topic. Even when I saw him at the convention, I didn’t talk to him about it,” the adviser said, adding that some in the campaign had expressed concern that any public appearances in Moscow by Page would send a bad message.

The campaign fired Lewandowski on June 20, before Page took the trip. Paul Manafort, who replaced Lewandowski as manager and later became chairman, said he had no knowledge of any aspect of Page’s trip, including whether Lewandowski or anyone else approved it.

In recent days, Page’s contact with Russians resurfaced with news reports that he, Gordon and senior Trump campaign adviser Sen. Jeff Sessions all engaged in discussions with Kislyak at an event on the sidelines of the GOP convention.

Page has declined to comment on what they discussed, saying it was private, while Gordon characterized the conversations as harmless efforts to improve U.S.-Russia ties.

The former campaign adviser on Tuesday said Page and the ambassador had a lengthy discussion and that they were at times joined by Gordon and two other ambassadors from the region. The adviser did not know whether Page or Kislyak initiated the conversation.

(h/t Politico)

Trump Pretends Chuck Schumer Secretly Met With Putin

President Trump on Friday attacked Democratic calls for a probe into his contacts with Russia, tweeting a past photo of Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We should start an immediate investigation into @SenSchumer and his ties to Russia and Putin. A total hypocrite!” Trump tweeted.

The 2003 photo shows Schumer and Putin eating doughnuts during Putin’s trip to New York to attend the opening of a Russian gas company’s station.

Pro-Trump blog Gateway Pundit resurfaced the photo late Thursday, questioning “Where’s the outrage?” And the conservative website Drudge Report made the photo its lead image earlier Friday.

The Senate Democratic leader responded to Trump’s tweet, saying he would “happily talk” about his contact with Putin while pressing Trump on whether he would do the same.

Schumer and other Democrats have repeatedly called for an independent investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday said he would recuse himself from Russia probes after it was revealed that he spoke with Russia’s U.S. ambassador twice during last year’s campaign, then denied speaking with Russians during his Senate confirmation hearings.

Democrats have said his recusal isn’t enough and have called for a special prosecutor to handle any Russia investigations.

Schumer has called on Sessions to resign and wants a probe conducted by the Department of Justice’s inspector general to determine if the former Alabama senator compromised an investigation into Russia’s intervention in the election.

Sessions isn’t the only Trump ally to receive backlash for meeting with the Russian envoy, Sergey Kislyak. Trump’s first national security adviser Michael Flynn was ousted last month for misleading White House officials about his conversations with the Russian diplomat.

But Trump clarified that he didn’t ask for Flynn’s resignation over the fact that he discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Trump took office, but because Flynn misled Vice President Pence about the interaction.

(h/t The Hill)

Reality

No one is saying representatives of the United States government can’t meet with Russian diplomats or Vladimir Putin, that is a total misdirection. Trump’s aides keep saying they haven’t met with the Russians, and later it turns out they have lied, sometimes under oath, which is a crime.

 

Trump Jr. Likely Paid $50K for Event Hosted by Russian Allies

President Trump’s eldest son may have profited off an appearance at an event last fall hosted by a couple aligned with the Russian government on Syria, according to new reporting.

Trump’s private talks with the pro-Russia figures on Oct. 11 in Paris were reported in November, though new details about the meeting have since emerged.

Donald Trump Jr. was likely paid $50,000 for addressing the dinner at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

Trump was a guest of the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs, whose president Fabien Baussart and Syrian-born wife Randa Kassis have cooperated with Russia on ending the Syrian civil war, U.S., Arab and European officials told the newspaper.

Trump, 39, serves as executive vice president of the Trump Organization and was a top official in his father’s 2016 presidential campaign before the October event.

All American Speakers, a talent booking agency that represents Trump, lists his booking fee range as “$50,000 and above” on its website. The Journal noted it confirmed with people who had participated in past Center events that it often pays speakers 20-30 percent above their going rate.

The Trump Organization did not dispute Thursday whether Trump received at least $50,000 for his remarks in France.

“Donald Trump Jr. has been participating in business-related speaking engagements for over a decade — discussing a range of topics including sharing his entrepreneurial experiences and offering career specific advice,” said Amanda Miller, the company’s vice president for marketing, according to the Journal.

Kassis heads a political party, the Movement for a Pluralistic Society, which is part of a faction endorsed by Russia in global negotiations aimed at ending the Syrian conflict.

She regularly visits Moscow to coordinate policy with Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Arab and European officials told the Journal, and she is often featured at Russian state media.

Baussart told the newspaper he and his wife are focused on finding a solution to Syria’s six-year civil war involving cooperation between Russia and the U.S. Kassis said she explained the need for harmony between the two nations to Donald Trump Jr. in October, adding she had passed on his views on the conflict to Russian diplomats in Moscow.

Baussart formally nominated Russian President Vladimir Putin for the Nobel Peace Prize in December for his role in ending the Syrian civil war.

“I believe that President Putin deserved it,” he told Ria Novosti then while discussing the award. “He is the only one who is truly fighting terrorism.”

The Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials and allies have come under increasing scrutiny following reports last month that top campaign aides and allies were in regular contact with Russian intelligence officials last year.

U.S. intelligence officials have concluded Russia launched an extensive hacking and influence campaign during the 2016 race.

(h/t The Hill)

Sessions Spoke with Russian Ambassador Twice During Trump’s Campaign

Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke twice with Russia’s ambassador to the United States last year, the Washington Post reported Wednesday, raising new questions about contact between Trump campaign officials and the Kremlin.

Sessions, a former Republican senator from Alabama, did not disclose the contact with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during his confirmation hearings, testifying under oath that he “did not have communications with the Russians.”

The contacts are coming under scrutiny because Sessions endorsed President Trump early in his presidential bid, stumping and introducing him at campaign rallies, and officially joined the Trump campaign last February.

A spokeswoman for Sessions confirmed the contact with Kislyak, saying the attorney general spoke on the phone with the ambassador from his office in September. That conversation took place during the time when intelligence officials assert that Russia was interfering with the U.S. presidential election through a hacking and influence campaign.

In July, Sessions attended a Heritage Foundation event at Republican National Convention that was attended by some 50 ambassadors. A small group of ambassadors, including Kislyak, approached Sessions and talked to him informally, the Justice Department official told the Washington Post.

“It was short and informal,” spokeswoman Sara Isgur Flores told the Wall Street Journal.

Flores said Sessions spoke to Kislyak in his capacity as a member of the Armed Services Committee, not as a Trump surrogate, and was not trying to mislead fellow senators when he said during his confirmation hearing that he had not had contacts with Moscow.

Later Wednesday night, Sessions said in a statement: “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”

During his confirmation hearing, Sessions was asked what he would do if he learned a member of Trump’s campaign had communicated with the Russian government over the course of the 2016 campaign. He responded: “I’m not aware of any of those activities. … I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”

Officials said Sessions did not consider his conversations with Kislyak relevant to the lawmakers’ questions and did not remember the discussion with Kislyak in detail. And as a senior member of the committee, he regularly met foreign ambassadors, his spokeswoman said.

“There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer,” Flores said.

The Post asked the 26 other members of the Senate Armed Services Committee whether they had met with Kislyak last year. Of the 20 who responded, all said no.

Democrats quickly seized on the revelation to amplify their demand that Sessions recuse himself from any federal investigations into contacts between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) went so far as to call for the attorney general to resign.

“When Senator Sessions testified under oath that ‘I did not have communications with the Russians,’ his statement was demonstrably false, yet he let it stand for weeks — and he continued to let it stand even as he watched the President tell the entire nation he didn’t know anything about anyone advising his campaign talking to the Russians,” Cummings said in a written statement.

Democrats had already floated the idea of a special prosecutor to investigate the Trump-Russia ties. Those calls are certain to grow louder now that Sessions has admitted contact with the same Russian official who spoke with Michael Flynn, the former White House national security adviser who resigned after misleading Vice President Pence about discussions with Kislyak.

At least one Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, on Wednesday evening echoed Democrats in saying a special prosecutor might be necessary.

“There may be nothing there,” Graham said in a CNN town hall event. “But if there is something there, that the FBI believes is criminal in nature, then for sure you need a special prosecutor.”

“If there were contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, they may be legitimate; they may be OK. I want to know what happened between the Trump campaign, the Clinton campaign and the Russians.”

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday evening that the FBI has examined the contacts that Sessions had with Russian officials while he was a Trump campaign adviser. It’s not clear whether the probe of Sessions’s contacts is ongoing or what its outcome was, according to the report.

Flores said Sessions was not aware his communications had been subject to FBI scrutiny.

As attorney general, Sessions oversees the FBI.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who asked Sessions about Russia connections during his confirmation hearings, said he was “troubled” by the report.

“If it’s true that Attorney General Sessions met with the Russian ambassador in the midst of the campaign, then I am very troubled that his response to my questioning during his confirmation hearing was, at best, misleading,” Franken told the Washington Post in a statement on Wednesday.

The new report comes on the heels of the Flynn controversy and continued concerns over potential connections between Trump allies and Russia.

Flynn stepped down after it was reported that he had discussed U.S. sanctions with Kislyak in December of 2016, ahead of Trump’s inauguration, and misled top officials including Vice President Mike Pence about the details.

Trump has repeatedly denied that his campaign staff was in contact with Russian officials, calling it “fake news.”

“I have nothing to do with Russia. I told you, I have no deals there, I have no anything,” Trump said at a press conference last month.

(h/t The Hill)

Trump Lawyer Pushed Pro-Russia Deal For Ukraine

The setting was a Manhattan restaurant, and after 25 minutes what allegedly emerged was a pro-Russian peace plan for Ukraine that its author believes may have ended up in the White House.

In a CNN interview, Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Artemenko said he discussed his left-field proposal for Ukraine in January with US President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who offered to deliver the plan to the Trump administration.

The exact details of the plan are unclear, yet reports have suggested it revolves around leasing Crimea — annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014 — to Moscow for 50 to 100 years. In exchange, Russia would withdraw its troops from the separatist regions in Ukraine’s war-torn east.

Artemenko declined to discuss the plan’s details, yet hinted that a lease might be part of the idea.

The lawmaker says Cohen, who has long advised Trump, wanted to take the plan to Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser.

Any suggestion that the White House might consider a plan that formalizes Russia’s control of Crimea would cause consternation in Kiev and among its allies in Europe. The White House has flatly denied any knowledge of the proposal.

In his interview with CNN, Artemenko shines a light on how a key Trump associate was allegedly prepared to push a controversial peace plan that might benefit Russia at a time when questions were being raised about the Trump’s ties to that country.

The Ukrainian member of parliament told CNN he met Cohen through a mutual acquaintance, businessman Felix Sater, and that the three had dinner in a Manhattan hotel in January.

Cohen told CNN in a text message that although he had dinner with Artemenko, they never discussed peace in Ukraine. Other media organizations reported that he offered them a different account. The White House has denied that Cohen delivered any peace plan to Flynn.

Russia and Ukraine have since rejected the plan, and Artemenko has now become the subject of investigation for treason for suggesting it to Cohen.

In a hurried interview in a Kiev hotel, Artemenko said Cohen told him that Flynn — who resigned in mid-February due to a controversy over calls with the Russian ambassador to the US — was his best connection at the White House.

“Michael Flynn is the best person, the best of my connections in the Trump administration, who if he likes [it], it’s going to [get] huge support, huge support,” Cohen said, according to Artemenko.

Flynn did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on this story.

Artemenko knew the proposal would be controversial as it undercuts both the US and Ukrainian diplomatic corps, and he says he knows it angered Kiev, who will have seen it as a pro-Russian proposal.

“That’s why I feel pressure, and for sure today I can see people accusing me, and I see the prosecutor of Ukraine is trying to do something, to open a new case, to do an investigation about me,” he told CNN.

He said of the January meeting that Sater invited Cohen to “a dinner in the hotel in Manhattan, and we probably spoke around 20-25 minutes, where I presented my intentions, my peace plan for the Ukraine, how we can stop the war, how we can stop the killing.”

Artemenko said he had never dreamed that his proposal would be seen by the White House, but he claims Cohen said the plan had “great potential” and wanted to deliver it to the Trump administration.

“It was Michael Cohen’s idea,” he said. “He [Cohen] mentioned his name first in my meetings. And he said ‘listen, Michael Flynn’ — from his personal opinion — ‘is most powerful man who can really support this idea, who can support, who can help you, who can provide this information to President Trump.'”

Flynn resigned 24 days into the job after misleading administration officials regarding his communications with the Russian ambassador to the US before Trump took office.

Flynn made several calls to the ambassador in December, including some on the same day that the outgoing Obama administration placed fresh sanctions on Russia over alleged election meddling.

The Justice Department also warned the Trump administration in January that Flynn could be subject to Russian blackmail, a person familiar with the matter told CNN last month.

In a text message to CNN, Cohen denied delivering any documents to Flynn, and refuted Artemenko’s recollection of their January conversation.

“If this continued fake news narrative wasn’t so ridiculous, I would be angered. Despite the multitude of statements issued denying any nexus between Presidents Trump and [Russian President Vladimir Putin], the main stream media just keeps on trying to perpetuate this lie.

“I acknowledge that the brief meeting took place, but emphatically deny discussing this topic or delivering any documents to the White House and/or General Flynn; something I stated to the New York Times.”

According to the Times, Cohen said he left a sealed envelope with the proposed peace plan in Flynn’s office. Later, Cohen denied delivering a peace plan to Flynn.
Artemenko insists, however, that it was Cohen’s idea to show the peace proposal to the senior White House official. “It was his idea, absolutely his idea,” he said.

After Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, it sent military help to separatists in the country’s east, where violent conflict over disputed territory drags on to this day.

Kiev has refused to discuss the official transfer of the peninsula to Russia, and dismissed Artemenko’s plan as a result.

Moscow considers the peninsula already its territory, after its residents — under a substantial Russian military presence — voted in a 2014 referendum to join the Russian Federation.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov says Russia refuses to discuss the lease of a region it already controls: “How can Russia rent its own region? This question itself is absurd.”

Sater, who attended the dinner with Artemenko, did not respond to emailed questions, yet he emphatically denied any links between the Trump camp and Russia in an interview with Fox News: “What could be wrong in helping stop a war and trying to achieve peace? I have done so much for my country and thought that promoting peace was a good thing. People are getting killed, it’s a war.”

A White House spokesman offered this statement in response to CNN’s request for comment: “No one in the White House — including the President, Vice President and senior members of the NSC — has spoken to Mr. Cohen about any Russia-Ukraine peace proposal, and no one has spoken to Andrii Artemenko at all about any matter.

“In addition, the NSC keeps comprehensive records of documents received, and we have no record of receiving any proposal from Mr. Cohen. This is another absurd, misleading attempt to distract from the real reform taking place under President Trump.”

Artemenko left the interview with CNN to attend what he said was a meeting with the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, although the presidential administration denied such a meeting took place.

Yet moments after leaving the interview, Ukrainian prosecutors announced he would be investigated for “treason” over the deal.

(h/t CNN)

Trump Defends Putin: ‘You Think Our Country’s So Innocent?’

President Donald Trump appeared to equate US actions with the authoritarian regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin in an interview released Saturday, saying, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”

Trump made the remark during an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, saying he respected his Russian counterpart.

“But he’s a killer,” O’Reilly said to Trump.

“There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump replied.

A clip of the exchange was released Saturday and the full interview aired Sunday before the Super Bowl.

It was an unusual assertion coming from the President of the United States. Trump himself, however, has made similar points before.
“He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country,” Trump told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in December 2015.

He continued, “I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe, so you know. There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, a lot of killing, a lot of stupidity,” Trump said.
Russia would “prefer to receive apologies from such a respected TV company” following O’Reilly’s remarks, according to Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

“We think that such words from a correspondent of the Fox News network are unacceptable, offensive, and we would, honestly, prefer to receive apologies from such a respected TV company,” Peskove said in a response to a CNN question during a telephone news conference. “As to the statement of the US president, in this case I would prefer to leave it without any comment.”

US Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, called Trump’s claim false.

“This is the second time Trump has defended Putin against the charge that he’s a killer by saying in effect that the US is no better or different,” Schiff told CNN. “This is as inexplicably bizarre as it is untrue. Does he not see the damage he does with comments like that, and the gift he gives to Russian propaganda?”

In the interview with O’Reilly, Trump noted that just because he respects someone “doesn’t mean I’m going to get along with them.”

“He’s a leader of his country and I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not, and if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS, which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world, a major fight — that’s a good thing. Will I get along with them? I have no idea,” Trump said.

Trump and Putin spoke on the phone last Saturday, and the two discussed cooperation in the fight against ISIS, among other areas.

(h/t CNN)

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