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Manafort indictment: Mueller’s best (and last?) shot

Indictment fails to touch on collusion allegations central to the Russiagate scandal

Alexander Mercouris

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As widely predicted, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russiagate probe has now formally indicted Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, in what the media is calling the ‘first indictment’ in the Russiagate investigation.

Manafort was warned at the time of the search of his home that he would be indicted so the news of the indictment is not surprising.

The timing of the indictment does however raise some interesting questions.

It comes after what was in all other respects a disastrous two weeks for the true believers in the Russiagate conspiracy with the revelation that the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign financed the ‘research’ which resulted in the Trump Dossier, and with mounting claims that (as I had previously suspected) the now notorious meeting between Donald Trump Junior and the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya was indeed a sting set up by Fusion GPS, the intermediary company used by the DNC and the Hillary Clinton campaign to fund the Trump Dossier.

In light of this there has to be some suspicion that the decision to press charges against Manafort and one of his aides now was intended at least in part to distract attention from the revelations and to regain control of the Russiagate narrative, which has been increasingly falling apart.

What reinforces this suspicion is that news of the indictment was leaked – disgracefully – to the media over the weekend even though the indictment had been sealed by a Federal Judge.

On the face of it that is a serious contempt of court, and if it was done by someone working for the Special Counsel’s team or for the Justice Department then it is or ought to be a very serious matter.  The depressing reality of the Russiagate affair is however that its partisans have never shown much respect for these important procedural safeguards, and nor have they ever been held to account for not doing so.

Turning to the actual charges against Manafort, Zerohedge has now published the complete indictment which can be found here.  

In my opinion the major points about the indictment are:

(1) that there is no reference in the indictment to collusion between Manafort and the Russians or between the Trump campaign and the Russians during last year’s Presidential election.

Importantly there is no reference in the indictment to the central claim made by supporters of the Russiagate conspiracy theory: that the Trump campaign (including presumably Manafort) colluded with the Russians to release the emails which were allegedly stolen by the Russians from the DNC’s and John Podesta’s computers and which were published by Wikileaks.

(2) All the charges against Manafort are of an essentially financial nature and appear to centre on Manafort’s well-known dealings with the former government of Ukraine.

The portentous language about Manafort engaging in a ‘conspiracy against the United States’, which will doubtless be seized upon by the Russiagate partisans, appears to concern exclusively Manafort’s attempt to conceal his allegedly corrupt activities from the US authorities, including from the US tax authorities.

For what it’s worth my opinion is that the single most serious item in the whole indictment and the one which Manafort will have the most difficulty in explaining away is the claim that he doctored documents to conceal his activities.

(3) It is possible that buried deep in the various financial dealings outlined in the indictment there are dealings between Manafort and individuals or companies in Russia. That however is not obvious and so far as I can see the indictment does not actually say this.  It would anyway be a matter of doubtful relevance to the Russiagate collusion allegations even if it were true.

(4) Though Manafort like everyone else is entitled to the presumption of innocence, and though proving the charges in the indictment in a court of law may not be at all easy – it is important to remember that we have not so far heard Manafort’s side of the story – I for one am perfectly willing to accept that these charges may be true.

However the charges do not seem to have any direct bearing on the Russiagate collusion allegations, which were the allegations which caused the Russiagate investigation to be set up in the first place, and that does beg the question of why Mueller is bringing the charges rather than simply passing the case on for further investigation to the FBI

Briefly, the answer is that from the moment he took over the inquiry Mueller has focused on Manafort whose complicated financial dealings have made him an obvious target.  The idea clearly was to put pressure on Manafort to get him to talk about the collusion allegations.

The fact that Mueller has now been obliged to bring formal charges against Manafort shows that this strategy has so far failed and looks increasingly unlikely to succeed.  Manafort has not only failed to ‘crack’ but continues to deny publicly the collusion allegations and to insist that he has done nothing wrong.

To have done nothing in the face of this defiance would have made the earlier threat to bring charges look like a bluff, and it was to avoid that happening – which would have destroyed the credibility of the inquiry – that made Mueller act by issuing the indictment.

An important point to understand is that legally speaking the effect of the indictment is to transition the Russiagate inquiry as it relates to Manafort from an investigation of Manafort into a prosecution of Manafort.

That means that Mueller’s investigators can no longer question Manafort about the matters that make up the indictment (save in very exceptional circumstances) because by charging Manafort they have committed themselves to proving in court their charges against Manafort on the existing evidence.

Whilst technically that does not mean that Manafort cannot be questioned on the collusion allegations – which are not part of the indictment – the extent to which that can happen is now open to doubt.  Personally I would not be surprised if on the advice of his lawyers Manafort henceforth refuses to answer any further questions put to him by Mueller’s investigators on any subject at all.

If so then that effectively ends Manafort’s role in the Russiagate inquiry.

Cases like the one which has just been brought against Manafort are unfortunately far from unusual in the notoriously sleazy world of top end political lobbying and influence-peddling, which is the world in which Manafort chose to do his business.

Though his business has made Manafort a very rich man, at the back of his mind he must have always known that he was running serious risks by engaging in it.  In a sense those risks were an occupational hazard which Manafort accepted in order to make himself the very rich man that he is now.

It is unfortunately also the case that cases like the one which has just been brought against Manafort rarely attract much attention, and usually end with a plea-bargain in which the accused admits to some of the lesser charges and agrees to pay a large sum of money to the authorities in return for a lighter sentence usually involving payment of a large fine.  That I suspect is how this case will end.

Mueller may still entertain hopes that Manafort will agree to admit to collusion with the Russians during the election as part of a plea-bargain.  However that is most unlikely to happen.

Not only would that require Manafort to admit to something which never took place – which is always something very difficult and problematic to do – but Manafort’s lawyers would almost certainly advise him against doing it since it would involve him admitting to something far more serious than what he has been charged with in the indictment.  Even in return for an offer of immunity that would be a very risky thing for him to do.

In this particular case there is the added complication of the very high possibility of an eventual Presidential pardon.

Ultimately the reason a case is being brought against Manafort is not because of his past financial dealings but because he has been placed in Mueller’s crosshairs as a result of the Russiagate collusion allegations.

That must make an eventual Presidential pardon a very real possibility and Manafort and his lawyers will not want him to jeopardise that prospect by admitting to something which is extremely serious and which is anyway untrue.

The indictment against Manafort is therefore a predictable outcome of the tactics Mueller has been following over the course of the Russiagate inquiry.

Though there may be other indictments pending – for example one against General Flynn – none of the other individuals named in the Russiagate scandal appears to have a past anywhere near as complex as Manafort’s.

Ultimately it is not in Mueller’s interests to fire off a volley of indictments on marginal issues which do not touch on the central Russiagate collusion allegations, since doing so will in the end only serve to damage the credibility of his inquiry by making it look even more like he is running a witch-hunt.  Already there are attacks on him alleging precisely that in connection with the charges he has now brought against Manafort.

Since the Manafort indictment looks to have been the best shot in Mueller’s locker, the fact that Mueller has now been forced to shoot it means that from now on he is going to start looking increasingly short of ammunition.

If so then this indictment, though it will doubtless dominate the headlines for a few days, is in truth a further sign that the Russiagate scandal is drawing to a close.

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Airline wars heat up, as industry undergoes massive disruption (Video)

The Duran Quick Take: Episode 145.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris examine the global commercial airline industry, which is undergoing massive changes, as competition creeps in from Russia and China.

Reuters reports that Boeing Co’s legal troubles grew as a new lawsuit accused the company of defrauding shareholders by concealing safety deficiencies in its 737 MAX planes before two fatal crashes led to their worldwide grounding.

The proposed class action filed in Chicago federal court seeks damages for alleged securities fraud violations, after Boeing’s market value tumbled by $34 billion within two weeks of the March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX.

*****

According to the complaint, Boeing “effectively put profitability and growth ahead of airplane safety and honesty” by rushing the 737 MAX to market to compete with Airbus SE, while leaving out “extra” or “optional” features designed to prevent the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes.

It also said Boeing’s statements about its growth prospects and the 737 MAX were undermined by its alleged conflict of interest from retaining broad authority from federal regulators to assess the plane’s safety.

*****

Boeing said on Tuesday that aircraft orders in the first quarter fell to 95 from 180 a year earlier, with no orders for the 737 MAX following the worldwide grounding.

On April 5, it said it planned to cut monthly 737 production to 42 planes from 52, and was making progress on a 737 MAX software update to prevent further accidents.

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Via Zerohedge…

Step aside (fading) trade war with China: there is a new aggressor – at least according to the US Trade Rep Robert Lighthizer – in town.

In a statement on the USTR’s website published late on Monday, the US fair trade agency announced that under Section 301 of the Trade Act, it was proposing a list of EU products to be covered by additional duties. And as justification for the incremental import taxes, the USTR said that it was in response to EU aircraft subsidies, specifically to Europea’s aerospace giant, Airbus, which “have caused adverse effects to the United States” and which the USTR estimates cause $11 billion in harm to the US each year

One can’t help but notice that the latest shot across the bow in the simmering trade war with Europe comes as i) Trump is reportedly preparing to fold in his trade war with China, punting enforcement to whoever is president in 2025, and ii) comes just as Boeing has found itself scrambling to preserve orders as the world has put its orderbook for Boeing 737 MAX airplanes on hold, which prompted Boeing to cut 737 production by 20% on Friday.

While the first may be purely a coincidence, the second – which is expected to not only slam Boeing’s financials for Q1 and Q2, but may also adversely impact US GDP – had at least some impact on the decision to proceed with these tariffs at this moment.

We now await Europe’s angry response to what is Trump’s latest salvo in what is once again a global trade war. And, paradoxically, we also expect this news to send stocks blasting higher as, taking a page from the US-China trade book, every day algos will price in imminent “US-European trade deal optimism.”

Below the full statement from the USTR (link):

USTR Proposes Products for Tariff Countermeasures in Response to Harm Caused by EU Aircraft Subsidies

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has found repeatedly that European Union (EU) subsidies to Airbus have caused adverse effects to the United States.  Today, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) begins its process under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 to identify products of the EU to which additional duties may be applied until the EU removes those subsidies.

USTR is releasing for public comment a preliminary list of EU products to be covered by additional duties.  USTR estimates the harm from the EU subsidies as $11 billion in trade each year.  The amount is subject to an arbitration at the WTO, the result of which is expected to be issued this summer.

“This case has been in litigation for 14 years, and the time has come for action. The Administration is preparing to respond immediately when the WTO issues its finding on the value of U.S. countermeasures,” said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.  “Our ultimate goal is to reach an agreement with the EU to end all WTO-inconsistent subsidies to large civil aircraft.  When the EU ends these harmful subsidies, the additional U.S. duties imposed in response can be lifted.”

In line with U.S. law, the preliminary list contains a number of products in the civil aviation sector, including Airbus aircraft.  Once the WTO arbitrator issues its report on the value of countermeasures, USTR will announce a final product list covering a level of trade commensurate with the adverse effects determined to exist.

Background

After many years of seeking unsuccessfully to convince the EU and four of its member States (France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom) to cease their subsidization of Airbus, the United States brought a WTO challenge to EU subsidies in 2004. In 2011, the WTO found that the EU provided Airbus $18 billion in subsidized financing from 1968 to 2006.  In particular, the WTO found that European “launch aid” subsidies were instrumental in permitting Airbus to launch every model of its large civil aircraft, causing Boeing to lose sales of more than 300 aircraft and market share throughout the world.

In response, the EU removed two minor subsidies, but left most of them unchanged.  The EU also granted Airbus more than $5 billion in new subsidized “launch aid” financing for the A350 XWB.  The United States requested establishment of a compliance panel in March 2012 to address the EU’s failure to remove its old subsidies, as well as the new subsidies and their adverse effects.  That process came to a close with the issuance of an appellate report in May 2018 finding that EU subsidies to high-value, twin-aisle aircraft have caused serious prejudice to U.S. interests.  The report found that billions of dollars in launch aid to the A350 XWB and A380 cause significant lost sales to Boeing 787 and 747 aircraft, as well as lost market share for Boeing very large aircraft in the EU, Australia, China, Korea, Singapore, and UAE markets.

Based on the appellate report, the United States requested authority to impose countermeasures worth $11.2 billion per year, commensurate with the adverse effects caused by EU subsidies.  The EU challenged that estimate, and a WTO arbitrator is currently evaluating those claims

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Mueller report takes ‘Russian meddling’ for granted, offers no actual evidence

RT

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Via RT…


Special counsel Robert Mueller’s ‘Russiagate’ report has cleared Donald Trump of ‘collusion’ charges but maintains that Russia meddled in the 2016 US presidential election. Yet concrete evidence of that is nowhere to be seen.

The report by Mueller and his team, made public on Thursday by the US Department of Justice, exonerates not just Trump but all Americans of any “collusion” with Russia, “obliterating” the Russiagate conspiracy theory, as journalist Glenn Greenwald put it.

However, it asserts that Russian “interference” in the election did happen, and says it consisted of a campaign on social media as well as Russian military intelligence (repeatedly referred to by its old, Soviet-era name, GRU) “hacking” the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the DNC, and the private email account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta.

As evidence of this, the report basically offers nothing but Mueller’s indictment of “GRU agents,” delivered on the eve of the Helsinki Summit between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in what was surely a cosmic coincidence.

Indictments are not evidence, however, but allegations. Any time it looks like the report might be bringing up proof, it ends up being redacted, ostensibly to protect sources and methods, and out of concern it might cause “harm to an ongoing matter.”

‘Active measures’ on social media

Mueller’s report leads with the claim that the Internet Research Agency (IRA) ran an “active measures” campaign of social media influence. Citing Facebook and Twitter estimates, the report says this consisted of 470 Facebook accounts that made 80,000 posts that may have been seen by up to 126 million people, between January 2015 and August 2017 (almost a year after the election), and 3,814 Twitter accounts that “may have been” in contact with about 1.4 million people.

Those numbers may seem substantial but, as investigative journalist Gareth Porter pointed out in November 2018, they should be regarded against the background of 33 trillion Facebook posts made during the same period.

According to Mueller, the IRA mind-controlled the American electorate by spending “approximately $100,000” on Facebook ads, hiring someone to walk around New York City “dressed up as Santa Claus with a Trump mask,” and getting Trump campaign affiliates to promote “dozens of tweets, posts, and other political content created by the IRA.” Dozens!

Meanwhile, the key evidence against IRA’s alleged boss Evgeny Prigozhin is that he “appeared together in public photographs” with Putin.

Alleged hacking & release

The report claims that the GRU hacked their way into 29 DCCC computers and another 30 DNC computers, and downloaded data using software called “X-Tunnel.” It is unclear how Mueller’s investigators claim to know this, as the report makes no mention of them or FBI actually examining DNC or DCCC computers. Presumably they took the word of CrowdStrike, the Democrats’ private contractor, for it.

However obtained, the documents were published first through DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 – which the report claims are “fictitious online personas” created by the GRU – and later through WikiLeaks. What is Mueller’s proof that these two entities were “GRU” cutouts? In a word, this:

That the Guccifer 2.0 persona provided reporters access to a restricted portion of the DCLeaks website tends to indicate that both personas were operated by the same or a closely-related group of people.(p. 43)

However, the report acknowledges that the “first known contact” between Guccifer 2.0 and WikiLeaks was on September 15, 2016 – months after the DNC and DCCC documents were published! Here we do get actual evidence: direct messages on Twitter obtained by investigators. Behold, these “spies” are so good, they don’t even talk – and when they do, they use unsecured channels.

Mueller notably claims “it is clear that the stolen DNC and Podesta documents were transferred from the GRU to WikiLeaks” (the rest of that sentence is redacted), but the report clearly implies the investigators do not actually know how. On page 47, the report says Mueller “cannot rule out that stolen documents were transferred to WikiLeaks through intermediaries who visited during the summer of 2016.”

Strangely, the report accuses WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange of making “public statements apparently designed to obscure the source” of the materials (p.48), notably the offer of a reward for finding the murderer of DNC staffer Seth Rich – even though this can be read as corroborating the intermediaries theory, and Assange never actually said Rich was his source.

The rest of Mueller’s report goes on to discuss the Trump campaign’s contacts with anyone even remotely Russian and to create torturous constructions that the president had “obstructed” justice by basically defending himself from charges of being a Russian agent – neither of which resulted in any indictments, however. But the central premise that the 22-month investigation, breathless media coverage, and the 448-page report are based on – that Russia somehow meddled in the 2016 election – remains unproven.

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Rumors of War: Washington Is Looking for a Fight

The bill stands up for NATO and prevents the President from pulling the US out of the Alliance without a Senate vote.

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Authored by Philip Giraldi via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


It is depressing to observe how the United States of America has become the evil empire. Having served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War and in the Central Intelligence Agency for the second half of the Cold War, I had an insider’s viewpoint of how an essentially pragmatic national security policy was being transformed bit by bit into a bipartisan doctrine that featured as a sine qua non global dominance for Washington. Unfortunately, when the Soviet Union collapsed the opportunity to end once and for all the bipolar nuclear confrontation that threatened global annihilation was squandered as President Bill Clinton chose instead to humiliate and use NATO to contain an already demoralized and effectively leaderless Russia.

American Exceptionalism became the battle cry for an increasingly clueless federal government as well as for a media-deluded public. When 9/11 arrived, the country was ready to lash out at the rest of the world. President George W. Bush growled that “There’s a new sheriff in town and you are either with us or against us.” Afghanistan followed, then Iraq, and, in a spirit of bipartisanship, the Democrats came up with Libya and the first serious engagement in Syria. In its current manifestation, one finds a United States that threatens Iran on a nearly weekly basis and tears up arms control agreements with Russia while also maintaining deployments of US forces in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and places like Mali. Scattered across the globe are 800 American military bases while Washington’s principal enemies du jour Russia and China have, respectively, only one and none.

Never before in my lifetime has the United States been so belligerent, and that in spite of the fact that there is no single enemy or combination of enemies that actually threaten either the geographical United States or a vital interest. Venezuela is being threatened with invasion primarily because it is in the western hemisphere and therefore subject to Washington’s claimed proconsular authority. Last Wednesday Vice President Mike Pence told the United Nations Security Council that the White House will remove Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro from power, preferably using diplomacy and sanctions, but “all options are on the table.” Pence warned that Russia and other friends of Maduro need to leave now or face the consequences.

The development of the United States as a hostile and somewhat unpredictable force has not gone unnoticed. Russia has accepted that war is coming no matter what it does in dealing with Trump and is upgrading its forces. By some estimates, its army is better equipped and more combat ready than is that of the United States, which spends nearly ten times as much on “defense.”

Iran is also upgrading its defensive capabilities, which are formidable. Now that Washington has withdrawn from the nuclear agreement with Iran, has placed a series of increasingly punitive sanctions on the country, and, most recently, has declared a part of the Iranian military to be a “foreign terrorist organization” and therefore subject to attack by US forces at any time, it is clear that war will be the next step. In three weeks, the United States will seek to enforce a global ban on any purchases of Iranian oil. A number of countries, including US nominal ally Turkey, have said they will ignore the ban and it will be interesting to see what the US Navy intends to do to enforce it. Or what Iran will do to break the blockade.

But even given all of the horrific decisions being made in the White House, there is one organization that is far crazier and possibly even more dangerous. That is the United States Congress, which is, not surprisingly, a legislative body that is viewed positively by only 18 per cent of the American people.

A current bill originally entitled the “Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act (DASKA) of 2019,” is numbered S-1189. It has been introduced in the Senate which will “…require the Secretary of State to determine whether the Russian Federation should be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism and whether Russian-sponsored armed entities in Ukraine should be designated as foreign terrorist organizations.” The bill is sponsored by Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado and is co-sponsored by Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

The current version of the bill was introduced on April 11th and it is by no means clear what kind of support it might actually have, but the fact that it actually has surfaced at all should be disturbing to anyone who believes it is in the world’s best interest to avoid direct military confrontation between the United States and Russia.

In a a press release by Gardner, who has long been pushing to have Russia listed as a state sponsor of terrorism, a February version of the bill is described as “…comprehensive legislation [that] seeks to increase economic, political, and diplomatic pressure on the Russian Federation in response to Russia’s interference in democratic processes abroad, malign influence in Syria, and aggression against Ukraine, including in the Kerch Strait. The legislation establishes a comprehensive policy response to better position the US government to address Kremlin aggression by creating new policy offices on cyber defenses and sanctions coordination. The bill stands up for NATO and prevents the President from pulling the US out of the Alliance without a Senate vote. It also increases sanctions pressure on Moscow for its interference in democratic processes abroad and continued aggression against Ukraine.”

The February version of the bill included Menendez, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as co-sponsors, suggesting that provoking war is truly bipartisan in today’s Washington.

Each Senator co-sponsor contributed a personal comment to the press release. Gardner observed that “Putin’s Russia is an outlaw regime that is hell-bent on undermining international law and destroying the US-led liberal global order.” Menendez noted that “President Trump’s willful paralysis in the face of Kremlin aggression has reached a boiling point in Congress” while Graham added that “Our goal is to change the status quo and impose meaningful sanctions and measures against Putin’s Russia. He should cease and desist meddling in the US electoral process, halt cyberattacks on American infrastructure, remove Russia from Ukraine, and stop efforts to create chaos in Syria.” Cardin contributed “Congress continues to take the lead in defending US national security against continuing Russian aggression against democratic institutions at home and abroad” and Shaheen observed that “This legislation builds on previous efforts in Congress to hold Russia accountable for its bellicose behavior against the United States and its determination to destabilize our global world order.”

The Senatorial commentary is, of course, greatly exaggerated and sometimes completely false regarding what is going on in the world, but it is revealing of how ignorant American legislators can be and often are. The Senators also ignore the fact that the designation of presumed Kremlin surrogate forces as “foreign terrorist organizations” is equivalent to a declaration of war against them by the US military, while hypocritically calling Russia a state sponsor of terrorism is bad enough, as it is demonstrably untrue. But the real damage comes from the existence of the bill itself. It will solidify support for hardliners on both sides, guaranteeing that there will be no rapprochement between Washington and Moscow for the foreseeable future, a development that is bad for everyone involved. Whether it can be characterized as an unintended consequence of unwise decision making or perhaps something more sinister involving a deeply corrupted congress and administration remains to be determined.

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