You can’t always fit everything into a story. This was one of the loose ends that didn’t make it into my recent Rolling Stone piece on Donald Trump’s connections to the world depicted in the Martin Scorsese film, The Irishman. You can read it here.
Sammy “The Bull” Gravano was an underboss in the Gambino crime family, who admitted a role in 19 murders.
After his arrest in 1991, Gravano agreed to testify against his boss, John Gotti, and dozens of other Mafia stalwarts. In exchange, he received a sweetheart deal from prosecutors: five years in prison.
On March 10, 1993, Gravano testified before the Senate as part of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation’s probe into corruption in professional boxing. Trump, who owned several casinos in Atlantic City that staged big fights, comes up several times in Gravano’s testimony.
Here, Gravano tells the Senate how he would “reach” Donald Trump.
Few people realize that Vladimir Putin was once asked how his past experience as an officer in the KGB helped him as a politician. His answer related to his experience “working with people.” (работы с людьми)
For Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council and Russia expert who delivered powerful testimony last month before the House impeachment inquiry, “working with people” is not as innocent as it sounds.
It is a bit of what she calls “KGB jargon” that reveals a great deal about Putin’s nearly two-decades long hold on power. And it also sheds light on what has befallen our current political order here in the United States.
During Putin’s days as a spy in the 1970s and 1980s, the KGB was all about “working with people,” a euphemism for what might better be described as working on people. Rather than repressing, detaining, or killing critics and opponents of the Soviet regime, Yuri Andropov’s KGB decided it would try to win them over using guile, patience and, most importantly, leverage. “It means studying the minds of the targets, finding their vulnerabilities, and figuring out how to use them,” Hill writes in her insightful 2012 book, Mr. Putin, Operative in the Kremlin.
Hill lays out how Putin has used this skill to great effect in winning over the Russian political elite as well as its citizens, nearly half of whom still approve of his performance as he approaches the 20th anniversary of his election as president. It’s also quite clear that one of the people with whom Putin has been diligently “working” is President Donald Trump.
The Russian leader has had ample opportunity to work with Trump over the course of more than a dozen phone calls and in-person meetings, including the two-hour private meeting in Helsinki that offered the relaxed, informal setting that Putin prefers. “To be able to work with people effectively,” Putin has said, “you have to be able to establish a dialogue, contact.”
While we know when the two leaders have spoken, including a phone call between Trump and Putin shortly after the Ukraine election is of particular interest to House investigators, we know little about what they have discussed. Even Trump’s former director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, said he did not “fully understand” what the two leaders had discussed privately in Helsinki. But Trump has given us some clues about a frequent topic of conversation.
Putin has repeatedly told Trump that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “He just — every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe — I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump told reporters in 2017. The president went even further the following year in Helsinki when he said he didn’t “see any reason why” Russia would have interfered, citing the Russian president’s “strong and powerful” denial.
Putin has called working with people “the most complicated work on the face of the Earth,” but for an experienced KGB case officer Trump isn’t a tough study. The president’s deep insecurity about being perceived as an illegitimate leader is painfully obvious.
This insecurity is at the root of his false claims about the “millions and millions” of illegal ballots that cost him the popular vote in 2016 or his “massive landslide victory.” Trump cannot stomach the fact that he was elected by a minority of the people.
Nor is the president able to accept the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. A former aide, Hope Hicks, told Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators that whether or not Russia had an impact on the election or not didn’t matter to the president because “people would think Russia helped him win.” Hicks astutely described the intelligence assessment as Trump’s “Achilles heel.”
Another leader might let the matter drop, but a former KGB case officer recognizes the issue of election interference – the very same one the U.S. intelligence community found Putin ordered — is a vulnerability he can skillfully exploit. It provides an opportunity for the Russian president to create the shared understanding necessary to “achieve results,” in working with people. “You need to make that person an ally,” Putin has said, “you have to make that person feel that you and he have something that unites you, that you have common goals.”
It’s not hard to see how destructive this shared understanding that Russia didn’t interfere in the election has been to Trump’s presidency. The July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky that is at the heart of the House impeachment inquiry was in part an attempt by Trump to cast doubt on Russian interference. Similarly, Trump’s potentially criminal efforts to obstruct his own Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference are the fruits of the poisoned seeds planted and carefully nurtured by Putin.
After the uproar over Trump’s comments in Helsinki, which he swiftly walked back, the president no longer publicly voices his doubts about Russian interference. He leaves it to surrogates like Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, who show loyalty to the president by voicing his feelings. Asked recently whether it was Russia or Ukraine that hacked the computer servers of the Democratic National Committee, Kennedy replied, “I don’t know, nor do you, nor do any others.”
Likewise, Hill called out Republican members of the intelligence committee for suggesting that Russia did not attack the election but somehow Ukraine did. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian Security Services themselves,” she said.
Hill stopped short of accusing the Trump of serving the Kremlin’s interests for fear of creating more fodder that the Russians could use against American democracy in 2020.
At the same time, she made it perfectly clear that anyone who pushes the debunked theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election – as Trump did on Fox & Friends the day after Hill testified — is serving Russia’s interests.
Surely, not even Putin could have imagined the uproar that would flow from his shared understanding with the American president, but the upcoming impeachment vote in Congress is in no small measure a testament to the remarkable power of Putin’s skills at “working with people.”
In last night’s Democratic debate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was strongly criticized for her trip to Syria when she met with the country’s brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad
PETE BUTTIGIEG: I’m talking about building up — I’m talking about building up alliances. And if your question is about experience, let’s also talk about judgment. One of the foreign leaders you mentioned meeting was Bashar al-Assad. I have in my experience, such as it is, whether you think it counts or not since it wasn’t accumulated in Washington, enough judgment that I would not have sat down with a murderous dictator like that.
Buttigieg could also have mentioned Gabbard’s bizarre claims that chemical weapons attacks in Syria “may have been staged by opposition forces for the purpose of drawing the United States and the West deeper into the war.” According to Bellingcat, Gabbard’s “evidence” rests on “fake intelligence, dodgy dossiers, and lies.”
Gabbard visited Syria in January 2017. She initially declined to say who paid for the trip, citing “security reasons.” She then said the trip had been paid for a little-known group called the Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services (AACCESS) – Ohio.
The nearly $9,000 cost of bringing Gabbard and her husband, Abraham Williams, to Syria and Lebanon was paid for by two Lebansese-American brothers, Bassam (Sam) and Elias (Elie) Khawam. (Gabbard later announced that she was personally reimbursing AACCESS for the cost of her trip to Syria.)
On Gabbard’s House disclosure form, (here) they are listed as board members of AACCESS; in a story first published by The Daily Beast, the Khawams are officials in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). The Khawams were part of the “Syrian National Socialists of North America,” according to this archived post from SSNP.net.
Critics of the SSNP have long labeled it fascist. The group rejects that characterization, but it’s true the SSNP drew inspiration from European fascism upon its founding in 1932. Members of the SSNP assassinated of Lebanon’s president-elect in 1982 and bombed a TWA jetliner in 1986. According to this U.S. government fact sheet, the first female suicide bomber may have been a member of the SSNP who detonated a car bomb in 1985 in Lebanon, killing two Israeli soldiers and injuring two others.
The late, great Christopher Hitchens recounted in Vanity Fair how was assaulted by SSNP thugs during a 2009 visit to Beirut. Hitchens begins his account saying he was strolling through a neigbhorhood when he recognized the party’s symbol, a modified Swastika.
I recognized it as the logo of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a Fascist organization (it would be more honest if it called itself “National Socialist”) that yells for a “Greater Syria” comprising all of Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq, and swaths of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt. It’s one of the suicide-bomber front organizations—the other one being Hezbollah, or “the party of god”—through which Syria’s Ba’thist dictatorship exerts overt and covert influence on Lebanese affairs.Christopher Hitchens, “The Swastika and the Cedar,” Vanity Fair, May 2009
In a statement, Gabbard said that, at first, she had no intention of meeting Assad during her trip to Syria, “but when given the opportunity, I felt it was important to take it. I think we should be ready to meet with anyone if there’s a chance it can help bring about an end to this war, which is causing the Syrian people so much suffering.”
Indeed, the meeting with Assad was not on Gabbard’s proposed itinerary. However, the first thing Gabbard did in Syria was meet with Assad, her revised itinerary shows:
She met again with Assad and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem before leaving Syria.
It bears repeating: Gabbard said she met with Assad because she believed there was a “chance” it could help end a war. Even so, Gabbard said little about what she and Assad had discussed over the course of two hours of meetings. Interestingly, no photos of Gabbard’s visit with Assad have ever surfaced.
In April 2017, Al-Akhbar, a Lebanese newspaper with links to the Assad regime, reported that Tulsi Gabbard had delivered a message to Assad on behalf of President Trump.
The Al-Akhbar report quoted Gabbard as saying, “This is a question to you coming from President Trump which he asked me to convey to you. So let me repeat the question: If President Trump contacted you, would you answer the call?” Gabbard denied it.
What is certain is that Tulsi Gabbard met with president-elect Trump in November 2016 and the two discussed Syria:
President-elect Trump asked me to meet with him about our current policies regarding Syria, our fight against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, as well as other foreign policy challenges we face. I felt it important to take the opportunity to meet with the President-elect now before the drumbeats of war that neocons have been beating drag us into an escalation of the war to overthrow the Syrian government—a war which has already cost hundreds of thousands of lives and forced millions of refugees to flee their homes in search of safety for themselves and their families.
The Gabbard/Trump meeting was arranged by Steve Bannon.
“He loves Tulsi Gabbard. Loves her,” a source told The Hill. “Wants to work with her on everything.”
“She would fit perfectly too [inside the administration],” the source added. “She gets the foreign policy stuff, the Islamic terrorism stuff.”
Gabbard’s meeting with Trump caught the eye of former KKK leader David Duke who lavished praise on her on his website:
I call your attention to a quote from the article on Duke’s website:
“In particular, she is unique in being a strong and principled opponent of any intervention in Syria. She wants the United States to stop supporting ISIS and other “rebel” groups and let the Russians, Iranians, and Hezbollah help President Assad defeat the jihadists and end the Syrian Civil War (which is more an armed invasion than a real civil war). This is exactly the right approach.”
Gabbard (and David Duke) would have you believe that Assad, a bloodthirsty ruler who used chemical weapons against his own people, was not an enemy of the United States. Rather, she said Syria was being devastated by terrorists whom the Hawaii Democrat claimed were being armed by the United States.
In other words, she would keep dictators like Assad in power under the guise of counter- Islamic terrorism and peace activism.
Gabbard is playing a clever game here.
The question is: Whose game is she playing?
President Trump reminds us every chance he gets to “READ THE TRANSCRIPT” of his “perfect” July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s new president.
But there’s another transcript that we can’t see, as we learned during Tuesday’s impeachment hearing. That’s a September 18th phone call between President Volodymyr Zelensky and Vice President Mike Pence.
The news came early in Tuesday morning’s House intelligence committee session featuring Jennifer Williams, a foreign service officer serving as Pence’s special advisor for Europe and Russia.
Justin Shur, Williams’ attorney, interrupted Chairman Adam Schiff to announce that “the office of the Vice President has taken the position that the September 18th call is classified.”
I’d have no objection to that, and we’re discussing that with White House Counsel as we speak.
But when people see the transcripts of my calls and when they hear the reporting of our conversation — President Trump’s focus with Ukraine, from the very beginning, was on enlisting more European support and supporting President Zelensky’s efforts to advance reforms that would end an era of corruption in Ukraine.White House press gaggle with VP Pence, October 10, 2019
But that was then. With the impeachment inquiry underway, Pence changed his mind.
The timing of the move to classify the call means that “the most transparent president in history” has a vice president with something to hide. It also hints that Pence was more deeply involved in Trump’s effort to use the leader of Ukraine as a political prop.
What’s strange about all this is that as recently as November 7th the Pence-Zelensky phone call wasn’t yet a secret.
The September 18th Phone Call
That’s the day that Jennifer Williams, the Pence aide who testified Tuesday, appeared before the House intelligence committee for her deposition. According to a transcript of the deposition – stamped “UNCLASSIFIED” on every page – Williams described the call in some detail, calling it a “very positive discussion.”
In her deposition, Williams testified that during the now-classified September 18th phone call, Pence had reiterated that the frozen military aid was now being released.
Even though the hold on the aid had been lifted, there were still things that the Ukrainians very much wanted, namely, a visit with the White House with President Trump. It was important for Zelensky, a novice politician, to show Ukrainians that the U.S. president had his back.
In addition, Pence told Zelensky that President Trump was looking forward to meeting him the following week at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Williams said that Pence had not provided Zelensky with any specific guidance on what to say to Trump during their upcoming meeting, but did refer to Ukrainian corruption in general terms. The vice president said Trump “would be eager to hear about Zelensky’s progress” on Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms.
A White House readout of the call stated “The Vice President commended President Zelensky’s administration for its bold action to tackle corruption through legislative reforms, and offered full U.S. support for those efforts.”
Pence didn’t go into specifics, but he did discuss corruption. This is key: Several Trump administration officials have testified in depositions that “corruption” was code for the specific investigations that the president had mentioned in his July 25 call.
Tuesday’s surprise announcement that the Pence-Zelensky phone call was now a secret and it couldn’t even be discussed in a public session of Congress lends credence that testimony.
“In other words, no pressure”
The decision to classify the September 18th phone call also raises the question of whether Vice President Pence played a role in something that unfolded when Presidents Zelensky and Trump met September 25 in New York.
Trump and Zelensky’s meeting in New York came on the heels of Trump’s release of a transcript of the July 25 phone call between the two men that is now at the center of the House impeachment inquiry.
During a joint news conference in New York, an uncomfortable-looking Zelenskyy was asked whether he felt pressure during the call with Trump.
“It was normal,” the Ukrainian leader replied. “We spoke about many things. And I — so I think, and you read it, that nobody pushed — pushed me.”
Trump jumped in to state, “In other words, no pressure.”
With Pence classifying his call, I can’t help but wonder whether this was another “favor” the White House had asked of Zelensky. Had Pence’s mentions of “corruption” and the fact that the aid was being released sent some signal in his call that the New York meeting was important to the president?
We do know that Pence did play a role in Trump’s efforts to coerce Ukraine into serving up an investigation that would help him politically, as Williams’ testimony Tuesday showed.
In May, Trump “decided” that Pence would not attend Zelensky’s inauguration, even though the vice president had already accepted the invitation, Williams told the House.
The Warsaw Meeting
On September 1, Pence and Zelensky met in Poland at a commemoration of World War II.
Great meeting with President Zelensky of Ukraine today to discuss security, energy, economic growth and progress of his reform agenda. Under the leadership of President @realDonaldTrump, the relationship between Ukraine & the US has never been stronger! pic.twitter.com/nn5UMVM0qZ— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) September 1, 2019
Update: On Wednesday, Ambassador Gordon Sondland testified that he briefed Pence about the meeting and the issue of investigations.
“I mentioned to Vice President Pence before the meetings with the Ukrainians that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations,” Sondland said.
Pence knew what he meant. Sondland agreed that Pence did not ask “Gordon, what are you talking about?’ or “What investigations?’
Pence’s office, now in full damage control mode, denies this.
During that meeting in Warsaw, Zelensky asked the vice president about news articles reporting that $391 million in military aid for Ukraine was being held up. Politico had reported about the hold just a few days earlier. Here’s how Williams described it in her deposition
Once the cameras left the room, the very first question that President Zelensky had was about the status of security assistance. And the VP responded by really expressing our ongoing support for Ukraine, but wanting to hear from President Zelensky, you know, what the status of his reform efforts were that he could then convey back to the President, and also wanting to hear if there was more that European countries could do to support Ukraine.Deposition of Jennifer Williams
There it is again. Zelensky asks about the security assistance. We support you, Pence responds, but what about the “reform efforts that he could then convey back to the president.” It’s less crude than Trump’s request to “do us a favor” in his July 25 call with Zelensky, but it’s basically the same.
The corruption box is also ticked in the White House readout of the Sept. 1 Pence-Zelensky meeting:
The Vice President met today with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine in Warsaw, Poland, following the Ceremony of the 80th Anniversary of the Outbreak of World War II. The Vice President conveyed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. He commended President Zelenskyy for his government’s efforts to introduce bold reform legislation to combat corruption and improve the business climate to encourage foreign investment. The leaders also discussed recent progress toward securing Ukraine’s energy independence.
Williams, who attended the meeting, testified Tuesday in her opening statement, that Zelensky also told Pence that withholding military aid would only help Russia.
“Any signal or sign that U.S. support was wavering would be construed by Russia as potentially an opportunity for them to strengthen their own hand in Ukraine,” Williams said, referring to what the Ukrainian leader told the U.S. vice president.
Williams said that the two men did not discuss specific investigations that Trump had outlined for Zelensky.
“The vice president responded that Ukraine had the United States’ unwavering support and promised to relay their conversation to President Trump that night,” Williams said.
Pence did speak to Trump that night, but Williams said she wasn’t privy to the conversation. The military aid to Ukraine wasn’t unfrozen for another 10 days.
Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and President Trump’s former UN ambassador, is out with a new book this week. Casting her lot with Trump and his base, Haley says she doesn’t think her former boss has done anything to merit impeachment.
“There’s just nothing impeachable there, and more than that, I think the biggest thing that bothers me is the American people should decide this. Why do we have a bunch of people in Congress making this decision?” Haley told CBS’ Norah O’Donnell.
Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition who was so fond of telling us during the Clinton impeachment hearings that “character matters,” agrees with Haley.
“Let the voters decide who should be president! This impeachment inquiry is a sham and is an attack on our democracy,” Reed tweeted.
“Let the voters decide” is fast becoming the impeachment battle cry of Trump and his band of loyal Republicans who say the president’s only real “crime” was winning the 2016 election.
But Trump’s defenders have it backwards. Impeachment is the only remedy left for a president who has welcomed, solicited, and extorted foreign interference in our elections. Letting the voters decide is a fine idea when elections are free and fair, but there is simply no guarantee that an election will be free and fair as long as Trump’s name is on the ballot.
The framers of the Constitution worried about foreign interference in elections, which they saw as chief among “the most deadly adversaries of republican government.” But the framers surely never anticipated a president like Trump who would make foreign interference in domestic politics an element of his statecraft.
As the impeachment inquiry in Congress has made painfully clear, the scheme that Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, cooked up in Ukraine took advantage of a beleaguered country’s need for help battling Russian invaders and sought to use it for Trump’s political advantage back home. Congressionally-appropriated money for Javelin anti-tank weapons was held hostage as the White House tried to coerce Ukraine’s new president into announcing an investigation of a company connected to Joe Biden’s son.
To be sure, politics is a dirty business and candidates have been slinging mud in elections for as long as we’ve had them. But using the power of the presidency to coerce a shaky democracy into investigating the family of a political opponent is so breathtakingly corrupt that it manages to undermine American democracy, damage the rule of law, weaken a U.S. ally, and undermine our national security all at the same time.
The cry of “let the voters decide” signals a retreat to safer ground from the earlier, now abandoned position that no such quid pro quo occurred. An anonymous whistleblower followed by a parade of current and former members of the administration who defied the White House told Congress a sordid story about the administration’s shady goings-on in Ukraine. That led Gordon Sondland, a hotelier who serves as Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, to “refresh” his recollection and concede, contrary to his earlier denials, that not only was there an ultimatum given to Ukraine, but he was the one who had delivered it.
Letting the voters decide might be a plausible if Ukraine were the only instance of foreign interference in a Trump election, but it isn’t. Russia interfered in the 2016 election in what Special Counsel Robert Mueller called a “sweeping and systematic fashion” to help elect Trump, and the campaign welcomed some offers of Russian assistance, such as the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian attorney whose offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton was described as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Not much has changed. Offers of help from abroad were still welcome in the Trump campaign, even after Special Counsel Robert Mueller sent Trump’s campaign chairman, his lawyer and a campaign aide to prison for lying about Russia. The president told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos in June that there was nothing wrong with accepting dirt from foreign governments. “It’s not an interference, they have information — I think I’d take it,” Trump said — a statement that was noted by the anonymous whistleblower in his complaint laying out the details of the president’s efforts to shake down Ukraine.
The trial of Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime political advisor, is a reminder of the lengths the Trump campaign was willing to go in order to benefit from Russian interference in the 2016 election. As early as April 2016, Stone was informing the Trump campaign of upcoming Wikileaks email dumps of emails stolen from the Democratic Party by Russian intelligence. Prosecutors said that Stone repeatedly lied to Congress about his contacts with Wikileaks because “the truth looked bad for the Trump campaign and the truth looked bad for Donald Trump.”
The toxic combination of foreign interference and Trump’s desire to win at all costs also may go a long way to explaining Trump’s strange attraction to tyrants and strongmen like Vladimir Putin. Trump was clearly willing to punish Ukraine because it wasn’t willing to “do us a favor,” as he put it, and help the president politically. Just imagine what Trump would do for a country that did help him win.
As new details emerge, one can’t help but wonder how many other times the Trump White House solicited foreign interference in episodes that we don’t yet know about. How many testimonies collected by Special Counsel Robert Mueller might have been “refreshed” had courageous insiders stood up to Trump’s bullying and blown the whistle? How many witnesses were less than forthcoming because of the intimidation Trump openly directed at those who stood in his way?
In the end, impeachment isn’t about who wins, regardless of what Trump says. It’s about whether Congress believes foreign governments belong in our elections and whether a leader who welcomes help from abroad or tries to extort it is worthy of letting the people cast their votes for him.