At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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Wire Tapping Trump Tower – Really?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied to Congress about his meetings with a Russian diplomat. President Trump spent Saturday morning trying to divert attention to that lapse.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied to Congress about his meetings with a Russian diplomat. President Trump spent Saturday morning trying to divert attention to that lapse.

SOMERSET, KY. — Another weekend. Another Trump tweet storm. The great global transition is pivoting around events in Washington.

The president now accuses the former president of ordering wire taps on Trump Tower during the election campaign. The president provided no factual support for the charge. President Obama, the FBIO director James Comey, and Obama’s former chief of intelligence deny that wiretaps were ordered. There’s also no record of requests to tap Trump’s phone that have yet appeared in the records of two courts that review such applications and grant permission. Trump wants his accusation to join the calvacade of election year intrigue that Congress is already investigating.

There’s a feeling, certainly in the television media, that the capital is on fire. It’s all to be anticipated given what Trump and his chief aide, Steve Bannon, disclosed two weeks ago.

At the Conservative Political Acion Committee annual conference in February the president and Bannon blew pure oxygen into the blast furnace of right wing fanaticism with their promised “deconstruction of the administrative state.” When I first heard it, I had a single thought. Trump and Bannon, mixing a ghastly idea with exquisitely concise use of the language, were publicly disclosing their diabolical plan to wreck the country. The intent is to apply maximum pressure on norms and values, interfere in standard practices of government, and disrupt how democracy functions in the United States.

Ever since that goal, formidable and dangerous, has been pursued with maniacal fervor. And though most of the 63 million American adults who voted for Trump in 2016 continue to be adamant supporters, the president will not succeed.

The reason is that Trump is in serious trouble of his own making. Each week that passes expresses how emotionally unprepared he is to serve as president of the United States. In every direction he looks — himself, his sons, his disorganized staff, Capitol Hill, the media, the electorate, the intelligence agencies, foreign capitals — Trump faces investigation and implacable critiques of his competence.

In no particular order — Trump is the subject of an increasingly focused federal probe about his ties to Vladimir Putin, and whether there was collusion between Russian intelligence agencies and the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 election. His top aides have been caught in lies about their contact with Russian officials. Millions of Americans are in the streets and in Congressional district offices demonstrating their opposition to Trump ideas. The president’s erratic, volatile, schoolboy narcissism has twisted his allies in the right wing media into rhetorical defensive knots. Republicans in Congress, one by one, express doubts about the president’s temperament.

Today right wing writers reporting for online news services you never heard of are busy defending the president’s charge that President Obama illegally wiretapped Trump Tower in New York. Trump’s tweets on the alleged wiretaps, like so many of his other provocative messages, serves the big objective — “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

This is a nutty, disorienting, dark public time in our lives. Have courage. We’ll get through it.

— Keith Schneider

Sessions Meeting with Russian Ambassador Latest Trump-Putin Disclosure

Actors in a developing constitutional crisis:  President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Actors in a developing constitutional crisis: President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

SOMERSET, KY — In mid-January Buzzfeed and CNN published separate reports on the existence of a secret dossier focused on the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. The investigate findings, prepared by a former British intelligence officer for Republican opponents of the Trump campaign, included striking disclosures about Russian interference in the 2016 election. The document said Russia was intent on weakening the Clinton campaign, and helping to ensure Trump’s victory.

The dossier also noted regular meetings that amounted to collusion between Trump’s senior campaign advisors and Russian intelligence officials. The Russian program of hacking Democratic campaign emails and spraying American online reporting outlets with fake news, said the dossier, was authorized and overseen at the highest levels of Russia’s government.

U.S. newsrooms very quickly quashed the dossier’s details as unsubstantiated. President-elect Trump, who was a week away from his inauguration, flatly said it was all a lie perpetrated by the losing party. The dossier is available here online.

Well, in the seven weeks since the dossier was made public a sizable share of its most critical details have been confirmed by US intelligence agencies and in news reports. Russia did hack the election. The hacking and fake news was meant to aide Donald Trump’s campaign. Trump campaign aides and Russian intelligence officials met regularly during the campaign. Russia’s clear interest was to end the economic sanctions instituted by President Obama that are wrecking the Russian economy.

The question of collusion between Putin and Trump to swing the U.S. election has not been confirmed, but it seems likely to be very soon. The details that have emerged so far, like paving stones laid on a straight path, lead to that conclusion. Even more telling details are on the way.

Almost all of the various disclosures about Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election and connections between Trump aides and Russian officials stem from leaks of classified intelligence. The U.S. domestic and international surveillance capacity is powerful and deep, as we learned from Edward Snowden. There is little doubt, given the clear details that have become public — like two specific meetings with the Russian ambassador that Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied about during his confirmation hearing — that American intel on Trump, Putin, and senior aides on both sides is available and profoundly disturbing.

Intelligence agencies are cautious about how these revelations reach Americans. It is illegal to disclose classified information. My guess is that the various disclosures are coming through Congress, and perhaps through the FBI and the White House itself. The narrative they form is devastating to the president and the nation.

The U.S. appears to have within its vast data gathering and surveillance storage apparatus all of what it needs to make the case that Trump and Putin collaborated to influence the 2016 election. Several public points, drawn together, also help cement that conclusion. First, Trump expressed remarkably strong allegiance to Putin throughout the campaign. Second, Trump urged Russia, an adversary, to step up its hacking program when Wikileaks dumped the first big cache of Clinton campaign emails in July. Third, Trump asserted the 2016 election was rigged, a reckless fact that he couldn’t keep to himself and felt compelled to disclose at the time.

Like an ox-drawn plow cultivating wet spring fields, it will take several more weeks of disclosures for the political ground in Washington to be sufficiently prepared to initiate the next important act in this mammoth scandal — a thorough and independent investigation. The weekly disclosures are gradually melting Republican resistance to conduct that probe. Several Republican lawmakers are calling for Trump to release his tax returns. Several more have said an independent counsel investigation is needed. Very soon, recognizing they’ve been backed into a corner, Republican lawmakers will abandon their defense of the president and clear the way for a credible investigation.

My prediction: President Trump is gone by August.

— Keith Schneider

Pay Attention to the Putin-Trump Links

Huge marches and demonstrations have greeted President Trump's first weeks in office.

Huge marches and demonstrations have greeted President Trump’s first weeks in office.

SOMERSET, KY — Pay close attention to the Putin-Trump link. Like archaeologists wielding stiff brushes and dirt screens, investigators are uncovering and starting to assemble the dark bones and clay pottery shards of a momentous scandal. The president and his aides, mindful of the consequences, have sought evasions of every kind. They raised the red flag of fake news. They attacked U.S. intelligence agencies. They accused the news media of being the enemy of the American people. They fumed at leakers and lied about the contacts between top Trump aides and senior Russian intelligence officers.

Now President Trump is squealing. Really squealing. Reporters last week discovered the White House chief of staff contacted the FBI to kill the story — a story that the president and his aides contend is no story at all. The White House entreaties to the FBI look a lot like obstruction of justice and a cover-up. Even conservative Republican lawmakers are calling for an independent prosecutor and demanding that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Trump acolyte, recuse himself from all involvement.

In my experience working on big investigations in and outside Washington I’ve learned that when the squealing starts it is always – always – a measure of rising stress and culpability. This story is not going away. Every week invites a new disclosure. We already know that two narratives of conspiracy and secrecy influenced the 2016 election. One leads straight to the Kremlin. The other led to the Trump campaign. Mike Flynn, the deposed National Security Advisor, then tugged it into the White House.

Pretty soon now, with or without the assistance of Congressional investigators, the two threads will be tied together in the Oval Office. I remain more convinced of that than when I wrote this piece in December. And this one.

We know from the Edward Snowden leaks that U.S. intelligence agencies harbor profoundly powerful surveillance capacity. Intelligence agents, sworn to defend the United States from enemies foreign and domestic, have the data, tapes, communications, and transcripts that will show direct contact between Putin and Trump during the election. That disclosure may take some time. Trump is squealing. Soon he’ll be screaming because he knows that disclosure is on its way. Read More

Out of Disruption a Global Awakening

A national demonstration occurred spontaneously to protest the ban on Jallikattu, the harvest festival sport of "bull taming." Photo/Keith Schneider

A national demonstration occurred spontaneously to protest the ban on Jallikattu, the harvest festival sport of “bull taming.” Photo/Keith Schneider

CHENNAI, INDIA — The last time I can recall a civic awakening as big, gallant, and well-intentioned as the mammoth demonstrations occurring here in the capital of Tamil Nadu, and in American cities this weekend, I’d just turned 14 years old. On April 22, 1970 the United States celebrated the first Earth Day. Twenty million Americans participated. It was a day that led to environmental safeguards and new principles of managing the planet that have only grown stronger in the 47 years since.

As I write this at dusk the sound of chanting and drums carry across the crowded, low rise city. Not far from the hotel is Marina Beach, a long stretch of wide and warm sand along the Bay of Bengal that since Thursday has been the staging ground for festive demonstrations that, depending on the hour, attract 600,000 to one million people. The carnival atmosphere has lured parents with children, unescorted women, and working people — groups that typically do not participate in big street demonstrations.

Big demonstrations also were held in the United States. From what I read and hear from friends who participated on Saturday, people discovered similarly inspiring energy and behavior in the mammoth protests to rebuke President Trump.

Last night as I traveled back to Chennai from Coimbatore, one of Tamil Nadu’s biggest cities, it occurred to me that the big demonstrations here and in the United States, and the Trump inauguration, are tied together. Here’s how.

Marina Beach in Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu, was epicenter of eight days of demonstrations to support cultural strength. Photo/Keith Schneider

Marina Beach in Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu, was epicenter of eight days of demonstrations to support cultural strength. Photo/Keith Schneider

Both Trump’s election victory and the outbreak of civic resistance reflect the epic clash of competing ideas about how to thrive in a turbulent century. Trump is now the most visible emblem of the age of disruption that’s swept across the planet. Earth has become ecologically unstable and dangerous. More people in more places are being bludgeoned by droughts, floods, storms, earthquakes, wild fires, and plagues. A tide of refugees cross continents and seas to reach foreign shores. Markets shudder. Sources of energy for electricity and transportation are evolving from black fuels to invisible ones, causing instability in prices and resulting in tens of billions in stranded asset losses. Jobs are lost and nations become afraid. People succumb to the calls of national rebirth. They choose to close their borders (Brexit) and elect reckless candidates promising a renaissance of national glory. Read More

The Year Public Pressure Influenced Lending Practices

Development banks around the world face increasing public pressure as their lending practices support eco-damaging projects.

Development banks around the world face increasing public pressure as their lending practices support eco-damaging projects.

SOMERSET, KY — Rex Tillerson, the chairman of ExxonMobil, asked by president-elect Donald Trump to serve as secretary of state. Scott Pruitt, the climate-denying, energy-financed attorney general of Oklahoma, nominated for EPA administrator. Rick Perry, former governor of Texas and a board member of Energy Transfer Partners (developer of the Dakota Access Pipeline), nominated to oversee the Energy Department.

The intent in Trump’s brotherhood of black fuels is clear enough — stabilize erratic global markets, push energy prices up, recover assets that were on the way to being stranded, and cash flow again on producing expensive oil, coal, and natural gas.

Ample fossil energy supplies and favorable prices serve as the two central themes of Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again.” In service to that goal Trump invited Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, to sit as a sort of cabinet member ex-officio. The Koch brothers, along with the executives of most every other American fossil energy company, cheer from the bench.

Americans of clear mind and useful values are demonstrably nervous. The White House and the executive offices of the world’s fossil fuel companies are powerful forums to exert influence. Can Trump and his fossil fuel allies succeed? Of course they can. I do not, however, believe they will.

I’ve reported extensively since visiting the Indian Himalayas in 2013 on the more powerful global trends that not only are impeding conventional energy development, they have initiated a sweeping transition in production practices, technology, and use. Coal production and consumption is falling in China. The Philippines is closing damaging mines. Civic rebellion is blocking new coal-fired power plants in Bangladesh, and impeding development of oil and natural gas pipelines in the United States.

Solar and wind generating technology is now cheaper than new coal-fired power generation and comparable in cost to natural gas-fueled generation. India is abandoning its mega power program to build mammoth 4,000-megawatt coal-fired power plants. Instead it is pursuing new solar and wind generating installations. South Africa has developed one of the world’s successful clean energy development programs.

Floods, droughts, earthquakes, and fire are causing havoc in the world’s fossil energy regions. And the costs of developing all of the fossil fuels is rising as prices for alternatives drop.

It is these trends that are stranding billions of dollars of resource assets around the world and causing a growing panic in the halls of government, boardrooms, and executive suites. And none are likely to be slowed.

This year, during seven weeks of reporting in South Africa, I learned about another new and powerful trend that is reshaping markets around the world — the pressure that communities and a select group of investigative groups are putting on the world’s big banks to change their lending practices.

The headwinds of transition are whipping through the energy sector. The Trump administration’s effort to stabilize oil prices confronts the elements of the rugged weather — erratic markets, new transportation and efficiency technology, and rapidly rising production costs. He may try to suspend NEPA requirements on big projects. He also could try to withdraw non-profit status from important NGOs, a tactic developed in other nations. But the American president-elect and his allies face powerful civic opposition around the world and in the red rural counties that voted for him. Here in Kentucky, I wrote about a big fight over a natural gas pipeline. Read More