Interesting Read: “The Original Russia Connection”

(Put this post together last weekend, but… stuff happened.)

Andrew Rice, at NYMag“Felix Sater has cut deals with the FBI, Russian oligarchs, and Donald Trump. He’s also quite a talker”:

On June 19 in a courtroom in Downtown Brooklyn, a federal judge took up the enigmatic case of an individual known as John Doe. According to the heavily redacted court record, Doe was an expert money launderer, convicted in connection with a stock swindle almost 20 years ago. But many other facts about his strange and sordid case remained obscured. The courtroom was filled with investigative journalists from numerous outlets along with lawyers petitioning to unseal documents related to the prosecution. “This case,” argued John Langford, a First Amendment specialist from Yale Law School who represented a Forbes editor, implicates an “integrity interest of the highest order.” The public had a right to know more about Doe’s history, Langford argued, especially in light of “the relationship between the defendant in this case and the president of the United States.”

John Doe’s real name, everyone in the courtroom knew, was Felix Sater. Born in Moscow and raised in Brooklyn, Sater was Donald Trump’s original conduit to Russia. As a real-estate deal-maker, he was the moving force behind the Trump Soho tower, which was built by developers from the former Soviet Union a decade ago. Long before Donald Trump Jr. sat down to talk about kompromat with a group of Kremlin-connected Russians, Sater squired him and Ivanka around on their first business trip to Moscow. And long before their father struck up a bizarrely chummy relationship with Vladimir Putin, Sater was the one who introduced the future president to a byzantine world of oligarchs and mysterious money.

Sater was a canny operator and a colorful bullshitter, and there were always many rumors about his background: that he was a spy, that he was an FBI informant, that he was tied to organized crime. Like a lot of aspects of the stranger-than-fiction era of President Trump, these stories were both conspiratorial on their face and, it turns out, verifiably true. Langford read aloud from the transcript of a 2011 court hearing, only recently disclosed, in which the Justice Department acknowledged Sater’s assistance in investigations of the Mafia, the Russian mob, Al Qaeda, and unspecified “foreign governments.” A prosecutor once called Sater, in another secret proceeding, “the key to open a hundred different doors.” Many were wondering now whether he could unlock the truth about Trump and Russia.

In the universe of what the president has called, with telling self-centrism, his “satellite” associates, Sater spins in an unmapped orbit. The president has said under oath that he “really wouldn’t know what he looked like” if they were in the same room. (For the record, Sater is 51 years old and olive-complexioned, with heavy-lidded eyes.) Yet their paths have intersected frequently over the years. Most recently, in February, the Times reported that Sater had attempted to broker a pro-Russian peace deal in Ukraine, handing a proposal to Michael Cohen, the president’s personal attorney, to pass to Michael Flynn, who was then still the national-security adviser. Both Cohen and Flynn are now reported to be under scrutiny by the FBI, in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s election interference and Trump’s campaign.

If there really is a sinister explanation for the mutual affinity between Trump and Putin, it almost certainly traces back to money…

And if there is any kind of a logical explanation for Trump’s successful-so-far maneuvers to avoid actual pauperism / serious legal consequences, I’m guessing it rides along the murky confluences where the lures of big money intersect with the desire of “Great Powers” to influence and undermine each other. Like pilot fish and sharksuckers, crime lords and talented grifters are naturally attracted — and attractive — to the “intelligence” services, to a degree where sorting individual actors between legal and illicit becomes more of a timeline than a definition. The biggest barrier to getting honest answers may end up being that no one agency trusts any other (even, especially, its ‘partners’) to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Sure, they don’t want the criminals to escape… but even more important, they don’t want the other teams in the home league to get more credit and/or information. (She says, as someone living in Whitey Bulger’s and the Tsarnaev brothers’ stomping grounds.)

Van Attack In Barcelona


A van has crashed into a crowd in the Las Ramblas section of Barcelona.

Reports are fragmentary and contradictory on Twitter. Here is the Guardian’s article, to be updated.

Keep in mind that early reports in a situation like this are often inaccurate. There has been a report of two gunmen, but also reports that that is incorrect.



This Is Bothering Me

On Twitter, I’ve been discussing my post from the other day with experts on North Korea. A significant number of them think I’m right: North Korea’s statement about a possible attack on Guam, prefaced by a statement of concern about flights over South Korea by US B-1B bombers based in Guam, is an offer to negotiate.

North Korea has followed up that statement with another that says that Kim Jong Un has reviewed the plan and has decided to wait for a US move before putting it into action.

There may be an opening to dial the rhetoric back and to avoid the nuclear war that Donald Trump threatened and the attack on Guam that Kim threatens. It’s our move: propose negotiations.

Nobody outside of our group of experts seems to see this. The media are reporting as if the North Korean statements about the overflights don’t exist and the threat against Guam came out of nowhere. They see Kim’s review of the plans and putting them aside as knuckling under to Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s strong statements.

Let me be very clear on this. The opening may be illusory. Negotiations may not work. Nobody who was discussing the issue with me last night thinks we should give up anything; just that we should test that opening.

There is no indication that the administration has picked up on the opening to negotiate. Continuing on the current path risks war, and both sides have threatened it will be nuclear.

Chill Pre-Dawn Open Thread: At Least You Don’t Have This Guy’s Job

The WSJ‘s foreign correspondent in Seoul…

Threatening nuclear war — again. Why does it always have to be nuclear war?

Meanwhile in Ukraine…

It appears that Putin’s little green men are acting up in his other pet project.

It is going to be a long night in Charlottesville – things will get worse after dark. But it is also looking to be a long night in Ukraine.

Saturday Morning Open Thread: How I Loathe This “Retro” Faddism


Not The Onion — actually, the Washington Post:

President Trump on Friday assured the governor of Guam that the White House is “with you 1,000 percent” in the face of a threat from North Korea — and then told the governor that he’s becoming famous and predicted the attention would boost tourism “tenfold” in the U.S. territory.

Guam Gov. Eddie Baza Calvo (R) posted a video of his end of the call on Facebook, offering a candid glimpse of the dynamic between the two leaders…


Needless to say, I blame the Republicans.

Apart from bad reboots (poor Charlottesville), what’s on the agenda for the day?

North Korea Reaches Out?

I had a conversation last night on Twitter with Ankit Panda (@nktpnd), who has been following the North Korean situation. Panda is a senior editor with The Diplomat magazine.

I contend that the North Korean statement issued in response to Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” threat contains an invitation to negotiations. As is often the case, that invitation is not stated as such. Diplomacy guards such invitations so that nobody loses face when they don’t work. Neither Trump nor his people understand this, and they ignore the State Department and are doing their best to gut it. This is the sort of thing that the State Department specializes in.

The North Korean statement, unlike Trump’s threats, was carefully planned and vetted. They use all their governmental resources because they see the United States, with whom they are still technically at war, as the prime threat to their country’s survival. It starts out with an observation of US missile testing and goes on to the flights of US bombers from Guam over South Korea.

Typically, the nuclear strategic bombers from Guam frequent the sky above south Korea to openly stage actual war drills and muscle-flexing in a bid to strike the strategic bases of the DPRK. This grave situation requires the KPA to closely watch Guam, the outpost and beachhead for invading the DPRK, and necessarily take practical actions of significance to neutralize it.

In the morning of August 8 the air pirates of Guam again appeared in the sky above south Korea to stage a mad-cap drill simulating an actual war.

In simpler words, US bombers are threatening us.

The statement goes on to describe a plan to fire North Korean rockets around Guam. A warning shot, a shot across the bow. The plan is in preparation “and will be put into practice in a multi-concurrent and consecutive way any moment once Kim Jong Un, supreme commander of the nuclear force of the DPRK, makes a decision.”

The statement contains the usual DPRK declaration that its nuclear weapons are not up for negotiation, and ends

[The US] It should immediately stop its reckless military provocation against the state of the DPRK so that the latter would not be forced to make an unavoidable military choice.

In simpler words, stop threatening us with bombers from Guam and we won’t attack Guam.

Quid pro quo.

It reeks of blackmail, but that is how North Korea negotiates. If we want negotiations, rather than  war, it would be smart to respond to the offer to negotiate. That doesn’t necessarily mean ending the B1B overflights, although my adventurous side says, hey, why not?

We could have sent a message to North Korea via the recent Canadian visit to free one of their citizens. We could send a message through the Swedish embassy to North Korea, which often represents US interests. We could arrange some diplomatic action on which China might take the lead. There are many possibilities, any of which might show North Korea that we are willing to back off from practices that scare them if they will consider backing off on some of their actions. That would not include their nuclear program explicitly at this time, but it would leave the way open for later.

I doubt that any of this has occurred to Trump officials, certainly not to Trump himself.