Tuesday,20 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Tuesday,20 November, 2018
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Who talked to who?

The plot thickens as Donald Trump’s rivals continue to search for a “smoking gun” on his alleged connections with Russia before his election as president

Who talked to who?
Who talked to who?

In remarks made during the heated US presidential campaign late last year, former US National Security adviser Michael Flynn said: “When you are given immunity, that means you probably committed a crime.”

Flynn was referring to investigations carried out by the FBI over charges that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton risked US national security by using her private email while serving as secretary of state during the first administration of former US president Barack Obama.

However, Flynn, who hardly served 24 days in his position following the election of President Donald Trump before he was forced to resign for lying to his superiors on communications he carried out with senior Russian officials, quickly sought immunity for himself before revealing his side of the story in investigations carried out by Congress into Russia’s alleged meddling in the recent US elections.

Questions have swirled around the nature of Flynn’s ties to Russia and whether he violated any restrictions on contacts with foreign officials. He was forced to resign after he misled Vice President Mike Pence about his communications with the Russian ambassador to the US.

“General Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit… No reasonable person, who has the benefit of advice from counsel, would submit to questioning in such a highly politicised, witch-hunt environment without assurances against unfair prosecution,” Robert Kelner, Flynn’s lawyer, said in a statement late Thursday.

Trump meanwhile tweeted Friday, “Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt (excuse for big election loss), by media & Dems, of historic proportions!”

Three former Trump aides who are at the centre of the federal investigation into Russia’s interference in the US elections have already come forward and said they would testify freely without the promise of immunity. Former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former adviser Roger Stone and former foreign policy adviser Carter Page all said, via their lawyers, last week that they were ready to come before House and Senate investigators.

House investigators have been discussing bringing Flynn in for weeks now, but they have also expressed concerns that Flynn would plead the Fifth Amendment, or the right to remain silent in order not to indict himself, if forced to testify.

Adam Schiff, a ranking Democrat congressman on the House of Representatives’ intelligence committee, said it was too soon to consider immunity requests.

“As with any investigation — and particularly one that grows in severity and magnitude by the day — there is still much work and many more witnesses and documents to obtain before any immunity request from any witness can be considered,” Schiff said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Trump and his supporters in Congress sought to deflect attention from Flynn’s request for immunity by highlighting reports that Obama’s former national security adviser Susan Rice asked intelligence services to “unmask” the identities of Trump’s aides who were communicating with Russian officials before his election.

When US citizens are listed in surveillance of foreign officials, they are usually referred to as “US Person One” or “US Citizen Two,” without revealing their identities.

In a series of tweets, Trump argued that he was the victim of dirty tricks by the Obama administration in order to support his rival, Clinton.

“Such amazing reporting on unmasking and the crooked scheme against us by @foxandfriends,” Trump wrote on Twitter early Monday morning in the opening burst of four messages aimed at Obama, Clinton and the Democrats. “ ‘Spied on before nomination.’ The real story.”

Later on Monday, he added: “@FoxNews from multiple sources: ‘There was electronic surveillance of Trump, and people close to Trump. This is unprecedented.’ @FBI”

At his daily briefing later in the day, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said he would not discuss the reports about Rice specifically. “There’s a troubling direction that some of this is going in, but we’re going to let this review go on before we jump to it,” he said.

He criticised reporters for showing more interest in the investigation into contacts between Trump’s team and Russia than in the conduct of Obama’s White House.

Trump first accused Obama a month ago of tapping his phones at Trump Tower in New York during the campaign last year. He has refused to back down, even though Obama and his top aides have adamantly denied it. The FBI director and the former director of national intelligence have said the phone tapping charge is not true, and congressional leaders of both parties have said they have seen no evidence of it.

“Susan Rice should testify under oath,” Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentuky) insisted Monday. The conservative Wall Street Journal also wrote in an editorial, “we now have the answer to who unmasked Trump transition officials in US intelligence reports, yet the media are ignoring the story of how the Obama administration might have abused domestic surveillance for its political purposes while running like wilder beast after reports of Trump-Russia connections.”

However, the report on Rice did not discourage the US media critical of Trump from revealing more information on possible secret contacts between the president’s team and Russian officials. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that a secret meeting between Blackwater founder Eric Prince and a close associate of Russian President Putin that was organised in January by the UAE with the intention of establishing a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and then-president-elect Trump.

Quoting US, European and Arab officials, the Washington Post reported that nine days before Trump’s inauguration — in the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean — the UAE agreed to broker the meeting in part to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria, a Trump administration objective that would be likely to require major concessions to Moscow on US sanctions.

Though Prince had no formal role with the Trump campaign or transition team, he presented himself as an unofficial envoy for Trump to high‑ranking Emiratis involved in setting up his meeting with the Putin confidant, according to the officials, who did not identify the Russian.

The Post reported that Prince had ties to people in Trump’s circle, including Stephen Bannon, now serving as the president’s chief strategist and senior counsellor. Prince’s sister, Betsy DeVos, serves as education secretary in the Trump administration. Prince was also seen in the Trump transition offices in New York in December.

“We are not aware of any meetings, and Erik Prince had no role in the transition,” said Spicer, the White House press secretary. A Prince spokesman said in a statement: “Erik had no role on the transition team. This is a complete fabrication. The meeting had nothing to do with President Trump. Why is the so-called under resourced intelligence community messing around with surveillance of American citizens when they should be hunting terrorists?”

Prince is best known as the founder of Blackwater, a security firm that became a symbol of US abuses in Iraq after a series of incidents, including one in 2007 in which the company’s guards were accused — and later criminally convicted — of killing civilians in a crowded Iraqi square.

The White House has acknowledged that Flynn, Trump’s original national security adviser, and Trump adviser and son‑in‑law Jared Kushner, met with the Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak, in late November or early December in New York.

Flynn and Kushner were joined by Bannon for a separate meeting with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al‑Nahayan, who made an undisclosed visit to New York later in December, the Washington Post quoted US, European and Arab officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Officials said Zayed and his brother, the UAE’s national security adviser, coordinated the Seychelles meeting with Russian government officials with the goal of establishing an unofficial back channel between Trump and Putin.

Officials said Zayed wanted to be helpful to both leaders, who had talked about working more closely together, a policy objective long advocated by the crown prince. The UAE, which sees Iran as one of its main enemies, also shared the Trump team’s interest in finding ways to drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran.

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