14 Jan

News and Analyses, A Foreign Perspective


US politics >>


Illustration by Matt Kenyon of Trump's hair fighting off opponent

Illustration by Matt Kenyon

There is one week to go and all is confusion. Next Friday Donald Trump will take the oath of office and be sworn in as president of the United States. But still no one has the first clue how to handle what’s coming. Politicians, journalists and diplomats, in the US and around the world, are searching for guidance, desperately flicking through the pages of the rulebook, a manual full of past precedents and norms that they have spent their careers mastering – but that Trump burned and shredded months ago.

In normal times, even those few parts of this week’s “dirty dossier” affair that are firmly established would be enough to undo an incoming president. Put aside the lurid details of what went on in Moscow hotel rooms. Assume they’re untrue. Focus instead on the fact that the US Department of Justice sought and eventually gained secret court warrants to investigate two Russian banks and their links with a series of Trump associates.

Remember how much damage it did to Hillary Clinton for the FBI to be looking (again) at her use of a private email server. Regardless of what they found – nothing, as it happens – the mere fact that she was under investigation wounded her badly, perhaps even denying her the presidency. Yet now we know that federal investigators were keen to probe Team Trump not over its email habits, but something much more serious: possible links with a hostile foreign power.

We’ve learned too that the dossier included a claim of secret meetings between Trump aides and Russian officials. Now, that claim has not been proved and could of course turn out to be, as Trump insists, “garbage”. But it comes from a document deemed sufficiently credible by US intelligence agencies that they briefed both President Obama and Trump on its contents.

In the same vein, and in an astonishing development, the Israeli press has reported that its country’s intelligence officials have been advised by their US counterparts not to share intel with the Trump administration, lest that information find its way to Moscow, and from there to Tehran. In effect those US spooks have said that the own incoming president cannot be trusted with secrets, because Vladimir Putin has “leverages of pressure” over him.

In normal circumstances just the fact of these investigations would be enough to hobble a president. But nothing about these circumstances is normal. Indeed, the lesson of the past year is that what would destroy a normal politician often leaves barely a scratch on Trump. Sometimes it even makes him stronger.

Israel has reportedly been advised by US intelligence not to share intel with the Trump administration

In this particular case, there is no guarantee, in a clash between the intelligence agencies and media, on the one hand, and Putin on the other, that Trump’s supporters wouldn’t side with Putin. After all, a poll last month showed Republicans with a favourable view of the Russian leader outnumbered those who approved of Obama by 37% to 17%.

If Trump turns his full rage on the spooks – and he has barely got started – reminding Americans of the debacle of the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that never were, conveniently omitting to mention the pressure the Bush administration put on the spies to produce the answers it wanted to hear – who’s to say that’s a battle he won’t win?

The price will be an American public who won’t believe the intelligence services even when they warn of genuine dangers to national security – but Trump won’t care about that. He does not mind trampling over the republic’s key institutions, as long as it helps him.

Donald Trump repeatedly targeted the media and the US intelligence community as well as addressing Russia’s alleged involvement in election hacking during his first press conference as president-elect. Watch the full highlights of Trump’s press conference, his first in six months

The mistake is to project on to Trump the standards that would normally apply. Take this week’s parallel drama, as several of his nominees came before the senate to have their appointments confirmed. They all offered sweet words of reassurance: the would-be attorney general insisting he was no racist; the prospective secretary of state avowing that he was no patsy to Putin. Official Washington seized on these morsels of comfort, especially when Trump tweeted an apparent admission that his senior team were at odds with him on several core issues: “I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!”

But what if such licensed independence is all for show? Maybe Trump has no plan to use these cabinet members for anything but window dressing. On foreign policy, Rex Tillerson could turn out to be a glorified ambassador, says Robin Niblett, the director of Chatham House. Real decision-making power might reside with Trump, son-in-law Jared Kushner, Breitbart founder Steve Bannon, and firebreathing national security adviser Mike Flynn. That would fit Trump’s style,

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Bill would prohibit courses and activities that promote ethnic studies and advocate ‘solidarity’ based on ethnicity, race, religion or gender

black boy raising hand

Katt McKinney, organizer with Black Lives Matter in Arizona, said it seemed obvious that the language of the bill was targeting groups like hers that fight for racial justice. Photograph: Alamy

Republican lawmakers in Arizona are pushing to prohibit school courses and events that promote ethnic studies and social justice, with legislation that critics say broadly targets academic freedom and students of color.

The newly introduced bill – which seeks to build on an existing GOP-backed law that banned a Mexican American studies class – marks the latest attack in academia on activism and research centered on marginalized groups. Some opponents said the proposal is part of a national trend, tied to the election of Donald Trump, of lawmakers working to suppress progressive organizations and protests.

The bill, from state representative Bob Thorpe, would prohibit “courses, classes, events and activities” in public schools that promote “social justice toward a race, gender, religion, political affiliation, social class or other class of people”. Courses and events that are “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” or advocate “solidarity” based on ethnicity, race, religion or gender would also be banned.

“This really challenges a bedrock foundation of what it means to be involved in the academy,” said Rashad Shabazz, head faculty in the program of justice and social inquiry at Arizona State University. “It really puts a target on people of color and various academic fields that have emerged out of struggle.”

Rashad Shabazz

Rashad Shabazz Photograph: Rashad Shabazz

The proposal comes at a time in which the polarizing presidential election has fueled intense debates surrounding first amendment rights and academic freedom in American universities. In recent months, conservative groups on campuses across the US have launched coordinated attacks against professors and courses that promote liberal ideologies or challenge traditional views on race and gender.

In Wisconsin, a Republican senator recently attacked an undergraduate program focused on “unpacking masculinity”, which the lawmaker called a “war on men”. Lawmakers there have also threatened to cut funding over a race relations course called The Problem of Whiteness and a reading assignment about gay men’s sexual preferences that a legislator said was “offensive”.

The University of California, Berkeley, last year cancelled a course examining Palestine “through the lens of settler colonialism” following an outcry from pro-Israel groups, but later reinstated the class.

Meanwhile, some universities have faced scrutiny from progressive activists for allowing white nationalists and leaders of the “alt-right” – a far-right movement in the US – who promote hate speech to speak on campus.

Thorpe’s bill is particularly far-reaching in its targeting of social justice organizing and ethnic studies, said Martín Quezada, a Democratic state senator, and has prompted an outcry on Arizona campuses.

“Our students are terrified that their freedom of speech, their freedom of thought and their ability to learn about issues and think at a higher level is in jeopardy now,” he said. “The scariest part of this bill is that the impacts are so broad.”

Thorpe declined the Guardian’s interview request, but told he wanted to target an ASU course called Whiteness and Race Theory, as well as a university event called a “privilege walk”, where students are supposed to reflect on their race and privilege.

The legislation, which says a violation would allow the state to cut 10% of a district’s funding, would not prohibit courses that cover the “accurate history of any ethnic group” and allows for teachings on the holocaust or “any other instance of genocide”.

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‘The last five years have not been great at Greenpeace’

With former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson poised to lead US foreign policy, activists like Peter Willcox, skipper of the Rainbow Warrior, are needed more than ever. But are they losing their nerve?

Peter Willcox in court in St Petersburg in November 2013 after Russia seized 30 crew members of the Arctic Sunrise in the Barents Sea.

Peter Willcox in court in St Petersburg in November 2013 after Russia seized 30 crew members of the Arctic Sunrise in the Barents Sea. Photograph: Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images

Dawn was breaking when the campaigners used slingshots to fire ropes on to the rig. But as they began to scale the Prirazlomnaya, aiming to unfurl a banner denouncing Russia’s attempts to drill for oil in the Arctic, their hopes of another successful Greenpeace “action” swiftly faded. They had been anticipating high-pressure hoses that sprayed freezing seawater at intruders. They weren’t prepared for balaclava-wearing soldiers shooting at their inflatable boats.

One soldier grabbed the rope used by one of the climbers, slamming her body repeatedly against the rig. They captured two other activists. Then the Russians demanded to board the Greenpeace ship. But the Arctic Sunrise’s captain, Peter Willcox, fearing his boat would be seized, resisted.

“I said, ‘Well, go ahead – open fire. But don’t hit that silver tank back near the stern because that’s gasoline and that’s going to blow us all up.’ They must’ve been thinking, ‘Who the fuck is this idiot?’ And then I was sitting in jail thinking, ‘Who was that idiot?’ But the adrenaline gets flowing.”

Willcox’s account of his 2013 jailing, alongside 27 other Greenpeace activists and two journalists, might resemble a terrifying gangster film – except that the gangsters were in government. His memoir also documents four decades of peaceful direct action against everything from whaling off Peru to incinerator ships in the North Sea, and shows how many protests eventually trigger policy change. But it’s harder to detect positive outcomes from the jailing of the “Arctic 30”. Although Greenpeace went on to successfully oppose Shell’s drilling in the Arctic, other companies have continued, and millions of barrels of oil continue to flow from the far north. As a new political era dawns, bringing the prospect of unprecedented US-Russia collaboration over the Arctic’s exploitation, Willcox is clear that the fight against climate change is only just beginning.

“I’m not sure I’ve held on to my optimism,” says the 63-year-old American, when we meet in London between his continuing missions skippering Greenpeace ships on “actions” around the world. “I’m not stopping work. I’m not giving up. I don’t want to give Planet Earth to [Trump’s nominee for US secretary of state] Rex Tillerson. But my optimism is not very high right now. Not when you’ve seen what I’ve seen.”

Peter Willcox and others leaving the Arctic Sunrise in Murmansk after its seizure by Russian authorities.

Willcox and others leaving the Arctic Sunrise in Murmansk after its seizure by Russian authorities. Photograph: Dmitri Sharomov/AFP/Getty Images

When Willcox was first captured by the Russians on 19 September 2013, he was optimistic, at least about his team’s prospects. He assumed they would get “yelled at for three or four days” before being dispatched over the border to Norway. But despite the ship being in international waters, armed Russian special forces had shimmied down ropes from helicopters to take over the Arctic Sunrise and tow it into custody. As if that wasn’t enough, the Russian commandos seized all the alcohol on board and had a “massive party” among themselves on their way to Murmansk.

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Washington moves closer to normalized relations with designated terror sponsor in move expert says is geopolitical and ‘not about human rights’

Sudanese resident Omar al-Bashir, center, attends a celebration to mark the 61st anniversary of Sudan’s independence from Britain on 31 December.

The Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, centre, attends a celebration to mark the 61st anniversary of Sudan’s independence from Britain on 31 December. Photograph: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

The US government has eased sanctions against Sudan, in a step towards normalising relations with a designated terrorism sponsor whose leader has been indicted on war crimes charges.

US officials say the change in policy towards the east African state is a response to steps taken by the government towards improving humanitarian access and lowering violence internally, as well as “cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism and addressing regional conflicts”.

The moves come amid a general shift of alliances and diplomatic priorities in east Africa, as major world and regional powers seek influence in an unstable but important part of the continent.

“This is definitely a geopolitical decision. It is not about values, democracy and human rights,” said Ahmed Soliman, an expert in East Africa at Chatham House, the London thinktank.

President Omar al-Bashir, who took power in a military coup in 1989, faces genocide charges at the international criminal court.

However, the veteran leader has has been welcomed by leaders across Africa and there have been intensifying contacts between Khartoum and the European Union too, prompted largely by concerns over immigration.

The order signed by Barack Obama in the last days of his administration will allow US firms to trade in Sudan.

“Treasury’s sanctions are aimed at encouraging a change in behaviour, and in the case of Sudan, our sanctions were intended to pressure the Government of Sudan to change the way it treats its people,” said Adam J Szubin, acting under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, in a statement.

Szubin said the decision aim “to further incentivize the Government of Sudan to continue to improve its conduct”.

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  • Economy minister Ildefonso Guajardo: ‘It is clear we need to be prepared’
  • US president-elect has threatened to tax companies who move jobs to Mexico
Mexico’s economy minister, Ildefonso Guajardo, speaks to the media after a meeting with a Japanese businessman in Mexico City on Friday.

Mexico’s economy minister, Ildefonso Guajardo, speaks to the media after a meeting with a Japanese businessman in Mexico City on Friday. Photograph: Carlos Jasso/Reuters

Mexico must be ready to respond immediately with its own tax measures if the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump imposes a border tax, the country’s economy minister has said, warning such protectionism may trigger a global recession.

Trump, who takes office on 20 January, has promised a “major border tax” on companies that shift jobs outside the United States, and such a measure could hobble Mexico’s exports to its top trading partner.

“It is clear we need to be prepared to immediately neutralise the impact of such a measure,” the economy minister, Ildefonso Guajardo, said in an interview on Mexican television.

“And it is very clear how – take a fiscal action that clearly neutralises it,” he said.

Trump has repeatedly attacked Mexico over trade, jobs and immigration since he first launched his run for the White House in 2015, driving the peso currency to historic lows and unnerving investors, especially in the auto sector.

Guajardo said Trump’s proposed tax “was a problem for the entire world” and that it “would have a wave of impacts that could take us into a global recession”.

Nonetheless, the minister said he expected foreign direct investment in Mexico this year to total about $25bn, with investment in the energy and telecommunications sectors expected to more than make up for the loss of a planned $1.6bn Ford Motor Co factory that the company said this month it is cancelling. Trump had strongly criticised the plan, but Ford said its decision was not the result of pressure from Trump.

Guajardo also praised the government of Japan and Toyota Motor Corp for their “reasonable” response to Trump’s threat to impose a significant border tax if the company does not stop making its Corolla model in Mexico for the US market. Toyota said last week the automaker has no immediate plans to curb production in Mexico.

“Toyota has 10 plants in the United States … and employs more than 130,000 Americans. If I were Mr Trump, I’d treat them with more respect,” Guajardo said.

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