17 Jul

News and Analyses, A Foreign Perspective

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World Politics

United States

Donald Trump approval rating at 70-year low as Russia scandal swirls

President’s son ‘scorned by Fake News Media’ over Trump Tower meeting

Donald Trump Jr with his father, US President Donald Trump. Trump’s campaign committee paid $50,000 to the firm of a lawyer representing his son in the Russia probe. Photograph: Jim Young/Reuters

Donald Trump’s approval rating has plunged in a national poll, published on Sunday, that charts Americans’ perceptions of a stalling domestic policy agenda and declining leadership on the world stage.

The Washington Post/ABC News poll, which put Trump’s six-month approval rating at a historic 70-year low, came amid mounting controversy over Russian interference in the 2016 election.

It emerged on Saturday that Trump’s campaign committee made a payment to the legal firm representing the president’s eldest son almost two weeks before a meeting between Trump Jr and a Russian lawyer promising compromising information on Hillary Clinton was made public.

Trump now has a 36% approval rating, down six points from his first 100 days’ rating. The poll found that 48% believed America’s leadership in the world is weaker than before the billionaire took office, while support for Republican plans to replace Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act was at just 24% compared with 50% who support the former president’s signature healthcare policy.

Trump, who has spent the weekend at his private golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, attempted to downplay the poll’s findings. On Sunday morning he used Twitter to claim, incorrectly, that “almost 40% [approval] is not bad at this time” and that the poll in question had been “just about the most inaccurate around election time!”.

In fact, the Washington Post/ABC poll came close to predicting the popular vote on election day – which Hillary Clinton won by 2.5m ballots, Trump taking the White House in the electoral college – and no president has suffered such low ratings at this early stage in their tenure since such polling began in 1945.

The poll also found that 63% of people thought the June 2016 meeting between senior members of Trump’s inner circle, including Donald Trump Jr and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and a group of Russians including the lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, was inappropriate.

On Saturday, a campaign finance report filed to the Federal Election Commission revealed that Trump’s campaign committee had paid $50,000 to Trump Jr’s lawyer Alan Futerfas on 27 June, 13 days before the New York Times revealed the meeting had taken place.

Trump himself told reporters on Wednesday he had only been made aware of the 2016 meeting, which occurred in Trump Tower, “two or three days ago” – raising the prospect that his campaign committee could have known about the contact before the president did.

On Sunday, Trump’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow appeared on all five TV political talk shows to offer a spurious defense of the meeting. Sekulow appeared to blame secret service officers for allowing the Russians into Trump Tower.

“I wonder why the secret service – if this was nefarious – why the secret service allowed these people in?” he told ABC News. “The president had secret service protection at that point, and that raised a question with me.”

A spokesman for the secret service later confirmed that Trump Jr was not under the agency’s protection at the time of the meeting and “thus we would not have screened anyone he was meeting with”.

Under pressure from the New York Times, Trump Jr this week released damning emails revealing he eagerly embraced what he was told was a Russian government attempt to damage the Clinton campaign.

The emails show music promoter Rob Goldstone telling the future president’s son that “the crown prosecutor of Russia” had offered “to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father”.

The New York Times reported that Trump signed off on his son’s first statement to the Times about the meeting, which like subsequent statements was soon revealed not to be a full account of events.

Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser, and then campaign manager Paul Manafort also attended the meeting. It was revealed on Friday that Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian American lobbyist and former Soviet military officer, was present as well.

Earlier on Sunday morning, Trump tweeted more outspoken support for his eldest son.

“Hillary Clinton can illegally get the questions to the debate & delete 33,000 emails but my son Don is being scorned by the Fake News Media?” the president wrote.

Trump has previously described the political storm over his son’s meeting as “the greatest witch-hunt in political history” and “sad!” and said anyone would have taken the meeting as offered.

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President Nicolas Maduro denounces vote as illegal as activists say gunmen fired on crowd of protesters

Opposition supporters wait near a polling station for results of an unofficial vote against President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas, Venezuela, on Sunday. Photograph: Marco Bello/Reuters

Gunmen in Venezuela shot into a crowd of voters on Sunday, activists said, killing one woman and wounding three others during an unofficial referendum organised by the opposition to push for an end to two decades of socialist rule.

The opposition Democratic Unity coalition said a pro-government “paramilitary” gang opened fire in Caracas’ poor neighbourhood of Catia, where thousands were participating in the event. Video footage showed people scattering as gunshots rang out, many taking sanctuary inside a church.

“The day was stained by the killing of a Venezuelan woman who was protesting and exercising her rights,” said opposition leader Freddy Guevara of the killing of Xiomara Escot. “But violence cannot hide what has happened. The people are not afraid and are clear in their decision.“

Sunday’s symbolic poll, which asked voters’ opinion on President Nicolas Maduro’s plan for a controversial new congress, was aimed at denting his legitimacy further amid a crippling economic crisis and months of anti-government protests in which 100 people have been killed.

Maduro, 54, has denounced the plebiscite as illegal and meaningless. Instead, the former bus driver and union leader is campaigning for an official vote on 30 July in support of the proposed new assembly, which would have the power to rewrite the constitution and dissolve state institutions.

The opposition cast Sunday’s unofficial referendum as an act of civil disobedience that will be followed by “zero hour,” a possible reference to a national strike or other action against the president.

Lines formed early at makeshift polling stations at theatres, sports fields, and traffic circles in the oil-rich nation of 30 million as Venezuelans furious over food shortages and rampant inflation sought to make their voices heard.

There was a festive atmosphere under the Caribbean sun in most places, with people blasting music, honking car horns, waving Venezuelan flags, and chanting “Yes we can!” More than five million people had cast ballots at 2,000 centres, the opposition said, as voting was extended into early evening so everyone waiting in line could have their say.

“Maduro has done everything very badly, and now, via a fraudulent constituent assembly, he wants to gain time, but his time is up,” said shopkeeper Rafael Betancourt, voting in late leftist leader Hugo Chavez’s home state of Barinas, which has switched to the opposition.

“This is the proof that the people will kick out whoever submits us to hunger and despair,” he added, as hundreds waited to cast their ballot.

Crowds gathered to vote in other former “Chavista” strongholds too, such as the slums of Caracas.

Despite a strong turnout, the opposition vote does not appear to augur a short-term change of government or a solution to the country’s political stalemate.

Voters were asked if they rejected the proposed new assembly, whether they wanted the armed forces to defend the existing constitution, and if they wanted elections before Maduro’s term in office ends in 2018.

The vote also included participation by swelling ranks of Venezuelans who have moved abroad, from Miami to Madrid, to escape the Opec nation’s dire economy.

Some public employees in Venezuela, under government pressure not to participate in opposition events, sought creative ways to vote without being noticed, such as traveling across town or even going in disguise.

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Watchdog chairman says response urgently needed to wave of intimidation that could drive people away from public life


Diane Abbott said she suffered racist abuse ‘over and over again’ every day. Photograph: Emerson Utracik/Rex/Shutterstock

A wave of intimidation and abuse directed at parliamentary candidates has taken British politics to a “tipping point” and risks driving politicians out of public life in the future, the chair of the standards watchdog said.

Paul Bew, who chairs the Committee on Standards in Public Life which Theresa May has charged with looking into abuse and intimidation of candidates at the general election, has said he might recommend new laws to combat the issue.

The problem was highlighted by a debate in Westminster Hall, in which a series of MPs outline their experience of such behaviour, including racism, antisemitism and death threats.

On Wednesday, May ordered Bew’s committee to inquire into the problem. The prime minister said she was “horrified by stories from colleagues about the scale and nature of the intimidation, bullying and harassment they suffered during the general election”.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, Bew said one possibility was to recommend new laws.

“We are in a bad moment and we have to respond to it,” he said. “We cannot afford to lose people of quality in our public life and we may be approaching a tipping point.”

The debate has seen a party political element emerge, with Labour accusing the Conservatives of portraying the issue as mainly one experienced by Tory candidates even though Labour MPs were abused from the right “on an industrial scale” on social media.

Bew said such disputes risked missing the point: “Above all, we do need leadership from parliament itself on this point. We have reached a point where this is not a sermon. This has got to be said with some sharpness.”

His aim, he told the programme, was to ensure public debate remained “vigorous” but steered clear of “nastiness and hatred”.

Many MPs have already moved to improve their security since Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a rightwing extremist in 2016, but a large number have complained of a new level of harassment in the run-up to the 8 June vote.

Simon Hart, the Conservative MP who called the Westminster Hall debate, said the Tory whips’ office had been dealing with “at least three credible threats to colleagues every week, including death threats, criminal damage, sexism, racism, homophobia, antisemitism and general thuggishness around and after the election”.

He said he considered elections to be a few weeks of “robust banter followed by a shake of the hand and a pint in the pub” when first elected in 2010, but the latest contest was characterised by “swastikas on election boards, offensive slogans and language on posters”.

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The richest in our society are not worth the rewards they give themselves. It’s because they have captured ideologically the political process that these absurdities continue

While the rest of society have shared in an equality of misery following the crash, the top 1% – households with incomes of £275,000 – have now recovered. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

This summer marks 10 years since the beginning of the financial crash in the UK, when depositors lined up outside branches of a small British bank, Northern Rock, to withdraw all of their savings as quickly as possible, particularly since everyone else was doing the same. This led to the UK’s first bank run in 150 years. The global crash that followed saw panic, which seemed a prudent reaction. When the dust settled, it was clear the elites had failed to anticipate the near-apocalyptic events. They had placed too much faith in market liberalisation, deregulation and tax cutting that benefitted the very wealthy disproportionately. In an instant everything changed. Yet nothing did.

As research for the Resolution Foundation this weekend shows, the rich are back. While the rest of society have shared in an equality of misery following the crash, the top 1% – households with incomes of £275,000 – have now recovered all the ground they lost during the world’s worst post-second world war slump. The share of income going to the very richest is now 8.5%. That’s double their share in 1985. The question has to be asked: has the value of the 1% in society doubled in the last 20 years? What have all these higher earners – in the City or in the boardrooms – done that has been so socially useful to see their share of total wages go up so much?

It’s not that we are richer as a nation. The economy is about £300bn smaller than would be expected if the crash had not happened. Remember the recession was caused by the financial sector’s innovations – the excessive leverage; the perverse incentives; the fraudulent promotion of risky products as safe – and its promotion that greed was the ultimate good. While public spending as a proportion of GDP might be roughly constant since the crash, the country’s needs are higher, so there’s a feeling of less to go round. This has happened while there’s been a quiet secession of the successful.

All the rise in inequality is due to this group racing away with the goodies from the economy, while the rest of us are being squeezed closer together. For the very wealthy, rules are bent to suit their needs. When a dividend tax was readied for 2016-17, the very wealthy took their payments early and avoided £800m, money that could have been used for schools and hospitals. More than £100m of that tax saving was enjoyed by 100 people. Can you imagine a supermarket worker asking to bring forward his pay to avoid a tax charge? The richest in our society are not worth the rewards they give themselves. It’s because they have captured ideologically the political process that these absurdities continue. Studies show a decline in the influence of the middle-classes, compared with the wealthy, fuelling social and political instability. The rich mistakenly think all their power and money and success is down to their brilliance and hard work. This is why FTSE CEOs now earn on average £5.3m a year, 386 times more than workers on a national living wage.

The more as a society we have pursued meritocracy and “equality of opportunity” the more unequal we have become and the less socially mobile. That’s why the professions are becoming closed shops for the privately educated. Because politics is colonised by the thoughts of wealthy “meritocrats”, we end up advocating social mobility in unequal systems without thinking about who is going down when the clever are going up. Lots of debate about student debt but barely a squeak about the other half of the country that needs apprenticeships.

Because meritocracy is a myth used to forgive the vice of greed, university vice-chancellors and BBC stars end up being paid astronomical amounts. Both are workers whose wages are not very competitive because quality is hard to judge, particularly in advance, and it is worth paying a lot more for better outcomes. So they get paid whatever they can get away with. Labour have their answer: taxing the rich and spending to reshape the welfare state. The Conservatives understand the problem but do not want to intervene and regulate to ensure the stability that affordable homes, job security, educational prospects bring.

The prime minister has sought to portray the divide as one between “locals” and “globals”, who inhabit different economies. One linked by roadside chats; the other by FaceTime. Today’s Conservatism does not want to level relationships between poor and rich, to provide policies that allow workers to set bosses’ pay or tenants to hold their landlords to account or empower consumers over corporates. Be warned: if a party cannot stand with the country, the country will end up standing with someone else.

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