Putin masterful at G20; Russian hacking stops cybersecurity talks with US; PNG election monitors quit. By Hamish McDonald.

The father, the son and the Hillary ghost

Donald Trump jnr at Trump Tower, New York.
Donald Trump jnr at Trump Tower, New York.
Credit: Albin Lohr-Jones / Pool via Bloomberg

It was quickly dubbed “the smoking gun” – an email trail showing active collusion between members of United States President Donald Trump’s inner circle and what they believed to be Russian government-backed assistance in discrediting Hillary Clinton as last year’s presidential election campaign heated up.

The influence-peddlers of America and Russia connected on June 3 last year when an associate from Trump’s Miss Universe event in Moscow in 2013 sent an email to his son Donald Trump jnr: a high-profile Russian attorney was offering documents that “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father … This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump.”

Trump jnr promptly replied: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.” The meeting that resulted – in the Trump Tower in New York on June 9, attended also by then Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner – turned out to be with a Kremlin-favoured lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya.

Much gunsmoke, but it’s unclear where the bullet landed. Trump jnr says Veselnitskaya quickly made the meeting about US sanctions, showing the offer of “helpful information” was just a pretext. She says it was just wishful thinking she had anything on Clinton. And Kremlin connected? Nyet, even though she is well known for her good relations with the chief prosecutor and Vladimir Putin himself.

As for the president, he was in Trump Tower one floor up on the day, but claims he heard nothing about this hot meeting with his son and son-in-law until very recently. Funny then that soon afterwards that same day, a Trump tweet made his first mention of Clinton’s “missing 33,000 emails”, referring to deleted messages from her private server while she was secretary of state.

But there’s as yet no demonstrated connection between the June 9 meeting and the series of damaging leaks against Clinton. These actually started the day before, on the website DCLeaks, which US intelligence agencies say is a front for the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence, and continued with the WikiLeaks cache of hacked Democrat National Committee emails on July 22. Even if a linkage is shown, it seems unlikely the Trump camp broke any laws.

The email trail does blow away the White House story that if there was any Russian campaign interference – Trump was insisting at the G20 meeting last weekend it was not proved and could have been “other countries” – it had no involvement from the Trump campaign. This shows active, willing collusion. But will it make any difference?

Trump’s countercharge that the liberal media, led by The New York Times, is hyperventilating about nothing much is getting thinner. Even Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal is on his case, with help from a former analyst of Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency, reporting efforts by Trump associate Peter W. Smith and possibly his security adviser Mike Flynn to connect to Russian hackers. Much gunsmoke, from several barrels.

Putin on the grips

Putin meanwhile played Trump like a trout in their meeting in Hamburg on the fringe of the G20, sitting in wry mastery as Trump looked the supplicant in the now-popular handshake contest. Trump asked Putin if he had interfered in the election. Putin said not. According to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, Trump accepted that, and decided to “move forward”.

This meant the Russians moving further into leadership of the Syrian issue, getting Trump to agree on a ceasefire in the country’s south-west that helps the Assad regime. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an NGO reporting on the conflict, said it had confirmed the Daesh leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed. Russia said last month Baghdadi might have been among a gathering of Daesh commanders hit by one of its air strikes near al-Raqqa, the besieged capital of the Daesh “caliphate”. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani, who has thousands of his troops also fighting for Assad, told a parade on July 3 the Syrian government “becomes stronger every day”.

Security broached

Incredibly, Putin and Trump also talked about setting up a working group on cybersecurity – a dubious initiative at the best of times and especially so as news broke of the Trump Tower meeting with the Russian intermediary to discuss hacked information.

The proposal looked even worse later this week. The US National Security Agency had traced hackers who broke into networks at American nuclear power plants and energy companies in late June to Russia’s domestic security agency, the FSB, The Washington Post reported.

Bloomberg revealed emails from inside the Moscow-based cybersecurity company Kaspersky Lab, showing it had worked on security systems for the “Lubyanka side” – a reference to the grim headquarters and interrogation centre of the FSB, and its Soviet predecessors. As well as protecting the FSB from distributed denial-of-service attacks, the software would help locate the instigators and allow “active countermeasures”.

Kaspersky would not only help the FSB locate the hackers in real time, but send its own experts along with FSB and police raiding parties to grab them. Heading the project was the company’s chief legal officer, Igor Chekunov, a former policeman and KGB officer.

By the time all this came out, Trump had shifted with the wind anyway. Immediately after the Putin meeting he’d tweeted enthusiastically they had “discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit”. Some hours later it was a terrible idea: “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t.”

Mal of steel

While Trump was isolated from most of the G20 leaders on climate change and free trade, Malcolm Turnbull was keen to make the most of the US president’s divergent policies.

Along with the Saudis, the Australian delegation supported US efforts to get a mention in the meeting’s final communiqué about the importance of “working closely with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently”, diplomats told reporters. Turnbull also got Trump to promise Australia’s small exports of steel to the US would not be hit with the 20 per cent tariff he is proposing. Part of the price, no doubt, was support for the G20’s weaker stand against protectionism. Its communiqué supported, for the first time, the right of countries to protect their markets with “legitimate trade defence instruments”.

Ballot botched

With two weeks of voting extended to Wednesday this week due to many polling obstacles, Papua New Guinea’s national elections are in dispute even before the result is in. Last Sunday night, the official monitoring committee resigned, saying it had been denied information.

The Election Advisory Committee, set up with constitutional authority, comprises the chief ombudsman, a representative of the anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, and a senior legal figure such as a retired judge or academic. It said it had been “prevented from performing its constitutional duties and roles” by not being provided with “baseline data and information nor have we been party to regular reporting”. By this it means detail about such things as shortages of ballot papers, missing ballot boxes, ballot-stuffing and intimidation – all traditional winning tactics in PNG when scrutiny is absent.

Opposition leader Don Polye and former prime minister Sir Mekere Morauta were among those saying the election was “rigged” to return incumbent prime minister Peter O’Neill. Just as it was preening itself on conclusion of the 14-year RAMSI exercise to restore government in the Solomon Islands, Canberra now stands charged with neglecting its biggest regional protectorate. “Australia has nurtured the O’Neill regime and the election process,” Morauta said. “It must take some responsibility for the chaos.”


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 15, 2017 as "The father, the son and the Hillary ghost".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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