Mike Flynn pleads guilty to lying to the FBI; Yemeni leader killed; the Chinese spy scare. By Hamish McDonald .

Trump’s shopping list of provocations

US President Donald Trump visits a food distribution centre in Salt Lake City, Utah, this week.

Donald Trump this week tossed out red meat to his electoral base by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Dismay came from America’s Middle Eastern and European allies, the United Nations, the Pope, Julie Bishop and, of course, the Palestinians. This must only delight Trump supporters more. United States embassies reinforced their marine guards.

The move partly fulfils a campaign promise, but Trump deferred the shifting of the US embassy from Tel Aviv for at least six months. He also said the US was not taking a position on final status issues such as contested borders “including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem” – meaning Benjamin Netanyahu still hasn’t got an “indivisible” Jerusalem recognised as Israel’s capital.

It came as Trump advanced on other fronts. The Supreme Court allowed him to impose a ban on entry from certain Muslim-majority countries while various objections are heard. The US Air Force conducted large-scale exercises with stealth bombers and fighters around the Korean peninsula, in response to Kim Jong-un’s successful test of a missile with intercontinental range. The US notified the World Trade Organisation it opposed granting China the status of a market economy, implicitly waving more anti-dumping measures in front of Xi Jinping if he doesn’t step up further against the North Koreans.

The US senate voted, narrowly and on partisan lines, for a tax bill that, once reconciled with a similar lower-house bill, will cut the corporate rate from 35 per cent to 20 per cent. Trump said this would make him “unbeatable” for re-election in 2020.

The $US1.4 trillion loss to revenue over 10 years will be partly offset by cuts to Medicare and other welfare that will immediately remove health insurance from up to 13 million people, and from loss of deductibility for state and local taxes. The middle class will be mollified by tax cuts that expire in eight years. Many economists think the idea of a resulting economic boom making up for the remaining trillion-dollar budget hole is magical thinking. Trump himself benefits from eased taxes on profits earned via some 500 “pass through” companies.


Nark Flynn blues

On the legal front, however, things were not going too well for Trump. Notably, his first and short-lived national security adviser, retired army general Mike Flynn, pleaded guilty in court to lying to the FBI about his dealings with the Russian ambassador, and said he’d been helping the former director of the G-men, Robert Mueller, with further inquiries.

Flynn’s plea bargain included agreement to take part in “covert law-enforcement activities”, which could mean he’s been wearing a wire and making phone calls in the hope of getting others in Trump’s election campaign to make incriminating admissions about Russian meddling in last year’s elections. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is thought to be one individual at risk of such entrapment.

The low penalty being indicated by Mueller’s team – jail time of zero to six months, and a fine between $US500 and $US9500, as against the maximum penalty of five years and $US250,000 – suggested to Washington analysts that Flynn has been very helpful. Revelation of all this in the court document seems designed to put the frighteners on others and induce more plea-bargaining.

Trump’s personal risk comes from former FBI director James Comey’s evidence to a congressional committee that the president asked him to end his investigation of Flynn. When Comey refused, Trump sacked him and called him a “nut job” in talks with the Russian foreign minister.

Mueller is meanwhile ignoring another red line declared by Trump, and delving into the finances of his business group. This week he was reported to have issued a subpoena to Deutsche Bank to supply information about its client relationship with Trump and family. In mid-2016, the Bloomberg newswire estimated Trump owed the bank $US300 million from a longstanding relationship, about half his outstanding debt.


Yemeni leader killed

The death of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen’s capital on Monday marks the failure of an effort by Saudi Arabia and its Emirati allies to change the balance of forces in the country’s disastrous civil war and get them quickly out of their military quagmire.

Saleh was toppled in 2011 during the Arab spring uprisings, after 33 years balancing Yemen’s tribal and sectarian forces. In early 2015, he joined with the Houthi, a Shiite group supported by Iran, to push the new government out of the capital San’a and much of the country’s north. The Saudis and Emiratis, with US backing, came in to support the ousted leader, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The resulting war has put two-thirds of Yemen’s 28 million people at risk of famine and disease.

Reports by regional analysts say the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and his Emirates counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, decided to dump Hadi and persuade Saleh to switch sides, with the promise of returning him to power. Saleh broke with the Houthi last Saturday, and was dead by Monday in the fighting that then broke out in San’a. The war goes on, with no peacemaker in sight.


Villainous Huang

Film buffs will recall in 1932’s Yellow Peril-themed The Mask of Fu Manchu how the mastermind Dr Fu plotted to stir the peoples of Asia into a war to wipe out the “white race” with the help of the mask and sword of Genghis Khan.

From the columns of Fairfax and other media, a campaign to bring this part of the Western world to heel is well under way, with the Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo playing the role of a latter-day Dr Fu, with oodles of cash his modus operandi rather than Mongol relics, and behind him the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department pulling the strings.

The Chinese spy scare got even more fevered this week. Malcolm Turnbull and his ministers enjoyed days of putting the boot into Labor senator Sam Dastyari for warning Huang that ASIO might be tapping his phone. This snippet came either from one of the four people at this meeting, or an ASIO microphone in the pot plants. Then the interpreter present at that meeting has turned up working for John Alexander’s campaign to regain his seat for the Liberals in the Bennelong byelection.

Bennelong’s many Chinese-Australian voters are being reassured their loyalty is not in question. That’s kind of what Sax Rohmer, the author of the Fu Manchu thrillers, used to say. “Of course, not the whole Chinese population of Limehouse [Fu’s base in London’s East End] was criminal,” he told a biographer. “But it contained a large number of persons who had left their own country for the most urgent of reasons. These people knew no way of making a living other than by the criminal activities which had made China too hot for them. They brought their crimes with them.”

In the unlikely event Alexander does lose Bennelong, Turnbull knows who to blame. Meanwhile, the new director of national intelligence, Nick Warner, who moves up from the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, takes on the role of Sir Denis Nayland Smith, the British secret service chief fighting Dr Fu. He will have his work cut out applying the new law against “covert” foreign political interference the government has announced to criminalise the kind of thing Dastyari and Huang were up to.

But it’s not just dastardly spies being put on notice. The new ban on foreign political donations will include donations to advocacy groups that seek to influence or change government policies. In particular the government has the group GetUp! in its sights, placating its right-wing types, such as Senator Eric Abetz, who have long been putting a sinister light on a seeding donation from the New York liberal financier-philanthropist George Soros. In doing so, Turnbull would be lining up with the distinctly nasty anti-Semitic campaign against Soros by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 9, 2017 as "Trump’s shopping list of provocations". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.  

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