World

FBI raid on Trump lawyer; Malaysian elections; Espiritu Santo wharf proposal. By Hamish McDonald.

Trump warns of action against ‘Animal Assad’

Smoke plumes following airstrikes on Douma, in Damascus, Syria, on April 7.
Credit: HALIL EL-ABDULLAH / ANDALOU AGENCY / GETTY IMAGES

On Monday John Bolton clocked on at the White House as Donald Trump’s latest national security adviser, just as a new crisis about Syrian use of chemical weapons gave him the opportunity to show if he really is the super-hawk many of his former colleagues in diplomacy say he is.

At first, it looked as though Trump might not have waited for his advice. Syria’s government said its airbase near Homs was hit by missiles on Sunday night. But the US military, then the French who’d also promised a response, denied it was them. Russia then said two Israeli jets had fired missiles at the base from Lebanon’s airspace. Israel was not saying whether it did or not, although it has launched strikes into Syria over perceived hostile action by Iranian forces there, or to stop arms transfers to Hezbollah.

So Bolton still had his chance to show his stuff. Trump promised strikes, and when Russia said it would shoot down any missiles fired at Syria, he tweeted: “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” Britain and France also moved forces into cruise missile range of Syria.

Beyond, Trump has to decide by May 12 whether to extend a sanctions waiver on Iran, and to offer a nuclear deal to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in a summit in late May or early June. Recently, Bolton has been urging strikes on both countries.

 

Account Dracula

Putin and his crony oligarchs are already reeling from sanctions announced on April 6 by the US Treasury in response to the 2016 election meddling, a measure Trump himself was not keen to announce as he’d just invited Putin, whom he much admires, to the White House.

The sanctions hit seven oligarchs personally, 12 businesses controlled by them and others, and 17 Russian officials. Their US assets were frozen, and American individuals and companies banned from doing business with them. The rouble and Russian company share prices have plunged.

Of most interest down here, the list includes Oleg Deripaska, known around the Kremlin as “Dracula” and a figure who rose to prominence by getting hold of state assets under Boris Yeltsin whose step-granddaughter he married (since divorced) and then developed a close relationship with Putin. His company, Rusal, is a 20 per cent partner in Queensland Alumina Ltd, operator of a refinery in Gladstone.

Majority shareholder Rio Tinto is studying the ramifications. What it finds may not be pleasing. Washington has a thing called secondary sanctions, under legislation titled the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which can be applied to non-American individuals and companies doing business with the sanctioned entities. As one US risk analyst, Max Hess, put it to CNBC: “They would apply in full to pretty much anyone – well, anyone hoping to ever use the US financial system – as they would to a US person or company, hence a big deal.”

 

Rich hunts

Trump might feel he needs a foreign distraction, after the special counsel Robert Mueller got warrants for FBI raids on the New York office and hotel room of Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen on Monday.

Cohen’s disguised hush-money payments to two women who say they had sex with Trump might not be directly involved with Russian meddling. But the search by a federal attorney in New York for evidence of criminal deceit in these payments could also uncover material relevant to Mueller’s investigation.

Trump would dearly like to sack Mueller for conducting a “witch-hunt” but would first have to fire the deputy attorney-general, Rod Rosenstein, put in charge after the attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, recused himself because he’d also met the Russian ambassador.

Embarrassment deepened on other fronts. A fire in the Trump Tower killed one tenant. And on April 6, a real estate company called Vornado, which had bought space in another Fifth Avenue tower, owned by son-in-law Jared Kushner’s family company, notified the Securities and Exchange Commission of a “handshake agreement” on a bailout that would not only refinance a $US1.2 billion loan on the building, but allow the Kushners to buy back space from Vornado.

Such a loan would get the Kushners off the hook for a February 2019 repayment deadline, but the source is not yet revealed. Previously Kushner lined up China’s Anbang Insurance, but it’s now been taken over by Beijing and its chief purged. Then he approached Qatar, which thought the building a bad risk (it was, for Qatar, which soon found itself embargoed by Kushner’s Saudi friends). If the loan offer exists, Saudis or Russians are chief suspects.

 

Unloseable election

Malaysia’s Najib Razak dissolved his parliament a week back and has called elections on May 9, having taken precautions to make them virtually unwinnable by the opposition.

Last month the electoral commission deepened the gerrymander favouring the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) led by Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Seats in opposition strongholds have as many as 150,000 voters; those in Barisan National bastions as few as 4000. It would take an unusually high turnout to counter this. Holding the election on a working day seems designed to hamper this.

Then, in the last sessions of the old parliament, the government rammed through a bill punishing “fake news” with up to six years’ jail and fines up to 500,000 ringgit ($A167,000). This takes aim at websites such as Malaysiakini and social media blogs that are the main independent source of news, with conventional media controlled by the state or UMNO.

Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, 92, bitterly campaigning to oust Najib over the $US4.5 billion missing from the government development fund 1MDB, has also been nobbled. The Registry of Societies has suspended his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, appealing to ethnic Malays (known as Pribumi) to switch from a corrupted UMNO. Mahathir will have to campaign with Parti Keadilan Rakyat, headed by his former rival Anwar Ibrahim, in jail for a dubious sodomy conviction.

The stakes are high for Najib. Losing power could open him to charges arising from the 1MDB scandal, kickbacks from a French submarine deal, and the murder of a Mongolian model by his bodyguards. Najib, as one unnamed political analyst told the Asia Sentinel website, “is running shit-scared because he knows if he loses, he goes to jail and his entire family will be wearing orange jumpsuits”.

 

Sand castle

Malcolm Turnbull has “drawn a line in the sand” against China opening military bases in the South Pacific, we are assured by The Sydney Morning Herald, after the paper reported that a planned wharf in Vanuatu’s island of Espiritu Santo was but the start of a process that would see cruise ships replaced by cruisers.

Citing “senior security officials”, the paper said the prospect of a Chinese military base so close to Australia “has been discussed at the highest levels in Canberra and Washington” and “Fairfax Media can reveal there have been preliminary discussions between the Chinese and Vanuatu governments about a military build-up in the island nation”.

This was all news to Ralph Regenvanu, Vanuatu’s foreign minister, who told The Saturday Paper the reporter concerned had admitted not having any confirmation from Vanuatu government sources about the “preliminary discussions”.

Not following the adage to stop digging when in a hole, the Herald sent its reporter and a photographer to Port Vila to document China’s sinister inroads. So far they’ve found the usual Chinese-donated government offices, sports stadiums and moribund joint-ventures, and a large embassy where Beijing’s diplomats are housed to prevent them being turned by other powers.

If Foreign Minister Julie Bishop wanted to head off the rumoured cut to foreign aid in next month’s budget, she couldn’t have thought of a better canard than this to launch in front of Canberra’s security hawks.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 14, 2018 as "Trump warns of action against ‘Animal Assad’". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.