World

Trump's legal challenges. Report on Russian hacking during US election. China retaliates against Canada over Huawei arrest. Theresa May braces for Brexit defeat. Local ceasefire in Yemen brings hope. Morrison's Jerusalem gambit pleases no one. By Hamish McDonald.

Treason’s greetings

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at the White House Congressional Ball.
Credit: Roberto Schmidt / AFP / Getty Images

Our main pillar in the current world order is ending the year in a shaky condition. Donald Trump came close to shutting down large parts of the United States government if he didn’t get his Mexican border wall. Oil prices and US share prices fell because of perceptions his vaunted economic recovery is fading.

The president and his coterie are in deeper legal tangles. New York state attorney-general Barbara Underwood forced the Donald J. Trump Foundation to dissolve itself under oversight of courts and her office, saying the charity funded Trump’s election campaign and his personal finances. A federal judge castigated former Trump campaign and national security adviser Mike Flynn for secretly acting as an agent of a foreign country, saying: “Arguably you sold your country out.”

Flynn is awaiting sentencing for lying to the FBI about this activity, and has every incentive to co-operate further with former FBI director Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Trump campaign links with Russian interference. Trump hasn’t been able to get Mueller called off. His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, this week insisted the president would testify to Mueller only “over my dead body” but admitted “I could be dead”.

Much of the action shifts further into congress next year, where Democrats will enjoy a strong lower-house majority at the end of January, taking control of committees and positioned to subpoena evidence. And even the Republican majority in the senate is far from united in defence of Trump. The senate intelligence committee, chaired by Republican senator Richard Burr, was this week about to release a devastating report on the extent of Russian state hacking and disinformation operations to help Trump get elected and later boost his presidency.

Compiled by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and network analysis company Graphika from data sets provided by Facebook, Twitter and Google for several years up to mid-2017, the report said a Russian intelligence-linked hacking group in St Petersburg, the Internet Research Agency, picked out and targeted American interest groups on social media.

The Russians especially aimed at firing up conservatives on gun ownership rights, immigration and other touchstone issues. They fed African-American voters with messages that elections would never address their problems and gave misleading information on how to vote. Other groups targeted included Latinos, Muslims, fundamentalist Christians, gays, liberals, southerners and military veterans.

“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party – and specifically Donald Trump,” the senate report said. “Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting.”

The 20 most popular social media pages created by the Russians – with names such as “Being Patriotic”, “Heart of Texas”, “Blacktivist” and “Army of Jesus” – generated 39 million likes, 31 million shares, 5.4 million reactions and 3.4 million comments. The Russian campaign reached 126 million people on Facebook and 20 million more on Instagram. Whether Mueller finds the Trump campaign was consciously accepting this help, it is a lesson and warning about political manipulation.

Huawei out West

Canada found itself collateral damage in Trump’s trade war with China, with another two citizens arrested by Chinese state security as counter-hostage after the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a US extradition request for allegedly violating sanctions on Iran.

Chinese Communist Party organ People’s Daily has warned Canada it will pay “a much heavier price” if Meng is not released. But the ire of the party does not stop there, if the more down-market party newspaper Global Times – often expressing the gut feeling of top comrades – is a guide.

It editorialised this week that the US has formed a “collective encirclement” among its allies to suppress Huawei. “Beijing needs to meticulously select counter-targets to really make them learn a lesson,” a Global Times editorial said, noting that “Australia was the first to follow Washington in blocking Huawei devices”.

“In this complicated game, China should focus on the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, especially Australia, New Zealand and Canada, who actively follow the US against China,” the editorial said. “The first two nations are far from the European continent and have a subtle distance with most Western countries. China is the largest trading partner of both Australia and New Zealand and the second largest of Canada, thus the country has enough means to counter them.”

Duelling buds of May

Our other psychological pillar in the Anglophone world ended the year in bad shape too. Theresa May won’t know if her agreement for a gradual exit from the European Union gets approved by parliament until a vote now scheduled for January 14, which will be only 74 days before Brexit takes effect.

She ramped up the pressure by putting 3500 soldiers on stand-by and stepping up stockpiling of medicines, while her government issued warnings of delays at airports, customs snarls at ports, long waits for medical treatment and higher credit card fees if Britain plunges out of the EU with no deal.

With most of the Labour Party, the Scottish Nationalists, the Northern Ireland Unionists and 113 of her own Conservatives likely to vote against the plan, May will go down fighting. It was unclear whether Labour would get off the fence to either back May’s plan or call for a second Brexit referendum. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, only foreshadowed a vote of no-confidence in May herself – for deferring a House of Commons vote on her plan. The Tories talked feverishly against a second referendum. Apparently in a democracy, the public can’t change its mind, even when it knows more of the facts.

Yemen hopes

A glimmer of peace in Yemen: a ceasefire started in the port city of Hodeidah on Tuesday to allow more relief supplies to the starving population, after talks between the civil war factions in Sweden.

And reflecting disgust at the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the US senate voted to end US support for the Saudi and Emirati campaigns backing Yemen’s ousted government against the Iran-supported Houthi forces. The senate also voted unanimously to blame Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman for Khashoggi’s killing. Canada’s Justin Trudeau said Ottawa was looking for a way to drop a $US13 billion deal to sell armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. Here, Christopher Pyne’s military sales drive in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates seems to continue.

Holy City limits

Scott Morrison managed to offend everyone with his well-telegraphed decision on the location of the Australian embassy in Israel.

Palestinians, Arab countries and our Muslim-majority neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia wished he had left it alone, and issued comparatively mild rebukes. Whether Indonesia delays signature of a free-trade agreement with Canberra is still unclear.

But Israeli reaction soon turned cool as well. Morrison is not moving the embassy from Tel Aviv and declared only that Australia now recognised West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, falling far short of Israeli claims to an “undivided” city. He then went on to say that “recognising our commitment to a two-state solution, the Australian government has also resolved to acknowledge the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a future state with its capital in East Jerusalem”.

So what was intended as a big gesture to Israel and its supporters here turns out a partial step towards recognition of a Palestinian state, also governed from Jerusalem. “This sets us years back,” said Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, adding: “I hope our chilly response will make it clear to the Australians that this is far from what we were hoping for.”

Farewell

This is my last World column for The Saturday Paper after nearly five years since our launch, though I will continue to contribute news stories. Jonathan Pearlman, editor of Australian Foreign Affairs, takes up the column in the new year. I thank readers for their interest and feedback.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 22, 2018 as "Treason’s greetings". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.